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The Pen

By Nonso Uzozie (Nigeria)

Nyong’o was sitting on the pavement in front of the house with a half smile on his face. He was glad he was alone at home. He was thinking about going to school. It would be his first time. His eyes were moving from the hibiscus he had trimmed in the early hour of the morning to the bougainvilleas he had watered earlier in the day, and to the writing on the wall: ALL ANIMALS WERE SOMETIMES EQUAL. It was the first thing he had learnt to read the first time he arrived from Kikuyu to leave with Madam in Nairobi - a satirical sentence Madam had initiated about the coming of the white people in Kenya and how they took the lands away and made them commoners, who worked as labourers on their own native lands.

Nyong’o didn’t know how true this story was, but he had heard his father talking about it once. He had also overheard Madam and Ngila many times from the kitchen talking about it. It could be what they read in the book. It could be true. Everything they said was true. To him, educated people had no time to tell lies. Their tongues had other good things to say. He had learnt to live with listening to them from his small room or the kitchen. He had learnt to speak when he was asked to, to get food when they were hungry, to leave the parlour when he was asked to, and to sit on the pavement and watch over Duro, the white dog, when Madam was away in her office.

Today Madam was away and he was sitting there, free from any form of disturbance. There was a half smile on his innocent face, a face so sullen one could hardly tell his age. He was always unhappy when Ngila, Madam’s lover, was around. He didn’t like Ngila. Ngila knew how to order him around. He was the one who told Madam that Nyong’o was too old to go to school.

It is a total waste of your hard earned money,’ he had said. Nyong’o had heard him from his bedroom. But Madam didn’t listen to him, anyway.

Now Nyong’o was thinking about the pen with red and blue stripes, the pen he would be using next term in his first time in school. He had patiently waited for it. He had never been to school in his life. He had never dreamed of going to school, but he had, today, after admiring the pen Madam bought for him two days ago, over and over, using it to write his name on the air, beginning to nurture the anxiety of going to school. He had begun to imagine himself in school, his school bag hung over his shoulder, his pen, the precious thing, held carefully in his hand, the way Madam held hers whenever she was writing in her study, so delicate as if a strong grip would break its bones. He had felt like laughing, like yelling to quench the excitement that was choking him inside. Since Eke, the cleaner, stopped coming (or, rather, resigned because Ngila, Madam’s lover, insulted him for not combing his hair like a civilized man), Nyong’o had no one to talk to. He needed to talk to someone now, anybody, but he was not meant to go out, because as far as Madam was concerned, since the cholera outbreak, everyone in town was contagious. Yet Ngila, her lover, was not infected, even though he sweated a lot and wiped his hand on the wall when he sneezed.

Nyong’o shook his head as Ngila came to his mind, and the half smile on his face suddenly vanished. Ngila was a terrible threat to his happiness. Ngila was the reason Madam scolded at Nyong’o unnecessary. Ngila was the one who would ask him to go his room when the television was on. Above these, he always made Madam scream and cry, yet Madam loved him a lot. She loved him so much that she always cried when he left in anger. To Nyong’o, this was a shameful thing. There was nothing so special about Ngila.

That wicked man,’ he sighed under his breath. He wanted to think about something else.

Now Duro walked past him, the bell hung on its neck dinging as it wobbled around the compound, sniffing, growling, and digging up rubbish from the small refuge dump at the corner of the house, beside the orange tree. Nyong’o had been warned by Madam not to allow Duro to eat rubbish, because Duro was a special dog, an expensive special dog, a white dog. Nyong’o watched it, how fat it had grown, how fat he had fed it, yet it looked insatiable all the time; always going around the compound looking for something to gobble up. Dogs could just be insatiable, he thought. Perhaps Duro was just insatiable, like his Madam. Madam would complain that the food on her tray was too much, yet she would finish it and ask, while picking her teeth and flapping her long tiny fingers, if more were left in the pot. She would cry when Ngila beat her in her bedroom, yet she always wanted him to come over, to make her bed creak.

