I Have Heard Many Things About You

In Personalhistory, Season 2 by Wambui Waiganjo

This grief is limitless.

She sees it extending endlessly into her future, she recognises it in her past. There’s a sadness she used to find impossible to explain, but now she recognizes it as this very grief. It is out of her control, a force from within that has formed into a partner she finds herself in some sick marriage with. ‘Til death do us part she thinks, humorously, as death has brought us together.

She fears that if she explains this to others, namely their (His? She isn’t sure how to refer to them now that he’s gone) weeping family at this funeral, that they might confuse this limitless grief with a yearning for him, that she was missing him. They might feel compelled to console her for her loss or worse, tell her that he’s in a better place. It’s nonsensical, she doesn’t have the words to explain it, but it’s so nonsensical it even teeters on comedic. See, she isn’t grieving the man dead within the casket before her, she’s just certain that she’s dying with him.

How could she make sense of this? Of the lies she used to tell to keep herself alive, that are now buried neatly beside him. Must she continue telling them? Where does she put this rage? Could she make it small enough to fit within his dress pocket? Can she tuck it within the bouquet of flowers she’s meant to place atop his grave? Who was she now that he was no longer a threat? How does she say goodbye to the woman who kept her alive when he was?

Once, after he’d split her lip open, she found herself at the hospital, again. She didn’t bother to cry or to appear scared, she’d been there too many times for all the pretense, the nurses knew her by name. As always it was just a few hours before dawn, the consistent warm, muddy hue of a sun just not yet risen felt like a friend. As she filled out her form and waited in the little beige waiting room, it kept her company, held her hand and gave her comfort.

 She wondered when they’d update their equipment. For some reason, the fluorescent light clearly built in the 70s drew her in enough to not notice that some time had passed. That she’d been placed in a room, that the doctor was sitting in front of her, and that she was telling her something.

“I think we need to call the police, Tilly.”

Reality swooped in, “Sorry?”

“The police Tilly, I just find it hard to believe that you’re this accident prone.”

Silence, in which she noticed that she was apparently holding an ice pack to her jaw, and that it was dripping cold water down her arm, “I think this is melting.”

“It won’t.”

“Oh.”

So, they sat, and the noise from outside the door started to slowly register as well. The buttons, the nurses shuffling, the constant low hum of monitors, the whispered argument between a couple next door. Hospitals were consistent in their anatomy, she appreciated that greatly, that no matter where she ended up seeking help, it’d be the same bustle, as if she was in the same hospital over and over. Maybe she was, she wondered if that mattered to her, the fact that she couldn’t tell the difference, but the doctor’s sigh interrupted her before she could conclude.

“Do you have anyone we can call Tilly?”

“For what?”

“If you don’t want to speak to the police, I’d feel better if I knew there was someone in your life I could at least share my concerns with.”

“Why?”

“What do you mean?”

“There isn’t anyone.”

Another sigh, “I’m sure there’s someone.”

“No, there’s no one,” Then quieter, “They kept trying to tell me to leave him.”

Tilly remembers dinner with her family as a ritual more than a meal. There was a process, steps that she needed to complete for a prize she never really ever received. She’d bring the plates and cutlery, her mother would prepare and place the food, her father would watch and critique them as they did it. She always placed her fathers plate down first, then hers, then her mother’s last. She always sat in the middle of the table, her mother on the left end, her father on what he would jokingly call “the head of the table”. It was never funny, no matter how many times he said it.

Then they would pray, and Tilly would work really hard to give off the air that she believed what they were saying by squeezing her eyes really tight. Then they’d eat silently, because her mother hated when they spoke — “The point of dinner is to eat, not speak”.

After their meal, Tilly would put the cutlery into the sink, her mother would wash the dishes, and her father would go to sit and watch whatever he had been waiting to watch. Sometimes she would sit and watch with him, sometimes she would not, it depended on how she felt that day.

But she remembers once, her mother sat with them before doing the dishes. She’d usually be in a hurry to disappear to their room to read, or sleep. But she sat with them that day, and whatever he was watching was loud and graphic, the very things Tilly knew her mother hated. 

