Wangari can sleep.
She sleeps like a felled tree. Makes flesh of every expression that describes bottomless sleepers. Her head lies on your chest in such an elegant repose. Your right cheek is pressed above her hairs. Awake, you stare at the ceiling directly above. Inhaling the floating scent of lemon or was it bergamot oil, springing from her body. You try, playfully, to match her sluggish breathing with yours. Succeeding at first, and then losing concentration in between breaths.
You are craving something sweet. Pancakes- soft and fluffy ones with a tang of grated lime skin. It’s been months since you tasted such. The movement of furniture downstairs and small estate noises from outside filter in, barely disturbing Wangari. You’ve been awake for almost an hour. You‘re pressed, can’t hold it any longer than this. You would treat yourself and Wangari with pancakes. You reach for her shoulder, to nudge her slowly toward the centre of the bed. You notice she has gone back to folding a tight fist. This time you decide it doesn’t bother you as much. You wouldn’t be unfolding her fist. This now-quiet woman, this beautiful thing called Wangari, could turn quite fierce. Wa-ngari; the daughter of a leopard. You see the twitch in her eyes and think she could still be clawing at you in her dreams-pushing your buttons some more- taunting you, folded fists and all.
Seriously now, you need to take a leak.
Then you need to go downstairs to release Helen, the help. Ever since the government lifted the cessation of movement in and out of the city, she would transit to her village in Loitoktok and be back Monday morning. Originally, you had discussed letting Helen go. Not for good. Though some of your neighbours deemed having a help meant an extra mouth to feed. So they handed them what would be their last monthly envelopes. Others said they wouldn’t waste their time teaching a ‘maid’ on what it meant to sanitize frequently or sneeze or cough with manners. You never liked the word maid. You had discussed letting Helen go ’til corona goes away and later decided against.
First, perhaps fearful of losing employment like the rest of her estate colleagues, Helen took the initiative of purchasing masks and hand sanitizers at her own expense, for use around the house. She would stand in the doorway, like police to a roadblock, sanitizer in hand, to remind you whenever you forgot to take caution. This was days before the government started airing public health ads on TV. She encouraged the same cunning of her counterparts around the estate. Some would end up keeping their jobs, thanks to Helen’s ingenuity.
Two, Wangari wasn’t too far along from the date of delivery. You would need an extra set of hands once the twins came home from the hospital. Her parents and your parents could only do so much from the other side of the lockdown.
Helen had just as big an emotional investment. She was just as animated as you, Wangari; your in-laws, colleagues and the 593 likes you got when you announced on social media. Daniel plus Wangari equals twins being the caption. Helen would make plenty of clear soup to relieve Wangari of her morning sickness. She would teach both of you sewing patterns. Months flew by. ‘You printed T-shirts?!’ Wangari would say to you, amazed. ‘Who prints T-shirts? Why would you print T-shirts?’ she said. The t-shirts were printed dabo dabo, a nod to the twins. Dad jokes are inherently in vogue at that point in a man’s life especially since there was to be double of everything. You would make plenty, ‘You have to wear these. These are great. Dabo dabo. I refuse to wear anything else,’ it amused Wangari. You are – or were – the kind of man who bore his joys upon his sleeves.
You need to release Helen.
You pass outside what would have been the twins’ room. The space around you was rife with echoes of her dismay. You feel the stench of the bile you and Wangari were spewing at each other from last night’s quarrel. ‘You pass that room like you would a beggar on the street. You’ve had it locked for how long now? God forgive you-fungua mlango!’
‘I want it open!’ she was very loud.
You can’t completely lose your cool with your wife, because then you’d be of no use to her- or yourself. Whoever said that had never been in the ring with Wangari, who was of the type to attack the groin, spit and hit you after the bell. God forgive you- for what exactly? The bedroom door had only been shut not locked.
