Yesterday's Leaflets

Blue Ribbons for the Tentmaker


A chameleon has perched

From the palates of my mouth.

I have swallowed the rainbow,

an ox-bow lake

Of secrets in my young womb.


I thought he was a distant relative, a magician who appeared from the Chalbi desert carrying gifts in a sack made from cotton and polyester, perfumed and soaked in goat’s milk. Judging from his breath he must have also drunk that milk. He was like a dirty city. Father welcomed him with a glee in his face; the gifts returned to him some of his distant youth and made him look at mother in a funny way. For the young ones there were confectioneries and plastic dolls with paint carelessly smeared on their lips and some of the limbs missing as if the tentmaker had tried to play with them.

 There was a special assortment of KSL sweets in the sack meant for me. He hurled them into my mouth the way my younger brothers threw marbles into holes in the ground. I succored their sweetness, my tongue taking on a different color with each flavor. The last gift was white wedding dress with blue ribbons around the waist.

 I waved goodbye to my mother and her tummy. The new baby clung to her waist the way touts hang on to speeding matatus. Secretly she must have wished it was not a girl.

On the trip back to his house he carried a cockerel on one lap and me on the other one. I smiled when I imagine a fight between me and the cockerel.

A month later I met Sontiag, the tentmaker’s wife. Her skin was the darkness of a millennia of nights. She wore lipstick at night and put on perfumes from Garissa Lodge. She was always watching me, as if we were two different animals who found each other at the mercy of their captor. She taught me etiquette: like how to arrange his bed in the morning, how to wash his feet with goat milk.

She was a florist arranging wreaths and hours into saturnine patterns, secretly leaving them on a headstone under which laid the empty grave of the tentmaker.

“Sontiag, why do you talk to shadows?”He asked her one morning. Sontiag could not allow me to answer him back so we left him staring into the debris of our shadow. Later she yelled at me and made me promised to appease him or he would throw me to the hyenas.

 The next night I put on the dress and blue ribbons. I was an urn carrying the ashes of the woman who was there before me. Torrential rain and flash floods shaped my body and left its terrain bare. There was a poster of a posing French girl on the wall spraying perfume on her neck. I sprayed some perfume on my neck too and posed. I was waiting for slaughter, preparing for an organ harvesting.

As he staggered into the room and turned around to see me he burst into such laughter and that it shook his body like a leaf. I watched his mouth and felt the plaque on his teeth spread out towards me. His face was a cabaret of men in painted faces laughing at me, pointing to my barely visible breast. For the first time in my life I felt something, I felt dirty. Sontiag climbed to the bed, begging me to be patient, to try something else for him.

“NO!” I shouted, surprising myself. He stopped laughing. “What did you just say to me?”  he roared, “Answer me you dirty moth!” Mother had told me that to deal with pain I had to learn to anticipate it. I landed on his straw bed, felt his fingers swim into my bosom like a thousand serpents. He untied the ribbons and used them to mend me into the fabric of his tents with such a desolate indifference that it seemed like he knew all my secrets.


I play with plastic dolls, waves crash against me and return to the ocean. I think about you Sontiag, falling leaves hide the traces of your eyelids, curtains that never fall. You have my mother’s face. I dissect the light and how loud it falls on the levees of the river between us. I harbor all your grief, my smiling Sontiag, the way it is possible to smell a stranger in second-hand clothes. I look into the mirror and see a house of barren beatitudes. Say I am you.




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