Yesterday's Leaflets

The Mantis Courtesan

She imagines that the same electromagnetic waves that guide turtles to hatch back in the ancient coastal sands of their birthplace were the same forces that always took her back to Benedict. Maybe Freud had some other theory but whatever it was she hated herself for being so weak. Why this affection towards a man who was against everything she believed in, a man who had no sense of duty? She had met him on the University alleys murmuring indiscreetly to himself. They had been part of the students fleeing from the batons of the city council askaris for spraying on the administration block the words; ‘THE VICE CHANCELLOR MUST GO’. From the chaos they had gone into her place to cool off while listening to the breaking news about the student riot. He had never left the confines of her space even after graduation. He gave up photocopying his resume and sending it to pharmaceutical and biomedical firms saying that he had given up science. The bachelor’s degree had been tucked away between loose leaf pads and old exercise books. Nothing had changed about him in more than the five years since they met; he still wore the same creased shirts with the folded sleeves and a half-coat and blue jeans. His only contribution to the bed-sitter they now shared was the vita foam mattress he had stolen from a hostel. Of course there was the snoring, his restless leg syndrome and the whorls of hydrogen sulfide at night but this she put up with like a loyal girlfriend. Somehow, she always came home to his arms, sometimes loathing herself for longing to be under the anesthetic halo of his embrace. Benedict, always the passionate lover, wrote incomprehensible poems for her.

Now she must find a way to get rid of the devil she had welcomed in her room, but first she had to overcome her own self. He had suckled at her breasts for too long.

Her vagina –

a cathedral

an exit-entrance canal

for canoes and dhows of sandalwood

for gnats and weevils

for the hard wood.

Like the calf that suckles from the adder

I suck, from under.

Damn you Benedict! Damn you! Yes, she had to get rid of the poet. He was not providing like every man ought to, bills collected dirt and coffee stains on the table until she found a way to settle them. He was overly jealous when she talked and entertained other men but that did not stop him from enjoying the perks that came with it. Benedict would call her a whore for using her body to lure married men. She would say that all she did was give them lap dances and laugh to their stupid joke. Then they would fight about it all night, drinking the extra dry martini she had brought home and having drunk sex on the floor. The next morning he would stay at home indulging in indolence and daydreams, scratching his scrotum, eating peanut-butter bread and pouring jars of coffee into his stomach all day, reading volumes of 19th century poems from Bartleby.com through the LCD of a 3G phone borrowed from Eva. He would scribble lines on the loose leaf pads and read them to her later in the day.

My winged mechanics

I bruise through fields of sparks

down into your oblong hanger petals

of metal

into an ovary of convergence.

All this had to stop.

Benedict’s voice kept resurfacing into her head reminding her of the ingrate she had left at home. What made it worse was that she could remember each word, when every syllable hammered her malleable esteem. Each line could cross her blood-brain barrier causing irreversible damage in her. In Benedict’s hands, she had transformed from Athena the goddess to a whore. Benedict first poems were a celebration of the female body using Eva’s body as his prototype. He wrote about the susurrations and seismic waves when Eva crossed a street, how her tapestry caused traffic in the lands of our ancestors. Then as the relationship went through the stages of emotional plateau, descent and finally the phase where they could not be plotted on the same quadrant and simply existed under the same roof in Eastlands Nairobi, he would come up with lines like:

Oh magnolia,

hibiscus and carnations,

the changing moods of morning glory

her purple and pink vagina is nothing like magnolia,

nothing like the old gory metaphor,

oh magnolia.

The wretched poet and his lines for the blog, work that would never reach the masses and would always remain a sack of inconsequential kilobytes somewhere in the intricate mesh of fiber optic cables. He had started a blog and found enough loyal followers to kip him writing. His only ambition was to turn the blog-spot into a website. She swore to rise above him in her life and art and transcend above his changeling words.

Every night in her studio Evangeline would remember her crayon days and feed her imagination with the hues of her childhood and the images of her later days’ sexual crisis under the arms of a blogger poet. The result of which was her paintings. Eva, as Benedict called her, carried around her portfolio to galleries and walked out moments later. The curators thought that her paintings were irrelevant to the audience of Nairobi; the city was not ready for her. Ever since her graduation no gallery would dare to take her. No one would display the gruesome depictions of women in her paintings. She had imagined that one day they would have epiphanies and auction her work posthumously and donate the money to charity. Who was she kidding! No one would ever take her seriously. The only person who had ever taken her seriously was the Benedict who stayed back home blogging in his mutumba boxers and chatting with strangers on yahoo messenger while jerking the gherking. So she went back home, and, as if the portfolio were a diary, tore off some pages and replaced them with others, then she boarded the bus back to the same galleries where she endured every rejection and every blow to her vanity.

