There was a framed portrait in my grandmother’s living room, right on the wall where one would have mounted a television. She deliberately had it placed where everyone in the living room would see it without a strain. The panchromatic portrait was a painting of an old town, the houses well-spaced, the path so narrow but lined on both sides with trees. The river had a narrow bridge but still it flowed, sometimes when I moved so close it felt as if I could hear it flowing, the birds chirping, and the soft sounds of the water as it moved over the pebbles of that beautiful river that nourished the town. Grandma used to tell the story of the portrait; that it was a gift from her friend Dr. Smith.
“He gifted me this piece because it meant so much to me. It is a painting of our own,” she would say. “This town wouldn’t have existed if this river never did,” she often added.
It was a painting of the younger Nairobi. She said it dated back to just few years after the construction of the Kenya-Uganda railway. “If the artist had painted people on it, it would have been Asians in khaki pants.”
A year after grandma’s burial, I went back into the small brick house. The living room smelling of dust and dullness, the silence of an abandoned house giving me thrills, I hated even the sounds of my footsteps as I walked to touch the empty wall where the portrait had been. I cannot tell, till today, why I needed that portrait but I just wanted to see it. It wasn’t there anymore. I wished the person who had taken it would turn it and read the words I had written on it on the night I spend with grandma before my parents transferred me to a boarding school. She had taken my hand and instructed me to write anything in English. I was still in elementary school, had not many words to write. Memories; she instructed me to write it. She laughed and I smiled; we turned it and placed it back on the wall. That was the last night she saw my face and, all the other times, she said she couldn’t know who I was unless I spoke first.
“It’s me, grandma,” I would say.
“Who are you? I cannot tell.” She then would plead with lots of humility that it wasn’t her choice not to remember voices and or be able to see again. She was too old.
Then she died and the portrait was taken. The furniture in the house were shared out I hear and the empty house was left with nothing other than echoes of my breath and footsteps as I stood in the living room, brushing on the same place I feel the words I wrote behind the portrait touched the walls of a house whose warmth has faded and the only thing left are memories.
It is a day right after I missed the portrait on the wall and my heart yearns to take in more of what I must have left behind before I went away. It is on a Friday, the late morning hours of it, I walk into the small room we call ‘the inside Book-Play room’. A room that holds thousands of my childhood memories and now houses a collection of books I retrieved from other rooms in our house and those that I bought with my own money. That makes me proud. I step inside the silent place to notice the patch of uncovered brown and white papers pilled on the lower part of the shelf and I feel it wasn’t me who put them there, but they are mine. The blue, black and red handwritten stories are mine, the experimental stories I wrote several years ago, the unfinished book manuscripts I started writing then abandoned because they wouldn’t make sense at all, the funny and really stupid stories I wrote for my nieces and nephews when I was starting to love writing, the cover designs and very ugly art pieces I made to spice up a room I wanted to look like an art gallery and an ancient museum.
I laugh and smile silently as I kneel to slap off the dust and push the pile well into the shelf. I push aside several papers to uncover the green covered notebook, the smile on my face fades, my heart races and I feel the coldness engulf me like it missed me when I had the brown winter jacket on, the one I bought on my trip to Oxford. I pick the notebook and hold up the hot mug of black tea I had placed down back into my hands as I settle in the old designed armchairs of the little room that is filled with history, little collected art, books and manuscripts, I take in a deep breath and carefully watch the cloud of steam rise from the mug up into the still air touching the white ceiling, just like the kind of memories and little secrets I wrote in this little notebook I titled ‘If God’s Children had Wings for a Birthday Gift.’ Memories from my age seven to almost age seventeen – that is a decade. I am now almost twenty two and it feels more strange to realize the same words I wrote still makes me want to have those wings I wished I had as a gift for my sixteenth birthday.
Page one, the ink is fading, I cannot read the words well, the handwriting is bad and untidy, so sad I cannot see what is below the catchy title: Is Life Really a Movie? I cannot believe once in my life I had such a question in my mind, I struggle with the papers until the mug slides off from the little stool and falls on the floor, breaking into tiny pieces and letting the hot black sugarless tea spill angrily as if all it wanted was for me to take it. The day I wrote this piece must have been a bad day – my thoughts agree. I ignore the mug and the spilled tea and open several pages until when I can see some clear letters of a paragraph I wrote about silence. ‘What about it?’ I wonder. Like the first one, I cannot really see every letter well but at the end it is clear this is what I wrote:
“Kill it now, make the decision to be heard, if it is hard to talk, better write.”
