After the call, and without thinking again, Festus, my only son, took the glass, half-filled with hydrogen cyanide, studied the highly noxious solution for a minute or two, and then ignoring the repercussions, he took it all in one swallow.
The papers and gutters and the bloggers went ballistic. Mainstream press slightly toned their language; Government official’s son commits suicide in a love triangle, Ministry official’s son dies in suspicious circumstances. But the bloggers and gutter press went rogue; Business Mogul’s son takes a glass of poison, blows head off. Kingpin’s Son mixes cocaine and poison. Honcho’s son takes a death pill.
I wanted to hunt every one of them and blow their heads off, or force that mix of cocaine and poison and watch them die. But I wasn’t born a killer. And my son was dead. I needed the energy.
I was away representing my country in China while his father, I was later told, was at a bar, with another woman, somewhere in the heart of Westlands. I knew he was cheating on me but after I saw my son’s lifeless body, green and stinking, his mouth open, and his stomach swollen like a gigantic balloon, I blamed him. I blamed him because it makes sense to the public and the papers that even though my husband was home, and our son still took a whole glass of poison, then our son really wanted to die. It would have made sense that there was nothing anybody could do.
My husband had become daringly conceited, the kind of man you want to forget you ever slept with or told ‘I love you’. He’d done nasty things, to me, to my son, and to other people.
During the investigations, for example, the police found out that he had wired our house and had secret cameras in all the rooms. That paranoid man even put one of those things in our bathroom. I wondered why he wanted to see me naked two times – in his bed and in his bathroom. May be he thought I would bring home another man and proceed to commit the act of adultery in our bathroom. I think he was obsessed by the dark secret lives and affairs of the women he watched in the classic movies and was similarly was obsessed with.
You may also want to know that the clip that immortalized the last moments of my son’s life was played to me last evening at the police headquarters. I demanded to see it after some corrupt member of the investigation leaked it to the press in exchange for a briefcase stashed with several pictures of Kenyatta.
When I got into that office, my head was first under attack by a hammering headache, my limbs were numb, and my entire frame shivered. I had looked at myself in the car mirror before. My lips were cracked, my face looked like an abandoned war field; the eye sockets were sunken and my eyeballs swollen and red. My hair – I have long natural hair, which I like combed out- mirrored the mad woman’s I used to see twenty-five years ago in Mombasa’s Majengo where I was born and bred. My blouse’s two last buttons were interchanged so that my withering breasts showed. Then I remembered why my driver had wanted to say something but each time mumbled “it’s nothing really”.
Then the moment came. They were only two officers by the small screen. Guilt was on their faces, at least the guilt they suffered on behalf of their rogue colleague and press leaker. They’d heard my comments after the video was leaked. I had called them callous bastards that would sell their mothers for money. I wanted them to bring that up again so I could repeat it to their faces. But my anger vanished when the video started rolling.
My son was seated on the table crying. Even though the video was annoyingly poor, I did not miss the pain on his face. He had a glass in his hand, tears running – almost gushing – from his eyes. A tendon ran from his temple and burrowed right between his eyebrows. On the table was the white powder, what the police had quickly identified as cocaine. The only living thing during this deathly visit was our family cat. A fat cat with long whiskers, I now think she was the only emotionally stable member of my family. She was perched herself on the white, elegant settee. With a calm expression on her face, with only her blue eyes blinking, she was the only witness to my son’s last moments.
My son then made a phone call, his last conversation to another soul – to the person who could have saved him from murdering himself. With his head stooped, his left hand propping himself on the table and the other hand holding the HTC I had bought him in Dubai, he sniffed and spoke with a trembling hand. There was a better audio from the taping my husband had done. It was like a monotone. He did not expect a back and forth sort of conversation. My son was making a last plea to the woman he loved.
Festus said, “Babe…babe are you there…” of course I did not hear whether she was there, but my son finally said what bothered him. “I know that I’ll probably not marry you. I just wanna let you know that I have resigned myself to that fact or is it fate, Jasmine…?” and he chortled, a wry cackle that was obviously forced. Jasmine. That name made me jump. I knew that name. Then I remembered his last birthday, two months before. The brown-skinned petite young woman with short hair and weirdly looking crucifix earrings pulling her earlobes. Festus had introduced her as a friend, but Festus had underestimated me. He did not know that there is a way women look at people they’ve had sex with. Jasmine looked at Festus the same way. Later in the evening, they had cradled at the far end of the pool, chatting and giggling like honeymooners at the Bahamas.
