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FICTION LONG STORIES

A new best friend

She looked up just as I turned and her eyes lit up

When I was in standard one, some men came with barbed wire and fenced off the section of the parish grounds furthest from the highway. Onyi and I tried stealing some of the wire, but the men were too vigilant. Two weeks later, more men came and dug foundations for a long building. Over the next year, they built a dispensary and three houses for the nurses.

The men also dug a well at one end, and constructed an incinerator at the other. We used to sneak there to pilfer used syringes and needles before they were burnt up. We used them to inject slugs with water. The slugs would expand and burst with a soft pop. Since Onyi left though, I had been to the dispensary only once, to get immunised against a disease with a strange name.

I woke up in the dispensary that night. I was the only patient in a ward with four beds. The lights were on. A clear plastic bag halfway full of some liquid hung from a metal stand above my head. A long clear pipe connected it to my right wrist. A thick bandage curled around my left arm, which felt heavy as lead when I tried lifting it.

Two men sat on a low bench against the wall next to the door, chatting in low tones. One of them was my father. I had never seen the other man. His hairy legs stuck out of a baggy pair of shorts with many pockets. Next to him, a little girl sat nibbling at something. On her wrist, the screen of a small white watch glowed a pale green.

She looked up just as I turned to them and her eyes lit up. My father and the other man, whom I immediately assumed to be the girl’s father, must have noticed her sudden stillness. They both looked up, followed her gaze.

“Good Lord! You’re awake,” my father exclaimed.

He came over and hugged me, lifting my head slightly off the bed. He buried my face in his chest, and I heard his racing heartbeat. I didn’t know what to make of it. The last time I had seen him show raw emotion was during my mother’s funeral. When he let my head rest back on the raised pillow, there was a misty look in his eyes.

“How are you feeling?” he asked. His voice, like his hand, now stroking my forehead, trembled.

“I’m sore all over,” I croaked back. My entire lower jaw was in pain.

The other man also walked over, holding the girl’s hand. Standing next to the raised bed, only her head and neck were visible, framed by the rounded white collars of a clean dress. She kept her hand, and whatever she had been nibbling at, out of sight. A short strip of Elastoplast sat above her right eyebrow.

 “How did I come here?”

There was a moment’s silence.

Then the girl’s father said, “I brought you.”

He spoke in a smooth baritone that sounded like it came from someone else behind him. He stroked the nascent afro perched on the girl’s head. She smiled shyly and looked down. At her hands. Or maybe at the thing she had been nibbling at.

“We are new here,” he continued, smiling tightly. “We arrived today. I am Esther’s father.” Here, his hand moved to the back of her head. “I have been telling your dad how brave you were to stand up to those boys for her.”

My father smiled awkwardly. I could see that he was flattered and didn’t know how exactly he should react. He shifted his weight on his legs and let his hand reach for the crown of his head.

He cleared his throat and said, “They are our new neighbours.”

My mind rushed back to the echoes bouncing off the walls of Onyi’s house as I called out his name the day they left. To the grass that had started to grow in front of their door. To the dust that settled on their window sills over the weeks. And the mosquitoes that sang inside the house as I read books on their veranda in the twilight. They had been gone a long time. I had started to forget his face.

“Now that you are fine,” Esther’s father said, taking a step back. “I think it’s time for us to leave you to rest. We will see you tomorrow.” He took his daughter’s hand. “Won’t we, Esther?”

She gave a light nod, looked at me one last time, and they turned for the door. My father went back to sitting on the bench. He put his cheeks in his hands, and looked down at his shoes. He was still sitting that way when I drifted back to sleep.

Sometime in the night, the pain in my jaw woke me up. Most of the lights were off. The clear bag above my head was empty. My father was sleeping on the next bed, curled up on top of the sheets. His face was turned the other way. The frayed heels of his socks looked at me like a pair of eyes in the dim light. There was a still silence all around, punctuated only by his regular breathing, which eventually lulled me back to sleep.

I spent three more nights in the dispensary. The first morning, after my father had gone home to freshen up and go to work, Esther came in with her father. The shorts were gone. He was now in a suit. Esther had a bowl of pancakes which she said her mother had made for my father and me. Her father didn’t stay long. He left us alone, telling Esther she could stay as long as she wanted. She left sometime before noon, and came back in the afternoon.

We didn’t talk much. She sat on the bench, hands on her lap, silent as a ghost, as I drifted in and out of sleep. Sometimes the nurses handed her biscuits, which she fiddled with before taking tiny bites. When she did talk, it was to ask a random question.

“Where does your father work?”

“In Chemelil.”

Long silence.

“Where is Chemelil?”

“That way.” A tired finger pointing at the wall behind her.

Long silence.

“Where did you get this mark?”

She pointed at a healed scrape on my ankle, which I got when descending from one of Jaduong’ Odu’s fruit trees.

“From a tree.”

Long silence.

On and on it went. She would slip in and out of the room between my naps. On the third day, she was wearing a loose-fitting light blue pair of shorts and a polka-dotted white blouse. She had come in with a bowl of fruit salad, which sat untouched on my bedside table.

She was sitting on the bench, swinging her legs under it. The bench gave a creak with every swing. I was distracted by a fly that flitted across the white ceiling, wandering aimlessly and landing every two seconds. Then the bench stopped creaking.

“Where is your mother?”

Long silence.

She stood up and walked to the bedside, perhaps to check that I was not asleep. Standing on tiptoes, she peered into my face. I think that’s when she noticed the sadness creeping behind my eyes. I saw her face fall. For a moment, she seemed not to know what to do. Then she asked again, this time with a trembling voice.

“What… where is she?”

A pause.

“She died a long time ago.”

Long silence.

“I’m sorry.”

