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Troy Onyango’s “For What Are Butterflies Without Their Wings?” won the fiction prize at the inaugural Nyanza Literary Festival in 2016.

*

It was she, the girl whom everyone called Girl as if she didn’t have a name of her own, who first came and told me we had lost you. Those were her exact words. Lost you. Such simple words, yet grave in their nature as to throw one off balance. April. The heavy rains were here, and the people of Kano were already fleeing from the deluge. From our house on the hilltop, I could see the vast swathes of flooded land that were rice farms. Do you remember that Thursday afternoon when I glanced at the clouds that were dirty cotton puffs hanging from the sky, and told you to stop preparing your fishing net to go into the lake? Rajula wuod Mariko, son of my mother, this was your retort: “Our rains beat us from the East, not the West.” Your tone, sharp and dismissive, stays etched in my memory. You did not even lift your eyes to look at me when you said this. For a few minutes, I stood there and stared at your long fingers as they worked the nets, tying every knot as you went. You worked in silence. Occasionally, your lips parted and you pushed air with your tongue through a small hole and whistled to the song of the woman with the big round buttocks. Your feet moved in tandem with the sound. Then, suddenly as if you had remembered something, you got up, threw the net over your broad shoulders and left. You bounced as you walked in a way that made you look invincible. Your shadow, disappearing into the haze of that afternoon sun, eclipsed by clouds of sorrow, is the last memory I have of you brother.

Today is Saturday, two days after you left, and you are nowhere to be found.

The search party I paid to go into the lake and look for you has come back with their heads bowed like a flock of sheep on a stormy night. They spread their palms outwards as if in doing so, I am inclined to accept that they have been defeated with the task. None of them come to the house to tell me any news of you or to confirm my fears. Instead, they stand by the gate and talk to Girl. I observe from the window, straining my ears to catch a whiff of their words. Nothing. Girl turns away, her back now facing the men, lurches forward and starts walking toward the house. Gusts of fine dust rise from the ground where she steps and clings to the hem of her flowing floral dress. She half-runs, half-floats; her strides, small and quick, make her seem wobbly and it’s as if she is about to fall.

Now.

Girl stands before me and tells me we have lost you. A quiver in her voice – a guitar string about to snap into two. She repeats every word of it as if I didn’t hear her the first time. At first, I stare into her face as you regard the face of one you have never seen before. Her large eyes are the banks of a full river but does not burst yet. She fidgets and twirls the promise ring in her finger that you gave her when she was thirteen (Mother forced you to). Her lips tremble and the chattering of her teeth is loud enough to hear from where I sit. She is uncertain in the way her eyes cast down to my feet. I stare at the whitewashed wall in front of me that has a railing with faded photographs of mother, father, you and me. Smiles. Teeth flash. Jagged pieces a porcelain vase. My fingernails claw into the edge of the thin mattress on what used to be mother’s bed. We have lost you? How can it be so? People lose things – money, cell phones, and keys – but you were none of those. How could it be that Girl says we have lost you? You who stood seven feet above the ground and could be seen from a few yards away? You who stood out in a crowd, like the woman who once wore a Technicolor coat to a funeral. It wasn’t possible to lose you. Not in the tenacious gush of the evening winds that blew hard against our faces as we descended down the hills with firewood neatly balanced on our heads. Not in the roaring waters of the Sondu Miriu River. No Rajula wuod Mariko, son of my mother, the lake is too small to swallow you.

Even then, there have been stories, and songs, about better men than you, who went into the lake and never came back. I remember, as a young girl, when we used to gather by grandmother’s feet, sitting as close to her cracked sole as possible, taking in her smell of sour goat milk and ghee while she told us stories of men whose souls leapt into the murky waters of Lake Victoria. Nam Lolwe she would call it. You remember Omieri, right, the big snake that came out of the lake one night and took refuge in Jaduong’ Sibuor’s home? Is it not rumoured that the snake was once a young man who came back home and found his younger brother taking liberties with his new bride? And, in a fit of fury, he thrust a spear in his brother, spilling his gut out while the young bride cupped her cheeks in her palms and screamed in horror. After that, he cut off the tongue of the bride – for that is the tongue she had used to seduce his younger brother – and then gouged out her eyes – which she had used to lust after his brother. A bloodbath. The father of the two men stood by the door and shook his head as the blood of his son and daughter-in-law merged and seeped into the mud floor. There and then, he chanted a few words, which the whole village would later learn was a curse. The young man, fresh blood on his hands, edged past his father, went into the lake and rowed his boat till the point where the sky meets the lake. Even there, his father’s curse followed him and caused him agony until he cried and asked the lake to swallow him. The lake agreed, only on the condition that once every seven moons, he would come back and ask for forgiveness from his father.

