NOEL CHERUTO

Chichi and I

Lately, I have been interested in the politics of being African in today’s world. It is an eternal struggle to paint such emotions as hopelessness and fear in the African context without slipping into caricaturing the African experience. It feels like walking a fine line. How do I narrate an abused girl’s experience without undignifying my continent? This story tries to texturize a little girl’s life while making her fears relatable to readers from different cultures. 

I am afraid for Chichi. 

When cold darkness begins to creep around us in the evening, dotting goosebumps along our arms, she turns long and thin with fear; so long, so skinny that she is hard to perceive. When her fingers grow taller than my whole body, I know it is time to pull her by her hand to my room, where we curl under the little spring bed in the middle of my dark bedroom. I shrink her to peanut-sized and hold her in the shallow between my stomach and thighs until she falls asleep. She does not answer when I whisper her name. She does not show her face when I cry silently on the cold, dusty floor.

In the morning, my alarm shrills through my dreams, shredding each one into pieces so little that I can never reassemble them, no matter how hard I try. There were monsters, I remember, tall monsters with giant arms and big ears. They hid under my bed and came from around me, tearing through my struggling arms, trying to capture Chichi. She was not surprised and did not struggle; she never does, for she does not care whether she lives or dies, but I do. 

The monsters tore her into pieces so little that she became nothing in my dreams, but she did not scream. She did not scream because she expected me to do it for her. I do everything for Chichi, and she does everything for me. This is why I am afraid for Chichi; because she does not know how to speak for herself, but I need her to speak for me.

I rise before she does with a shiver of panic. I peek out from under the sharp metal edge of my bed, slapping off the alarm and looking around to make sure nothing around me hurts her. I call her name silently, afraid that she is gone. But she is here with me; she always is. Chichi wakes up and, in the candlelight, rubs Vaseline all over her skin, exactly like I do, melting large dollops over her dry knees, down her shins to her ankles. She braids her hair, like I do, into two untidy cornrows that run from the top of the head, falling over the neck. 

We do our best not to wake Papa up as we creep around our house. Chichi and I pull our uniforms from the hanging lines outside the kitchen door and put them on quietly, enjoying the freshly washed cotton on our skins. We tiptoe into the living room table, pick up pages of our neatly done school assignments, and stack them in our schoolbags. 

On our way to school, with our uniforms squared up at the collar and our white stockings tight just below our knees, we walk by the village square, with doors chained across and the market stalls tightly roped shut. We walk around them, hoping to find fruits lying under the wooden poles that hold the market together.

Once we found eight bananas discarded under a stall, all wrinkled away from their bunch. They were blackened on the skin but sweet and juicy inside. It was a good day that one. We sat on a large rock and ate each one, pausing to take in the overly sweet smell after each bite. But today, we find nothing. We try to pry the ropes open to steal fruit, but Chichi is afraid that we will be caught and beaten to death like the pickpocket we saw one Wednesday, sitting on an old tire in the middle of a crowd. We wove our way between legs to get a view. His eyes were swollen shut, mouth dripping red, stones falling on his raw skin, one after the other. Chichi is afraid to die like the pickpocket, in the stinking blue flame of burning rubber, so we take one walk around the market, hoping to find discarded fruit instead. We find nothing, so I call Chichi along, and we continue the walk to school. 

I remind Chichi to walk upright, to square her shoulders, and jut her chin because she sometimes slouches when I am not paying attention. We join up along a stream of similarly dressed kids, rushing to make time before the morning assembly bell. Some nod at us as a greeting and some hug us and choose to walk beside us. We do not care, Chichi and I, whether they leave us alone or run from us, for we are whole together. But we smile when they smile, we hug when they hug; we make conversation when they do. 

Did you do your homework? asks a boy with grey uniform shorts that hug his thick thighs and ride in towards a gather around his crotch.

We nod yes, Chichi and I, for we always do our homework. It doesn’t matter how we do it, but we always do our homework. Sometimes under the shadowy glow of a lantern, sometimes under the moonlight.

He raises his hands, both thumbs up. Good for you, he says, Mr. Serem does not take any excuses for incomplete homework.

