The door is old. You can see it in the flaked black paint, rusted metal and in the design that has been out of fashion for nearly 15 years. Whenever anyone opens it, it is loud with creaks and groans and rattles. It is like an old man yelling at people who bother him long past when he should have retired. The door does not like to be disturbed, I know that. I also know how to work with it. How to slowly turn the handle in three movements, a second’s pause between each one. How to pull it open, stopping a mere inch before the noise starts and how to wiggle through the small opening without letting it move. I know how to hold the handle at its lowest point and to pull the door shut slowly and carefully before letting it go. I do it all perfectly and the only sound it makes is a click so low that only I could have possibly heard it. No mistakes. Still, my father sees me.
I sigh softly at the sight of him standing there in his crumpled suit, looking at me. I was trying to spare him this encounter but luck has betrayed me. He chose this very unfortunate moment to walk by and now here we are. He knows the door is loud, how can he not? He complains about it almost as much as he promises to fix it. And so he knows, by the sounds he did not hear, that I was trying to avoid him. This only makes things worse. His wide eyed, open-mouthed expression of surprise collapses into the closed eyes and tight lips of guilt, of shame. He forgot to collect me from school – again.
I walked home alone, a thing the school does not ordinarily let 11-year-old girls do but they make an exception for me. The one time they insisted I wait to be collected, I had spent the night on school grounds with no one but a put upon security guard for company. The next day, my teachers had been horrified to find me still there. So now, when it is clear that no one is coming for me, they let me walk. They often discuss reporting the matter to the police or the department of child services but they dare not actually do it. That would likely mean losing another paying student and in these days of dwindling enrolment, they choose to mind their own damn business. Besides, they charge my father a fee every time he does not come.
“Wangare…” he says my name and stops, struggling to find the right words. His mouth opens and closes silently and for a moment, he looks like the goldfish we used to have. The one he let die. I remember a time the English teacher asked the class for examples of similes and someone said, Wangare’s father drinks like a fish. Everybody laughed. Now, even from where I stand, I can smell the whiskey on his breath.
“Wangare, I…” he tries again and fails again. Finally, he turns away set to do what he always does. Ignore everything, try to pretend it isn’t happening and of course, find some liquor to help him forget that he is a bad father. Perhaps that he is a father at all.
Ordinarily I would let him wallow in his self-pity, it is easier that way for both of us. We have learnt over the years that words are dangerous and that silence is more forgiving. But today, I need to talk to him. It is why I was trying to preserve his mood. “Daddy…”
“Yes?” He says, surprised to hear me say something. Surprised that I want anything to do with him right now and a little wary of what might come next.
“Can I ask you something?”
I think about how I want to start this. How to phrase it, how to make him understand that it is important. “You know how we’re having cultural week at school?”
“Yes…” he says, hesitating. He forgot.
“Today we learnt about the gods. The traditional African gods, the Kenyan gods, the gods of our ancestors.”
“Yes…” He says again, a perplexed look on his face.
“I asked the teacher this and she didn’t know…” I pause, working up to the question that has plagued my mind all day. I don’t know what sparked it but it will not leave. Hour by hour, it has grown and its tendrils have spread into every thought I have had. The question will not let me rest until I can answer it. “What happened to them?”
“What?” he scrunches up his face. “What happened to who? God? Nothing, nothing happened. What are you talking about?”
“No!” I hear the desperation in my voice like a distant thing, disconnected from me, and even I do not understand it. “If nothing happened, then where are they?”
He is silent for almost a minute and I shuffle uncomfortably because of the way he is looking at me. That look in his eye, is it – suspicion?
“Wangare, look, I don’t know what your teacher told you but I believe she has you under some kind of misapprehension. You see, there is only one God. One god and many ways to look at him. The Jews call him Yahweh, The Muslims call him Allah and our ancestors all had different names for him. We are Kikuyu and so we would call him Ngai. But in the end, it is all the same. Do you understand?”
He says it all so silently I can barely hear him and he looks different as he does it, different but familiar. Not like the empty shell that I’m used to but like the lawyer he once was. The man who raised me, the man who faded the day my mother disappeared. Who, sometimes I think, followed her so quickly to wherever she went that he left his body behind. I feel sad. This hint of my father has only appeared to tell me what I do not want to hear.
“But they’re different!”
“No, they are. They did different things, they wanted different things. Don’t you see? They are different!”
“Daddy! They were there and they were different and then we just forgot them, we abandoned them. We stopped praying and worshipping and – and we just moved on and now we don’t even remember that they were different. And they left. They left because we didn’t want them. But where did they go, daddy? Where did the gods go?”
