The Garden of Edna
By Ken N. Kamoche (Kenya)
Click here to send comments
Click here if you'd like to exchange critiques
She was always going to be the death of me. I knew that the minute I first laid eyes on her. It wasn’t because she was exceedingly beautiful or because she fired my loins up the way my wife Shiku did when I first spotted her bare breasts as she bathed in a river.
With memsahib it wasn’t like that. Her breasts were never revealed to me, inadvertently or otherwise. They were always covered up in those heavy-duty calico blouses favoured by settler wives who were not afraid to dirty their hands in the fields. It’s not that she was unattractive. I’m sure she set her husband’s loins alight. I’ll just say she was just different. She wasn’t like us. Ours was an unlikely union. I was merely supposed to be working for her. The hired hand, running her shamba because she had come all the way from England and didn’t have a clue how to grow crops.
With her husband, District Officer Randle away in Nairobi most of the time, I’ve now become the part-time man of the house.
Today is Sunday, my day off. But memsahib has sent for me. I don’t like it when she does that, because it makes people talk, and I can’t see any good coming out of this. When I get to the house on the hill, she says she doesn’t trust the workmen to do the milking unsupervised. She thinks they’re leaving milk in the udders. She doesn’t understand that these men were squeezing teats at an age when her chest hadn’t started to ripen. It’s not for nothing that people call them the teat men.
I spend an hour making idle talk with the teat men. They too hate working on Sundays, but they need the money. All the talk is about the Mau Mau. They talk in hushed tones, as though they’re afraid the cows will overhear and betray them. But to whom? To memsahib? To the men in the forest? I listen and make the right noises, to show them how even I stay awake at night, worried that the Mau Mau will attack us in the dead of the night, calling us traitors for working for the men who stole our land. But I’m also careful not to engage too closely. They might be getting their wages from memsahib, but they are my workers too. If I get too close they won’t respect me. It’s a good subterfuge for me, because it means I don’t have to say anything. They might look old and weary, but they are crafty men, these teat men.
When the milk has been weighed and recorded, I instruct Ndungi to arrange transport to the diary. He’s a smart one, Ndungi. He knows how to handle these things, and do it promptly. But he’s also cunning and doesn’t handle his curiosity very well. Giving him this task keeps him busy, so his prying eyes won’t follow me when I wander up to the house to file my report to memsahib. He reads too much into everything, and talks too much.
Wambui watches me approach the house, eyes half closed yet never once leaving my face, the inscrutable grin that encroaches too much into her left cheek fading into a leer. After shaking hands, she wipes her hand on her apron. I greet her with what I hope is a genuine smile. She waves me in without a word, looking up at the ceiling, as though pleading with God to protect her from the contamination I’m bringing into the house she cleans with an unnatural punctiliousness. Taking my time in order to compose myself, I take my shoes off and wear the unremarkable rubber sandals Wambui hands me. Arms akimbo, she supervises me to make sure I don’t select from the dozen or so embroidered leather pairs reserved for more distinguished guests. She holds my shoes with a stained cleaning cloth and takes them outside. I swallow hard.
Memsahib is waiting in the living room, sipping from a glass. It could be wine, or whisky. I’m not a drinking man. But I like the smell. It has an unmistakable elegance that fills the room and reminds me I don’t belong, enveloped as I am in the stench of cows and milk. Her long fingers are wrapped around the stem while the index finger stretches out, pointing in my direction, as if chiding me for keeping her waiting.
‘You are here, Mwangi,’ she murmurs, pouting with affected annoyance.
‘Mwangi, no!’ She snaps. ‘I hate it when you say that. When it’s just me and you, I’m Edna to you, alright?’
‘Yes, mem … Edna.’ I take a deep breath to calm my nerves. ‘It’s just that I don’t know who’s in the house.’
‘Take a look around,’ she waves her free hand. ‘Do you see anyone else here? The kids are at school, my husband’s in Nairobi, or so he says. Do you have any idea how frightfully lonely it gets here?’
