My granddaughter was born on a leap year, the year of confusion, mwaka mrefu.
She was born in a bathtub filled with warm water. I had never seen such a thing, even though at sixty-six I thought I had seen it all. I was told that this was the new way, that the water is soothing both for mother and child. I was told a quiet atmosphere is important. I was given a chair and asked to please stay in the corner and not speak, and I did as I was told.
Outside, deep craters shone inside the moon in red and orange shades. Inside, the screams of my daughter-in-law were maniacal.
“My back is breaking, my back is breaking, my back is breaking,” Angie chanted for hours.
Then as if out of nowhere, Tessa’s head crowned, with its shock of pitch-black hair. So much hair that my son Mark collapsed and smacked his head on the wooden chair where he had sat while he rubbed Angie’s back. He lay on the floor bleeding.
Tessa floated out of her mother’s body into the warm water and stayed in there for a minute in perfect harmony with the waves of the tub, seeming not to need to breathe. The midwife lifted her out of the water, chalky and covered with bright red bits of her afterbirth, and laid her on her mother’s chest.
Angie, still breathless from the birth, screamed when she saw Mark on the floor. A nurse woke him by waving a pale pink strip doused in smelling salts under his nose, and then stitched his head.
Afterwards, Tessa was wiped down and swaddled tightly like a mummy in a cotton blanket and handed to Mark, who at first held his daughter like a football waiting to be passed to another and then, with no lesson in fatherhood, cradled her close.
By the window, in the corner of the birthing room, I sat watching with the solemnness granted to me by old age. I knew without a doubt that this child’s life would be extraordinary. Maisha ya kui giza; a life of high drama.
Mark had returned to Nairobi from America after eighteen years with his African American wife, Angie, with whom I had nothing in common. They bought a house in Karen, not far from where my husband and I had raised Mark. Karen was so named because it was on the remnants of the land that had been owned by Karen Blixen when she wrote Out of Africa on her patio. On the farm where Mark grew up, we grew roses for export and kept fat dairy cows for commercial milk and yogurt. Our driveway was an unmarked dirt road. We taught Mark Kiswahili and Kikuyu. It was his identity, we said.
But the old generation of farmers had left, selling their properties to developers who subdivided the land to build high-class gated communities. Mark and Angie had bought one of the homes, the kind that said, “I am here, and I am rich.” Their neighborhood was surrounded by high stone walls and electric fences. At the main entrance, two askaris wearing guns in black holsters wrote the names of guests on a clipboard and then called the house to announce the guests’ arrival.
Their neighbors were similar to them—educated couples who spent millions of shillings to live far away from the city so they would not have to breathe the smog. The air smelled like freshly mowed grass, and the only sounds were the occasional barking of dogs and the singing of the speckled pigeons.
Mark’s house was built in a modern style with no rules that I could understand. It was completely unlike the house my husband and I had built, in the country style with a wrap-around porch, where we watched Mark learn to ride his bicycle. It had oversized windows that were for looking out at views, not for opening.
“Ma, we just want a classy house where we can live for a long time; it’s an investment,” Mark said. “It’s not showing off if you’ve earned it with your own hard work.”
I saw that the times had changed, and it was no longer shameful to wear your wealth out in the open like a bright red dress in a sea of black-clothed mourners; it was fine to only mingle with those who looked and lived like you did, with remote controlled garages, and shiny cars parked on a long spiral driveway. My husband was not a poor man, but he had driven the same old pickup truck until his death. His funeral was a large gathering, hundreds of people, all from different walks—poor, rich, town, and rural. He had mixed with everyone. I was following slowly behind the pallbearers in the church aisle when I caught a glimpse of the shoeless mzee. For years, he came around our farm looking for work. My husband treated him like a son would treat his father. He ate with him and gave him small jobs—washing cars, painting yards. I saw him sitting in the back row, his head turned down. He had no shoes, but he was dressed in his best shirt.
The kitchen was the only place in Mark’s house where I felt at ease. Angie would tell me I was welcome, that it was my home too. But isn’t that what I had told my mother-in-law thirty-six years ago, when Mark was born? The memory of it still made me shudder—the way she did everything over after I had done it, cooked everything her way.
“Here—the chapattis are too thick!” she would say, pushing me out of the way. “Let me roll them out. You fry.”
So, I would stand next to the blazing jiko, sweat dripping down my temples, turning each chapatti round in circles to distribute the heat like I was told.
Now, sitting in the tiny nook at the bay window in the kitchen, humming songs I had learned as a little girl, I shucked corn on my old sisal tray, and picked out the stones from the rice and pounded irio, watching the black beans mix in an intricate pattern into the potatoes and plantains.
Two years ago, I had buried my husband. On a beautiful day in August, he had slumped over on the wooden swing in the garden where we had sat together for years. I was in the kitchen pouring him a glass of water. It wasn’t the kind of day a person died— the sky was blue, the trees rustled in the breeze, and the birds chirped—and he was a healthy seventy-two-year-old man.
Death is crafty in that way. It reels us in on a perfect day, calls to us like voices whispering behind pine trees.