Eva had vowed never to let Benedict into her work but sometimes she worried that he was everything that her work needed. She had the childish fears that she was Benedict’s parallel reincarnation. That she was the nightmares he had in the morning. That she was an extension of him, slowly budding from his pseudophiles. It was evident from the violence and naked braveness of her images that the poet already lay in her mind, posing like the Marquis de Sade or the romantics he so aptly read. Benedict was the incubus that crept past the diaphragm and planted his seeds into her womb every morning. These seeds, the paint, egg yolks, the nightmares, the ash, and wax, all amalgamated onto her canvases. So one night she finally gave him the right to name all of her paintings as he so desired. It had been like giving a twelve year old a machine gun. That night they bought cheap wine from Nakumatt, made spinach and fried liver and later Benedict inscribed poems with invisible ink on her sweating back.

She harries past pedestrians on Kenyatta Avenue, spilling coffee into her graying pants. She is already thirty minutes late for the interview and like every Kenyan she will blame the traffic for her current predicament. This day is what she had been working on since her university days. She runs past the intersections and roads as if oblivious of the speeding cars, risking collisions with the Toyotas. Some drivers hurl spit out their windows and curse at her and her mother. She finally makes it to the gallery where she has to wait another thirty minutes for the art director. She perceives the nanometers of white light emanating from the fluorescent bulb lighting the waiting room and tries to touch and feel the waves. They bend and escape the grip of her cornea. An inch from her eye, the waves form a carnival of colorful images. Her father is in a yellow suit helping her choose colorful dresses for Christmas. Her mother is trying to explain why she, Evangeline Njeri, has not experienced menses like all her other friends in school. She is in a dress with the color of Indian peacocks when her parents turn into warm blood on her palms. She screams and soils her magnificent dress. Someone from across the room stares at her and when she looks at him he escapes her eyes and gets back to his red-covered Drum magazine. Her anxiety grows with every nanosecond. She counts the tiles and atoms of air around her to help her tame her anxiety but nothing works. The hot coffee burns her gut as she empties it down her mouth. It is only the pain of her ulcers which saves her from the oncoming anxiety attack.

“Eva! Come on right in.”

She is startled by the art director’s voice and has to take some time to gather herself up. The two women had met in the corridors of the gallery during an exhibition earlier in the week. The young painter had come looking for solace in the only place she was sure to get it. The director had been conducting a tour of the gallery, explaining to form six students from Brookhouse what pieces of art in the museum meant. Geoffry Odhiambo, Eva’s best modern painter at the time, was the artist being featured at the moment. The director had had a problem explaining a concept of the painter’s work to the students. That was when Eva had jumped in to save her.

‘It is…er…an expression of the stillness and concrete nature of what life in the city has come to be. The streets are quiet and desolate, the buildings majestic and rising above everything. It’s as if the city is devoid of life, as if the satellite dishes atop the buildings keep each other company, chatting through satellite waves. It looks as if the painter is afraid of what life in the commercial city is turning out to be. The trees from the ‘beautification programs’ are made from old mabatis, their delicate fronds from recycled metal. There are people who weld palm trees and herds of elephants! Interior design means depicting nature through the combination of computer graphics with synthetic materials. No one is buying the paintings done by hand. No one is planting flowers outside their offices. That’s what the painting is saying’.

“Very good!” Ms. Bett had applauded, extending her gratitude through a handshake as she led the group away to another piece. Some of the high school boys looked back winking and making weird mating-like sounds at her. She was aware of the outlines of her body against the white light of the gallery, even as it lay camouflaged in the see-through, milk-white malkia dress she was wearing. She ignored them. The director came back and passed a business card to Eva.

“Call me if you need a job.”

Eva had called the next day and explained that she was an artist. She had already sent her work to the gallery but she had been rejected. The art director blamed her junior staff and booked Eva the appointment that had lead to this scene in the office.

