Inya wa Emmanuel had been visiting Inya wa Rebecca long before the daughter of the latter divorced Christ for the world. The two women would always be seen together in Kavaa village, moving with their mouths and talking with their feet. The legs of Inya wa Rebecca were gigantic stumps, and if you pestered one of the villagers, they would confess they thought the woman had an affair with the priest in charge at Kavaa Catholic Church.
Inya wa Rebecca herself was a round woman, and whenever she walked up River Athi, a jerry can of water bounced on her back, forcing her to walk slow-slow. Inya wa Rebecca liked to accompany her friend so that their talking mouths would relieve the pain on their backs. The two women would stop now and then, arms akimbo. Their faces animated with surprise, and then just for free like that, they threw their heads back and laughed and laughed and laughed till tears filled their eyes.
Now Inya wa Emmanuel sat on a mûumbo stool in the kitchen of Inya wa Rebecca, head reclined against the wall. They could hear the tu-tu-tu of metal against metal at the welding place at the nearby Kavaa Market. Inya wa Rebecca put sufuria on the low fire, poured some water onto it. Coffee was soon ready, and she served.
Inya wa Emmanuel cocked her head on one side as she lifted the cup of coffee to her lips. She shook her head, because she could not understand what Inya wa Rebecca was saying. Sometimes she did not like deep knowledge of the Holy Scripture of Inya wa Rebecca. Sometimes Inya wa Emmanuel compared the priest at Kavaa Catholic to her only son, Emmanuel. This boy had been born on the eve of Christmas Day, and he had been instantly named Emmanuel. Rebecca was born the following day, and the two young mothers hoped the two children would grow as close as possible. But Emmanuel did not go past Primary Six, because he died one evening, and his mother refused to forget him.
“Let me laugh. I am speaking my mind,” Inya wa Rebecca said.
“What do you mean?”
“I feel like I am laughing alone because you do not understand Jesus had a reason to have my daughter taken to the Kîkamba country of Kananda.”
“You mean a baby being put into her stomach.”
“That does not sound like a question. What else would I mean?”
“But your daughter was not yours anymore.”
“You know Rebecca was already a nun, married to Jesus.”
They were now heading out of the house. Inya wa Emmanuel heaved and jumped across the shallow trench near the entrance. The two friends began imagining stories of how Rebecca had come to dump her vocation. None of them were sure their stories were true, but they wanted to play god and understand what had been going on. The fiery mouths of the village had whispered that Rebecca had been taken to Canada by the Priest-in-Charge. But because Rebecca could not face the faithful after breaking her marriage with Jesus, she killed herself. But as long as that was false, there could have been some truth in it.
Inya wa Rebecca presently tells her friend that in her mind she can see a clear image of her daughter. The arms of Rebecca crossed over her bosom, head bend as if in deep prayer. The white rob is shining against the lit candles in the chapel, and the white Holy Rosary protruding from her left pocket is long enough to touch the helm of her robe. The face of Rebecca appears bright, but her heart is heavy. It has been fifteen years since taking her vows to follow Jesus. But every time she sees the Priest-in-Charge, her heart rises with pleasure. The priest with the figure of Jesus, eyes which gleam with life and love. Rebecca wishes to touch the hair on his chest protruding through his shirt.
Rebecca has become withdrawn to herself. When Mother Superior calls her into the office and asks what has been the matter, Sister Rebecca smiles and says, Praise the Lord. And because her smile is sincere, Mother Superior is convinced all is alright.
“Inya wa Rebecca, what do you think this Mother Superior looks like?
“A white woman in her eighties?”
“Okay. Let us forget her age.”
Mother Superior is white, and she dates back to the days of Father Otoole. She loves all the nuns in this convent, but of late she has been focused on Sister Rebecca. Sister Rebecca is not sure whether whatever she feels for the priest can be called love. In the church, when the priest is proclaiming the gospel, the mind of Sister Rebecca is always focused on his perfect set of teeth, those eyes of life, and the nose planted at the right place. Seated at the front pew on the left side of the church, Sister Rebecca cups her chin. Her mind somersaulting with thoughts. She does not understand why the priest has to be all this sculpture of handsomeness while he is not allowed to marry.
