Cover Photo: Memories Back Then by Dennis Kinyanjui
 

Memories Back Then

The journey back there was magical. We sat on adjacent seats in the matatu chatting away spiritedly, oblivious of the other passengers. There was no better feeling than having her beside me laughing, reminiscing on childhood memories of the place we were headed to. There was no better feeling than seeing the glint of anticipation in her big, brown eyes. There was nothing more beautiful than the look of nostalgia on her face when she talked of the memories back then, or when she stared blankly at the hills passing by through the window she was leaning on. It stirred up some memories of my own. Fond memories. Probably the fondest memories of my childhood. I could see the place in my mind’s eye. The beautiful large house, the tiny kitchen overlooking it, and the three smaller houses adjacent to the kitchen where the three men of the family stayed. The compound was a perfect canvas of what would be construed as an ideal home. It was artistically arranged so that there was a tiny square area where we would pass long hours when we were kids, playing this game and that. It was always swept clean. I remember I used to wonder when they swept because I’d always wake up every morning to find all the mess we had made was cleaned up. The cattle shed was on the northern side of the compound, right next to where the sheep, goats and chicken were. The compound was on top of a hill. Going downhill was always an exhilarating experience for us. We’d pick up this fruit and that from the innumerable trees scattered around the coffee plantation. At the bottom of the hill was a tiny stream where we’d wash the dust off our fruits before we devoured them ungracefully. We would also wash our feet at that juncture, which was an exercise in futility since none of us wore shoes and we’d just soil our feet all over again when going back uphill. To our little minds, it never mattered. How I wish I could be a barefoot nine-year-old on that tiny stream again. Just once. Caring about nothing else other than getting uphill ahead of everyone else, or the simple pride of picking a fruit from the tallest point of a tree.

What I missed most about the place, however, was not the numerous puerile adventures I encountered, or the abundance of fruits of all varieties, or the numerous little pleasures I enjoyed. It was the way the place made me feel. I can say without any uncertainty that it was—and still is—the only place in the entire world that I’ve ever felt like I truly belong. There was a certain warmth and positive energy about the place that just swelled my heart with joy. Everybody was happy, people rarely quarrelled. Everyone went about their duties with a kind of innate order. It was a welcome contrast from the chaos that characterized life in the city. I used to believe that it was a replica of heaven without the angels. I could not explain how more than fifteen people all got along with each other.

That was the other thing I loved about the place. There were always a lot of people. It was always lively with this activity and that. There was always something to learn, something to do. I did not miss the TV set I was so fond of in the city. Not even for a second.

She obviously had more memories of the place than I. She was born and raised in that home until she was fourteen. I only spent one holiday a year there. This visit had been her idea. We had been sitting on the floor of our apartment sipping some red wine, reminiscing on memories we shared of the place. She reminded me of how we used to lie on the tiny steps leading to the main house staring up at the sky, at the glaring moon and the twinkling stars. She’d lie on the first step and I on the next. We’d talk of anything and everything, nothing was too complex for our little pre-adolescent minds. I can’t say for sure to this day whether I have ever connected with another person at a deeper level than I connected with that nine-year-old girl. Not even with the amazing woman she turned into. It was after reliving that memory that she suggested we go back and lie on the two steps one more time, for the last time. Though the idea appealed to me, I didn’t think she was serious about it. Not until she sped off to the bedroom and started packing frantically. That is what I loved most about her -- the spontaneity. Standing at the door watching her fling clothes out of the closet, taking a break to put her dark, wavy hair out of her face (oh, how beautiful she looked doing that), I couldn’t help but think, I’m one lucky son-of-a-bitch.

We passed a signboard that said our destination was 15km away. That would take less than twenty minutes. I could feel the anticipation grow inside me with every kilometre we covered, and I could see it reflected in her eyes. She turned to me and we smiled at each other, acknowledging how exhilarating it all was for us. Soon buildings long forgotten started passing by the window. We stared in awe at how much had changed. The buildings newly renovated, some demolished, others erected, the tiny town was no longer a tiny town. It had grown into a metropolis ten times larger and thrice as populous as when we’d last seen it.

“Our little town grew wings,” she whispered, echoing my thoughts. I nodded in agreement. The tiny town was now a commercial beehive. I remember we used to know every single car around, its number plates, and even the owner. Staring at the buzz of activity, I couldn’t help but wonder how hard it must be for kids to keep up with that tradition.