“Jasmine,” my son went on. “My father thinks I am nobody. But how can it be my problem that I cannot understand shit they teach in school? How can it be my problem that my mother cannot give birth to another kid…but…Jasmine…?” Jasmine was obviously trying to say something. “Jasmine that is why they mount pressure on me…to study medicine. But I don’t understand that shit. I want to paint. I just wanna be me, Jasmine. And I don’t have anyone who loves me. My mother works for the government and runs around. My father runs this construction company and gets all this shit-load of money. Those two people hate each other… they shout in this house every time they come here. How can life be so painful? Am so much in pain…”
He stopped, stood up, walked to the window, came back and took the glass. “Why is life so cold, Jasmine – this cold towards me?” Then obviously there was silence. “I wanna live, but it’s impossible to live… I am suffocating, Jasmine… I am drowning in this sea. And I’m all alone”. Our cat now jumped from the settee and lay on the floor, her ears erect, perhaps alarmed, may be too bored. “I’ll die today. Please come to my funeral and say hi. I must now go, darling.” My son then swallowed his drink. He stood, for a while then he appeared to be staggering, then he slumped on the settee and started vomiting.
“Stop it! Stop!” And the officer’s fat finger almost crushed the miniature player. By the time my son’s plea started sinking in my head, I was already out of the office; I was crying and sniffing. I was in a daze as I climbed down the staircase, my body wrecking, my tears falling on my cheeks and clothes. Everybody was looking at me. I couldn’t see their faces and I did not care. How was I supposed to care? I kicked off my shoes once I clambered into the car. My driver, I suspect, wanted to say something. I told him ‘drive!’
By the time we took the Silver Spring roundabout, at the DOD, Hurlingham, I am sure I was going to run mad. My ears were blocked, my neck was stiff, and my ulcers were back. I told my driver to help me. “Please help me.” First he activated the car siren and put it on the roof. Then he pumped gas into the V8 engine. The Japanese beast leaped and then galloped down towards Lenana Road.
“I need milk”, I said. He bought me milk and my hands were trembling so much I could not hold it. He helped me drink it, but I vomited all of it on his suit. Feeling better, but worse than I have ever felt, I fished out Festus’ phone and looked at his last dial. “Estranged Lover” is how my son had saved the number to the woman he loved. It made sense because my son had a flare with language. His library had only painting books, poetry, and novels. A clean looking bookshelf he’d acquired from his friend who was leaving town, it was the only decent thing in his room. All else, clothes, empty paint bottles, clothes, and papers, gave his room a pungent smell and a feel of failure he was.
“I am Festus’ mother and we need to have a chat,” are the first words I said when I heard a voice on the other side. “I am Jasmine’s mother and I am truly sorry for your loss.” Yeah, everybody knew. It was all over the news. Everybody wanted to care. Jasmine, who was bathing at the time I called, agreed to me meet me, half-heartedly though.
My driver told me to “take it easy” and added that “I understood if you cry”. So I slumped on the seat and blamed myself, my past, and my present. Festus’ coming-into-being had haunted me. Nightmarish dreams of several men stalking me, chasing me naked down dark alleys, had denied me sleep.
So is it true that I never liked Festus? Yes. Why? I should have loved Festus. People called me mama Festus. But he reminded me of a Saturday night in Ngong Forest. Festus’ face, his voice, and his build reminded me of mosquitoes that drew blood from my neck. He also reminded me of the two imbecilic, wicked men who pinned me down and drew water from my well.
The previous night I had had exhilarating sex with my husband. He was never great on bed but that night he had the horse power I had always desired. The next day, I was in high spirits and so I worked late. My husband had left that morning for an out-of-the-country trip.
Those mad men kidnapped me along Ngong Road, roughed me up and tossed me into my trunk, then drove off into the forest. It had drizzled so the forest was wet the ground a treacherous sludge. It had never occurred to me how strange men in pant suits rape strange women in skirt suits. I asked them “what do you want?” and they answered with a slap across my face and said “your husband keeps bullshitting with us. We would like to pinch him where it hurts the most”. I told them “I’m not in my husband” and they retorted that “yeah we are not blind! Tell him we’re not very happy about how he has been treating our friends.”
“Let’s teach her a lesson”. The first man drew a gun and told me to strip. It’s the urine burning my thighs that brought me up to date with how powerless I had become. “Strip” I did and “go on your knees!” I also did. “Like a cow!” I tarried but then did that too. It was important for me to close my eyes and grit my teeth. Too much pressure, too much haste. If only men understood that sex – even if you have to take it by force – is best enjoyed at a certain tempo. But he was a rough, uncouth fellow. He pushed too hard, pushing me to the ground, deep into on the mud. At first, I felt the mosquitoes’ sting. Later on, in the course of paying my husband’s sin, I went numb. Only his groans and hisses played in my subconscious. There were also the beautiful song sung by the crickets and the croak of frogs. It was already too painful, but they kicked me and then kicked me again and left me for dead.