As your sandals clack down the stairs, you recall swinging the door wide. ‘There you go,’ you said. You peeped, briefly, in a manner that didn’t make it obvious to Wangari. Silhouettes of toy cars, dolls, and animal figurines stared back at you. You had settled for a lighter aquamarine undercoat and two primers of the same for their bedroom walls.
‘There is nothing in there for us!’ You would indulge her, play foul as well. ‘Be my guest. You want to—you want to play with ghosts? Go and play with ghosts! Go be a mother to ghosts since I am in the way of that. Go sing an aria go, teach them the odi dance!’ The thunder in your voice compelled Wangari’s pale figure to stand still. The way a stunned boxer would. From the corner of your eye, Helen too seemed to have come out to spectate. You went on and on…a tightness forming in your chest, some frothing in your lips. A kind of poison borne of the words you were flinging at your wife. A kind that travels fast to numb your heart and the heavier parts of your body.
‘Did I wake you?’ Helen asks in Kiswahili, bringing you back to the present.
You say no. You hadn’t slept much, anyway. There is hesitation in her aging eyes. She spent the previous night hidden in her quarters after you and Wangari clashed. Two bags-packed- plus another big one lay by the front door suggesting she felt her employment had now truly come to an end.
You aren’t fast to disprove Helen’s fears. You tell her about wanting pancakes. Ask her to point out some of the ingredients.
‘You might need more eggs. I purchased half a tray from Mrs. Juma yesterday,’ Helen said. ‘The shops I usually buy from, they don’t open until half-past seven on Saturdays.’ She said she could check before leaving. It was already half-past seven. Ni sawa you said.
Mrs. Juma had become the estate mama mboga of sorts since the onset of the coronavirus. A sociology professor who now made car boot sales of in the pink groceries: tomatoes and onions, pineapples, dhania, potatoes, (sometimes) avocados. Very small eggs though. Eggs the size of plums. So small, one day you fit three in your mouth, mimed your discontent and disgust to Wangari, swearing never to buy from Mrs. Juma again. The expectant Wangari laughed so hard, soup came out of her nose.
Helen had more to say once she helped you locate some of the ingredients. Her action- or inaction the previous day had partly been the catalyst for the quarrel. Still, she had some choice words to defend her case. A wounded spirit speaks fluently the language it knows best. She switched to a thick, elegiac Maasai accent, ‘I have always thought of you and Wangari as more than my employers. No older than my own children. I call you my family,’ she said.
What she said next appeared to maim her just as much, “I prayed to the god of the rosary, I prayed to Naamoni aiyai (she, to whom we pray), I exalted he who shines a thousand colours. I don’t understand. Three separate powers, I pray to them equally ever since I became Catholic-thinking one god would be jealous and punish me if I didn’t entreat them. And I don’t understand, they allowed this tragedy still.”
Some of her sentences were layered in more dialect; the kind of idiom spoken by your grandmother back in the day when you used to sell milk. Like beads to a string, you pieced together what you could remember. ‘Menya enkoshoke enyamu-the womb cannot steal. It is the work of fate, envious neighbours, and the evil eye to rob us of the twins. I regarded them as my own-my grandchildren,’ she was already in tears but you knew that if you asked her to stop crying her body would do the opposite.
‘I would never deliberately offend -but I told the guests yesterday- wenyewe hawako. They insisted, said they had spoken with madam. They could see her car and not yours, so I was lying. They knew Wangari was inside.’ You could see the effort she was taking to steel herself against more lament. She failed all the same.
‘They carried with them gifts and groceries,’ Helen continued, ‘Whether they were nosy or wanted to genuinely pass sympathies, bwana Daniel I was helpless.’
Her frame looked smaller than normal. Maybe she felt the same tightness you’d felt the previous night. While serving her water to pacify her, you made sure she understood that those “nosy” guests- Wangari’s friends- some from work, some from her student days, were the only ones to blame for forcing their way in.
‘How did the hospital explain the miscarriage?’ Helen clears her throat.
