JEMMI by Judyannette Muchiri
The night drags on in a cloud of smoke laced with some hard drinking and a lot of loud talk. Just like every other night, Jemmi sits at the corner table, drink in hand, and waits. There are many bars along this street but this is her favourite because she can sit and let the noise from the drunken people drown out her own noise— the voices in her head that have been driving her crazy. Sometimes, she’ll go to the dance floor and while away time dancing seamlessly among the other dancers. Mostly, three or four men will join her. She’ll watch them buy her drinks, cigarettes and sometimes drugs. She’ll entertain them and listen to their banter about this or that. Most of them will try to include her in the conversation by speaking the few English words they know. She’ll nod, a bit too enthusiastically and answer them in her limited Turkish. Then they will be silenced and go back to drinking. Tonight Jemmi is joined by a man whose only statement to her is ‘werayoufrom?’ And as the man sits heavily, her heart tumbles with that question that reminds her of a place she has forced herself to forget.
“I will write,” she promises him as she boards the 5 a.m. bus to the city for her flight to Turkey. That was the last time Jemmi was home and that was the last time she spoke to Niko. Jemmi and Niko grew up together in the same neighbourhood, attended the same school and were childhood sweethearts who didn’t want anything more than to settle down together when they came of age, bear many children and raise them in the same village they grew up. That was until Jemmi got admitted to a university abroad. The day she got that letter, everything as she knew it changed. She loved Niko and they were set to get married next year and start a family. Then Turkey came calling— a whole new experience that would take her to new places. Her heart was torn. That night, when her family was huddled by the fire, she slipped out with the letter folded in her pocket and went over to Niko’s.
Shortly after, with a lot of anger and mixed feelings, she came back home and packed her bags.
At the crack of dawn, as she waited for the city bus by the roadside, Niko appeared.
“Jemmi, I am sorry”
“You have nothing to apologize for”
“I didn’t mean what I said last night; I didn’t mean any of it”
“Forget it, Niko, it doesn’t matter. I am leaving anyway”
“I know. I came to say goodbye. I want what’s best for you”
“Oh, Niko, you know I love you. It’s for a short while and I will be back”
“Promise me you will write?”
“I will write”
Everything would be okay after all. Niko reached out and folded Jemmi into a hug. Holding her tightly into himself, he fought back tears and breathed a silent prayer. This is where he wanted to be, he would give anything for this. But it didn’t last; the bus came and it was time. Watching Jemmi leave, he sat on the road, in that early morning hour as the birds stirred to life and cried, not with the sweet sound of the early morning birds but with the heavy sobs of a man who’s just lost his loved one. A cry he’d come to own for the next couple of years.
Jemmi, as with any other person flying abroad for the first time, was excited. She was even more excited because she’d made up with Niko after their fight the previous night. She would go and give it her very best, get the best grades, come back and make Niko proud. It is in this jolly mood that she arrived in Turkey. A swollen determination and a loving Niko waiting at home for her is all she needed to get going. She had a city to conquer and a man to go back home to and start a family. Who knows what a city like Istanbul held for her? She was excited to discover and explore it. She also had classes to start which she was ready for.
This changed the moment she set foot into the university and nobody spoke a word of English, well except for the basic greetings. Finding that she couldn’t easily communicate her way around the city, she was stuck in the university dormitories for most of the first week. Moving to a new place is never easy, and it comes with its challenges, but there’s a rawness to a new city that calls to any visitor. It is being new in a city that doesn’t know you yet, longing to walk its streets and sit in its cafes drinking tea in small glasses that burn the hell out of your fingers. It is seeing and lingering on all the things that are different; things you’ve not seen before. It is this newness that pulled Jemmi out of the dormitories to the city, specifically to downtown where it was easier to move about without having to talk your way around.
Finding her classes in a new language she was struggling to learn, Jemmi lost much of the determination that she’d brought along and soon, she was spending most of her time downtown doing things she’d never done before. There was something she hadn’t done yet— writing Niko. She came down to it a few times but she just couldn’t get her thoughts on paper and she put it off for the next day; a day that hadn’t dawned yet.
