SHE SMILED AT DEATH

That day we waited for her arrival from Nairobi at the bus station. It had been ten years since she was last at home. To her mother this was a special occasion. We were at the station as a family except for her father. Her mother was seated under a tree shade waiting to hug her daughter. It had been long. Other kids and I were busy counting vehicles, I was owning those coming from the Nairobi route and the other three kids owned those that were from Kisumu. We played for the better part of the wait until the first bus from Nairobi arrived. Her mother, Kukhu, rushed to the entrance as quickly as her feeble body could carry her. She wanted to see her only daughter. My three aunties followed her to rescue her from the bustle of alighting passengers but they were excited. Finally she was to be here. The bus went on its way. Milly was not in it.

She had called a week ago describing the bus she would use and our lack of a family owned phone made it difficult to follow up with the journey. We used the Mzee wa Kijiji’s phone. It took her mother three days of attempting to get a hold of her.

As we sat in the afternoon heat, Kukhu was growing tired. She bought a bunch of bananas from the hawkers and divided among us equally.

The next bus arrived. All the passengers alighted, it was taken to the mechanic at the bus station. Milly was not among them. Passengers from our village flocked around Kukhu, to check on her.

“Have any of you seen my daughter, Milly?”

“Yes, I saw her at the Machakos Country Bus Station, she was heavily laden. She will arrive in good time. All the buses left on time,” a middle aged man comforted Kukhu. They all left for the bicycles to take them home. We waited for another hour before the next bus came crawling from the valley. Kukhu stood up in readiness to receive her daughter or otherwise leave for home.

The bus came, it had fifteen people at most, they all alighted and at last Milly came. She had a back pack with two travel bag in her hands. She had another bag on the front. She alighted instructing the conductor to get her goods from the boot. She was in with a loot. We managed to count at least five different goods wrapped properly in “gunias”.

Kukhu jumped as she went to hug her daughter, her face was beaming with a vibrant smile. She went in arms stretched. Milly awkwardly dropped the travel bags as she hugged her mother by the side. She refused to drop the bag in the front. Our aunties were busy with the goods as they organized with ‘bodaboda’ riders to pack them properly on their bicycles.

Milly decided that we should walk back home. She wanted to see how the village had changed and so we dragged along her as Kukhu saw herself on a bicycle to home. I was growing tired by the minute as droplets of sweat collected on my nose, my lips were ashy as I kept licking them. I was hungry too. The other kids were silent as we followed our elders, each had a baggage to carry.

It took us longer than usual. At each changed scenery, Milly stood to take in the sight. She was enjoying herself to the maximum. Finally after two hours we were home. I found mom in the kitchen preparing a late lunch. I sat by her side awaiting the meal. She looked at me and smiled. She was not going to ask about the journey. I looked at her and started talking.

“Mom, we counted three buses before Milly arrived in one. I don’t know why it took her so long.”

“First of all, it is aunty Milly for you. She must have used an old vehicle,” she said as she looked at me with her eyes wide open warning me to be respectful.

“I think so too. She had so many goods that we had to use five bicycles. For the first time the bicycles are coming to our neighborhood. I usually see them in other people’s compounds.”

“Why didn’t you go to help them unpack?”

“I am hungry, I will go there after eating.”

“This is supper, son, the maize and beans I am preparing are for supper.”

“Okay, let me drink a cup of water and leave for the fruits in the plantain farm.”

“Take care, check on the plates in the cupboard there are two pieces of mandazis.”

“Thank you mom, you are the best.”

I left with my share. At the compound Kukhu had managed to unpack everything and arranged in their supposed stores. Milly was in the sitting room with the aunties. She sat there tired with a bulging stomach. The room had an awkward silence that seemed to have lasted longer. My presence broke the silence as a peeped through the door. Milly called me in.

“Hey, just come in. What’s your name?”
Before I could answer, one of the aunties chipped in.

“He is Lihanda, son to the late Mzee Sam. They live with their mother on that piece of land.”She said so pointing to our compound. The sound of Mzee Sam had me almost teary. My father was dead but he died a middle aged man. He was not old to earn a title Mzee. It had been six years since his passing.

Milly looked at me and smiled before ushering me to go on with what I was doing. I moved out leaving them to their talks. I passed by Kukhu in the kitchen, she was preparing porridge for the visitor.

“Why porridge Kukhu, it is almost night?”

“She needs this to restore her energy before supper, we may cook late tonight. Take a cup and have some, tell me if the sugar is okay.”

