‘The Blessing of Kali’ was shortlisted for the 2019 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.
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 that, even though at sixty-five I thought I had seen everything. I was told that the new way to give birth is in water, that it’s soothing both for mother and child. I was given a chair and asked please to stay in the corner and not speak.
Tessa’s birth was strange. Outside, deep craters shone inside the moon in red and orange shades, yet it was so translucent that the night felt like dawn. Inside, the screams of my daughter-in-law were maniacal.
‘My back is breaking, my back is breaking, my back is breaking,’ was Angie’s chant for hours. Then, as if out of nowhere, Tessa’s head crowned and Angie was silenced. She had a shock of pitch-black hair. So much hair that my son, Mark, collapsed and smacked his head on a wooden chair pulled up to the tub that he had sat on while rubbing Angie’s back in her throes of agony. He lay on the floor, bleeding profusely from a gash on his forehead.
In that moment, Tessa floated out of her mother’s body into the warm water and stayed in there for a minute or so in perfect harmony with the waves of the tub, seeming not to need breath. The midwife lifted Tessa out of the water and laid her on her mother’s chest. She was chalky and covered with bright red bits of her afterbirth. My daughter-in-law was breathless from the miracle she had pulled through – yet screaming for her husband who she said was dead on the floor. The nurses brought him back to consciousness with a pale pink strip doused in smelling salts, then stitched his head.
Afterwards, Tessa was wiped down, swaddled tightly like a mummy in a cotton blanket, and handed to Mark, who was still jarred from the high speed of the night’s events. He held his daughter far from his chest like a football waiting to be passed on. But, after a while, with no lesson in fatherhood, he cradled her close to his chest. By the window, in the corner of the birthing room, I sat watching with the solemnness granted to me by old age. I knew this child’s life would be extraordinary. Maisha ya kuigiza – a life of high drama.
Mark had returned from America after eighteen years with his African American wife, Angie, with whom I had nothing in common. They bought a house my husband and I would have never bought. The kind that said, I am here, and I am rich. A modern home in Karen, the same suburb of Nairobi where Karen Blixen had written her memoir, Out of Africa, on her wooden patio.
The new Karen was different. The old generation, who were mostly farmers, had left, selling their properties to developers who subdivided the land to build highclass gated communities. Mark and Angie had bought one of the homes, and become a part of Nairobi’s matajiri – the rich ones. Their neighbourhood was surrounded by high stone walls and electric fences.
Mark had grown up in the old Karen, on a large farm. We grew roses for export and kept fat dairy cows for commercial milk and yoghurt. Our hidden driveway was an unmarked dirt road that branched unexpectedly off the main road. We had taught Mark Kiswahili and Kikuyu as a child. It was his identity, we said. But, in Mark’s neighbourhood, the children, who attended international schools, gave me a blank stare when I greeted them with ‘Habari toto.’
Mark’s new house, which was built in a contemporary style with no rules that I could understand, had clear glass doors all around that I had walked into once while carrying my gardening pots. The kitchen at Mark’s house was the only place where I felt at ease, invisible. 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, when she would drop in as many times as she pleased?
Outside, Mark and Angie were chatting with their new neighbours in the garden over beers and expensive South African wine. Dr Shree Rego, a fortysomething Indian neurologist, had returned to Kenya after decades in the UK. Shree’s wife, Mandy, was English, but Shree put in effort to sound even more English than his English wife.
‘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 caught myself sneering. He was no longer the little boy who had been too sensitive, worrying about the shoeless village kids, the township people on the news who were losing their shacks to floods.
‘You know,’ said Angie, ‘what really got me when I moved here were the little things I took for granted back home – like deodorant.’ She was shaking her head in disbelief, and Mandy laughed so hard that dark red wine splattered out her mouth.
‘Or lack of, I should say … People don’t wear deodorant. I dread it whenever I have to queue for something, or ride in an elevator with a bunch of folks – I’ve become so good at holding my breath.’
‘That’s ridiculous,’ Shree said. ‘We are talking about a country that’s been ranked sixth on the extreme poverty index and with no welfare system. Poor Americans can buy deo on your taxes. Kenyans are trying 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 sewerage, watching kids fetch water from a filthy dam. So yeah, of course I know deo is a luxury, but it doesn’t make it easier going up ten floors on a slow-ass elevator that smells like a sweat shop.’
‘Hey! So, we’re starting the dig for our new pool,’ Mandy said. She was as an interior designer, charging wealthy Kenyans baskets of money for advice on something she called ‘yin and yang’. She designed a teardrop-shaped swimming pool for their home and often brought Angie brochures about pool tiling and garden lights.