When I missed my period later that month, my heart skipped. It was either my husband or one of the two men. When Festus was born, at Nairobi Hospital, mid-morning when the sun was up and the sky was clear – I am told – I felt a strangeness that only signifies strange posterity. Even before they could cut the cord, I demanded to look at my little angel, peered down into his eyes, and probed his ears, shape of the head, the toes, and the neck. Where was the sign? What was it that would make people say “he looks just like his daddy? Ohh look at those nails, don’t they just look like his father’s father? Not so much to see – it was a little thing, a soul, a beautiful creation of God.
Even before my son walked, I took my husband’s underwear, my son’s saliva, and talked with a friend who knew about DNA. Soon I would know. It was not God’s creation. The devil had impregnated me and for nine months I plodded the maternity corridors with the devil’s baby.
Festus had a natural scar between his eyebrows. The man who ripped off my underwear and almost ripped my breasts from my bosom. Festus was his baby. To make it bearable for me, I wished it was the other man’s. He wasn’t a wolf like Festus’ father. Festus was often cold, withdrawn, and quite. It was not his mistake, but Festus spooked me, scared me. He was the typical rapist he was not. So I disowned him; I never referred to him as “my son”. I called him Festus. I fought and fended off all emotional attachment.
Festus was not good at academics. His teachers said he was a slow learner but Festus was not learning anything. His father, schooled at London School of Economics, was always miffed at the fact that ‘his’ son was academically maladroit. Most evenings he came home to try salvage ‘his’ son. My husband should have stopped trying when he realized that Festus was a bozo. Instead, he pushed him too much. At some point Festus began to run away from home and seek refuge at his uncle’s, a writer who had published no books and wrote a ridiculous political column with the local daily.
Life was bearable for me when he was at his uncle’s. He called me often, but we never talked as a son should talk with his mother. Numerous times he had asked me if I was okay. I always told him “I am okay, Festus. Are you okay?” One evening in the kitchen, Festus had asked if I was his mother. How could he ask me if I was his mother? I tarried – it was hard – but said “yes you’re my son, Festus”. He’d nodded and after an awkward silence, my son had sauntered out of the room. That evening it was obvious that Festus had made his feelings known. But it only helped to worsen my anger.
It was now evening, furious clouds swirled across the dramatic skies; the only testimony that the sun was still up were the rays that created a halo around one particularly humongous cloud. I dropped the windows and a wisp of wind gushed into the car. I closed my eyes and allowed the wind to cool my burning head.
I got into Java. Whites milled everywhere. Everyone was happy. Families were eating and laughing. But I was alone. My dad and mum had died fifteen years before. My sister was abroad and my brother, yes he had come and hugged me, but he was a man. He did not know how to baby me. I did not want to see my husband. So I was a lone with the driver, a government employee whose only job was to chauffeur me around until I told him “go home”. His name – my driver’s name – was Kipkoech.
I told Kipkoech to help me look for a brown young lady. He quickly pointed to a corner. She saw me and waved. Her mother was seated next to her.
“I don’t think we can talk here, Jasmine,” I said.
Those days there was an isolated club somewhere in the neighborhood. We drove there. I booked the two tables at a corner. My driver ordered a Tusker. I guess it was rewarding after a whole day babysitting an emotional wreckage. Jasmine ordered a glass of juice and the tall waitress gave me a glass of wine.
Jasmine was supposed to be troubled. She was and she was more troubled than I expected. Her pale face, moon-crater eye sockets, meant that her estranged boyfriend had left a mark in her life. Or maybe be it was the guilt – the same animal that was voraciously eating into my conscience. We were the same in the sense that we had both withheld our love from my son, her lover. I had a sip of my wine, felt it roll down my throat, and finally settled where it belonged. It tasted like vinegar.
I lifted my eyes. “Why was it so hard to keep up with him?” She lowered her eyes. “I loved him,” she said. Now she looked away, avoiding my eyes, avoiding this whole conversation. Two minutes passed. She said, “He had too much baggage – an emotional load that bogged both of us. I felt overwhelmed, trapped in a world that I could not carry…” She stopped, took out a thick, purple handkerchief and blew her nose. After folding the handkerchief and putting it next to the glass, she attempted to take the glass but her hand trembled.
She put the glass back down as her tears began to cascade down her supple cheeks. “With all due respect to Festus…I don’t know why the men I would love to be with want me to be the man. I am a woman…but all these men want to drown me. What the fuck is going on?” The curse did not sound like one. It was drowned in an emotional avalanche. “I thought I only had misfortune. Now I also have blood in my hands. Isn’t that double the tragedy?”