We alighted the bus and wandered around looking for a taxi to take us home. Back in the day, there were only three taxis carrying passengers from the town to their respective suburbs. I remember we used to wait for up to two hours for at least one of the taxis to get back. Now I saw a taxi after every turn we took. I felt bad at being robbed the chance to relive one of the most exhilarating travels of my childhood. All along, I had been hoping that everything would still be the same. She, however, did not seem at all deterred by anything. She was so determined to get home, everything else passed by in a blur. She did not say a single word from the moment we boarded the taxi. She just stared outside the window hoping to catch at least a glimpse of a long forgotten past. I could see how emotional the experience was for her. I knew she didn’t want to talk about it, so I did the only thing I could do. I nudged closer to her, held her close, and let her rest her head on my shoulder as the memories flooded her heart.

When the taxi dropped us, we were very sure that the driver had brought us to the wrong place. The thick, dark green hedge that used to line up the entrance had dried up and shrivelled. It was not until she spotted the tall avocado tree behind the cow shed that all doubt of us being in the wrong place was removed. She subconsciously dropped her bag and started down the little path that led to the compound. I picked up the bag and followed in her footsteps. I found her standing in the middle of the tiny square where we used to play, her mouth open in shock. I took a look around and my jaw dropped in disbelief. The compound was not the clean, neat place I had ingrained in my brain. Thickets of weeds and wild grass had grown in hideous patches that were scattered all over the compound. The precious steps on which we’d lie at night and confess our dreams were covered in grass and weeds, another favourite mental picture ruined. The main house where we had shared countless meals was weather-beaten, with paint peeling from every wall and doorpost. Clingy weeds climbed the walls making the house look like some kind of shrine for a very desolate god. What used to be the kitchen was now a messy shack with a rusty tin-roof and holes in the walls. The main door to the house looked like it had not been opened in years. Spiders had built a lining of webs around the door. The door lock looked as if it had never encountered any semblance of a key. I dreaded what I would find behind that door.

We were in some kind of trance, the two of us. Walking around the compound in shock, not saying a single word to each other. We went to the cow shed, only to be struck by another bolt of disappointment. The three healthy cows that used to provide milk for the entire family, with some to spare, were nowhere to be seen. Instead, we found a lonely, bony calf that stared back at us with soulless eyes. He looked very sad. Sadder than the two sickly sheep peeking at us from the sheep’s pen. Sadder than the old, lonesome goat who’s left eye was bashed into his skull. Everywhere I turned, everywhere she turned, we saw misery. The warmth and positive energy that I could only find in this place at that moment seemed like a far-fetched dream. It was as if someone had sucked all the warmth, all the life, out of the only place I ever really felt at home. I stood behind the kitchen to stare downhill at the coffee plantation where I’d had numerous adventures as a boy. The trees I had climbed so passionately in search of fruits were drained of life and vitality. The coffee trees had dried up, not a single berry in sight. By the looks of it, a huge fire had burned down a huge part of the farm. There was a huge patch of ashes and the few trees still standing were darkened with soot.

I found her sitting on the steps on which we used to lie, crying her heart out. I have known the woman my entire life, and I had never seen her so heartbroken. I sat beside her, held her close while fighting back my own tears unsuccessfully. We sat there listening to the sound of our hearts breaking, our beautiful memories tarnished, until the sun came down. We sat there in each other’s arms until the moon glared at us from the sky, and the stars twinkled. Even the stars seemed to be twinkling lazily, sadly. Time passed by in a blur.

“Stand up,” she said, getting up herself. She asked me to move a few paces back and then, to my surprise, she lay down face up on one of the two steps we were sitting on. “This is why we came here, isn’t it?”

I lay down on the next step, right by her side like we did as kids. We stared up at the sky, at the glaring moon and the twinkling stars scattered on the black canvas that was the sky. Only the moon seemed to mock us, and the stars seemed to echo the feelings of heartache in us. She reached for my hand, and for a brief moment everything was magical again, just like it was when we were nine years old. In a sweet whisper, she started replaying the things we used to talk about back then. With her hand in mine, her beautiful voice ringing in my ears, I remember thinking: This is what heaven must feel like. I would be disappointed if it is anything less magical. That moment right there was one of the most blissful minutes of my life, and I was reminded again that I could not live without her. Without her I’d be miserable at best.

