Noel is a flight attendant who enjoys the art of story telling. Her last story, a folktale, was shortlisted for “Africa re-imagined folktales contest.” She lives in Nairobi where she spends most of her free time practicing Bikram Yoga.
by Noel Cheruto
I once saw my father cry. On the day time stood still.
My inauguration day. I stood proudly on a podium at Kasarani National Stadium, a Bible in my right hand. It was not yet noon but the heat was relentless. The crowd—millions of Kenyans, as far as my eyes could see—sat in silent expectation. Their tiny flags hung limp in the still, sticky air. On my left was my wife Amina, her big colorful head wrap sitting precariously atop her round face. She looked radiant. Like she had swallowed the sun, and now it glowed from within her.
Further left stood my father, The General. He was at attention, completely still but for the occasional blink. I took him all in. His shoes were highly polished. His khaki uniform freshly pressed. The gold ornaments adorning his uniform glistened in the morning sun. Then I saw his eyes under his red cap with the black top. One teardrop danced on his lower left lid. Then another on his right. He blinked rapidly in a vain attempt to stop the tears. Mistake. Suddenly he was crying quietly, tears running down his face, falling on the gold stars on his red collar. He could not stop them. He could not hide them. He was standing at attention.
I felt his pride wrap around me softly, like a woolen blanket on a cold night. My heart exploded in joy. I finally had everything I ever wanted.
Why was there turmoil within me? In this moment—the highlight of my life—why did I feel so strongly that my darkness was on the brink of snuffing out my flame?
How did I get here?
“Aaaah! You are back.”
I smiled and hugged my jacket tighter around my torso. I had spent five years in England, studying political science at the University of Leicester. Lost in the backdrop of bitter winters and rainy summers was the memory of Nairobi in July. Chilly.
“I am so happy to see you!”
I watched silently as Kimani, my father’s driver, stashed my bags one after the other into an old white Toyota Land cruiser. He drove me straight to my father’s house in Lavington where Mama met me at the front porch with dramatic hugs and kisses.
My mother snatched my bags and shepherded me into the living room, to the two giant leather arm chairs by the window. My father was seated in one, his face buried under a Nation newspaper. He peeked over the paper, swept his eyes along my body from head to toe, then grunted heavily and went back to his reading. Mama held me by my shoulders and forcefully sat me on the opposite chair.
“Sit,” she commanded. “Talk to your father.”
I smiled at the irony. All my life I had heard not more than a thousand words come from my father’s mouth. He mostly spoke in grunts and sighs. And eyes. When I was a boy I lived in perpetual fear of those eyes. You see, my father was a powerful man. He was a high ranking general in the Kenyan army. Diplomats and politicians alike sought his advice. He had lunch with the president at least once a week. He did not need to speak; his power spoke for him.
We sat there in easy silence. He, grunting and sighing behind the newspaper. I, sitting quietly by his side, enjoying the feeling in my heart. That feeling an only child—an only son—gets when he is finally home after five years away.
Mama came running down the staircase, screaming. Her hair disheveled, her clothes in disarray. She held my wooden treasure box against her hip, like a village woman would a dirty baby. I quickly realized what she had uncovered.
“Musa! What is the meaning of this?”
She set it on the wooden stool between the two giant chairs. I held my breath as The General opened the box slowly, cautiously. Mama had taken to whimpering softly from across the living room. She lay on the Persian rug, her face down, her hands strewn about awkwardly. The little dark patterns on the rug looked like ants marching toward her.
As usual, Mama had made it her business to unpack my luggage. While at it she had stumbled upon the treasure box. In it were pictures of my lover and me. Little pieces of memory I had brought home with me. In some, we were naked in bed. In others, kissing in the park. All this would have been acceptable were my lover a Kenyan girl from a good family. As life would have it, however, my lover was a beautiful Danish man with piercing blue eyes and a perfect set of teeth. I shrank into the armchair as The General looked through the photographs. He held each one delicately by its edges, studying it keenly, before setting it down and picking up the next.
Mama had long since collapsed and been carried away by the help.
The General studied the last picture then gathered them all in a neat stack. With a blank expression on his face he put them back in the box and silently went back to reading his paper.
We sat there for hours. The General, sighing and grunting behind his newspaper. I, watching the sun as it travelled excruciatingly slowly across the sky, until, finally, it fell from exhaustion. Right there, in the transition between light and dark, The General walked up to me. I flinched, expecting him to hit me. Instead he rubbed my head gently, as he used to when I was a little boy.
“Musa,” he started quietly, still rubbing my head. “You are now a grown man. You will run this country one day. I saw it in my dreams before you were born. You have to learn to hide your darkness, lest it swallow your light.”
With that, he moved slowly towards the dining table, a signal that it was time for dinner.
Two weeks later my aunt Norah, The General’s sister, came to visit. With her was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. Her skin was darker than the honey Kimani brought from the plains of Kitui. There was something magical about that skin.
“This is Amina,” introduced Aunt Norah, giggling like a school girl. She was my least favorite aunt, an opportunist who masqueraded as a problem solver. She shoved Amina unceremoniously toward me.