‘Looks like we will have it done by Christmas.’
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.
‘That’ll be great,’ Mark said, overeager. ‘Beats dealing with the throngs of tourists at the coast.’
He excused himself and walked into the house and past me, just like Angie had a few minutes earlier. Not finding his wife, he came back into the kitchen.
‘Ma, have you seen Angie?’ he asked. I pointed a finger to the bathroom. Outside, Shree and Mandy stood stiffly, sipping on their wine.
‘What?’ said Shree, putting his hands up like he was being robbed at gunpoint. ‘Don’t look at me like that. She’s not Kenyan. She has no right.’
When Tessa was born, Angie took maternity leave and she was on her computer everyday. As soon as the three months were up, she sped back to work as if she couldn’t bear a minute longer at home. A month later, she found out she was pregnant again. She told Mark immediately that she wasn’t going to have the baby. She said that Tessa wasn’t even teething yet, and her career would take a hit. Mark came to me in despair. They spoke to each other when I was in the same room with them, only exchanging empty pleasantries – ‘Tessa smiled today.’
Angie’s gynaecologist carried out the abortion six weeks into the pregnancy. She didn’t know that Mark had shared her darkest secret. I wished Mark hadn’t told me. I wished I didn’t live in their home. Two years before, I had buried my husband. On a beautiful day in August, when the chill was gone and the sun not too hot, my husband had slumped over on the garden swing where we had sat together for years reading and drinking chai.
Death is crafty in that way. He reels us in on a perfect day, calls to us like voices whispering behind pine trees. His death threw me hard. It felt like I had been pushed off a high bridge, blindfolded and hands tied, into a turbulent river. Each day I struggled against the sensation of drowning, of swallowing water and not being able to come up for air. The loneliness stood at my bedroom door, beckoning, and the only place I felt safe was under my bed. One day Mark found me there, called Angie, and she came over and bathed me. Then they brought me to live with them.
The shouting upstairs in their bedroom one night curled my shoulders inwards with anxiety, and I heard Tessa crying in the background, so I knocked on their door and asked for the baby. Mark was cursing, using words he never would have used growing up, words I shall not repeat here.
‘Angie, you’re selfish,’ he said. ‘Let’s be honest here – you put your career first always, before me, before everything else. The baby hasn’t changed anything.’ Angie was small-bodied and, 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.
‘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 little nugget,’ she said. Her voice was breaking with anger. ‘You always knew who I was. You always knew I’m not the kind to be a stay-at-home mom. 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?’
But even if Angie was selfish, I could see that she loved Tessa. 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 breastfed her. I saw a shadow cross her face like a fog because she knew it would be twelve hours before she held Tessa in her arms again.
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, thirty times in the chest. 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 God had a plan for us, and 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?’
But I had had no time to fight with him. The day had been running faster than me, the coffin in the ground too soon. When Father Robert had put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘It’ll get easier with time,’ I’d turned around to look at him, to say something, but all I wanted to do was spit at him.
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 favourite 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 for years with Kamau each Sunday.
The church fans were stagnant 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 wooden pew with sparkly pink shoes for the whole length of the service. The tap-tap-tap sound pounded through my temples and I felt my body float away.
When I opened my eyes, I found myself laid down in a cool, dark corner in the church. Above me stood the Virgin dressed in a red gown, her head bent in humility, one hand clasping the rosary, and the other the Baby Jesus. Father Robert was talking to me, and I tried to sit up, but my head slammed back down with weakness.
The doctor said I had diabetes. My blood sugar was so low I’d fainted. As Tessa grew into her second year, she became faster and I became tired more often, even though I ate frequent small meals. While they ate together over a tennis match on television, I heard Angie tell Mark that I could not watch Tessa any more. Mark said babysitting at least part-time would be good for me, and his tone let her know it was no good arguing.
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. Priya Shah was the fourth nanny hired. She was unlike any other nanny because she had never been a nanny. She got the job because she had raised three boys who had all ended up at Oxford University. Angie said she would never know whether or not the boys were bathed or fed, or were polite or insolent, but one thing she did know was that she must have done one thing right because ‘Oxford don’t take no riff raff’.
‘I don’t know, honey. Somehow it feels a bit odd,’ said Mark with a shrug over dinner that night. ‘Ma, don’t you think it’s a bit strange? Indians are the elite in Kenya. It’s weird – a rich Indian housewife who wants to work as our nanny? The whole thing is upside down.’