“No!” he shouts so loudly that I actually jump back. The suspicion he had looked at me with before has returned and it is panicked, manic even. “You will not do this! You will not do this to me, not you. Never. I will not let you go following gods!”
The woman frightens me. I don’t know why, and in truth I am a little embarrassed by it, but there is just something about her that puts me on edge. Something hidden in that calm smile, in her laid back poise and even in the approachable attitude she is careful never to drop. It’s like everything she does is calculated to put me at ease and that makes me suspicious of all of it. Her name is Dr. Kahiu and this is the second time I’ve met her. We sit in her office which, while similar to a doctor’s office, does not actually feel like one. It doesn’t have that hospital feel of perpetual cold or even the overpowering too clean smell. You see, Dr Kahiu is not actually a doctor, at least, not in my mind. She is a psychiatrist and my father is forcing me to see her. That stupid man.
“What is your relationship with your father like, Wangare?” she asks as if she hears my silent insult.
“It’s good,” I lie.
“Just good? Nothing else?”
“I see,” She frowns slightly and scribbles something into her notepad “You know that you can tell me anything Wangare? I won’t tell anyone. I’m only here to help and you can trust me, I hope you know that.”
“I know,” I say, though I know nothing of the sort. Help me with what? Both times I’ve met her, she’s expected me to tell her everything about my life like we are best friends or something. She wants me to trust her though neither her nor my father have explained what they really want. They are up to something and I will not trust any of them.
“Okay. How about when you were younger, how was your father then? What do you remember?”
This question surprises me for some reason and memories rise unbidden. I was too young to ever have seen my father in court but I remember that he was a lawyer and that everyone said that he was brilliant. I remember being proud of him and I remember my mother tell me that his trick was in his low voice. How he spoke gently, almost indiscernible, so that people were forced to lean forward and concentrate on his words just to hear them. That was how he made them pay attention, how he put them under his spell. He was happier then too, I remember that clearest of all. He laughed all the time and had a story for everything. Even then he was a heavy drinker, always keeping a few bottles in the house, but it was different. There was a little restraint, a little control keeping him from the edge. When my mother disappeared, he lost that control; he lost everything he had been. The day he accepted that she was never coming back, it was like something broke inside him and he started to unravel. I remember how he refused to leave his bed for a week and when he finally came out, he was just a shell of what he had been once. The mere husk of a human being.
I remember it all but I say none of it. “He was good.”
Dr. Kahiu sighs, trying and failing to appear patient, finally betraying a crack in her mask. It feels like a victory. “Alright Wangare, I can tell that you still don’t want to talk about your father or your past. Let us move on to something different, shall we? Would you prefer to try the ink blots instead?”
“What are ink b…ink…”
“Ink blots. They’re images with patterns in them. I show them to you and you tell me what you see in the pattern. Would you like to try?”
“Okay.” I don’t care but it sounds better than listening to her stupid questions.
She pulls up a stack of cards from her table and holds one up so I can see it. I squint at it for a long moment before deciding that it doesn’t look like anything. It is just a random spray of black splatters on paper.
“It’s a face,” I say, not entirely sure if I am lying or not.
“A face? Interesting. And this one?”
“What about this one?”
“Another face, an old man.”
“That one is…” I pause. Something about it jumps out at me and when I realise what it is, I start laughing. “That is a caterpillar.”
“A caterpillar?” She looks at the inkblot and back at me. “Why is that funny?”
I want to say that it is funny because of my father. Because of the day we learnt about the life cycle of a butterfly in school and how it had reminded me of him. You see, butterflies are always looking for a mate. It’s why they fly. My father had already found his mate and then he lost her. Because of that, the colourful man who floated gracefully through life had cocooned in his blankets for a week and when he’d come out, all he wanted to do was consume and consume and he would not stop until he shriveled away into nothing. He had taken the butterfly’s journey but he had taken it backwards. He was a caterpillar and he would never fly again.
“Because I like caterpillars,” I say. I hate caterpillars.
“Wangare,” Dr Kahiu takes off her glasses and looks at me with such intensity that I can tell she knows I am hiding something. “What about the gods? Do you want to tell me about the gods?”
“Who told you about that?” It takes everything in me not to stand and scream. How can she know about this?
“Your father told me.”
“No, he didn’t! You’re lying. Why are you lying?” I have only spoken about the gods to him once, a long time ago, and I never said anything after his reaction. He wouldn’t remember. He couldn’t. It is not like him to remember things.
