I do not know if my sister Hadija is dead or has run away or has just disappeared into nothing. All we know around Rusinga Island is that she is no longer with us. She is gone and has been gone since the moment she gave birth to Diana. People say many rumors about her. People say she has the evil eyes. People say that she went away in shame or that she went to be a prostitute in Kisumu. Some people even say she was killed by that man. Mama Mary says she hides in the night, not like a shadow, but like the new moon.
I think my sister is gone but still here. Not here hiding in the night, but here in the daytime when the sun is so hot it cracks the dry path. She is here even when there are only clouds around us. I see her in little Diana. I see her broad and blooming smile in the shape of Diana's lips. Each time I look at Diana I am reminded of a dream I have every now and again. In this dream Diana is older than she is now. She asks me to tell about her mother. I answer her that she already knows because she has her mother's heart. She is usually confused by this.
“When you were being born, there were not enough good hearts to give out. Most of them were bad and your mother did not want any of the bad ones to go to you. She loved you so much, she gave you her own heart and the rest of her disappeared.”
I don't know when I will tell Diana this. It is hard to tell a small girl that her mother is gone, but soon she will be asking all the smart girl questions without answers.
I went with Hadija once a week to draw water for our compound. I can remember it ever since we were strong enough to put the jerry can above our heads. Mine was always smaller than hers. It took a long time to walk the path to the water. We carried empty jerry cans or the big buckets for washing. Along the paths, we stopped to talk to the mamas weeding or planting, depending on the season. They greeted us like they were singing in church and we sang the next chorus back to them. Hadija hopped from jagged, sharp rocks to powdered dust between thorny bushes without looking down even once. I watched my feet the whole of the way, stopping every now and then to see the shadow of my sister bouncing like a grasshopper against the blue of the lake that never moved.
Hadija talked most to the mamas as we walked. I was too far behind on the path to listen. I only watched their faces while she talked. I saw that they received a light on their faces from Hadija and their skin relaxed into happy wrinkles. Mamas and even babas sighed like cool water coming down the hill, as the day's sweat released from their temples. They were talking to Hadija, the small girl who always had a question that amused them.
Hadija and I sang the song Luo girls sing to fetch water as our bare feet made imprints between the rocks. She whistled to the birds and tried to teach me how, but I was not successful. Each time we went to the water, Hadija filled my bucket first. She pulled her dress up though it always became wet. She helped to push my bucket up to the top of my head where I could balance it with my small arm. I then watched her push her own bucket to the top of her head in a motion like the wind. Not a drop of water spilled from her dirty yellow bucket. My green bucket splashed and dribbled the whole walk home. Mama complained that more water was on me than in my bucket. Hadija sometimes told her it was her own bucket splashing onto me. Mama was not amused.
In the middle of the day, when the bins at home were half-full with water, we stopped and rested at one of the half-built houses on the path. Two of the houses were just sticks that made the shape of the house. Our favorite was the house that was all stones placed on top of each other. They were stacked up so carefully it looked like whoever put it together added just one stone each day, then ran out of stones—or days.
Only two of the walls were completed but those walls, with some imagination, made it feel like a real house. I liked it because it made me feel grown and safe. Hadija liked it because a boy named Evonce stayed in the compound near the half-built house. We always saw Evonce in the middle of the day doing something different. Sometimes he kicked his deflated football. The air had long gone out of it, but it was better than the balls made out of paraffin bags and rubbish tied together. Sometimes he walked with his goats. Mostly though, he sat on the same rock looking over the lake. There was usually a book from school in his hands, but I never saw him looking at the book. Instead, he was always looking out. He was looking much further than Lake Victoria. He told us he was just sitting, but I believe he was waiting for Hadija to arrive.
“Pole sana.” Evonce never knew if he should go to her or wait for her to come to him.
“Asante sana.” Hadija dropped her empty bucket and climbed the rock.
“Asante.” I stayed below them.
“Mwanahamisi, come up with us. You can see so much from this point. I will take your hand if you become stuck,” Evonce said.
