Black Is the Colour of Absence

Perhaps it is the way you came—in the middle of the night, swaddled in an old cloth—that makes me wonder when exactly you began to leave me. Or maybe it is the memory of your mother’s voice as she said, “Take my baby,” her arms swinging forward, toward me. Or it is the image of you the day you found out you were different, and you came to me and asked, “Mama, am I a monster?” My brain is becoming a sieve, my memories slipping through like fine particles of sand, but the love I have for you remains, and I hold on to that the way the wispy ash-colored hair clings to my head.

My bones rattle as I move among your old clothes, trying to find tiny pieces of you, trying to remember what it felt like to have you around, to raise you as my own. I pick up a faded maroon shirt with a frayed collar and holes in it that you wore for your thirteenth birthday (or was it Christmas?). I place it against my chest and try to conjure the image of you leaning on my bosom, the feeling of your wet face against my floral embroidered blouse. The painful memories. I want to forget, to stop myself from remembering, but memories of you are the only things that keep me alive, keep my worn-out body from falling apart, for I cannot leave this world without telling you the story.

Kati, my child, this is the story of how you came.

The story of how you left.

The story of how time has merged both your coming and going, as if they are one single drawn-out event; as if you are coming and going, coming while going.

Where in the world are you now? I map out the scars on my body and try to locate you. Scars tell the stories of the places our bodies are not wanted. The scar on my right leg, the one I got from the axe thrown at me the night they called me a witch when I tried to protect you, is the one I touch now. It feels hard against my index finger. That is not where you are.

You came to me. I remember that for sure.

And then you left.

Between your coming and leaving, you were mine. Your mother, she didn’t want you. No, that is not true. She wanted you before, before the midwife pulled you out of her and raised you in the air like a rabbit or a wet rug. She wanted you before the air rushed into your lungs and let out the high-pitched cry and she thought she’d had another girl, but the midwife said, “Wait, wait.” She stopped wanting you then. She felt nothing when you, still covered in blood and mucus, were placed in her arms. Her nipple was cold when your mouth searched for it. You suckled, but she had stopped wanting you.

Your father, the man my brother had called his son, heard your cry from his farm, and he stood up, placed his right arm on his waist so he looked like a jug, and he stared at the blue sky and thanked Nyasaye for finally giving him a boy. He did not hear the midwife say, “Wait, wait.” And so he walked, ran (he wished he could fly!) until he got to the door. Before he walked into the dimly lit room, he wanted you more than anything else. More than he had wanted his three daughters—your sisters—for he knew you would finally restore his esteem among his fellow men, you would secure his legacy, you would make him the man he needed to be. Such nonsense, my child, is what your father thought.

The look on your mother’s face was all he needed to see.

“Take that thing away! Kill it.”

I am remembering these things as if I were there, even though I was not. As if memory is water that flows through everything. As if memory is God who sees everything. As if when your mother stretched out her hands and handed a bundle to me, I had known you were coming. As if I had seen you in your mother’s womb and known you would be mine.

“Take care of my baby.”

I wish your mother had told me that. I wish she had not off-loaded you as if you were a burden, as if you were some growth she had been carrying inside her. Take my baby! Don’t care for it, just take it!

How did you leave?

Like a candle burning, the wax melting and falling off, gathering at the feet of the flame. Like the flame dancing in the wind and dying out. Like the ephemeral clouds of whitish smoke rings from the long drag of a cigarette. Like memories seeping through, falling through the cracks of time. One day you were there, one day you were gone. The scar on my back, the part where I can’t reach and scratch, itches and it tells me you are there, where I can’t reach you.

“No. Kati, my child, some people are just born different.”

That was not enough to scratch your itch. I tried. I kept you safe. I took you among my children and raised you like you were mine, like my blood coursed through your veins, like it was my womb the midwife pulled you out of. You were a chick hatched from a different egg, but you had found your way into my brood, and I thought, “This one is different, but Nyasaye does not make mistakes.”

Still, you left. And that is what I am trying to remember.

Your shadow floating in the sun.

No.

Your feet pattering on the floor as you walked away.

No.

Why is it that I remember your coming so well—arms outstretched in the dark—but I cannot remember your leaving? The memory of your departure has deserted me, and even though your scent still clings to the walls of the house, and to the clothes you left behind, and to my wrinkled skin, I still have to sniff hard to remember when exactly it was you started leaving, what it was that made you take that step that announced to me that it was goodbye. Your departure is a song that stains my heart with sorrow.