Mama joined in on the obviously pre-planned skit.
“Musa, show her around. I need to talk privately to your aunty.” She used her lips to point us in the direction of my bedroom.
I turned to the General in slight desperation. He was watching me carefully from his big armchair by the window. He did not utter a single word, but I understood him immediately. I was to marry Amina.
I went upstairs toward my bedroom with Amina behind me, walking slowly. She had a very light step. It felt like she floated, not walked. I sat on my bed and glowered at her as she carefully perched herself on a stool by the door. Her face was perfectly round. Her nose, impossibly small. She was breath-taking.
She did not say a word. She looked shyly at the floor trying in vain to pull her short skirt toward her knee.
I glowered at her some more, hoping to scare her away.
“I am gay. Homosexual,” I spat out.
And just like that her demeanor changed. She stopped pulling at her skirt and moved to the large gray sofa in the corner, sitting with her legs folded under her like a yogi. She saw my packet of cigarettes, Embassy lights, reached for one and without asking lit it. Two thin streams of silver smoke drifted from her nose toward the open window.
My interest was piqued. She laughed gently as she told me her story. Her Muslim father had been hopelessly trying to marry her off because she brought a lot of shame to her family. In his opinion, she drank too much and wore tiny skirts, a symbol of rebellion that frustrated him to no end. His solution was to marry her off as she would then stop being his problem. We both laughed at our hopelessness and right then a strong friendship began.
A few days later, she called me.
“I will marry you.”
“I never want to work again. Ever.”
“You will provide everything I need, no matter how outrageous.”
“You will keep your indiscretions secret. I will do the same.”
“In public, in front of my family and friends, you are to hold me and kiss me. We will act like a perfect couple.”
We married a year later in a beautiful ceremony by the sea. It has been a perfect partnership, better even than most marriages around us. She runs the home effortlessly and has a good spirit about her. She still makes me laugh, twenty-four years later. And my family loves her. Better yet, I gave her my sperm and she went about the business of getting herself pregnant. Twice. Two amazing daughters with perfectly round faces and impossibly small noses.
Now she was sitting on our bed, my wife Amina. Her hands were shaking. Her eyes bloodshot with anger.
“We have all worked hard, and sacrificed to get you here, Musa,” she hissed. “The General, your mother, and I. You want to give it all up because of your sexual desires? Your achievements are not yours alone! Don’t be selfish!”
She flung a brown envelope across the room toward me. It landed on my chest with a hard thud. I looked at it, afraid to open it. I had no doubt what it contained.
Amina looked at me, tears welling up in her eyes.
“Clean up your mess! I do not want to know how you made it, just clean it up!”
The big mess started a year before at Club Kiza along Galana Road in Kilimani. Through twenty years of hard work and careful strategizing, The General had gotten me the most enviable position in Kenyan politics. I was a tribal kingpin. I commanded the votes of Kenya’s largest tribe and with that came intoxicating power. It was a year to the general election, and tribal leaders were pushing and shoving. Everyone was looking to form an alliance that would win the elections. Everyone was looking to make an alliance with me.
We had locked out Club Kiza’s eighth floor balcony, making it accessible only to those we needed. We sat there overlooking Nairobi’s upmarket Kilimani drinking Tusker and smoking Embassy lights, listening to rhumba, and laughing a little too loud.
Being a politician is easy. The trick is to say a lot of empty nothings, to speak a lot. That way you play on the human need for affirmation. Everyone will pick out whatever it is they long to hear. To be a good politician you have to be completely empty, egoless. Do that and all people will see when they look at you is a reflection of themselves. And they will love you.
I excused myself to use the bathroom, which meant walking through the bar. Kimani, my father’s old driver, walked with me. He went everywhere with me. He was now my bodyguard and right hand man, having been given to me by The General on my thirtieth birthday.
As I walked, my vision was pulled to a young man. He was on the dance floor, moving his slender hips beautifully, his hands up in the air, his eyes closed, lips syncing with the music. He had a big brass chain hanging from his slender neck. I was enchanted. I needed to know him.
I made a signal to Kimani and went about my business. Back to the balcony. Laughing loudly, making promises I did not intend to keep, and listening to blatant lies while pretending to believe them.
Being a politician is easy.
Later that night I made my way to a furnished apartment I rented along Statehouse Road. He was there, the young man from Club Kiza. He was waiting for me on my bed, naked, except for a silly pair of Mickey Mouse boxer shorts. I silently thanked Kimani. He had done this many times. We never spoke about it. He never failed me.
His name was Silas, and he was younger than I thought. Maybe eighteen, though he claimed to be twenty. Silas smiled uneasily at me as he sipped on red wine. I sat on the rug by the bed and looked at him. His presence took me back years.
When I was nine, my grandfather got me a cow. I called her Lelkina—the one with a white breast. Silas’ eyes reminded me so much of Lelkina. He took me back to when I was young and free and did not have to live behind The General’s shadow. I thought I would be a photographer then. I still remember the day Mama sat me down and told me that I did not birth myself, therefore I did not have the freedom to choose my dreams. I would run this country. It was The General’s desire that his only son run this country. She bought me a camera shortly after, I think because she felt sorry for me. I never touched that camera. It still lies unused in my old bedroom, in my father’s house in Lavington.