She remembers watching how straight her mothers back was when she sat, she remembers feeling like even though she wasn’t watching the screen she could understand what was going on just from the reflection of the tv’s light on her mothers solemn face in their dark living room. She remembers suddenly realizing that it’d been quite some time since she’d seen her mother smile. 

Had she ever?

She wasn’t sure.

When the movie or show or whatever ended, her mother quietly stood up, gave a shy upturn of her lips which she assumed was meant to be a smile, and awkwardly announced, “Happy Anniversary.” 

Then her mother asked her to help with the dishes, which was out of the ordinary. After a bit of silence, pointedly after her father had climbed the stairs to bed, she turned to Tilly and asked:

“You remember Auntie Waithira?” 

She didn’t, she didn’t remember half of the Aunties her mother brought up because the list was endless, but she nodded because she knew that her remembering was probably not the most important part.

“We visited her family in Mombasa when we went to visit, she has two kids almost your age but they don’t come to the events.”

Tilly suddenly did remember, and gave a ‘hm’ in response.

“You remember she was married? She came here with her husband and they divorced.”

“Oh, why?”

“He would hit her, she said,” her mother frowned, her expression tense as she scrubbed at a stubborn stain in a steel pot, “Now her children don’t have a father.”

“Oh,” Tilly didn’t know what to say in response. She did remember how sullen her Aunt looked when they had visited, and she figured with the way she spoke in whispers around her husband that it all made sense, “I didn’t know.”

“Now she is struggling to pay the bills because he left to go back to Kenya, they say he’s remarrying even.”

“Oh wow.”

“She’s always asking us for help, everytime we see her, she needs help,” her mother was practically whispering then, her face still looked just as tense as it was when she was scrubbing at the pot, like whatever she was thinking was paining her, “Don’t do what she did, ok?”

“Do what?”

“Give up,” a pause, “Don’t be weak.”

A few years later, after countless rituals, in the summer before Tilly was going to leave for college, or the summer before that, or maybe it was spring of her freshman year of high school, the weather was warm and her family attended a barbeque with members from their church at a local park. There was a ritual to these things as well; the women would prepare the set up and try to keep track of the kids, the men would stand around someone grilling like they were lions at a watering hole, the kids would wander off to do whatever kept them away from their parent’s long enough. 

She always tried to disappear a bit at these events. The aunties, more than anyone, always had something to say about her appearance. They suggested this makeup, and this acne cream, and this weight loss program. It would at times feel like she was on a never ending conveyor belt and their job was to choose one thing about her appearance she needed to alter; it was nauseating to hear her own thoughts personified.

However, on this day, she became drawn to the scene of the women sitting silently in their little circle in the field of grass. There must’ve been a lull in the conversation, but she suddenly remembered her mother’s warning and felt something bubble up within her. 

They’d all moved to the West around the same time, in their early twenties, searching for greatness and opportunity they believed impossible to find back home. All of them frowned whenever they stood near or had to speak to their husbands. All of them called for their children to eat in the same exhausted, tense tone.

She felt like she could sense a cage made of glass surrounding the women. She realized that, oddly, almost all of them sat the same way in their respective camping chairs, as if they were programmed to keep perfect posture. 

The urge to scream at the top of her lungs overcame her. Maybe they’d hear her and start screaming too, maybe if they all screamed long and loud enough the glass walls she felt surrounding them would shatter; maybe then they could all give up. 

But she swallowed the urge, and it became one of those memories she forgot about for years. 

In December, when she was fourteen, she met the friend who would go on to be the best maid at her wedding. She thinks it was just before the Christmas break, their class was having a small celebration. The hot chocolate was made with boiled water and powder, the special touch was the cinnamon. When Adjoa’s allergy flared up, Tilly was the one tasked with walking her to the office.

Adjoa used to let her scribble in the margins of her notebooks. She’d let her scribble on her leg when she was bored even. It was like Tilly had an itch she could only scratch by being in a constant state of creation. It used to make her giddy, or as Adjoa described it, ‘feral’. Where this seemed to deter the other kids, it only drew Adjoa in. She was her first canvas, and Tilly was her first critic.

