Shadows, Mirrors and Flames


By Sanya Noel

My father was executed after a failed coup attempt. He was not the leader, but he was executed all the same. That was the most interesting thing about my father, the execution. He was interesting while alive, yes, but his execution must have been the most interesting thing about him. I didn’t attend his execution. He had forbidden me saying:

-God will punish you if you show up at my execution.

I don’t know why he brought God in that. He rarely talked about God in his life. He never took us to church like most people did with their children. And it was not as if I ever enjoyed church services. I had been there a couple of times with my friends. I had not liked it, but I was with my friends.

He had told me not to be at his execution some months before the coup attempt. I doubt that he knew there were plans for one. But somehow he always thought, or he rather knew, that he would end up getting executed for something.

I don’t know who my mother is. I have never met her. Hannah probably met her once or maybe even twice. Hannah is my bigger sister – was my bigger sister. She would’ve known our mother. I should have asked her before she left. And left is probably not the right word. I would’ve said gone but maybe ran would fit better. I just woke up one morning and her bed was empty. She had just disappeared like that, but I know she wanted to go. I think she might have ran when she was some distance from home, though of course she tiptoed while leaving the house. It is sensible to run when you’re leaving some place you don’t want to stay, but it makes sense to tiptoe first so that you aren’t heard as you leave. When Hannah ran from home, father was still alive.

Father cuts off people’s fingers for a living.

She had left a note saying that by my bed.

That’s all she left. I don’t know what she thought was wrong with cutting off people’s fingers for a living. My sister was a weird girl. She couldn’t stand many things. She couldn’t stand squashing a locust, or even cutting off its hind legs to prevent it from jumping away. She always said we were hurting them. I don’t think that such a simple thing can hurt a locust. Not like a person or a rabbit or a rat. Rats make a lot of noise when hurt. People too. Locusts don’t make a sound. They are not hurt. Not really.

My sister couldn’t even stand wind. She was so weak-spirited I always wondered how she managed to survive like that. One day, while we were walking in the sun, I decided to step on the head of her shadow. It was just a game and I didn’t mean to hurt her. She was not looking when I did it, but she clutched her head in so much pain, her mouth open as if she wanted to scream but was not decided about it. I kept my foot in place, looking at her as she held her head, struggling and unable to move. She let out such a heart-wrenching cry when I let go that I couldn’t stand it without covering my ears. Her face was bleeding from a cut on her cheek. There had been a piece of metal protruding from my shoe sole. It had cut into her shadow.

That was a few years ago when Hannah was still around, when she was still my sister. We still lived in the barracks and father had not been executed yet. The coup attempt had not even been staged yet. She stopped being my sister when she ran away. Father told me anyone who runs away stops being my sister, just like mother stopped being my mother.

I sometimes think Hannah saw more than just fingers. She saw more than she ever talked about with me. Maybe that time I had caught her talking in her sleep had been her way of saying things. That had happened a few days before the note and the running away.

-No, please, father. Don’t cut off my head… I won’t tell anyone… yes… yes… Just do it again but don’t cut off my head… Just leave my head, please…

I didn’t ask her to tell me what it was father had been doing to her. She wouldn’t have told me anyway. Hannah and I rarely talked. We just passed whatever it was that was needed, like salt or the sugar bowl while at the table and that would be it. Or she would ask:

-Jane, is father back from the barracks?

Then I would shake my head, or nod, usually too engaged with my locusts, which I would have tied together abreast, or pierced through the thorax with a wire to  make them my oxen. They would drag a plough behind them, and I would whip them with a piece of wire every now and again, shouting their names:

-Dicholi, kenda! Lando, ndahuhuya!

Usually, the game would end up in a disaster. I would whip the locusts too hard, and one or both of them would just stop moving. Then I would go out and trap another pair to complete ploughing my farm.

The wives of my father’s fellow soldiers used to say I had my mother’s nose. They also said I had her ears. I don’t know anything about my mom’s nose or ears, and father never showed us a picture of her. Now that I remember it, my father never had a picture of us as a family taken. Not him and Hannah and I. It is different from all the others. Everybody has a family picture.