Nyong’o had fed them fat - Duro and Madam, he thought. And he could swear it was one of the reasons why Madam had sworn to send him to school after the long holiday. He would feed them fat until Madam promised more than she could do. He would feed them fat until Madam, before a tray of delicious meal, would promise more than her salary could afford. It was a sacrifice and desperation. It was his own form of hard work in a country like this, where one must work very hard to survive. He loved them, anyway; Madam and Duro, the two things he took care of, the two things he could watch and smile as the wonders of his delicacies. He was not a good cook until Madam taught him by making him pass through vigorous readings of recipe books and practice; constant class in the kitchen over many books with drawings of carrots, green pepper, cabbages, cucumbers sliced in slants so they seemed to be dropping from the book cover, white onions and peas (he must understand that sliced onion must be the first to go into the oil in the frying pan before other strange things piled on the slice board), or that meat and fish needed to be washed thoroughly with plenty of salt and hot water to get rid of the germs and dirt on them. Sometimes he got confused, but he could not stop nodding when Madam said “Do you understand?’ for he had come to understand that nodding meant he was intelligent and Madam did not need much stress or raising of her voice to make him a good cook.

The sun was falling gradually. He got up and quietly, just the way he had came out, went back into the house. He had, since morning, begun to walk like a gentle man. Madam had told him that only gentle men should go to school; men who were very refined and articulate in manners. He didn’t know if he was articulate in manner or if he could ever be, but he wanted to walk like a gentle man, a careful practice, an ardent preparation for his journey into the school world. He began to imagine himself in the village, walking like a gentle-man-refined-man along the dusty path that led to the village square, waving at his admirers, most of them, girls, who had despised him years ago for calling them my wives’ during the moonlight play. Now they would smile at him in awe of people who had seen wonders – a refined man. After all, it was not every time that people went to Nairobi and returned refined.

Back in his room he brought out the pen from the bag where had kept it. Beautiful it was; so smooth he wondered if its smoothness was a sign of prestige, a kind of stern power over people like him; people who had never admired it from afar, people who never knew they would own it one day. It left him almost slouched and vulnerable. He brought it closer and examined the thimble. It looked nothing like something he had not seen before, yet it seemed strange, so new, and so fragile. He raised it to the air and wrote something he was not quite sure of. Not pleased this time, he carefully pulled the cover and bent over to write on a paper that was lying on the table, carving each word slowly the way Eke had taught him: nYonG’o WaNainA. The blueness in the writing looked magical to him. He moved back to look at it and suddenly found himself laughing. He laughed until tears were coming down his face. Sighing and wiping his tears, he pronounced it over and over again, from back to front, and then from front to back Wanaina Nyong’o. Nyong’o Nwanaina, glancing at the pen each time with so much deign in his eyes. He eventually sat on the spring bed, admiring the magic in his hand. He would learn to write other things. He would learn to write his mother’s name. He would learn to write Madam. He would learn to write Ngila, her lover, the wicked man. No, he thought, he would not waste his precious pen in writing the name of that useless man who snored when he slept, the man who ordered him around as if he owned the house, a man who beat Madam when he liked.

“Duro,” he said. He would learn to write Duro, he thought.

He replaced the pen cover, put the pen back in the bag and lay on the bed to stare at the ceiling. He could see his day in school approaching. He wandered into that world.

“Nyong’o!” Madam called from outside.

He sprang from the bed. He did not remember leaving the gate open.

Outside Ngila was with Madam, his red shot eyes watery, his hand around Madam’s waist. He always held her waist when he was drunk. Madam too looked drunk: she was tottering, battling to keep her eyes open, to keep her balance.

“Good evening Madam,” Nyong’o greeted, collecting the straw basket which contained some foodstuffs from her at the same time. She said something he did not understand in response to his greeting.

“Good evening sir,” he greeted Ngila. But Ngila ignored him, leading Madam inside as if they were late for something. Nyong’o watched them walking into the house, almost staggering, yet hurriedly, as if something would consume them if they delayed a little moment from going inside. Nyong’o shook his head. Very soon, he thought, Madam would start moaning and pleading with Ngila to take it easy. She did that whenever Ngila was drunk, her voice rising and falling like someone who was between pain and pleasure. Nyong’o did not know why. He never bothered to know why. To him, whatever they did in Madam’s bedroom was absolutely what they did not want him to see, what they did not want him to know. He had learned not to put it in his mind, even when, sometimes, Madam came out weeping with a bruised face and her blouse or skirt torn.

