I knew my eyesight was failing me because on that particular afternoon, I was completely unsure of what I was seeing. I just knew that it was beautiful enough to stop me in my tracks.
I was seven years old and mindlessly galavanting through life as a child ought to do. Part of this process meant prostrating myself in the velvety dust outside Ma Aisha’s house, lining up my marble for a good shot.
I was the Baron of Bano. The Monarch of Marbles. Kids walked from neighbourhoods all over town to witness my hawklike precision. The boys groaned and spat in dismay as my marble tore through theirs like an angry rhino, scattering shards across the playing field. As a further affront to their bruised masculinity, my marble would then pirouette delicately towards the hole in the ground, landing with a victorious plop. So they hated and loved me in equal measure.
Back to Ma Aisha’s house, where a loud crack rents the still air, followed by a succession of slurs not commonly used in the Luhya language. My competitor knelt dramatically over the two halves of what used to be a beautiful marble. I stood up to lord my victory over him because I was an asshole like that when I heard chuckling coming from a short distance away. I turned to look and, as I later found out, continued looking for longer than was socially acceptable.
The tall flame tree was doing its best to cast a shadow against the blazing afternoon sun. Hurdled underneath were two girls and my cousin Babu who is inconsequential to this story. However, my eyes had settled on one of the girls. A small tuft of curly, tawny hair peeked out from under her sequined headscarf. A stray curl caressed her forehead from a widow’s peak, glossy against her caramel skin. She had a broad face, punctuated by round, flushed cheeks that popped out every time she smiled. She tossed her head back, bushy eyebrows arched in glee as she laughed, hiding none of her emotions. But then she straightened up, opened her eyes and looked levelly at me. That is when I froze. Her eyes, like glowing amber, shone out of her face and turned me to stone.
As if to mitigate my failing vision, the sun suddenly brightened but only succeeded in worsening the situation. The glare of the sunlight, the packed red earth beneath my feet, the caramel of her face, and those fiery eyes all seemed to melt into each other, and I was blinded.
Suddenly, I couldn’t breathe. Thankfully (or not, it’s relative), my other cousin Jojo had put me in a headlock, breaking the trance.
“Weh! Let’s go to the river. Rosie says she saw fish there yesterday,” he said, dragging me away.
“Um, yeah, yeah…” I muttered, stumbling after him, my eyes still locked on the girl.
As I came to find out she was known, Maryam became my obsession. I would soon place all my activities directly in her path, hoping to catch a glimpse of her as she came to and from Ma Aisha’s house. Although I would actively try to avoid looking at her for fear of getting entranced again, this didn’t stop me from constantly trying to be in her vicinity.
“You know aunty is gonna beat your ass,” Jojo said to me once as I knelt in the dust during a game.
“What? Why?” I said, my head snapping up. For all my assholery, I was actually a good kid and generally avoided getting in trouble with my aunt.
“I heard her complaining that you keep getting your going-out clothes dirty,” Jojo said, eyeing my jeans.
I looked down, noticing the soil ground into the knees, stark red against the faded blue denim.
“Why do you wear them anyway? We don’t take trips into town as much lately,” Rosie added, plopping herself onto the bare ground. For all her flowers and frills, Rosie was just as chaotic and messy as the rest of us. She always got into trouble with our aunt for “not acting like a girl”. At that moment, you could hardly tell the original colour of her tiered polyester dress. The flower appliques on the hem were ripped to shreds, and the long nylon belts hung limply from either side, trailing in the dust when we played.
“Oh please, she dresses up for Maryam,” Jojo chuckled.
“Macho Bano?! You can’t be serious!” Rosie exclaimed, sitting up.
“Why do you call her that?” I asked, trying to hide the tone of protest in my voice.
“Psh! Have you seen those eyes? They look like marbles,” Jojo said.
“Or hot coals,” Rosie added, “Like fire.”
“Like a cat,” Jojo went on, apparently enjoying my growing discomfort with this discussion. I could feel the bile rising in my throat.
“They do not!” I suddenly snapped, tossing a handful of dust at him. He feigned at dodging.