Priya 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. 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. She left a trail of scents behind her – camphor and sandalwood – so we always knew where to find her in the large house.
Priya and I became unlikely friends. She was a decade younger than me. We were from different cultural backgrounds, different religions and, in any other circumstance, Priya and I never would have socialised. She mesmerised me in every way. She wore yellow gold rings on her toes, always with leather sandals. Priya had her unusual ways. She spent her days dancing and clapping along to Bhangra music on the Bollywood channel on television. Tessa would screech every time Priya swayed and moved her arms, four times to every beat, her big golden bangles clanking around her wrists. When Priya said goodbye in the evenings, Tessa cried with so much intensity, I had to keep her distracted in another room.
‘Priya leaves her damn BO on the baby, on everything.’ Angie had taken to moaning about Priya every day when she arrived 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 chilli peppers in Tessa’s meals, saying it was important for her to learn how to eat stronger flavours, and she discouraged Tessa from eating meat. Over dinner, Tessa broke off small pieces of chicken and fed Angie’s American cat, Lazybones, under the table.
‘Look, now Tessa won’t even eat the things we eat – she’s trying to inculcate her culture into Tessa,’ Angie said in a despairing voice. ‘She’s even talking to her in Hindi.’
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 – we learnt we had much in common. We were from the same generation of women – wives who allowed their husbands to shepherd the home. Priya said she’d tried to live in England with her eldest son for a year, but his wife, a second-generation English-Indian woman, didn’t like her.
‘If you saw the way she talked to me, you would have shed a tear,’ Priya said.
‘She is smart, beautiful, everything. I met her parents – they’re good people. 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. It was the same with Angie.
The day before Tessa’s third birthday, Priya took her to the mall and brought her back 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 the kind of yelling where her American accent became so strong I couldn’t make out her words, except, ‘Oh, hell no!’
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. Shiva arrived days later. Then Krishna. I saw Angie look sharply at me and I felt my heart plummet. I knew Priya prayed with Tessa. I had kept it from Angie, even asked Nyamunya, the housemaid, not to say anything. I didn’t understand the gods, but 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 chaotic my life had become, how misplaced, how useless I felt.
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 higher than to any of the other gods. She said praying to Kali had made her the best mother she could be. I was afraid of Kali. In every photo Priya showed me, Kali was half-naked with skulls around the neck, blood dripping from her mouth, a head in one hand, machete in the other, all while she trampled her husband, Lord Shiva, with one powerful lot.
‘I was afraid of her too, before I learnt how to pray to her,’ Priya said. ‘She’s extremely powerful – on one hand a force of nurture and love but, on the other, she will destroy everything that is not right to bring back order.’
Priya found a special place, a small nook in Angie’s study room, where she prayed to Kali, putting her on a small shelf. In the afternoons, she laid out a bowl of water on a small table in front of Kali. 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 to Kali with her right hand. She lit a small candle and circled Kali three times with Tessa at her heels. She circled Kali with burning incense and still Tessa followed close behind; a dedicated servant, she reminded me of the altar boys at my church. When Priya was done with the circling, she touched her head to the ground and exclaimed, ‘Jai Kali Mata!’ Then she sat cross-legged with her back straight as an arrow, shoulders dropped, and she arranged Tessa’s body like it was clay so that she sat exactly like Priya.
I asked Priya not to pray to her gods with Tessa.
‘I have only one God, the supreme God, the creator,’ she said. ‘The deities are not God. They are the many gifts of God. See, just like Jesus and the Holy Spirit are your other gods.’
One afternoon, Angie was upstairs cleaning her room when I heard a slamming door and then saw her marching downstairs barefoot, her T-shirt half tucked into her shorts. She was holding Kali above her head like a basketball player getting ready to shoot a hoop.
‘Where’s Priya?’ She was howling.
Priya was outside tending to the roses, while Tessa played with the hose, drinking the water and wetting her body.
‘Priya, what the hell is this?’ Angie said, fuming in the garden.
‘That’s Kali, the divine protectress. She’s the goddess of destruction,’ said Priya.
‘What?’ 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 with her creepy arms and a beheaded head?’
‘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. The pujarie in my temple always says that when you pray to Mother Kali, it’s like a child crying out to her mother, and Mother Kali always responds as a mother who hears her child cry.’
‘What?’ Angie looked disorientated and was struggling to breathe. ‘Priya, are you trying to piss me off?’
Mark drove in just then and walked up to the garden with his black leather laptop bag over his shoulder, frowning.
All of us – Mark, Nyamunya, Priya, and me – stood frozen in silence outside in the garden watching Angie dissolve.
