Love and Damnation By Tee Ngugi
Saturday, January 31, 2015
Jula saw her as she stood hesitating in front of the big black iron-sheet gate; the entrance to his compound. Something about her physical attitude resonated in his breast. The late morning drizzle that had accompanied his walk back home from Marumi town, where he ran several businesses, had intensified. The woman at the gate adjusted the headscarf over her head to protect her face from the drizzle and the chilly breeze. Then she, perhaps on hearing his footfalls, turned her gaze away from the gate and faced him. They looked at each other, the familiar in the other etched vaguely against the haze of time, which gradually cleared, and they stood exposed to mutual recognition. Still, time had left its sadness. He sensed it in the crow's feet at the corners of her feline eyes, above the high cheekbones. She now had a mellow beauty, and the way she was dressed – black boots, a raincoat over a dark polo-neck sweater, and the scarf on her head and around her neck – made him think of a widow. The face of a widow, he said in his mind. She had always made him say phrases in his mind. She eyed him, trying to gauge the ravages of time on him. His face, still ruggedly handsome, was now a little gaunt. There were specks of grey in his hair and in the stubble on his chin. But she thought he wore his fifty-five years with a somewhat sad dignity.
“Isha!” he called. He had hoped that his voice would be neutral, but it came out in a raspy gasp, and immediately he felt ashamed, unsure how to proceed. He took comfort in the cold raindrops trickling down his face. She looked at him in a sullen attitude. And seeing her in that attitude through the drizzle and slight chill of the breeze, he thought, just like that time in Mozroz, he was looking at a black and white photograph that brought back memories of a beautiful yet sad moment, like the picture of one’s mother, now dead. Memories in startling vividness rushed back.
She would be standing in the middle of his room, ready to leave, and as she turned to the door, he would ask her whether she would be returning later. And she would turn and assume a teasing and playful look that brought out in him a desperate hope, but always he waited for the blow: “No, I can’t.”
He would watch her casually pick the money on the dressing table, walk to the door, and in the same action of opening it, turn to look at him. With her lips pursed, she would make the sound of a kiss at him.
He now shifted on his feet as he struggled to expel these images and memories from his mind.
“What are you doing here?” he asked. “I want a job,” she said in the same attitude. “I hear you are a rich man now.” She smiled a little. She always had a haughty physical attitude, but she was now hiding something else beneath it. It was more a lurking sense rather than a declaration. It must be hard for her for me to see her like this, he thought. But he knew at once the answer to give, and he felt a sense of relief and power.
“I am sorry. We don’t have anything …,” he started but stopped and shrugged.
She looked inside her bag, her head cocked to one side, took out a pencil and small piece of paper and scribbled on it. The drizzle was incessant, and he felt a powerful urge to reach out and wipe the wetness off her face. Instead, he clasped his hands behind his back, and watched her, lost in her action. Again, he thought he was looking at a black and white photograph.
There were times, though, when she would be happy and playful, bubbling with youthful energy, like a colt ready to bolt. When she laughed, a full-throated laugh, her spirit riding on its edges, she could change the mood in a room, infecting everyone with a joy that fluttered softly like butterfly wings in their breasts. And then the black and white picture in his mind would change to a color picture of her in a bright flowery dress running in a field full of flowers. It was this dual personality, her beauty and distant love that both enchanted him and made him despair.
“Marry me,” he once told her, even though he knew what she would say.
She was sitting on the edge of the bed in her underwear, and she turned and looked at him as he lay in it. She smiled at him.
“You don’t want a sad girl with you,” she said, “besides, I am not a good girl – I fuck for money.”
He felt a mixture of desire and jealousy, but he seized on the equivocation he sensed in her answer and pressed his advantage.
“You are so beautiful ... I will help you to be anything you want ...”
She played a little with the lace of her black knickers.
“I love you, Isha,” he’d declared impulsively.
She pitied him, because she knew he meant it and she could never love him the way he wanted to be loved.
“I would make you sad,” she said, with a slight shake of her head.
“Here,” she now said, handing him the piece of paper. “If anything should come up ...”
He avoided her eyes, and her humiliation. He watched her walk past him down the dirt road, slowly, hesitantly even. He was ashamed again to feel the anxiety and sadness he had always felt on seeing her leave. He strode quickly inside the gate, afraid of his thoughts.