“What are you doing here?” said a husky voice from behind us. We bolted upright to find an old, bony man with hollow cheeks and tattered clothes staring down at us. Even in the moonlight, I could see how cold and soulless his eyes were. I could see how lonely and sad he was. Sadder than the lonely calf in the cow shed. There was a slight limp in his gait. Misery was written on all his features. I could see it in the moonlight.

“Who are you?” she asked.

“I am Boniface. I own this place. Who the hell are you?” he asked, his irritation evident.

“Bonny. It’s me. Susan,” she said, walking towards him. Now I was confused. The Bonny I remembered from my childhood years was a muscular alpha male with the heart of a saint and the courage of a tiger. He had belaboured everyone with tales of how he would marry a beautiful woman, build a large house near the town and fill it with as many babies as they could manage. Not a single day ended without him relaying this ambition of his to everyone and anyone who would care to listen. He used to work in the town as a mechanic. At some point, he even owned a car, which was quite a big deal back then. I could not relate that man to the man standing before us.

“Susan? Oh my God,” he exclaimed. They reached for each other and she hugged him tightly. I remember how fond of each other they were when we were kids, always bringing her gifts from town.

“Bonny,” she said, turning towards me. “This is Dennis.”

“Come here buddy boy,” he said, embracing me in a bear hug. I had completely forgotten that name he used to call me as a kid. It used to sound so cool coming from him, the envy of all men. Coming from the desolate man before me, it felt like a misplaced compliment. “The boy grew into a man. It really has been long,” he said, then added, “I always knew you two would end up with each other.”

“What happened to this place? Where did everyone go?” she asked.

“Come inside, I’ll explain everything,” he said, ushering us into the tiny cottage he had lived in all those years ago when he was a young man. I could not begin to imagine what had happened to the Bonny I knew as a kid. A man who every man wanted to be and every woman wanted to be with. Of all her siblings, he was the one who had really understood me.

“After Dad and later Mum passed away, it did not take long for everyone to move to the city,” he said, lighting a candle. “First, it was Joyce who left with Jimmy, then Jane and Alice followed. Then Ann was married by a man from Thika. She called the other day to say they are having a second child. She is the only one who has kept in touch all these years. Simon and Joseph received job offers from Kisumu twelve years ago. I've never heard from them again.”

“What about you? Why didn’t you move? Why didn’t you get married like you planned?” I asked.

“I got married. We had two kids,” he said, the sadness in his eyes growing tenfold. “She left me seven years ago when I lost my left leg to diabetes. She said she could not take care of three kids for the rest of her life. I lost all my savings in hospital bills. I even had to sell my car.”

It was at that moment that I began to understand the deep sorrow and melancholy in the man’s eyes. Life had dealt him a cruel hand. I don’t know many people who have been through even half of what Bonny had faced. We talked in the dim lighting of the sole dwindling candle until some minutes after midnight. He set up a bed for us in the adjacent cottage. When we were alone in the dark, I joked about how I’d always wanted to make love to a beautiful woman in a tiny cottage. We dozed off soon after the love making.

I remember how when we were kids we’d wake each other up to watch the sunrise. It was a beautiful thing, a piece of art even to our young minds that had not yet learnt to appreciate the beauty of art. Of the two of us, she was the early riser, so it was mostly her who woke me up to go watch the sunrise. We’d sit at the foot of the tall avocado tree beside the cow shed and just stare at nature’s handiwork. Sometimes she would subconsciously lay her head on my shoulders and sing her favourite song in a sweet whisper. Most mornings I looked forward to this than the sunrise itself. I would put my arm around her and tell her stupid things that made her laugh. The sound of her laughter at dawn was music to my years. This morning ritual would repeat itself up to our early adolescent years, where my arm around her was replaced by a soft kiss on her lips. We were in a euphoric bliss that had more passion-filled moments than the most romantic of honeymoons. Even at that young age, I knew that I had found something that most men live their entire lives without getting a glimpse of. She was my sunrise.

I woke up that morning to find her staring at the ceiling. She seemed preoccupied and afraid. Of all the years I’d known her, I had never seen her afraid or scared of anything. Except maybe spiders. But that morning, there was a fear in her eyes that no words could adequately describe. Whatever it is she was afraid of, I wanted her to know that I was there for her. That I would do anything I could.