Or that other story grandmother told us about the spirits that live in the lake. Nyawawa, they are called. The ones that are a legion of souls of people who died in the lake. Unsatisfied by their short life on earth, Tell me you remember these stories, Rajula wuod Mariko, son of my mother. Tell me that mother calling you to go and sit with her in the kitchen instead of listening to nonsense stories did not make your memory lose grasp of these stories.

*

Mother always loved you more than she ever could love me. In her heart and head, you were her only child. Her father. Her grandfather. Her husband even. She christened you names that, though by no fault of your own, made me envious of you. Father, on those nights when he walked in bearing the stench of death and burping the smell of failure, wagged his finger at mother and told her, “You are spoiling that one!” His voice cracked and his words got lost in the belches that rose and filled the air and the house stopped smelling of the fish stew that mother had made. Perhaps you were too young to remember all this. Or maybe the warmth of mother’s bed protected you from all this. But I heard it all, Rajula wuod Mariko, son of my mother, I heard it all. One day, from the mat spread in the corner of the living room floor, I heard mother say, “He is our son. And if you don’t like me taking care of our son then leave and go sleep with your whores in the chang’aa den.”

Father would remain quiet then. He would slump on the sofa and leave mother talking to herself while the flame of the lamp danced in the dark until the wick burned out.

That was the first night I heard the word whore used in our house. I would hear it so many times after. But the one that clings to me, like it is part of my skin, is that one time I asked you to take me to the shop to buy mother a packet of maize flour and medicine for her migraines. I was scared to go out alone because it had been rumoured that the Nyawawa were roaming the air that night. I did not want my soul to be stolen from me. This was your answer to my request, Rajula wuod Mariko, son of my mother, “A whore like you shouldn’t be afraid of the night.”

Yes, that is what you told me.

You were only eight then and I eleven. Son of my mother, those words stung me, a thousand needles pressed against my skin and made me want to take a knife with a blade so sharp it could skin a crocodile and plunge it into your heart. But mother was standing by the door, asking me why my stupid self was not yet at the shop. I wanted to answer; to tell her the horrible name you had just called me – a woman of the night. I wanted to scream that you were an awful human being. But the lump in my throat couldn’t allow me to. I pushed the door, walked out and the black of the night swallowed my frame.

When did you start hating me, my brother?

My lasting memory of you and me as children is when we would be out in the fields and the sun, a large yellow ball of gold perched in the sky like the eye of Nyasaye, burnt our foreheads. This was after harvest season and the fields lay bare with maize stalks felled to the ground. The cows, tails wagging to chase away flies, nibbled lazily at the small grass that sprouted from the dry patch of land. We ran around the field without a care, laughter echoing through the dry wind. Mother had forbidden us from going over to play with our cousins from the other side of the river. We ran around in circles, not stopping to cry about the sharp stones that pricked our bare feet. When you became tired, you asked me to sit down with you under the guava tree.

It was under that guava tree, several afternoons ago, that you, Rajula wuod Mariko, son of my mother, made me feel for the first time I had a brother. Your head leaning against my shoulder and mine leaning against yours made me remember grandmother’s words when you were first born and she put you – pink and tiny – in my arms, “Dina, this is your little brother. Take care of him.” Of course I was still young and I didn’t know what those words meant. But I remember looking into grandmother’s eyes and the smile on her face that day is one that comes to me even in my sleep.

The sun, fiery orange and smouldering, was sinking into the horizon when I shook you from your slumber and told you we needed to go back home.

“You promised me we would catch butterflies, Dina.”

“It’s late, Raju. Let’s go home.”

“But I want butterflies.”

“Tomorrow.”

“You said today. I don’t want tomorrow.”

In that moment, I realized that mother’s arrogance had followed you. You would never be one to be swayed easily. Looking back then, I thought that was good thing. Perhaps it was, and maybe if mother’s presence wasn’t overbearing in your life, you would have turned out fine.

With a string tied to a stick and a square piece of paper, I taught you how to make a butterfly trap. I taught you how to swing it in the wind and make the butterflies follow you thinking they were following another butterfly. Trickery. I taught you deception. My first lesson to you, brother, was deception, and for that I am sorry.

At nightfall, with three butterflies in your empty detergent container, you asked me where butterflies came from. I did not have an answer.

The next morning, at the first crack of dawn, in the clear container where you had kept your treasure, I found three wingless butterflies. Your thumb and forefinger had traces of white powder; traces of murder. You slept, peacefully, the sound of air moving in and out of your nostrils, filling mother’s room with wheezing sounds. I cried, for what are butterflies without their wings? The horror of it all. This was the first time you made me cry, brother. But definitely not the last.

Years later, as I sat in a science class and the teacher explained to us the stages of development of a butterfly, you came to mind. Metamorphosis, he called it. Spittle jumped from between his crooked teeth. The corner of his mouth had white gummy scum. Raging alcoholic. Twice divorced. Five children, all school dropouts. Brothels, a regular. Eyes glowing in the dimly lit classroom. The life cycle. Egg, larva, pupa and, finally, adult. It was in that same class that I had my first period, my mark into womanhood.