As the eldest of four, from a young age Adjoa was always helping in the kitchen. Watching her cook was like sitting in the seats of an orchestra. The rapid beat of a knife hitting the cutting board, the crash of the symbols as the onions fell into the oily pan, she could hear the flute’s soft trills with the sprinkle of every spice, the smell of the simmering broth reminded her of a cello’s low hum. 

They presented themselves as adamant believers in the STEM fields to everyone else in their lives, but they knew each other’s secrets. Tilly and her paints, Adjoa and her food, they encouraged each other silently and lonesomely until they eventually ran away to their respective art and culinary schools in college.

“Tilly, how will you protect yourself now?” She remembers her mother wailing over the phone, at the time she couldn’t understand the dramatics, “What have I done all this for?”

Tilly’s first prize winning piece, in fact, was of Adjoa in the small kitchen of her dorm. It was night, and the only lights were the low, yellow glow from the overhead light and the gleam from the cityscape outside the window in the background. She was smiling over a pot of paneer, her large fro tied in a tight but comically messy bun. Tilly remembers enjoying the agonizing detail she placed in perfecting the light in the strands of her hair, she remembers adding shades of blue to the steam, she remembers the red of Adjoa’s apron.

And that’s about it. 

The rest, before him, is a blur, as most things have become in her life. She remembers that life less with actual memories now and just a strong understanding of how she felt at any given time. When she remembers Adjoa now she remembers a muddy warmth, of cinnamon, of burnt rice, and a laughter that sounded like wooden wind chimes.  

As one would assume, she believed she’d meet love in the form of romance, of sex, of an intimacy that could only be reflected with a kiss. But she was wrong— terribly. She imagined it like she was spending her life trying to have conversations with people who simply didn’t understand what language she was speaking in, then Adjoa would come to her and sing her lullabies like it was the easiest thing in the world. Something about being known, understood, she knows there’s a certain kind of poetry in it all. A shame she lost her before she could appreciate it.

She’d met him at a gallery.

Was it hers? Was it a friend’s? Were they even inside? She can’t remember, but she remembers they were speaking of art, and speaking of someone’s work that she loved. Certainly not her own, she isn’t sure anymore whether she loved her work. 

“It’s a performance installation, I like to think it’s about the weight of African history, but it’s specific inspiration is the colonization of Namibia,” she was rambling, but she didn’t care, because he was beautiful and someone in her sculpting class had suggested he liked her, “She performed it in Germany so I’ve only ever seen it online but I just love it so much, more than anything probably, I feel like my work nowadays is simply an attempt at trying to move myself the way it does.”

“I just don’t get it,” she remembers him saying, but she no longer remembers his voice, oddly. Was it gruff? Warm? Did it pull her in? Did it feel like a hug?

“Get what?”

“Everything about it, it sounds dumb and embarrassing to be dragging some huge thing around the middle of a city.”

“Well that’s the point!” she thought he was showing interest, she remembers how giddy she got. Because she liked that he wanted to talk to her, and she liked that people saw her with him, but most of all, she liked just even the slightest idea that he liked her, “History is something you drag around, everybody drags it around, and for people like us, children of the children of the children of the colonized that history is heavy and embarrassing and loud but too often, ignored”

“Still think it’s dumb,” he said with a smile, and she decided that she liked his smile, she liked it more than whatever cruel thing he was saying.

“I guess it just has to grow on you,” she smiled with him, “I just hope that I can make something like that one day.”

 The first time he hit her, she cried in Adjoa’s arms; it was raining, and it was just them in her dorm, they were both crying. She realized then, oddly, that she’d never been held so tightly and earnestly. Like she was trying to squeeze out all the pain through her pores, and it felt like it was working. Her breathing slowed, and eventually her tears dried. That familiar lullaby was being played through their intertwined hands and it was like a balm; mellow and kind.

She did it every time, she held her the same way every time, she listened to her cry every time; she stayed long past when she should’ve left.

“Tilly, please, you don’t need to stay with him,” She whispered once, randomly.