‘I can imagine.’ I lie.
‘It’s just me and the servants, God bless them. Some nights when I hear the gunfire, it reminds me of the war. Nazi bombs dropping all over London. Kenya was supposed to be different. And the worst thing is just being out here all by myself. What would I do if they attacked? How could I face terrorist gangsters? Do you have any idea what they did to the poor McBains? The loveliest couple you could ever hope to meet. Slaughtered like chickens in their sleep. I just …’ her voice trails off. She grips the glass so tightly I fear she’ll crack it.
‘You will be alright, m… Edna. Don’t worry.’
‘Will I, now?’
I nod. She’s good to me. There was a time I thought I was merely the instrument to ward off the boredom of a lonely wife. Now her love follows me, even onto the sisal mattress on my earthen floor, when Shiku’s thighs tighten around my waist with the might of a boa constrictor, and my heart heaves with an unquenchable yearning for Edna’s lingering embrace.
I’ll protect her if she’s ever threatened. The thought of a Mau Mau panga slicing through her tender neck is too revolting to even contemplate.
‘You will be alright, Edna, I assure you.’
She looks up at me, startled. Only then do I realize I’ve raised my voice and spoken with a determination that’s new to her. But her surprise is short-lived. It quickly fades away when she sees my comforting smile.
‘Of course you’ll protect me, my darling,’ she whispers, putting away her glass and rising to rest her head against my chest. She doesn’t seem to mind my cattle stench. Her perfume which reminds me of a succulent mango fills my nose, my head, and makes me want to wrap her up in my arms, never to let go. But my hands remain frozen by my side. This stultifying indecisiveness always grips me whenever I see her. In one instant I want more than anything else to hold her and make her mine forever. But the next moment I’m glancing over my shoulder, unable to free myself from the fear of being caught, something she seems blissfully unconcerned about.
‘What’s the matter, Mwangi?’ She asks, playfully pinching my ear. ‘Do I stink, like someone who’s been cavorting with cattle all day, rolling in their waste?’
The laughter builds up in the pit of my belly and rises like a volcano. How does she do it? How did she get to know me so well? These thoughts are still preying on my mind much later when I push the mosquito net aside and roll off her bed to take a quick bath before cycling back home. Shiku will be wondering why I’m coming home so late. But memsahib is not finished with me yet. When I return from the bathroom, she is propped up on the pillows, smoking a cigarette, her glass replenished.
‘Come to me, Mwangi,’ she coos. ‘Come rub my back.’
I put her glass and cigarette away and rub her shoulders.
‘Lower, lower, there. Yes. Ah …!’
It’s the small of her back. She hurt herself a few weeks ago hoisting a kiondo of sweet potatoes, trying in vain to imitate the village women. I keep telling her she doesn’t have to do these things, like lifting heavy loads, making a log fire and blowing on the hot coals until her eyes fill with tears. But she doesn’t listen. She says she’s in Africa and needs to learn to live like the Africans. Once when I mentioned this to my friend Karanja, he asked whether living like an African also meant hauling black men to her bed. I laughed and waved him away. I’ve never told him about Edna and I, but this strange sense of unease hasn’t left me since he uttered those words.
She asks me to do her neck. Gently at first, then firmly, until she lets out a scream. I let go, fearing I’ve hurt her. I notice with alarm that my fingers have left red marks on her white skin. How will she explain it to Master Randle when he gets back? Supposing she said one of her workers tried to strangle her? He’ll probably come looking for me with a Sten Mark V.
‘I’m sorry, mem … Edna.’
‘It’s alright, silly. You’re doing well. That little squeeze was just what I needed. Bloody sweet potatoes did my back in. God, I wish you could massage the pain away every night.’
I sit on the edge of the bed, wondering what other chores she plans to detain me with.
‘What’s on your mind, Mwangi? You can tell me anything, you know. You look afraid.’
‘I am afraid, Edna. Yes. Sometimes.’
‘Afraid of what?’