My husband’s death threw me. It felt like I had been pushed off a high bridge, blindfolded and hands tied, into a turbulent river. Each day I struggled again the sensation of drowning, of swallowing water and not being able to come up for air. Loneliness stood at my bedroom door, beckoning. I crawled underneath my bed and lay there for days, hiding, until Mark found me. He called Angie, and she came over and bathed me, and then they brought me to live with them.
From the kitchen window, I watched Mark and Angie chatting in the garden with their new neighbors over icy, sweating beers and expensive South African wine.
Dr. Shree Rego, an Indian neurologist in his forties, with cascading waves of thick hair, had recently returned to Kenya—where he had been born—after decades in the UK. He sounded even more English than his English wife, Mandy, a petite blonde whose bust seemed too big for her small frame and whose red painted nails were filed in an unnatural square-shape.
“This city is bursting out of its seams—too many humans, too many cars; it’s not the way I remember it growing up,” Mark said. He had developed a new way of speaking—prolonging vowels and cutting words short altogether. “It’s hellish—the traffic. I’d like to know what other city in the world has traffic at dawn on a Sunday. Sometimes, I change into my sneakers and start walking, and it takes kilometers for the driver to catch up with me,” he said.
I caught myself sneering. He was no longer the little boy who had always been too sensitive, worrying about the shoeless village kids. Now, I saw a man who was out of touch with reality, with friends who nodded in pity as he continued to moan about simple problems in his life.
“Do you actually keep sneakers in your car?” Shree asked, sounding surprised. “Is that an American thing?”
“It’s a broken system—nothing works,” Mark said. “But instead of trying to make it work, Kenyans have become complacent. I don’t know how many times people have been late for important meetings and blamed the traffic. It’s bullshit. It’s laziness. We all know what the traffic is like, so if you’ve got an 8 a.m. meeting, leave your at house at 5 a.m. to be on time.”
“Mark has a low threshold for traffic,” Angie said. “Actually, for anything that wastes his time. But you know, what really got me when I moved here were the little things I took for granted back home, like deodorant.” Mandy laughed so hard that dark red wine sprayed out of her mouth.
“Or lack of, I should say.… I dread it whenever I have to line up for something, or ride in an elevator with a bunch of folks—I’ve become so good at holding my breath. They are marketing deodorant like it’s a luxury, but it’s not!” Angie shook her head in disbelief.
“Come now,” Shree said. “We are talking about a country that’s been ranked sixth on the extreme poverty index and with no welfare system. Kenyans are struggling to give their kids two meals a day.”
“Don’t you think I know the situation here?” Angie barked. “Mark and I are involved in a project with the UN-Habitat to bring clean water into Kibera. Every time I go there with the UN guys, I’m hopping and crisscrossing over raw sewage, watching kids fetch water from a filthy dam. So yeah, of course I know deodorant is a luxury, but it doesn’t make it easier going up ten floors on a slow-ass elevator that smells like a sweatshop.”
“Hey! So, we’re starting the dig for our new pool,” Mandy said. She was an interior designer, charging wealthy Kenyans baskets of money for advice on something she called “yin and yang.” She had designed a teardrop-shaped swimming pool for their home and often brought Angie brochures about pool tiling. “Looks like we will have it done by Christmas. It’s going to be an absolutely smashing summer.”
The mood had become cold. Angie walked back into the house and past me where I sat in my nook in the kitchen, as if I didn’t exist, slamming the door to the bathroom.
“Yes, that’ll be great,” Mark said, overeager. “Beats dealing with the throngs of tourists at the coast.”
Mark excused himself and walked into the house and past me, just like Angie had a few minutes earlier, like I didn’t exist. Outside, Shree and Mandy stood stiffly, sipping on their wine.
“Don’t look at me like that,” Shree said. “She’s not Kenyan. She has no right.”
Shree and Mandy were older than Mark and Angie, but they had no children. The women had become close, and some weekends they would sit together pouring wine for hours and marveling over images of architectural designs, tiling, and garden lights on their computers. Angie offered to pay Mandy for a few ideas to spruce up her house. I heard my husband’s voice in my head: “We behave like buffoons around white people—a man will spend his whole inheritance on an empty box if a white man is selling it; that’s how we lost our continent to them.” I chuckled to myself.
“Ma, something funny?” Angie said.
“No, nothing at all,” I said, and took my pot of tea with me to sit outside in the garden.
When Tessa was born, Angie took maternity leave for three months; she was on her computer every day. As soon as the three months were up, she sped back to work as if she couldn’t bear a minute longer at home. But when she returned to work, she was told that with the new baby, it was understandable if she couldn’t manage the longs hours required, so some of her bigger portfolios had been passed on to other lawyers. The partners let her know they were being generous by giving her less responsibility.
“I feel like I’ve been castrated,” she told Mark. “I’ve been working on those cases for months, right through maternity leave. How is this even fair? In the States, this would be totally grounds for suing.”