The gospel acclamation goes on and on. The mind of Sister Rebecca is back in the Old Testament. The priest slipping a diamond ring into her finger. She comes back to The New Testament when everybody suddenly begins clapping. She begins clapping with the congregation, and when she looks at the altar, her man is smiling, mouth opened in what can pass for a grin.
With time, the priest cannot restrain himself from reaching out to Sister Rebecca. It begins with her assisting the altar boys take the offerings to the castle of the priest after mass. The castle located a few metres from the main church, metres beyond Kavaa High School. Rebecca walks like an angel, her low shoes appearing as if sailing in the wind, face bright with secret anticipation.
Then the intimacy moves to the church. Sister Rebecca does not know why the priest dismissed the altar boys, and requested her to be serving him during mass. Every time she hands over the chalice to him, and watches from the corner of an eye, his throat gurgling after taking the blood of Christ, she imagines being the wine. And Sister Rebecca always ensures that her hands and those of the priest touch during these moments. Then after the service, the hand of the priest lingers onto the palm of Sister Rebecca. She chases the other nuns from washing the clothes of the priest. While unhanging the clothes from the line, she slips tiny notes to the priest. The notes sometimes even made up of one letter, or a heart, an arrow of passion cutting across the heart.
The priest is also in love. His clothes become the main communication between him and Sister Rebecca. He insists that only Sister Rebecca knows how to wash his clothes clean. Days pass, and Sister Rebecca keeps praying for her heaven to come. According to her, heaven is what makes the heart happy.
Inya wa Emmanuel, you know I wanted my daughter to be a teacher, but her persistence to marry Jesus Christ won at the end. I was frustrated at first but I began seeing fruits after her vows. Because she had a degree and quite many years of experience, she was promoted to the post of deputy head teacher at the mission school. Before my daughter became Canadian for the priest, life had been fair to me. My skin the natural complexion of black, and my wardrobe full of fashionable clothes.
When Inya wa Rebecca finished telling her friend the story, the two threw their heads back and laughed loud as if with the mouths of their ancestors. Inya wa Emmanuel told her friend she had learnt to forget the sorrows of life. But the face of Inya wa Rebecca still had those wrinkles of stress, her eyes still seemed distant. She knew if there was anything she could do to bring back her daughter, she would willingly do so. But her daughter was gone and she could not just remember when she disappeared and how. Did she fly off the roof? Did she sneak from the house one morning when the birds where chanting their national anthem?
Inya wa Rebecca has learned to forget her daughter. She does not know whether she delivered the baby. Inya wa Rebecca has learned to think of the future. By the time she had finished narrating the story of her daughter to Inya wa Emmanuel, the two women had moved to and from their original position. They would walk a few yards, bodies facing each other, and then they would hold hands like courting couples. They giggled like school children. Then laughed in pretentious tones, Inya wa Rebecca aping the Priest-in-Charge, while Inya wa Emmanuel aping Sister Rebecca. If you calculated the time they kept going back and forth, you would have noticed other women went two rounds to the river and back. But what mattered to the two friends was the story, and they were just not going to stop recreating their children in their minds.
But if Inya wa Rebecca were to imagine the things going through the mind of Inya wa Emmanuel, she would notice a difference. Inya wa Emmanuel did not like the way her friend had laid bare the life of her own daughter. She had been unprepared of the power of stories, and at the same time she felt her heart jump with bliss. Inya wa Emmanuel could not wait for her turn to tell the story. But she felt uncomfortable. As long as whatever she was going to imagine about was not really real, it could happen to her some time to come.
Inya wa Emmanuel knew that she and Inya wa Rebecca used to have one child each. And like Inya wa Rebecca, she really cannot recall the plight of her only son, Emmanuel. This boy had been too energetic to die. Inya wa Emmanuel could not understand why death was so ruthless. She could not understand why death could leave a woman without a child, a huge tree without fruits.
The atmosphere was now calm, the thin trees lining the road barely shaking from their waists. The crops in the shambas hidden within the fences were onions, once-green-leaves gasping for survival. Inya wa Rebecca and Inya wa Emmanuel would sniff now and then to keep off the dust, which came blowing from down the road, blowing fast and then circling around the two women like an evil cloud. The hair of Inya wa Rebecca was newly done, a hot crumb of a pot passed over it, and so she undid her shuka from around her waist and placed it on her head, tips going down to her waist.
