Tall clear bottles

As men came, my father was of average height, neither too tall nor too short. But he was thinner than most men his height, which gave him just enough mass to not be lanky. Which means he didn’t exactly stand out. Nevertheless, if every man was required to stand out in some way, then there was one thing for which he could be said to do so. He was a very quiet man.

There were more times he opened his mouth and closed it without uttering a word than when he actually spoke, when he grunted where a sentence was expected, when he spoke haltingly as if he wasn’t sure his words would be taken for what he meant, when he shifted nervously on his feet as he talked, as if even he didn’t know what he meant. The only person he was comfortable speaking to at length was me, and even then only on the few occasions when we actually spoke.

In itself, his silence wasn’t strange to me. He seemed to be constitutionally predisposed to introversion. I knew because he had that look in his eyes in the black and white photos inside the album we had on the lower deck of the coffee table in the living room. The look of a startled animal seeking a way out, the aloofness of a man who would rather be left alone, intense boredom cloaked in social politeness.

Still, I had the feeling that his withdrawal had been exacerbated by the death of my mother. Because the pictures rarely had him alone. There he was as a younger man, beaming outside the graduation tent with his fellow students. Here he was, squatting at the end of the front row of a group of fellow engineers in overalls. And here he had his arm around his only brother, a playful grin stretching his lips into his cheeks, grandma’s house looming in the background.

And of course, him smiling to the ears as he stands next to my mother on their wedding day, him tack sharp in a suit and tie and mother resplendent in an elegant white dress. There are a few other photos of him like this, like the one where he is holding very little me, wrapped in a white shawl, light-skinned face peeping out, while tired-looking mother stands next to him. Behind them, “Nyanza Provincial Hospital” stretches across a white wall in block letters. Russia.

Then, notable for their absence, there were no pictures of him after the funeral. Because, after the funeral, he rarely went anywhere photos were being taken. When he left work, he would come straight home, and read in the corner of the sitting room until night fell, curled up on the worn brown leather armchair. He once told me that chair was older than me.

“It was the first thing your mother and I bought together,” he said, a twinkle in his eyes.

“When was that?”

“Just after we got married.” He patted the arm of the chair and took a long breath. “It was the only piece of furniture we had here for months.”

I imagined them sitting on the floor, legs crossed, eating out of broad metal plates like the ones grandma had in the village. I saw them using small bowl-shaped lumps of kuon to scoop up red omena soup. I heard the scraping sound of the plates skidding about, bottoms grating against the floor, when the food ran low and each of those small fish had to be chased around.

My father was a prolific reader. He may have read all the books in the world on that armchair, his wire-rimmed glasses perched low on his nose. He read fat books with ridged spines and gold-trimmed titles. Thin books with stiff, fresh, white pages. Leather-bound books that smelled of mildew. Lightweight paperbacks that he devoured in hours. Giant hardbacked encyclopaedias that took him weeks.

He piled the books he had finished with on shelves and in cardboard boxes with labels from the factory. And when they started choking out living space around the house, he packed them into the back of the Beetle and drove them to one of the schools around town, leaving before any of the teachers could organise a parade of bored pupils to thank him with a song.

One day, in my final year of primary school, three weeks before the final, national, examinations, I came home from an extended class and found him slumped on the armchair. His reading glasses sat askew across his wide nose.

The book, a short, fat copy of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, sprawled face-down on the floor beside the chair, beneath his dangling hand. His little personal transistor radio, sitting next to his socked feet on a low stool, belted out the tunes of Congolese singer Franco Luambo’s “Fabrice Akende Sango” at low volume.

For a moment, I thought he had fallen asleep and dropped the book. But the situation struck me as peculiar. I had never seen him asleep on that chair. I had never seen him do anything on that chair except read. I walked over and called to him in a low voice.


He didn’t respond, didn’t even grunt. I held his knee and called out again, a bit louder. Then I shook his knee and called out a third time. The transistor radio fell to the floor with a clatter and went silent. The audio cassette and batteries popped out. But he didn’t stir.