“Thank you.”

I took a cup and she poured a generous share. I took a sip and shook my head to agree with everything. It was really great porridge.

“You will inform your mother to come over if she is done with what she is doing.”

“Okay,” I agreed as I moved out to find the other kids.

Eight months later, Judie was born. Milly gave birth to a daughter, it was the first time I was seeing a baby. She looked tiny and all wrinkled up. It scared me and the idea that I was once like her had me wondering how life was fickle. I was always happy to help carry her around, calming her, but when asked by her mother to do so, I would refuse. We didn’t like each other, her mother and I were cold enemies that we only knew about.

Our playing times were disrupted and my elder sister had to help her around. As time went by, Milly started a home based business. She cooked soup from cow head and legs. The soup was mainly for drunkards who in some way believed that meat will help with their drinking.

She woke up very early every week day in order to get the meat after slaughter. She always came home with the meat except for some days where she would miss the slaughtering by only few minutes and miss on the entire purchase. In days like this, she would prepare “Vitumbua” as she called them. They were sweet rolls made from maize flour with sugar and salt then fried in oil until they turn golden-brown. She sold them to anyone from school children to adults at two shillings each. If at any point I agreed on her request to help with the child, I was paid with two or three pieces of ‘vitumbua’.

Time went by and Judie started walking. She could now depend on herself except for the crying and nagging that increased. The drunkards passed by in the evening, some taking pieces of the meat with them for supper. The soup was finished before seven in the evening. Business was booming and she even upgraded to two pieces of cow heads. It was great to watch her, roast the heads and legs over fire giving out an air of roasted beef throughout the compound. This was her signature signal to inform her customers of what awaited them.

The business went on until one day she just stopped. She did not talk about it and would sulk any time somebody brought up the topic. By now Judie was four years. She was a big girl. Milly stayed around for some time tending on the farm and the cow. She managed to stay for only two harvests before leaving for Nairobi. We escorted her to the bus station.

Kukhu remained behind with Judie but passed her journey mercies and warning to Milly. She was not expecting to raise her and her children. She wanted to rest. Milly listened to her and promised to be clever amidst laughs. She was going back to the big city, a city we only hear about.

The Mbukinya bus halted at the stage as she boarded in a hurry to get a seat by the window. She waved us a goodbye and her journey commenced. Two of my aunties had followed their husbands to the big city and the remaining one, stayed around to make a life in the village with her four kids.

The aunty had a phone which we used to contact everyone as long as we provided the airtime. Most of the time, we didn’t and that meant that please call me messages were the only way we could contact our loved ones.

Milly arrived safely and called us a week later, she talked to everyone including her daughter and my mom. She was excited to start a fresh in ensuring a future for her daughter.

Years went by and Judie joined class one, I did my class eight and joined my dream high school. Milly visited only once in that period. Kukhu was growing old and her ulcers became worse. She would miss meals just because she couldn’t afford the required food. We took our turns helping her around the house, the grandfather was sick by then and he spent his time in bed. We had to look after the cow for that matter.

In form two, my aunty came for me at school. My mother and the grandfather had an accident while coming from a funeral. Though the aunt withheld the information, she was silent the whole journey from school to home. Mom was on bed sick, I watched her as she slept. She had injuries on her face and hands, the wounds were fresh with stitches on them. Tears slowly rolled down my eyes, my heart felt heavy as the beats decreased. The sight of seeing mom in such a state had me disoriented.

I went to Kukhu’s compound. There by the veranda laid grandfather on the bed, His eyes closed as if sleeping. This was the first time I was noticing a dead person, I was old enough to feel a surge of emotions in my heart as my head span around. I was confused, angry and teary. The anger was unfounded but I felt okay feeling that way.

Milly came for her father’s burial. She was pregnant. Her movements were limited but her sorrow was overwhelming. She cried her heart out, her mother, Kukhu was holed up in her bedroom. She was not ready to see anyone not even her daughter. The burial went on without issues and we laid grandfather to rest. I went back to school for the third term. Time flew and I was home again. Milly was still around, her bulging stomach growing by day.

A week passed and she gave birth to twins. The father of the sons came by the village. He was ready to take care of his children. Kukhu was not ready to greet him but she welcomed him to her home. He stayed until evening when Kukhu came to bid him goodbye. Milly was busy with her babies.

“Hello, I can see you are off to your home.”

“Yes, I wanted to meet you but you seemed a little busy.”

