Issue Three:
His Small House

By Diana Nyakyi

When I cried out “He left us!” from a woven mat in my living room, us meant me and my three children. I might have added to that his brothers, but I did not mean his small house, who walked in just at that moment. How she thought she could be a part of that sitting, on the first day I opened our doors to the mourners, I didn’t understand. But I sat dormant on my mkeka, as a good big house should, and dug my fingers through its palm leaf weaving.

She deposited two girls on the floor, in an empty space among the women, and began to retrace her steps. As she neared the doorway, her eyes spied the corner where a candlelit portrait of him stood on a stool. For a moment, she teetered on the threshold, but then she was gone from that hot crowded room. A lone speck of decency must have told her that her presence there would be too much. Our culture should never have dubbed them small houses when they wielded all that power. My own eyes were locked on her through the windows until she disappeared toward the tent for outdoor mourners. I turned to look at her girls, their pathetic girls, who seemed just short of adolescence. They were sad and contained, as if told how to behave and how to be there but not impose. They hugged their knees and hung their heads, one closely shaved and one braided in flat rows.

“He leaves three children!” I wailed, and the women whimpered.

I meant Eliasi, Adamu and Raymondi, yet the two little devils had his droopy eyes. I wanted to be in my bed, under my bed net, dozing below the noisy ceiling fan. My husband always wanted to replace that old thing, with its rusted blades, but I never let him. The racket comforted me. I would tell him that when he began sleeping at home every night, we could discuss the business of the fan. He would claim that work travels put food on our table, then I would turn and switch off the bedside lamp.

“He knew his place! At the end of the day, he knew…” I moaned, to which the women sobbed and shook their heads.

Such words went with the atmosphere, those few days we mourned my husband. My living room felt like a gloomy chicken coop. On one end of that torrid space, I sat on the floor, limp against the wall with my sisters. Before us gathered the rest of the women, my other escorts in grief. For hours, we sopped up our tears and sweat with the khangas wrapped about our shoulders. There was so much unease in that space altogether. Even the khangas and all the mikeka, in their blessed vibrancy, were so variant in color that they clashed. My living room was no longer my living room to me, in almost every sense.

It would have suited me more to be in bed, for those few days we gathered. We meant those who were there to grieve and those who were there to eat. Of the eaters, the most brazen also came for the gossip – about his life, our life, and his other life. Of the grievers, there were those who came to console, which was futile but respectable. They were a decent set, even with their ear-splitting hymns. Then there were those who came to do the practical and make the tasks of a sendoff less straining. From my distance, I felt a kernel of warmth for that lot. I had use for the tangible when everything else seemed shapeless.

I wasn’t the pillar I would have designed myself to be, especially for my youngest, Adamu. But who could have stood sturdy in Dar es Salaam’s December heat? It was more the free fall, though, that had me in a state. The ground had escaped from under me, so I was scarcely aware of the plans in the making. The grievers had contributions to collect, obituaries to place, and the t-shirts in memoriam to arrange. They had to bring him home one last time so that we could all look at him in the living room. Then there was the road journey north to orchestrate, and the burial in ancestral land. Only his suit fell squarely on me.

At least I did him justice with the business of the suit, because I didn’t with the foolishness of the t-shirts. The way I knew him, he wouldn’t have wanted to go around on people’s chests, especially if he didn’t look like himself. I regretted giving that photo to whoever it was who asked for it. They told me it had to be of maximum size, so I surrendered the largest there was of him, from a wedding we went to when he still had hair. It was taken by one of those bandit photographers – the ones who weaved around tables snapping individual portraits, later laying out prints near the exit. Unwilling subjects would file by at the end of the night, their images held hostage. My husband and I looked remarkable that day, but the photographer hadn’t captured us nicely. He had blasted us with a flood of light and he had cut off my blue and gold headdress. There was nothing welcoming in our faces because our meals had been interrupted. I was restraining a mouthful of coconut fish, while my husband had a mouthful of goat meat. But we purchased the photos anyway because who knew where the unclaimed went? We collected our shiny sullen faces and took them home. In all my vanity, I would have torn them right down the middle but my husband said that might bring rotten luck. So I put them on the dressing table in our bedroom and we laughed at them for years.

