Okwiri Oduor Sunflower
Kenya: Digo girl with mango. The ethnic and linguistic population of the Digos lives near the Indian Ocean and is native to Kwale County in southern Kenya and Tanga in northern Tanzania. | Photo (detail): W. Dolder © picture alliance / blickwinkel
By Okwiri OduorPlay the short story as audio: read by Sabrina Khalil
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Theresa‑June Lovegate was returned on a Thursday, in a dress as yellow as butterscotch toffees, with a pillbox hat upon her head, and a baguette bag hanging off her shoulder. She was twenty on the dot, bright‑eyed but not particularly bushy‑tailed.
She sat in the back of the Mercedes sedan, staring out the window at the foggy hills. Her gloves were sticky, the lace scratching awfully at her elbows. She peeled them off and stuck them into the baguette bag, vexed anew at Mrs. Lovegate’s insistence that she go dressed like this.
“It’s almost Christmas,” Mrs. Lovegate had said. “You ought to return to your people looking like a shiny gift.”
Theresa‑June Lovegate wiped the rouge off her cheeks, smearing it onto her wrist. She turned to examine herself in the rearview mirror, and discovered that Mr. Lovegate was watching her. His eyes were the colour of a murky puddle, and were buried beneath folds of crow’s feet. He had a sweet face, soft, and kind too, a quality that Theresa-June found deceitful. Mr. Lovegate was the least tender‑hearted person she knew.
He was her adoptive father, or at least he had been until this morning. He had just now grown weary of it, and was returning her to her papa. He gave her a wilted smile through the rearview mirror. “No hard feelings,” he said, meaning that she should not take it personally that they did not want to keep her anymore.
She thought about times when they went out to eat, how he often ordered a crème brûlée or lemon meringue, took a spoonful of it, and then grimaced because it was too eggy. He would beckon for the serving-girl, make her take the offensive ramekin away. He would give the serving-girl this same wilted smile.
“No hard feelings,” he would say to her. He also said it to the mechanic as he returned a set of tyres he had driven on for a week. He said it to the carpenter as he rejected the teak wall‑to‑wall bookshelf. He said it to the stone mason as he asked him to demolish the perimeter wall that the stone mason had just erected. No hard feelings. Always with those kind‑looking, mean eyes. Always with that wry curl of the lips, glimmering and empty, like tinsel.
Sunflower was ten years‑old the evening her papa keeled home, soaked down to the marrow, his eyes soggy with yearning, his hands gnarly with emptiness. He had been inside the river—he went there each day since her mama’s drowning, searching for her body. It had been six months now and, still, nothing.
He saw Sunflower standing on the veranda. He tipped his newsboy cap at her, and he said, “Come help me, child.” They stood awhile in the yard, plucking blouses and tea rags from the wash lines. He said, “Remember the day of the Sunday school play?”
Sunflower stiffened. The June before, she had played the part of Potiphar’s wife, falsely accusing Yosefu of great wickedness. The words she had carried in her mouth were moist and putrid, like mouldy bread.
“You were so dismayed at your own behaviour—you did not understand that it was only play-acting. You came home and set yourself on fire. Do you remember that? Over there.” Her papa pointed to a spot near the compost heap. He said, “Your mama rolled you up in a blanket, and you tore at her face with your fingernails, saying, I’ve been dreadful, let me burn.”
Sunflower thought of her mama’s ice‑cold fingers, how soothing they had been on her flushed temples that day. She thought of the vein that had twitched on her mama’s forehead, like an earthworm burrowing just beneath the surface. She thought of her mama’s cheeks, so crumpled and soggy. How her mama had whimpered like an injured brute. “Bas! Bas!” Sunflower had said to her mama. “I will never burst into flames again.”
Sunflower and her papa dropped the sun-starched laundry into a bucket. Her papa leaned against a wooden post. He looked at her, searching inside her eyes for a thing that lay ensconced beyond her. He said, “That night, your mama wouldn’t sleep. She said to me, We should not have named her something so fickle.”