Nyong’o took the basket to the kitchen and emptied the foodstuffs in a tray. He was about to prepare dinner when he heard Madam’s laughter from her bedroom, a raucous laughter. He smiled. Maybe there would be no weeping or tearing of clothes today, he thought. Today seemed like the days when Ngila’s snoring would be heard from the dinning room after a long creaking of the bed. Then Ngila would wake up to demand food.

A moment later Madam’s voice came from the bedroom:

“Stop! Stop, you beast! You should be romantic for once. You should treat a woman with respect. I’m not a log!”

Then there was silence.

I’m not a log. Madam always said that. Sometimes it sounded like I’m not a dog to Nyong’o. I’m not a dog! But it was I’m not a log. Madam could not simply call herself a dog in any condition. She is too educated and refined to do so. An educated woman wouldn’t call herself a dog.

A moment later, Nyong’o heard the slamming of the door. Soon Madam rushed into the kitchen to wash her face in the sink. She had not washed her face in the kitchen sink before. She was heaving. Nyong’o could not look at her face, but he felt she was weeping. When Madam sat on the stool next to his he barely glanced at her face. The bruise on her face was nasty, it left her face swollen and red. Nyong’o was broiling inside, chocking with the fact that he could not look at her face and ask what happened or to say sorry, he was choking even more that he could not do anything if she told him what had happened to her. Madam was staring at the floor, squinting at him. It suddenly seemed she wanted him to share in her pain, her vulnerability, her stupidity of allowing a man who she fed day and night to beat her when he wanted.

There was a long silence between them, and after a moment Nyong’o could not bear it any longer.

“My father used to be a drunk,” Nyong’o said, his voice almost falling him, his heartbeat racing, “but he never beat my mother. And he is not even educated.”

Madam stared, surprised at his guts. She had seldom heard him speak of her personal matters. He was not a boy of many words. For him to even speak meant it hurt him too that Ngila was ruthless. Yet she wanted to tell him that Ngila was not crude, that he was only drunk and not a drunk, and could never be compared with his drunken father in Kukiyu, but she said instead, “Get me some cold water from the refrigerator.”

Nyong’o went to get her some water.

Ngila woke Nyong’o in the morning and told Nyong’o to get him a cup of coffee. He smelled of alcohol. In the sitting room Madam was staring at her swollen face in a large mirror placed on her lap. She hummed when Nyong’o greeted her. It hurt Nyong’o to witness her swollen face, how the beating had flawed her face. He wished he could make up her face with the blue ink from his pen. He wished he could tell Ngila that responsible men did not beat a woman. Even his irresponsible father could respect a woman, he thought.

In the kitchen he made some coffee and spat twice into it before he took it to Ngila. Ngila took the coffee and left without a word. If things were normal he would have kissed Madam on the cheek and said “See you later.” Nyong’o imagined his spit as a poison eating Ngila up, killing him slowly. It was a reprisal act.

It was on a Sunday morning. There was news on the radio that Al-Shabaab had invaded a church and killed many worshipers. Madam walked around the house, mourning, saying something about the devil’s attacking a church that had just buried an important member barely a few months ago. Nyong’o was surprised, because he had not heard Madam talk about church before. She didn’t believe in God. She didn’t believe in the devil. That was all Nyong’o knew about her. Eke had told him the name for such people, but he could not remember it now.

When Madam was tired of walking round the house, she began to weep. Nyong’o knew she was weeping because it was three days now and Ngila had not yet returned. He had not called. Madam had been impatiently looking out through the window and glancing at her wristwatch for days now. Nyong’o knew why, and he was disappointed. He knew she was not crying for those who were killed n the church; she was weeping for Ngila. She wanted him back.