*

A few days ago, I saw your mother at the market; she was bent down haggling over the price of tilapia. I walked to her and asked her, “How is the wife to my brother’s son doing?”

“Fine,” she said.

But I lick my forefinger and raise it, point it toward Nyasaye that she was not fine. The years had washed her face away, but I could still see the haunting of your absence. Years and years of pain and anguish had folded on her face, and I could tell she had not forgotten how she had brought you to me.

Years before: “I tried to save my baby. I didn’t want my baby killed.”

Years after: “It was for the best.”

I asked her if she had seen you, and she shrugged her shoulders and clicked her teeth. She had built a wall to keep herself safe, even if it meant keeping you outside that wall: leaving you for the wolves to devour your tiny bones and your skin that still looked like an overripe mango.

“Why did our child leave?” I asked her.

“Ask your brother’s son.”

My brother’s son has forgotten all about you. He was upset when he learned of his wife’s treachery, and he beat your mother so badly I thought she would die, but he could not come and take you from under my wings and do anything to you. He had a better chance pulling a piece of meat from a crocodile’s mouth than taking you from me. He tried, the night he came with those drunk youths who howled like wolves and called me a witch. He tried. He failed. And so he simply forgot that he ever had you. Two children after you is all he needed to get rid of the stain of your existence, to banish you into a pit of the forgotten. Two boys whom he stuffed with milk, fish, and ugali until they looked like giants. Two boys who will never remember you, for they never saw you.

Is that why you left, my child? Did news of your father reach you? But I had not told you about him then, so it can’t be the reason. You did not know anything about your parents. I was still protecting you then, even though you would turn to me and tell me, “Mama, I am old enough now. I can protect myself.”

Those times, when you told me that, I would put my ladle down and turn to you and laugh and say, “The world is the mouth of a shark, my child, and its teeth are like big sharp knives that cut even the strongest of men.” You would look at me, and I knew you understood. I would get up and go back to the stove where the fish was stewing in onions, garlic, ginger, and powdered groundnuts. You would go back to your homework, head bowed like sheep during a storm.

Was it the school, my child, that made you leave? Yes, I think the day you came back from school and told me you hated that school was the first day you announced your departure. I remember your sweat that evening; it smelled of loneliness, of gloom and sadness. Ha, my memories are coming back in bits and fragments, little portions that feed me the energy to go on. I also remember that you refused to eat and you never told me what had happened.

It was Adhiambo who told me that the teacher had made you sit alone at the back of the class. I try to remember what his motivation for that malicious act was, but I cannot. All I remember your sister telling me is “They make people sit in pairs.”

It must have been those days, my child, when your difference ate away at your insides, when you straddled the world, trying to find where to fit in. My poor child, the world does not know how to accept difference, and you learned this the hard way. School was meant to be a good place, a place where people scrubbed the stupid away and replaced it with shiny new knowledge, a place for everyone. But everything—the toilets, the games, the subjects taught—seemed to gang up on you, telling you that you were not meant to exist. That was when I noticed the light in your eyes dim down and, eventually, die.

Before you came to me, there had been others like you. They were not brought to me. They were tied with the strongest ropes in dark cold stores, and they were kept among the chicken and the goats. The mice fed on the soles of their feet and the palms of their hands. Their cries were the sounds of wounded animals, and even if they pierced our hearts, we were forbidden to help. We put sand in our ears like what they do to guinea fowls, and we said, “They are not supposed to exist. Nyasaye would save them from this suffering if He meant them to exist.” Others had been spared this agony, and the midwives said they had broken the sweet potatoes over the babies’ heads or they had simply forgotten them at the river when they took them for a bath.

But not you, my sweet child, not you. You came to me instead.

Before you, there were others.

After you, even now, there are still others.

The moon was hidden behind a dark gray cloud the night your mother brought you to me, and that is why I don’t remember the tears in her eyes. Or maybe that too has been eaten away by time, the glutton who eats our memories. I forget the tremble in her voice as she begged me to take you. I forget the weight of your body on my hands. I forget the sound of her footsteps as she ran away to tell her husband that she had done it. I forget.

Somehow, I keep forgetting the leavings of people.

That is not true. I remember my husband leaving me the morning after your mother brought you to me. I remember him asking me what I had brought to his house. I remember him slapping me hard across my face when I responded. Was that a panga he picked up when he promised to chop you into pieces? I remember that too. And above all, I remember telling him, “You will have to kill me before you touch this baby.”