He picked up a rock and turned it over in his hand. Then he let the rock fall, and his head fell too, and for a long moment, he stared down at his boots. He said, “Where is she, your mama?”
Sunflower raised a hand, and pointed towards the dense shrubbery that partitioned their land from the river. It wasn’t really their land, though—her mama had been keen to let her know this. She said that they were wanderers. That they had only found the wood cabin. That they didn’t know to whom it really belonged. A decade had passed since her mama and papa had started squatting there, but they would not unpack their bags. Her mama always cautioned against getting too comfortable. She always said, “Sleep with one eye open, like a hare.”
Her papa looked towards where Sunflower was pointing. He saw the water sparkling through the camphor trees. He said, “She brought it here with her. Did you know that?” She knew that alright, yet still marvelled at the thought of it—about the river being a thing that had belonged to her mama. A thing that her mama might have once crumpled up and stuffed inside her carpetbag, with the tin cups and the copper ladles, with the wooden hair combs and the threadbare brassieres. “It’s a vagabond too, that river. It goes from place to place. One day you will see.”
Her papa turned towards Sunflower. He stared at her for a long while, moving things about with his gaze. Rearranging. The nose he shifted a little over here, the shaggy brows a little over there. He dislodged the cleft of her chin, so that there was no longer a rift between one side of her face and the other.
Then he sat her down in the wicker chair on the veranda, sat her in the way that her mama used to sit each dusk—her back pressed to the stiff fibres of the chair, a reed tray in her laps, a catfish clasped in her fingers. He stood over her, watching, the bog water still dripping through his seams, seeping into his wingtip boots. He said, “Show me your mama, Sunflower.”
So she tipped her head to the side, and she hummed like her mama used to hum. Wape Wape Vidonge Vyao. With the gibbous moon shining in her eyes. And her heart grew heavy as a grindstone, full of memories that were not hers to keep: Jasmine flowers glistening with the morning dew. Fragrant gusts of wind. Cats leaping from rooftops and into turquoise skies. Cloves sewn into the hems of garments. Footsore spirits weeping inside baobab tree hollows.
She gutted the fish like her mama used to gut the fish—slitting down to the anal fin, gathering its guts, holding them in her fist like prayer beads. Saying, “Alhamdullilah, what a blessing.” Saying, “My mother, the river, she is languishing for me.” She sat still, the fish in her laps, its tentacles trembling in the breeze. And her papa’s eyes impaled her like a harpoon.
He watched her, mouth half open, torso twisted. He watched her, full of fright, as though she were a viper, as though she were about to strike at his heel. “Stop,” her papa begged. “I can’t bear it.” Sunflower let the fish drop between her ankles.
Her papa unwound her. He put her face back together, the way it ought to be. The nose. The brows. That cleft of her chin, deep as something the loggerman might have chipped with his axe. Then he pulled her into his musky shirt, and they sat like that for a long while, listening to the howls of far-off jackals, listening to the snarl of the wind as it whipped their faces. Her papa said, “Tomorrow, they are coming to get you.”
After two hours of driving, Mr. Lovegate stopped for a break. He parked beneath a grove of jacaranda trees. Then he got out of the driver’s seat, reached for his ivory cane, and walked to a wrought iron bench nearby. He was wearing a pinstriped suit, with a dotted, silk square in his breast pocket. He whistled to himself. He was in high spirits because he had tickets to watch the symphony orchestra at the conservatory. He would pick Mrs. Lovegate up at the country club, where she was having brunch with her sister, Emily Willard. But that would not be for another three hours. For now, he sat down on the bench and read the day’s newspaper. Or rather, he skimmed over articles and only read his own column, nodding vigorously whenever he agreed with himself. “Good, good,” he said. “You have a point there, Sir!”
Mr. Lovegate had been a secondary school headmaster for four decades. He was now retired, and spent his days writing for the newspaper. He had a weekly column called Mwalimu Lovegate, where he decried the falling standards of education in the country. His bylines read: Overhaul System—Throw Baby Out with Bathwater. Or: Incompetent Buffoons Running Classrooms to Ground. Or: Spare Rod and Spoil Child—In Defense of Corporal Punishment in Schools.
