1980. The year Milka was born was also the year that her family woes started. Or so her mother, Wangui, liked to repeat whenever the occasion presented itself. Which was often. The President died. The country started to fall apart. Your father lost his job. Prices went up. As if it was Milka´s fault that the country´s leadership was corrupt. When Milka was old enough to ask questions, she did.
“Was my birth a calamity too?”
Her mother would cast a glaring look as if to tell her to shut up. Sometimes she would mutter something about children being gifts from God. But this was not enough to assuage Milka. Love would have been great to hear. How she came into this world because of it. Not a chance. Years later, she would come to think of her birthplace Tigori, a suburb 30 kilometers from Nairobi, as one that was cursed. The wicked witch after all lived in Tigori. That’s what she had come to believe her mother was at the tender age of ten.
But that was years ago, Milka thought as she cast glances around Pastor Matheri´s living room. There was a purple velvet couch, a red leather foot rest right in front of it. Contrast that with the man she had always known to wear black. Mosaic-like photos hang in-between wooden shelves with small blue lamps placed deliberately on the top shelf. The mid shelf had gourds covered with shells usually made by the Miji Kenda from Mombasa. She scanned the room looking for signs of the man who gave the devil a tongue lashing every Sunday. At the pew, he spat out gospel as if they were his last words. He spoke of punishment, by the devil, in such severe terms, Milka was certain, that anyone leaving the church had to have reconsidered their sins, whatever their form.
But he was the type of person who would have gladly given his heart on a platter. Unlike Wangui who would not have her heart or any part of her on any platter. If anything, she had often put people´s dignity and pride on the said platter and sold it to the highest bidder. Those were Milka´s exact words whenever she and her friends visited a downtown bar after hours during her residency at the Nairobi Hospital on Fridays in Nairobi. “You see I was born unlucky. My father was unable to stand up to the woman. When I cried he held me. But only sometimes. The other times, he would quietly slip away. But he hated Pastor Matheri, nay the church. He couldn´t stand it, because my mother loved the church,” Milka would go on and on in a drunken rant.
Now here she was in Tigori. Ten years later, sipping on the coffee Pastor Matheri had offered her. It had a sour taste on the top front of her tongue. Pastor Matheri had disappeared to search for the some file that was needed. She took another sip, hoping the taste would improve with each sip, and stretched out her legs from under her long orange skirt. She had a short torso, so sitting down, one couldn’t tell she was five foot ten, nearly as tall as Pastor Matheri. She smiled.
“Pastor, my savior,” she muttered under her breath. He was the one who had cooled down the burning cinders that her mother, Wangui, threw her way.
As she swallowed the bitter tasting coffee, she remembered the day she had learned to escape her mother´s fury to a world of fairy tales with Pastor Matheri. It happened by chance really. She had come home to find her mother screaming. No one was in sight, but a few minutes in, she had learned all this was directed at her father. Except he had left, as he often did when the shouting began. But her mother hadn´t managed to stop. So Milka confused had ran out crying, and right outside Paster Matheri stood, his blue station wagon parked on the drive way. He had held her hand, led her away from the house, and calmed her down. Thereafter, whenever her mother´s rage went into overdrive, she would run to Pastor Matheri.
When Milka was not in school and Wangui was not in her good sense, which was often the case, Milka would walk to the quaint wooden church in the midst of a two acre grass field. It was a vast field of greenery, with nothing but one giant fig tree which, it was rumored had survived three hurricanes. The church was tiny but it easily housed most of the women of Tigori and a handful of men every Sunday. Milka would waltz in, with her Bata slippers making little patter sounds on the red concrete floor. It’s as if Pastor Matheri knew she was coming. As if he had been waiting for her all the while. He never asked her what the matter was, but he always seemed to know what to do. Maybe it was the energy she brought in the room which must have been reeking of her mother. It was his job to shake it off.
“Your mother was blessed with more words than anyone else,” he would say and chuckle. And then sometimes he would make her sing with him. He made her laugh too with his stories about the trickster hare. Other times, she would drag her friends to play in the church yard. She felt safe under his watchful eye, away from her mother´s. She only came to realize, years later, that the red tiled, stoned house behind the church was Pastor Matheri´s house.
Here she was now, Twenty years later and she had finally visited his house. This is what Milka thought as she sat on the purple couch. She turned around and then caught sight of the book shelf. She took another sip of the now cold coffee, and almost spat it out. She approached the shelf. She chuckled. Silver haired Matheri read things that were not the bible. A framed photo on the wall made her stop. There she was. It must have been more than thirty years since he had lost his young wife to a cell eating disease.
Milka wasn´t even sure if this was true. Too many rumors circled in Tigori. Another reason she was glad she had left the town. She was sure though that he had never remarried, had not children and had since devoted, nay, given himself to the church. For better or for worse, Matheri was present. The worse had shown up and that is why Milka had made her way back to Tigori, to Matheri´s house. Not because she was particularly religious. Her mother had turned her off religion. The way she wore the pink flowered dresses with pink sweaters draped over her shoulders like a Stepford wife before church spoke nothing of the woman who inhabited the clothes. Although Milka remembered those few minutes before church were sometimes pleasurable. It was like her mother got transported. She hummed around the house. She would laugh too. Sometimes Milka would catch her staring at her with a softness on her face. Those few minutes were cherished. They said little about the woman with hands on her hips, who ordered everyone around to submission. The one who had single handedly reduced her dad, JB, as he was known to everyone, to an ATM machine, and the designated lawn mower. That’s how he had died actually, on the lawn. No one had noticed he had a stroke, until the lawn mower ran out of gas and the sharp groaning eased. Wangui ran out incensed that he had not finished the yard. Only then had she noticed him sprawled out on the lawn.