When a few weeks passed without a letter from Jemmi, Niko went to her parents to see if they’d heard from her. A letter had just come in that morning from Jemmi saying she had arrived safely and she was settling in school. At least she was safe, Niko thought as he went back home hoping to get a letter soon. However, he didn’t receive anything from Jemmi in the following weeks and as the days progressed it was clear no form of communication was coming from her. With each day, he’d wake up hoping and he’d believe that was the day a letter would find him but as the sun set and he’d have nothing, his heart would sink further, only to wake up the following morning with renewed hope and expectation. That was the first few months.
When it was apparent Jemmi wasn’t going to write, Niko watched his heart get shattered into tiny pieces that sat heavy into a foundation of depression that started lightly, but became dark and dangerous with time. The only thing he could do was wake up at 5 a.m. each morning and head for the farm where he was going to build a home for Jemmi and their children. It is on that farm that carried their dreams that he spent his days tilling the land like a mad man from dawn to dusk. If they were a bit concerned by his spending all his time at the farm, Niko’s parents were alarmed when they found him weeping and wailing out Jemmi’s name to himself at the farm one evening. It is at that point that they knew they had to do something. Perhaps the fact that the village had also started talking behind their back about that son who was not right in the head was also a major reason why they had an important hushed discussion that night as they sat by the dying fire in the kitchen. They agreed they had to do something fast. That is why, one cloudy evening, as Niko walked home from the farm, he bumped into Rosa.
Rosa was a short rounded girl who also grew up in the neighbourhood. In fact she’d gone to the same school as Niko and Jemmi. After school, she trained as a hairdresser down at the local hair salon at the village, learnt everything on the job and she was now among the best hairdressers in the village. Niko knew her, everybody knew each other in the village, but they were not friends. That’s why he was surprised that evening as he walked home with a heavy heart from missing Jemmi, and Hairdresser Rosa approached him, said a pleasant hello and proceeded to walk home alongside him. This wouldn’t be strange, except Hairdresser Rosa never spoke to him before. They walked together, and when he attempted to move to the edge of the road she’d move too, so he finally gave up and just walked. She made light conversation about the village folk, things that had happened that Niko never knew because he spent all his days at the farm. He said nothing, just walked and listened. At his gate Hairdresser Rosa patted his shoulder lightly, lingering a bit and said, “You are not half as mad, let’s do this again.” And with that she disappeared into the night. Niko walked home puzzled and when he entered the kitchen, where his parents were, there was something about them, about how they spoke to him, in the questions they asked him and in the way they looked at him. Taking his food and walking to his room, he wondered what Jemmi was having for dinner.
Jemmi wasn’t having dinner; instead, she was finding it hard to cope with all the pressures of learning a new language and studying in that language. It is for this reason that she stopped writing her parents, who wrote her gay letters full of flowery words of how proud they were of her. She didn’t know how to tell them that it was very hard for her; at first she wrote and lied, or rather, left out the truth and maybe coloured some of the things she said. Her parents knew she loved it, she was doing great in class and she was making new amazing friends. They had also mentioned Niko in passing and asked if they were corresponding. At this point she knew she couldn’t lie so she stopped responding to their letters. She stopped writing altogether. When her grades fell to an all time low, her professors summoned her and gave her a warning which would be followed by dire consequences. She went straight from that office to the downtown pubs and begun the trend that would see her get sick. She spent most of her time drinking, hardly eating anything except for those simits that the tea vendors sold, which she’d sometimes take as she waited for the bus in the morning. As expected, Jemmi became of ill health and lost a lot of weight. Weight is not the only thing she lost though, she also lost her sanity. She started hearing voices and waking up at night screaming into the darkness.
It is at this point, sitting on a cold stool one night in an empty bar with the bartender asking her politely to go home because it was closing time, that she decided she had to do something. She knew what she had to do. She had to return to the one person she shouldn’t have left in the first place. Niko would heal her, bring her back to life, and make her whole again. He loved her, she was sure. He would understand why she didn’t write, she convinced herself. He would be waiting for her, she hoped. He would take her back, she told herself. So with a sense of finality and in her drunken state she packed her bags that night and the following day she booked her flight. She was going home to Niko.