I guess it is silence that was to be killed. The line still makes sense. The next clear paragraph I see is about my worries for friendship. I wrote about this boy I would really love to have for a friend but then he didn’t seem to see how much lonely I was in class to even say a word that I could build to a lasting friendship; so weird. I flip on until when I find yet more chilling confessions and nothing comes to my mind other than the wish that no one should have read them. That is the point at which the little notebook gets into my hands well and I force my hands apart, then tear it into pieces with a force of a bulldozer. The tiny pieces fall on the floor, some on the mug pieces, others into the cold spilled tea that is now staining the white tiled floor. I’m shivering when my niece walks into the room to ask if I’m okay. I nod my head and excuse myself, a soft sorry comes and the door closes.
I am alone still, with nothing more than myself, a question worth being written in the teared up notebook pops up in my mind: Can it be that I have something hidden connecting me with realms beyond those I know? My mind still responds with a yes, a yes that escapes my lips smoothly and I feel the curtain behind the armchair caressing my neck, I jump from the armchair and pull the curtains apart and then the full view of the green backyard reigns, the fascinating beauty of the rose bushes that no longer grow flowers and the little avocado trees that have never had fruits, the creepers of the old fading passion fruit that flowers but never bears fruits. Things over here in our countryside home are breathtaking, strange and powerful. They behave as if they have got wings, which they flap, and decide when to be productive and when to remain memories to those that know them intimately like I do, because I planted them myself, mostly on rainy evenings when drizzles wouldn’t stop until darkness ruled.
A strange warmth rushes through my veins. I turn the armchair to face the window, I sit on it still staring at the backyard, silence and thoughts overshadow the view. I dive into a soul-searching solitude and even forget if I’m breathing, I cannot hear myself, strange encounters and connections. It is so clear to me that every day I wake up, it is not as the same person. However much my face doesn’t change, my inside, my thoughts do; what do we call that? Maybe I am just growing, but does every growing person feel such a close connection with nature, art and history. I mean, does everyone feel the time-distance every time they visit a gallery or when they touch a manuscript. Do archives make sense to people, does the morning dew, the setting sun, the canopy formation? Do landscapes make strange sense to others outside of beauty and geographical landscape formations? Do they really feel that connection with their lives, the existing drift from being oneself in their presence? A feeling too strong to ignore and too strange to believe. Sometimes, for example, my eyes don’t hurt when I look directly at the sun. Well, I’m overthinking, some say. But I know, it didn’t start today, it began years ago. \Such confessions and the truth of who I feel I am are all written on the tiny pieces of paper on the floor.
Hours go until the scent of fried onions fill the air around me. The distant smell of pounded garlic awakens me from that little place I had found comfort. I stare into the hot burning afternoon without regard for the scorching sun. I admire the warmth. I think of telling someone of this strange encounter, but who will believe? I am not complete I know, I will write it once before I forget. I will leave the room for some time and return yet for another chance to see myself, to see my inside and see into the tiny places where I didn’t see when I had the chance to, because I didn’t believe I was human. I now know I am. I know I’m imperfect and that there is still one thing I shouldn’t have written in that green notebook, the truth that once while growing up, I had a vision of something, a feeling of someone I would become in some years to come, that day when I wished I had wings to fly into my future to confirm my fate. It came to pass and the night before today I had a slightly similar dream that opened me up to the possible realities of me in some years to come. \Then I came here to see the notebook and now I have it in pieces. There must be a chance that maybe a bigger story than this one might come to be told. I will be full when I finally realize I don’t need those wings now, until when I will need them really.
It’s lunch time. I have to wipe the spilled tea away and pick the broken pieces of the mug from the floor. This room has to be closed, closed from someone like me who feels strange connections and visits tiny places when I walk into it. I will leave it as a playroom for the children and a library for the readers. The distance back to the days when these mattered is way too far, it smiles not but I am glad the memories do.
Kelvin J. Shachile
Kelvin J. Shachile is a Kenyan writer, creative artist, designer and editor. He is the co-author of Hell in the Backyard and Other Stories and the author of Game of Writing. Kelvin has contributed to over twenty magazines and anthologies including The Best New African Poets 2018 anthology and the second of the boys are not stones anthology: A Country of Broken Boys. He was longlisted for the 2019 African Writers Awards-Children’s literature Category and shortlisted for the inaugural Wakini Kuria Award for African Literature 2019.
This entry appeared in The Memory Issue