He often used her as an example in his columns. He wrote, “My daughter— Theresa‑June Lovegate—memorized Shakespeare’s Hamlet by her twelfth birthday. You see, mediocrity is not a quality I am prepared to embrace.”
He wrote, “My daughter—Theresa‑June Lovegate—knows each animal by its proper name, not just by its common name. A dog is a dog only to the no‑gooders that lurk around in the street corners, their mouths full of dross. In our home, we call it a Canis Lupus Familiaris because we have standards.”
Now Mr. Lovegate folded the newspaper and tucked it beneath his arm. He took out his pipe and lit it. “Theresa‑June Lovegate,” he said, “for all it’s worth, you have been a remarkable daughter to us. You exceeded our expectations.”
She was still in the back seat of the Mercedes sedan, knotting the hem of her dress around her index finger. She watched as blue‑balled vervet monkeys hopped about the jacaranda branches. Chlorocebus pygerythrus—that was their proper name. “Mrs. Lovegate would beg to differ,” she said. “I was quite unremarkable to her.”
“It is true that you made a deficient mint chutney, and that you sewed a substandard table runner, and that you always burned the roast lamb.” He paused to take a puff from his pipe, and to exhale a cloud of smoke. He shifted the newspaper to his laps, where the gentle breeze rifled the pages. He smoked in silence for a long moment.
Then he said, “You were remarkable in the ways that mattered. You finished Anna Karenina in a week. Eight hundred and sixty‑four pages… My dear Theresa‑June, how proud you made me that day. I even wrote about it in the newspaper. But do you remember how livid your mother was? She still hasn’t forgiven me for handing that wretched book to you. Which reminds me—”
The tobacco in his pipe had burnt out. He added more from a leather pouch in his patch pocket, brought the brass Zippo lighter close to his face, and lit the pipe again. He said, “Are you certain that you do not want all those boxes of books and clothes and spelling bee trophies? All the Tolstoys and Dostoevskys that offended your mother so deeply? They will do us no good, really.”
“No,” she said, and frowned. No amount of marking ‘Theresa‑June Lovegate’ over things had ever made them relinquish themselves to her. It was as though something essential in the objects themselves knew who she truly was, and they recoiled from her. Even the accolades she had gathered over the years—the A’s in Latin and French and Maths, the very exceptional in ballet and swimming, the commendable in Debate Club, they had all resisted her. They belonged to someone not-her, someone not-here. Mr. Lovegate lowered his pipe. “Why won’t you take them?” – “There’s no space in my papa’s house,” she said.
“Your papa’s house,” her mama used to say, and then laugh at the irony of it all. She laughed because the house was not her papa’s, but a stranger’s. She laughed also because the house was not a house at all, but an enclosure. The wood cabin grew out of the ground, like an oak tree. Sometimes, Sunflower could not tell where the forest ended and the house began. Sometimes she awoke in a bed of wild orchids, with bees buzzing at the corners of her mouth, and the sun and the sky spilling into her eyes. Their walls were overgrown with strings of pearls and variegated ivy. Passion fruit vines crawled across the ceilings. One time, a devil-wind came and blew off the window panes, and new ones grew in their place, from the broad pockmarked leaves of a monstera plant climbing up the side of the house.
Her mama used to say that they had no right to cut down those plants. They were outside people, and so they left the doors ajar for the outside to stagger in. They were outside people, and so this was how they lived. They opened their mouths and drank the rain. They saved tomato seeds in scraps of cloth. They threw morsels out for the feral hounds. They knew which mushrooms to gather in their kerchiefs and which to touch only with a twig. They knew which songs to sing to a boomslang to make it slither away. They knew how to catch a rabbit with just a string, and how to skin it with a razor blade. They dug their toes into the loam soil, and its wetness told them that the river was nearby, keeping vigil, thinking cloying thoughts about them.
“Your mama’s house,” her papa used to say, all solemn, his eyes full of dread and full of wonder. This was during the months after her mama’s drowning, when her papa talked about her mama every night. About the river and the fishes and the birds that she had brought with her.