Andota and Sarah’s families had many. They used to take pictures every year during Christmas. The photo man would come around, and they would all change into their Christmas clothes and he would tell them to say “cheese!” They would all say “cheese!” and Andota, who was the smallest, would go on saying “cheeeeeeese!” long after the flash from the camera had gone off. And when the photo came after development, we would all laugh at Andota because all the photos had him grinning but with his eyes closed. Then we would all later on call him “Andota the Cheese” just to make him cry. He would start crying and tell us that he would tell his father to come and shoot us like he had done to so and so in the North. He always mentioned shiftas. If you wronged Andota he would call you a shifta and say he was going to tell his father that you were a shifta so that he would come for you. The names of people would keep changing every time we made him cry though his threats would remain constant: shiftas.

Shadows, Mirrors and Flames

I sometimes look into mirrors trying to find my mother. I am interested in knowing about her nose. If I am to find her, the starting place will be to look into a mirror. I mostly concentrate on the nose and the ears. Of the two, the nose is the easier one to look at. It does not have any hidden details, and you can look at it for long without mirrors playing any dirty tricks on you. Staring at ears, on the other hand, is a taxing experience since there are two of them, and you have to decide which one you should start with. In the case of need for a quick decision, the ears have some hidden parts too. You have to turn your head to have a good look at them. And then the mirror usually decides which ear it will bring closest to you, which is not the one you necessarily want. And if you turn too much, your eyes move too far away to be able to look at the mirror. You can’t see when your eyes are too far away. Sometimes, however, I move to just beyond where I can see, and then listen closely. The mirror and I know each other well. So, in the spirit of this understanding, it starts describing my mother’s ears. From previous narrations, my mother had big ears. The mirror says they looked like mine, but a little bigger.

Sometimes, when I am not attentively looking at the mirror, my mother’s face shows up. It used to be timid when it started, but nowadays, it has grown familiar to me. It shows up without trying to hide and without the initial shyness. It is just a blank face with the nose and ears alone. There is no mouth. There are no eyes either. These are the times I like, when my mother’s face shows up in the mirrors. I concentrate on my mother’s nose for a long time, and when I have eventually mastered it, when I am sure I know what my mother looked like, I just cough a little and the mirror gets the message and quickly replaces my mother’s face with my own, with a full face with a mouth and eyes in place, with the broad forehead that looks at me with a little wrinkle of worry spread across it. I also cough when someone is coming along and I don’t want them to catch me staring at my mother’s face. Sometimes, I just clear my throat. Both of them work, coughing or clearing my throat.

There is only one mirror that understands me completely. It is the mirror that holds my secrets without any thoughts about them. The mirror in Aunt Leah’s bathroom. Other mirrors get to do well too, but no other mirror describes my mother’s ears as well as Aunt Leah’s bathroom mirror. The one in the living room once lied to me. I was looking at my mother’s face, and it brought the eyes and the mouth all in place. That is a total impossibility. My mother’s face doesn’t have a mouth and eyes. That mirror lied, and I have never used it since. Not when looking at my mother’s face, at least. But I love the mirror in Aunt Leah’s bathroom. If ever I should move out of here, as Aunt Leah keeps suggesting, I will ask her to give me that mirror. I will say pleeeease, and be ready to break into tears should she refuse me. Aunt Leah hates it when I start to cry. She hates tears and when I cry so much, she too breaks into tears then we hug each other and sob together. That’s how I win most arguments. She can’t stand my tears.

But I am not a bad girl. Aunt Leah doesn’t think so, even though I have killed three of her chickens. She thinks I need some help, but I don’t think there’s any help I require. She thinks I keep killing the chickens because I’m just a delinquent. Not that I do other bad things, but she thinks I am obsessed with chickens.

The first chicken I killed came at me when I was cutting vegetables. I had just moved into Aunt Leah’s place after my father’s execution. A new family had moved into our house at the barracks, and the soldiers had told me that I needed to find a new place since daughters of traitors could not be allowed to live on the premises. Aunt Leah had come for me after I had gotten kicked out, and I had been lucky to identify her since she had eyes and cheeks just like my father’s. And here I was now, preparing vegetables and humming to a tune. Then this chicken comes along and starts walking all over the vegetables I’ve just washed. And as it moves, I don’t like it and the double work it is going to make me do. Then I look onto the knife I am using to cut the veggies and there is my mother’s face. She is just like I’ve seen her before, without a mouth and no eyes either. But this time round, she has her hands. She is pointing towards the chicken. Aunt Leah is in the kitchen and since she shouldn’t see my mother, I go on humming as my mother goes on pointing at the chicken. Then it dawns on me. She is trying to tell me something. So I get hold of the chicken and hold it by the neck to prevent it from squawking. I raise my brows in question and my mother nods at me. When I get hold of the knife, my mother goes on nodding. So I cut the chicken’s head in a single movement. And since I know that Aunt Leah will be mad, I start crying out loudly as I keep hacking at the chicken’s head. Aunt Leah comes out of the kitchen and sees the chicken bleeding from the head and jumping about as I bawl uncontrollably. My mother’s face looks hazy through my tears. Aunt Leah comes and hugs me and tells me it is okay.