The art director, Ms. Bett Imani according to the business card she had slid into Eva’s back pocket, had already taken to calling her Eva just as Benedict had taken to christening her names of Syrian goddesses and the latest one; Athena. People were always making themselves at home with her even when she wished they wouldn’t. It was evident that Eva had not taken time to herself. Her sandals are dusty and have some mad from them. Coffee stains had formed dark rivulets down from the hem of her aquamarine gypsy top down to her jeans. She looked as if she had been summoned to the headmistress’s office.

Ms. Bett goes through twelve of her paintings, quietly, taking in their effect as all the colors and images  converge and flowed into her like wisps of menthol, arousing her, leaving her wanting, vulnerable and lonely. Here is a painter who appealed to a place deeper than the amygdala, like a chameleon oracle that juggles with colors as if she were delivering a message of death in warm colors. It was as if the rainbow emanated from Eva’s very womb. The director was weeping. Eva sat there awkwardly staring at the woman in front of her who had till then been like a pillar of strength. She had not carried her lavender-scented wipes so she was not sure if to be sympathetic or not.

 “Who names your paintings?”

“My boyfriend.”

The art director sits up, wipes her eyes and blows into a handkerchief as she apologizes for her eccentrics and extends an arm to the young artist.

 “He is either mad or a genius. Anyway, the message is clear.” After a long pause the director says, “Congratulations Evangeline Njeri! I would be honored to feature your work here in the museum.”

“Thank you Ms Iman.”

“Nonsense, call me Bett!”

“Thank you Ms Bett…er… Iman.”

So this is how it felt to finally make it? Eve thought to herself. So this is it?

Both women sat there discussing the portfolio and the details of their new partnership. All that time Eva was thinking of how her Dad would be proud of her who had finally found a platform; her who had sat in the library trying to understand concepts like ‘Abstract expressionism’ and ‘Impressionism’, staring at wax painting portraits of bearded men hiding between the pages of encyclopedia Britannica; her who had found a way to buy her own enamel paint and brushes.

Ms. Bett Iman had every signs of a radical. From all her ear piercings, 15 in total, to the mo-hawk dreadlocks with the rest of the head clean shaven. Her clothes gave off energy as if they were liberals shouting at their enemies. She studied the paintings as a blind man feels for his Braille, touching the canvas with fingers as long as the limbs of a stick insect. Among other pieces, Bett had set eyes on the hyper-real ‘Prohibition’ and had fallen in love with it at first sight. It was clearly a photorealistic image of the naked young Eva herself with pert lips. Between her legs was a sign that covered her womanhood. It read: trespassers are prohibited; any trespasser will be prosecuted’. Then there was also ‘The Baobab Labia’. The painting combined dull colors to represent a baobab tree that had a narrow and perpendicular slit opening along its girth the apex of which was meant to resemble the feminine slit as it runs down from the tip of the mons pubis. Breathing Roots climbed up the bark, surrounding the concave openings which lead deeper into the tree. It was like nature’s eye; ‘an orifice of vision’ had been Benedict’s first suggestion for a title. According to a review Bett had sent to the Daily Nation ‘the piece was the most expressive anyone could get with sad colors.’ Bett understood Eva’s visions and message and did not care whether the work would be called eccentric. She knew it was time for Nairobi, and Kenyain general, to stop hiding from the voices of its people.

What would the poet call Bett? Eva thought, perhaps ‘the woman dressed in satanic verse’.  She chuckled to the thought, and then as if realizing that she is supposed to hate Benedict, stops and hates herself instead.

Eva went home that day a happy person. She took to the brush with a new zeal that had been planted in her and watered by the art director. She went into the makeshift kitchen-studio and mixed her colors and started at a new painting. Benedict acted happy for her. He followed her to the kitchen, took his usual position on the couch, poured himself coffee and watched as Eva painted away.

Hours later when the general mood of the painting was discernible Benedict said, “I’ll call that one ‘the prophecy of euthanasia’.” He waits for a reply. Nothing. Eva continues with her painting. All these expressions are meaningless to her now, the mere wordplay of an idle mind. She knows Benedict is trying to appear pleased at her success. They are both aware of the mutual hate between them. Maybe that is why the sex is great whenever they fuck. Both annihilate each other in bed, trying to prove their own superiority.

“It’s when the artist predicts his own death, or that of a close relative. Take care you don’t predict you own death, darling.” She detects a pang of malice in his voice and decides to strike back.

“Did you come up with that all by yourself?”

“Mock me as you please.”