That never made me feel any better. Evonce was not very strong the way Hadija was. Evonce was known as the boy who avoided doing any work, but he finished first in the testing of children in all of Kenya, so they let him be with his books. He winced as he pulled me and for a moment, I thought that rather than pull me up, I might take him down. He made up for his strength in courage. Some called it foolishness, but even they knew he had a courage they could never find in themselves. It was not the courage of the Maasai fighting lions or of a soldier shooting his gun, but one that is all together different.
I once saw Evonce with a face so bloody it scared me even in my sleep. He had just come from a fight. A group of older boys had hurt one of his sisters. He knew he would be beaten handily, but still he fought.
“Why did you fight if you knew you would be beaten so severely?” I asked as I walked him to our compound for help.
“I would lose more if I was silent.” He pulled his hand back off of the side of his head and looked at his blood as though it was not from his own body.
I reached the top of the stone with my toes and fell forward towards Hadija for balance. She laughed when we collided. Evonce pointed out where the lake ended and the sky began. Hadija pointed to a spot in the sky that had a rainbow the day before.
“It was right there in that place,” she said.
We looked at an empty sky but, because of Hadija, the three of us could see yesterday's rainbow whenever we wished for it. There it was, all the colors of paint, in that same place in the sky. I liked their imaginations better than my own.
The half-built house with the two stone walls was our pretend home. Evonce and Hadija were married and I was the child or neighbor.
“This is good practice for when we grow up and are truly married,” Evonce said.
“Are you sure I will agree to marry you?” Hadija smiled.
“I am just hoping,” Evonce said, his lips suddenly contrite like when he heard his small father call him. They say that his birth father died in the lake. When Hadija saw his face become this way, she healed it with a smile that she did not think I could see.
It was when it was quiet and they would look at each other that I would think they loved each other like Mama and Baba never did.
We sat in the half-built house or on the rock looking at rainbows that weren't there even up until the time when Mama began saying we had the shape of women. We no longer visited the half-built house after the day Evonce left. He told us he was going to school in Machakos.
“Why so far away?” Hadija asked.
“It's the best school.”
“You will write me long letters.”
“And I will be back when school is not in session. Why don't you ask your mama and baba to pay the fee for nursing school? You say you want to go to nursing school.”
“They won't pay the fee. They only pay for my brothers.”
“I will…I will be remembering you all the time. I will still see you here.”
It was quiet and they looked at each other. I knew it was better for me to walk away and not make a sound.
I heard many loud slaps the night Hadija asked about nursing school. Mama kept yelling, “Umeskia? Umeskia?” But it was not that Hadija was not listening to Mama. She just did not accept what she was being told and the day that Evonce left, she was feeling trapped like the way fishermen use their nets. I never thought about nursing school or secretary school or any kind of school for that matter. It seemed I would always be in Rusinga Island and when Baba no longer paid my school fees after P7, I was relieved. But Hadija became very restless and never did care to sleep. I think Mama and Baba should have let her go to nursing school. She was different from other girls on Rusinga Island. They did not see that as something that could be good. The slaps Mama gave Hadija that night hurt her more than little slaps growing up. These slaps were not just over an incomplete task or misbehavior. These slaps hit everything Hadija wanted to be. Mama only wanted to marry her daughters to the right man. She did not understand what it felt like to want to be.
Hadija's face was somewhere else for a number of days after the beating. It was the first time she had been beaten since taking the shape of a woman. A beating means something far worse then. Not long after, she received a letter from Evonce and began to return to her usual self as though his words were like the small pills you can swallow with water and make the pain go away. We walked to the kiosk to buy ugali flour just after she had read the letter. She held the torn envelope with the red, white and blue airmail outline. I have never held a torn envelope like that. It was over the thick grass in front of the school Evonce went to when he still lived on the island. She whispered about the white etching of the moon stuck in the daytime, waiting to glow. She asked me if I noticed the way the tips of the tree branches tingled in the wind.
Hadija found out one morning that Evonce would be home from school for the month of August. I could hear her singing in the house as I was scrubbing laundry. The water in my bucket went from clear to very dirty and Hadija's voice continued on. I smiled as my hands twisted the water out of Baba's shirt. Beneath her singing, I heard Baba's voice approaching closer. There was a man with him and the house fell into stillness when the door opened. Baba looked at me through the hallway and pointed to the dishes. I dropped his wet shirt in my hand and went to make tea. While the water boiled, I saw Mama talking to Hadija. Hadija's face was not there. I could only see her body.
