“Dark Brown Spots” By Natalie Mathenge
A story about a family whose bonds are tested by loss and hurt through the generations. The opportunity to heal is promised in a new life.
My back is sore. Baby has not kicked since yesterday. I saw spots this morning. Dark brown dots on my underwear.
Mom is excited about Baby. An addition to the family. I was the only baby she was able to coax life into. Cucu says I carried the life of all those lost little ones in me. Guka believed that the Lord finally saw it fit to spare Mom the heartache of waiting.
Guka, I wish he was here. I wonder what life will be like without him. My grandfather died three days ago. A tall and muscular man full of vitality. Guka never drunk anything stronger than sour ushuru. He strode with grace. Ahhh Guka! He was never still. Always up and about. Doing something. Seeing someone. Fixing something. Going somewhere. He moved his bulk frame even as age and disease threatened to paralyse him to inertia.
When his limbs lost their strength and his body shook with constant tremors, his brothers, my uncles, took turns caring for him. When the shakes came, they shook him until his mind and body shrivelled. He dried up. The caring came to a slow halt. His brothers walked out of the door and then Cucu, my grandmother and a retired nurse cared for him.
One year of illness became two, then five, then ten. The lines on the faces of the caregivers grew longer and the smell of alcohol on my uncles grew stronger. On the eleventh year, this year, Guka died peacefully, a smile on his face.
Smiles. I catch Mom’s eye. She attempts a smile. But it is not a smile. It is some sort of grimace. I stretch my sore back and pinch a handful of flesh to take away the numbness. Careful, don’t move too much you may end up with stained underwear. I am afraid to stir the air around us but my discomfort forces me to shift. My belly remains quiet, contemplating.
I cried this morning. Mom held me and calmed me as I furiously scrubbed, wrung and tried to rinse away the spots. Each time the heaves began she put aside the tension of the last few months and comforted me.
Mom. Always the stoic one. Straight backed. Responsible all of the time. Everyone tells me she was never this way. She had been like her father. Always living. Her ready laugh was the best part of her. She never giggled like Cucu. She had a carefree laughter. It came out easily and loudly. She still does — sometimes.
When she laughs, she bends forward and claps her hands as if applauding the stirring of life within her. Years back, my uncles said, she was different. She had lived, loved and laughed, and then she began to lose these parts of her. She cried for so long. Tears dimmed the light to her soul. When I was born, her light was all but gone.
Her straight back balked when I broke the news. I was pregnant and there was to be no marriage. Her displeasure was obvious. The Baby was welcome, but the absence of a father and a husband hung like heavy dark clouds on the horizon. It gnawed away the joy Mom would have harvested. She coped through silence.
This morning Mom had held me as I cried over the dark brown spots. She wiped my tears, held my hand and rubbed my tummy. She talked to Baby but Baby did not move. Mom kept talking, rubbing my tummy, wiping away my tears, lakini wapi Baby did not move. Baby stayed still. Silent. Like Uncle Gichohi.
I move tenderly, afraid to make everything worse. A few relatives, friends, and long-lost acquaintances, move in and out of the tent. There are questions on lips. How did he die? Did he die as he lived? Not Guka but my Uncle Gichohi.
Uncle Gichohi died two days ago. He could have been dead for longer. We don’t know. He was found on the floor of his room. His body cold like the grey cement slab. His rotting vessel warmed and softened the air, overpowering its freshness with horrors human minds instinctively fear. He did not die with a smile on his face like his father, Guka. His only companion was the obligatory bottle of beer tightly gripped in his left hand.
His hands were nothing like Guka’s. Flabby and off colour. Guka’s were firm even when life had leaked out of his body. His hands bore no ring. Maybe if they did, he would not have been found, alone, two days later.
There was once a prospective Mrs Gichohi. A warm, lively woman, with an embrace that excited your insides. She was Uncle Gichohi’s medicine. Her presence woke him from constant moodiness and melancholy. It lasted for a while. There was talk of filling the home with the reincarnation of our ancestors who were feared extinct due to the inaction of his loins. Cucu had giggled and praised the Lord while this lasted, but as is the way of some women when faced with enduring mistresses, Mrs Gichohi’s smiles and visits decreased. Mom dragged both of them to a reconciliatory meeting at our house. I had busied myself making tea, serving them and eavesdropping. Uncle Gichohi had come, smelling of an all too familiar whiff.
Prospective Mrs Gichohi could not take it anymore. She had no desire to compete with liquids that had turned a perfectly virile man sterile. Uncle Gichohi returned to the only thing that loved him unconditionally — alcohol — and renewed his “until death do us part” vows.