An eerily familiar horror swept down my spine and settled in my bowels. The last time I had felt it was when Esther almost drowned under my watch and, before that, when I fought Oti until he was limp. But I knew it most from back when they wheeled my bleeding mother through the swinging double doors in Russia

Panicked, I dropped my bag, knelt next to his hand, placed my index finger on his wrist and waited. Nothing. A thousand thoughts flashed through my mind. Images of my mother’s grave. An empty house with gathering shadows in the corners. Wailing women and stomping bulls. My breath quickened. I felt tears stinging the back of my eyes and the back of my throat dried up.

I was about to withdraw my finger when the pulse came. It was a light, almost imperceptible flick. A silent moment, during which I wasn’t sure if it was his pulse or mine, followed. I could hear my own heartbeat resounding in my head.

I said all the prayers I had learnt to recite as a kid, under the watchful eyes of the catechist, sitting on the rim of the concrete water tank outside the parish hall. I said them all in one instant, like tape unspooled out of a falling cassette.

Then another flick came. I sank to the floor in relief, shocked that I had just feared my father was dead. Guilty that I had had the guts to even think that. Confused about what exactly had happened there.

I walked out of the room and went to Esther’s house. Her mother was sitting next to the door, peeling potatoes in the waning daylight. I told her my father was unconscious. Then I followed with her and Esther as two male neighbours carried him on a wooden board to the dispensary.

The nurses there told us he would be alright. Esther and I spent the night on the same wooden bench on which she had waited me out four years before. When she grew drowsy, I let her sleep with her head on my shoulders, and then on my lap, her legs stretched on the benchtop.

The next day, I skipped school and accompanied my father to Russia. The nurses at the dispensary had referred him to a doctor there. They said he was the only hepatologist in the province. After taking him through a battery of tests, this doctor asked me to wait outside his office. When I hesitated, my father squeezed my hand and nodded.

Their conversation didn’t last long. He walked out of the doctor’s office, his checked coat draped across his left arm. He didn’t say anything, and his face was calm. We walked out of the hospital, side by side, and headed for the car. My mind went back to the last time we had been here, the night my mother died. His face had been calm then too.

It was normal for my father to be quiet. I had taken that from him. We could spend hours in silence because none of us was uncomfortable with long quiet stretches. But most of our silences connoted nothing. They weren’t impregnated with content. They were the natural consequences of our personalities, and nothing more.

However, this was a loaded calm, the lull of the eye of a storm, the deep breath before the plunge. Whatever the doctor with the fancy title had told him, I had a sinking feeling in my stomach. I knew something was terribly wrong.

We had a late lunch – a large ngege, tilapia, sandwiched between two layers of green kales bathed in a thick red tomato soup, on a wide stainless steel tray patterned with small psychedelic patches of concentric circles, and two small plates of tooth-white kuon – at a stall on Lwang’ni Beach, next to Lake Victoria.

It was late afternoon. The sun had begun its descent over the lake, whose rippled surface shimmered like a thousand shards of glass in the slanting sunlight. Across the bay, the giant white grain silos that had long defined the city’s skyline faintly caught the colour of the reddening sky. Most of the stalls in the beach had closed for the day, and the workers at our stall were cleaning up.

We ate in silence, munching away at chunks fish without so much as a word. The silence accompanied us on the drive back, across the table-like plains of Kano, over the Nyando bridge at Ahero. Until my father pulled over on the roadside next to a sugarcane farm just before we rolled into Awasi. Without a word, he got out of the car, closed the door, walked around to my side and sat on the ground against the rear wheel.

I got out and sat next to him, looking at the straight stalks of sugarcane, standing like thin sentinels against the gathering night. His knees were drawn up, and he had his hands on top of them, the palms dangling downwards. I sat with my hands clasped between my outstretched legs. We sat like that a long time, listening to insects chirping and vehicles screaming on the road behind us. I could feel his brain searching for the right words. Eventually, he spoke.

“I have cirrhosis of the liver. It is advanced.”

Against the silence, the words sounded distant. Like the sound of the train honking as it passed on the hillside north of our village home. The horn always sounded hollow as it rounded a rocky corner. If you didn’t know anything about it, you would think it was still far when it was in fact quite close. And in the hollow bounding silence, in the space surrounding his utterance, the phrase bounced around like a red marquee. Cirrhosis of the liver.

