We called her M; a short form for a name we never bothered to know. We were young and sugar hungry. She was the beautiful, light skinned lady who satisfied our need for sugar with exotic sweets. I remember the day she moved in like it was yesterday. The heat was unbearable. The open sewer was basking in it in all its gory shades. Chichi, Pau and I were playing kora under a shade that was gradually disappearing. I was losing this round. Chi was winning and Pau was sweating his envy out. Even children have their own demons to fight. Envy was Pau’s demon, cowardice was mine while Chi had too many to count. We loved each other; egos, flaws and all.
A blue pick up drove to a halt. A rotund man with brown teeth hopped out, followed by a brown skinned girl who towered over the gate. The game was quickly wrapped up as we hurriedly made our way towards this new attraction. Cars were rare in the hood. They looked misplaced; struggling to be here yet defiantly putting on a brave face for the world to see. The man with a rotund belly told us his name was Man Njoro as he grinned widely.
Pau and his chatty mouth got himself some work from Njoro. He carried the light boxes into the ‘plot’ as we used to call it. A plot was a row of houses made up of stones or mabati. The space hogging landlords put up the houses so close to each other that your window shook whenever your neighbour sneezed. Each room served as a bedroom, kitchen and dining room. There were common bathrooms which were often the subject of fights among women who could not adhere to the cleaning schedule.
Chi had other ideas. She stood next to M for about five minutes before M finally noticed her.
“Niaje,’’M greeted Chi happily.
“Poa sana,” replied Chi as she moved closer and extended her hand towards M.
That is when I noticed an anomaly. Her hand was a contrast of two shades . From the shoulders all the way to the joints of her fingers, she was as light as what the local haslas called a ‘fine thank you’. The joints of her fingers were marked by a dark ridge, darker than my hastily washed behind. The strange phenomenon was also evident on her feet. I was so busy studying M’s skin that I did notice that Njoro was moving the pick up. Pau bumped me out of his way with a stern reminder of the need to shake off my bad habit of staring at people. Ma had scolded me for it several times. I had been spared by cursing motorists on several occasions as they hit the brakes just in time for me to jolt back to reality. Like they say, old habits die hard. My old habit had more lives than the proverbial cat.
“Unaitwa nani?’’ M smiled as she asked Chi what her name was.
“Naitwa Chi,’’ replied Chichi in that overconfident voice we all hated.
“Utakula switi?’’ M went on as she opened a metallic box full of sweets.
‘”Nitakula,’ replied Chi as Pau trooped behind her waiting to get some crumbs out of the magical box.
I stood by debating on whether to get some sweets. Mama had often told me of horrific things that happened to bad children who took sweets from strangers. But this was no stranger, argued my little mind. This was my new neighbour; a brown skinned angel with a magic box full of sweets.
Magic can be black or white, quipped my television informed self .
Jesus won’t let anything bad happen to you, you scared little girl.
Jesus helps those who help themselves; you idiot.
Chi interrupted the great debate as she remarked on the awesomeness of the sweet in her mouth. The sight of her reddened tongue was all I needed to make my decision. I held out my hand to the sweet fairy and received my share. Sugar never looked so tantalizing. Wrapped in golden coloured wrappers, the sweets glittered in my palm like nuggets of gold. Having one in my mouth was divine; purer than a crisp draught in the morning. M busied herself with ferrying her household items into her new house.
A small gas cooker went in followed by a set of cutlery and crockery. Her sufurias were one of a kind; they had a polished metallic look and glass lids. Six shiny sufurias went into the house ready to begin the task ahead of them. What would she cook in them? She had purple wine tulips, yellow cups and orange glasses. A red, leather suitcase with wheels to boot. Would she take me to the America any time I wanted to avoid a cold shower? I wondered as she wheeled in her suitcases. Chi and Pau worked hard to mingle with the new girl in the hood. They ferried little boxes and cleared the way for the sugar fairy. They displayed their fascination with their endless silly questions:
“Hii ni ya nini?” asked Chi as she held the black, plastic spatula.
“Hiyo ni ya chipo.” M replied as she placed it on a rack.
“Utatupikia chipo?” asked Pau salivating at the thought of eating chips.
“Pengine nitapika kesho,’’ replied M as she smiled.
“Hii ni nini?” asked Pau as he held a tin opener.
“Hiyo ni ya kufungua mikebe,” M replied as she hung her azure blue drapes.
“Hii ni ya kukata nyama?” I asked as I held a steak knife.
