An Ex-Mas Feast
"Jigana, so did you see those Maisha's ma -men?" she asked.
"There were three white men, plus driver. Tall, old men in knickers and tennis shoes. I shook hands with them. Beautifulbeautiful motorcar. . . . I even pinched that monkey."
"Motorcar? They had a motorcar? Imachine a motorcar to pick up my daughter." She stretched forward and held my arms, smiling. "You mean my daughter is big like that?"
Otieno woke up with a start. He stood groggily on the cushions, then he climbed over Mama's legs, levered himself over me with his hand on my head, and landed in the flood outside the shack in a crouch. He began to lower thin spools of shit into the water, whiffs of heat unwrapping into the night, the cheeks of his buttocks rouged by the cold.
When Otieno returned to the shack, he sat on Mama's legs and brought out her breast and sucked noisily. With one hand, he grabbed a toy Maisha had bought for him, rattling its maracas on Mama's bony face. She was still looking ragged and underweight, even though she'd stayed in the hospital to have her diet monitored after Baby graduated from the incubator.
Mama took out our family Bible, which we had inherited from Baba's father, to begin our Ex-mas worship. The front cover had peeled off, leaving a dirty page full of our relatives' names, dead and living. She read them out. Baba's late father had insisted that all the names of our family be included, in recognition of the instability of street life. She began with her father, who had been killed by cattle rustlers, before she ran away to Nairobi and started living with Baba. She called out Baba's mother, who came to Nairobi when her village was razed because some politicians wanted to redraw tribal boundaries. One day she disappeared forever into the city with her walking stick. Mama invoked the names of our cousins Jackie and Solo, who settled in another village and wrote to us through our church, asking our parents to send them school fees. I looked forward to telling them about the lit parks and the beautiful cars of Nairobi as soon as my teachers taught me how to write letters. She called out her brother, Uncle Peter, who had shown me how to shower in the city fountains without being whipped by the officials. He was shot by the police in a case of mistaken identity; the mortuary gave his corpse to a medical school because we could not pay the bill. She called Baba's second cousin Mercy, the only secondary school graduate among our folks. She had not written to us since she fell in love with a Honolulu tourist and eloped with him. Mama called Baba's sister, Auntie Mama, who, until she died two years ago of a heart attack, had told us stories and taught us songs about our ancestral lands every eve ning, in a sweet, nostalgic voice.
The sky rumbled.
" Bwana, I hope Naema put clothes on Baby before she left," Mama said to me, the middle of her sentence wobbling because Otieno had bitten her.
"She put Baby in waterproof paper bags. Then sweater."
Otieno, having satisfied himself, woke up Atieno, who took over the other breast, for they had divided things up evenly between them. Atieno sucked until she slept again, and Mama placed her gently near Otieno and began to shake Baba until he opened one eye. His weak voice vibrated because his face was jammed into the wall: "Food."
"No food, tarling," Mama told him. "We must to finish to call the names of our people."
"You'll be calling my name if I don't eat."
"Here is food—New Suntan shoe kabire." She reached out and collected the plastic bottle from me. "It can kill your stomach till next week."
"All the children are here?"
"Baby and Naema still out. Last shift... and Maisha."
"Ah, there is hope. Maisha will bring Ex-mas feast for us."
"Ex-mas is school fees, remember?"
Mama groped inside the carton again. She unearthed a dirty candle, pocked by grains of sand. She lit the candle and cemented it to the trunk with its wax. Taking the Bible, she began to read a psalm in Kiswahili, thanking God for the gift of Baby and the twins after two miscarriages. She praised God for blessing Maisha with white clients at Ex-mas. Then she prayed for Fuunny Eyes, the name we had given to the young Japanese volunteer who unfailingly dropped shillings in our begging plate. She wore Masai tire sandals and ekarawa necklaces that held her neck like a noose, and never replied to our greetings or let her eyes meet ours. Mama prayed for our former landlord in the Kibera slums, who evicted us but hadn't seized anything when we could not pay the rent. Now she asked God to bless Simba with many puppies. "Christ, you Ex-mas son, give Jigana a big, intelligent head in school!" she concluded.
"Have mercy on us," I said.
"Holy Mary, Mama Ex-mas..."
"Pray for us."
It was drizzling again when Naema returned with Baby. He was asleep. Naema's jeans, mutumba loafers, and braided hair dribbled water, her big eyes red from crying. Usually she sauntered in singing a Brenda Fassie song, but to night she plodded in deflated.
She handed the money over to Mama, who quickly banked it in her purse. She also gave Mama a packet of pasteurized milk. It was half full, and Naema explained that she'd had to buy it to keep Baby from crying. Mama nodded. The milk pack was soggy and looked as if it would disintegrate. Mama took it carefully in her hands, like one receiving a diploma. When Naema brought out a half-eaten turkey drumstick, Mama grabbed her ears, thinking that she had bought it with the money she'd earned begging. Naema quickly explained that her new boyfriend had given it to her. This boy was a big shot in the street gang that controlled our area, a dreaded figure. Maisha and I detested him, but he loved Naema like his own tongue.
Now Naema wriggled and fitted her lithe frame into the tangle on the floor and began to weep silently. Mama pulled the blanket from the others and covered the girl's feet, which had become wrinkled in the rain.
"Maisha is moving out tomorrow," Naema said. "Full time."
Mama's face froze. No matter how rootless and cheap street life might be, you could still be broken by departures. I went outside and lay on the row of empty paint containers we had lined up along the shop's wall, hiding my face in the crook of my arm.
Guilt began to build in my gut. Maybe if I had joined a street gang, Maisha would not have wanted to leave. I wouldn't have needed money for school fees, and perhaps there would have been peace between Maisha and my parents. But my anger was directed at the musungu men, for they were the visible faces of my sister's temptation. I wished I were as powerful as Naema's boyfriend or that I could recruit him. We could burn their Jaguar. We could tie them up and give them the beating of their lives and take away all their papers. We could strip those musungu naked, as I had seen Naema's friend do to someone who had hurt a member of his gang. Or we could at least kill and eat that monkey or just cut off his mboro so he could never f*** anybody's sister again. I removed my knife from my pocket and examined the blade carefully. The fact that it was very blunt and had dents did not worry me. I knew that if I stabbed with all my energy, I would draw blood.
After a while, my plans began to unravel. I realized that I would never be able to enlist Naema's boyfriend. Naema herself would block the plan. In fact, until that night she had been taunting Maisha to move out, saying that if she were as old as Maisha she would have left home long ago. Besides, even if I fled to the Kibera slums, as soon as we touched the tourists, the police would come and arrest my parents and dismantle our shack. They would take away Maisha's trunk and steal her treasures.
Baba started awake, as if a loud noise had hit him.
"Is that Maisha?" he asked, closing his eyes again.
"No, Maisha is working," Mama said. "My Maisha commands musungu and motorcars!" she said, her good mood returning.
"What? What musungu, tarling?" Baba asked, sitting up immediately, rubbing sleep and hunger from his eyes with the base of his palms.