Nyong’o watched her from the kitchen. Her swollen face had left her profile redesigned. He was preparing fried rice and thinking about his pen. His fear was growing now, for Madam had not said anything about him starting school on Monday. Since Ngila had left Madam had changed a lot. She spoke little and ate little. Sometimes she refused to eat. But that did not bother Nyong’o much. He was worried that Madam had bought no school uniform for him yet. She had never promised to buy it anyway. But he thought this was the right time to buy it.

When he was done with the cooking he served her.

Keep the food in my room,’ madam said. I will eat later.’

You didn’t eat in the morning, Madam.’

Keep the food in my room,’ she scolded him.

Nyong’o went to keep the food in her room.

He was asleep when Madam came to his room. She stopped at the middle of the room, startled, her eyes perusing what was written on the four corners of the room. If the pen in Nyongo’s hand could write all those, then there must be no ink was left in it, she thought. She tapped him and moved back to ask What happened here?’, still looking at the wall. What have you done?’ Her voice was stern.

Nyong’o stared at her.

You painted my wall with ink, you swine?’

I’m sorry, Madam.’

You must be out of your mind. Did I buy the pen for you to use it on my wall?’

Nyong’o came down from the bed and knelt down, his head bowed.

You ruined the paint on the wall?’

I’m sorry Madam.’

Nyong’o was now weeping, broken that he had failed Madam, that he had failed her this time that school was about to resume. Madam walked past him and sat on the bed. He still knelt there. She wanted to tell him to get up, but she said instead I have been transferred to Kisumu. I tried working it, but they needed more money.’

Nyong’o stared up at her. He heard her clearly. But he wished she didn’t say it. He looked keenly on her face. There was disappointment and pity in her eyes, a sign of something yet unsaid, something that trailed with lenient guts to hurt anyone, anyhow.

I wouldn’t be in need of a house boy,’ Madam finally said.

Nyong’o sat on the floor. He felt like yelling. His body failed him. He was suddenly sweating.

I have offended you, Madam,’ Nyong’o said. I didn’t mean to ruin the wall with the new pen. It won’t happen again. You know I have not offended you before.’

I didn’t say so, Nyong’o. I just have to understand the city before taking a house boy. But don’t worry; I will always keep in touch. I will send for you if the need be.’ She did not look at him as she spoke, and Nyong’o knew she did not mean it when she said she would send for him if the need be, and he didn’t mean it when he said, Yes, Madam.’

Madam stood up and walked to the window. Nyong’o could see tears in her eyes; he battled to hold his.

I will begin to pack my things Madam,’ he said.

Madam looked at him for a moment with pity and a bit in the comportment of someone in charge, someone who did not want to be soft.

I will be leaving next week,’ she said. She walked to the door and stopped. You are not a swine,’ she said and left. She should have apologized, she thought.

The next day, when Nyong’o was done with his laundering, he went to the school. Standing at the gate of the big school to look at the huge building he felt like crying. Slowly, he walked round the building, stopping in front of each class to look at the things written on the board, trying to pronounce them, trying to be part of what he had never been part of. This was what obviously had died when Madam told him she was relocating to Kisumu. She was leaving him. Each class brought disappointment to his heart. He knew deep down that he would never be the same again. He sat on the floor beside a hibiscus flower and wept.

When he walked home, dejected, Duro ran to meet to him. He stopped and looked at it. He would be leaving home soon.

Madam said I’m not going to Kisumu with you people,’ he said to the dog that was wagging its tail to him. I won’t be gong to school…this term.’

Duro growled and Nyong’o said, It is not her fault. She will come and take me if the need be. Yes.’

He wiped the tears on his face and Duro groaned. It did that whenever Nyong’o was unhappy, when he didn’t touch its forehead and neck, when he didn’t call it Duro by whistling it in his typical village manner.

The only thing breaking Nyongo’s heart the most was that he had no one to share his pain with. It hurt him more than the separation that was coming. Now Duro would be living with Nyerere Nwakini, the principal.

You are taking Duro to Nwakini tomorrow,’ Madam said when he came back. She had been standing at the door, watching him. He will take care of Duro until I’m properly settled in Kisumu to take care of two stomachs.’ She had sounded too blunt. It seemed she had been waiting for him to return, to take the news.

