Short Stories

In the Reeds
October 15, 2020
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Photo by Nick Owuor (astro.nic.visuals) on Unsplash

Previously on You’re Still You…

I’ve just woken up from a dreamless sleep. Yesterday’s travels knocked me out early. A child is sleep-talking one tent away. A man is snoring in another. It’s that golden hour where even the birds still have their beaks tucked in their necks. I am the first bird to awake today. I have the first song. I’ve awoken with a humming, a wiggle in my toes, a wordless rhythm – less a song, more a vibe. I have the urge to go outside and lose myself in the vastness of a starry night sky.

I unzip my tent and step onto the dewy grass. The air tastes like ash and wet earth. I inhale and surrender to a deep release. My chest aches delightfully. My bones are tired but my soul is rested. The lake mirrors the sky, reflecting the light of the crescent moon in a silver, wavy shimmer. As I stroll away from the tents, speckles of grass collect on my crocs. The dew seeps through my socks as I head for the fire pit. I’m hugging my shuka tighter when his voice moves me.

“Can’t sleep?”

I look up. There are people whose voices have a tantric quality to them. You hear them and your hand instinctively moves to the back of your neck. Your face warms up, your eyes glow. Waita has one of those voices.

“I’ve had seven solid hours of sleep,” I say walking towards him. “That’s more than I ever get.”

He’s poking at logs, trying to get a fire going again with some twigs. There’s a smoldering wet piece of bark sending whispers of smoke my way. “You?”

“I thought I’d catch a few hours of silence and solitude,” he says.  

“Oh, I’ve intruded.”

“No, no. Turns out the noise I’m trying to quiet is on the inside.”

I can taste a bit of sorrow around him. I take out a flask I was holding under my arm with whiskey in it. It’s warm now from my body heat.

“A little whiskey to go with your existential crisis?” I hold it up.

He smiles. “Did I ever tell you that you’re a good woman?”

I chuckle. “Oh you’re already on something.”

He reveals a nearly empty bottle and swishes the remaining three fingers of Scotch in it. “Sit,” he says pulling up a picnic chair next to his.

“What’s on your mind?” I ask turning the lid off my flask. I take a swig and grimace as it leaves a burning trail down my throat. “We can talk about it if you’d like. Or just sit in silence, I don’t know.”

He stokes the embers with a pipe blower until they grow and crackle. I watch his face in the light of the red-hot coals. How is it that I know this person? It baffles me. Of all the things that could be happening right now, things have worked out just right for this moment to manifest.

“You ever get a feeling like your heart is beating outside of your body?” he asks.

I take a moment to think about it. If I get it wrong he’ll feel misunderstood and close up like a Venus flytrap. I have to tap into his frequency and feel what he is feeling. I have to listen to what he’s not saying and say it back to him.

“Like…misaligned?”

“Yes. Yes. Like you are not yourself,” he says. He was clenched like a fist before but now I feel him loosening up. A wave of pleasure washes over me at getting it right. We’re on the same wavelength. It’s a beat.

“Yes. It’s disorienting,” I say.

“I’m unhappy with where I am right now. I’m tired of struggling. It feels endless.” He pauses. I wait. Time is suspended. Nothing else matters. “I sound spoilt.”

“No. Not at all.”

“I mean I don’t have it as bad as other people do.”

“Yes, that may be so, but it doesn’t invalidate your experience,” I say. “You’re allowed to feel however you feel.”

“I’m not just unhappy. I am angry. I am angry all the time. There’s a rage in me that I don’t know what to do with,” he says.

I nod. I feel inadequate to respond. I’m not sure what he needs. It still surprises me when a man shows me his vulnerability. I didn’t grow up around any. I don’t know what to do with it beyond appreciating it. Can I hold it without ruining it with the wrong words, or with silence where there should be words?

“Maybe it’s your essence calling out to you to change something,” I say feeling heady. The whiskey has gone straight to my ears.

“I’m too deep in the reeds,” he says rocking on his chair. “Can’t turn back.”

“Then don’t. Cut your way out.”

He stops rocking and considers it.

“That bad?” I ask.

He takes a swig of his Scotch. “I’ll basically be creating a chaotic situation with no surety that it will work out. I don’t want to get burned.”

“That noise in your head? That’s you holding in the chaos. That rage you’re talking about is the pain of inaction. Of denying what you already know you need to do. It’s the pain of betraying yourself,” I say. “You need to make a decision.”

“I don’t know,” he sighs. “Maybe it’ll resolve itself.”

That passiveness again. “You know not deciding is also a decision right? It’s a decision to keep the status quo. The chaos. The anger. I don’t know why you would choose that. For some perceived honor in going the distance? On a path that’s not right for you? There’s no honor there. It’s fraud.”

“What if I get burned?”

“What if you don’t?”

He hesitates. “But what if I do though?”

“You burn, you learn,” I shrug.

