The sea gives me a hibiscus.
The sea places it before my feet, on the sand where I last saw my brother, then hastily retreats. I lift the hibiscus and place it on my chest. The soft petals have lost their scent. Still, I close my eyes and press it in. I hear my brother’s deep voice calling me and suddenly I turn into a princess, Princess Sailendra of Malindi. I see myself standing on the edge of a rocky promontory, dressed in a blue chiffon veil that flutters in the wind as servants shield my face from the sun with a parasol. I look far into the ocean, waiting for Chinese junks carrying caskets of my perfume to appear. As I press in the hibiscus I also feel my breasts; those tough lumps, like kaa ngumu sold by women in buibui in the narrow Malindi streets; I feel them swell with the magnificence of temples bursting out of a jungle canopy. I relax my shoulders. My sunken, concave shape reverses.
But this rude boy, in boxer shorts, carrying a ball and running to his friends, knocks me over. I fall hard on the sand, swallowing and breathing it in. I cough and gasp. But on a Saturday, when Malindi beach is full of noisy people, you might as well get on all your fours and bark like a dog as no-one will turn to look. Everyone is unkind. Unlike the sea, they never see. They never give out hibiscus flowers. Never to me at least.
But it doesn’t matter. One day they will all know that I am Princess Sailendra of Malindi. They will know that the palace on that rocky ledge at the corner of the beach is mine and that it is made out of coral and red marble. They will know that my bedroom, inside the palace, is scented with jasmine and lit with rose-scented candles, and that the window faces the east so that I can be woken up by the sun. They will know that in the morning, I only have to snap my fingers and all these male servants, with rippling muscles and washboard abs, will carry me to my bathroom and lay me in sudsy water; they will feed me grapes as they rub honey all over my body. One day I will just close my eyes and march Hitler-style across the beach and they will part the way for me. They will say, ‘kwisha leo, Sailendra is among us,’ and faint on the shore. Afterwards, they will scoop my footprints, pour the sand into glass jars and display it in their living rooms. One day.
I stand and shake sand out of my two-year-old wig, stolen, for no-one allows me in boutiques any more. I look around. There are too many people scurrying and scrambling all about. Some women have forced themselves into bikinis that are too small and are struggling to find space to lie on the beach. They think they look so cool, like Halle Berry. If I had a giant can of Doom, I would spray all of them dead and shove off their corpses into the sea to be eaten by fish. But as I walk on – passing children eager for camel rides; young men, who talk in deep hushed voices as they check out a girl; women who walk freely through the air, as if it is not the viscous gel that always holds me back – I decide to extend them mercy. But only if one of them turns to look at me. If just one turns and says: ‘Ngai Lydia, I haven’t seen you in so many days. Usipotee hivyo! We have to catch up. Let us have a soda.’
Then I see him all alone, sitting on a log of wood, staring at the sea. His skin is grey and patches of hair on his mullet-shaped head seem to be falling off. I drag my feet through the sand, afraid to lift them. I turn my head this way and that as I smile. The children I meet stop playing football and stare at me with frozen faces. I walk faster to the edge of the log and sit down abruptly. I look at the sea. She too, seems curious. She has slowed down her crashing waves. I lean over to him and begin.
‘Do you know I am a princess? That is my palace atop that hill. My father has dhows bearing my name, that sail all the way to India, to bring back turmeric and cinnamon.’
He does not turn. I feel weird. I turn away and lower my head. I try to draw a circle on the sand with my foot but only manage a zigzag line. For a moment, all is quiet as if we are all alone, shielded from the rest of the people by an invisible wall that snuffs out sound. I look at him again, turning my head so slowly for I suddenly feel shy. He becomes stiff as if turning into wood. I stretch my hand and poke his shoulder. The skin sinks in and stays, like a rotten mango. I get angry and shove him hard. That is when he turns, slowly like a settling turnstile. He struggles to open his eyes. A blue syringe dangles from a vein in his upper arm. I drop the hibiscus the sea gave me and reach out with my hands.
He grasps my neck. His fingers are strong and lizard-rough. They sink into my neck flesh and find tender bones not meant to be touched. I turn my head to the side, my tongue out. I feel like a decapitated chicken head that cooks at the palace would throw at the grass to be devoured by ants. Then his eyes turn soft. He parts his lower lip, revealing teeth dissolving into brown mush. He trembles. The shiver runs down his shoulders to his hands and his fingers tap-dance on my neck. He finally lets go of my neck and sits there looking sorry. Only for a moment though, for he raises up his head and purses his lips. It turns him imperial; gives him the look of a pharaoh’s son whose statue has been commissioned for a temple.
‘Sawa, do you want me to give it to you?’ I shout at him.
It’s the usual exchange. We only have to hide in the sea. I only have to close my eyes when he enters me and urge him to go faster so as to finish quickly, praying all the time that the tall men in blue shorts and high boots who patrol the beach will not give chase. So I spring up and run to the sea. The sand tries to hold me back by sucking in my legs. I push through into the water. I lift up my skirt and call out to him.
‘Si you come for it au!’