“It’s not your fault, Jasmine”, I told her. It was my fault. “What happened between you and your son?” She asked. It was the question I had dreaded since we sat down. “I cannot talk about it, Jasmine. I wish I could.” She nodded. I thought she understood until she talked again. “I wish I could. But I think giving birth is sacred. There is having pleasure and there is making a decision to rear a child. Isn’t there supposed to be a difference?”
“There is a difference, Jasmine” I needed to agree with her. But she was too bitter, too confused, and hungry for answers. “Festus was your child, wasn’t he?” I nodded. “Yet you never called him son, you never visited him in school, you never took him to see the movies, or was he lying to me, Mrs. Jane?”
“He was not lying…”
“I am not done,” she sniffed. “Do you really expect another woman – a woman who’s merely looking for love and companionship to do that for you? I am going to say one more thing: if you want pure pleasure, then use a condom.” Then there was silence. Now with steady hands, she took her glass, took a gulp and took another one.
She called me by my name. I had been a university lecturer before I was appointed to be permanent secretary in the Ministry of Education. “He did not lie. He told you the truth. I will tell you why,” I said and then I told her my story. Everything. Then I began to cry, sobbing away the shame that had happened in the past, but had taken my presence hostage and locked away the joy of a mother. Jasmine held me as I cried. At some point she joined me in my guilt and together we cried in an attempt to exorcise the demons that had chained me, and scared her.
“There was nothing I could do,” I told her. “I tried to love him…I tried and I tried again – in vain. I tried to have another child. May be another baby would have broken me down. I couldn’t just get pregnant. My husband started cheating on me, and… and…” And I stuttered. She told me “okay”. Jasmine had had enough. But I wanted to say everything. Perhaps only then I would be free. “So I started cheating on him. My husband and I hated each other so much. So much we couldn’t see eye to eye. Now I can see how ridiculous and selfish I was – chasing after love, what I refused to give. My heart became cold and festered with bitterness. My husband and I fought with glasses and words. Festus was there, right in the middle of it. It was ugly. I think that’s when he started doing drugs.”
It had been four hours since we had sat down. Now I took my glass and studied the whiteness and the transparency of my wine. To be fair to the bar, for giving us a place to cry, I finished the glass and ordered another one. Jasmine and I looked at each other without a word, and then we embraced again. With her handkerchief, she dried my tears, and with my own I dried her tears. “What a daughter in law you’d have been,” I said. To that she smiled. “If I have a child, I would name him Festus,” she said.
It was time to leave. But I was not done. I asked my driver to pass by the nearby Total gas station. “I need to tell you something, babe,” I told my driver. “We cannot do this anymore. I think you have Roger and Chebet – two beautiful kids that you ought to love. Juliet, their mother, is also a good woman. I’m sorry but I have to pick up my pieces.” He took me into his massive chest and ran his hands on my hair. He then held my head so that our eyes were at a level, then he leaned and kissed my forehead. Once again I dropped on his chest and cried one more time until I was first a sleep in his arms.
Festus – or rather his body – calmly lay in the coffin, his lips were dry but in a perfect concavity of a smile. His black and white neck tie did not sit as well as I would’ve liked but the mortician had made sure the suit – black – fitted well. I wanted to send him off with the love he never experienced. That’s why I imported his casket; a stainless steel, bronze handles with a soft white interior. His father – his step father, if you like – bought the suit, Italian shoes, and a gold watch.
I had cajoled my husband into an agreement that we make Festus’ burial a family affair. The guest list was fifty. I had personally asked the President not to bring his press detail. An understanding man, he was there with his dear wife.
At 2PM the weather was a warm mellow; leaves fell nonchalantly from the trees, the sun was naked on an even more naked sky. A soft breeze lingered, accompanying the somber mood. My husband’s eyes were teary. I was not. I had made peace with my demons, I suppose.
“From dust to dust,” the priest, a bald man with grey hair and bushy beard finally said. Now using the crank handle, the pallbearers adjusted the straps, and my son’s remains began to sink into his final aboard. “Go in peace, my son,” I mumbled. My husband held my hand awkwardly tight. Jasmine and her mother, in their identical long-sleeved dark suits, stood side by side.
“I love you, Festus,”Jasmine said, loud enough everybody heard.
In the end, Festus was gone, gone forever, and I was all alone. I hope to give birth, with a man I love, and love my baby. But I must also say that I missed an opportunity, and I am well aware that some opportunities only come once.
Fare thee well, my son.
Oduor is trained journalist, poet, and published author of the recently launched novel True Citizen. He plans to get married – in the future, have a cat and a dog, and later have a son and a daughter. For more of his works, visit his website here or follow him on Twitter and FB.