‘They didn’t explain. They don’t know. They can’t explain. And you have seen Wangari. She won’t agree to more tests,’ you say.
‘I have seen Wangari,’ Helen adjoined, ‘Your wife thinks you take your tears elsewhere. That you mourn with outside people. Maybe even outside women.’
‘I have done no such thing,’ you said.
‘To mourn away from your wife is disrespectful, even to the memory of your children,’ with a look, she hands back the glass. Then, “the ones you call ghosts.” It was the admonishing she intended to relay all along.
‘Come back on Tuesday instead- or Wednesday,’ you point at the calendar by the kitchen door. You were handing her an extra day off. You could try taking care of Wangari after all. It was wrong to have done otherwise.
With another look, Helen informed you that some good may yet come of your decision.
You’ve found a recipe on the internet claiming to have the secret behind fluffy pancakes. A method- to compel your flour, eggs, lemon skin, and skillet pan, to morph them into puffed up pancake batter. The recipe says to use two cups of self—rising flour; it says to use three large eggs. You smile. That would mean five or six of Mrs. Juma’s eggs. It says baking powder, and some melted butter. The recipe insisted on buttermilk. You don’t have that. So a little side note at the bottom of the page said one could easily create buttermilk if they poured two tablespoons of vinegar into ordinary milk. You have vinegar somewhere. It was a simple process- to separate the egg yolks from the egg whites. Because beaten egg whites are the ones that are your friend. They hold millions of tiny air bubbles. And those tiny air bubbles are what convince the rest of the ingredients that it’s in their best interest to puff up.
So that was it, the road to fluffy pancakes. You bookmark the food blog as you do all other pages you’ve deemed edifying enough.
Much like you did on the eve of Wangari’s first ultrasound. You went online to educate yourself some more about twins.
‘Super-fetation!’ is one word but you said it as two. “One chance in a million, it almost never happens. You got pregnant, and then you got pregnant again,’ you said.
‘That’s exactly what Doctor Sur meant. I got pregnant on one menstrual cycle, then had another menstrual cycle weeks later- and got pregnant again. Weren’t you listening?’ Wangari said.
‘Not after all that talk of it being high-risk and sijui shared placenta. And did you see his face? Someone should train him on how to deliver good news,’ you said.
‘But that’s part of his job, Daniel. To lay all the facts on the ta—’
‘To play Doctor or doomsayer? It’s a pregnancy. A twin pregnancy. Twins are good news. On day one, you don’t say you see this could be a high-risk pregnancy. I stopped listening, aki. You, I love you but you were busy staring at his beard,’ you said.
‘Doctor Sur is nice,’ said Wangari, light shrug.
‘So whose beard is better? Look. Obviously mine?’
‘Ha-ha. I wasn’t staring at his beard,’ she said.
“Did he say the babies will look alike?” you couldn’t find anything on the website that said they would.
‘He said there’s no way to tell. It’s a boy and a girl. You should be more excited.’
‘I am. I am. There’s just a lot to process, you know? A lot to prep—
‘You want to put your phone aside- we process together?’ she said. A quiet confidence flushed in her eyes. Her towel fell off her body.
As you sift the dry flour together with the sugar, and baking powder, you smile when you think of how Wangari became a whole new being the evening after the ultrasound. Wanting things from you in bed that she’d never wanted before. She gave and you received. Her body commanded and yours obeyed. And then you commanded and she obeyed. Desire flooded you. You bathed her with your sweat. Like a receding wave to its lover, the shoreline. Like you were building on and exploring the sands of a new beach. Alone when your lips parted, and then finding each other when your tongues collided. When it was time, when you began to scratch at one another’s skins, when ecstasies reached beyond curled toes and back, when the surge in your body became a little too much to bear, your bodies crumbled in the design of a sandcastle.
‘Helen has been smiling at me all day,’ said Wangari the day after.
‘Helen is always smiling,’ you said.
‘Not like that. You think she heard us last night? Were we that loud? Oh my God, ha-ha-ha. She heard us,’ said Wangari.