“Listen St. Benedict,” she says with a tone of irritation and sarcasm, “I have to finish this piece for next week’s collection. You mind giving me some space?”

The poet grunts like an old pig and picks up a copy of ‘Romance in Renaissance Poetry’. He hates it when she acts as if her art is higher than his. Conceited bitch.

“All the best Baby. I want the best for you.”

“Am so sorry Benedict.” After a long pause, “It’s just that…”

“Don’t mention it.” He interrupts.

Pacing to and fro the canvas from time to time as she adjusts the aperture of her lens, she dips her paint brush into the amalgam of colors and sand which takes up shades of her ever barren emotions. This new collection is for a themed exhibition organized by Bett and a group of NGO’s supporting the freedom of expression for the young women artists. It’s called ‘the mantis courtesan’, after a painting by Eva.

“It’s a message to the public, to let them know that the woman is aware of her body as an atomic and catastrophic vessel, and she will use it to revolt against all the chauvinists out there.” Eva remembered Bett’s tone when she had spoken to the young interns at the press conference.

The feminist lady in the sisal fields

her own industry

manufacturing sisal skirts

knives, beheading the patriarchs,

rapping herself.

The ‘the mantis courtesan’ is arguably Eva’s best painting according to Bett. It could be that it appeals to the savage nature of its handling of feminism. Bett had told Eva that she was not going to fight the war in blogs and websites and newspapers under the mercy of gate keepers. Ever since taking the job, she had seen to the increase of people visiting the gallery, more and more paintings were bought off the wall and during auctions, and walls had been brought down to expand the gallery. The owners were happy with her so they gave her full control of their gallery. She would let the voice of Eva, and hopefully all women, be heard from the corridors of the City’s biggest gallery. “Enough with the theories,” Bett had said, “Let us see women who will state the bold and naked truths. The men don’t polish their boots before they sink them into our jaws, do they?”

As its central image, ‘the mantis courtesan’ has a female praying mantis devouring its male partner. Both figures are half-human, half-arthropods. The limbs are insect and the trunks human. The female mantis has a suave body; her figures rising and falling in perfect precision, too perfect it haunts the eye just to look at it directly. The man’s body is a violent explosion of mechanical parts falling off into a bloody mess. The female mantis has between her serrated mandibles the head of its counterpart. From its neck dangles a necklace of pearls and the place where the heart is supposed to be is a cowry shell in a hallo of radiating light, as if the mantis drew its life from the pulse of the shell’s music. A phtalocyan motif embraces the whole piece leaving the audience with empathy and fear, and a strange attraction to the mantis courtesan. Eva had toyed with the freedom of altering the perception of the colors and the interpretation of their shades. The city council had been enraged with the brutal and explicit nature of the piece, and had been threatening to close down the whole gallery if the paintings were not burned down into ashes. Bett had sent them back to City Hall howling like puppies. Bett was a force and, like the electromagnetic waves, had also attracted Eva to her.

“Are you cheating on me?” Benedict asked. All that time he had only pretended to be engrossed in the reading.

“Don’t be Silly Benedict!” she exploded. Eva called him Benedict only when she knew conversations were leading to a fight otherwise he was always her St Benedict.

Benedict had long suspected that Eva had been cheating on him ever since her new found success. But he could not tell how and when. All her time was spent at the gallery and at home painting. The betrayal had been evident in bed. She had been more submissive and gentle, as if she was only waiting for the act to be over. They had played at the borderlines, violently strumming each other like broken harps, and Benedict knew that to both of them the act of sex was beyond satisfying the body’s tangible pleasures. Why then had she succumbed to smooth crescendo mourns? Why had she become so easy to manipulate?

She slithers and glides like a slow dancer

Eying me with her predatory eye

And I, across the aquamarine waters,

Heavy with plankton and algae

Dash for the medial eye of the aquamarine octopus.

There, I die.

He puts the book down and moves close to her. He knows when she is done for the day. He kisses the paint off her lips, his eyes sparkling as he secretly wishes that it has enough lead to kill them both.

Athena,

crash me in your mortar

take me with your evening ginger tea

crash me into your colors

spread me over thee.