Guka did not die alone. My grandmother was asleep in a chair next to him when he bid us goodbye. She called Mom, when she woke, and in true Cucu fashion, giggled softly, sadly and told Mom that Guka had left us. Mom came immediately to give Cucu a helping hand. In the busyness of tending to Guka’s arrangements and condoling with mourners, a strange smell visited them, settling in the fringes of the day’s routines. Cucu had investigated. It was Uncle Gichohi’s corpse.
This time there could be no discrete whispers and the gentle pulling of blankets over a seemingly sleeping face. The police visited and interrogated everyone including the farmhand, who when screams rent the air, came running with a ruhiu and some mahutis in hand. The sight that met him, pushed him back violently. The Police found the farmhand right where he had fallen. Distraught. Pleading with God, ‘Tusamehe, tuhurumie…’ Were it not for Cucu he would have found himself on the wrong end of a metal bracelet. She had every right to allow it — he had been Uncle Gichohi’s companion the one who hid the drunken episodes. The one who supported his lies. She could have allowed it, but Cucu’s heart forgave everyone, everything.
Once the interrogations were completed, Uncle Gichohi’s body was carried away on bedsheets hastily pulled from his bed. His bloated body was turned on its back and lifted gently. His neck had moved his head like a bobbing-head toy, spilling his liquefied insides out through his nose and mouth. The Police visit fuelled rumour mills. Everybody had something to say about the family. There was talk of Maitu’s curse. Maitu, my great grandmother, accepted the Christian faith as a teenager. Her parents saw this as a betrayal. She was adamant. They refused to budge. She left to live with the missionaries. Her parents grudgingly allowed it and when she returned, she decided that her faith needed the company of education and a job at the local dispensary. She frequently spoke of a spirit that whispered to her to abandon the ways of her people, that she had to be as white as the barafu at the peak of the mountain in the distance. Nobody understood any of this. All the talk about possession by an alien spirit that was not an ancestor led her father to consult a Mundu Mugo. The more her father consulted him, the more she spoke about the strange spirit that had claimed owned her life and granted her joy.
When Maitu found love in the hands of a young Clinical Officer, who was a close relation, her father’s pain became unbearable. He refused to leave thingira, his hut, for days. Only her mother could be seen dashing in and out tending to him lest he lose his mind. He asked her daughter to reconsider and begged her to stop. She wouldn’t even listen to her mother. Eventually her mother hardened her heart, forcing out every ounce of love and said, ‘May your children only know unhappiness. May my blood darken the lives of your children’s children. May the ancestors never look favourably upon you!’
Maitu’s heart was broken but she would not be dissuaded. She was banished from the homestead, and when she left, she built a new life around her husband and three children. The first two came without a fight but her third, little Waguthi, came fighting. She refused to come into the world and had had to be pulled out. Maitu bled for days, moving in and out of delirium. She called for the spirit and her mother until she fell into a deep sleep. When she woke up, she knew little Waguthi, would die unless she was placed in the arms of the woman she had been named after. The spirit had shown her, told her what was to come.
As soon as Waguthi began to walk, Maitu took her to see her mother. A mother whose eyes could not bear the sight of her own child, her heart remained hardened until she laid her eyes upon her grandchild. Curious, she had asked what the baby’s name was. Waguthi, she had been told. She smiled and held out her arms for the baby. Only when she held her and heard the delightful baby giggle, did the folds on her forehead smoothen. She held the child to her bosom and placed her face on hers whispering, ‘Because you carry my name, your mother will know no pain as long as I am alive’.
Maitu’s womb closed after Waguthi’s birth. The little girl spent many days in the company of the older woman until the day she died, but Maitu was never allowed back in the homestead.
One day I asked Cucu through Guka’s illness if this was the famous curse. She giggled and said, ‘… those were the words of a hurt and angry woman, they meant nothing’. She giggled some more and Guka smiled.
My curious eyes watch Cucu seated amongst the visitors, graciously giving away hugs. Setting her pain aside to tell the stories of their lives and deaths over and over, like an overplayed ballad. Two deaths in three days. Maybe three. No movement. Baby is still silent.
Mom is giving an update. ‘We’re expecting the autopsy report in a few days. Before then, we’ll have daily meetings at 5p.m. The funeral arrangements will be discussed after the report is out…’
She is interrupted by a not so distant prrrr prrrr of a motorcycle. The nduthi comes to a stop by the side of the house, a little to the front of the tent. We’re all attentive, watching. It is Uncle Mureu. He is trying to get off the nduthi. He only manages to get one leg off the motorbike while trying to hold it steady. Only drunks can manage such awkwardness. A loud aaaahh! and he’s laid out in the dust flailing about like a fish out of water. He can barely get up and every time he tries to, he forgets he needs to have both feet on the ground.
Cucu rushes to help. I see the shame on her face. Mom quietly studies her hands, trying not to look up for fear of the judging and pitiful looks. The stillness of my belly spreads to the tent.
