fiction, poetry & more

Second Place
$100 Award


by Agatha Verdadero

You don’t speak of death at noon in Nairobi, not when the equatorial sun is at its apex in the lapis lazuli sky. With no clouds in sight, its heat is coals on the skin and fever in the eyes; it is waves radiating from the gray gravel walk and the metal frames of vehicles baking under layers of cracked paint. You don’t speak of death when sitting in a restaurant nestled amidst towering trees whipping against each other in a dervish whirl, while finishing off a plate of pan-fried tilapia fillet smothered in tartar sauce.

Death is the last thing on your mind as you chew sautéed cabbage slivers, whose crunch drowns out the voice from the mobile phone pressing against your ear. Your thoughts are on your next appointment at a government hospital. Already, you feel flushed in the cheeks; your heart quickens. A foreigner in this land, the notion of joining the conga line of cars, vans, and buses on the road appeals to you. It’s all about dancing to the rhythm of adventure.

But now you must speak of death because the speech that breaks through your consciousness has caused you to respond in one-word exclamations:

“What!?” “When?” “How?” “OK.” “Soon.”

You notice your veins and knuckles protruding from the back of your hand gripping the phone. You turn away and meditate on the black forest standing on a dessert plate. The ice in your soda slowly melts. A pool forms around the bottom of your glass, and you lose yourself in it for some time.

No more visit for you after all. Your patient/refugee/case has died four days ago. In government hospitals, the sick and dying are a sea; they ebb and flow anonymously onto gurneys and stretchers, and leave behind mere traces of their presence: urine stains on sheets, saliva flecks on glasses, blood splotches on bed railings. When a soul dies without familiar hands escorting him into the unknown, the outside world fails to hear the last whimper.

Tesfaye died Sunday night. Alone. It is now Thursday afternoon.

You remember nothing more about lunch except Tesfaye’s face the last time you saw him. Was it three weeks ago? He and a handful of other Ethiopian refugees were gathered together that Saturday afternoon as you taught them English for their future lives. Most were in Nairobi for medical or academic reasons; others, for motives unknown. Whenever you ask, the conversation invariably turns to requests for food, rent, or a UNHCR mandate—a document that is the world to a refugee. It means identity and acceptance in alien territory.

Tesfaye had sat with his back to the window. With the afternoon sun dipping close to the horizon behind him, you saw nothing but silhouette. Later, when blinds were shut, you found him with his eyes closed, mouth open, nodding in his sleep. He looked so much smaller on the oversized couch. No one had the heart to disturb the sleep of a man who looked like he hadn’t slept for days. Maybe he tossed and turned at night thinking about the kodi ya nyumba he owed his landlord and the imminent possibility of eviction without fair warning. Nightmares like these came to men like Tesfaye even in their wakeful moments.

When that session ended, it was without the familiar hello and embrace he bestowed. You were drawn to a small cluster of ladies and noticed his absence come time for goodbyes. He had slipped out without so much as a handshake.

And now you hear pneumonia—a euphemism—has overcome him. His community kindly requests that you identify his body before it is tossed into a pauper’s grave. You finally snap out of your reverie and head out for the City Mortuary just as another business day comes to an end.

The roads are lively. Men and women play tag with vehicles, traversing curbs, potholes, and humps to the other side, where they go on with life—picking their noses, flipping through the newspaper, haggling a few shillings off the price of bananas sure to rot by evening. But they are better than nothing. And nothing is what most people have here. It leads them to brave a red cloud of dust on foot towards homes where more nothing awaits on tables surrounded by children with nothing in their eyes and stomachs.

You have a fleeting memory: a centerpiece of maple roast turkey, surrounded by your family jostling each other for a spot to display their silliest faces to the camera. Your hand hovers over the mobile phone on the dashboard. In their time zone, your youngest sister is about to leave for school. You close your eyes to kiss her on the forehead.

Finally, you drive through a gateway and enter a squat building where everything becomes a blur. You vaguely remember paying a cashier the equivalent of two short caffè lattés in order to view the body. It is all hazy because you now struggle to hold down the contents of your stomach. You are inside a low-ceilinged, dark corridor. The stench of formalin assaults your nostrils. You see that Tesfaye’s remains are underneath other corpses, all stacked every which way on a metal table pulled out from a refrigerated chamber whose chill blankets you in shivers. A man clothed in a grimy white lab coat tugs at him—it—until the face protrudes from under somebody’s feet. A ball of crimson colored cotton drops from the open maw as Lab Coat twists and turns the head for you to identify your deceased/ refugee/statistic. You nod, give instructions, and walk slowly out, mindful not to slip on the slimy floor.

Outside, the sun falters just over the tree line ahead of you. You sit on the driver’s seat until the orb disappears. You fumble for your phone.

“Hi, Dad. Jenny here. I miss you guys. How was breakfast?”

The sky explodes in oranges and purples as the day departs.


Agatha Verdadero‘s essays, short stories, and poetry have been published widely in the Philippines and Kenya. Her book, “Uta Do? How to Get Support for Your Business Idea,” was commissioned by Storymoja for Kenyan youth. She is the managing director of The CAN-DO! Company, an e-publishing house based in Nairobi, Kenya. She is also the publisher and editor in chief of their imprint, Master Publishing. She holds an MFA degree in Creative Writing from De La Salle University Manila. She participates in triathlons and enjoys extreme adventures into the wild.

November 2011