“Of course he did. He told me you’ve been asking about them for a year, all over the school. Your teachers are worried about you. They say you have an unhealthy obsession with gods.”
She is still lying. My teachers would never tell my father. They never tell him anything, what would be the point? And they promised, they promised they wouldn’t tell. They promised! How can she know? I look at her expectant expression and it is in that moment I realise why this woman scares me. Why something seems so wrong with her. She has been digging into my secrets from the moment I met her and I think I know why now.
Is Dr. Kahiu one of the gods? Have they found out that I have been looking for them? That I know they went somewhere? The more I think about it, the more it makes sense. Doctors. People respect doctors, they revere them. My teachers always told us we should work hard and become doctors one day. And isn’t that what a fallen god would want? To be that which we still look up to? To have people consult with them, to tell them their secrets and ask them to bring healing?
“What do you want with me?” Perhaps I am in danger here. How far would a god go to preserve a secret?
“What is this about? What are you ask…”
“What do you want with me?” I repeat myself, separating every word sharply.
“Wangare,” Dr Kahiu leans forward and I flinch. “Do you know why you’re here?”
“No. Tell me.”
“Very well. I will be honest with you, you deserve that. You are here because your father thinks you are sick. He thinks there’s something wrong with you. Something in your mind.”
“That’s not true. You just want me to stop looking for the gods. That’s what you both want isn’t it? That’s it, right?”
“It’s true and yes, it is because of how you talk about gods. Because…” she pauses, as if considering if she should go on. “Because you are saying the things that your mother once said.”
“What?” What is she saying? What is she talking about? Is this a trick?
“Your mother. Before she disappeared, your father tells me she was obsessed with God. She wouldn’t stop talking about him. Every day, she was more interested, more relentless in her quest to find him. Then one day, in the middle of preparing dinner, she walked out of the door and left her only child alone with the gas still on. She was a sick woman. No one saw it and so no one helped her and now no one knows what happened to her. Your father just doesn’t want the same for you. It’s why you’re here.”
“My mother…” This is a story I have never heard before.
Dr. Kahiu keeps talking but I am not listening anymore. This confirms everything. My mother knew, she knew about the gods. She knew about all of this. She knew they had to be found and she went looking. Now, now it is my turn. I will find the gods and maybe, just maybe, I will find my mother there with them.
For years, I have tried not to think about the day my mother left. My thoughts have circled and worked around it, careful never to get too close; never to let it burn. Now, knowing what I know, I can approach the memory and walk around it. I can look closer and finally see.
She is in the kitchen wearing that kanga she likes so much. The one with little words at the bottom that read, Hodi hodi naikome mwaka ujao naolewa. Stop your knocking, I’m getting married next year. She wears it when she wants to be comfortable, when she’s not planning on going anywhere. It must be building up inside her even now. Rising, bubbling, ready to explode. One moment she is stirring a sweet smelling stew, the next, her back stiffens and she walks to the window. She leans so far outside it that I think she will fall. Like whatever she sees out there is so full of wonder, that even to fall outside into it, would be worth it.
“Wangare, I need tomatoes.” It is a strange thing to say, especially as last words to her five-year-old daughter; but that is it. She walks out the door, not even closing it behind her and that is the last I ever see of her.
When my father finally comes home to find an open door, a burning meal on the stove and his child playing alone — he stands there for a long time, not saying anything. I think he knows what has happened, knows and refuses to accept it. “Wangare,” he says trying to conceal the panic in his voice, “where is your mother?” Not understanding the gravity of the moment I nonchalantly provide the summarised answer, “tomatoes.” It all fades away.
I think I’m beginning to understand my mother. To understand how she felt then. She had found her purpose, her vision. That must have been the moment she realised that this big secret was real and that she had a part to play in it. I understand now why she had to leave my father. If one is to find the gods, they cannot be around him; he can be nothing but an obstacle. I know this all too well. He has tried everything in his power to stop my mission and he has been relentless. I believe he knows that the gods are real. He knows and instead of seeing the beauty, it just scares him.
Right now, we have left our home in Nairobi because of his fear. In a few minutes, we will be in Kigumo or as my father calls it, the village. It is where he grew up. In his mind, a new environment will help me. He says I need to start over and so he has sold our failing house with its grumbling door and we are going to live in the village. A calm and quiet place to allow me to think, where I can get away from the madness of the city; that way, I will get better. This is his new plan to stop me.
