Games to Break the Silence
We set off downhill, trudging deep gullies and sidestepping cow dung every few meters. Vee is a step ahead of me. I take a long stride and close the gap between us, gently pulling her right hand and letting our fingers clasp. Her hands are soft and small. I feel the tips of her fingers on my knuckles. We are silent.
This silence has been with us since the first time she agreed to go out with me. I remember that short trip to the Homa Bay pier. We spent most of the day in awe of the expansive lake before us. A few blackbirds and swallows flew up in the sky. A lone silhouette of a fishing boat appeared in the horizon, tiny like the toy paper boats I made as a young boy. I remember the orange blouse Vee wore because of how it blended with the water as the sun dyed it red, with night slowly encroaching on us. Most of that outing was spent listening to the bubbles of water, watching the hyacinth form a large green carpet before slithering away, as if being pulled by an invisible hand. We were quiet; the quietness that comes with the realization that words are not enough to express the feelings inside of you, like the quietness you assume when you step into a cathedral.
Yet this silence suits us. I don’t know what I’d do if she told me about the things she sees and hears at work, counseling women and children who have been abused. Sometimes I think it is the weight she carries in her heart that makes her this way. I too have my secrets that are safe in silence. The number of zeroes that appear and disappear in tenders at the ministry accounts office, for which I am required to keep silent, the price I pay for having that job in the first place, have since numbed a side of my brain.
I am taking Vee to the lakeside again. We are in Kanaam – a place whose name in my first language fuses the word ‘lake’ in it. I propose a game to break the silence. It is a game she made me like: Rock, Paper, Scissors. Her scissors keep cutting my paper, her rock hits my scissors. She enjoys it, enjoys how helpless I am in this game, as if there is a secret to it that I have never learned. Her face beams, eyes twinkling and smiling wide. She gives me a searching look. My mind is not in this game. Emotions are swamping me because I don’t know how I will break this news to her. The enormity of what I am going to tell her gnaws at my heart and pricks my mind. I am walking alongside her knowing that this day will forever remain etched in her memories.
It is the memories of my stepgrandfather, Ben, that have brought me to this place. When I asked Vee to come with me to see his final resting place, it was the opportunity to go down to the lakeside that persuaded her.
Grandpa Ben had died aware that one day I would complete the journey he began but did not finish. He told me once, when I went to visit him, that I’d be the grandson who fulfilled the aspirations of our extended family.
I had cycled about twenty kilometers to reach his homestead at noon and had found him sitting under a tangerine tree just in front of his second wife’s house. I pedaled uphill, puffing, and braked just at his feet before throwing my leg over the bicycle carrier. I still hear his laughter and remember the firm handshake as my sweaty palms held on onto his old, dry and calloused ones.
“Jakong’ang’a you are here!” he said, calling me with a name referring to my place of birth.
“I am here, grandpa.” I said, grinning from ear to ear.
“Welcome. Welcome and feel at home,” he said, switching to perfect English.
He led me into the house and offered a long prayer invoking the spirits and declaring blessings and prosperity on me while binding all the ancestral curses that may slow my steps.
Of all my three grandfathers, Ben was by far the most successful. Having made much money, Ben left the land he inherited from my great grandfather, settled in Kanaam and built his homestead perched on a hill overlooking Lake Victoria.
Every time I think of Grandpa Ben, it is the memory of that evening that recurs. The sky was starry and although it wasn’t as bright as a moonlit night would be, you could still make out homes, people and figures of trees and vegetation within a short distance. We watched lights flicker on the lake downhill as we talked about his cows, the harvest that year and his son, who would soon sit his final high school exams.
“What do you want to do after college?” he asked.
“Err … I am thinking I should find a job and see how to help Ma and Ba out with my siblings,” I said.
“That’s okay, but you should challenge yourself more. Compete against yourself. You need a masters degree,” he said.
He was silent for a while. I tried to look at his face to find a reason for this. His eyes were far off, he looked at me but he seemed unable to register my presence. When he began to speak, I could hear the regret in his voice as he narrated how he had missed out narrowly on a chance to study in America during the Tom Mboya- John F. Kennedy Kenyan student airlifts of the 1960s.
“You will complete my journey,” he said.
But while my memory of Grandpa Ben was marked by this great prophecy, my father’s memory of him was sour. To my father, he was the father who denied him a job when he could have used his influence at the port of Mombasa to secure a chance in any department. He was the father, who looked at him through the peephole in the door to his expansive mansion but was not welcoming enough to let him spend two days in it. My own grandmother remembered a strict man who wouldn’t drink water from certain glasses and chose which kinds of china to have his meals on. Sometimes I think the way we remember things is not how they actually were. Isn’t it strange how the same person can bring forth different memories when they have gone away from us? Yet when they are gone, it is only those memories that we hold, that we keep playing in our minds to remind us of them, until with time, we can only feel their presence in little things that strike us from time to time.
I give up on Rock, Paper, Scissors and propose another game. Vee gets behind me. She puts her hands on my shoulders and rests her head on my back. I am going to be her guide as we cover the short distance remaining. We sing a song in which she asks if we are there yet and my response is not yet.
