Unravelled by Muthoni wa Gichuru

Day Three – Kalacha Camp

           I am fed with a mixture of camel milk and honey. The Gabra women spoon the mixture into my mouth as if I were a baby. They run their hands, as soft and as pliant as mahamri dough, over my stomach so that when I finally eat solid food, it sits easily in my stomach. Ciira sits with me, telling about the frantic search last night when I was discovered missing. She tells me how Mutei refused to give up, only going back to Kalacha camp when exhaustion had overwhelmed him. The following morning, he woke up early to lead the search party.

            “You see, you two can find your way back,” Ciira tells me.

           I am not convinced. I sink on the soft goatskins the Gabra women have lain me on and close my eyes. Throughout the night, I speak only of the boy that found me. The boy that thought I was a goat.

Day Two– Kalacha

            The boy told me in halting Swahili that his name was Abdi. Full syllables spat out like phlegm. Ab-di. He had been out in the morning looking for one of his goats that failed to come home the night before. Dust covered and partly hidden by a shrub, he thought I was the goat. 

            The night before I had curled myself into a ball in the gritty sand, my words whistled in the desert wind: Peeeeeete! Ciiiiiiiiiiira! Muuutei! Maaaaaama! The cold was under my skin and into my bones. Desperate for warmth, I tried to think of the last time I felt heat and I remembered Pete. The crowded dance floor in Kampala. Wazungus can’t dance, I tell him. You jump before the beat. And we laughed together. When Abdi dragged me up and pulled me along, I thought we were dancing until I put full weight on my left foot. Then the reality of Chalbi came back. I was brought down by the roots of a shrub as I wandered around in the inky blackness of the desert.

            Abdi had a bottle of lukewarm water which he allowed me to sip, yanking the bottle from me when I wanted to gulp the contents. In full light, the expanse of the Chalbi desert again seemed to have no end. The uniformity stretched all round, broken only by the carcasses of goat and sheep.

       The boy, his skin marked by pimples like small droplets of water, told me “Njaa huuma kama dudu.” Hunger bites like an insect. I felt hollowness where my stomach used to be. Abdi cajoled me to keep moving, sometimes threatening to leave me to the vultures that were circling overhead. The sun above was an angry monster, spewing tongues of fire onto the ground. Sometimes I saw Mutei in front of me, his skin as black as a starless night, glistening in the bright light, and once I even saw Pete. The smell of Mutei, like freshly cut wood, was in my nostrils and I rushed forward with my arms outstretched. But he stayed just out of my reach. I closed my eyes and when I opened them, he was gone. 

Day Seven – Lake Turkana

               It will be three days before I am strong enough and my left foot can step on the ground without a twinge of pain. On the fourth day we head to Lake Turkana, leaving at dawn to cross the Chalbi Desert before the sun becomes a bonfire in the sky. Maish, Ciira’s husband is driving, his stocky bulk spilling on the sides of the driver’s seat. Ciira sits next to him. Her throaty laughter still makes us whip our heads around even though we know the source. Maish, who I used to think was as dull as an empty sack, still makes Ciira double up in helpless laughter, five years after their marriage. 

               Mutei and I sit at the back, speaking in low tones. The words seem to come easily to his lips now. He speaks the way people tend to use words to fill emptiness, the words tumbling about. He does not mention the woman in the photograph or her gap toothed child. There is no need. The woman Mutei says he will marry is with us every minute and so is the boy.

             “Mutei sees the possibility with this other woman,” I told Ciira back at Kalacha. “He wants to play father and it is only by counting our ten years that he has agreed to wait for a month. His mother is pleased.” Even now the voice of Mama Mutei comes back to me. “Many a girl kept me awake at night with squealing when Mutei was still at home and sleeping in his simba next to my house. After ten years married to my son, you should be suckling your third one.

             I turn to face Mutei and I still see relief in his eyes. I found my way back. Mutei speaks of things he has not been able to speak of before. Words in the medical literature that I used to bring home over the years about infertility and sperm counts and which he had refused to look at, akin to a child who hides his face with the palm of his hand and says, you can’t see me. I am hiding myself.

             We reach Lake Turkana at 3PM and find the jade-coloured lake heaving.  We are served the day’s catch for dinner that evening. Nile tilapia with brown millet ugali and bitter traditional vegetables.  We spend the night in huts made of tightly woven grass. Next to me in bed, Mutei’s body feels awkward, like something that had been taken away then returned all the worse for wear. We fumble with each other’s bodies and it is almost like it was with Pete that night when we were both lonely and reached for the other. Pete talked of his ex-wife with the casualness of the wave of a hand, as if their union had been a brief encounter that had perhaps lasted a little too long. As soon as it was over, Pete went to the bathroom and I let myself out, shutting the door against the sound of running water in the shower.