Twenty-five years earlier, he had sat on the bed in his one-bedroom flat watching her putting on her clothes, and even though by then he knew the answer, he had asked her anyway: “Will you come back, later?” She had looked at him the way she always did, playfully, teasing. Then, perhaps sensing a vague finality in his manner, a wistful expression had come over her face as she blew a kiss at him, turned and walked away. He had felt the pain of the sound of the closing door. Alone in the desolate room, he had held his head in his hands, and this time allowed himself to follow her in his mind. In his imagination, he had seen her enter a room and take off her clothes, her thumbs pushing down the waistband of her underwear as she wiggled out of it. He saw a stranger kissing her cheeks, her neck, running his fingers through her
hair. But when he saw her eyes, half closed, looking at the stranger, and when he heard her moaning, the way only she could moan – a reed-like sound in her throat – he screamed at the top of his voice, “Stop!”
Without bothering to take anything with him, he ran out of the room and from the torment that his life had become.
He sought refuge in many places before he finally settled in Marumi, a little town on the outskirts of Naivasha. He worked hard at any job – Post Office clerk, journalist, farm supervisor – anything to try and kill the yearning and memories through physical exhaustion. On weekends, he sat by the lake, watching the pink flamingos or people in boats. At dusk, when the birds retired and the revelers went to their homes, he vicariously enjoyed the sweet solitude of the fishermen in the middle of the lake. But it remained a constant psychological struggle not to remember and yearn for Isha.
One day while crossing a street in Marumi, he thought he saw Isha hurrying into a hotel. He followed her inside, his heart thumping wildly against his chest, not thinking what he was going to do or what seeing her again would mean. She was talking to the receptionist. He sat in the lobby preparing to appear surprised when she turned to face him. He leafed through the newspaper on the table, but his hands were shaking and the letters were blurred. Finally, she turned and headed back outside. It was not Isha! Jula ached inside yet felt great relief. But the encounter had removed the last of his defenses and, like a recovering alcoholic after a single sip of liquor, he was sucked back into a whirlpool of misery. He thought of going back to look for her, of accepting her love on her terms, of agreeing to suffer the pain of seeing her leave in the mornings, knowing where she was going. A phrase he had read in a novel strengthened him in this thinking: True love, like true faith, is willing to suffer for it. However, he also knew that going back to her, to that emotional place, would be his ruin. For the first time since he came to Marumi, he went to a bar, seeking to lose himself in drunkenness.
He woke up the next morning lying face down on the floor in his sitting room with his clothes and shoes still on. He realized that his own strength was not enough to stop the slide to his destruction, and sobbing, he cried out, “Lord, have mercy on me!” And immediately, he felt warmth suffusing his body, and power surged into his spirit and limbs, and he sat up. A voice exploded in his brain, saying, “Do you believe in me?” And he shouted in pure joy, “I believe in you, Lord!”
Jula went to church the following Sunday and sang along with the congregation, feeling a sense of belonging he had never felt before. A few months later, he met Ruth, a member of the church choir. She taught him to meditate on his faith and how to pray for Christ’s intercession on his behalf with the Father. And he loved her as a woman and a spiritual guide. He proposed to her in church after a searing sermon by the Reverend Simon Mata about God’s purpose in holy matrimony and the devil’s presence in fornication. He asked her to pray with him and after the prayer, he turned to her and asked her to have mercy on him and take him to be her companion in service to the Lord. Alone in the somber majestic silence of the holy house, they felt a spiritual presence. And it was with the pure joy of a true believer that she answered, “I will take him, Lord, as my companion”.
In Ruth and holy matrimony, Jula found the inner peace and higher purpose he had always sought. He prospered, becoming a respected church elder and family man – his daughter was now in a college abroad – and a successful farmer and businessman.
Jula hurried inside his house and stood at the second floor balcony window of his bedroom, trying to restore his inner peace by gazing out at the huge expanse of his farm. Cows, horses and sheep grazed in the meadows. While some workers gathered hay into heaps outside the wooden barn in the near distance, others tended to the crops or performed other chores in the outlying fields. On many evenings after a busy day, standing on the balcony and surveying the farm, and the various activities winding down – the cows, horses and sheep being herded back to the sheds, stables and pens, workers retiring to their living quarters on the edges of the farm – he would experience a poignant pleasure just as if he were contemplating nature or a painting.
That day, as he stood at the window, the emotion was enhanced by a vision of Isha walking in between rows of potato crops in her slow, deliberate way, her arms bent outwards at the elbows, outstretched fingers held away from her hips. He imagined he saw her shoveling hay near the barn, bent down, exposing the back of her upper thighs. Although it was now only midday, he thought he saw her walking the sheep to the pens in the evening. He willed himself to end the daydream. He thought of activities he enjoyed that would distract his mind, like walking around the farm, giving a hand here and there, but the morning encounter with the past had rekindled an anxiety and a yearning he had thought time and blissful domesticity had banished to the deeper recesses of his consciousness, and he now felt in no mood to do anything, least of all inspect his farm. At dinner that evening, his wife noticed his quietude and thought he was feeling unwell. Just a slight headache, he lied. The lie left in him the wrenching pain of betraying a faith.
