Daisy and I are running around in the backyard playing fetch. I was washing the cars when I noticed that her fur was matted, so I turned the hose on her. She doesn’t particularly enjoy bath time so when we’re done, I reward her with treats and a good game of fetch. She shakes the water out of her fur and gets me all wet. There’s a lot of chasing and squealing, which has brought Kagwe out of the house.
Daisy reminds me of my childhood dog, Jessie. She was a beautiful, perky-eared German Shepherd with the kindest eyes. Every evening she’d greet me at the gate after school and escort me to the house, wagging her tail and announcing my arrival with cheerful barks like something out of Downton Abbey. Afterwards we’d inspect the perimeter fence for carrot-thieving boys and stray chickens from the neighbour’s side.
I grew up on a farm, in a small, stone house standing amidst a grove of conifers, acacias and bottlebrushes. In the mornings, the cold would nip at your nose the moment you set foot outside. For a long time afterwards, you could see your breath as you spoke. The air was crisp and carried with it the woody scents of pinecones and cypress pods. In the evenings, when the winds started chasing down the sunset and the sky was streaked orange, the trees’ happy hour would begin and it would be all ‘woooh!’ till morning.
Saturday afternoons, I would take Jessie with me to collect wild gooseberries. On the unfarmed land was this hare’s burrow nestled in a thicket. We liked to go there and see if we could surprise it (the hare) into a chase. I was still a dark, shorthaired girl then, before these hips, when I could survive a sprint without being completely convinced that my lungs were imploding.
My mother used to bake these soft, sweet cakes using this ingenious homemade oven. You know the one where you dip the baking tin in a pot of hot sand on a jiko, and cover it with a lid of hot coals. To check whether the cake had baked, she needed to put the lid of hot coals aside and dip a fork in it. By this time, the warm aroma of the cake would have us all huddled around her hoping for an early taste of any crust around the baking tin. We would all crane our necks to see how well it had browned out – such were the moments that made our lives magical.
Several times my mom would warn me about the hot coals because I was the one she couldn’t get to wear slippers or shoes, despite the cold floors and dewy grass. Of course, this went in one ear and flew out the other. Not a minute later, I would step on the hot coals and chaos would ensue. I would jump up and down on one foot screaming bloody murder, while the ball of my other foot turned white from the burn. One of my siblings would be laughing their head off. The more sober one would be getting a sufuria full of water to dip my foot in, and my mother (bless her) would be yelling, “Didn’t I just tell you to watch out,” in true African fashion.
You would think that finally got me to wear shoes, but no. One day my dad and I went on one of those perimeter walks with Jessie, one of the last tranquil ones on which he regaled me with tales from a lifetime before me. Later, my emotional needs outgrew his capabilities and a hollowness settled between us. On this particular day though, I was still a blissful, carefree girl wading barefoot through the long grass when he said, “Stop! There’s a snake in the grass. Can you see it?”
I could not. It had camouflaged itself, one of those snakes whose skin the sunlight has to hit just right in order for you to see it gleaming.
“Ok, don’t move. I’m going to get a stick to hit it.”
I don’t remember being afraid that day. When he sent me to get a matchbox and some old newspapers to burn it, I run and broke the news to my mom as if we had discovered an oil well on our land. “Mommy, we found a snake!” Although this distressed her, she finally got me to start putting on shoes.
It is one of those rare Saturdays when Kagwe has a day off. He’s lounging on a garden chair watching us while snacking on honey-dipped nuts. He picks up the odd ball when it rolls his way and throws it back, but he doesn’t get up. I leave Daisy chewing on the tennis ball and plump myself next to him breathlessly.
He hands me his phone. “Here, look at this.”
“Eew! Why would you show me that?”
“I ran over it on the runway yesterday.” It is a picture of a snake crushed so badly that part of its body is split open. The tarmac around it is wet with what appears to be blood. “I think it’s a puff adder.”
When we first moved into our new house, Kagwe and I were so taken with how warm and bright it was. Before then, we lived in one of those cold, dark apartments that got no sun and required us to have the lights on throughout the day. The air was always wet with this detergent or that fabric softener because there were people doing laundry every day of the week. When we finally moved, we were always eager to open the windows.
This one time I was closing the curtains late in the evening when I saw this black snake coiled up on the bottom-left corner. I didn’t see its head, nor did I want to. I recoiled with a yelp and ran downstairs. Kagwe had been in his home office studying new material for work for hours. He does not abide interruptions when he’s studying. I also knew that he hadn’t eaten and he gets grumpy when he’s hungry. Keeping all this in mind, I skidded to a halt outside the door and knocked, a soft but urgent rap.
“Kagwe, there’s a small snake in the bedroom.”
He said, “What?”
“There’s a small snake in the bedroom,” I said louder, “at the window.”
I heard the creak of his chair before the door swung open. He went to the laundry room and unscrewed the mop stick. I breathed hard as I briefed him again about the enemy’s position. Then we headed upstairs, communicating in hand signs like a SWAT team. At the door, he signalled me to hold and I did so with one foot out the door, ready to bolt. Turns out, it was not a small snake. The head was some ways away. We picked it up while it was playing dead. It was as long as a belt.
Every time Kagwe and I fight, the snake dreams come.
He has slept 12 hours straight. His face glows when he’s well rested and well fed. I can tell that he’s in a great mood because he’s day drinking, the banter is flowing and he actually seems unclenched. I debate quite a bit in my mind whether to bring up the apology and ruin the mood or shelve it for another time. Then I decide that there’s no time like the present and this is as amenable as he gets, so I broach the subject.
I start my sentences with ‘I feel’; I avoid generalizations. I don’t say, “You never apologize!” or “You always stonewall me when I need to talk about anything that remotely resembles actual human emotion.” He changes the subject. I circle back. He looks away but I refuse to let the frosty silence settle between us this time. He starts to crack his knuckles on one hand, the way he does when his mind is churning.
Then he squares himself and says, “Come here.” He pulls my legs over his lap and runs his fingers over my calves. He serves up a platter of sensible things that would be unreasonable to disagree with. He appeals to my need to please him, to be the cool, drama-free woman who understands things. He doesn’t want us to fight. Good, neither do I. He coaxes out the narco’s wife in me, the one that will let crimes against humanity slide as long as papi buys me nice things and makes me feel special.
He baits me with breadcrumbs and because I am starved of his attention, I scurry around after them like a meek, little mouse. I don’t look up long enough to realize that I’m being strung along, wrapped around his finger. He reels me in masterfully. The part of me that knows (and has known for a long time) how to get by on very little emotionally, takes the reigns. This part always sees the best in him and decides that it’s not all bad. So, I back down because I am an amateur playing in the all-star league.
It comes to me about a day later, when the afterglow has faded. It’s almost morning because I can hear the noisy weaverbirds nesting on the neighbour’s palm trees chirping away. I squeeze my eyes shut and will sleep to stay a bit longer. At the gate to the estate, somebody hoots because the security guards have usually dozed off by now. I roll over in bed and that’s when it hits me. He never apologized. He never actually said, “I’m sorry.”
I lie there, fully awake now. My heart is running riot. There is this ache in my sternum. I am parched, but then I am always parched with him. I am always chasing his approval, always searching for something warm in him that is out of my reach. It all feels so familiar, this… emptiness. Then, the floodgates open, and the realization crashes in the cliffs of my mind in one swift wave. I married my father.7