Rosie’s eyes lit up, and she and Jojo exchanged knowing glances. Then the chorus began,
“Zeinab and Maryam, sitting in a tree….”
I stood up and charged at them, but they were already off, trailing giggles and red dust. I was rounding the corner like a formula one car when WHAM!
“Hey!” Maryam’s voice floated over my head. I was caught up in the heady scent of roses and aloe wood enveloping her. I made the mistake of looking up, and those blazing eyes were staring down at me. I shut my eyes tight and started to mumble an apology as I made feeble attempts at extricating myself from her grasp.
“Relax, it’s ok!” she chuckled, holding me at arm’s length but not quite letting go. “You’re Zeinab, right?”
“Oh shit, she heard the song!” I thought and looked away, shamefaced. When I looked back up, she was still smiling. The smile crinkled up her nose, making the bronze nose and septum rings glint.
“We’re making sweets at my house today. You kids want to come along?”
I heard, “You….want to come along?”
I smiled and nodded, then ran off to get Rosie and Jojo.
Nothing else matters
As it turned out, Maryam was staying with Babu and his family. I loved going to Babu’s house because it always meant sampling all sorts of goodies. Chewy jalebi, sweet and spicy halwa, crusty samosas, kaimati, bhajia, and washing all of it down with chilled rosewater lemonade.
“Eat, eat! You’re too skinny from all that running around,” the aunties would push us, smiling and trading gossip over sizzling pans as they sat cross-legged around the open cooking fires.
This day was even better because the henna lady and her team were around. I always loved watching her as she scrawled out intricate patterns on the hands and feet of the girls.
“Zeinab! Come sit by me!” Maryam’s voice carried over the cacophony.
I stood up reluctantly and went to her, placing myself a short distance away.
“Such a shy one, this one!” She giggled, pulling me closer to her. She took my hand and examined it. I suddenly became aware of my greasy fingers and wanted the earth to swallow me up the way Jojo was tossing back the kashata. “You’re so beautiful! You shouldn’t be shy,” Maryam said, turning my face up to look at her. I could have died happily at that moment. Maryam thought I was beautiful, and nothing else mattered.
Maryam had coaxed me into easy banter. We laughed and teased late into the evening. I was floating on a cloud of flowery and woody incense as she stretched me out on the reed mat to get my hands and feet decorated with henna. Rosie was sitting next to me, and we exchanged glances and giggles. Jojo, sitting in the corner with Babu and wolfing down bhajias, took brief breaks.
As the darkness deepened outside, Maryam pulled me to her side, wrapping us up in a shawl. I dozed off admiring the henna patterns winding over my chocolate skin, amazed at how the designs popped against my dark skin. Maybe I was beautiful after all.
The field of flowers
I woke up to a gentle tap on my shoulder. The morning sun reflected Maryam’s eyes, making them glow as her curly hair made a soft halo around her face. Sandro Botticelli would have killed to paint this one.
“Time to get up, Zeinab,” she cooed, “I need you to go home.”
My face fell then twisted in confusion when she laughed.
“No, you need to wash the henna paste off,” Maryam added quickly, “Then get dressed and come right back here. We have a big day ahead.”
I had to physically keep myself from whooping in excitement by clapping my hands over my mouth. Maryam wanted to spend the day with me, me! I shot off the mat and through the door, only passing to drag Jojo away from his breakfast of spicy tea and kaimati.
“Did this guy eat all night?” I wondered. Rosie came stumbling out after us, still rubbing the sleep from her eyes.
Our house was abuzz with activity. Our aunt barely looked at us when we got there, which was a relief, considering I was a caked mess of syrup, grease, dust and henna paste. Usually, this would have hailed Armaggeddon, but she merely laughed and went about stripping, scrubbing and slathering us in vaseline. Ma Asha showed up just in time to help her get us dressed, and the two of them cooed over how lovely we looked. I, for one, felt very dapper in my jeans and stiff collared shirt and the three of us kids spent the morning strutting around and trading grandiloquent compliments.
“Why, sir, you look fantastic today,” Rosie would say to Jojo in an exaggerated English accent.