I brought out the tea and heard Baba talking to this man. I made excuses to return to the room, to bring something more, to change a spoon, to wipe the tray. With each return, I learned another piece. Mama and Baba were marrying Hadija to this man. The man was older and they thought he could take care of my “stubborn” sister. Back to where the water had boiled, Mama was still speaking.
“It is time for you to become a wife. You are too restless for a girl. You need a husband.” Mama's voice was a whisper but sounded like a cruel shout. I stepped into the next room but my ears were still tuned like my brother's short wave radio. I heard Baba's voice now.
“An older man like yourself will be a very good idea for her. She needs guidance, like a father.” His voice was hollow. I entered the room once more and offered more tea.
I wanted to turn to Baba and tell him who Hadija is. I wanted to sit down with my own cup of tea and explain how Hadija is different. I kept my head down until Baba handed me 30 shillings and told me to get the guest a Coke. When I walked to the kiosk I did not see anything but Hadija's body sitting there next to Mama. It was everywhere.
I returned and Hadija's body was standing before the man. Mama stood next to her with a nervous smile. Baba talked about Hadija being shy. He was lying. He did not know what Hadija was like at all. The man said she was pretty and would be acceptable. He said that this island was his home and a wife on the island will keep his roots strong and growing. I went back to the bin of dirty water. Baba's shirt floated there like a dead fish. I tried to clean the very color out of it. I squeezed it, twisted it until not a single drop of water would fall. I felt the wind circle me once and then go.
The man's name was Benjamin Oludhe. This Mr. Oludhe started to come to the house more after that day. He started to be alone with Hadija more and more. I did not see Hadija so much for those days. Evonce would soon return from school.
I think Hadija knew when he was coming. She seemed to be able to feel such a thing the way some elders know if there will be rains or draught to come. Mr. Oludhe was the only man around at this time. Baba was gone as usual doing business in Homa Bay. Our brothers had all left for Kisumu and even on to Nairobi. I wish they would have been around for Mr. Oludhe to see. Maybe things would have been different.
The night before Evonce returned from school, I heard a deep voice from the sitting room, “You will be my wife.” I heard Hadija's voice try to scream, but fail. I heard pushing. I heard Hadija kick like when boys taunt donkeys. I heard Hadija's body hit the floor like when when the laundry water is poured out after all has been washed. I stopped listening and prayed for sleep.
Early in the morning I brought Hadija tea. She was awake in bed with dried tears on her face. Her eye was cut and swollen. Her body had bruises and bumps that broke into her black skin, smooth and rolling like the lake glitters from the sun—so much deeper color than my own skin when our arms swung next to one another along the paths. She drank the tea and I sat with her until I heard Mama's voice mixing with Mr. Oludhe's voice. “Salama,” and then her footsteps came for our room. She yelled for me to go but I stayed. She yelled again and I left, fearing the beating she had given Hadija. She told Hadija she was a terrible and shameful child. She called her a disgrace to the family. She asked why Hadija insisted upon being so disrespectful and troublesome. She reminded her of the Fourth Commandment and told her that she had angered God. When Mama could think of nothing more to say, she slapped Hadija on all her bruises, bumps and on her swollen eye. She walked out of the room and without seeing me, Mama sat down to cry.
Hadija had not moved from her bed when Evonce came to the door one hour later. I stood behind mama at the door. Evonce looked different but still had something familiar in him. Mama stopped him between the gate and the house, her own face still tired from weeping. They stood next to where the goats ate grass. She told him Hadija was sick and that she was not allowed to see any men without Mr. Benjamin Oludhe present. Evonce asked who was this.
“He will be her husband.”
I ran around the compound as quickly as I could. It was muddy and my feet were getting stuck. I saw Evonce walking back to his compound. I shouted his name loud enough for him to hear but quiet enough so that Mama would not. He stopped and we walked to each other across the long, faded grass that would sometimes catch my feet. Standing with my ankles itching in the grass, I told him about Mama's lies and about Mr. Benjamin. The courage returned to his face in the shape of a smile.