In the following days, the memories from the past and the maddening hankering after Isha made him feel dirty all over again, like he always would in Mozroz, the town where he had gone as an idealistic youth to take up a position at the Railway Station and from which, with nothing more than the clothes he wore, he had fled to Marumi. Mozroz was a town built to hide or facilitate its vulgarity. Its narrow streets, dark alleyways, crowded and dimly lit bars, poorly lit street corners, the flats on top of one another and facing each other across courtyards looking like clothes’ bazaars from the washing on the lines, all served as a background to and a playground for obscene liaisons. In the bars – a cacophony of music and shouted conversations – priests, still in their white collars and black robes, frolicked without shame with women companions; school teachers in ill-fitting suits danced with prostitutes in front of the juke box, letting their hands stray feelingly on the bottoms of their dance partners; small-scale tea farmers – their slight frames and usual diffident manner fortified by annual tea bonuses – entertained plump barmaids on their laps while car mechanics in their oily overalls, one veined hand underneath the blouse of some woman, the other holding a smoldering cigarette, laughed loudly at their own lewd jokes.
In the evening on his way home from work, Jula would pass couples pressed against the walls of passageways, the skirts of the women hitched up above their waists, their naughty laughter chasing after him. He would hurry past and shut himself in his room – shutting out this modern-day Gomorrah. But the town of sin already had a foothold inside him and he got sucked in. For a long time, he gave himself up to its offering of guilty pleasure. He would groan in pleasure and repulsion. The next day, he would hate himself, despairing at the vile emptiness his life had become.
Then one evening, he heard a knock on his door, and when he opened it, his salvation and damnation stood in front him, teasing, inviting, proclaiming in high boots, short skirt, daring feline eyes and haughty attitude, a glorious beauty in its late teenage bloom. But Isha had rescued him from the hell of Mozroz only to cast him into her purgatory, where he was tormented by hope and despair until the morning of his escape.
“God, she was beautiful,” Jula would recall to a friend in Marumi before his deliverance and his meeting Ruth. “And she seemed … she seemed saddened by it.”
For the next two months, Jula lived with the guilt and pleasure of the new vision. He had thrown the piece of paper on which Isha had written her telephone number in the waste basket, yet had suffered the humiliation of turning the garbage over in a desperate and fruitless search for it.
He asked God not to allow His servant to fall from His grace, and earnestly prayed for Isha to leave Marumi, yet – to his great shame and despair – he found that every time he was in the town, he would do a double take on women hurrying about, hoping to find a past that he so wished to escape from. He was in this emotional no-man’s land, yearning and yet afraid, when he saw her again.
He was standing on the veranda of one of his hotels, scanning passersby, when he caught sight of her at the far end of the street that passed in front of the hotel. In panic and excitement, he started talking to a waitress who stood by.
“Er ... do you farm ... a little shamba, perhaps?”
The ridiculous question bewildered the girl.
“No, sir...,” she answered.
He lost Isha for a moment. He stretched out his neck this way and that, searching among the many heads streaming towards him. Then he saw her head bobbing up and down behind other heads. He heard the waitress saying, in the far distance, something about going to hospitality school. He looked at her, unseeing.
“No farming at all?” he asked, only vaguely aware of what he was saying.
He looked down the pavement and there was no Isha again. He craned his neck, his upper body leaning over the railing into the sidewalk, his spirits falling. He heard the waitress, again in the distance, saying that she would consider farming in the future. He leaned farther out into the sidewalk, no longer worried about being discreet. Where has she disappeared to? he wondered, his heart thumping against his chest. Then she popped out of a shop, and came towards him. He turned to the waitress, and gushed, “Good choice ... farming is a good choice.”
The waitress, now completely befuddled, excused herself and fled.
But Jula did not hear or see her escape. He raised his head and faced Isha across the railing.
“Morning, Isha,” he breathed out, trying to control the happiness in his voice.
“Are you still in Marumi?”
“Oh, Mr Jula ...” She was caressing him with a smile, her face brightening up, regaining its youth. A smile, the fountain of youth, he said in his mind. He imagined her in technicolor, seated on a stile in a meadow on a mildly sunny afternoon, smiling.
“There is something you can do on the farm,” he said and paused.
He waited for her to say something, but she was looking at him from underneath her eyes. “I lost the piece of paper,” he added nervously, and needlessly.