Cucu is almost on her knees, trying to help Uncle Mureu up, speaking to him in low tones. Uncle Mureu is yelling, shoving and kicking. He does what Baby can’t or refuses to do. The farmhand and a few men rush to Cucu’s aid. They carry Uncle Mureu to the house. That curse… maybe it has caught up with us after all.
Sadness overshadows men. Uncle Mureu was my favourite of the two brothers. He was the one who stepped in when my father grew weary of the little corpses my mother continually delivered. He was the one who convinced his sister that she didn’t need a man who broke at the first hint of trouble. That this time the Baby, me, would come. Uncle Mureu held me when I came into the world early, full of wrinkles, sounding more like a kitten than a baby. He always called me Princess. He was the closest thing I had to a father besides Guka.
Someone takes it upon themselves to raise our spirits with a few off-key hymns, but they can’t stir life into what I carry inside me. My mind wonders off. How can a mother curse her own child? I know Cucu says it is all nonsense but as she sobs softly, I wonder if she regrets not having taken the curse seriously. Could it possibly have been reversed?
The Priest from the Parish has arrived. We all gather in his presence. Grief is pushed to quiet spots in our hearts. Voices drop to a hush. Piety takes over faces as backs are straightened.
‘Brothers and sisters…’ Waaaaahhhhh! A random wail.
I roll my eyes. Mom is frowning.
I’m frowning too, willing for any sign of life in my belly. My discomfort is getting worse or maybe I am just afraid. Hope. Anything!
‘… For if we have been united with Him in a death like His, we will certainly also be united with Him in a resurrection like His…’ a pause and furrowing of the brow… he is just about to over explain the passage when the silence is broken by another wail. Religion may be sobering but it cannot hold anyone’s attention when some potentially juicy goings-on are taking place.
Uncle Mureu has found his feet. Some attempt has been made at cleaning him but it hasn’t helped his looks. It is hard to hide the face of one who chooses suffering over life. He is sobbing, softly and then loudly with a few incoherent words here and there. He staggers into the tent and plops onto a seat, sobbing like only a drunkard can. A drunkard’s sober regrets.
He began drinking in his teens. Nothing had driven him to it except the overindulgence parents gift their favoured children. He had a way of warming his way into Cucu’s heart. He made promises he never kept and still he’d find a cosy corner in your heart to burrow.
He was lazy. He dropped out of university not because his intellect was wanting but because, ‘University was never for me’. ‘The lecturers stifled me’. ‘The reading bored me’… I heard him say this many times.
Guka had paid for another university, one that Uncle Mureu felt was to his liking, but then he came back home for a long break that never ended. When Guka asked him what had happened with school, he claimed, ‘I know more than those fools, what can they teach me?’
That marked the end of his learning. Cucu helped him get a job at the local clinic. He can run errands while he decides what he wants to do, she had reasoned. He lasted six months before his supervisor politely told Cucu that he wanted an employee who actually came to work and followed instructions. They let him go.
Mom’s heartstrings were pulled when he begged for a motorcycle — to keep himself busy, for running errands.
“I’ll grow this into an empire of motorcycle couriers,” he said. It grew, indeed, into a nuisance that could be heard in the wee hours of the night purring from one hovel to another and all the way home. Still, I loved Uncle Mureu. I clung to the hope that he would be to Baby what he had been to me. He had promised, right at the beginning when Baby began to grow in me. He had promised. I should be angry at him but instead I’m numb. Numb to everything except the stillness of my belly. Instinctively, I rub my tummy for comfort. The curse takes over my mind. How can a mother curse her child?
More sobbing, sniffing, a drunk man’s tears. My own, catalysed by the stillness in my belly run down my face, warming and tickling the bulbs of my cheeks as they go. I taste their saltiness on my lips before they fall on my dress, soaking it, darkening it.
Dark brown spots with no life in them.
Cucu is lost in thought. One woman is holding her hand as another slowly rubs her back. She turns around, looks at my belly and clutches the front of her blouse. She faces forward and bows her head. Her lips move, silently, fast. Tears hurriedly squeeze past her eye lashes.
Uncle Mureu is at it again. Now he is wailing something about his father. Mom walks over to him and whispers, sternly, into his ear. He nods and hiccups.
The sermon is at a close. Uncle Mureu’s sobbing has stopped. The priest calls for the family to step to the front for a blessing. I am glad to be on my feet even if for a little while. I move to where Uncle Mureu is and offer him my hand. He hesitates. His bloodshot eyes look up into mine. ‘Princess…’ he whispers, ‘…Waguthi’. His gaze drops to my tummy. He places his hand on it gently and smiles. A resounding kick. There is life.