-Accidents do happen, but just be careful next time, okay?

I nod as I slow down my crying; then I go on cutting veggies as Aunt Leah prepares the chicken. I don’t know why my mother wanted me to kill that chicken. But the chicken is dead, and Aunt Leah is preparing it and I think that is a good thing. At least we are not going to eat these vegetables as the only stew tonight.

There were other two instances with chickens. One that I ran over with a wheelbarrow after seeing my mother’s face in the water that was at the bottom of the barrow and the other after I saw her face in the glass of water I was drinking. I got so startled that I threw the glass away and it hit a cockerel. That last instance got Aunt Leah so angry; she promised that next time something like that happened she was going to take me back to the barracks.

I wouldn’t want to go back to the barracks. The children would make fun of me, and I wouldn’t have friends to play with. If Hannah had been around, I would easily have gone back. You see, Hannah knew her way around people. She knew how to command them without talking to them. She had ways of getting them to do what she wanted. But she ran away from us, claiming that father cuts off people’s fingers for a living, which I never understood really. I once asked Aunt Leah about the cutting off of people’s fingers. She said she didn’t know that, but soldiers do many things. I shouldn’t go around asking about what my father did with people’s fingers, she warned.

-The dead have ears too. Don’t go about saying things about the dead, alright?

That had been before I caught her talking to her husband about my father. They were speaking in Lunyolo. I don’t know that language very well, but I understand just enough to make out what you’re talking about; I had had Banyolo friends back in the barracks. So when I heard her say my father used to “fall” on women; I knew exactly what she meant. It had been a thing they did to shifta women and boys in the North. And he probably had done it to Hannah and me. It was why my mother had left in the first place, his wanting to always fall on her instead of a normal life. She said he had been caught doing it, and not just once.

-But then he promised to shoot her if she ever came for the daughters, and she had run away and never showed up again.

But I don’t let that occupy my mind. Not when I have to figure out where I am to go should Aunt Leah decide that it is time I moved out. She took me to school the other day, and I was surprised to see all those new faces staring at me. I don’t know how it reached them, but they started calling me the traitor’s daughter. Nobody plays with me except my mother with whom I am usually with, even at school. Not all the time though, because mirrors and the metallic cases of geometrical sets are not always around. Sometimes, when I’m in class, I open up my geometrical set and look into the shiny inner part of the lid. Then my mother shows up, and I have to look around just to ensure that nobody else is looking at my mother’s face. I zone out of class, and the teacher sounds like a distant voice or a sound you hear when you’re asleep and you keep thinking it is part of a dream.

But lately, I’ve been seeing my father’s face in the shadows too. I was not very sure the first time I saw it. It just came and vanished all of a sudden, and I was left there wondering if that had been my father or if I had just imagined things. But the following day, I heard his voice. I was sure it had been his voice because of his hissing command.

-Give me your fingers, now!

I was so scared that I wanted to run away. But knowing my father, I didn’t dare to run away. He would catch me in no time. He would probably come with his gun and his knife and he would probably use the knife on my head like he had wanted to do to Hannah. Then the voice stopped and his image disappeared when two girls came running towards me laughing and screaming.

-Traitor’s Daughter! Traitor’s Daughter! They shouted as they giggled and made faces at me.

The girls in that school are all stupid. They don’t even know what I am capable of doing should my mother decide to tell me something. They think I am lonely and afraid of them. They don’t know anything about me and maybe that’s why Aunt Leah keeps introducing me to them. Last weekend, she took me to one of the girls’ homes.

-To see Mama Atieno, she said.

As we got there I saw Atieno scowling at me and it made me wish I had a mirror with me to know what my mother would have me do. But it went all well, save for the scowling and the making of faces. It went well until it was in the evening and the light was fading. Mama Atieno, buried in telling stories with Aunt Leah, told Atieno to light the lamps – which she did, alright – and that is when it all started.