He used to be a lonesome vagabond, and one day, he found her mama as one found a hibiscus on a desolate road. She said, “What took you so long?” As though she knew him profoundly, as though they had a rendezvous. He followed her, a stranger, into the depths of the forest. And she brought all the things.
She brought the house too, summoning it from the shadows. A house of cobwebs. A house of whispers. She had walked through it with her rattan broom, beating at the dank air, saying, “You are spirits that got lost on your way home, and I’m commanding you to leave.” And the spirits left, and the stranger and the vagabond stayed, and they had a baby and named her Sunflower.
She spent her childhood plucking mangoes from the woods, carrying them home in the scoop of her frock. Sometimes she unwittingly touched a fuzzy red-headed caterpillar, and the skin of her arm prickled. Her mama would dab some rosewater on it, and she would scold, saying, “What did I tell you about getting in the way of angry things?” Later, her mama would slit the mangoes and add salt and chili pepper, and they ate the leathery peel, ate the bitter flesh that made their eyes water, and after, they scraped the bone of the mango with their teeth until it was smooth as a marble. And her mama would say, “My little finch, sing the gentle song to me.”
She spent her childhood in her papa’s laps, learning her sums by counting kidney beans, and on her papa’s back, wading through the muddy banks, examining the catfish lairs that her papa had made from tree bark. In the evenings, her mama gutted the fish, and her papa lit the tin lamp and churned the cream to make butter. Her mama and papa talked about all the lands they had ever wandered through—the hills and the valleys, the plains and the escarpments, even the big city where the sun shone all tepid and grey. And they looked at her, at Sunflower, and they said, “Jamani! We have a girl, a whole girl, not even a half one. What shall we do with her?”
They were on the road again. Theresa‑June Lovegate shifted about in her seat. The chiffon sleeves of her dress clawed into the flesh of her arms, sharp as masonry nails. Mr. Lovegate pointed at something to the left. He said, “Goodness me! Look at the size of that herd of Bos Taurus.”
“Cows,” she said, squinting at the grazing cattle with the speckled hides and swishing tails. Some had egrets perched on their humps, pecking at grasshoppers. Mr. Lovegate frowned, as though she had just blasphemed. He said, “Theresa-June Lovegate, don’t go abandoning your good graces just because you’re returning to your people.”
She fell silent, rolled down the window, and stared at the things that they passed. A cattle dip. A posho mill. A combine harvester reaping wheat. She had driven down this very road years ago, in the opposite direction, when Mr. Lovegate had come to fetch her. She had watched those ghastly machines winnow and thresh. She had watched the pregnant women shove wheelbarrows of dried maize for grinding. She had watched the goats plunge through those medicated baths, crying out to the heavens, like newly bereaved folk. It felt at once eerie and delightful to see that very-same tableau of images. Something about things changing, and things remaining the same. Goats that had wailed themselves hoarse for a decade. Women with prepubescent children writhing in their bellies. Mr. Lovegate looked at her through the rearview mirror. He said, “Theresa‑June Lovegate—” And she flinched, and she said, “My name is Sunflower Aswani.”
Sunflower and Mr. Lovegate were at the edge of the woods, leaning against the sedan. This was the same spot where Mr. Lovegate had taken her from her papa, where he had handed her a stuffed otter and a copy of the Elves and the Shoemaker. Sunflower had watched her papa turn away. He’d sloshed in his gumboots into the brackish lagoon, glad to be rid of her so he could focus on finding her drowned mama. She was only ten back then, but had understood his grief, and had forgiven it. Her papa had disappeared. She had opened the story book, touched the loopy writing on the top right corner of the page. The words had read, Theresa‑June Lovegate. “That’s your new name,” Mr. Lovegate had said.
She, Sunflower, had stepped into a dead girl’s life. She took the girl’s name. She took her desk at school. She took her spot in the water polo team. She took her cousin, Poppy Willard. She took her pastel paintings, and her tennis racquets, and all the songs she had liked to play on the piano.