It was a beautiful night, that night with Silas. We did not make love. I sat there on the bedside rug with Silas looking down on me from the edge of the bed. We drank and talked about everything, from photography, to lost dreams, to Machiavelli, to Obama. We did not notice the night softening into dawn. We did not notice the gentle light of sunrise sifting in through the windows. We did not notice anything but us.
I was startled by Kimani’s call at eight in the morning. I had to be at a press conference in thirty minutes. He was waiting to take me. I got up and sat back down, laughing a little because I was drunk.
“Lick some sugar!” screeched Silas, jumping up and down on the bed like a child. He was so slender, his knees looked like door knobs.
“Just do it!” He ran into the kitchen and brought a palmful of sugar, held it up to my mouth. I licked it, and felt the alcoholic haze clear in my head like mist on a warm morning.
That day, through the press conferences, the meetings, and the photo sessions, I thought of the young boy with silly Mickey Mouse shorts who knew how to sober up an older man in an instant.
What else did he know?
Would he be waiting for me when I got home?
I was so happy to see him. I ran up to him and hugged him again and again and kissed him passionately. We had dinner together, before I ran off to say goodnight to my family then settled in at Club Kiza for another long night of brokering and politicking.
He moved in that week. Moved everything he owned to the apartment along Statehouse Road. I didn’t ask him to. I didn’t mind it either. In fact, I liked it. I spent most of those days, the crucial days before officially hitting the campaign trail, looking forward to dinner with my boy, the one whose eyes reminded me of my old cow Lelkina.
Days turned into months and the wear of being on the road started getting to me. I became moody, and irritable. I came home to Silas less and less as I preferred to spend the few hours a week I had in Nairobi with Amina and my daughters.
It was not really a matter of choice. I needed Amina. She had a cold but necessary way of analyzing my political moves. She spent whole days obsessing over every one of my words and actions in the news and online. When I came home, we would have dinner with the girls. After they went to bed we would sit by the pool, drinking Tuskers and smoking Embassy lights. She would hold my hand and gently guide me through the next day’s strategies and moves. Of course she consulted with The General.
Silas became very unhappy. I tried all I could to appease him. I loved him, I just did not have the time to spend with him.
I bought him a new car. He was happy for a few days, then moody again.
I paid for a holiday in Dubai. I even gave him my credit card. He was happy for a few days, then mad again.
Finally, a few days before the elections, with tensions running high, and my blood pressure held down from killing me only by the promising polls, Silas sat me down.
“Musa, I am leaving you.” I could see he had been crying. His long eyelashes were clumped together like tufts of grass. His large eyes were the color of a muddy river. “I am not happy.”
“You can’t leave me. I won’t allow it.”
He looked at me, confused.
“You do not understand. What we do, you and I, is a secret. How can I trust that you will keep it after you leave? I might have to kill you, you know.”
I reached out to hug him but he shrank away, as if I were a snail.
“Please don’t leave me, Silas. I really do love you.” I meant it.
He ran out of the apartment like a frightened little mouse. I stood there for a long time after he left, trying to soothe the hopeless sadness I felt in my heart. That was the last time I saw him.
The next day, the envelope was delivered to my house by courier. The envelope threatening me and my career.
Amina was right. It was time to clean up my mess. I called Kimani.
We won the elections.
On inauguration morning, my whole family was gathered at The General’s house for breakfast. I went out to the garden to share one last cigarette with Kimani before leaving. Big, shiny limousines were lined up elegantly, ready to ferry us to Kasarani National Stadium.
My wife, Amina, came out of the front door, breathtaking in a long, colorful kitenge. Her head wrap hovered precariously, threatening to fall as she bent down to gather her skirt on the hook of her left index finger. She turned to me and smiled as my teenaged daughters joined her on the door step. One on either side. My mother walked out behind them, growling about her seamstress.
“Pto!” she cursed, spitting on the gravel for effect. “Foolish girl. Ordinary dress, she can’t sew!”
“Now the whole country will be looking at my backside, wondering whether I am deformed. Eh! Me! The General’s wife. Mscheew!” she turned her lips downward into a sneer. “Stupid girl, face like a pundamilia.”
We all burst out laughing at the idea of a seamstress with a zebra face who couldn’t sew an ordinary dress. Even The General laughed softly behind her. I stood back and beheld the sight of my family. My three ladies with their perfectly round faces and impossibly small noses, trying hard not to let happy tears ruin their make up. My mother with her dress that did look abit askew around her hips. And The General, in his full uniform, gold buttons glistening in the sun. This was my light, my joy.
I looked away and tried not to think of Silas, his body lying in Karura forest, probably being devoured by wild dogs. His throat slit open the Kimani way. I tried not to think of the twelve others that had come and gone like Silas. I tried not to think of the others who would inevitably come after.
Today was my inauguration day.
Copyright 2016 by Noel Cheruto