Inya wa Rebecca thought of coming up with a story about Emmanuel, the son of her friend. She wanted to have a guess about the father of Emmanuel, what had killed Emmanuel. Inya wa Rebecca wanted to go back to the history in her mind, and formulate a story how she and Inya wa Emmanuel had met. But that would bring tension between them, fists and machetes bared in the heart. And that would complicate the flow of storytelling.
Inya wa Emmanuel smiled at her friend. She looked skywards, and said the clouds were loitering along the sky as if motherless. Then focusing her gaze back, she told Inya wa Rebecca that her story had come back. Inya wa Rebecca had no time to ask questions, but her face paled with misunderstanding.
Inya wa Emmanuel cocked her head on one side as if listening for the second coming of Christ. At first, in her story, she saw vague images of Sister Rebecca. And then the figure of Rebecca began unravelling in the mind of Inya wa Emmanuel as she spoke on. At first strands of clouds, then a thick mass of memory.
At Kavaa Catholic Church, Sister Rebecca has become the favourite of the Priest-in-Charge. Communication between the two has advanced from slipping tiny love notes into the pockets of trousers. Nowadays, if you look at the face of Sister Rebecca in church, you will realize she does not wink at the huge portrait of Jesus at specific points during the mass, when the congregation is kneeling down, faces downcast. Sister Rebecca and the priest are always winking at each other, faces bright with anticipation. Let us say Rebecca views the priest as her saviour, her God. Does he not stand in the place of Jesus?
A few days later, Sister Rebecca becomes the main cleaner of the room of the priest. It is during Easter, and because Jesus is dying two weeks later, the priest gives all the five cleaners a leave. That is when Sister Rebecca gets her time, her heart smiling with joy. In her room that night, she kneels down beside her bed, eyes closed, and thanks God for help. She feels tears of gratitude sting the corners of her eyes.
Sister Rebecca always imagined the body of the priest on hers, the two sharing the same breath of life. She imagined the priest caressing her breasts. Rebecca had always wanted to be a teacher, but her mother persuaded her to marry Christ. The mother of Rebecca assured her she would garner a lot of wealth from God, because her work would be only to pray. But now with the onset of Lucifer she is quickly forgetting everything her mother told her.
One Friday evening, when the eye of the sun is about to close at the far horizon, Rebecca is cleaning the room of the priest. She dips the mop into the bucket, removes it, and begins mopping the red-tiled floor. The detergent she had put in the water smells like her mixture of perfume, myrrh and frankincense. She smiles when she imagines the priest being drawn to her by the perfume. And that night, the priest gives her the heaven she had been waiting for. Now she wants the priest to marry her. She wants his strong muscles to be always beside her. Sister Rebecca wants to go down on her knees and ask God to create a world of her own and the priest. She wants the two of them to live in a Garden of Eden, to be waking up every morning beside each other and walk down the silent rivers.
Let us say the lovebirds are no longer at Kavaa Parish. They ran away when Sister Rebecca became wary the other nuns would soon recognize the growing bum on her stomach. When the priest approached Sister Rebecca, an unpredictable expression on his face and eye balls dancing up and down, Rebecca knew that her Christ had come. What he said made her heart beat with surprise, happiness, or perhaps amazement. He wants her to abort the foetus and then go confess to him, and he would forgive her and ask her to pray three novenas for six days. But Sister Rebecca protests, and tells the priest that the church forbid killing. The priest bites his lower lip, confusion written all over his face. He tells Rebecca that God understands some situations. That most of her colleagues aborted foetuses to become nuns, some even had been married for some time. But Sister Rebecca remains adamant, until a few weeks later when the two of them vanishes. Many nuns and priests and even the Bishop believe Sister Rebecca and the priest were taken to heaven by a chariot of fire.
Inya wa Rebecca, have you ever wondered where your daughter and her lover escaped to? Stop laughing, because this is your daughter we are talking about, trying to re-think her life story. When the story of Inya wa Emmanuel blinks into a dot, she concentrates back to her friend. Her face goes pale with shock. Inya wa Rebecca is still laughing, throwing her head back and laughing some more like she overdosed on a laughter drug.