Mark told her to look at it as a silver lining—now she could spend more time with Tessa. That put her into a rage. She paced around the kitchen. She busied herself with nothing—opening the lids to boiling pots, closing them.
“You’re just like them,” Angie said bitterly. She pulled a dining chair and slumped down hard on it like a flailing boxer. “I’m dealing with the kind of men who had the audacity to ask me at the interview, ‘Are you planning on keeping your legs closed?’ And when I told you about it, you laughed it off as normal.”
“This is a patriarchal society,” Mark said, shrugging dramatically. “You just have to get used to it.”
“Maybe I can’t get used it,” Angie said. “You’re the one who wanted to move back to Kenya. I gave up my job in Boston for you and had to start from scratch but you seem to forget that.” Her voice was breaking with anger. “You always knew who I was. My job is what keeps me from losing it in this crazy country where nothing works like it’s supposed to. Now I’m supposed to sit at home wiping our child’s butt all day? I’ll tell you now, I’m not going to lie down and let these guys take what’s mine.”
The next Friday night, she called Mark to report that she would be late getting home because she had decided to go to happy hour with “the guys.” The Friday after that it was drinks at a Japanese place.
“I will schmooze my way into their stupid clique if I have to,” she said.
She paid for golf lessons with a pro and put her name up on the office golfing roster, and often she would be on the course at first light, straight after breast-feeding Tessa on Saturday mornings.
I thought Angie was selfish, but in the early mornings I watched her cradle Tessa on the rocking chair in her bedroom. She traced her fingers all over Tessa’s body while she fed her, and I saw a shadow cross her face because she knew it would be twelve hours before she held her daughter again.
Just a month after she returned to work, Angie found out she was pregnant again. She told Mark that she wasn’t going to have the baby. He came to me in despair. The tension between them hovered around the house for days. They spoke to each other only when I was in the same room with them, exchanging empty pleasantries: “Tessa smiled today.”
Angie’s gynecologist carried out the abortion six weeks into the pregnancy. She never told me. She didn’t know that Mark had shared her secret, and I wished Mark had never told me.
One night, the shouting upstairs in their bedroom curled my shoulders inward with anxiety, and I heard Tessa crying, so I knocked on their door and asked for the baby. Mark was cursing, using words he would have never used growing up.
She was small-bodied, with bright hazel eyes—warm eyes—in the shape of almonds. Standing next to Mark—who nearly grazed the frame of every door he walked through—she looked like a child. I imagined what they looked like fighting behind closed doors, Angie’s small hands pushing on Mark’s broad chest.
On a particularly hot Sunday, I returned to church. I hadn’t been to church since my husband’s funeral, when I had felt the sudden urge to stab Father Robert, the Irish priest who spoke in fluent Swahili. He had spoken about God’s plan on that day. That God had a bigger plan for us, and though we would never know why he took Kamau, my beloved husband of forty years, we would be comforted in the knowledge that Kamau was in a better place.
I wanted to say, “Mshenzi! Fool, have you ever died and visited God and seen for yourself that there is a better place?”
Now I told myself I was ready to light a candle at the altar for my Kamau. I stood at the mirror in the red feather corsage that was my husband’s favorite and stroked the eggshell pearls on my neck that he had given me. I sat in the third pew, the same place I had sat each Sunday for years with Kamau.
The church fans were still because of the power cuts, and I soaked right through my turtleneck. My head grew heavy, and my hands were trembling. A fidgety child sitting next to me knocked rhythmically on the pew with sparkly pink shoes for the length of the service and the tap-tap-tap sound pounded through my temples and I felt my body float away.
When I opened my eyes, I found Father Robert fanning me in a cool, dark corner in the church. Above me stood the Virgin dressed in a red gown, her head bent down in humility, one hand clasping the rosary, and the other the baby Jesus.
The doctor said I had diabetes. My blood sugar was so low that I fainted.
As Tessa grew into her second year, she became faster, and I became tired more often, even though I ate frequent, small meals. I heard Angie tell Mark that I could not watch Tessa anymore. Mark said babysitting at least part-time would be good for me, but Angie plunged ahead.
Several nannies were hired but then abruptly fired. It didn’t take much for Angie to fire a nanny, and it didn’t take long either. One nanny was fired when Angie returned home one evening and saw that Tessa looked different. She held the child up to the light streaming out the kitchen window and examined her closely, brows furrowed.
“Has she changed in some way? Her face looks thinner.”
When I told her what had happened, she went to find the nanny, who was tidying up Tessa’s toys.
“Answer me one thing. How could you grant yourself the liberty to give another person’s child her first haircut? A first haircut! What are you going to do next?”
Priya Shah was the fourth nanny hired. She was unlike any other nanny because she had never been a nanny. She was a healthy, fifty-six-year-old woman, recently widowed, looking for something meaningful to do with a whole new life that she didn’t understand. She got the job because she had raised three boys who had all ended up at Oxford University.
Angie said she must have done something right because “Oxford don’t take no riff raff.”
