Dec 03 ● BY Mũthoni Kiarie
It was early morning on Christmas Eve when The Daughter called. They were slightly surprised at the timing, as she was religious in her holiday season phone calls to them; always a call on Christmas morning, their time zone, which meant she was just going to bed, and then another call early on New Year’s Day, also in their time zone, that one with plenty of background noise from other revelers around her. As usual, when they saw her number on the Caller ID, The Father hit the speakerphone button and he and The Mother leaned in closer as their daughter’s shouted, “Merry Christmas!” her voice an octave higher as it carried across the ocean. There was no reason to be concerned, she said. She just didn’t want to spend an hour trying to get through to them at peak calling hours on her Christmas morning. The Father saw his wife relax at The Daughter’s words. And anyway, her husband wanted her to start calling at less expensive hours because he thought she spent too much money calling home, she added with a giggle.
This was their relationship now with The Daughter, and had been for nearly a decade. One carried over international telephone lines that threw echoes and silences and incorrect interpretations of tone and words back and forth. She came home every year or so, though less frequently since her marriage, and then it was time to reconnect and unravel the girl, turned woman, to dig up those conversations that had been concerning, try and read in her eyes whether the hurt or anger then was still there. The Father was always slightly uncomfortable at her periodic visits to start with, but then, the rhythm that they had always had when she was a child, that string of connection of more than blood, would wind itself back tightly like a renewed elastic band and they would sit in the silences of those who needed no words to express what was in their hearts. They would wake in the dawn, sharing a simple breakfast of tea and fresh fruit that he cut into bite size pieces for her; mangoes that he carefully selected at the market, pawpaws that The Mother added to her grocery cart, and perhaps some pineapple, if they were in season. The Father would drizzle a little Magadi salt on top of her fruit bowl, just as she liked. When finished, they would walk out to the back of the homestead to help with feeding the chicken and collecting the eggs. As their feet covered in galoshes stirred up the sawdust in the henhouse, the chicken squawking as they ran to peck at the new grain, The Father would catch his daughter up on the family businesses and the shenanigans of her cousins and other relatives.
With her mother, The Daughter was different. She would express herself loudly, stretching herself above her five-foot frame, trying to match herself to the majesty that was her mother, never quite measuring up, but never giving up. They enjoyed this combat of wills, mother and daughter, though sometimes, this contest would end with one or the other stomping off to cry silent tears of frustration. The Father would watch in fascination, these two, knowing that in those moments, he was not a thought in their minds, a memory of any kind.
On the phone now, this Christmas Eve, she talked of the Christmas gift that her husband had given her, an expensive handbag made by an Italian designer that The Mother knew and exclaimed over. This husband was a man he did not understand. When she had called those years ago and said she thought she had found the man she would spend her life with, The Father had been wary. This was the first they were hearing of this man. It was surprising since she hadn’t even mentioned dating anyone to her mother to whom she told these things. As Americanized as she had become, she knew it would not be appropriate to regal her father with tales of men she dated. He should only be told if there was a marriage proposed. But he knew the details of her many failed relationships from her mother. He cringed every time he thought about them, because for him, they were a number that was unbecoming of a young woman. But she was no longer young by then and they had almost given up the idea of her getting married. Then she had said, “Baba, Maitu, he’s not Kenyan.” They were not surprised. She had been away too long from home for them to expect that she would only date Kenyans in a country made up of so many other people. The Mother had rushed in after the silence became too long, the echoes of oceans between them too loud, and reassured their daughter that there was no problem with that and all were equal in God’s eyes. The Daughter had been relieved and asked them if she could bring him home with her on her next visit. They thought it only proper that he should come to their home and ask for their daughter’s hand in marriage, so they agreed.
But the-soon-to-be-husband had not asked for The Daughter’s hand. Yes, he had come laden with gifts, many of which they had no use for. What does one do with heavy, silver candleholders even if they are ‘the real deal’ as The Daughter whispered to them? When the lights went out, they simply placed the lit candles onto teacup saucers. But the man never asked ‘the question’. Instead, he took to asking them questions about the country, about social situations like the Kibera slum and making judgments on how the country was run by corrupt politicians and too-forgiving citizens. Judgments that he had no business making, The Father had said to his wife each night. They were both fascinated at how passionately this future son-in-law spoke about poverty in their country like he himself was Kenyan, offering up solutions that had worked in America, like Welfare, which sounded ludicrous to their ears. The-soon-to-be-husband’s face had turned red as he talked. Their daughter laughing uneasily, touched his arm and tried to calm him down, telling him that he was being disrespectful but he had shrugged her arm off, visibly, not hiding his irritation. The Father had noted this, deciding that this man was careless with his daughter’s feelings. He was decidedly against the marriage from that point on and his wife had to plead with him to try and be civil and polite to their guest till the end of their visit. He gave in and begrudgingly gave his blessing when The Daughter was almost in tears at the end of their visit saying she couldn’t get married without his blessing.