I close my eyes and wait for his footfalls. I wait for the air to cloy with the scent of his illicit desires. I wait for his ribs to squash my hard breasts. I wait for the sea to growl like a dog and for that jellyfish sensation of him inside me. All I will think of, as he thrusts into me, is the crown I used to wear. I will wonder if the servants still remember to wipe its sets of emerald and amethyst stones with vinegar. But when I open an eye to look, there he is, still sitting on a log of wood.
‘Shoga wewe,’ I shout. ‘You cannot do it with a woman. Can you even get it up?’
His impassiveness disturbs me and I run back to him. ‘Sasa you will give me this dawa for free. Aki I really want it.’
Like pebbles thrown to a pond, his cheeks dimple.
‘My name is Lone Voice in the Desert,’ he says, in a voice that sends a feeling of cold scales up my back. He sneers. ‘Have you found Jesus?’
I wonder who Jesus is and why he is lost in the first place. Then I remember Jesus, the man in a dress, who whipped bankers at Barclays for changing currencies on a Sunday. As I remember, Lone Voice in the Desert lifts a wilted finger and places it on the side of my head. He raises the other hand and flips his fingers through the air, opening pages of a book only he can see. He speaks.
‘Come, all of you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost. Why spend money on that which is not bread and your labour on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me and eat what is good, and you will delight in the richest of fare.’
My intestines melt then. They drip, hot as candle wax, into my groin. I bend and support myself on my knees. He takes down his hands and holds them before me, palms up and blows.
‘Receive,’ he shouts.
I fall on the sand and thrash. Later, he tells me, a demon in the shape of a barking seal, forced itself out of my mouth and waddled into the sea. Then adds that my sins, which were as red as blood, were now as white as snow.
Listen: I had a brother. He fed well on butter and sweetened sesame, swelling till he blubbered like a walrus on the floor. Mum had him take charge of our steed to turn him lean. In time, strong muscles forced out of his shoulders. We would hear his hands ripple in the air as he marched outside, an eager man. His name was Samadra. That is all I have now. Just that name. If you hear me mutter it in the morning, when fishermen are drawing in their nets after a night spent at sea, or shouting it when it rains, just understand.
‘Samadra ptooh! That boy is the devil,’ said mum, when she was no longer a queen in flowing robes and a high neck, but a woman on a creaking bed, unable to sit up and wipe her nose, a woman whose eyes I had to wipe with a warm, wet cloth each morning.
‘Why?’ I asked, pressing my bare feet on the earthen floor. I sat on the edge of the bed next to the door, for the cold wind to reach me first and turn warm.
‘It is him who threw us into this pit of desperation,’ she said. ‘A boy with too much greed! Greed all the way up to his neck. Mtoto mtundu sana huyo. Can you imagine a son of mine, meeting with Italians at night? Giving my land away! And have I seen a single coin for that transaction, Lydia? Have I?’
Still I saw Samadra as a benevolent god who performed miracles, who passed through impenetrable walls to offer grace. When mum needed the red pills, found far away in Mombasa, at that pharmacy next to the police station, with grids on the window that sealed the pharmacist like a caged bird, my brother went and got them without paying a single coin. And he got them before six, for mum had to take the pills before six. When mum turned her head on the pillow, eyes open but not seeing, letting out a groan like an echo from a cave, Samadra looked upon the world he created and ordered it to bring forth pineapples and oranges; even the precious sultanas which I would hold to mum’s mouth for her to suck on and pacify the demons that tortured her.
I once followed my brother outside one night, when stars sprinkled golden dust on the ocean and the grass. It was hard following Samadra, though. He moved too quickly and disappeared in a coconut grove ahead. For a moment all that was left was his voice, loud and forceful like a crashing wave, then that too quietened. I walked on, though, up a dirt path winding like a thin ribbon. At the top was my palace, surrounded by a concrete fence which was spiked at the top with broken glass. There were noises inside – laughter, clicking glasses, some soft music. I sat on my haunches and stared. A man came outside, an old white man with a greying beard and a belly that settled gourd-like around his waist. He had a cigarette in his hand. I wondered whether he was the Italian.
‘Princess,’ he said, ever so softly, speaking only to me. ‘You are so beautiful.’
I smiled and trailed my eyes to his shorts. They hung awkwardly under his belly, as if he was wearing an immense block of wood. He moved closer and I noticed how tall he was. He was slouching. I imagined him talking to Samadra, hands in his pockets, nodding at intervals. I imagined papers being signed. The exchange of notes. Fresh, clean, unfolded notes. Straight from Barclays.
He tottered closer.
‘Why are you barefoot, Princess?’ he asked. He puffed in deeply from his cigarette. When he blew out, the smoke filled my lungs with a pang. ‘I can give you all the shoes you want.’
He tapped his swollen pocket, then tapped his fly. He leant his head to the side and winked. I slept with him that night. At breakfast, he fed me croissants and hot chocolate, then handed me a thousand shillings and told me to be on my way for his friends were coming. I kept the note folded in my hand for I meant to throw it away. Later at home, though, I slipped it into the folds of my dress. From then I would walk without lifting my legs, afraid that guilt would leak from the soles of my feet and stain the earthen floor, afraid that mum would look at me with cold, stern eyes.