One hundred of us had his shiny sullen face on our chests, and that was foolishness to me. As was their moving my furniture into the sun to give way to the woven mats for us to mourn from. My husband and I had spent a lot to change the fabric on our sofa set, only for it to pale under the scorching beams of December. I wondered about what I could throw over it, and I had many such thoughts during those few days. My mind liked to drone in escape, which helped me bare the density and displacement in my living room. But frequently enough I would come to, and I would realize that my numbness might confuse people. That was when I would stir up my feelings and cry out my grievances.

“What might have been!” I howled, and we wept into our khangas.

As the women shifted on their mikeka and stretched out their aches, my eyes strained to read the proverbs on each khanga. I was wanting to know what words they chose to complement my husband’s demise. One said Let us endure all that comes from God. Another, Hardship should not make you forget the blessings. A third said, Don’t blame an ant, it will never finish the sugar. I considered the irrelevance, and then the relevance. Its owner had likely picked it from her stock in an absent hurry, but I had to wonder how much she knew. I reviewed her from her unfamiliar face to her bare feet. Given the rugged road to my home, there were many dusty soles in that room. But her feet surpassed everything. I eyed the dirt in the fissures of her heels and under her discolored toenails. I looked at her widespread knobby toe knuckles and calculated the hardship in her life. My husband himself had kept nicer feet, and he was a messenger before we made it. I was sure that even at that moment as he lay in the mortuary, his feet were prettier than hers. It wasn’t that I had the feet of a princess. Why would I, when I never lived like one? My own share of cracks and chipped polish appeared at times, but mainly when the hustles of life took the best of me.

Coming to, I felt some pain begin to register. I rubbed at the cramps in my knees and the soreness in my back, weary from my three hours of shifting. So when someone began a rendition of the saddest hymn I had ever heard, I rose. I rose without a word, drawing a fuss of low murmurs from the coop, and went outside to look for my children. When the light struck my eyes, I nearly tripped over the gathering of shoes on the doorsteps. It took time to reunite the left and right sides of my husband’s black leather sandals. I had been wearing them ever since they handed them to me, along with his clothes, at the hospital. I would pass them to my oldest, who poignantly shared his father’s name, since it wouldn’t be long before he fit them.

They were sitting with the rest of the men, in the rented plastic chairs under the rented tent, trying to be men as well. I could see them buckling under the anguish, so I stood close. I stooped over and asked them if they could believe we had used that ugly photo with the goat meat face. They didn’t say much, and I watched them carrying all that weight in their delicate adolescence. I did well to give my husband three sons, something she apparently couldn’t accomplish.

I had already located her with the edge of my eye. She sat in a desolate corner of the tent, with a look fixed on nothing and her fingers entwined in her lap. After stealing a few moments to stare, I suspected she was a pretty woman, but her eyes were red and swollen, and her complexion looked like a cadaver’s. If only she really were a cadaver. She was foul for making me feel hate that day, as if the load of pain weren’t enough. She could have had her own gathering, at the very home he built her.

I searched for a reason to laugh with my boys, but none of the grievers would have understood it. We used to laugh a lot, all of us. As years came and went, it was less. Still, we had our moments – we laughed when we forgot there was a small house. It happened every now and then, right until the day he died. But there under the tent, the small house didn’t look like she could be funny at all. It might have been because she was in grief, but her face didn’t bear lines of laughter the way mine did. Her feet, though, in their silvery slippers, were the cleanest and smoothest on the premises. Her toes wore a full coat of radiant pink.

“God is just heartbreaking,” I said.