We join the procession from the barred school gate to the school assembly, with our shoes polished exactly as they should be. Chichi is afraid because we used saliva to polish our shoes, spitting on them and rubbing till they shone. But I tell her not to worry. Nobody knows, Chichi, I whisper; nobody knows that our kiwi shoe polish dried out in its can, so we could not use it. Nobody knows that we wiped our faces clean with dew from the grass outside our house. Nobody cares enough to know, Chichi. Trust me. 

The teacher asks us to open our books, and we shut our mouths through maths, about long divisions and isosceles triangles. Chichi wants to speak, but I hold her lips shut through the maths class, English class, and Christian Religious Education class, where the teacher in a flowered purple skirt that grazes her ankles talks about how God loves us so much that He gave His only son. I only hold Chichi’s lips tight because I am afraid for her. I need for her to be unnoticeable. But she wants to swell, Chichi. She wants to raise her hand to ask, Does he really love us, this God you speak about? How could he love us and make us suffer at the same time? But I slap her hands down and lock them between my thighs. Remember, Chichi, I say, our only defence is to be invisible. 

Over midday break, when the sun is up and my friends shout my name through the window to come out to play, Chichi rushes out from under me and runs ahead. At that moment, she seems strong and invincible. She bounces off walls and slides down staircases. She swings in the playground, over and under the rusty iron bars. My friends chant songs of admiration at us, daring us to swing higher, to ride faster, to screech louder, and Chichi does, grabbing the bars by her toes and jumping from one to the next like a little monkey. My friends clap their hands and round their mouths to perfect Os and widen their eyes. I jump along with Chichi, the warmth of the sun kissing my thighs when my dress flies over my shoulders and covers my face. I scream and laugh too, but only I can see through the façade: Chichi is breakable, like a wooden toy.

Over lunch, we watch with watering mouths as other pupils open their lunch boxes. Chichi and I stand in the corner as aromas of spicy pilau, oily mandazi, and steamed sweet potatoes attack our nostrils. We linger, dancing around the metal poles that hold the lunch hall together. We hear shouts—Please join us, my mother packed more than I can eat!—but I grab Chichi by her waist and tell her that our pride is more important than our hunger, even though we haven’t had a proper meal for days.

After school, we walk back home through the woods, and Chichi wants to stop to climb a tree with a wide trunk and branches sneering at the sky. I let her because Chichi loves to be her own person, to swing like a monkey. She hangs over branches, dancing from one tree to the next, picking up wild fruits and shoving them in her mouth. I let her because I am hungry too. The loquats are sweet and sour, the guavas are soft to dig into, and the mangoes are so sweet that one bite stings our ears. The juices run down our chins, staining our collars.

When we get home, Papa sits on the porch, screaming at imaginary people, throwing beer cans at us, swearing about our dirty uniforms, cursing about why he is tied to us and never free. I am afraid because I can protect Chichi from everything, but not this. 

Noel Cheruto is a Kenyan writer whose work has appeared in Harvard’s Transition Magazine, PRISM International, The Boston Review, Short Fiction Journal, Strange Horizons, Isele Magazine, Hotel Africa anthology, Yellow Means Stay Anthology, Johannesburg Review of Books, Kikwetu Journal, On the Premises Magazine, and elsewhere. She won Silver in the Short Story Day Africa Contest. She was named a finalist in the Aura Estrada Short Story Competition and was longlisted for the Afritondo Short Fiction Contest and the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Noel lives in Nairobi.

MORE FROM AUTUMN 2022 (4:2)

INTERVIEW

A Conversation with Seif-Eldeine Och, Poetry Chapbook Winner, Mark Blackford, Chapbook Editor

PROSE

An LSAT of Culture, Mike Yunxuan Li
Chichi and I, Noel Cheruto
Sudden Evolution, Eileen Tomarchio
Paying for It, Lana Hall
Decay, Rachel Lastra

POETRY

do you see me, Maya Hersh
Delineation of a Woman’s First Child as Her True Religion, Abduljalal Musa Aliyu
Busted Cantaloupe: Pilgrim, Isibeal Owens
Pray the Elegy, Njoku Nonso
Semper Augustus, Jessie Zechnowitz Lim
THE SEA SQUIRT LOSES ITS MIND, Claire Scott
The Long Call of Yearning, Guy D’Annolfo
Djinn and Men, Biswadarshan Mohanty
Last Communion, Joan Kwon Glass