Since leaving the house of Inya wa Rebecca, the two had been going to and from, getting at the gate of Inya wa Emmanuel, and back and again and again and and and. The mbanyala of their two pairs of slippers were now all over the brown dust of the road. The eyelashes of the two women coloured with dust, and when they blinked, you could mistake their eyelids with tiny blankets of dust.
Inya wa Rebecca could not say her legs are tired. The story had been so good both women had forgotten themselves. She was sure Inya wa Emmanuel was also struggling, but according to the smiles on her lips and the brightness of her face, she was also enjoying the madness of their stories. Inya wa Rebecca looked at her friend straight on the face. Asked her where she thought Sister Rebecca and her lover might have escaped to. Inya wa Emmanuel shrugged, bones jutting out of her skinny shoulders like a robot. Inya wa Rebecca kept prodding. Do you think Sister Rebecca finally came back from Kananda with a baby? What about the priest, did he go back to priesthood? It seemed as if Inya wa Rebecca was communicating with someone in her brain.
All the while, Inya wa Emmanuel had been quiet, observing her friend. But her mind wandering. Where did my son, Emmanuel, go? Could he be the priest who took Sister Rebecca to Canada? If yes, would he ever get back to the feet of Jesus Christ? Questions kept haunting the minds of the two women, until they looked at each other, as if switched on from somewhere inside their systems. Then Inya wa Emmanuel hushed her friend by placing a straightened forefinger at her mouth. She told Inya wa Rebecca that in her mind, she could see her son Emmanuel.
Because Emmanuel was named after Jesus, he thumps his chest and vows to become a priest. Before he died at a young age, he studied theology at Katolonî Seminary in Masakû. He finishes the course nine years later and becomes ordained to priesthood as Father Emmanuel. He is posted to Kavaa Parish. Let us say your daughter, Sister Rebecca, is in the same parish, serving Our Good Lord with other nuns. Father Emmanuel falls in love with Sister Rebecca.
But the problem is how to get close to Sister Rebecca. The priest, before going to bed every night, asks God to award his hard work by giving him Rebecca. His God soon answers, and the affair starts. Father Emmanuel is convinced Sister Rebecca loves him, because she fights off other nuns to wash his clothes. He is not sure whether her gesture means admiration or something else. But when he takes to slipping tiny love notes into the pockets of his clothes, he gets the feedback he has been waiting for. She also puts love notes into the pockets of his clean trousers. His God keeps coming, and one day he gets into bed with her.
He finds her mopping his room, and the sweet smell of her myrrh and frankincense perfume enters into his breath and his heart fills up with yearning. The priest relaxes on the sofa at the far corner of the room, and watches Sister Rebecca from behind. He greets her, and as usual their palms linger onto that of each other. Darkness has set in, and the priest opens his Jesus of a hug. Sister Rebecca runs into his wide-opened arms, and they hug like two lost sheep which had just been reunited after many years. The hug lasts a minute long for the priest to feels his muscle tighten. His inner resistance slipping away. And soon the bed is rocking with his forceful thrusts. Father Emmanuel feels good to bed his lover. She is his version of Mary, the mother of Jesus.
Inya wa Emmanuel announces the ending of her story with a sneeze. The two women had not realised dust crept into their systems. Inya wa Rebecca breathes in and out. Then she yawns. She does not know whether she has yawned out of hunger or tiredness. She tells Inya wa Emmanuel they should rest. But Inya wa Emmanuel says that sitting down would sit on their stories. Faces taught with either tiredness or hunger, Inya wa Rebecca feels her mind shake up. She cocks her head on one side as if listening for a chariot of fire from heaven. But when she looks at her friend, she feels each of them is busy making up more stories in their minds.
Peter Ngila is a Kenyan writer, a journalist and a 2015 Mount Kenya University journalism graduate. Peter is a recipient of the 2017 Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award. He is also a 2017 Fellow of Nigeria’s Ebedi International Writers Residency Fellow. Peter is a 2015 recipient of The Story of Malaria Journalism Travel Grant. Peter’s short stories have been published in several countries across the world. Peter has attended the Short Story Day Africa and Writivism writing workshops in Kenya and Tanzania. Peter’s two writing videos are now available on YouTube. Peter lives in Nairobi with his shelf of books.
Cover image: Artwork by Irene De Matteis.