*

You were never born a fisherman, Rajula wuod Mariko, son of my mother. It was only after mother passed on – headaches, migraines, brain tumour – that you decided to use your hands to do something. Mother never prepared you for this kind of work. She always said how you had the softest palms in the whole village. This was true. What she never told you was that soft palms never made farmers; or hunters; or fishermen. Soft palms made teachers and shopkeepers. But you, Rajula wuod Mariko, son of my mother, was neither born with the brain of a teacher nor the affinity for arithmetic that could made you a shopkeeper. You dropped out of school at Standard Six. Father, on the one time I remember him sober, pleaded with you and told you: “Listen boy, the way the world works nowadays, you have to go to school and have a certificate to your name. You will never amount to much if you do not go to school.”

Those words, it seems, were told to a deaf person. I sat there and listened to father speak, his lips looking like an open ulcer from his chang’aa drinking. Eyes filled with pain. Wrinkles forming on his forehead and crowfeet around the eyes. Hair greying to the colour of wet ash. When had father become this old? My eyes darted from one end of the room to the other, not once settling on any particular object. A housefly trapped in a spider’s web. Chaos. Through the corner of my eye, I could see you sitting between mother’s thighs. She patted your kinky hair and smiled.

“My son will be okay. He will make it.” That was all she had to say.

Father clicked his tongue, pushed the table away which almost hit me, and he walked away. I sat in silence. It wasn’t the fact that mother was ruining your future that hurt me more. Neither was it that father was angry in all this, and no one could hear the pain in his voice except me. It was the way that mother said my son will be okay as if she somehow owned your future and could assure you of success. But tell me, Rajula wuod Mariko, son of my mother, did you ever stop to think that mother’s existence would never be eternal?

It was you, Rajula wuod Mariko, the same one that is now out there somewhere, that stood in court one chilly Tuesday morning and told everyone there that father had touched you. That he, father, had come into your room one night, and while you were asleep, he forced himself on you. It was you who cried and told the teary-eyed Magistrate of how father had pushed his thing into you and with it tore your innocence away. You told them everything. So vividly that they all cried and looked at father with eyes full of hatred. You told the press how you were bludgeoned into silence by father and his constant threats to kill you if you told anyone. You were too scared to tell mother. Not even when she asked why you were walking with a limp and had a fever. That’s what you told the press and the court. You told them everything; enough to earn father a fourteen-year jail term. You told it all, my brother.

What you never told them was that it was all a lie.

A lie you were put up to by mother to rid herself of father. You too wanted father gone, for he was the only one who was forward with you and told you the truth of life as it was then, as it is now. You hated him with every fibre of your being. You loathed him in the very sense of the word. You and mother both told me to keep quiet about it. And I, like the helpless little girl I was, obliged. This was only a year after you dropped out of school, Rajula wuod Mariko, son of my mother. Why were you so much trouble? If ever there was someone born with the sole purpose of causing trouble, it was you, my brother. And I, your sister, bore the brunt of it all. Your anger, unforgiving and unrelenting, was always directed at me.

I’ll send word to father in prison. His son is no more.

Was it not you, Rajula wuod Mariko, son of my mother, who fed Taka, my best friend, lies of how you loved her and would marry her? Only if she went to mother and told her how I went to school not to study but to let the male teachers and the senior students fuck me. Taka even told mother how I got paid in crumbled notes of fifty and a hundred shillings just to let the men have their way with me. My brother, you stood by and shouted rejoinders in the air until mother was convinced that Taka was telling the truth. And that evening, when I came back from school, not knowing it would be my last evening from school, I found you and mother standing by the door, waiting.

“Am I raising you to become a prostitute?”

“Uh?” Only words that could escape my lips. I had not heard the question. Mother asked again. But not before slapping me across the face. I descended to the ground and stayed there, clasping my cheek in my palms, while she rained insults of unspeakable nature on me. She picked a cane and whipped the daylight out of me. She cursed. She swore. And where the cane failed, she stomped on me with her feet. I squirmed. Yelled for help. No one came. The blows rained harder, falling on my body like I was a snake.

You stood there.

You watched.

You relished every moment of it.

Between tears that clouded my eyes I could see the smirk on your face.

You tried to suppress laughter.

You failed.

Rajula wuod Mariko, son of my mother.

Three days later, while I lay on the mat that pressed hard against my broken ribs and pierced through my torn flesh, you, my brother, came to me and knelt beside me. Through the slit in my swollen eyes, I could see your face; you were no longer a boy. You stared at me for a while and for a moment, even in the briefest sense of it, I thought I saw remorse in your eyes. Was I wrong? You did not say a word. You just got up and left. That was the first time I noticed that you walked with a slight sway in your hips.