“As do you, dear sister, And don’t you look grand, dear cousin?” Jojo grunted, turning to me with his chest puffed out.
“Why, thank you, dear cousin, but hardly as lovely as cousin Rosie,” I would add before we collapsed in fits of laughter and started all over again.
We walked back to Babu’s house, and this time I was careful, placing my feet down gently so as not to stir up dust and ruin my look. Our chatter was slowly overtaken by the music and noise emanating from the compound as we drew close. I noticed the festive atmosphere for the first time—the lilting chorus of taarab music in the air, the women, fluttering about in their colourful abayas and deras, making the yard sparkle like a field of flowers and gems. The convoy of cars lined up outside as Babu and some men flew about polishing and decorating. My senses began to buzz, and I didn’t notice that my company had dispersed, leaving me alone in the chaos.
I was still standing there when ululations ripped through the air, sending a nearby flock of innocent birds scattering into the azure skies. Suddenly, all the women came swarming towards me with lesos, singing,
“Nimezama kwa mapenzi,sijui kama nitazuka
Naiona yangu hali ,mimi nimedhoofika
Nimezama kwa mapenzi…”
“What in the entire fuck?!” I thought, and then I heard the rustling behind me.
I didn’t realise that I had been standing in front of the main door or Maryam behind me. In line with what was now my usual form, I turned around and stared.
Her petite frame was swathed in what looked like kilometres of sparkling pink silk and lace. The voluminous skirt tapered up towards a tightly cinched waist drowning in glittering rhinestones. My wide eyes slowly swept upwards past the silk hijab draped under her chin, framing her face and accented by heavy gold jewellery. Her eyes, outlined by a heavy shading of kajal, were like flames.
I was stunned.
Maryam extended her patterned hand towards me, gently gesturing for me to take it. Her bangles jingled as I took her hand, still staring agape. Maryam laughed and swayed to the singing as we walked over the laid out lesos towards the waiting car. I danced along, caught up in the festive atmosphere. I felt like royalty, walking through the throng with this beautiful woman by my side, and I put on a gallant show of opening the door for her when we got to the car.
We had just managed to fit her voluminous gown in the back seat when she gestured for me. And that, my friend, is when it dawned on me.
“I’M GETTING MARRIED!!!”
There could be no other explanation—the food, the henna, the music, getting dressed up, spending the night together. Maryam and I were getting married!!!
Oh, I was on cloud nine the whole way to the ceremony hall. All I could do was smile and hold Maryam’s hand. This was true love. I was already picturing our future, moving to a little house in the hills. Coming home from work to find Maryam waiting for me with a cup of sweet spiced tea and a hug. Or maybe she would want to work too? I mean, she was older than me, so she would probably be the one working at least for a couple of years. It didn’t matter that I was seven; girls got married at seven all the time. Our history teacher said so. But unlike them, ours was true love. I could tell by the way Maryam looked at me, how she held my hand in both of hers the whole ride, how she would hold my head tenderly to her chest from time to time and kiss the top of my head…
I was still planning our honeymoon to the beach when we pulled up to the hall.
I marveled at the decor and basked in ululations as we exited the car. I was the perfect partner, holding the car door open and arranging her train. I was floating towards the door, my hand in Maryam’s, when she paused at the double doors.
“I’m so happy you escorted me to my wedding. I’ve always wanted to have a little sister, and I felt special spending the last couple of hours with you.”
I felt like I had been struck by lightning.
‘Little sister???’ I thought
Maryam leaned over and planted a kiss on my forehead. “I’ll let you go sit with your friends now,” she said, cupping my face, “and I’ll see you at the reception, ok?”
I nodded dumbly and stood there as she disappeared through the heavily flowered arch. I could barely hear the cheering over the crashing waves in my head.
I felt a hand on my shoulder.
“You’ll be ok,” Jojo said to the side of my head.
“Her eyes give me the creeps anyway,” Rosie said from the other side.
I rubbed my eyes and looked away from the arch, just in time to notice Jojo had left a greasy fingerprint on my shoulder. I drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly.
“I saw a mango tree out back,” I ventured.
“Say no more,” Rosie said, and we ran into the dusty yard.