And she, without saying another word, draped a hand around me, and laid her head in the crook of my neck, tickling my cheek with her hair. And as my breathing settled down and synchronised with hers, I noticed her hair smelled of flowers.

I got discharged that afternoon. Esther held my hand on the short walk home. We met her mother outside their house. She was a plump little woman, light-skinned and with short-cropped hair. She had big eyes that blinked rapidly when she spoke. And she had a ready laugh which left a perpetual smile on her face.

In the short period since they had moved in, she had turned Onyi’s house around. Little pots of flowers and young lianas now hung on ropes from the roof above the veranda. The grass in front of the house had been cut and heaped next to the fence across from the house. A new white wicker chair with space for two sat under one of the windows. She sat on it, knitting, when Esther and I arrived.

“So, this is the brave Steve!” she announced, beaming, eyelids on overdrive.

And, bouncing from the chair, she led us by the hand into her house and stuffed us with sweet golden brown mandas, deep-fried dough, and tiny sugary Kisii bananas.

Esther and I did almost everything together after that. We read my books together, sitting on the cold plastered floor of our house, munching on bubble gum we bought with change from our fathers. In the late afternoons, we took walks in the neighbourhood. I even introduced her to some of the halfway houses. We fixed the ones that had started falling apart. We would sit in them and talk for hours on weekends.

We had our meals together, sitting on the wicker chair outside their house, balling up lumps of kuon and beef under the stars. Her mother would come out of the house with bowls and push more food into our plates, saying things about how we needed to eat to make our bones stronger. We were lucky one of the neighbours had a dog.

At some point, Anyango, the woman from the other side of Awasi who came every day to prepare our meals, do our laundry and clean the house, started doing her chores with Esther’s mother. They became the best of friends and spent many afternoons watching Nigerian movies together in Esther’s house.

Esther’s mother was one of the kindest people I have ever met. Ever smiling, she started calling me “my dear” not long after she met me. I remember seeing her angry only once. It happened on the day I took Esther down to the river. It was a bright Saturday morning, about half a year after they moved in.

My father had departed to Kisumu early in the morning for an errand. Esther’s mother left for the market sometime during the morning. And her father had been on a trip to Nairobi the whole week. He worked for the government. Awasi had been designated the headquarters of a new district, made by splitting the older district into two, and he had been transferred over to help set up and run the new government offices.

We were reading and talking on the floor of our house. At some point, Esther said, “There’s a big river where we came from.” She spread out her arms. “Big. Big. Like this.” Her hands fell back. “Dad never let me go there.”

So I told Esther about our river, about the many time I went there with Onyi. I told her I had not gone back there since Onyi had left. And she told me she wanted to see it.

“What will your father say?”

“He doesn’t have to know.” She slammed her her book shut and rose to her feet. “If you take me now.”

“Alright.”

We walked down the shaded rough road, past the home of the lady who made pots and chang’aa, a potent traditional spirit. We walked past the house-sized heaps of stone at the quarry. Under the tall electric pylons, the sagging cables strung between them buzzing like a swarm of bees. Down the rocky slopes into the wide valley.

The brick makers weren’t there when we arrived. Piles of unfired bricks lay under shades made of grass. I took Esther along the river to the wide section where the water pooled, where Onyi and I used to swim. She promptly took off her shoes and waded into the water. I sat on a large stone on the bank and watched.

“Get in here!” she called out, turning and throwing a handful of water at me.

“No,” I said, ducking too late. “I don’t feel like swimming today.”

“Fine,” she said. “Suit yourself.”

And she threw herself into the water, arms flailing, legs kicking carelessly. It was clear she didn’t know how to swim. Every now and then, she would stand on the riverbed to wipe her face with her hands, giggling happily. Her wet dress clung to her skin. Her hair, which was now a sizeable afro, was matted into lumps.

She moved further and further into the water. She was halfway across when she stopped and stood to wipe her face again, but slipped and went under before she could get her hands out. When she came back up, she was gurgling. Then she went under again. It occurred to me that she was playing. But when she came back up gurgling and slipped under one more time, a sudden familiar horror swept through me.

I jumped into the water and dragged her out by the collar. I laid her on the bank, as she coughed and spat water onto the sand, breathing deeply but erratically. I stretched myself down beside her, staring blankly at the clear blue sky, unable to make sense of what had just happened. What had just almost happened.

Eventually she spoke.

“You saved me again.”

I didn’t say anything.

When we got back home, her mother had come back from the market. She asked us where we had been. Our clothes were still wet. There was no point in lying. So I told her we had been to the river.

“You don’t know how to swim,” she said, turning to Esther. She wasn’t smiling, and creases lined her forehead. “Your eyes are red.”

Esther looked down at her feet and played with her hands. Her mother turned back to me. Her eyes darted around and blinked more rapidly than usual. I could sense fury struggling to break loose from inside her, engaging her constitutional kindness in a titanic battle of supremacy. I looked down at my soggy shoes.

“I’m sorry, Mama Esther,” I said haltingly. “We won’t do it again.”

“Are you also sorry?” she snapped at Esther.

Esther nodded mutedly.

She didn’t let us change clothes, and locked us up with only tea and mandas in her room till dusk. We never went back to the river after that. And she never spoke about the matter again. Not to us. Not to anyone else.

Esther joined Awasi Primary in standard three in the third term. I saw her walk in on her first day, holding her mother’s hand. She was wearing a crisp new school uniform, the waist ribbons knotted at the small of her back.

Her mother walked out of the staffroom a little later. Then Esther herself came out, walking with Mrs Oluoch to her new classroom. I was sitting next to the window, and they walked right past me, but none of them saw me.

We walked back home together that day. And every day after that.

This is the fourth chapter of a new novel I’m writing. Read the other chapters here.

Feature image: Photo by ian dooley on Unsplash.

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