She lets herself go, succumbing to the allure of his coffee laced breath. It’s not as passionate as she remembers. She is not as weak as she was to his kissing at the back of her neck and has to feign pleasure by mourning in between his attempts at arousing her. He, unconscious of her boredom, fumbles with her pert breasts as he fumbles with words in his head. Selfish Benedict is unaware that deep down she is staging a revolution against him and his wretched poems. His nymph is undergoing a metamorphosis. She watches as he sulks like a calf and drinks to his fill until, exhausted, they lay in bed each silently waiting for the other to wake up and make supper.

“The elec bill came today.” Benedict says as he watches her naked buttocks go into the bathroom.

By the end of the two weeks there is already some attention by the media over the exhibition. The director defends her painters and their work and swears that the event will go on. Everyone, especially Eva anticipates for the big day. The doors of the gallery open to the public on June 27th, sparking off a heated debate over the contents of the exhibition. The church demands for the sacking of the art director. Some even suggest hanging the young painters upside down. Finally the gallery is closed indefinitely and the paintings are returned to their creators. Bett buys all of Eva’s pieces; ‘the mantis courtesan’, ‘prohibition’, and ‘the becoming’. All these are displayed on the walls of a suburban apartment alongMombasa road where Eva becomes a frequent visitor.

It was Bett’s idea that Eva spend with her. They had received threats from religious extremists, and, seeing that her house was in a part of the city less accessible to peril, Bett offered solace to the young painter. Benedict poet was against it but his lines and complains had all faded into the background following Eva’s new found way of life. And anyway, Eva knew that the only reason Benedict wanted her to stay was so that she could take care of him. Bett took her into her arms and together they cuddled late into the night watching marathons of afro-cinema and TCM movies. Eva spent all day in the house watching more movies and Indonesian porn flicks from the director’s collection. There’s one where an actor calls his penis the so and so tower. It seems everyone had a little Benedict in him, Eva thought. Sometimes she would take the bus into the Central Business District to buy new tubes of paint. Had she been bought like a doll or set of cutlery on display in Tuskys shops?  Was she a wife now? She eventually learns to ignore her conscious just like she had with Benedict. She played Fela Kuti at maximum volume to conceal the timbre of her mourns as rubbed her clitoris until she climaxed.

Bett comes home, parks in the garage, summons the young painter into the bathroom. Then they make supper, set the table and have conversations on such topics as the relevance of emerging feminist art in Africa. Eva thinks that Bett sounds like a Masters thesis every time she speaks. Eva mostly listens while the director goes into details about feminist theory and the new trends in African societies. “We have to make them fear us,” she says, “I don’t care if I have to open my own gallery!” Eva silently wonders if the director will also buy all her artists’ work and invite them to her bedroom. “Eva my Silent Zosi, you’re going to be my premiere artist.” Eva smiles. She hates her new name. Her work is to listen to Bett, to the gods, to Benedict, to the city council, to the dead voice of her father in a yellow suit, to strands of multicolored fabrics twisting and coiling in her head like fibroid; to everything. The new routine of her life has no laughter but an understanding, a mockery of sadness. At least the poet always made her smile.

Symbiosis is

an old leafeless tree shedding off another,

so that in spring it will look down it pouch

and say, ‘oh my! What lovely flowers!’

Society is a mirror on the floor

When you shit on it

You see planes taking off an anal strip.

Bungee jumping is pure myth

Adrenaline is

Taking a shit out a window on the 13t h  floor

Of the Times Tower.

The director became a shade under which Eva could brood, it did not matter that it was the shade of fronds of metal plates. Bett often cups Eva’s breast in her palms and tells the young painter how long she has longed to hold her. Then she feels for the young painter’s ribs, scapula, her whole topography, as if she were a conglomerate of words to be rearranged into a sentence with different meanings. Bett becomes fluid paint rolling down the young painter’s lacquer. She studies Eva’s body to the last pixel. Eva has become a shade invisible in the visible spectrum and this was part of the mystery that attracted Bett and Benedict to her. If Bett offered any new meaning to life it was only as abstract as cubist’s drawings. For Eva it was not an interaction of words, obscure lilts and syncopation that she longed for, but something akin to the contact of brush strokes on canvas. She longs for a home within Bett’s world. Words are weightless, meaningless. She did not need another poet to tell her that ‘her skin was like acrylic fibers/clinging to the body of rainy nights’. To Bett this is a message to the old fashioned folks carrying their bibles to Sunday service. Eva did not wish to be anyone’s vessel. To Eva this is…this is nothing but an onset of energies -electromagnetic wave which will inevitably lead her back to her miscible beginnings.

 

 

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