When she died we lost that single room too. I moved to the beach with Samadra and his friends. On the sand, Samadra turned even more handsome, with that sturdy, thickset physique that white women loved. They waved at him as they sunbathed and he would walk and kneel beside them. Later they would walk together back to hotels that security guards forbade me to enter. He would bring me food afterwards. One day, a whole waffle smeared with blueberry syrup. He would lift my chin with a finger and tell me that I was the only princess he had left in the world.
One night he shook too much and I gave him the one-thousand-shilling note. I knew he needed dawa. He unfolded the note and stretched it on his palm and from it, Kenyatta, the first president and a freedom fighter, stared at me sternly. Samadra walked away then, trailing his feet on the wet sand. I kept looking at him till he faded with the darkness. I wanted to call out to him so that he could turn and shout back, ‘Take care Princess,’ but all the while the pit of my stomach felt heavy as if I had swallowed a stone and I could not talk. I never saw him again. In the morning, I tried following his footsteps on the sand, but the sea had washed them away.
I am sitting with Lone Voice in the Desert inside his church made out of twigs. I ask why his church building is so small that only two people can squeeze in at a time and he tells me what Jesus said, that when two or three are gathered in His name, there He will be, among them.
I begin telling him that I am Princess Sailendra of Malindi. I tell him about the rare history books with Parisian binding at the palace library, how I would lie on my back on the Persian carpet, reading about the Straits of Malacca. But I cannot finish this story with him. He is a hard man who turns his gaze far from you to something more fascinating. I stop and wrinkle my forehead instead. I sink my knees deeper into the sand till the sharp grains graze my skin.
Lone Voice in the Desert looks down abruptly, licking his lips.
‘You are Mary Magdalene. You washed Jesus’s feet with your hair.’
I grasp my stolen wig and hold it firmly on my head, afraid it will fall off and reveal that my hair is short, and I so desperately want to be Mary Magdalene. Lone Voice in the Desert smiles and leans his hands on the sand. He has a nice face, a shapely nose like the statues of Nubian kings in the Sudan desert I would see in books, those who built kingdoms in Kush and Meroe. But then his face turns unclear, as if suddenly hiding behind a veil of fog.
‘I know where your brother is,’ he says.
That slaps my face. I tremble. He lifts his hand and points out to the sea.
‘He is far out there. In an island called Eden. He lives in a garden of apples with a sly snake. He is not afraid of his nakedness and walks on streets of gold. His name is written in the Book of Life.’
‘Do you see him now?’ I ask.
He leans back on the sand and closes his eyes.
‘Verily I say unto you, Lydia. If you had faith even as small as a mustard seed, you could say to this coconut tree, “May you be uprooted and thrown into the sea,” and it would obey you!’
I lie beside him. I trail my fingers down his shoulder. I draw the salt road on the landscape of his arm with my fingernail. I turn him into a Berber trader, trudging on a camel across a sand dune, brewing hot coffee at night in a windy oasis.
Later, after we have slept, we melt dawa on a foil and hold our straws ready. I celebrate as I suck in. Narrow is the door to heaven. Peace shall come upon me once the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, those who do not see me, have been shut out from the banquet. Peace shall come once they have all been consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulphur. Lone Voice in the Desert and I shall remain, to freely drink from the Water of Life. I hold my breath as the hot fumes burn my throat.
When I finally breathe out, I look at the sea and she is now a tall, regal woman draped in a white robe. She is carrying Samadra on her arm. My brother is sucking on her nipple.
‘You are of the world,’ says the sea. ‘No salvation comes without the shedding of blood.’
‘I am going to sacrifice you,’ I turn to tell Lone Voice in the Desert. But I see only his eyes. His eyes are huge and far away, as if he has suddenly sunk deep inside a well.
He laughs and his face reveals.
‘You are going to sacrifice me, Lydia.’
We both laugh. As I stab him, we laugh out even more. Our laughter turns into sheep that skitter and run. He falls and I lie on top of him. As his blood flows out, it sings my mother’s favourite Taarab song, ‘Utalijua Jiji’ by Afua Sulemani. I try to sing along but I turn to blood and lose my throat. I drip away. I join the sea. We are one now. I want to see mum.
The Caine Prize
The Caine Prize, awarded annually for African short story writing, is named after the late Sir Michael Caine, former Chairman of Booker plc. The £10,000 Prize is awarded for a short story (between 3,000 and 10,000 words) by an African writer published in English. Last year the prize was won by Zambia’s Namwali Serpell. The five shortlisted stories, alongside stories written at the Caine Prize workshop, are published annually by New Internationalist (UK), Jacana Media (South Africa), Lantern Books (United States), Kwani? (Kenya), Sub-Saharan Publishers (Ghana), FEMRITE (Uganda), Bookworld Publishers (Zambia), Langaa Research and Publishing (Cameroon) and amaBooks (Zimbabwe). Available from the publishers or from the Africa Book Centre, African Books Collective or Amazon.