“I don’t know, honey, somehow it feels a bit odd,” Mark said with a shrug over dinner that night. “A rich Indian housewife who wants to work as our nanny? Indians are the elite in Kenya. The whole thing is upside down.”
I felt that I knew Priya because I was Priya, and I knew that as soon as she had her first grandchild, she would vanish.
Priya wore a tiny gold ring on her left nostril and a Bindi, on her forehead—a small scarlet spot of powder dye—as the symbol of marriage. She left a trail of scents behind her—camphor and sandalwood—so we always knew where to find her in the large house. Her hair smelled of coconut oil, and when her fingertips were stained bright yellow, she also carried traces of turmeric and garlic.
Her silk saris were made of rich, deep shades of gold, green, red, orange, and yellow. They were embellished with sequins and embroidery. I so admired them that one day she brought me one. She took me to the bedroom and showed me how to wear it, layering the red fabric around, stretching on the tank top and using another layer worn like a sash to cover up.
“How come I’m not good enough for her?” Nyamunya, our live-in housekeeper, asked me, while she and I sat in the kitchen one evening. “How come I don’t get any gifts?”
Nyamunya was tall, light-skinned, and with a rounded bottom. She was only twenty-two and had come to work for Mark and Angie straight after high school, when her single mother couldn’t afford to pay for her college education. I had seen Mark look at her in that way men do when they are in a room with a desirable woman. Nyamunya liked it.
“Let me do that for you,” she would say to Mark when he tried to do even the simplest thing, like serving his own food from a dish to a plate or pouring milk into a glass. She would wedge herself in between him and the stove, or the fridge, and reach over him while he ate, her breasts near his face. Priya muttered under her breath, then shook her head.
“Look how she just leaves the onions frying,” Priya complained. “She will burn the house down one day with this foolishness.” We both laughed quietly even though we did not approve.
Priya had no time for Nyamunya’s whims. She would dictate to her—cut this, mince that, blend this, bring a fresh burp cloth and fetch a nappy. When Nyamunya protested, Priya said her only job was to watch the baby.
“Actually, me, I’m not the maid,” she would wave her index finger in Nyamunya’s face. “Actually, you are employed to help me. I’m not employed to help you, neh?”
As soon as Priya would turn around, Nyamunya sneered at her with disdain, mouthing “Actuuuaally,” moving her head from side to side like a dancing cobra.
When Priya said goodbye in the evenings, Tessa cried with so much intensity that I had to keep her distracted in another room.
“Priya leaves her damn B.O. on the baby, on everything.” Angie had taken to moaning about Priya every day when she arrived home from work. One thing she disliked in particular was how Priya was working to change Tessa’s palate. Priya had started to sprinkle small pinches of curry powder and chili peppers in Tessa’s meals, saying it was important for her to learn how to eat stronger flavors.
“Chili is good for digestion and blood circulation,” Priya said. “The only thing worse than bland food is meat.”
At first, Tessa contorted her little face in every way when fed the sauces, but after a while she wouldn’t eat anything that didn’t have at least a mild lingering of curry—not even a peanut butter and jelly sandwich—and it drove Angie mad. In the fridge, Priya always left homemade Indian confectionary, mango lassi, and spiced rice puddings. Angie served it to Tessa and watched painfully as she lapped it all up.
Tessa started refusing to eat meat, hamburgers, and hot dogs. “Look, now Tessa won’t even eat the things we eat,” Angie said in a despairing voice.
Priya and I had become unlikely friends. Being in Mark and Angie’s home, caring for the same child, cooking together, Priya and I—both mothers of children who had left the country and become people we no longer knew—learned that we had much in common. We were from the same generation of women—wives who allowed their husbands to shepherd the home. She was a stay-at-home mother her whole life. One after the other, her children had grown up and left the house to study in the UK. Unable to adjust, she continued to cook the same meal portions. She told me that in the evenings she sat next to her husband watching him spoon the food into his mouth, spurring him on, like he was a toddler.
“It was like there was another Priya doing all the things I knew annoyed my husband, but I couldn’t stop her,” she said, and as she spoke, she looked perplexed by all of it. “Then one day, we were having an argument—about what, I don’t even remember—and he just dropped dead of a heart attack,” she said. “Right in front of me. I became completely lost.”
Priya said she tried to live in England with her oldest son for a year, but his wife, a second-generation English-Indian woman, didn’t like her.
“She is smart, beautiful, everything. But the women now, they’re just so different—a quick tongue, they speak their minds in that moment and say things they cannot take back.”
I nodded and poured more tea. We listened quietly to Tessa’s breathing on the baby monitor.
“My son said to me that I was cooking too much, all the time frying things, and the neighbors could smell the ghee and the curries all the way from the ground floor. That is when I knew I had to come back home. I’d rather be lonely than be insulted by my own children.”
It was the same with Mark, I said. His life had been paved with good fortune. He grew up an only child whom everyone fussed over like a hatching egg. He went to St. Andrew’s Turi, where his classmates were children of tycoons. He went to Harvard without loans, while most Americans in his class, like Angie, juggled two part-time jobs.