Had I been in my bed, it would have meant that I was in my bedroom, which would have meant I did not have to see her. She dared enter my home but she wouldn’t have dared enter my bedroom. Symbolically, I might have said she already had.

The air was much looser outside, where there weren’t so many lamentations. But my sisters came to get me because the ladies behind the house had finished cooking. It was time for the day’s last meal and, indeed, more people were arriving. Savory scents drifted and stirred as the sun prepared to say its last piece. They told me that I needed to eat for strength, that what I did not need was malaria. Then they led me away from the evening mosquitoes and back inside to my mkeka.

A lump of rice and beans and fatty meat loomed on the plate before me. It would have taken all too much of my effort, and I got tired from looking at it and suffering my sisters’ pleas. Then one of them brought me a bowl of mtori soup, which I somehow worked in stages.

Everything felt like work, in fact, including the particular women who arrived at my feet wailing and gripping their handkerchiefs. I devised a game where if one of them landed in front of me, I predicted whether she would produce tears. When I was right, I gave myself a point, and when I was wrong, I took away a point. I earned when our bony neighbor screeched and writhed on my mkeka, tearing at her clothing. When she looked up, her eyes were drier than the scorched grass in my garden. Next came a former schoolmate, plumper than ever, who knelt down with my hand in both of hers. She heaved deeply, my husband’s face pulled taut over her bulk of a bosom. I observed the drops falling from her softhearted gaze and subtracted one point.
I received all their good deeds before hoisting my shoulders to take each embrace. Accommodating people was one of the things that made me a good wife and a good big house. But under the circumstances of those few days, it did feel somehow demanding. I wanted everyone vanished so I could mourn with my boys in my own selfish privacy.

“Where will they learn to be a man!” I ached, to which the women cried and gestured to the heavens. I was mostly thinking of our beloved Eliasi, ever the lost and troubled middle child.

In a whisper, I sent my youngest sister to question the girls by the door. Better her than a gossip monger. She bent over them and spoke quietly before they followed her to the doorsteps for privacy. When she came back to the wall, she relayed that the house he had built her, he had not built her – it was rented and payment was long due. He being dead, they were freshly evicted and staying in a grubby hostel.

I sent my sister out to the tent with fighting words, but the small house was nowhere around. We waited for what would be hours until it was time for the two devils to go to bed. So we made room for them as we all lay down on the woven mats, trying to find our sleep. Overnight in my dreams, he walked into the living room and chided us for moving his arm chair. Then he disappeared toward our bedroom, vowing to change the “lousy” ceiling fan.

The small house never returned on the rest of those days, and she didn’t make the journey to our village. From then on, I couldn’t walk through my living room without recalling just how the harlot managed to leave me their children. Reliving it left me as hot and displaced as that very first day, and I always had to retire to our bedroom.

About the Contributor

Diana is a Tanzanian living in the Swahili Coast city of Dar es Salaam. As a Tufts grad and an emerging writer of creative fiction, she has been playing around with her African and Western perspectives. In recent years, her work has been included in a book by artist Sarah Markes called Street Level, a compilation of illustrations and accompanying texts celebrating the cultural and architectural heritage of Dar es Salaam. In the past, Diana has worked in media and civil society in Tanzania. Currently, she freelances, developing or editing English-language content for print publications and websites.

Losslit canon

I Remember Nothing - Nora Ephron

I Remember Nothing is by the late Norah Ephron so it is not little-known. What makes an impression on me is not the writing but the choice of subject matter, which is largely memory loss. I think it's a significant and interesting kind of loss because it doesn't diminish with time, as can other losses. It usually grows worse, and it can mess with your identity in your head if you're someone who really values your memories and stories. Ephron is known for her wit, and she uses it here. Yet I was struck by how she doesn't joke at the expense of being truthful about how depressing she finds getting older. She doesn't pretend to have unearthed any real wisdom about it. She just deals with loss by talking about it with humor - silver lining not needed.

See all entries in the Losslit canon

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