‘She didn’t hear us.’
‘So what if she did?’
‘We should tell her we’re expecting twins,’ said Wangari.
‘We should tell everybody,’ you kissed Wangari on the cheek.
By the end of week 12, Wangari had undergone multiple checks and scans that indicated everything was on course.
You choose six eggs from the tray. The recipe says to mix the buttermilk with egg yolks and your grated lime skin inside a separate bowl. Before you break the eggs, you begin to chuckle softly. Not at the memories of the ultrasound nor the lovemaking. You just don’t want to reflect beyond week sixteen of the pregnancy.
The wheezing sound from your chest is no longer a laugh. It hadn’t been a laugh to begin with. There would be no tip-toeing around memories of Wangari bleeding, of all the medical jargon employed by Doctor Sur to assure you that bleeding is a completely common occurrence; of you sending for plenty of spinach and beetroot to replenish what you thought was Wangari’s iron deficiency. No tip-toeing around memories of the scans revealing weakening heartbeats one week and stronger ones the other; of when the bleeding persisted and the sight of soiled sheets every waking morning fuelled your fears; of when the sonographer struggled to find the twins’ heartbeats. Of when then the truth came out. There had been no growth beyond the sixteenth week.
Twin number one, the girl, had been first to die. Twin number one was poisoning twin number two. So twin number two, the boy, didn’t have long left. And they both were releasing toxins onto Wangari.
Things, hearts, dreams- big and small- they break so easily. They break like Mrs. Juma’s eggs. The back of your hand wipes your tears. It’s a quarter to nine. You’ve barely made any progress with the pancake ingredients. Next, the recipe says to whisk the egg whites in a separate bowl, until it became stiff and then pour it into the wet mixture a little at a time. You need to finish up and take both tears and pancakes for Wangari to see. These tears that now pour freely are the same she sought from you back when Doctor Sur announced it was too late to save the pregnancy. It would be unsafe for Wangari to stay pregnant. She would need a D&E procedure- to dilate her cervix and vacuum everything out. To clean-no, to rinse her womb like one would the blackened surface of a sufuria.
It made no sense to carry dying life any longer. You agreed with Doctor Sur. Wangari blames you for acting as the rational one in the face of things that would make even the angels weep. She was devastated and wouldn’t stop wailing. She insisted that the sonographer check again and again-and pleaded for one final time. You wiped her down and convinced her that the surgery would be quick. It showed in her eyes, she was in-between hating you and needing you. Wangari would be too weak to get anything done on her own after the surgery. A confused Helen was now tasked with guiding Wangari’s trips to the bathroom and back. Wangari would spend most of her days lying on the floor, sobbing, rejecting meals, and phone calls. Helen came under strict instructions not to let anyone past the gate, ‘Say we’re not around. I’m not in. Daniel is also not in,’ you made no objections.
Sometimes she would fall asleep in your arms and wake up to find you’d left for work, a drive, a mindless walk. She would call you to come back and you would lie. You would say the first thing on your mind. About there being an important site meeting or a contractor had gone rogue and you being tasked to quantify their construction and design mistakes. Your car needing service today, hers needing service the next. Just anything you could think of really.
The recipe asked for patience once you folded the egg white into the mixture. The pancake batter would begin to form bubbles in a few minutes. You’re thinking if batter could somehow show emotion, then it would be through the appearance of such bubbles. You yearn for Wangari. You realize she needed for you to show some bubbles of your own. However, calling your deceased offspring ghosts is the worst way to begin. And once you apologized for that, there would be a long list of other things. That you froze and refused to see the fetus remains after the D&E surgery?
It wasn’t your first time to reject a dead body. You had done and said the same when your grandmother passed. That’s not my grandmother…those are not my children… same thing. That you threw yourself into work? That you were not a lot like the modern man who is encouraged to be in touch with his emotions- too macho– too much of a Maasai Moran to grieve with your wife? How about not being around to fend off nosy friends and neighbours?