Dr. Kahiu was his first try, but they had both underestimated my resolve. Once I knew she was not a god, I knew how to defeat her. All I had to do was bring her my silence. You see, what is a psychiatrist without your words? Where is their power if you deny them knowledge of yourself? I simply sat there and I watched her in every session, saying nothing. Eventually, her calm fell away. She squirmed in that seat like I am sure she has made many others squirm. With silence alone, I broke her.
My father, however, was not so simple to undo. I tried silence on him but he was too used to it. He had become more comfortable with my silence than with anything else, and so I was forced to turn to words. I threw them all at him. Words to bite and to cut deep, words to shame and to tear down, all the words I knew could make him cower and back away. They all failed. You see, for words to truly hurt you, they must linger and race in your mind. They must circle through your thoughts and haunt you. But my father is a man of the moment. He drinks and he forgets, that is all he does. Words can only bother a man like that for so long. He can always escape them.
But he also knows that not losing to me does not mean that he has won. That is why we are here. Driving down this dusty road and hooting at the crowd of people in front of us. He thinks here, I will break. I will be somewhere only familiar to him and he will have the advantage. I look outside the window at this place. Why are there so many people here, I wonder? What are they looking at? Then – then I see it. I see what they see, why they gather, and I struggle not to laugh. My father, in trying to stop me, has enabled me. Outside my window, somewhere past the crowd, finally, I see a god.
Today, my father thinks I am in the market, which I am. I did not lie; I just did not tell him why I was going. I have been very good of late. Keeping my search to myself, letting him think that he has tamed me. That I am his perfect little girl so that on the day I need him not to be watching, I can do something like this.
As everyone said, he is in the market today. He is a big man. The kind that takes up space in every direction that he can. It is not just how tall and fat he is, but how he pushes people out of the way when he walks. How he spreads his legs and takes up more room than he needs whenever he has to sit with anyone. How he talks, loudly and over people, dismissing what they have to say and replacing it with his own useless words. Whatever he does, he wants – no, he needs someone else to give way. So this is the way of a god.
I cannot believe I did not realise the obvious until I saw this man. The journey of the gods should have been clear to me from the beginning. If you can no longer be a god, where do you go? If you need people to worship you, you need them to look up to you, to ask you for things, if you need to rule them, where do you go? It’s so obvious, isn’t it? You go into politics.
This politician, this god, has been around a lot lately. Elections are near and so must he be if he wants to be president again. Today he is walking in the market, accepting gifts of food and vegetables and speaking with everyone he encounters. Everybody simply calls him God Papa, after the large cowboy hats he’s always wearing. God Papa, not subtle at all.
“God Papa,” I call out.
He turns towards me. He was talking to a market woman and the crowd stands a distance away from him so he is surprised to see me approach unbidden. Still, he breaks out in a giant smile as I expected. I have seen him on TV often and he likes to lift and hug the children that come to him. I notice something about him now that I am this close. His many gold rings look ready to disappear beneath mounds of rising flesh from his fat fingers. His silver belt buckle is barely visible as his belly extends over his waist, obscuring it. His trousers are bunched up at the groin, rising so they expose his ankles. It is like his body is trying to eat even what he is wearing. And there, in his fat fingers, he is holding a tomato.
“Little girl,” he says lifting me up, “how are you?”
I look up at him and whisper, “I know what you are.”
He looks confused by this or he acts it, but that is fine. I did not expect him to admit it. I have put a lot of thought into this, into how this should play out. How I will reveal he is a god. The gods have not stayed out of sight just to reveal themselves because a child wills it. They must be forced to. Given no choice in the matter. Only then can I ask them where my mother is.
“What…” He cuts short because I pull out a pocket knife and stab him with it.
The day I am checked into the mental health care facility, my father cries. This is the first time since all of this started that I doubt myself. I have never seen him cry. Not even when my mother left. He says that he is sorry. He is also sober.
God Papa nearly bled to death. I stood there with his blood dripping down my hand and my only thought was how I had to start looking again. My only feeling at that moment, was that of disappointment at his not being a god. Still, I asked him about my mother. He just cried. As I watched his blood spread on the ground, I thought about how they said gods drank what was poured into the soil. Maybe I really have lost my mind.
I don’t remember much of what happens next. I meet doctors and nurses and they say things that I don’t pay attention to. They change me, and show me to a room and I just go with the flow of everything. What does it matter now? Something is wrong with me.
When I am alone, I think a lot about abandonment. How we abandoned the gods and where they went. How my mother abandoned us on a journey to find the abandoned. How my father abandoned me without going anywhere, but by letting his mind wander instead. And then there’s me. Where have I gone? Who have I abandoned? I think of all these journeys we have taken and it occurs to me that I know where the gods are. They are like me, like my father, like my mother. We are all of us lost.
