Before her, the city of lights stretches into the night. They look more radiant than usual.
The sea is quiet, the breeze warm. In the background, a drunk man screams for no reason. A mother sings as she checks her child’s homework. A cock crows. A bird chirps.
Has it always been this bright? She asks herself.
Was the night he left, a night like this? A night where a thousand lanterns out in the sea make a city in the night? Did he ever stop to look at it, this beautiful city he was always a part of?
She wonders as she walks along the short beach.
Five years. Five tumultuous years.
Half a decade of a war she might never win, inspired by a man she will never see again.
It’s Achieng’s birthday today, but she’s celebrating it the way she celebrates every day of her life. Every day since he left and never came back. He’d gone on a night like this, as usual, with a lantern and his net, and a flask full of tea. She had told him to be careful, as she always did, and he had grunted a response, as he always did.
Had he jumped? She wondered.
Had he just looked at the last inches of his fishing net rolling off the boat and decided to jump in after it?
She missed him. She still thought of him, about how he shone in the morning when he found her waiting. How he dumped all his catch for the night in her basket. How he held her cheek softly, sometimes, and then asked her how she was like they had not been together just hours before.
A warm breeze startled her back into consciousness. There was work to do.
“Adhis. Thriving are we?”
“Yes Chieng! Work as usual. The night smells of promise!”
“That it does. How’s work?”
“Same old. I hope Bwana is lucky tonight.”
“Did you finally go like we agreed?”
“I did, but I couldn’t make it past the door. It’s embarrassing.”
“You need to, Adhis, you need to. I could take you tomorrow if you want.”
“It’s already tomorrow, Chieng’. And if this is it, then it’s God’s will, no?”
“No it’s not. Stop diagnosing yourself. I am here, always. Let’s go in the morning, okay?”
“Okay. But not too early, I need to make Bwana breakfast. He’s leaving for Mfangano. It’s our last day together.”
Adhiambo shrugged to herself. Every night of those sixty months, walking up and down this beach, trying to reclaim a single word. One.
An innocent word.
Now laced with both promise and disease. Now used as an insult, a bad word to be whispered, and mostly in the dark. Along the beach as fish mongers stare into the city of lights, hoping Nam Lolwe smiles upon those who steal her fish tonight. That this is the night.
Had he jumped? That night? Could she have done better by him? Had she done better by any of them? The hundreds whose hands she had held on that cold wooden bench. As minutes felt like hours, as rain drops felt like an entire ocean of emotions. As anticipation mixed with anxiety, and then to absolute dread. Every time feeling like the last. Every hand feeling different. The words strange.
What do you tell a customer who came, but never left?