Only, Niko already had a home. On the very spot on the farm that carried their dreams for so long, Niko had wed and built a home for Hairdresser Rosa and himself. Nobody in the village except his parents ever knew how this came to be, but soon after a few walks home with Rosa, Niko made a huge announcement and with it, he married Rosa. They soon settled into the little house by the farm that Niko built. The village was alive with the news and though shocked, the villagers were all happy for the two. Niko was even happy, or so it seemed. He walked out into the village centre and once in a while, he’d be seen talking and laughing with the other young men who sat by the roadside most evenings. That lasted for two to three weeks and as soon as the wedding was old news in the village, everything went back into the slow quiet life that makes up any village. And so did Niko.
He knew what his parents were doing. They didn’t say anything to him, but he could see it in their eyes— they were worried about him. So when he got home the day after Rosa walked home with him and met his parents in the kitchen, he knew where that came from and where that was going. He decided to go along with it for his parents. He was an only child, a son with expectations from the family and the village; he had to do what had to be done. So he married Rosa even though he knew his heart belonged with another.
Jemmi came back home expecting to finally find peace where her heart belonged, but she was met with a heavy village. As soon she stepped out of the bus from the city she could tell something was not right. It must have been from the stares by the people as she walked home, stares that were not in the least curious, as would happen to someone coming home after a long while, but which carried an accusatory air in them, some repulsive even. She pulled her sweater tight, held her bags closer and walked on home puzzled. As soon as she got home, she knew the village was in mourning and she knew why; she was the reason.
That night, Jemmi lay on her childhood bed in her childhood bedroom. It is on this bed that she’d let dreams the colour of love painted by her beloved steal her away to sleep, but not tonight. She couldn’t sleep; the darkness in her rose to meet the darkness in the room and spoke to her in tears. Tears that filled her heart, tears that she wanted out, tears that hung at the tip of her eyes in stark indifference. She couldn’t cry. So that morning before the village stirred awake with footfalls and voices, she slid out of bed, and in an old green coat that once belonged to Niko she walked out in search of him in the memories they had made together.
In short hurried steps, she walked to all the places that once belonged to Niko and her. The place between their homes where they met by the fence and whispered for hours, the path they followed to the market every Saturday, the bush at the corner off the road where they first held hands and painted each other’s eyes with love, the small stream down the farm which never ran out of water where they sat for hours dreaming.
She had to go there. She had to see it. If she hurried, she could still catch Niko’s scent, that earthy sweet scent that distinctly made him, maybe his smile on the flowers he planted, his tears on the crops that shimmered with the first rays of the sun, or his voice on the mango tree under which he spent hours talking. Jemmi increased her pace and shortly, she was standing on the very soil that her beloved had. Maybe last week, he had stood here, on this spot where her weak feet stood, and thought of her. Niko’s presence grabbed her and held her tight. She stood rooted to the ground, her head spinning, her heart aching, tears welling in her eyes, her soul breaking…
“You killed him, you know.” A silky voice startled Jemmi back to life from where she stood on the farm where their dreams lived. Dreams that now seemed so old, as if belonging to another life in another time. Slowly she turned towards the voice though she already knew who was speaking.
“I am sorry”
“This belongs to you. He wrote you letters every single day, letters he couldn’t send” Rosa thrust a heavy shoe box in Jemmi’s hands.
“I am sorry”
Her heart racing, her hands shaking Jemmi opened the box and hesitantly reached for the letter at the top.
My dearest Jemmi,
I give up. You win. You promised you’d write. I waited. I can’t wait anymore. A world without you is dead. I am dead. I loved you.
Judyannet Muchiri is an African Crusader who believes Africa is an equal participant in the global village; as such she connects young development actors across the globe working towards sustainable development in Africa under NAYD. A creative writer who uses words to tell stories in short fiction, verse and in flash fiction; nothing like breathing life into a character who doesn’t hold uncomfortable conversations about the weather with strangers in small talk. A permanent resident in pages of corner bookstores and backstreet bookstores; she believes books just like hot coffee have the power to bring us back home to ourselves when the days get dark and wintry. Judyannet is a contributor at the Magunga.