This short story was first published in Allies as a finalist in the Fall 2019 Aura Estrada Short Story Contest, and is featured in our new special project:


1. In a large bowl, stir two cups of flour, one cup warm water, salt and sugar to taste. Add a spoonful of oil. Knead to a thick consistency. Knead slowly, feel the elasticity of the dough pull at your shoulders, down your spine, to your thighs. Your pale thighs spotted with blue-black patches of hurt. Wonder how it is that he hit you only in hidden places: above your knees, around your belly, under your armpits. Know, as you know night from day, that he spent all day every day thinking up new ways to torture you.

Show them to your friend, over breakfast: your skin in different shades of broken, your hair falling in sad chunks off your dry scalp, your numb heart. Hike your skirt up in the middle of her kitchen, with one foot up on a chair, the other on the cold tiled floor. Tell a story to go with each scar. The dark blue one near your crotch is for when he couldn’t find his tie, the brown one that looks like a tiger stripe is from the day his soup was too hot. The yellow one that looks like a hand hugging your breast . . . Watch her hold her teacup to her lips. Freshly brewed ginger tea, you can tell from the scent which lingers at the back of your throat.

Tell a story to go with each scar. The dark blue one near your crotch is for when he couldn’t find his tie.

Watch her cradle it with both her hands, absently blowing at it. Her nails are little neat red squares. Watch the steam blow off the rim and up her nose. Her nose is sharp and bent into the brim, like a hook. Watch her pull up a noisy slurp, stiffen her back and ask, “You can leave him if you want, but who will provide for the child in your belly?”


2. Cover the bowl with a clean cloth and allow the dough to rise for an hour. Wash your sticky hands in the sink, pulling away chunky bits and letting them flow down the drain. Wave through the window at him, sitting under the tree on the lawn. See him smile, bare his even teeth with the tip of his tongue showing through, like his father. His legs are spread out, with the left bent at the knee. His hands hold a yellow book between them, index finger hovering impatiently at the top right edge of the page, ready to turn. Exactly like his father. Your son, your little savior, all grown and tall. Wonder whether he too will wake his wife with a stiff punch to the gut one night because she was snoring. Blow him a kiss and soap your hands.

Your son, the first time he kicked in your belly, you forgave. You gathered all hurt, wrapped it in a bow, and set it aside. No funeral, no vigil, nothing. Just one moment filled with pain, the next a kick that stretched your belly from the inside, and right after, peace.

You were outside your friend’s house when it happened. The morning after your husband led his Air Force colleagues in a failed attempt to overthrow the government. You waited patiently for her pity, knowing she was afraid but hoping love would triumph over fear. She did not come in the morning when you wailed outside her gate like a beggar and told her they took your husband; she did not show her face at noon when you sat out there on the curb shielding your face against the sun with your purse. She did not come in the evening when the sun began to set, sinking your hopes with it.

You gathered all hurt, wrapped it in a bow, and set it aside. No funeral, no vigil, nothing.

He chose that moment to announce himself for the first time, your son. Three kicks that felt like he was trying to force his way out of you. Right then, with the last light casting long shadows across the tarmac, you realized that no one was coming to save you. You gathered your belongings—your big brown purse, three banana peels turned black and limp, and one large scarf around your waist—and walked away.


3. Pinch off fist-sized balls and roll these into flat circles. Circles you turned in the morning of the coup. The day the Kenya Air Force took over President Moi’s government and then lost it back in under an hour. You sat on the purple armchair in the corner of your bedroom and listened to the radio. You turned your back away from the window and waited for the sound of his car.

Hear it now, as you did then: the soft voice of a radio announcer being cut short. Know, from the sound of him, how he looked at that moment, announcing that they had taken over the government. Know it because you had put little flags of warning around his moods as if they were a minefield. A low, even-pitched voice with slurs at the end of each sentence meant medium risk. If, however, the voice was accompanied by rippling muscles up and down his arms and a tight jaw, best to brace for impact. Know, then, on that day in the radio station that his shirt sleeves were folded up to his elbow, his hands wandering to the back of his neck and rubbing vigorously, his eyes steady and unblinking.

You looked everywhere for him after the coup. Looked without hoping to find: in the morgues, overflowing with dead bodies, in hospitals, prisons. Everyone—people you knew and those you didn’t—flooded Uhuru Park the next day to pledge allegiance to the president. After that, life went right back to rolling along. The shops on River Road continued dispensing Omo washing powder and Cowboy cooking fat, the tailors along Kenyatta Avenue went back to laughing and sewing, the parking boys around Odeon Cinema picked back up their glue tins and sniffed as if nothing had happened. Nobody came to help you.

Nobody looked you in the eye—not friends, not strangers. Even in his absence, he found a way to punish you.

President Moi, deeply shaken, changed that day. He went from a compassionate leader to a paranoiac who rewarded only acts of loyalty. Corruption went from taboo to norm in the feeding frenzy that followed. Laugh at how he inadvertently accelerated the very thing he was trying to prevent.


4.  Heat oil in a shallow pan and fry each chapati until golden, like the sun on the day you met, in the arboretum. The sky was cloudless. Little purple flowers that looked like whimsical bells in a child’s drawing fell off the jacaranda trees onto the grass. There was a small stream behind a clump of bushes whose trickle sounded like a soft clap. The day was hot and windless.

Nobody looked you in the eye—not friends, not strangers. Even in his absence, he found a way to punish you.

You were at the same friend’s birthday party. She had everyone put on white T-shirts with her name printed across the back in black. Everyone had on blue jeans. You played a game where you all stood in a circle and threw footballs at each other. He threw his at you every time. You failed to catch each one.

He came to you later, standing over you so that your legs were under his shadow. You ate sliced pineapple, picking up the slices with a fork and holding them away from you, letting the juice drip through your fingers, down to the grass. He ate oatmeal cookies, stuffing large pieces into his mouth and chewing impatiently.

He talked about Karl Marx, and you nodded and thought about how lean he was. His long arms bulged gently in his shirt. He spoke of Che Guevara, and you made sounds of agreement and thought how smooth his voice was. If you had a voice that beautiful, you thought, you would be president or a radio announcer. “All this,” he said, sweeping his arms outward in the general direction of the trees and the sky, “is not ours to divide and own. We are only to keep it safe for the next generation.” You agreed and thought about how exceptionally brilliant and handsome your children would be.

He lowered his voice so that you had to lean in to hear him as he said: “Your T-shirt is too tight. Let us get you a larger one.”

Feel in your stomach what you failed to acknowledge that first day: a desperate need to make happy a man who chose unhappiness.