“I’m proud of him, but something is amiss. I keep asking myself, would the son my husband and I raised buy this kind of house? Would he drive a big, shiny, red Mercedes? What good is their money, if their child won’t be able to speak the language of her ancestors? I feel I lost him somehow.”
“It’s of no good,” Priya said, and we both shook our heads.
The day before Tessa’s third birthday, Priya took her to the mall and brought her home wearing child-sized yellow gold bangles, coated with a sprinkle of pink sparkles. Angie smiled and picked up the child, then noticed that her ears were adorned with gold studs. She broke into yelling.
Tessa started to cry, and I took her from Angie and went to the next room. Priya insisted that Tessa loved the earrings and wasn’t in any pain. She took out a brown bag with a bottle of methylated spirit and handed it to Angie.
“You just dab and wipe and turn it, every day; just turn it,” Priya said.
The next day, Tessa blew out her birthday candles in gold love heart studs. We put the picture of her smiling face on the fridge door.
It was soon after piercing Tessa’s ears that Priya arrived with the first statue—a god who resembled a pink, pot-bellied elephant man riding on a plump white mouse. She called him Ganesh and placed him at the entrance hall.
She returned him to the front door, below the coat rack, when she came in to find he had mysteriously moved to the pantry in the kitchen. Another god arrived soon after. This one sat cross-legged with arms stretched out—in meditation—on the mantle. She told me he was named Shiva, the Great God—ruler of all the other gods. A few weeks later, she put a god named Krishna, sitting like a yogi, in the lounge by the piano. She told Nyamunya and me that he represented dance, music, philosophy, and all things enlightened.
We were spending more and more time at Shree and Mandy’s now that Mandy had completed their swimming pool. It was big enough so that Shree could swim lengths as daily exercise. The tiles inside were silver and blue, and they reflected the light, giving the pool a magical shimmer. There was a pebble-rock design built around the pool and on one end, a little fountain. Angie was very impressed with the pool and wanted one too, but she said they were going to wait until Tessa could swim. I enjoyed dipping my feet, and Tessa wore her armband floaters and paddled around at the shallow end.
Between the houses was a thorny Kei-apple hedge with a wooden gate cut into it, and we often streamed in and out of each other’s properties. The gate had a designer click-latch that was easy for adults but impossible for a child.
One warm Saturday, Angie climbed out of the pool and returned, carrying the assortment of Priya’s gods in her bright pink sarong wrap. She laid them one by one on Shree’s patio table, next to the foiled meats and the potato salad.
“Shree, would you please tell me what these things are?” Angie asked. “I feel like our nanny is trying to put a spell on us, and frankly, it’s a tad creepy.”
Shree bent over to examine the gods and turned each one around.
“Do you know, I haven’t got a bloody clue,” he said, and Angie looked flummoxed.
“Incorrect,” Shree said. “I am not Hindu.”
Shree explained his family had moved to Kenya three generations ago from Goa. He was raised Catholic. He was picking up the gods one by one, looking at them in the light. “Of all the Indians in this country, you had to find the one who is not Hindu.”
“It is quite a fascinating religion though,” Mandy said, collecting the gods from Shree and lining them all up again. “I mean, why pray to one God? Anyway, Christianity is so humdrum; it needs a total makeover.”
“Do you know, the other day, I came by your house to pick up something or other, and I found Priya sitting cross-legged in the study room with Tessa, praying,” Mandy said.
“What? Are you sure?” Angie said
“Yes. They were sitting across from each other, holding hands, and she had all these little gods surrounding them. There was such an atmosphere of peace, it made me almost want to join them,” she said, stroking Krishna and his harp.
I saw Angie look sharply at me, and I felt my heart plummet. I knew Priya prayed with Tessa, and I had kept it from Angie, even asked Nyamunya not to say anything. I understood Priya. She was a spiritual and prayerful woman. I trusted her. She was the only one in the house who really understood my pain, how much I missed my husband, how useless I felt, why I had drifted away from my old friends. Mark had asked me once about why I never saw them. I didn’t want to tell him that all my friends still had their husbands with them and it was too painful for me to be around them. That was the kind of thing I didn’t have to tell Priya, because she already knew.
It was the arrival of the goddess Kali with her ten legs, ten arms, and ten heads that made Angie tip over.
Priya’s devotion to Kali was greater than her devotion to any of the other gods. She told me that praying to Kali had made her the best mother she could be. I was afraid of Kali; in every photo Priya showed me, she was half-naked with skulls around her neck, blood dripping from her mouth, a head in one hand, a machete in another.
“I was afraid of her too, before I learned how to pray to her,” Priya said. “She’s extremely powerful—a force of nurture and love, but she will destroy everything to bring back order.”
She found a special place, a small nook in Angie’s study, where she prayed to Kali. In the afternoons, she laid out a bowl of water on a small table in front of the goddess. She sent Tessa to bring her the nicest-looking fruit in the basket on the kitchen table, and Tessa ran with the joy of feeling needed. Priya offered the fruit, lit a small candle, and circled Kali three times with Tessa at her heels, following close behind, a dedicated servant. She reminded me of the altar boys at my church.