            “I’m so sorry,” Mutei says, the words jagged, as if snagged.

            “I am sorry too,” I tell him. “For everything.” I turn my back on him now, but he pulls me to him, forming a curve around my body, and pressing his face between my shoulder blades. I feel a wetness spreading down my back.

Day Eight – Maralal

            After a late breakfast the following day, we start our journey back. The pull of Nairobi and familiarity is now strong. Samburu morans wave at us as we are passing. The red ochre on their heads contrasts with the shrubs and tufts of dry grass. We spend the night in a guest house on the outskirts of Maralal town. When I wake up the following morning, I feel the urgent need to retch. When I rush to the washroom, nothing comes up but an acrid sun-yellow liquid. 

            I touch my stomach the way the Gabra women did, circling it from top to bottom.  Hope has become like an addiction which I crave and now that I had found a fix, I start worrying for the time I will come back from the high I am feeling. I flush the loo quickly, then I pour a toilet cleaner that I find on a shelf above the cistern. I rinse out my mouth and then I breathe into my palm and smell my breath. When I get out of the loo Mutei gives me a long look. He has hung in there for years on the tendrils of hope, but I give him nothing. I go to the closet and begin to pack. 

             Maish and Mutei push forward, taking turns to drive and we arrive home in Nairobi late in the evening. Maish and Ciira drop us at our house in Thome estate.  Ciira hugs me closely when she and Maish are leaving. “Mission accomplished,” she whispers in my ear and I can almost see her writing the final project report. The trip to Chalbi Desert was Ciira’s idea. She called it an intervention. Behind her, I meet Mama Mutei’s eyes.

             ”Hello, Mami,” I say. She has been house sitting while we were away. Perhaps it is the expectant look on her face that makes me call her Mami, an intimate term for one's mother in-law. The following morning I will find that she has prepared breakfast for me, and in the corner of the tray covered by a serviette I will find odawa, the soft stone, crumbling.

Day Nine - Nairobi

             After Mutei has left for work, I sit on the toilet seat staring at two strips of pink. I count the days since that night in Kampala when I allowed Pete to pull me past my hotel room. Both laughter and tears burst forth, weaving together. After I have seen my doctor, and we have counted the days, and argued about the expected date, I call Ciira. I tell her that I am moving out. 

            “Is it the woman and child?” 

             I feel the desperation in the catch of Ciira’s voice. She looks wildly about her, a person looking at yarn that has unravelled and is rolling out faster than they can stop it. 

             I shake my head. I find that the idea of Mutei marrying no longer makes me lose my breath.

             “You will have children with Mutei.  You just need more time.”

             Ciira has been feeding me hope since she got her own two children and I have been miserable with the need for it. 

             “No, I don’t think so,” I say.

             Mama Mutei had wanted to take me to a Mundu mue to be given ngata, charms which would protect me from evil spirits.  She had told me the spirits tied up a woman’s womb for years so that even if she became pregnant, the baby would stay in the womb for so long that it would be born with teeth and hair that was turning grey. 

            “You have found someone else,” Ciira says, narrowing her eyes. “You are building an alliance with another person.” 

             I tell Ciira that after ten years, I have just found myself.

              What I will not tell her is that I have to leave Mutei because in less than eight months, the news of the birth of my baby will be as loud as the voice of a town crier. It will be so big it will fill mouths so that people will put their palms there to prevent it from gushing forth. I will not tell Ciira that it will be difficult for the women who are usually the first ones to come to the hospital to see a newborn in my community, to say with conviction the way Gikuyu women are wont to say, The baby is a throwback to its ancestors. There were light-skinned people along Mutei’s lineage, but look at those ears. They look exactly like his.

Contributor Notes

Alice Muthoni Gichuru is a Kenyan author who writes under the pen name Muthoni Wa Gichuru. She is the Cordinator, AMKA space for women writers. Muthoni’s first published novel, Breaking the Silence, (East African Educational Publishers, 2010), was first runner-up for the Jomo Kenyatta Foundation Literature Prize, 2011. Her novella, The Hidden Package, (EAEP, 2016), won second prize Burt Award for African Writing. Her debut play, The Land along the River, was on the list of  Commended plays in the English as a Second Language category at The 25th International Radio Playwriting Competition.  Muthoni has also been published by Story Moja Publishers. In 2018 she was the overall winner of Burt Award for Africa Writing, Kenya for her manuscript, The Carving. Muthoni is also a short story writer and was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2015. She has been published in Fresh Paint volume 2, (2015) an anthology by AMKA, Kenya, Moonscapes 2016, an anthology by African Writers Trust, Uganda and The Wrong Patient and Other Stories from Africa (2018), an anthology by Africa Book Club.