They were watching a movie, she thinks, she’s not sure but they were doing something in silence. They were in her dorm, or maybe they were in a theater, or at a café. They were somewhere together sitting quietly, and there was a low hum she couldn’t remember from where and she’d just heard someone laughing in a way she hadn’t in such a long time and it had made her smile.

“What? Why are you saying that?”

“This is your third black eye in the past two months, he isn’t getting any better.”

“Yes he is,” She’d sighed, “You just don’t see it but he is, he’s an asshole sometimes I get it but —” she caught her reflection in something, briefly, and it confused her because she didn’t recognize her own face for a moment, “but he’s getting better.”

“Tilly.”

“I know this might be hard for you to understand because you’re so hard headed, but it’s not always ups, there’s —.”

She wonders what she was like, if maybe she became unrecognizable. She barely remembers herself, apart from the pain and the excuses and the constant waiting. Waiting for her wounds to heal, waiting for him to change, waiting for it all to be worth it. It was nauseating labour for a love that existed solely in her mind. But that was her reward, the delusion of it all. As she looks back, she recognizes that for Adjoa, there was no such delusion to placate her.

All she had was Tilly’s tears, she had Tilly’s pain, and a finite resource of bandages. 

The rest of what she had said that day is unimportant. It’s trivial almost, the exact words she used. Lies are lies regardless of how you tell them, what matters is that she began to tell this lie so often and with such increasing cruelty that eventually there was no one left to try and squeeze the pain out of her pores. The lullaby ended and then it was just her and him, him and her, her and him, him and her, her and him, him and her.

At some point, things just began happening to her. She doesn’t remember graduating but apparently, she did it. She doesn’t remember quitting art to work at the school, but she did it. She doesn’t remember putting her name down for the mortgage, yet there she was, being choked by the fireplace in a home that was apparently hers.

It’s as if she stood outside her body curiously watching a horrible story of a very pitiful woman attempting life, and that pitiful woman simply happened to have her face. With this face she’d sneer at children, she’d refuse to say thank you when others would offer small gestures like opening doors and such, she’d laugh at movies whose messages seemed to be optimism and love and joy and other frivolous fake things. With this face she sneered at the whole world in fact. 

She’d try to say, there’s something rotting within me, won’t you take it out for me? But no one seemed to hear her, apparently, she was never even speaking.

The day he didn’t return home, she became grateful for freak accidents and rundown cars with weak brakes. When she sat down on her bed, and it registered that no one would be joining her in it, she possessed herself again, looked around, and wondered when the hell she’d bought such a large dresser.

There was someone’s face staring back at her in the mirror, and she looked awful. Her eyes were so baggy and weary, there was so much new growth in her braids she wondered how long it’d been since she’d last gotten them done. Had she always looked like she was constantly on the verge of tears? It looked like it had been quite some time since she’d smiled.

Had she ever?

She wasn’t sure.

The doctor’s voice returned to her like an echo in a dark empty cave.

“I’m sure there’s someone.”

“No, there’s no one,” then quieter, “They kept trying to tell me to leave him.”

She expected another deep sigh, but there was just a steely silence, and she realized that for some reason the door had been closed, and that the doctor had rolled her chair up close to the side of her hospital bed.

“My father was an abusive asshole.”

Silence, again. Tilly didn’t know how to respond, or whether she was meant to. The doctor continued regardless, “He did things I refuse to speak out loud, and while I lived in that house with him, I wanted to die everyday.” 

As she spoke, she carefully pulled the ice pack away from Tilly’s face and checked on the stitches Tilly didn’t even remember had been done, “Everyday I’d wake up hoping I’d somehow die by the end of it but for some reason I kept myself going, each and every time.”

“Ok.”

“That took, as you can imagine, a lot of energy,” She dabbed a cotton ball onto her lip, “I’ve gone through an extensive amount of medical schooling and the only thing that comes close to describing the state I was in is disassociation. Do you know what that is, Tilly?”

“I think.”