When Priya was done, she touched her head to the ground and exclaimed, “Jai Kali Mata!” Then she sat cross-legged with her back straight as an arrow and her shoulders dropped, and she arranged Tessa’s body so that she sat exactly the same way. Together, they brought their hands together at the chest and closed their eyes, and Priya chanted the word “Om.”
One afternoon soon after, Angie was upstairs cleaning her room when I heard a slamming door and then saw her marching down stairs. She was holding Kali up above her head.
Priya was outside with Tessa tending to the roses while Tessa played with the hose.
“Priya, what the hell is this?” Angie said.
“That’s Kali, the divine protectress. She’s the goddess of destruction,” said Priya.
Angie was breathing so hard I was worried she might pass out. “I mean, what is this doing in my wardrobe, sitting there looking at me?”
“Kali liberates us from our egos,” Priya said. “But she’s also a nurturer. She’s a very powerful goddess, a good one for mothers.”
“Priya—are you trying to piss me off?” Angie looked disoriented, her cheeks flushed. “What gives you the right, to go in my private things and leave me one of your gods to protect me?”
“Kali will protect you, but you have to put your pride away,” Priya said staunchly, unfazed by Angie’s rage.
“I don’t need protection,” Angie hissed. “I’ve come real far in my life on my own.”
Mark drove in just then and walked up to the garden with his black leather laptop bag over his shoulder, looking perplexed.
The four of us stood frozen in silence in the garden, watching Angie dissolve.
She stomped back into the house and came out with a brown cardboard box. “Here, take this, put all your shitty gods and goddesses in it, and take them back home with you. My house is not a Hindu temple, and my child is not your grandchild. Do you hear me? I want you gone, now.”
Priya looked over at Mark, but he shifted his gaze down to the tassels on his brown loafers.
“What are you looking at him for?” Angie was screaming. “He’s not the one who’s talking to you. I am. Take all this crap. I don’t want to see it—or you—in my house ever again.”
The next morning Priya rang the doorbell as if the previous day had never happened. She scooped Tessa up in her arms, and Tessa wiggled with joy, and everyone seemed to forget about Priya’s gods. Tessa did what she was told by Priya. She got in the tub, she picked up her toys, she put away her coloring, she sat quietly and listened to Priya read a book, and she closed her eyes and took a nap—just because Priya told her to. As soon as Angie came home and Priya left, she had meltdowns. On a particularly challenging day, Angie walked out of the living room, leaving Tessa wailing on her own on the floor. It surprised me when ten minutes went by and Angie hadn’t returned. She stayed in the bathroom for an hour.
When she emerged, her face was puffy from crying, and I had managed to put Tessa to sleep. I put my arm on her shoulder and told her it would get better.
“All children are like this at this age,” I said. “It’s the terrible threes.”
“No, ma,” Angie said, with a haunted look. “It’s Priya. She’s got this strange hold over Tessa. It scares me sometimes. It doesn’t feel right.”
A few days later, I returned from the market to find Priya walking hurriedly to her car. It wasn’t the end of the day.
“Ma!” She was swinging her head from left to right, waving her finger in my face like she did to Nyamunya. She was crying. “It’s enough.”
She arranged her golden sari around her thick shoulders. “My husband left me a rich woman,” she said. “I can do whatever I want, go on a cruise, buy a fruit farm. I don’t need to suffer every day in this job with that crazy American woman.”
As Priya got in her car, I told her I would try to smooth things over.
“No, don’t bother,” she said. “I love that little girl, but there’s a restless energy in that house, a warring energy, constant fighting. It’s a Godless house. I’ve prayed over it and asked God to intercede. But myself, I cannot stay in the house.”
Nyamunya was standing on the doorstep with a smirk on her face.
Inside, Angie was lying on the couch. She had come home early from work with a migraine and was taking a nap on the couch when Priya and Tessa, who was awash with bright colors, came back from Temple. Priya told Angie it was the Festival of Colors. She showed Angie pictures on her smartphone of Tessa eating from silver bowls, playing with prayer beads, and helping an elderly woman light a flame under a many-armed, mysterious deity. I thought I recognized Kali.
Angie asked Priya to bathe Tessa. The dyes in the powder had completely bleached her hair. Priya called on Nyamunya to help hold the child’s head back, and for an hour they soaked and rinsed her hair to get the green and red dyes out. When they had finished bathing Tessa, Angie told Priya to leave and never come back.
“The woman has no boundaries,” Angie said to Mark later that night.
The next morning, Tessa asked for Priya. My heart sunk into the cavities of my stomach.
“Priya’s gone, my love,” Angie said. “She’s not going to come back.”
Tessa was only three, and she had never lost anything. Everyone had remained constant in her life since she was born—Nyamunya, her parents, and me.
“I want Priya,” she cried, and for three straight hours Tessa lay on the couch grieving. She wouldn’t eat. I knew she had shed a little bit of her innocence.
