An Ex-Mas Feast
"White tourists," Mama said.
"Uh? They must to pay ma -dollar or euros. Me am family head. You hear me, woman?"
"And no Honolulu business. What kind of motorcar were they driving?"
"Jaguar," I answered. "With driver. Baba, we should not allow Maisha to leave—"
"Nobody is leaving, nobody. And shut up your animal mouth! You have wounded my wife! Until I break your teeth tomorrow, no opinion from you. No nothing. Did you thank the ma-men for me?"
"No," I said.
" Aiiee! Jigana, where are your manners? Did you ask where they were going? Motorcar number?"
"So if they take her to Honolulu, what do I do? Maybe we should send you to a street gang. Boy, have you not learned to grab opportunities? Is this how you will waste school fees in January? Poor Maisha."
He squinted incredulously, and lines of doubt kinked up his massive forehead. He pursed his lips, and anger quickened his breath. But that night I stood my ground.
"I don't want school anymore, Baba," I said. "Coward, shut up. That one is a finished matter."
"What do you mean by no? You want to be a pocket thief like me,... my son? My first son? You can't be useless as the gals. Wallai!"
"Me, I don't want school."
"Your mind is too young to think. As we say, ‘The teeth that come first are not used in chewing.' As long as you live here, your Baba says school."
" La hasha."
"You telling me never? Jigana!" He looked at Mama. "He doesn't want school? Saint Jude Thaddaeus!"
" Bwana, this boy has grown strong-head," Mama said. "See how he is looking at our eyes. Insult!"
Baba stood up suddenly, his hands shaking. I didn't cover my cheeks with my hands to protect myself from his slap or spittle, as I usually did when he was angry. I was ready for him to kill me. My family was breaking up because of me. He stood there, trembling with anger, confused.
Mama patted his shoulders to calm him down. He brushed her aside and went out to cool off. I monitored him through a hole in the wall. Soon he was cursing himself aloud for drinking too much and sleeping through Ex-mas Day and missing the chance to meet the tourists. As his mind turned to Maisha's good fortune, he began to sing "A Jaguar is a Jaguar is a Jaguar" to the night, leaping from stone to stone, tracing the loose cobbles that studded the floodwater like the heads of stalking crocodiles in a river. In the sky, some of the tall city buildings were branded by lights left on by forgetful employees, and a few shopping centers wore the glitter of Ex-mas; flashing lights ascended and descended like angels on Jacob's dream ladder. The long city buses, Baba's hunting grounds, had stopped for the night. As the streets became emptier, cars drove faster through the floods, kicking up walls of water, which collapsed on our shack.
Back inside, Baba plucked his half-used miraa stick from the rafter and started chewing. He fixed his eyes on the trunk. A mysterious smile dribbled out of the corners of his mouth. Eventually, the long stick of miraa subsided into a formless sponge. His spitting was sharp and arced across the room and out the door. Suddenly, his face brightened. " Hakuna matata! " he said. Then he dipped into the carton and came up with a roll of wire and started lashing the wheels of the trunk to the props of our shack. For a moment, it seemed he might be able to stop Maisha from going away.
Mama tried to discourage him from tying down the trunk. " Bwanaaa ... stop it! She will leave if she finds you mangamangaring with her things."
"Woman, leave this business to me," he said, rebuking her. "I'm not going to sit here and let any Honolulus run away with our daughter. They must marry her properly."
"You should talk," Mama said. "Did you come to my father's house for my hand?"
"Nobody pays for trouble," Baba said. "You're trouble. If I just touch you, you get pregnant. If I even look at you — twins, just like that. Too, too ripe."
"Me am always the problem," Mama said, her voice rising.
"All me am saying is we must to treat the tourist well."
Atieno was shivering; her hand was poking out of the shack. Baba yanked it back in and stuck her head through the biggest hole in the middle of our blanket. That was our way of ensuring that the family member who most needed warmth maintained his place in the center of the blanket. Baba grabbed Otieno's legs and pushed them through two holes on the fringe. "Children of Jaguar," he whispered into their ears. "Ex-mas ya Jag-uar." He tried to tuck Atieno and Otieno properly into the blanket, turning them this way and that, without success. Then he became impatient and rolled them toward each other like a badly wrapped meat roll, their feet in each other's face, their knees folded and tucked into each other's body—a blanket womb.
Mama reminded him to wedge the door, but he refused. He wanted us to wait for Maisha. He winked at me as if I were the cosentry of our fortune. Mama handed Baby to me and lay down. I sat there sniffing kabire until I became drunk. My head swelled, and the roof relaxed and shook, then melted into the sky.
I was floating. My bones were inflammable. My thoughts went out like electric currents into the night, their countercurrents running into each other, and, in a flash of sparks, I was hanging on the door of the city bus, going to school. I hid my uniform in my bag so that I could ride free, like other street children. Numbers and letters of the alphabet jumped at me, scurrying across the page as if they had something to say. The flares came faster and faster, blackboards burned brighter and brighter. In the beams of sunlight leaking through the holes in the school roof, I saw the teacher writing around the cracks and patches on the blackboard like a skillful matatu driver threading his way through our pothole-ridden roads. Then I raced down our bald, lopsided field with an orange for a rugby ball, jumping the gullies and breaking tackles. I was already the oldest kid in my class.
Mama touched my shoulders and relieved me of the infant. She stripped Baby of the plastic rompers, cleaned him up, and put him in a nappy for the night. With a cushion wrested from Naema, who was sleeping, Mama padded the top of the carton into a cot. After placing Baby in it, she straightened the four corners of the carton and then folded up our mosquito net and hung it over them. It had been donated by an NGO, and Baba had not had a chance to pawn it yet. Then Mama wrapped her frame around the carton and slept.
Say You're One of Them is published by Little, Brown & Company.