Where do I start? Her husband? My wife? My clan? Her neighbours and friends? The Mau Mau? How could I even find the words to tell her about the freedom fighters, the oaths I’ve taken to defend my people and reclaim our land? And here I am, sleeping with the wife of the District Officer who only last week confiscated another fifty acres of our land, saying it was needed for progressive settler farmers who were coming to teach the natives modern agriculture? Tomorrow, three uncles move to a reserve in Kiambu. There’s nothing left for them here, their land gone. They’ll end up in Nairobi, living like paupers. I took the oath, and swore to kill if I’m ordered to. Kill for this land. I glance at my hands, caroused by years of working the land, nurturing it and milking it of its tender nutrients. But the land is slowly slipping through these very fingers.
The marks on Edna’s neck have faded away. It is almost as though they had never been there. Almost as if my fingers had never existed. I look away as Edna takes my hand and playfully squeezes my fingers. If the Mau Mau issues the order, these same hands will have a completely new task, and it won’t involve gently caressing Edna’s soft neck.
‘Are you cold, Mwangi?’ I nod my head. ‘Come here. Come to me.’
I hold her and feel the soft texture of her hair which resembles but is clearly a softer version of that of the horse her husband rides across the village, frightening women off the narrow wheel cart-riven paths.
I can still smell the raw sex on her skin.
‘It’s alright, I’m warm now, Edna. You’re good at keeping me warm.’
She swells with pleasure.
‘You’re all I have now. But you haven’t told me what you’re afraid of.’
‘It’s … Edna, if people found out. Do you not worry? I mean, we are not …’
‘I know, we’re not supposed to be together.’ She holds my face and looks me straight in the eye. ‘That’s what people believe. Your people. My people. What they don’t understand is that our hearts can’t hear them.’
‘I know, Edna.’
She smiles, exactly the way she did the first time, after I found her crying in the cowshed. The two children had left for boarding school for the first time. And by then, even the workers knew about Master Randle’s affairs. I had thought she would be embarrassed to see me, but she stumbled towards me shaking with emotion. I should have comforted her and walked away. She took me to the house and made me stay for tea. The tea became a habit. Then the tentative hugs, the stolen kisses. And now this.
‘They’re foolish,’ she whispers in my ear. ‘That’s all I can say. You know what my friend said the other day? Don’t worry, she’s one person I can confide in. I trust her. She says I’ve sullied the Garden of Edna by giving you the forbidden apple. Can you imagine such blasphemy?’
I can’t. I try not to dwell on it, and content myself with enjoying the sound of her voice. When her voice softens like this, and her breath warms and caresses my skin, I forget my worries and my heart heaves with the forbidden love I feel for her. Never mind the apple. It’s all the fault of the serpent, and now I know, her husband is the true serpent.
For a long time, I did not know what this feeling was, because it didn’t make sense. She talked about love, and I nodded and smiled, to humour her, believing the gulf that separates us would never permit a thing like that. Now I’m the fool, and a prisoner, all at once.
Even as Edna and I continue to forge a closer bond, the rest of my world crumbles without warning. It is hard to tell whether Master Randle got wind of our relationship, but I cannot fathom why it’s my clan, yet again, that gets the eviction orders. Two weeks. That’s all they give us, to vacate the land and relocate to Kiambu. The only time I ever went to Kiambu was to attend a three-week agriculture course. I do not know the place. How can it be home? The eviction orders offer no reason. But everyone knows. The land is needed by incoming white settlers, and the Gikuyu in this region have supplied more than their fair share of freedom fighters.
We are being punished for the crimes we’ve committed, and those we’re likely to commit if the land seizures continue. And continue they surely will. So, the crimes will go on. This is made clear to me when I present myself for my next oath.
When the captain demands to know which oath I’ve come for, the words escape from my lips even before I’ve had a chance to reflect.
‘Muma wa Mbatuni.’ The oath for the combatants. The government has taken our land away. There is nothing more to lose. I’ll fight to the end.