After that, Tessa and I spent our days alone together. We had beautiful days in the garden. She would pick at her mother’s roses, prick her tiny fingers, then forget the pain and pick at another rose. Her depth of language was remarkable. She expressed herself easily in English and Swahili and spoke a few Hindi words.
“Bas!” she would exclaim and move her small finger from left to right, and it made me smile because it reminded me of Priya and Nyamunya and their frosty relationship.
Every day, we had an early breakfast followed by a quick cleanup. As Nyamunya did the laundry, I stacked up the dishwasher and Tessa intently swept the kitchen floor with a tall broomstick. I would watch the dirt go this way and that. It reminded me of our family holidays in Mombasa when Mark was a child—the way the plankton would move back and forth in the tide and mesmerize him for hours.
Tessa jumped on beds while Nyamunya made them and cracked open with laughter when she brought down a sheet over her like a cloud. Some days, we spent time at the Village Market mall in Gigiri, Priya’s neighborhood. We sat by the fountain and dropped pennies. She ate an ice cream cone. I missed Priya, our conversations, our unspoken understanding.
It was nearly three months since Priya left us. Christmas was gone, New Years was gone, Valentine’s Day was gone, and the summer was still unseasonably, crushingly hot.
It was another leap year, another year of confusion, mwaka mrefu. It was the year Tessa would turn four.
More weekend barbecues were held in Mandy and Shree’s garden. We sent Nyamunya with trays of food prepared in our kitchen to carry through the little wooden gate in the Kei-apple fence to Mandy’s kitchen. Mark carried his marinated steaks in Tupperware, and Tessa and I waddled through carrying armband floaters, towels, sunscreen, and other odds and ends.
Tessa had started swim lessons and was improving every week. She was agile and fearless. The swim instructor said she would “swim safe, very soon. It’s all practice, and getting comfortable in the water.”
On February 29, Tessa woke up and asked about Priya; she wanted to know if she would see her again. It made me wonder if young children have dreams like adults, about those who are no longer there.
She was stubborn all through breakfast and her swim lesson. At lunch she threw peas around the dining table, then her whole plate down, splashing a ray of mash potato and beef mince on the wall.
Outside, the heat was oppressive. I put Tessa in a cool bath, and then lay her down on her bed, covering her lightly with a yellow summer quilt I had embroidered with red butterflies the year she was born. She finally settled.
Downstairs, I slumped into an armchair and turned on the television. My head grew heavy and I drifted off to sleep. I woke up groggy from the sound of a gusty wind slamming a window behind me. Big gray clouds were swooping in, and the smell of rain was pungent in the muggy air. I looked at my watch.
Two hours had gone by and I realized Tessa would be awake. Drifting upstairs, I edged my head quietly inside her bedroom door. She wasn’t in her bed.
Outside, Nyamunya was working quickly to bring down the wash from the clotheslines as the storm clouds moved in closer. “Tessa is not with you?” I asked. Nyamunya turned to look at me, her arms full with folded laundry. She hadn’t seen Tessa. We both went back in the house calling for her. I checked in every bathroom, where she liked to make mischief, rolling out toilet paper. Nyamunya looked in her parent’s bedroom, where Tessa would get into her mother’s makeup drawer.
Then we both went back outside, a heavy anxiety unspoken between us. Nyamunya walked around to the front porch, while I stood in the backyard looking around the garden and the cobbled patio. That was when I heard the thumping. When I turned around, I saw the wooden gate in the Kei-apple fence slamming back and forth in the wind.
Across the fence, Shree and Mandy’s pool sparkled in shades of blue like a Tanzanite under the silver of the cracking lightning. I knew then what had happened. I ran, my feet stumbling with the fear of what I was about to see, and I was blinded with tears. She still had on her pink cotton T-shirt, the one that said, “I’m a Diva,” the one she begged to wear after every bath. It was Nyamunya, running past me, who jumped in and brought her out and then to me as if I would know what to do. I tried everything I knew, while screaming for Nyamunya to call everyone, anyone. I held her for what felt like hours. She was like a doll in my arms, her soft curly hair tickling my face, but her feet and her hands were blue and ice cold.
Death is crafty. He brims like a bright red balloon in the blue sky. He had whispered at Tessa, just like he had at my Kamau, on a sunny day at the most unlikely moment.
I was still holding Tessa when Angie pried her out of my arms.
“Wake up my baby, wake up my baby,” until her voice went hoarse. It was only then that I saw all the neighbors crowded outside Shree’s property, quiet spectators with hands over their mouths and tight grasps on their children. We all stood like statues in the garden, oblivious to the rain pounding down on us, watching Angie shatter. Mark had arrived too. He was in a stupor. No part of his body seemed to move. He was standing behind Angie with his arms around her shoulders. Angie was lost in a world where she wept unabashedly, agony ripping through her body, shaking her shoulders violently.
I saw Shree’s car pull up as if from nowhere and with his engine still running, he got out of the car and sprinted up his short driveway.