That night, Evonce entered our house without Mama knowing. He and Hadija looked at each other just like they had in the half-built house. Hadija smiled from behind her bruises and bumps that throbbed from the second slaps. Evonce reached out and touched Hadija's eye like I once saw a healer do to a dying elder who came back to life. Hadija reached back and put her hand flat on his chest near his heart like she wanted to feel it beat in the palm of her hand.
The next night when we were eating, Mr. Oludhe walked in. He squeezed Hadija's arm harder than he should have and took her away. Mama would not tell me what he was doing. I feared I would never see her again. Evonce snuck to our room again that night, expecting to see Hadija again. His eyes looked fierce when I told him. He went out to look for her.
He came back later hoping she had returned, then he went back out looking in a night illuminated only by a tiny piece of the moon. He kept coming back all night. I heard the creaking door many times. I rubbed my eyes each time only to see his silhouette, hung in the corner of the room, looking downward.
Hadija returned in the morning. She sat down on the bed next to me and cried for a long time with Mama and Mr. Oludhe's voices murmuring in the other room. Mr. Oludhe left and Hadija's tears fell slowly like the last drops of a storm. Mama walked into the room.
“Baba will be coming. You have done it now. You have lost everything in your future. The people will all think you have the evil eyes. Some do now. Tsk tsk. Stupid girl.” She walked out without Hadija looking up even once.
In Rusinga Island, women with the evil eyes are dangerous. They will curse you and bring you bad fortune. No one knows how they get the evil eyes, but if it is your daughter, you are to keep her in the compound away from guests. I heard later that day near the kiosk that this man Benjamin had a bloody gash on his face. The spirit inside Hadija had been gone for some time and now the man she is to marry has a wounded face. This surely meant my sister was changed. “Eh,” the mamas of the island inhaled abruptly, “Wasn't it too bad that such a nice girl could get the evil eyes?” I listened to them talk as though I were invisible.
I went to find Evonce and he was there on the path kicking his deflated football against a stone. There was no air at all anymore and the ball would not move far. Still he kicked with all his might toward the goal he had constructed. He did not believe the rumors. He said he never believed in “silly African superstitions” like the “evil eyes.” I looked around us with caution, certain we would both come to regret such a comment being said.
“I will come tonight like the last nights to see Hadija.”
“You cannot. Baba will be home now. He is coming back today.”
“He won't see me.”
“He will be looking for you. Mama knows about you. I think she saw you coming when Hadija was taken away that night.”
“Let them catch me.”
That night, Baba caught him. I heard Baba yell. I heard Evonce yell back and I watched Hadija's eyes startle and suffer quietly. I tried to find Evonce the next couple days but I could not. Then one day, he found me. I was drawing water alone. There he was on the path as if he'd never left.
“Mwanahamisi,” he waited for me to look up and he paused, “is that where Hadija saw the rainbow?” He pointed out the spot in the sky.
I looked at the rainbow that had not been there for years.
“Yes. That is where it is.”
He handed me a note to give to Hadija. We did not speak for long. I did not climb the rock. It was different without Hadija there. I was somehow fearing him like he was a ghost. Hadija read the note like I would one day hope to read a note from someone. She wrote a note back. The rest of August I delivered notes between Hadija and Evonce. I never thought about reading them. I knew what they meant.
Baba was there for the entire month so Evonce was never able to see Hadija before he went to school. Evonce had no living father so Baba went and even threatened Evonce's uncle. His uncle feared Mr. Benjamin and promised that Evonce would no longer return to the island. Hadija re-read the notes through the month of September. I think she was pretending he was still there in Rusinga Island writing her notes. It was early October when the doctor came and told her she was pregnant, but Mama said she had already known it.
She sat in the corner of the house in the late afternoon with her hands on her stomach. Near the lake, I saw a large fish jump high into the air over and over. That night at supper, I was to cook a fish that looked just the same. Everything about the fish was the same but the feeling was different. Hadija was fed the scraps separately before she was to wash the dishes well into the night. Mama never spoke to her at all, an unmarried daughter who was pregnant, certainly she was cursed with an evil eyed daughter.