‘Get a box, put all your shitty gods and goddesses in it, and take them back home with you,’ said Angie. ‘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 – the man of the house – but he shifted his gaze down to the tassels on his brown loafers.
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.’
It was nearly three months since Priya had left us. Christmas was gone, New Year’s was gone, Valentine’s Day was gone, and the summer was 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, in their sparkling pool. To cross back and forth from their property, we used a wooden gate that cut through the Kei Apple fence, which separated the homes. Tessa had started swim lessons and was improving every week. She was agile and fearless. The swim instructor said that if she continued dipping in Shree and Mandy’s pool, she would learn to swim quickly. It’s all practise, and getting comfortable in the water, he said.
On 29 February, Tessa woke up and asked about Priya. She wanted to know if she would see Priya again. It made me wonder if young children have dreams like adults too, 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, splattering mash potato and beef mince on the wall.
Outside, the heat was oppressive. I put Tessa in a cool bath, and she finally settled. I 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. As I closed the door behind me, I watched her drift off to sleep. Downstairs, I slumped into an armchair and turned on the television.
I woke up groggy from the sound of a gusty wind slamming a window behind me. The weather had turned. The smell of rain was pungent in the muggy air. Big grey clouds were swooping in and an afternoon thunderstorm was imminent. I looked at my watch. Two hours had gone by and I realised Tessa would be awake.
Drifting upstairs, I edged my head inside her bedroom door. She wasn’t in her bed. Nyamunya was outside working quickly to bring down the wash from the clotheslines as the stormy clouds moved in closer.
‘Tessa is not with you?’ I asked. I was bewildered.
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, or slathering lotion all over her body. Nyamunya looked inside her parent’s bedroom, where Tessa would get into her mother’s makeup drawer.
Then we both walked back outside, a heavy anxiety unspoken between us. Nyamunya walked around to the front porch, looking to the driveway and the street, while I stood in the backyard, looking around the garden and the cobbled patio. That was the moment 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 ran to the swimming pool, my feet stumbling with the fear of what I was about to see, blinded with tears.
She still had on her pink cotton T-shirt, her favourite 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, but she wouldn’t wake up, and I held her for what felt like hours, her soft curly hair tickling my face, her feet and hands blue and ice cold.
Death is crafty. He brims like a bright red balloon in the blue sky that has a young child mesmerised. He had whispered at Tessa, just like he had at my Kamau, and on a sunny perfect day at the most unlikely moment.
I wrote my granddaughter’s obituary.
Tessa Maisha Kamau: 31 June 2008 – 29 February 2012.
It was to run in the next day’s newspaper and it would also go on the funeral programme. It had to be short – three hundred words. I found myself tearing out sheet after sheet because there was too much to say, even for someone who had lived barely four years.
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. Everyone walked in with a dish. I had seen this before.
Mark walked about the room greeting and thanking everyone with a blank stare. Angie sat at the bay window in the kitchen looking out to the skyline of the Ngong Hills. She had the obituary on her lap and a cup of chamomile tea balancing precariously in her hand. The bell rang one more time and someone opened the door.
It was Priya, standing in the foyer in a plain white sari, holding a casserole dish. Of all the saris she had worn for a year in our home, this one was the plainest. It seemed like she had wrapped herself in white bed sheets to mourn Tessa. She said she had read the obituary; I had prayed she would.
When I saw her at the door, I crumbled and she hurried to me. We sat for a long time at the kitchen table where we had spent many afternoons drinking tea and talking about our children, with the baby monitor behind us. This time, no words were spoken.
Later, Priya walked up to the bay window and looked outside to the nothingness that Angie was staring at. She sat next to Angie and put her hand over Angie’s, and for the first time in hours Angie moved. She looked down at the comforting hand, then stood up and moved herself away and up the stairs, never letting her eyes meet Priya’s.
I knocked softly on her bedroom door, carrying a mug of chamomile tea. She was sleeping, 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 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 where her feet thrashed in the percale sheets.
Then I saw, clasped loosely in her right hand, the goddess Kali Ma. She was made in a shiny brass metal. She had a necklace of skulls around her neck. In one hand she had a cut-off head, in the other, a sword. Her other six hands held an assortment of weapons. She stood in a dancing stance with her feet over the god Shiva, who lay prostrate beneath her. I remembered Priya’s hand over Angie’s while they both sat at the bay window in the kitchen. I reached out to take the statue from Angie’s hand so that I could set it on the table.
But when I tried to, Angie clutched it tighter.