“Jill, you’re drunk,” he chuckles. “This is terrible advice.”

I laugh. “Yes, it’s possible that I’m drunk, but I’ll tell you what I think anyway.”

“Uh huh,” he nods. “Cheers to not letting anyone stop you.”

“Yes!” I raise my flask to his bottle.

We’re both laughing now because we’re buzzed but also because we’re on the precipice of something momentous. A knowledge has passed between us that in the cosmic thread that connects us both, a new bond is forming. Whatever I say will influence whatever life decision he’s struggling with. However it goes, we’ll both remember this night. The laughter is just to quell the jitters.

“Here’s how I see it. You can’t go wrong betting on yourself. If it doesn’t work out then it doesn’t work out. Maybe that’s what’s supposed to happen. When has life ever been a straight line?”

“I always admired that about you. You’re just a freight train barreling through life,” he says motioning with his hands. “You don’t get caught up in the nitty gritty.”

“Well, it’s not without its cost.”

He weighs it with a shake of his head, as if the thought is rattling around in his head. “But it’s what comes most naturally to you,” he says.

“Not necessarily. It’s a belief system I started to cultivate when I realized that life is not idyllic. I don’t know why people persist in seeing it as such. Life is murky and uncertain. We don’t always get it right the first time and I don’t think that’s the point of it anyway. It’s not like a checklist where you just tick things off,” I say. “It’s an exploration of ourselves. It’s an evolution.”

I don’t articulate it very well but the gist of what I mean to say is this. We can’t remain static in the name of endurance. There are many deaths and rebirths wrapped in one lifetime. One state dies to make way for the new, usually amidst blood, sweat and tears. The death of innocence and the birthing of a woman. The death of outdated beliefs to make room for enlightenment. The death of fear to make way for freedom. The trick is in being fluid, knowing when to dig your heels in and when to let go.

“Don’t buy into people’s ideas of what you can and should do. Make moves,” I conclude.

There is movement in the trees, an animal grazing. It could be a buck or a hippo beyond the fence – I can’t tell. There’s just a hint of lavender light beginning to pour over the sky in the east, but it’s otherwise dark. The air is ripe with unexpressed desire, wet earth and burning wood.

“Jill?”

“Hmmn?”

“It’s not the booze,” he says standing up. I don’t understand. He picks up a lantern that’s separating his chair from mine and sets it aside. “Later, you’re going to think it’s just the booze but it’s not.”

He finds my lips with his thumb and then his lips. With his hands cupping my face, he stands me up. I am so stunned that I wobble and knock the chair over. It crashes into the lantern and as it turns out, the damn thing was leaky. It sets the grass on fire and we don’t even realize it until it gets a little too bright.

“Does this count as cutting my way out?” he asks breathlessly when we’ve stomped out the fire. It has left a charred patch that we’ll have to explain in the morning.

“Mmmhm.” I nod, unable to say more. I feel weightless. It’s exhilarating being present in my body, feeling the rush of blood in my ears, a quiver in my belly, a fluttering in my shoulders. I’m high on endorphins, on life.

“See? You didn’t get burned,” I say.

He puts his hands on his hips and hangs his head in laughter. Quietly at first, but then he runs out of breath so he’s just doubled over with his eyes popping out and his jaw wide open. I watch him, clutching my own belly in drunken laughter and realize with some irony that I unwittingly talked him into this and as a result, he has now passed his chaos on to me.

***

I haven’t finished reading a book for months now which is in part the reason I’ve been struggling to write. The other part might be the ever-looming existential crisis that plagues all artists, thinkers and creatives – but we’ll get into that later. I’ve been listening to podcasts and journaling, which is the brainstorming part of my process. And I think we have the makings of a new series.

“You’re still you’ is Jill and Waita’s story. As you know, I write week to week. My stories are highly dependent on whether I can channel the characters or not. Sometimes they refuse to speak to me. Sometimes I can’t quiet my mind long enough to hear them and sometimes the story I want to tell just isn’t the story that wants to be told. Still, I am writing and posting as often as I can and hopefully soon I’ll close the gap between my absences. 

The content is free as always, but a girl’s gotta eat. And feed her cat. The quills need ink. The writer needs lots and lots of coffee. And to pay the folk over at Zuku their money. So you’ll notice a support section on the website where you can support us through Paypal or Mpesa Buy Goods Till No 5476019. You can’t put a price on support so we’re accepting any amount you can spare. (BTW Paypal is integrated with Mpesa now for all you Luddites). Your support will of course go a long way towards keeping us going and will be highly appreciated.

P.S Njambi and Kagwe’s World and Taste of Mel are still available on Amazon.com.

You’re Still You continues next week.

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About author

Wanjiru Ndung'u

Wanjiru Ndung'u writes fiction. She is an irretrievable night owl. Loves tea and cats. Devours stories and knits cozy scarves

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