The pancake batter forms bubbles as expected and it’s time to heat the skillet pan. So far so good but the deep spoon scoop you’re using makes some pancakes wider and others not so much. And you enjoy seeing the honest gold-brown shade once you flip them on the side. You cut up the first pancake. It had come out as fleshy as the ones on the website. Its aroma, its feel on your tongue, the desired lime skin tang you’d woken up thinking about-all blended, creating even an aftertaste that you were sure would delight Wangari. Granted, you would need more than just fluffy pancakes to alleviate things. But they would lift the mood in the short term as you found some emotional footing.
You’d heard about grief from the stories others told. You’d been a spectator to their pain. And what pitiful stories went about. You were keen to send whispers of your gratitude to the gods of such things for their grace. But gods are fickle, petty and picky with whom they bless. Be they the Maasai gods or the one of the Catholic Church. Even the Greeks you read about during your university days say it’s a sin against the gods to love something beyond all reason. If man loved something, the way you and Wangari did the twins, the gods become jealous. And strike the object of affection down in the very fullness of its flower. So grief was now visiting you and Wangari. An intruder, raiding, and trashing the tidy spaces your dreams once lived. Desk drawers in ruin, paper, and clothes strewn all over-except it was happening inside your hearts. A presence you couldn’t see, chase after or prosecute.
Pancakes two, three, four – less wheezing and crying all through pancakes five and six as they lay stacked on top of each other. The aroma of which defined the kitchen with a sense of life and desire beyond your understanding. You wonder if these good foods do make better men of us. Better husbands and lovers perhaps. Not common every day folk but people of full stomachs and better decisions, who aspire to something further than stoicism. What would Wangari think of your straggling culinary philosophy? Would she be able to eat more than four of these pancakes? Some bit of coffee- or fruit juice?
It is a few minutes past ten.
There’s a food tray before Wangari. She preferred you didn’t draw the curtains just yet. Patches of yellow light still filtered through, shining on her shirtdress and some parts of the bed, an accidental yet heavenly mosaic of light and shadow. She’s been munching away at the pancakes for a few seconds now, washing down the stuffing with sips of coffee. This is the first time you are watching her eat in weeks. You had placed pancakes enough for two on the tray. A mistake-because you could tell she’d be going for your portion as well- reminiscent of your first date all those years ago-when she cut off a piece of your grilled capon. And you would tell a joke about how your relationship was not quite there yet.
‘I have a fear of chicken, you know,’ she said, snubbing your joke. But she wasn’t chewing that piece of capon like someone who feared chicken. Far from it, you could tell she was regretting her order of steak and potatoes, wanting more from your plate instead.
‘Capons are barely chicken, anyway. You see how their meat is juicier? It’s the months of fattening they are put through after castration,’ you said.
‘You’ve done that- castrated a rooster?’ said Wangari.
Not only had you done it, but as a kid, before these modern methods, your grandmother taught you how to make an incision over the chicken’s testicles. She would stick a finger to get a hold of them, she said you could use two fingers since it was your first time, and as she pulled them out, you did as she did. When she sew up the wound and rubbed it with fresh lard, you did as she did. It was strange but you seemed to be enjoying it. And she would curse you and call you cruel if she found out you performed so many castrations on her chickens. That’s how you started selling milk, to compensate for the crime of unsupervised castrations.
Today morning, you want to tell Wangari that chicken story again.
You want to say that you have been as witless as your grandmother’s chickens these past few weeks. As if someone, something- life, had pierced into your chest, taken hold of your heart, and pulled it out. And there wasn’t any lard or plaster in the world to cover up the wound in your chest. You want to apologize to this beautiful thing called Wangari. You move closer, encouraged by her appetite. Hoping the leopard in her remained meek and concealed its claws. Silently, you wish for her friendship, her light, her wit, or – for a start- an even wider smile.
When it comes to such, you’re hoping there is still room for two.