“Yeah, you’re just not there mentally, your body is so focused on just getting you through it that it sacrifices your very grip on the horrible reality around you,” Tilly was suddenly really missing the hum from when the door was open,  “Which includes the grip on yourself, on your ability to extend kindness, love,” She paused from inspecting Tilly’s lip to offer a smile before continuing, “That’s not a medical definition by the way, it’s just how I’ve made sense of it.”

“Ok.”

“What I’m trying to say is, I know I’m not talking to you completely right now, I know that I’m speaking to the woman who is holding your place until it’s safe for you to come back,” Tilly considered how long she’d have until he woke up, she’d have to sneak back into the house before then, he hated waking up alone, “Whenever that is, I just hope that if I can ask anything of you, is that when you get back, and things start rushing back to you, remember this.”

“Ok.”

“No, I mean remember this Tilly: try to forgive her, this woman holding your place, and thank her.”

She wonders now if those are the words she needs to finally speak. It’s just her and the rain and his freshly buried body. The cemetery has been abandoned, the last car just passing the entrance gate at the top of the hill. Her arm is getting sore from holding up the umbrella, her feet are starting to ache in her shoes, so now is probably the time to do it.

She feels twelve, or fourteen, or eighteen or however old she was then but she feels like she’s standing in a glass cage all over again. Her vocal chords already feel tense, she can feel the scream bubbling up from within her. She wonders if she lets it out, whether it would just be her voice escaping her. Would she hear her mother? Her mother’s mother? Adjoa? Maybe Auntie Waithira is hiding somewhere within her.

As she gives in, it feels like the sound is being ripped out of her more than it’s coming out of her. It’s just as awful as she imagined it’d be. It barely sounds human, it barely sounds like her, and she hopes it terrifies anyone who can hear.

Suddenly, in the midst of her wailing, she remembers the only piece she managed to paint while she was married to him. She isn’t sure if she can consider it a piece but she had been bleeding from somewhere, and she had smeared a strange half circle onto a paper with the blood. Then she fumbled for a pen on her desk and snapped it open so the ink would spill out, she ignored the splatters and made larger shapes surrounding the circle with her makeshift paint. She used more blood for two dots somewhere in the mess. She then used the tip of the pen to make thin but jarring lines in the half circle, and it was only after she was done that she recognized she’d made a sort of face. Back then, she couldn’t tell whether it was screaming or laughing.

But now, as she stands screaming in this cemetery, she realizes she’d actually been a bit clairvoyant.

 A rush to dig up the grave and pull out her nonexistent corpse comes over her. She suddenly wishes to hold her, to kiss her, to pour oil on her scalp, and grant her a love she denied her in life. Would she forgive her, for taking so long to come back? Is there enough thanks she could possibly give her? A part of her wishes for her to return. 

This shell she has now shed was once a home, how must she now live without it?

“You’ll learn how,” She distantly remembers Adjoa saying, one of the last times she ever saw her, “I believe that one day you’ll learn how to just look in the mirror and be ok that there’s nobody around looking with you telling you you’re beautiful. It’ll just be you, whatever you look like, and you’ll be ok.”

There’s an empty home that she’s going to return to. At some point there was a woman who had her face who lived there. This woman would sneer at children that’d pass by, and she’d laugh at movies whose messages seemed to be optimism and love and joy and other frivolous fake things; she’d sneer at the whole world in fact. But she loved her, this woman.

She’s dead now, and all she has is the dust compiling on their furniture, and a face in the mirror she’s only beginning to recognize, and this fond limitless grief that looks eerily similar to that cruel woman. She doesn’t think she can muster up forgiveness yet, or even a thank you, whatever’s rotting in her just hasn’t run its full course yet. 

But maybe she’ll be walking down a lightly lit street one day, and she’ll need to make a turn, to go to the store, or her new home, or somewhere else. It doesn’t matter, but she’ll make that turn and find herself standing there, waiting.

She’ll be everything she ever was and will be, filled up in all the right places, forgiven and healed. And she’ll cancel all her plans for the day, to run into her own warm embrace, and she’ll be happy for coincidence, and random street turns.

She wouldn’t say hello, but maybe, “I’ve heard many things about you”

Just maybe. Until then, she’ll scream.