It was just like in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, when the old Aunt Viv vanished and a new one took her place, and no one seemed to notice it. That’s how it happened for her too. The old Theresa-June went away, and she—the new one—was brought in. The old Theresa-June Lovegate had been blonde-haired and blue-eyed and rosy-cheeked. The new Theresa-June Lovegate had been, well, a blue-black girl. “Dark as molasses, and twice as sweet,” her mama used to say. No one seemed to notice this either.
Cousin Poppy would say to her, “Remember that time when we were eight and we went sailing in the sea, and your papa caught the marlin, and it was so big that our boat almost capsized?” And even though it had been the old Theresa-June and not her, Sunflower would let out a laugh and say, “Mercy! We almost drowned.”
Cousin Poppy would say to her, “Remember that time a mad woman tried to steal us in the marketplace? She had a baby tied to her back, and the baby was dead-dead. Do you remember? You poked the dead baby with a carrot.” And Sunflower would say, “It was squishy. Dead babies are squishy.”
Mrs. Lovegate would say, “Put that jar of peanut butter down, Theresa-June. Don’t you know that you’re deathly allergic to nuts?” And Sunflower would have to drop the toast onto her china plate and say, “I forgot, mother, forgive me!”
“Tell me about her,” she said. “Who?” Mr. Lovegate said. “Her.” Mr. Lovegate lit his pipe and smoked in silence, gazing at the camphor trees in the distance, his eyes glistening from the dreariness of the wind. He cleared his throat as if to speak, but then he said nothing for a long while, and Sunflower grew exasperated and snatched her baguette bag from the back seat. She hobbled on her kitten heels across the sloppy ground, wiping off the golden glitter of her eyelids and the crimson pigment of her lips.
He called after her. “Theresa‑June!” She quickened her pace. “Sunflower! Sunflower Aswani!” – “Goodbye Mr. Lovegate,” she said. “I was driving,” he said. She paused, and slowly, she turned around. He was standing a few paces behind her, his jowls and mouth and teeth trembling, mucus trickling down his nose. She had never seen him like this, so listless, so pitiable. “I was bringing her to her piano recital. I hit a pothole and she got thrown out the window.”
She looked down at her feet. “What was she like?” – “Feisty. A firecracker of a child.” Sunflower knew this already. The old Theresa‑June had left fragments of herself behind. She’d engraved her name onto the nightstand drawers and the wooden slats of the bed, onto the back wall of the closet and the gilt frame of the mirror. She’d done so tenaciously, her writing red and engorged with fury, as though she’d known that she was to be replaced.
Sunflower knew it also because of the dirt bike. Mr. Lovegate used to make Sunflower drag it out of the shed after school each day. The dirt bike had belonged to the old Theresa‑June. Sunflower would straddle it, and it would buck like a wrathful bull. Sunflower scraped her knees and sprained her ankles. A few times, she fractured her femurs and ribs. Mr. Lovegate said that she was much too soft. A fragile girl, if he ever saw one. But Sunflower knew that this was not the case. It was the old Theresa-June throwing those fits, trying to rip Sunflower apart limb by limb.
Sunflower had never liked to be left alone in the Lovegate home. The old Theresa‑June was always watching her through the windowpanes, she was certain of it. Whenever the Lovegates went to the country club, Sunflower wandered in the fields. She spent lots of time alone out there, tongue red from tamarillos, arms mottled with wasp stings, her hanky full of berries and coins and chewing gum. She would lay under the Nandi flame trees, reading, wondering if her papa ever did find her mama.
She turned away, kicked off the kitten heels, tossed aside the baguette bag and pillbox hat. “Goodbye, Mr. Lovegate,” she said, and waded into the river that had belonged to her mama. Inside itself, the river was not a river but a moss-covered room where lonely girls could sit knee‑up and pray. Alhamdullilah, what a blessing. Later, when she came out of the water, she saw an old man sitting on the stony bank, his grey hair matted and long, full of seaweed. He was hunched over a catfish, gutting it down to its anal fin. He looked up at her and beckoned with his bloody penknife. He said to her, “She brought the river with her, did you know that?” “Yes,” she said. “Yes, I know.”