“Yes, now that we are all here. What’s your deal?”

“I want to marry her. If that is okay with you.”

“Okay? Are you insane? You already announced your presence in our life greatly. Where do you get the audacity to ask such a question?”

“I didn’t mean to sound rude.”

“Did you even think of it before all this? Anyway I give you my blessings but you will come for her after she is nursed to health.”

“Okay, I will help in any way I can.”

“You don’t have an option. Just be there when need arises.”

“Okay mom.”

“We are not there yet, take it easy.”

The two month passed by and the father came for his wife and her kids. He refused to take in Judie. She became Kukhu’s child. Kukhu joined the orphaned kids’ funds from the government. Life was slowly easing and her ulcers were taken care of. Judies went on with her studies.

Three months went by and Milly came with bags and her two children, she was injured. Her arms had sprained. Kukhu took her to the hospital. She was tested and attended to, unfortunately Milly turned out HIV positive.

Her husband came for her a week later when Kukhu was not around. Milly went back to her home. She tried confronting him about the disease and they ended up fighting. The father kicked Milly and hurt her severely. Her weakened body could not take any more. She went back to her mother who wanted her to stay at her marriage.

“I know it is bad but you will have to try. Be patient with him.”

“Come on mom, what am I to do, he is a violent man?”

“I am sorry about that but marriage is a difficult thing. Most people in marriages are surviving trying to make it work. Your father and I did our best, I have ran away seven times and I always ended up coming back. As mothers we stick around to help the kids. If you think of the future of your boys you just have to go back.”

“I know mom but I may ended up dead trying to entertain this man. What good will I do in staying around and end up dead. What will happen to my kids?”

“Just hold onto God and pray. He will change one day and by then your kids will be okay.”

“Okay mom, but do me one favor then. “

“Anything for you right now.”

“Can he be allowed to meet with the elders they talk to him?”

“I will do that for you.”

“Thank you.”

The father was summoned by Kukhu. The elders had met and they wanted to see the father. He came and listened to them. He sat at the center ready to hear what they had to say.

“It has been brought to our attention that our daughter is with you,” one elder observed.

“Yes, I have married Milly.”

“In that marriage, you have two males. May I say congratulations to that?”

“Thank you.”

“Though you seem well fed, you are not doing our daughter any good. Evidenced by her injuries you are the battering type.”

“I have nothing to say.”

“Let’s be reasonable and civil and talk like men. What pushes you to hit her? Why do you feel the need to hit her?”

“Sincerely speaking, I don’t intend or plan on hitting her but you daughter sometimes is just out of her mind. I always try my best to restrain the anger but she pushes me to the edge.”

“Can’t you just walk it off like your fellow men?”

“I have tried that but every time I come back she always pick it up from where we left. It is like we had paused the confrontation. I wish it was otherwise.”

“We do know that women can be difficult sometimes, but you are the voice of reason in that house. Treat her good and she will reproduce the goodness. Don’t push her expecting that she won’t push back.”

“I thank you for your time. It is nice getting pieces of advice from those who have navigated these waters of marriage and sailed through. I will keep trying to be good.”

The meeting was over, the father headed to their home and Milly followed her later. That night a war ensued, the father demanded to know why he was hustled to such a meeting. Milly tried her best to answer him but he was bubbling with anger. He was shaking as they tried conversing. His words were failing him and he resorted to fists.

They landed on her from all angles as she tried shielding herself. The boys were asleep but the noise from the sitting room woke them up to find their mother on the floor. Their cries went out but were cut short by the stern warning of their father. Her kicked and bumped her. Milly was slowly losing her consciousness. Her insides felt hot, her tongue was cold and for the first time the saliva in her mouth was dried.

It took a few minutes before blood started welling up in her mouth, Milly was bleeding. Her nose too was filling with blood. She was helpless and knowing that her neighbors didn’t care she kept it to herself. The father kicked her in the chest fracturing her ribs. Milly took in quick breathes as pain flowed all over his body.

The body lost its will to live, it gave in and as Milly was losing her mind she was losing her body too. Her body became limp, she couldn’t move. It was over for her. The father looked at her and the boys, tied the boys to their dead mother and lit the house on fire. He disappeared.

News came to her mother, about her death. She was on the verge of another ulcers episode. She grew weak as her mouth failed to form words and her left side felt unmovable. She was shocked as she remembered the last time they talked. How painful it felt. Milly smiled at death and it smiled back showing its white teeth in jest.

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