And none is more lost than me. Time just seems to disappear and I find myself in places not knowing how or when I got there. I find myself sitting in the cafeteria, looking at unappetising food. Everything feels weird, fuzzy. I can hardly think. Is it the medication? Or worse, is it me? Is this what has been happening to me? I look at my plastic fork, stabbed into a slice of tomato. The juice reminds me of the blood on my hands. Gods – God – I am insane.
“Hello young lady,” says a voice and I look up to see an old man sitting there, across from me. He wasn’t there before, was he? Was he?
I ignore him.
“Why are you crying?” he asks.
He is right. There are tears rolling down my face, I hadn’t noticed. Still, I ignore him.
“Are you a mute?”
“What do you want?” I snap. Why is he bothering me now? Can’t he tell I want to be alone?
“What do I want?” he seems puzzled by the question. “I want many things. I want to hear old songs, I want the anticipation of smelling a slowly roasting goat, I want to return to the mountain. But here, now, I want to know why a girl so young has been brought here to us and why she cries.”
“Will you leave me alone if I tell you?”
“I might,” he doesn’t sound like he means it because he smiles widely, mischief dancing in his eyes.
“I am here because,” I pause but decide I will not be ashamed of it. It was my purpose, it was what I chose, it was me. “I am here because I was looking for the gods.”
“Oh,” he says and nods to himself. “Did you find any?”
“Gods. Did you find any?”
I look him over, he is a patient, a crazy person. But then, how can I judge him for that? It appears, in the end, that I am one too.
“No.” I say bitterly. “I am done with them.”
“Why would you say that?” he appears very shocked by my words, offended even. As if I have said something truly terrible and unforgivable.
“They can’t be found. I understand that now.”
“You shouldn’t give up so easily. If you go looking for gods, you will surely find them eventually. Gods like those who seek them. They like dedication … and sacrifice.”
“I looked,” I wipe away my tears. “I looked and I looked and I found nothing.”
“Are you sure about that?” Something about how he says it makes me look up at him again. He doesn’t look crazy. There is a clarity in his eyes, like he knows many things that others do not.
“Where are they then?”
“If you were a god, if you had known and felt love like nothing before and then lost it. If the only people who once loved you left you without explanation or forgot about you, acted like you didn’t exist. What would you become? What would happen to you?” This man is mad, there is no doubt about it now. The clarity in his eyes is gone and the sheer intensity of the insanity that lies there now shocks me. He motions around the room. “If all that happened to you would you have to go?”
“I don’t know!”
“How do you know my name?”
“Is there anyone who does not know the name of the girl who sheds the blood of presidents?”
I snap my mouth shut at that.
“Wangare, in this new world, if the gods told anyone who they were, the things they have seen, there is only one place they could be taken. I am saying that maybe, just maybe, you are in the right place to find gods.”
I understand. Finally, I understand. I look at this man. He is amused by my reaction, he is toying with me, but is he wrong? He said that it takes dedication to find the gods, I have been dedicated, that it takes sacrifice, I have spilled the blood of presidents for the gods to drink, haven’t I?
“Are you a god…or are you mad?”
“What do you think, Wangare?” His smile cuts across his face slowly, showing all of his teeth. It is a frightening and wild expression, It is an expression that says…why not both?
The old gods are not doctors or politicians. They are abandoned, dismissed and forgotten and it has broken them. They have lost their minds. I see now how this was the only way to find them, the gods have always demanded emulation from those who seek them. The gods are mad and it appears that even in this, their believers must follow. To the promised land through the asylum.
“Where is my mother?” I do not want to ask, but I must.
The old man, the god, raises his palm before his face and studies it as if he has never seen it before. He closes it into a fist and says, “Have you looked for her?”
I am about to reply, and then I see a woman behind him. She is standing at the window, looking outside. I am not sure I recognize her figure, she is bigger and fatter than my mother, but the way she stands..she stands there, leaning so far outside the window that I think she will fall. Like she sees something out there so full of wonder, that even to fall outside into it, would be worth it.
It is like seeing the past repeat itself, but it has gone the long way round and it carries the burden of time and the journey openly. Is it her? My breath is slow, almost wishing, almost praying but I am too shocked to do either. Can it be? Seekers know there are few things more frightening than almost having an answer. The unknown burns but is a pain carried with the knowledge that it can be healed. The known, once grasped, can never become unknown again.If it burns, it must be carried forever.
The sun bursts into the room brighter and blinding, as the woman leans back from the window — and turns around.