“Let’s go, let’s go,” he shouted. “We can resuscitate her in the ER.” Karen Hospital was five minutes away, but it felt like we were hours away from salvation. Shree, a trained doctor, was the only one of us who remained calm. His voice shook Mark out of his stupor. Shree scooped Tessa off Angie’s arms and ran down the driveway; Mark squeezed his tall frame in and took the child off Shree’s hands, and lay her on his lap, her head on his chest, like she was sleeping. Angie climbed in the back seat from the left back door, and the car sped off.
The water in the pool had turned a deeper shade of blue, almost gray. Small swirly circles were forming around each raindrop. It looked like a normal pool, like any other pool.
Angie wouldn’t leave her bed.
Mark and I went to the funeral home the next day. The funeral director wore a light gray suit that I thought was too bright. There was a questionnaire on a clipboard. Mark placed it on his lap and stared down at it. The pen was in his hand, but it didn’t move; then there was a low, guttural sound, a heaving. It was Mark. It was there in the middle of the questionnaire, away from his wife, in front of a strange pale man in a gray suit, in a morbid English colonial-style funeral home, that Mark finally broke down. The clipboard fell on the soft carpet, and he collapsed in my arms, a tall giant crushed by grief, reduced to my little boy. So, I took over. I filled out the questionnaire. One hundred roses. Burial. Marble. I picked out the coffin. It was the smallest one I had ever seen, but Tessa would have enough room for her yellow quilt with the red butterflies.
I wrote my granddaughter’s obituary. Tessa Maisha Kamau. June 31 2008–February 29 2012.
“Beloved daughter, treasured granddaughter…” Nothing else came to me. The funeral director in his too-bright suit suggested some suitable words. It didn’t matter. I wrote obediently.
I found the picture of Tessa from her third birthday—the one where she had proudly showed off her pierced ears while she blew out the candles on her cake. I went to pick out a dress. I couldn’t remember doing anything sadder in my seventy years on earth than walking through a brightly lit children’s clothing store to pick out an outfit for my dead granddaughter. In the end I bought nothing. We dressed her in a pink tutu from her wardrobe and a white lace top because Tessa loved tutus and she loved to dance. We didn’t put her in shoes. She had never liked them.
Since the death, Angie seemed to glide on air, an apparition guided by a mysterious force. She had cried for two days and two nights in a heavy grunting way, the same sound the pigs in my father’s butchery made at slaughter.
On the third day she was put on a sedative. Shree said it was the only way for her to sleep. She woke after twenty-four hours and sat in a dreamlike state on the rocking chair in her room, where she had breast-fed Tessa every morning, where she had sat with the puffing breast machine filling little bottles with her milk for Tessa’s day.
After the funeral, the house filled up with friends and Mark and Angie’s colleagues. There were little Swedish meatballs pricked with toothpicks, samosas, a beef pilau, a chicken curry, and fruit kebabs. Mark walked about the room greeting and thanking every one with a blank stare. Angie sat at the bay window in the kitchen looking out to the skyline of the Ngong Hills. Everyone walked in with a dish. I had seen this before. People used food as a symbol for all the things they wished they could say, or didn’t know how to say, and I didn’t know what I would do with all of it.
I asked Nyamunya, who seemed to have lost ten pounds in one week, to help transfer food into Tupperware. She walked over to the fridge door, then ran out of the room sobbing. On the fridge door, pinned by a Coke magnet, I saw, there was a photo of Tessa wearing a red bikini, pink armband floaters, and her mother’s sun glasses. I felt a wave of nausea wash through me. I took the photograph off the fridge and put it in one of the bottom drawers.
The bell rang one more time. It was Priya, standing in a plain white sari holding a casserole dish. When I saw her at the door, a priestess in white, I crumbled, and she hurried to me and held me in her arms and sat with me for a long time at the table where we had spent many afternoons with the baby monitor behind us.
Later, Priya walked up to the bay window and looked outside to the nothingness that Angie was staring at. She sat down and put her hand over Angie’s. Angie looked down at the comforting hand, then stood up and moved herself away, never letting her eyes meet Priya’s, gliding up the stairs.
I knocked softly on her bedroom door, carrying a mug of chamomile tea. She was lying with her back to me. I laid the mug on the round bedside table where an assortment of pill bottles lay scattered.
Angie turned around to face me and stirred as if wanting to speak, but then the sleep overcame her and she drifted off again. Her neck and forehead were glistening with sweat. I wiped her face with a wet cloth and watched her in a restless sleep.
Then I saw, clasped loosely in her right hand, the shiny brass goddess Kali Ma. She had a necklace of skulls around her neck. In one hand she held a cut-off head and in another a sword. Her other six hands held an assortment of weapons. She stood in a dancing stance over the god Shiva, who lay prostrate beneath her.
I reached out to take the statue out of Angie’s hand so that I could set it on the table, but as I tried to, Angie clutched it tighter, her feet kicking in the percale sheets.
Irene Muchemi-Ndiritu was born in Kenya. She has an MA in Journalism from Columbia University and has worked as a journalist in New York City, Washington DC, and Boston. Her debut novel, Lucky Girl, will be out in 2021.