I go through the motions like a man in a daze, willing them to complete the formalities quickly so I can get on with the task of fighting this enemy before it stifles us all. The walk seven times through an arch built with sugarcane poles, the incantations and pledges to fight for the land of Gikuyu and Mumbi, to kill whoever stands in the way of this solemn promise, even if that person is your blood kin. If this is what it feels like to down a calabash of muratina, then I consider myself intoxicated. Intoxicated by the weight of the pledge, to prove to my fellow initiates and oath administrators that my education and well-paid job do not and cannot blind me to the tragedies inflicted daily upon my people. For today my transformation is complete. My training in weaponry begins tomorrow. In the meantime, my first initiation test will be the task of delivering to my mbatuni a gun rescued from the white man and restored to the protectors of the land.
‘The woman you work for,’ says Karanja, my fellow initiate, as we walk back to the village. ‘They must have guns in the house. Your task will be easy. Take me with you. Let’s do this together, Mwangi, now that we’re blood brothers.’
‘It can be done.’
‘What does that mean?’ He exclaims, slamming fist into palm, startling me. ‘It can be done? Or, it shall be done?’
I don’t understand his agitation. But I know that some have come to an untimely end when those they thought were closest to them swore they were traitors. The penetrating look in Karanja’s eyes is not one I’ve seen before. Does an oath change a man so much, so quickly? To avoid raising suspicion any further, I agree to let him accompany me.
‘I’ll watch out for you, my brother,’ he vows, grasping my arm, ‘and you’ll watch out for me, when it’s my turn.’
‘It will be done, my brother,’ I assure him.
We approach the village. But why is everyone staring at me? How can they know I’ve taken the oath? There are no tell-tale marks on me. The lacerations are known only to my blood brothers.
As we draw closer, I see no suspicion or even pride in the villagers’ eyes, only a deep sympathy. Can they honestly believe what I’ve done is that lamentable?
The wailing that sears the air is terrifying. I run towards my father’s compound. The breath seeps away, my eyes cloud over. The body slumped across the muddy road, let it not be, oh Ngai baba, he who resides on the highest peak of Mount Kenya, heal my father, breathe life back into him. I fall at his limp feet. And the darkness faithfully follows, like a blanket, to offer temporary respite.
They punished him for having a voice and called him an agitator. For urging evicted families not to move but to grasp the soil with their bare fists till their last breath. They claimed his mind was poisoned by Kenyatta’s speeches.
Edna has been sending for me. How can I face her? How can I embrace her with the memory of my father’s lifeless body still tormenting my mind?
Karanja has colonized my ears. He never ceases to remind me what the oath requires of us. The land. Our land. My father. His in-laws.
He comes for me in the middle of the night, the day after we bury my father. I don’t know how he got to my window without disturbing the dogs.
‘Major-General! Major-General!’ His voice is unmistakable, even though it’s only a loud whisper that comes through the crack in the window, and leaves the rest of the night unperturbed.
I extricate myself from Shiku’s languid grip and dress hurriedly, then tiptoe through the door. Karanja is so camouflaged I barely recognize him. The coarse, oil-stained dungarees, the hat embellished with a patchwork of leaves that fall across the face. When we leave the compound behind, he reaches into his shirt and hands me a replica hat and a glistening panga. He has come fully prepared. Not a word is said. I lead the way through deserted village paths, guided by starlight and the urgency of the unspoken mission.
It takes an hour to get to Edna’s gate. The night is still, dark, yet strangely reassuring. It’s like coming back home, to Edna’s warm arms. I can almost feel her comforting breath on my neck. One part of me says I have to protect her, she’s my secret love. She cares for me. I can’t let any harm come her way. But Karanja’s low voice permeates my consciousness, reminding me that the vast expanse of farmland we’re traversing where houses stand miles apart from each other, is not the foreign land it pretends to be, but the land of Gikuyu and Mumbi, the soil in which our forefathers are buried.
‘They stole our land,’ he whispers, as we approach the main house. ‘And know this, my brother, we’re not just here to get their guns. Our battle plan has changed. After what this man Randle did to your father, he must be cut down! You hear me?’ I nod, not daring to look at the silhouette of him, leading the way, seething with confidence I could never muster, as though he, not I, were the frequent visitor here.