“Tundo Tundo?” she asks.
“Podi,” I reply.
It’s about five in the evening when we get to the beach. There are several kiosks on the banks of the lake. A shop here, a fruit stall there, a rack with fish drying in the sun. Several boats line up the shore. Young men with nothing on except a pair of short- trousers; muscular men with hairy chests and biceps that gleam in the evening sun. Women are manning stalls, scaling, buying, selling and frying fish. Lush vegetation grows on the edge of the water. There are fish everywhere. Fish dripping with water. Drying fish. Dry fish. Fish deep-frying in an open-air hearth.
Vee is beside me as we make way towards the boats. She does not like the ubiquitous smell of fish. She lifts both lips up to cover her nose, her cheeks sink in, the bridge of her nose wrinkles and the skin between her brows forms little dimples. I poke her. I tease her that it’s fish we will have for supper this evening so there is no need for the drama. A hawk descends at a terrific speed, lands close to our feet, picks a small fish on the sand and soars high into the sky. Vee is holding onto my waist; I feel her grasp like a belt tightening around me.
When he sees me approaching, Obi beckons me as he picks a t-shirt to put on. I had arranged with him to use his canoe. We pass by a boat just out of the waters. Here is a huge catch. Two women are haggling the price of fish while selecting the best ones. On the floor of the boat, some fish are battling death, writhing and jumping, eyes popping. They have to die to give a lifeline to the fisherman.
Just before we reach Obi’s canoe Vee points at her foot. There are particles of sand lodged between her toes making the walk unbearable. I squat to remove them. As I lift her foot up, I look up at her, hold her gaze and tickle her sole. She throws her leg in the air; the sandal flies high and lands near the women buying fish.
“Go get it,” she says.
“You go get it,” I say.
“It’s your fault.”
“No, I didn’t throw your sandal away.”
“You tickled me.”
I know Vee will not give up and go for her sandal. I walk to the boat and take the sandal. I don’t walk back to where she is standing, waiting for me to return her sandal. She knows I too won’t do as she wants. She gives me a sneer and hobbles towards me, her leg lifted behind her.
It hits me how this simple act sums up our relationship. Vee does something and lets me take the blame, then she comes around to me and we forget it ever happened. We’re back and smiling and laughing and embracing and loving as if nothing ever happened.
“Hey Jowi, long time, Omera, how has life been?” Obi asks when I get to him.
“I’m alright, man. Had a good catch?” I say.
“Not enough, we’re not complaining though, the lake gives when it does, but sometimes you have to make do with the little you get.” He gives Vee a long look, winks in approval. “Ah Jowi, you didn’t tell me you have a woman.”
“We just talked today morning; I wanted you to see her and give me a score, you know.”
Obi laughs. I introduce him to Vee, and he holds her hands as she lifts her leg to enter the canoe. It slides a little and Vee holds the frame to steady herself. I enter the canoe and sit on the center thwart, where there's a small seat. I help Vee onto it. We sit side by side, each holding a paddle. They are heavy and I’m not sure she will be able to paddle with me.
“Take her slowly,” Obi says as he walks away from us. I’m not sure whether her is the boat or Vee.
We leave the shore slowly, gliding like a duck on the water. Light strikes us from above and the only sounds we hear are those of the paddles parting the water. Behind us, the water swirls, creating a pattern that repeats itself, and opens wider as we leave it behind. There are layers and layers of silver and cotton-white clouds. When I was younger, I would always try to match the shapes of the clouds with different things and animals. It occurs to me how tiny we are, surrounded by these features: the sky, the water, the mountain ranges in the horizon and the abundant life under our canoe.
I reach for my back pocket and pluck out a piece of paper tucked behind my wallet. Without looking, I raise it up to Vee.
“It’s upside down,” she says.
I flip it and turn my face towards hers, my brows raised.
“Memory. That’s a tough one,” she says.
Our games have always been designed to make us talk. I am always obsessed with ideas while Vee is just content to let things be. In fact, she once said to me: Why do you always fuss about the meaning of things? One day, your mind will explode and I don’t want to be there to collect the fragments.
Since we began this game one chilly afternoon, seated in her apartment watching a boring movie as I nursed the latest loss by my English Premier League team, we have talked about happiness (hers), love (hers), family (mine), and solitude (mine). It was her idea to take my mind off the one sad moment but it has become the best thing she ever invented.
“That’s a tough one Jowi,” Vee says. “I don’t know what you want with it.”
“Tell me about your awful and beautiful memories in the last three years,” I say.
“I noticed the rhyme,” she giggles. “Which one should I begin with?”
“Ah … so there’s this time my grandfather died. We didn’t have such a strong relationship but seeing my grandma cry just filled me with so much emotion. I felt so much for her, yet there was nothing I could do about it. I wished we could trade places.”
She keeps her face away from me, her eyes distant, like she has been taken back in time and the events are replaying themselves. Waves beat the side of our boat, rocking it lightly. I take her paddle and let her rest on my shoulder. Her perfume hits me with its floral scent. Winds fluff her flowing braids. She removes a stray one from her face. She sniffs. I am quiet.