“Nothing in the hotels? I don’t want to be any trouble, you know ...” She smiled with her lips. Jula laughed, the laughter trailing off awkwardly.
“No, no. No trouble at all. But should there be an opening in any of the hotels, of course ...” He stopped and followed her gaze. She was looking at a vacancy notice in the hotel that he himself had posted on the wall.
“Ah, filled last week,” he lied.
She looked at him playfully, teasing, seeming to say that she would keep the secret of his lie.
“Well, come in for some tea,” he said, in the shame of a priest caught with his hand in the till. They sat on the veranda, people passing below them, sipping sweet and bitter memories, afraid of the future.
She joined his farm workforce, and just as in his reverie, he would watch her secretly from his bedroom window. He watched as she walked in the potato fields, herded the sheep back to their pens or as she strolled leisurely, almost as if she knew he was watching, up the slope to her small house in the workers’ quarters. He promised God, Ruth and himself, that he would never allow himself to fall from grace. He had faith that God, in His infinite mercy, understood his trials, and would not let him falter in his steadfastness. This resolution made the guilt he felt every night when he thought of Isha as his wife slept beside him a little bearable. However, like an addict needing higher and higher doses of a drug, he needed to recall her features and gestures in ever growing exactitude, deciphering their nuanced erotic meaning until he fell asleep, Isha now appearing in his dreams as a nymph, mermaid or nubile Cleopatra, inviting him to the pleasures and doom of illicit love.
There were times when he was tempted to ask Isha about her life over the past twenty-five years and before the fateful day she knocked on his door in Mozroz, but he would fight the urge, afraid of where the conversation might lead. Besides, he knew from his experience with her in Mozroz that she would not divulge details of her personal life. Therefore, during increasing chance meetings on the farm, that he choreographed, he feigned a businesslike attitude and tone towards her. His mind was where he rendezvoused with her, undressed her, garment by garment, and slowly made love to her.
He felt himself sliding to a dark place, and sought help from his friend and spiritual mentor, the Reverend Simon Mata. The man of God, leaning benevolently towards him across the table in the vestry, listened to his anguished confession.
“This woman...,” whispered the priest in a trembling voice, “does desire for her feel like fire on the soul?”
Jula, reassured by the priest’s prescience, nodded slowly.
Reverend Mata reached out across the table and, pushing a framed picture of his wife to the side, put a hand on Jula’s arm.
“Your faith, Jula, will triumph over the devil’s wish.”
Jula felt strengthened, not so much by the man of God’s words as by his empathy and virtuous presence.
And then one sunny morning, he looked out from his balcony and saw Isha near the barn, gathering hay into heaps with a pitchfork. After a while, she sat on the hay to rest, and then lay back on it, staring at the clear blue skies. The scene invoked in Jula a strong déjà vu, and for a while he struggled to locate it in time and space. Then he recalled where he had encountered the scene – it was in a short story in a collection of prose from Madagascar that he had picked from his daughter’s room. The story was about a priest who used to make love to a choir girl in the hay. He remembered the line that narrated the priest’s pain and ecstasy: They sank in the hay, their passion exposed to the late afternoon sun, the girl thrashing about in the hay, moaning in desperate thrill, and the priest, his black robe gathered above his waist, grunting in release and damnation.
The imagery both repelled and excited him. He indulged in its eroticism. He felt the hay and the warmth of Isha ... she was thrashing about, calling in a thin voice ... He heard his wife calling him but her voice was in the remote distance of his mind ... Isha was looking at him with narrowed eyes, her head thrown back, her mouth open ... Then his wife’s voice exploded in his consciousness, startling him from his daydream. He turned away from the window and faced Ruth, his heart racing, ashamed.
“What’s come over you? I have been shouting myself hoarse,” she said.
She handed him a cup of tea, threw the curtains wide open and looked outside. Jula felt exposed. It was almost as if his wife was peering inside him.
“How’s she?” asked Ruth, gesturing with her chin towards the barn.
“What ... who ... why ...?” he retorted. Then he tried to recover his composure.
“Oh, she ... slow with work ... but ok,” he said, stepping out of the room. He had placed the tea on the bedside table, untouched.
The encounter with Isha in his daydream was a revelation that his salvation lay in death and destruction. He had fought the good fight and lost. Only his love for Isha had stood the test of time, and would be his defense on Judgment Day. That night after dinner, he told his wife that he was going to check on a cow that was about to calf. He stepped out into the young night, heading towards the small cottage where Isha stayed. Having come to terms with his fate, he hurried up the hill, desperate now to claim Isha, to tell her that he still loved her and always would, and that nothing else mattered. As he neared her house, he felt a soft joy fluttering in his breast, freed, at last, from twenty-five years of solitude.