“Remember our morning ritual?” I asked.

“Of course. I was just thinking about it. Wishing we could relive it."

“We can. The sun is just rising,” I said, getting off the bed.

“I can’t,” she said. “I was hoping everything was just a bad dream. I am afraid that when I go out there, I’ll have to face the fact that it’s not. That everything I have been holding onto all this time is gone. I don’t have the strength to accept that, Dennis.”

I sat on the edge of the bed and held my face in my hands, realizing that she was echoing the very sentiments in my heart. Everything I had seen in the dimming light the previous evening had torn my heart to pieces. I was afraid of what it would do to me in the glare of the morning sun. “Neither do I, Sue,” I said. “Neither do I.”

I walked to her side of the bed and placed a soft kiss on her forehead. Then I took her hand and led her outside, the two of us still in our pyjamas. We’d always find strength in each other. I had learnt that a long time ago.

We stepped outside into our worst nightmare. It’s like the place had grown fifty times duller and more lifeless overnight. Everything was sadder than it had appeared the previous evening. Even the desolate calf in the cow shed appeared lonelier. It was a traumatizing experience for us. Nevertheless, we made it to the tall avocado tree. We sat there fighting back our tears, her head on my chest.

“This place is an insult to our memories,” I said. The sun was rising in the horizon. It might have been beautiful but the heaviness in my heart did not allow me to notice its beauty.

“We should burn it down,” she said, staring in the same direction.

“We must burn it down,” I said.

Bonny brought us breakfast. A cup of tea and two bananas each. He brought out a three-legged stool and sat with us.

“Have you ever considered living somewhere else,” she asked, turning to Bonny.

“As a matter of fact, I have,” he said. “There’s this house just two kilometres from town that I was on the verge of buying before the diagnosis. Belonged to a friend of mine who moved to the city.”

“Is it still on sale?” she asked.

“Yes and no."

“What do you mean?”

“After my release from the hospital, I could not afford it. He offered it to me as a present, but I declined. It was too big of a present,” said Bonny. “However, he said that he would only sell it to me and would wait as long as it took me to get the money. Over the years, he has turned down better, more lucrative offers. Pays a guy every month to keep the place in order.”

“Are you in touch with him?” she asked.

“Yes. We talk at least twice a month. Via Mwalimu Njoroge’s phone. Every time we talk, he tries to convince me to move to the city. That he’s got a job for me.”

“You have his number, right?”

“Of course.”

Bonny moved into his new house that evening. A vet was invited to take a look at the livestock before they were transported. The calf found three new friends, the sheep four, the goat two, and the chicken was welcomed to a family of over twenty. They’d never be lonely or sad again. And neither would Bonny.

It was some minutes after 7 P.M. when she and I arrived back from town with four five-litre cans of petrol. The sky was a huge grey canvas with the sun setting on one end of the horizon and the moon rising in the other. We poured the petrol in and around every building in the compound.

We sat by the side of the road and watched as the huge yellow flames ravenously devoured the place that would never be replaced in our memories. We listened as the crackles of the raging fire echoed the breaking of our hearts. We clung to each other, silent tears rolling down our cheeks. We said goodbye in every way we could think of, for we knew we’d never come back again. There was nothing to come back to anymore.

“What’s the long term plan for this place?” I asked. The fire was now dwindling down.

“It will be a tea farm. From the roadside downhill up to the stream,” she said. “I’ve made arrangements with Bonny. Work will begin next week.”

I could see it in my mind’s eye. A sloping tea plantation. Green. Alive. Abstract. Orderly. It was beautiful. Not as beautiful as the place originally had been, but still beautiful. Calmingly beautiful. I made Bonny promise that he’d send us a picture of it when the tea was in full bloom.

On the drive back to the city, I was the one staring outside the window. Her head was on my shoulder. She was breathing softly, her eyes closed. She looked peaceful. She looked beautiful. As the buildings passed by my window, I stared at them for as long as I could because I knew I was looking at them for the last time. Then I turned to her and, once again, I was glad that I would be looking into her eyes till the end of time.

Dennis is an MFA student at the University of Nairobi. He is passionate about literary fiction and fanatic about art.