“Another memory?” her voice is crisp. There’s nothing in it to betray the melancholy that the memory of that sad day just brought back.
“Mmm… remember my bro Darwin?”
“When Darwin was flying to Sidney I was the only one around to escort him to the airport. Once he’d been through with customs and gone to the waiting lounge, I realized he was leaving and it would be some time till I could see him again. I shed tears all the way back home. The taxi driver was so taken aback he asked if Darwin was my husband.”
We both laugh at that last bit.
I notice that Vee’s awful memories have always been about people leaving her. Her grandpa left for good, but Darwin would soon return. This realization is hitting me hard because I too am leaving soon. There are things Vee has had to leave as well, like the man she left for me, and the job at the private hospital that she said treated spoiled women and kids. The thing about leaving is that you cannot leave yourself behind. And when you leave, you are never sure of coming back. And even when you do come back, you understand that while your memories froze time at the moment you left, you are never going to start from where everything stopped.
“When’s Darwin coming back?”
“Sometime this year.”
“Great. Now let’s go to the beautiful memories.”
Vee’s face lights up. She takes her paddle and playfully tries to scoop the water. The water dripping from the puddle reflects light forming shiny circles on her black top. The tin roofs of the kiosks glittering at the shore are the only things that remind us how far into the lake we are. A motorboat filled with passengers roars past us, smoke swirling in its path.
Vee leaves my side and goes to lay down at the bow. There are a bunch of clothes Obi might have left. She’s now looking up at me. I stare at her toes, freckled with sand particles. The blue jeans hug her legs tightly and her hips are shapely. I let my eyes rest on her ample bust. I raise my eyes to meet hers. Her face is beautiful in this light; the sun adds color to her chocolate skin. The smile on her face sends ripples through my heart.
Vee’s beautiful memories begin with our first trip to the pier. By the time she’s done telling me about the chocolate we had at the fifth summit of the seven Ngong Hills, we are about two hundred meters to the shore.
“You know why I brought you here?” I ask.
“Yes, to pay last respects to your grandpa ...”
“Yes, but not exactly. There’s something else.”
I look at Vee’s face transform, the crease of her smile straightness out, the sparkle in her eyes dissolves. She raises her head and sits up as a seriousness that I see whenever she’s thinking so hard engulfs her. I don’t know what in my voice has made this happen. Sometimes when you know someone so well, even silence is enough communication.
I try to open my mouth to speak but I can’t find the words even though I have rehearsed this scenario so many times in my head; chose and discarded words to use, thought about how to show how profound this is for me.
“I er … never mind. Did you enjoy this trip?”
“Yes…?” Her reply is more of a question than a confirmation. An encouragement to get on with the other reason. I take my eyes off her, looking away in the horizon to see birds flying away. I paddle to disguise my trembling hands. I feel my throat parched, and try to clear it, and swallow acidic saliva burning my throat.
“I wanted you to have this experience. This is the memory I want you to keep when I’m gone.”
I see the look of terror on her face. She hurries to sit next to me again, holds me tightly and searches my eyes for answers. Her right leg is trembling, her foot keeps tapping the bottom boards.
“Are you dying?”
I giggle. She’s irritated. I gently rub her shoulders.
“No, I was accepted to School of Oriental and African Studies. I go in a few months.”
Vee is quiet; I cannot read the expression on her face, her mouth forms something that is neither a smile nor a frown. She heaves heavily, the way she always does when she feels helpless or exhausted. I know I have her support in this because she helped me through the journey from the day I came home with the prospectus. The only question she ever asked was why I’d have to leave the continent to go to Europe to read African Studies. But now there’s pain in her eyes, her lower lip is twitching and I’m feeling guilty for planning to leave her.
“I have collected so many memories in my chest, the chest of my mind,” she says. “I think everybody has a lot of memories of his or her own, but it is a special gift to find the right drawer. I can do that, if I need something, I can point to the right drawer.” She turns her head slightly to hold my gaze. We both smile, knowing where that came from.
Obi is waiting for us at the shore when we get off the canoe. We chat a little, catching up on lost time. He pulls me aside to make sure Vee is out of earshot.
“Jowi, Omera, what is keeping you? You need to do something. Break her leg,” he says with a wink as he steals a glance at Vee.
“Obi, there’s no hurry, bwana.”
“There’s more reason why you should. Look at me, we are age-mates and now two young ones, a third on the way,” he says, a contented smile playing on his face.
“Ah Obi, why do you sound like my mother now?”
We laugh. I tell Obi I will consider his advice, but I’d rather be there for my baby from the time it’s conceived.
“Don’t let books spoil your head, Omera. For us men, there’s nothing you can do after planting, until you see the shoot,” he says as we part ways.
Darkness is setting in when I take Vee’s hand to begin the journey uphill. “Riddles, let’s do riddles now,” I tell Vee. It is one game in which I have a clear advantage.
Otieno Owino is an editor with a leading Kenyan publisher. He loves stories and is always imagining new ways to tell them.