We were almost falling asleep when we heard her laugh burst through the empty abandoned hallways of the building. It was a high pitched contagious laughter that cracked like dry twigs. We had never heard that laugh before and so we rushed to our windows and pressed our eyes and ears on the panes hoping to have a glimpse of the source. But darkness stood adamantly on our way, and we went back to bed disappointed.
The next day rumour was that a white matatu Peugeot car loaded with her things was seen parked outside the building the previous evening. It was said that she had more furniture than the rest of the tenants combined. She even had a fridge which was foreign to us that a person could have so much food to have leftovers. Some said later that night they heard the sound of an engine coming from her house and the smell of fresh fruits filled the atmosphere. The enlightened ones among us said it was called a blender, it squashed fruits into a tasty paste called a smoothie.
Our caretaker bragged with knowledge of her beauty. That she had personally talked to him about the vacant house. He said that her grace could only be compared to ancient queens of Egypt and from then, we referred to her as “the queen”. He vividly described her features and we sat there wondering whether such beauty really existed and if indeed it did, what the hell it was doing in a place such as the one we lived.
We did not have jobs, so we had time to wait out the unforgiving sun watching us from high above, tearing into our skins and burning at our eyes doing our all-time favourite activity which was gossiping. The government had promised more jobs to young people but that was a promise we had heard many times before that it did not give us much hope, it was just a song they sang. The white Peugeot remained packed by the gate all day as if mocking our curiosity.
When she did not leave her house that day, we thought to ourselves that maybe she was too tired from the moving. In any case, moving a fridge, we presumed, was an arduous task. That night we hoped to hear her voice or laughter crack through the night, but we heard nothing. We fell asleep ears and windows wide open, an open invitation to mosquitoes as well. Some said that in the early morning hours before the crowing of the rooster, her door split open and a few moments later the white Peugeot matatu ended the morning silence when its engine sprang to life and hurriedly drove into the darkness. Our queen, it seemed preferred to run her activities under the blanket of darkness.
We did not have water in the houses the following day, and so we gathered by the communal tap outside to fill our reservoirs, quench out thirst and clean our feet and like a miracle, her door sprang open and we waited. When she came out through her curtains, we all pretended that we were busy fetching water and discussing politics. We talked of the billions of money embezzled from public funds by the same leaders we had humbly hoped would change things around the place. We did the math on how much this money put into good use, would change our lives and many others. In real sense from the corner of our eyes, we stared at her tiny coloured shorts in amusement. We watched her descend upon the stairs thighs graceful as the moon. And she walked, gliding along obliviously without appearing to notice the turbulence created in her wake. We watched how her hair occasionally blew to the direction of the wind then again fell back comfortably on her lean shoulders like a piece of fine linen.
Then she spoke to us with a voice studied with vibrant purity. Her tone was pleasant to our ears that it lingered a while longer in air caressing the heat and driving out thoughts wild with desire. We swallowed something in our throats before we responded to her greeting and she opened the bright skies open with her enigmatic smile. We just watched, no longer bothered whether or not we were staring.
One of us offered to help her fill her two hundred litre water reservoir tank and again she disappeared behind her door. That night, her door opened again but we saw nothing because the darkness was obstinate to keep its secrets. We later heard that the one who had carried water to her house had been invited overnight to her place. He openly bragged about it but secretly, we remained doubtful whether the acts of love he spoke about had really happened. He said…
“I have nothing else to live for in this world. I have tasted the ultimate sweetness and art of love, I could die today and I would be accomplished”
We hid our jealous thoughts arguing to ourselves that there was no way the Queen had done those things yet, every night her house felt and sounded more alive than during the day with random men coming in and out of her house like it was a midnight shop. Sometimes, it was not only men but women too!
To us, she remained an angel. A major distraction to the nothingness that covered our eyes every time we tried to open them. We made up stories about her. We fell in love, courted, married and divorced her in our dreams. Sometimes we fought about her yet she remained behind her closed door unperturbed by our trivialities.
It was a long time before we saw her again until one day water ran out again and she met us by the communal tap. We said to her…
“You live among us, we consider you friend, but we do not know your name or what you are doing here…”
And she took a deep breath, momentarily lost in her thoughts before her eyes had a sudden change in look. She appeared like a lion that had been suddenly woken from his lair. Her eyes dilated with unrevealed knowledge and her lips parted with her face glowing. She was an irresistibly attractive and gifted with a tremendous capacity for beauty. She opened her mouth and in a voice clear, colourless and barely raised above a whisper, let out a storm that we had no clue of its existence.
Then she told us of a small boy that grew up in the streets of Nairobi. A short boy who would carry a stolen wooden stool and a dry rag to Ngara every single day. On good days, there was a lot of traffic and the boy would climb up his wooden stool to reach the windscreens of big cars and dust them off. Sometimes, the owners of these cars left a small note or coin for the boy while others never bothered to roll their windows down. One disgruntled driver ran over the small boy and his wooden stool and the only thing that was left behind was broken pieces of a wooden stool and a heart. That boy was her brother.
She was able to put herself through school with the insurance money they paid for him. It was not much but it was enough. Her small brother had gone to look for her stomach medicine, sanitary pads and food for the both of them and never returned, she vowed that she would never stand aside and let people do things for her. Education was supposed to be the key but she was now long done with her school but a job was nowhere to be found. She would not go back to the streets, she would do whatever she had to do to survive, and use what she had to get what she did not.
“And that is how I ended up here”, she culminated her story giving no chance to any more questions.
The sad bitter note dominated the silence, we stood there planted on the ground long after she had left with her minty scent and the weight of her words occupying the large space she had left. Gradually, the meaning of what she had told us began to light the blank abyss of our incomprehension. With a simple story of her past, she had drawn us into her world and we experienced her wounds as she had, maybe because it reminded us of our own wounds.
She was one of us.
When darkness came, we hurried behind our doors avoiding each other’s gaze. That night and the rest that followed we did not press our ears to the windows or glare into the darkness or any other attempt intended to compel the night to reveal its secrets. We had come to the realization that the truth would be more than we could handle. Yet, occasionally we would hear a peal of laughter that cracked like dry twigs into the night or a lovemaking moan. Sometimes it was plain violence when a client had refused to pay and we shuddered with fear hoping that this song they had been singing for so long would come to fulfilment before our spirits were broken and we lost our souls.
Feature Image by Mukiri Gitiri