With a single, almost soundless punch, he makes a near perfect hole in a window by the main door, reaches through it and pulls the window open. We clamber in.
‘Let District Officer Randle save himself now,’ he hisses with barely disguised contempt. ‘Where is that coward Randle hiding, Major-General?’
How am I to answer him? My visits here were for love. I came to Edna’s shamba as Adam, not as his murderous son Cain.
‘Well, Major-General, upstairs?’
‘Yes, Brigadier-General, upstairs. We’ll look upstairs.’
‘Up we go then.’
Pangas at the ready, we tip toe up the carpeted stairs. Even in the semi-darkness I can see the horrible trail of mud we leave behind. Wambui will kill us for desecrating her carpet.
‘Which door, Major-General?’ I shake my head. I know only one room, but I’m not taking him there. I lead him to the children’s room. They are away at boarding school.
I nod my head. ‘Let’s try here.’
Without warning, he kicks the door open and lurches into the darkness. I stand guard at the door. He’s slashing at unseen foes, this way and that.
‘Randle, come out and fight like a man!’ The war-cry reverberates down the corridor. Karanja rushes from the room, knocking me down to the ground, and kicks in the next door, and the next. I follow him, my heart thumping.
A shot rings out. The corridor is flooded with light as a figure clad in a nightgown steps from the guestroom at the bottom of the corridor and fires another shot, and another. The bullets are flying in all directions. Even without seeing the face, I know only a woman can shoot like that. What surprises me is the calmness on her face, as if she was expecting us, and knows we’re no match for her Smith and Wesson.
Unable to face her, I take refuge behind the camouflage, praying hard that she doesn’t recognize me.
‘Cut him down, Major-General!’ Screams Karanja, pushing me forwards.
‘It’s just a woman!’ I hiss through gritted teeth. Thank God she doesn’t speak Gikuyu.
‘It matters not, Major-General. Get him, get her, get the whole evil lot!’
It cannot be like this. How can I punish the one I love for the crimes of her serpent husband?
‘For your father, Major-General!’ Screams Karanja. ‘What Randle did, his wife did too. Do it, now!’
My head throbs with pain.
‘Brigadier-General …’ my voice is faint, like a child’s. ‘Let’s just get the gun and leave.’
The panga falls from my hand.
‘If you don’t do this, Major-General, the oath will get you, and your family!’
I turn round to face him, and notice he has been hit in the left shoulder. He didn’t even utter a cry. He is losing blood fast. I reach forward to help him. He pushes me away.
‘Get her, my brave warrior, forget about me!’
Edna and I face each other. I let my camouflage slip down to the ground. Her face turns ashen, deathlike, drained of the love I knew.
‘Mwangi … Mwangi … is it you?’
‘Traitor!’ She curses, and raises her gun, grasping it with both hands. ‘Our love? What now? You’re just like the rest of them, wretched murderers!’
‘Ask her what her husband did to your father, Major-General! Who is the murderer?’
Before I can answer, Karanja flies past me, panga raised high above his head. The shot hits him full in the face, but only seconds after his arm has descended. They collapse inches from me, into each other’s disintegrating forms. Karanja’s camouflage slides across his face in a vain effort to preserve his anonymity. The remnant of a triumphant grin takes possession of his lips, which have breathed their last. In the absence of our beloved earth, his fingers wrap themselves around Edna’s hair. Her hair is brown, just like our treasured soil.
Drained of all power, my temple throbbing like a drunken drummer, I drop to my knees and hold Edna’s head in my hands. It is cold, hard, like a rock. Yet the blood gushing through the gaping wound in the neck is warm, just like her voice, the voice I remember, but not as warm as the tears that well up in my unseeing eyes.
The last thing I remember, as I snatch the gun from the blood-stained floor and stumble down the stairs, is the terrible mess on the floor. All that mud. All that blood.