He left, not stopping to think that I was pregnant with his second child.

Memory is a funny thing, my child. Why do I remember only pain and sadness when, surely, our life was full of happiness too? No single human is eternally sad; even the darkest hours of the night hold the promise of morning.

Oh, yes, I remember you learning to sing the song of Nyasaye who created everything that is good and beautiful in the world. You sung each word with such wonder, like a cockerel eager to learn to crow. You asked me, “Mama, if Nyasaye created all these wonderful things as the song says, then who created me?”

 “Nyasaye created you too, my child,” I said, “and you are equally—if not more—beautiful.”

I tickled you, my hands roaming all over your chest and stomach, and you laughed and your laughter was so pure and so beautiful that I wanted to capture it and store it in a place where time and memory could not mess with it. I don’t think I have heard such beautiful laughter—it sounds like music from a flute, or the coo of the emerald green–plumed bird, or the whistling from the puckered lips of a fisherman as he walks out of the lake with a bumper harvest.

My child, my brain is leaving me, as if the weevils that feed on maize in the granary have also eaten away my memories. I remember little of your face before you left. I remember only what my mind allows me: your hair that you kept in the neat Bantu knots Adhiambo had made for you; your oval face, which housed two vacant, expressionless eyes that belonged to someone truly trapped between two worlds; and your skin that was so tar black and smooth it glowed when the sun shone on it. Ha, you were a thing of beauty!

Even though I loved you more than I loved my own children (I am not ashamed to admit this), I forgot to raise you. Sometimes, my child, parents are so consumed with the love for their children that they forget to raise them. No, those two are not the same. Raising you would have meant I told you how ugly the world is; loving you meant I cushioned you from the horrors contained in this world. Mostly, I did the latter. I protected you even when it harmed you and everyone else around me. I gave you a promise that one day, when you grew up, the world would accept you. It was a promise I could not keep, but I handed it to you as if I were God and I could change everything.

Is that why you left?

I have a confession: it was not easy raising you. I had only one child when you came to me, and another was on the way. Yet, it felt like you were my first child. I had no idea how to raise you, I realized. I tried raising you like I had raised Adhiambo, but all children are different and so those tactics didn’t work. Then I tried raising you like I was raising Otieno, who was only a few months younger than you, but that too failed. It was then that I decided to raise you your own way, and that meant twice the work. Still, I did not mind, for you had brought me so much happiness.

And then you left.      

You were seventeen when you left, or maybe that is the age I remember. You were done with high school, and when the results were announced, you had passed, and you had beaten all those boys and girls who had laughed at you. You told me you wanted to be a doctor, and I knew then that you had found your own path, knew what it meant. You were happy the day Adhiambo took you to the market to buy the stuff you would need at the university. You sang all morning as you combed your hair and applied pomade on it. I sat and watched you, and we all laughed.

You left for university on that warm Wednesday morning in September. I saw you and Adhiambo off to the bus stop, and as you sat inside the bus, I pulled Adhiambo to the side and told her, “Take care of my baby.”

She laughed and told me that you were no longer a baby. Still, I made her promise that she would take care of you, for she was in her final year at the same university. We talked afterward, and you told me, “Mama, my love for you is as big as the whole world.”

I remember that. Those words stayed with me even as the bus trundled out of the station, leaving Otieno and me looking like we were lost. We held each other’s hands and waved goodbye to you until the bus disappeared around a bend. When you left, it felt like my whole world turned black because of your absence.

Then you came back home for the holidays, and the light in me glowed again. But I noticed that you were sad and inconsolable, and I knew the world had sapped your joy and left you dry like a parched plant. I asked Adhiambo what had happened at the university, and she told me, “This world is full of so much sadness, Ma.” I wondered when she had become a philosopher, but I knew she would tell me at the right time.

The next morning you were gone.

Adhiambo told me what had happened at the university, but the recollection of your departure has clouded her narrative. I wish I could ask my brain to give me back that story; maybe that is how I will get to remember your leaving as I remember your coming. But Adhiambo lives in the city with her husband and children now, and each time I ask her to tell me, to remind me, she says, “It’s too painful, Ma.”

I realize now that the reason I simply cannot remember your departure is that you never left. You have been here all along, even when I can no longer see you. Or is it my memory playing tricks on me again? I see you leaving, and I see you coming. I see your feet in the air, and I know you are leaving. It is morning, and I ask you, “Where are you going this early?” You do not respond, and I know you have left. Kati, my child, that is why I cannot remember your leaving at all.