They had married in America and he and The Mother had flown on an astonishingly long flight to give her away. It was a beautiful wedding, filled with lavish decorations, lavender and gold orchids, set outside in the cold sun off this country, at the edge of a cliff overlooking the frigid waters of the San Francisco Bay. His daughter had been more beautiful than he could bear and his eyes had watered as she walked out of her dressing room, shyly looking through the ivory netting of her veil at him for his approval. He had coughed and patted her hand as she slipped her arm through his. He couldn’t look at her too long, his breath couldn’t take it. The Mother didn’t try and hide her tears. She had fussed with The Daughter’s veil until the Officiant had reminded them they would be late. But they could not rush and soon, they were all holding each other close, this private moment so rare, so precious, he thought his chest would burst.
But it had been too small a wedding, he had thought; only fifty people. If they had held it in Kenya as he had asked them to, they would have been able to feed at least five hundred people with the same amount of money that had been spent on this wedding. They would have been able to bus her grandparents and relatives directly from the village in Murang’a and Kirinyaga and let them share in the joy of their daughter getting married. The Husband had wanted it simple, The Daughter had explained, seeing their disappointment. There was also very little mention of God or The Daughter’s Kenyan culture during the Officiant’s address to the gathered party. He wasn’t even sure the Officiant was a man of God. The ceremony was over before he knew it and they were all on the dance floor, dancing together in a manner that he thought was quite inappropriate for a family to be dancing. His wife constantly told him to relax and understand that their daughter did not live in Kenya anymore and her choice for a husband was an American. “In our culture, you know she is now American. She is no longer ours,” his wife reminded him. It was hard to accept.
Again on the phone now after they had dispensed with the Christmas well wishes, The Mother asked The Daughter about the baby. It was strange how they were the ones who always had to bring up the baby. The Daughter had said that she didn’t want to ‘jinx’ it – that word that he did not understand. It was up to God, not superstitious western stuff, to take care of her and her baby, The Mother had responded. The Daughter had mumbled, yes, quietly, a little girl again whenever her parents admonished her. “Say Amen,” her mother had demanded and she acquiesced, changing the subject quickly, trying to ask about things at home and the larger family. But he wouldn’t let her. “Daughter,” he said now, “What has the doctor said about your health and the child’s?” He avoided The Mother’s startled look. These were questions that a father did not ask. But lately, he had decided that the times their generation were living in, with so many of their children living on other continents, you had to use common sense to know when tradition could be bent. He was concerned for his daughter. She was not a young girl and he knew it had been difficult for her to become pregnant. Even her husband had become impatient and had inappropriately asked The Mother on one of their visits if their family had a history of barrenness. The Mother had been mortified and had for a moment lost her ability to reveal little emotion while displaying good manners. “Absolutely not,” she had snapped, standing and pouring more tea into the son-in-law’s cup when it was already quite full. The tea had spilled over slightly onto the saucer and the husband had simply leaned forward, slurping it loudly, then jovially said, well, I’m glad to hear it. I know for sure we’re a fertile lot on my side. Only he and The Daughter had laughed.
“Baba, I’m sorry,” his daughter said now, static garbling then spitting out her words. “You’re sorry?” he asked, his heart quickening in his chest, “Did something happen?” “No, no, I said, don’t worry,” The Daughter said. His fingers relaxed their hold on the arms of his seat. “Ah,” he said almost too softly for her to hear. “I’m ok and so is the baby,” she continued. She said that she had had a scare yesterday with some pains that had woken her up, but the doctor had assured her it was normal. “Ah,” he repeated, relieved.
Her husband, she said, had also been relieved though he thought she over-worried. “He doesn’t even like to come with me to the hospital for the check-ups. I had to call Wangeci to take me,” she said with a slight laugh. The Father and Mother looked at each other, at a loss for what to say. She still had a few months to go in her pregnancy and they had agreed that The Mother would go stay with them two weeks before her due date and then would stay for a month after. The Father would come after the birth and stay for a week. He had to wait as was custom for the four days to pass after she had given birth before he could see her and the baby. He wished that was a tradition he could break.