*

Girl cannot hold it in any longer. She bursts into a long sharp wail that sounds like the shriek of a wounded animal. She is even uglier now than I thought her the first time I saw her; mother came with her from the market and told you that she would be your wife. You looked at me then and I could see the fire in your eyes. You thought I had told on you. You thought I had told mother that you were a homosexual. I wanted to. I hated you enough to want to tell her that you, my brother, found comfort in the bodies of other boys, but whenever I tried, my throat twisted into several knots that hurt when I tried to speak. I did not tell her. I think she just knew. Mothers always know, right? How could she not know when you plaited your hair and pierced your ear like a woman? And so she pulled out a ring from her bag and asked you to give it to Girl. Made you promise to marry Girl. You hated her. You hated me even more when I giggled.

Years have passed between then and now. Long stretches of timewhen I would sit down by myself, thinking about how time changed you. I’d gaze at the brown leaves that had fallen off the papaya tree. The brown leaves we used to crush with our cousins, roll into pieces of paper and pretend to be adults with their smoking. We coughed until our lungs burned and we felt the metallic taste of blood in our throats. And then in unison we burst out into laughter and raced to see who would be the first to jump off the stone into the river. Those were the good days. When nothing mother said to you made you spiteful towards me. Your immaculate days, with a soul so pure. But then you were still six years old and your heart was too tender to be taught hate.

It is well, it is well with my soul.

That is the brother I want to think of now. That is the brother I will forever keep in my heart. That is the brother I will name my firstborn son after. For deep within you, amidst the layers of hate, lived the boy whose laughter made the sun fall on my face with a softer and radiant glow.

Rajula wuod Mariko, son of my mother, I have wanted to hate you. I have sat down on most nights teaching my heart how to despise you. But tell me brother, you who hated everyone except yourself, of what use is hate? Teach me brother, how do I hate you? How do I hate mother? Is she not the one who made you that way? How do I hate the world for taking you away from me? Ask me not to mourn for you. Ask me to forget that the lake swallowed you whole, my brother. Ask me to say that I never loved you. See, you can’t. Because you are dead now, and the dead tell no tales.

 

 

About the Author

Troy Onyango is a Kenyan writer and lawyer. His fiction has appeared in various journals and magazines including Transition  magazine’s Issue 121, where his short story “The Transfiguration” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2016. His short story “For What Are Butterflies Without Their Wings?” won the fiction prize at the inaugural Nyanza Literary Festival. He was shortlisted for the 2016 Miles Morland Foundation Scholarship. His nonfiction piece, “How It Ends,” was shortlisted for the inaugural Brittle Paper Award for Nonfiction. He is a Founding Editor of Enkare Review and the Fiction Editor of the East Africa issue of Panorama: The Journal of Intelligent Travel.

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About Otosirieze Obi-Young

View all posts by Otosirieze Obi-Young
Otosirieze Obi-Young was born in Aba, Nigeria and attended the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. A finalist for the 2016 Miles Morland Writing Scholarship, his short stories include: “A Tenderer Blessing,” which appears in Transition Magazine and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2015; “Mulumba,” which appears in The Threepenny Review; and “You Sing of a Longing,” which was shortlisted for the inaugural Gerald Kraak Award and appears in Pride and Prejudice, an anthology by The Jacana Literary Foundation and The Other Foundation. His essays appear in Interdisciplinary Academic Essays and in Brittle Paper where he is Deputy Editor. His interviews appear in Africa in Dialogue, Bakwa Magazine, SPRINNG, and Dwartonline. He is the editor of the Art Naija Series, a sequence of themed e-anthologies of writing and visual art exploring different aspects of Nigerianness. The first, Enter Naija: The Book of Places (October 2016), focuses on Nigerian cities. The second, Work Naija: The Book of Vocations (June 2017), focuses on professions in Nigeria. A postgraduate student of African Studies, he currently teaches English at Godfrey Okoye University, Enugu, Nigeria. When bored, he blogs pop culture at naijakulture.blogspot.com or just Googles Rihanna.

2 Responses to “For What Are Butterflies Without Their Wings? | Troy Onyango | Fiction” Subscribe

  1. Nonso 2017/11/02 at 02:30 #

    Wow. That’s quite a read!

  2. Alih Rilwan 2017/11/03 at 09:49 #

    This is very amazing and captivating. I went through every line of the story and I was carried away completely. The story is full of life and highly interesting. His choice of words is commendable with the blend of African cultural values and norms. Kudos to him for the job well done.

Leave a Reply

I hold a doctorate in English from Duke University and recently joined the Marquette University English faculty as an Assistant Professor. I love teaching African fiction and contemporary British novels. Brittle Paper is the virtual space/station where I play and experiment with ideas on how to reinvent African fiction and literary culture.

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