“Eeee…’’ replied M.
We went on and on. Such a display of class was a rarity in the hood. We were used to seeing knives, forks and spoons that shone brightly in the sun and easily bent once subjected to heat. Sufurias had a short life span. The good ones lasted for six months. The bad ones never made it that far. Ma knew a guy who repaired sufurias in exchange for a hot plate of food. I owed the many hot meals I had to him. He kept our kitchen running. Time ran faster than we could ferry all of M’s earthly possessions. All of M’s stuff was stashed in her tiny room. She sifted through it, putting up what she needed for the night. The rest would be done the next day. We would be there like faithful friends; we promised as the darkness began to creep in, a reminder than we had to go home. Satisfied, we left for our homes, excited by the prospect of more sweets.
Four days later, we were back with a bang, salivating at the prospect of hands full of sticky, red trophies. Ma had pinched any desire to go back to M’s house out of me as soon as she got wind of our earlier interactions with M. Chi and Pau got their fair share of lashes; something we laughed about till we cried. Our parents were not at home on that day. Our little feet scurried towards M’s house in anticipation and trepidation. Pau gently knocked on her door while Chi and I anxiously waited to burst in. Through the thick drapes, we could tell that she was in. I straightened my ruffled, ill fitting blouse in an attempt to look prim and proper for M. She was, after all, always exquisitely dressed. In the few days we had known her, her hair was always neatly combed and adorned with colorful accessories.
I remember seeing her in a blue, loud one that had feathers popping out of it. It had a dazzling, precious stone sitting at the heart of it surrounded by layers of lace. She had a tiny, blue outfit that clung to her body like a second skin and matching red shoes. She crowned it with a sparkle of red lipstick. I watched her silently as she closed her door and strutted towards the bus stop on one evening. It soon became obvious that this was her life. Couture clothes, six inch heels, late nights and long days in bed. That girl took the cup for sleeping in. Hell spreading its toxic fumes over to the earth could not shake her out of her precious sleep.
On this day, even our dirty toe nails wanted some sweets. We walked to her doorstep, determined to ease our craving. Several knocks later, we heard a faint whimper.
“Ni nani?” she asked in a voice I could barely recognize.
“Ni sisi,” responded Pau and Chi in unison.
“Kamini saa zingine. Nimelala.” She courteously asked us to let her sleep in.
“Tunataka switi,” I stated as a matter of fact.
Silence followed. The kind that pierces through child like faith. The eerie kind, like in the movies, that precedes the appearance of the ghost from the closet. After what seemed like an eternity, we heard the door knob move. Her hands moved the drape that hung the door aside. She stood there like an apparition from another planet. One side of her face was swollen. Her hair looked like the site of an archaeological dig; heaped up in patches with spaces in between. Those light arms bore more marks and bruises than any of us could count. We stood there, transfixed, unable to receive what was in her hand. Pau broke the silence.
“M, nani amekuumiza?” asked Pau as he struggled to keep himself from crying.
“Nilianguka nikaumia.’’ She responded as she wryly smiled.
Something in her voice betrayed her. She did not believe what she was saying, and neither did I. There was a lilt that sprung from fear and a hint of hardened resolve. M quickly realized that she had become our little spectacle. In a flash, she heaped the sweets into the unwilling, dirty, little hands of Chi and closed her door. We scattered in silence soon after that; grappling with the disturbing appearance of the apparition that had taken the place of our sugar fairy. I do not recall what happened to the sweets. That sight became a weekly appearance. She would cover it up with make up before disappearing into the dark. Rumors began to spread. They called her ‘poko’ in hushed tones. Our street wisened mouths were too scared to utter that word in the presence of adults. We simply referred to her as M.
Four months after she moved in, she disappeared into the dark night like she used to. This time around, she never came back. Weeks turned into a whole month. The adults said she had landed a ‘mzungu’ and left for greener pastures. Others said she moved in with another woman’s husband. The most ridiculous theory was advanced by Fundi Mdogo, a local cobbler. According to him, M was a djinn so she went back to the deep water of the Indian Ocean. Pau, Chichi and I held on to the hope that she would show up one day. We would hover around her doorstep, knocking persistently for hours in the hope that she would emerge with some sweets like she used to. She never did. We refused to give up until the day we watched the landlord break into her house and take out her things. That day marked the death of our hope of ever seeing her again. We picked up the metallic box that always had sweets from the trash and kept it. It was all we had left of the sweet fairy.