Two weeks after that Christmas Eve call, The Mother woke in the middle of the night and could not go back to sleep. She woke him up and said she felt cold and sad. He made her some hot tea and brought it to her in bed. She was crying when he came back and she didn’t know why. He felt dread in his heart. His wife’s hands were icy even though it was the middle of February and this dry season had been particularly hot. He rubbed her hands in between his palms, brought a hot water bottle to the bed and placed it near her feet, but she couldn’t stop shaking. She wasn’t sick, she said, just feeling extraordinarily sad. He didn’t have to look at his wife to know they had to call The Daughter.
They had never made a call to her. She always called them, the expense much easier for her to bear.
The Daughter’s voice was as far away as it had always been on these international calls. But this time, there was the same sadness that he had heard in his wife’s voice just minutes ago. He left his wife on the phone with their daughter as he went into the bathroom to think. When he came out, his wife was opening suitcases on their bed, tears dampening the clothes she was gathering to pack. He got on the phone and called the airline and a neighbor to drive them to the airport.
The Husband, she said had to work. The Daughter was not well enough to drive yet. So they had to take a taxi from the airport to her home. They stood at the curb at the San Francisco Airport exhausted, trying to read the directions on the signage telling them where to catch a taxi. It was so cold that their sweaters felt frozen, stuck through their skin and onto their old bones. A woman they didn’t know opened the door of their daughter’s home for them.
She said that she was their daughter’s friend, Wangeci, and had been taking care of her since she could not finish the sentence but instead just ushered them in. They thanked her as they set their bags in the hallway and walked into the bedroom where The Daughter lay in a big over-sized bed, looking like a small child. His wife ran to her side and mother and daughter synchronized their body-heaving sobs. He stood aside for a minute watching his daughter’s face, noticing the cuts, the puffed eye, the stitches on the big cut on her lip, the shaved hairline with another deep gash that had been stitched up. He walked to her side and took her hand in his. “Baba,” she whined, disentangling herself from her mother and curling her slight un-bellied body into his. He hadn’t seen her pregnant, but he could see now the arch, the hollow circumference of her stomach that was outlined beneath the tan duvet. He looked at his wife’s shocked expression, as she too noticed The Daughter’s broken face. He turned to Wangeci who was hovering at the doorway, and she lowered her eyes at the question in his eyes.
The Husband did not come home that day or the next. They did not talk about him. Instead, they tried to regal The Daughter with tales of their lives at home, funny things her cousins had done, Kenyan politics, the state of their maize harvest which had done quite well this season. She would listen for a while, and then drift off into a sleep that was punctuated with nightmares and twitches of fear.
The Father dreamt of guns and vengeance. He would awaken and kneel by the bed in the guestroom, asking God for forgiveness for his thoughts and begging for healing for his daughter. His wife would wake with him, echoing his prayers.
The Husband came home many nights after they arrived. They were all asleep when The Father heard a car driving up outside the house. He slipped out of bed without waking his wife, wrapping his robe around him and entered his daughter’s bedroom. The room was dimly lit by the streetlights from the outside and he saw that his daughter was awake too, so he moved to sit in the chair by her side. When The Husband walked in, he was startled to find his father-in-law seated by his wife in the pale light. “Hello, Baba” he said. The Father did not respond. What was there to say? He had no gun – that was the only appropriate response. “I’m sorry I haven’t been here to take care of you,” the man continued addressing his wife. “Work has been crazy,” he laughed nervously, running one of his hands through his too-long dark hair. The Husband turned to The Daughter with apologies, proclamations of love and promises of the future, wringing his hands as he spoke. “How are you feeling?” he finally asked when she didn’t respond to his excuses.
She raised a finger and pointed at The Husband. “You went too far.” Her voice was ice and stone. The Father did not know who this was that had possessed his daughter’s body. “You can take no more from me. Get out. You have ten minutes,” she continued, moving her finger slowly to point at the door. The Husband made a sound of incredulity. It was obvious to The Father that he was not used to his wife standing up to him. He turned to his father-in-law, perhaps hoping for reason.
Gun-less, The Father stood from the chair and stepping forward, towards the monster said, “You were always careless with her feelings.”