They are enigmatic, the slashes on the sides of his cheeks. The slight trenches are in the place where dimples ought to be. Incidences like these make me truly appreciate God’s opus. No matter how much willpower you claim to possess, you simply cannot avert your eyes from those slashes. My eyes fleet away from them for a few seconds but then as if they have a life of their own, they once again avert to his cheeks. Is it a medical thing or an aesthetic? Every time his teeth meet to terrorize that poor piece of gum, the slashes coyly appear.
“You are staring…It’s rude.”
His voice is not brusque as he utters the words yet I feel myself squirm further into my seat. I immediately regret it, the leather coated matatu seats are searing from the 12 o’clock sun.
“We could switch seats, I love sitting by the window anyway.”
The matatu is empty safe for three passengers including myself. I had planned a midmorning rendezvous with my mbogi and threatened to decapitate any one of them who would be tardy. I contemplate letting my skin fry against the leather seats, what was the point of avoiding sun burns if you are going to lose your head anyway?
We exchange seats with him and I stifle a chuckle when he lets out a cuss. He had miscalculated his elbow’s landing. The elbow had not been spared from the wrath of the sun, the opaque material near the transparent window was harboring ray fugitives. I scarcely wonder if there is a secret service dedicated to seeking out sun rays hiding in absorbent materials.
The malice underlying his tone is so apparent that I stare down at my purple earphones. Is it the color? Or maybe the brand? Admittedly my music intermediaries are cheap but he didn’t know that!
“It’s none of that…I just don’t like earphones.”
Caught between the shock of him being a telepath and his bizarre confession, I simply stare at him.
The slash cheeked stranger begins relating his story.
He had been born in a small village in the heart of Ukambani. While growing up he discovered his love for dancing and embraced it. He became a source of entertainment around the village, a VIP seat with his name on it was always present at parties.
“Kids would see me and immediately begin moving their legs. They would then ask me excitedly to demonstrate a dancing style I had invented called pepeta…It was always a hoot.”
I feel a sudden urge to coax him into showcasing the said choreography but then I swallow the inquiry, besides there was no proper space for the said dancing style. Being a hailer from the East myself, I am aware of how vigorous and fervent our dancing can be. Our concept of dancing is akin to freeing animals from a circus bondage, chaos and bliss. He continues with the story.
Despite his very interactive talent, he was socially inept. He would perform his piece and then leave to go sit by himself. He hardly ever initiated conversations and often stuck to monosyllabic responses. It struck the villagers as eerie but they did not pursue his introvert nature, it was just the way he was.
I steal a glance at the slashes. At some point he had ended his terror on the mauled gum. It is his talking that makes the slashes appear from time to time. I find his relation queer, he is far from being an introvert.
“My parents just assumed my inability to interact freely with people had something to do with puberty and that it would slough off as I crossed over to the manhood threshold, I only got worse.”
He stopped attending village events and began dancing in the safety of his room. By then his elder sister was a frequent visitor and during one of her visits, she brought him earphones. The earphones were mauve in color and had great baritone, he adored them.
I give a sudden yelp as a maize cob vendor suddenly sticks his head through the half open window. He wears a full grin and waves roasted corn in front of us while loudly assuring our taste buds satisfaction. The narrator chuckles lightly at my obvious bewilderment as he politely turns down the enthusiastic vendor. The vendor smiles good naturedly before turning his attention towards me. He shoves the roasted cob at the side of my arm. His smile is so heart warming I decide to slay my rising agitation. A few minutes later I begin munching at my maize cob, my taste buds do not complain at all. I offer my maize cob, it is declined. He continues.
“I became an earphone addict. Everywhere I went I had them on listening to radio stations or music on my phone. It became a part of my brand.”
The villagers began associating him with earphones. If someone bought earphones, his name would come up. If someone failed to complete a task competently because of earphones, his name would be disdainfully uttered. It was as if his name was a genie and the only way to lure it from the bottle was by mentioning the word earphones.
His eyes fleet towards the earphones on my lap and a small lifeless smile tugs at his lips. Immediately theories conjure in my head about his loathe for the devices. I recreate false memories of him crossing a busy road with his previous mauve earphones or falling a victim to partial deafness. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The narrator steers on.