I saved bits of extra food so Hadija's stomach could be full enough for a baby to grow. At the market, I bought machenza—our favorite fruit—without having to pay. Mama Mary gave them to me. She too had a daughter with the evil eyes, but I don't think she ever believed it like Mama.
I walked past Mama hiding the machenza and on days when I could—milk. I closed the door in our room and Hadija was like a picture. She smiled with effort and peeled the machenza. The taste of the fruit on her tongue made her want to speak.
“What should we name this baby, Mwanahamisi?”
“Will it be a boy or a girl?”
“I think it will be a girl. A restless girl like the mother.” She rubbed a circle around her womb. I swallowed a piece of machenza I had saved for myself.
“I think the name Diana is very beautiful,” I said.
“The princess from U.K.?”
“Yes. I saw the pictures of her in a magazine that Atiato had. I am hoping that someday your baby will go to a place like U.K. or America.”
“I saw those pictures also.” Hadija smiled. Then, the smile fell off of her face in an instant.
“I worry about my baby.”
“Why?” I wiped my hands on the orange part of my kanga around my legs.
“I don't know if her heart will be good or bad. If she is love or hate.”
“She is love. She will have a very good heart,” I said.
“Do you think so?” She looked down at her stomach.
“No matter what, Hadija, she has your heart and that way you know it is good.”
“My heart,” Hadija whispered. She looked at me, “We will name her Diana and be sure that she will be a princess with a good heart?”
“We will,” I promised.
The falling of water from above and rushing of water along the paths below didn't stop in the short rains season of November and December. It even rained into the month of January. Hadija whispered with the raindrops to the baby growing inside of her.
Evonce wrote her letters but he never knew about the baby. Hadija never told him. He was far away from Rusinga Island now. She rarely replied to his letters. She told me there was little for her to say. At least in Machakos Evonce would see some people who were from Rusinga or nearby Mbita, but in Nairobi, he was far away from all the news of home. Rumors of Rusinga do not go as far as Nairobi. Evonce was there with his aunt and kept us updated on his life until Hadija wrote him to never return to Rusinga Island. If they met again, it would be in another place. She told me there was a plan.
The baby came in May and I never saw Hadija again. When the baby was close to being born, Mama and the doctor made me leave the room. I tried to come back in but they had locked the door. The last memory I have of Hadija is her face. She was smiling in pain. Her teeth showed so wide and bright like we were on the trail drawing water, but it was no smile. The door was shut all night, even after the baby was crying. The next morning, Hadija was gone. Mama said she went to Mbita to recover at the doctor's office. She was very sick. I took Diana that morning and made a place for her in my room. I found the softest blankets and set her down in them. It became her place, waiting for her mama to come back. She never did.
My mama told me that Diana's mama died in the doctor's office. Giving birth had killed her, Mama said. We can't have funerals for girls with the evil eyes. I went to Mbita in July. I walked across the pushed-up mound of earth that everyone used as a road. I found the doctor's office without Mama knowing, and he said that Hadija had run away. He said she probably went to Kisumu. Mama told me he was lying. She said that doctors never admit when a patient dies, then I was punished for moving without her permission. Mama Mary with the machenza fruit told me that Hadija is hiding around Rusinga Island. Other people talked about prostitution or that evil eyes killed her. I believe she lives because I cannot imagine the world without her.
Evonce never came back to Rusinga Island. He never had a reason to return after I wrote him a letter to tell him Hadija was gone. He did not know about the baby. I did not tell him, but I knew each time I held Diana. The sound of Diana's laugh could only have come from the way Evonce and Hadija looked at each other.
When Diana sleeps in my arms, I feel her heart beat through her back into my palm. It is a good heart, heavy, strong and full of Hadija. When I walk the path to draw water, I still see the rainbow that is not there. I still feel the look that she and Evonce would give each other. I still remember delivering letters to and from Evonce. I like to see them in my mind, married and living in a finished house far away from Rusinga.
It will be hard for me to answer Diana if she ever asks about her mama. I do not know the real answer myself. Soon Diana will be old enough to walk the path to draw water with me. We will pass by the half-built houses and days that were there a long time ago. The path is still the same. Like Hadija did for me, I will point out all the things that are gone, but can still be seen if I look. I think Diana will see too.