There had been tears, but not from Wangui. She had been silent for five days after the funeral. On the sixth she had shouted her voice hoarse that Milka had left the lawn mower outside for too long. On the seventh day she had returned to church. Milka was convinced that her mother would leave the world, if she ever, with a completely different mark. One that was engraved with fire and hailstorm drawn from her. She thought everyone respected her, but really it was fear. One day she will calm down, her father often said, his words laced with hope. Probably the only words he would say to Milka when the devil was breathing fire. Milka had despised him for not standing up to her mother. Over the years the spite turned to pity. This however came a bit too late as thoughts of leaving Tigori forever had started to consume her.
In addition, everything was spiraling down. This suburb was falling fast from its middle class edge. Fancy jams and cream cookies were first to disappear from the shelves, then the traffic jams became a thing of the past, as fast as the gas stations turned to garages. The couch was beginning to show how long it had been since it was brought from the store. The carpet had to be held down with two wooden stools planted on each side of the carpet by the couch. The only thing that Milka loved in the room was the black and white framed photo of her on the chimney stand. She liked to imagine her father and mother had nothing but love for her when they first laid eyes on her. Everything else in the house had lost its shimmer, and in her teenage years, Milka had known that once she left Tigori, she would not return. So she stayed up till the wee hours of the morning reading up all things physics and chemistry. In that world, she was happy. Excited at the prospect of getting a scholarship to attend college. In the meantime Tigori, like the rest of the country really, continued on its downward spiral.
Her father had been the first to succumb. He lost his permanent job. And after that he only worked short term contractual jobs in different engineering companies. He made sure to drink a lot too before he came home every day. Whenever Wangui served his food, a silence would follow his mumbled thank you. That was the other thing, no matter how angry Wangui was, she still made his favorite dishes. Sometimes Milka would catch him looking at her mother as if he was searching for a sign. Mostly she wondered why he still stayed with Wangui. She was even taller than him by six inches. He was robust and she hardly had any fat in her body that is why her bones stuck out not only from her waist but from her face. The only time they receded was when her mood was about to hit the highest notch of irritation. That’s how they knew. To move out of her way. On Sundays, on her way to church, the bones would recede. It’s like she was going out to war. And perhaps she was. She walked sturdily, her face held tightly together, her knuckles folded over, her breathing labored, and her mouth tightly held together. She rattled Pastor Matheri too. That was the other thing, Wangui never, not once, spoke to Pastor Matheri outside of church proceedings. Not voluntarily at least. Only if Pastor Matheri came to her. She had seen this many a time.
“The Lord don´t mess around on Sundays,” Wangui was known to say.
Milka wondered if she was talking about herself. A complete contradiction because inside the church, peace was restored. Wangui seemed committed to praising the Lord´s name. Her cheek bones resurfaced. It’s the only place Milka thought she caught a glimpse of happiness in her mother. The way she clapped her hands, was testament. She moved them so far wide and when the palms of her hands connected, it seemed to give her great satisfaction. Her hallelujahs were many. Her Amens, on point, and loud. The only day she missed church is the day the congregation realized how much they needed her in their midst if only to keep the momentum going. That’s the other reason Milka thought Wangui was tolerated. It was that people relied on her to not only keep the church mojo up and up, but also because she is the one who said what everyone was so afraid of stating. When there were rumors that the local politician had embezzled funds from the local scholarship programs, Wangui did not go about beating the bush to oblivion. Let’s just say she was the reason he did not make it for a second term.
Sometimes local disputes were brought to Wangui´s attention. Even the school bullies stayed away from Milka. No child in their right sense wanted a repeat of what had transpired when one day, Milka had gone home crying. But that was before Milka had left home. Years before Milka had ever returned home. Years before her mother died. Now Milka had returned to bury the Matriarch.
She needed Pastor Matheri. When he had appeared at the door, she had gasped at how the years had crept on Matheri´s face. But he was without a stoop. Except there was a sadness about him. The glow was missing, perhaps. His teeth still arranged in a symmetry as if there two railway tracks. He had shown all of them when he saw her. He had even laughed out loud, his eyes had sparkled. It all came back to her. Would you like some coffee? She had obliged. He had disappeared into the kitchen and brought out the coffee. After which he excused himself to fetch some file so they could discuss the funeral arrangements. That’s when she had started looking around her. At his house. Photos on the shelf. She had approached. Right there on the cupboard were photos of his family. His nieces and nephews. His deceased wife. They looked happy in their wedding photo. She in a white wedding dress that barely reached her ankles, with a veil that swept all the way to the floor. Him in a black tux with a blue bow tie. She had turned to observe the rest of the room, intrigued by his worldliness, at least of the room. That’s how she stumbled upon an old photo, stuck in between a travel guide book. Not stumbled, anyone looking would have seen it. Hedged in between an old lantern lamp that needed dusting and a travel photo book of an old Mombasa. A photo. Black and white. Gathering dust as well. She stared at it perplexed. How? Why? She heard movement. Still holding the photo she turned to see Pastor Matheri holding some papers.
It was the look on his face. Shame. Hopelessness. “I am sorry,” was all he could muster. “I am sorry I was so scared. I should have done something.”
“Did my father know?” she interrupted him.
“Yes, but he stayed with her…before, um well, she had come to confide in me. For years they couldn´t have children so there were conflicts. I…I consoled her. But we fell in love… I loved her. I regret many things. My wife was dying. I was the priest. People depended on me. But your mother, she never forgave me…”
Milka did not care to hear anymore. She was beside herself. It had taken her three psychologists to get over her mother issues, and now this. She did not need another thing about her mother to analyze. She had spent so much money, and all she would have needed to know was her mother had simply been heartbroken.
As she made towards the door, it occurred to her. She turned back to him. Her father. At least I know I was born out of love.