I knew about liver cirrhosis. I had learnt about it recently in school. That my father had it could only mean one thing – he had been drinking too much. I knew he drank, and the way he had announced his diagnosis told me he knew I knew. I knew he did it because there were days when the smell of alcohol peeped shyly above the scent of his mouthwash. And mornings when he was groggier than usual, with bags of fatigue under his eyes.

And then there was the tall clear bottle of Smirnoff vodka on his nightstand. I saw it there only three or four times, poking out of a brown paper bag. But one day he sent me to his wardrobe for his shoes and I saw three similar bottles, all full and unopened, huddled in the corner behind the shoe rack. We never spoke about it.

“I’m afraid,” he said after a while.

I guess it was the illogical ring of those words that snapped me back to the present. He was the one man on whom I had a right to stake my own safety, whom I had a right to expect fearlessness from. For my own sake. Because if my father could be afraid, then to whom would I run when I was too? Those words sounded like a hammer to the last wall between me and the world’s many dangers.

In another way, however, they didn’t surprise me. I knew my father, perhaps better than anybody alive, and the possibility that he was irreparably broken by my mother’s death had sat clumsily at the back of my mind since we stood at our door, waving at our departing aunts after the funeral.

I found myself talking, putting in words the fear that had started creeping up my own spine.

“What do you fear, John, death?”

“No,” he said quickly, with a light dismissive snort.

After a brief moment of pensive silence, he said, drawing out his words, as if he was reading from a script, “Death comes for us all, Steve. I want you to know that. It plucks at us. All of us, one by one. Men, animals, trees, even stars. While we live, it goes around us in circles, without ever really touching us, sometimes fooling us into the comfort of thinking that perhaps it isn’t really interested in us. But the day comes when it pounces, whether expected or not. Nothing escapes death. Fearing it is like fearing the sunrise. It’s a waste of time.”

He put his hand around me and rubbed my shoulder, pulled me closer.

“No, I don’t fear death, Steve. I fear that when I die, I will find myself in a great dark void. That I will see and hear nothing, fall into an eternal dreamless sleep. I fear that I won’t find your mother on the other side, her arms open, waiting for me. That I will never see her again. That I won’t be left with even the briefest memories of her smiling face. That’s what I fear, Steve. That death will be the end of it all.”

Then he went silent and let his words sink in.

“I’m sorry.”

I still don’t know what I meant by those words, coming as they did from me to my father. I didn’t know what else to say. But they jolted something in him. Slowly, as if it was coming from somewhere deep inside, his body started trembling. Tears pooled up under his eyelids, twinkled in the lights of passing cars.

“I miss her so much,” he said, sniffing, fingers on his lips. Then, after a pause, he said again, resignedly, “I miss her so much.”

His voice cracked, and he heaved as if he was about to cry. He opened his mouth to say something. Closed it. Opened it. Closed it again. I felt his hand tighten around my shoulder. Heard him sniff again.

No one ever said it, but everyone knew men weren’t supposed to cry. It was clear even to babies, because, as toddlers, crying boys were ordered to shut up while crying girls were allowed to crawl onto adult laps.

But it didn’t seem weird to me that I should witness my father break down. It felt strangely natural. I had seen him cry all those years ago as he watched my mother’s body descend into the dark earth. My mother, about whom we rarely spoke, whom he had just mentioned.

It brought back the grief we had buried. The grief he had buried to try and give me a normal childhood, not knowing that wasn’t possible. The grief he had tried to drown with tall clear bottles of Smirnoff in the night while I slept.

It had been buried but not destroyed. It had always been there, lurking, a seething monster under the façade of normalcy that we had built, waiting for the day when it would bare its ugly face and consume him from the inside as world went round.

When I started crying too, he cradled me close to his heaving chest.

Baas,” he croaked. “Everything will be alright.”

This is the sixth, and last, preview chapter of a new novel I’m writing. Read the other chapters here.

Feature image: Photo by William Warby on Unsplash.

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