The lights were still on inside Isha’s house. He went up to the window at the back and peered through a small opening left by the curtain into Isha’s bedroom. At first his mind refused to compute the motions on the bed. And then he lay on the ground, his mouth biting into the earth to stifle a gut-wrenching groan.
He lay there for a while and then felt drawn to the window again, like a sadomasochist craving the next dose of pain. He was desperate to see who the man was and when he peered again through the window, he staggered back as if a blow had caught him in the chest. In a stupor, he stumbled back to the window, this time staying glued to it, watching the naked bodies on the bed, Isha’s thin crying slashing his heart like a razor, her gasps, with her eyes half closed and her head thrown back, sucking the breath out of him.
Every night for a week, he would find an excuse to slip out into the night and plant himself at Isha’s window, addicted to his humiliation and pain. During the day, he continued spying on her as before, but now her physical attitudes and gestures invoked a suffocating jealousy that sustained him until his night time date at Isha’s window.
Around the house, he maintained a brooding silence, he neglected his businesses and when Ruth reminded him about church service, he cried in a horrified voice, “No, no, I can’t!” his hands lifted up to his ears as if warding off the voices of ghosts.
One night after a passionate coupling, Isha and her lover sat up on the bed and Jula saw her put her hands on his shoulders and say – he could not hear her, but he read her lips –“I love you.” During the years he had spent with her in Mozroz, she had never looked at him with such devotion, and she had always avoided any talk of love. He was assailed by a new betrayal – she had never loved him, even a little! All his love, all his pining for her after leaving Mozroz, his life of torment and hope since she came to his farm, all the wretchedness she had caused in his life, were for nothing! He felt a numbing sense of self-pity. He was about to walk back to his house, his head bowed, when a thought occurred to him. Surely, she had to have loved him. She must have known how devoted he was to her, even during the twenty–five years of separation. Since coming to the farm, he had often felt that she was aware he was watching her, and that she was acting for his benefit, complicit in a secret love affair. He felt justified in confronting her with her betrayal, one last time. He walked round to the door and knocked.
“Who is it?” Isha called.
“Jula,” he answered, calmly.
“What is it, Jula?” she asked, a little agitated.
“Open the door, Isha.”
With nothing but a bed sheet wrapped around her, she opened the door, planting herself in the doorway. But Jula, without waiting to be invited in, brushed past her and stood in the middle of the room, hardly giving the scandalized man on the bed a glance, his betrayal eliciting in Jula nothing but utter contempt for him.
“Why did you come here, Isha?” he asked. His tone was more calm than menacing. She didn’t answer, unnerved by an eerie liveliness in his eyes.
“You came to ruin me,” he went on without waiting for an answer, then paused. “You brought your whoring from Mozroz with you ...”
She indicated slightly with her hand towards the bed.
“I love him.” She didn’t know how else to defend herself. Jula could still not bring himself to look in the direction of the bed.
“You love that filth?”
And then a blind rage took hold of him and he grabbed her by the throat, shaking her. “So you never loved me ... you never gave a thought to your slave?” Jula’s voice was more weepy than threatening.
The man on the bed suddenly recovered from his stupor, and forgetful of his nakedness, jumped from it and attempted to pull Jula from Isha.
“Forgive us, Jula,” he entreated, “just as the Lord will forgive us this our trespass.”
Jula freed Isha and threw the man back on the bed, grabbed a knife that was lying on the table and stabbed him several times, saying between clenched teeth, “You, devil’s servant, go back and stay on the bed.”
The screams from Isha soon brought her fellow workers to the doorway, where they stood surveying the scene before them. After a while, there was a murmuring, and the crowd jostling at the door made way for Ruth. She walked through to the front of the crowd and came face-to-face with the devil’s splendor.
“Oh, Jula,” she gasped, drawing her hands to her mouth.
Without speaking, he turned towards her, a confused look on his face, and then he gazed around the room, and at himself. It is a painting, he thought, of himself with a bloody knife in his hand; a motionless Reverend Simon Mata lying on bedding discolored by his own blood; Isha, wrapped in a bed sheet, cowering in a corner, weeping silently; a growing crowd of his farm workers at the door; his wife looking on with great pity. A death scene with Isha, he mouthed. And as he contemplated the painting, he felt a deep, deep sadness – like the eternal sadness of the dead.
Tee Ngugi is a columnist and writer. His collection of short stories, Seasons of Love and Despair, is forthcoming from East African Educational Publishers, January 2015.
THE NEW BLACK