I can take care of Duro, Madam,’ Nyong’o said.

Duro cannot stay in your village. It doesn’t like inshima, you know that’ Madam said and went inside.

Nyong’o sat on the pavement to look around the compound as if he could feel the end of his dream. Of course, he understood what Madam meant by Duro not liking inshima: his people could not afford to feed Duro. It was a special dog; it has nothing to do with common people.

The next day Madam gave Nyong’o some dog food and asked him to take Duro to Nyerere Nwakini. When he returned with Duro he saw Madam bringing down the curtains.

What happened? You came back with Duro.’

Nyerere said his wife hates dogs.’

I see.’

Nyong’o looked around the house. Madam was really preparing. The utensils in the kitchen had been put in a sack bag and kept on the center table. The books in Madam’s shelves had been arranged in a box. He leaned against the wall to watch her. He wanted her to promise that she would come and take him if the need be. Oh, who knows if the need would ever be? The way she had been behaving it didn’t look as if the need of coming to take him would ever be. She looked satisfied with herself. She did not ask him to help her do anything lately.

You should go back to your people today. I’m leaving Nairobi tomorrow morning.’

I will leave tomorrow morning too. I will leave when you are ready to leave,’ Nyong’o said.

Madam looked at him and said nothing. Nyong’o could not see the usual fondness and care in her eyes. Her look was just simple; her eyes avoiding his.

The next morning was too cold, as if it held bad tidings for Nyong’o. It was as if the day had been planned by the gods. He helped Madam put her things into the taxi that was waiting beside the orange tree. When he was done Madam squeezed some money into his palm.

Greet your people for me,’ she said and got into the taxi, taking Duro with her. She didn’t look back as the taxi began to drive off. She buried her face in a news paper

Nyong’o couldn’t bear it. He began to run after the taxi, his bag trapped under his arm. He wept as he ran. The taxi stopped and Madam got down. She looked angry.

What is it, Nyong’o? Go home to your people!’

Nyong’o said nothing. He was panting, and he could not see Madam properly because tears were blinding him. He didn’t want to wipe them.

Go back to your people!’

I brought the pen,’ Nyong’o said in soft tone as he brought out the pen from his pocket. I don’t think I need it. You may need it.’

Madam stared at him.

You can keep the pen, Nyong’o. I bought it for you.’

I can’t keep it, Madam. I can’t use it. My people can’t send me to school.’

Madam took the pen from him and got into the taxi. Nyong’o waited for the car to move.

It shall never be well with Mr. Ngila,’ Nyong’o groaned.

What did you say?’

I said Mr. Ngila will never see good thing.’

Madam sighed. She didn’t know Nyong’o knew why she was leaving Nairobi.

She had dated Ngila for many years with the hope of becoming his wife one day. She had given him everything. She had given him her youthful life. But now Nigla was gone. She had heard from a relative of Ngila that he now had a young, beautiful wife. So, Madam was running away from shame. She knew she would never come back to Nairobi if she remained single.

Go home to your people,’ she said and wiped the tears in her eyes.

Someone better will come,’ Nyong’o said. He is not the better one.’

Yes,’ Madam said and wiped her tears.

And they were silent for a moment.

Take care of Duro,’ Nyong’o said. He wanted to tell her to take care of herself.

I will. Take care of yourself. Bye!’ She got unto the taxi. She could see Nyong’o walking behind the taxi as it moved. She was weeping. It hurt her so much how she had hurt an innocent boy who had been so faithful to her, so hard working and obedient.

By now, Nyong’o was tired of walking slowly after the taxi. He stopped. He could see Duro in the back seat, looking at him. He waved at Duro. He waved until he could not see the taxi. He began to sing a song his mother thought him in the farm:

Toil and eat, toil and eat,

A man shall live to know twinge

Toil and eat, toil and eat,

A man shall live to know hunger

Toil and eat, toil and eat,

Or he would live and die a lazy man

Soil and eat, soil and eat

A man shall live to know hunger.

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