The headaches had always been there but never as frequently. They soon morphed into migraines and half the time he felt as if a piece of burning coal had been placed on one of his temples. The pain would be so excruciating that he would dip his head in a basin of cold water. His parents blamed the earphones.
“I tried telling them that the headaches had been there before Mwikali brought the earphones but they would hear none of it…they were the parents and I was the child.”
Music had been his anchor to feeling connected with people and without it he felt miserable. The migraines worsened and he began losing his temper. He chuckles humorlessly before staring ahead into nothing.
The abandoned roasted cob beckons for my attention as I wait for him to snap out of his pensive. Two more passengers board the matatu. Another woman with a wailing toddler clamber into the courier and sits next to us. I wonder if he will continue the story with an audience.
“I was filled with blinding rage. Half the time I didn’t even know I was seething until I saw the raw fear in my mother’s eyes. My father started avoiding me, he was not sure what was wrong with me so how could he associate with what he could not understand?”
He didn’t have many friends and the ones he had stopped hanging out with him because of his temper tantrums. He began locking himself in his room all day, just sitting there on his bed, staring murderously at the wall. Sometimes he would bring mayhem to his room contents, woe to anything in his room that was lightweight, they would fly across his room like novice birds.
His migraines were becoming unbearable. His parents had taken him to three hospitals in the nearest town and all had failed in curing him. They all misdiagnosed him, attributing the headaches to malaria, a common cold and stress. He came from a humble background and the constant trips to town were boring a hole in his parent’s wallets. Soon the tension in their abode was tactile with money playing hide and seek and the son isolating himself. His father accused him of having pseudo migraines, he told him to fix his attitude and face his problems like a man.
I flinch at the shrill that blares throughout the matatu. Our seat mate smiles apologetically at me and the narrator before proceeding to shush the baby. For a moment everyone’s attention is on the hyperventilating toddler. The narration continues .
A friend of his mother’s from their church visited him one day and found him on the floor with his legs crossed Indian style. He was leaning back and forth incessantly while breathing heavily. Another migraine was in play and his body was clammy with sweat. He felt as if a nail was being corkscrewed on each of his temples. He was in so much pain he forgot how to cry.
He had refused to tell his parents because he feared that he would only cause havoc. His mother would loyally attend to him and insist medical care while his father would stress that they were being duped. So he had decided to wait out the pain, it was after all like a wave. Soon it would have subsided.
The matatu is uncharacteristically quiet, even the wailing toddler seems to be listening to the narrator. I yelp again as a jewelry vendor slams his glittering pieces on the half drawn transparent window. A few chuckles erupt due to my behavior, I blush. Shortly afterwards the narrator continues.
“The man, David, sat with me until my migraine subsided. He left briefly and came back with a glass of water. He then told me to prepare myself for a sojourn, he would return at night. That is when I noticed that it was late in the afternoon. My head had began pounding in the morning.”
The trip to Kijabe hospital was fast considering their vehicle of choice. David had been working for a white chap from the states and the man was an apparent petrol head. By the time the four wheel beast halted in the parking lot of the hospital, the migraines had resurfaced. This time he lost consciousness.
When he woke up the sun rays were shimmying through the flimsy drapes. He heard his mother’s voice and wondered how she had reached there so fast. He found out that he had been insentient for twenty three hours. The doctors had found a tumor in his brain. A few more weeks and he would have become blind and epileptic. Months down the line he would have become a degenerate. Thereafter he would become a danger to himself and his loved ones.
A harambee was conducted to raise the funds for an operation. Those had been the longest 16 hours of his entire life.
“If David had never visited, I would have been inside an asylum or under a mass of gravel. So you see why I hate earphones?”
The question takes me off-guard. I had been ensnared fully in the relay. The truth is, I still do not see why he holds a profound dislike towards earphones. They might have been annoying against the incessant migraines but they did not necessarily initiate them.
“No, they did not cause my misery even though they contributed…”
This telepathy business is starting to take form.
“These days I enjoy listening to my surroundings. Earphones are a barricade between me and life…”
Somewhere in between the narration, the matatu had brimmed and is currently lurching forward. The engine roars to life and the narrator sinks in his hot leather seat bravely. His slashes go incognito, a pity.
I stare at the maize cob and formulate a plan. The roasted delicacy seems like a fair bargain for my head.