I had not noticed the mirror in the room by the dining table. It had round white cushioning with the words, Welcome Aboard written on it. I was seated at a table opposite the dining table, which meant that I had the mirror in my direct line of sight. My mother just showed out of nowhere. I wasn’t so sure at first, but I checked again and there she was. That is when I knew that this time around it wasn’t going to be so cool. My mother had never shown her face in public.

My mother appeared, just like usual, except that instead of missing her eyes and mouth, she had blood running out of her eye sockets and her gums were all bloody and several teeth were missing. I raised my brows in question. I wanted to talk to my mother, but I was afraid that Aunt Leah and Mama Atieno would have to be let in on my secret if I started to.

Then I heard my father’s familiar hiss. The same one I had heard at school. It happened when Atieno walked in with the taadora lamp and cast a shadow into corners and underneath the table.

-Give me your fingerssssss! My father said.

Aunt Leah turned her head and looked around.

-Did you hear someone talk? She asked.

-What, besides me and you? Mama Atieno answered.

-Yes, something close to a whisper.

When they turned to me I shook my head. Mama Atieno had clearly not heard it and Atieno was too busy scowling at me to have paid any attention to any hissing sound.

This was a strange one: My mother bleeding and my father showing up, and their coming out in public and Aunt Leah hearing my father’s hiss. I had to get out of here quick. I had to talk to my mother and find out what the problem was. I hoped she would be able to talk even with her bleeding eyes and her toothless mouth.

-Could you please show me where the toilet is? I asked Mama Atieno.  I wanted to find a place with a mirror, or at least a reflection. Aunt Leah looked at me as if to say something, but thought better of it.

-Atieno, show Jane where the bathroom is now, will you?

I was just about to change my mind. I wanted to be alone with my mother and not with some scowling child who wanted to take out her stresses on me, but Atieno held my hand – gently, as if she cared – and directed me. She lit a candle and handed it to me as I got into the toilet then left me to go in. Luckily, there was a big mirror on the wall. I closed the door quickly behind me and held the candle in front of the glass. My mother’s face came slowly, building to form, block by block. She was still bleeding from her eye sockets and her gums but before I could even look properly, there was the hissing sound again. It was from a shadow below the sink. I held my breath and kicked into the shadow to shut it up. I was not afraid of my father. He was not going to make me cower while seeing my beloved mother. But then the flame from the small candle expanded and the candle became heavy in my hand. There was Hannah’s face in the flame.

I had not heard from Hannah since the day she left so I just stood there, holding my breath, and wondering what I was supposed to say. Then my father’s shadow hissed from below the sink and I stamped my feet at it again. But that didn’t prevent my mother’s face and hair from changing into that of a shifta woman. I stood and watched my mother’s hair lengthen as her face became slender. Then she split into two shifta women and both of them were bleeding from their gums and eyes. My sister had also changed into a shifta woman in the flames and she too was splitting into several women who were bleeding from between their thighs. I was shaking by the time my hair started changing from hard and short to long and soft. I was becoming shifta too and stamping at my father’s shadow.

-Stooooop iiittttttttt! My father kept hissing, but he couldn’t do anything about it.

My mothers moved out of the mirror carrying dead babies in their hands and my sisters moved from their flames bearing fire and holding onto their bleeding groins, and the bathroom was suddenly a large house and there I was stomping on him to keep him on the ground.

Then my father appeared in physical form on the other side of the wall, bleeding from the cheek where my shoe was pinning his shadow to the ground. There still was a metal protruding from underneath my shoe sole. It had cut into his shadow. He was holding his head in pain and grimacing, and my mothers were all looking at me with expectation from their bleeding eye sockets. I understood my mothers’ looks even without their eyes. My sisters were still coming out of the flame one by one, too and closing in on my father’s physical form. I knew what was going to happen if I let my foot off my father’s shadow. My mothers and sisters were not going to handle him. But then there was a knock on the toilet door. It was Atieno.

-Your auntie says you need to leave, she said.

I did not answer her back. My father’s shadow had me fully engaged and I could not afford to take my attention off him. I felt him pushing at me from underneath my foot and trying to move towards my mothers. But my sisters were there, blocking his way and his attempts. Then there was a louder knock on the door. It was Mama Atieno this time.

-Jane, will you get done now?

Then she pushed at the door and distracted me making me take my foot off my father’s shadow. He got the respite he had been looking for and lunged at my mothers. My sisters attacked him with their fires, aiming for his head and setting his hair and clothes aflame, but my father kept on coming towards them, lashing at one after the other and making them disappear into the flames from the candle in my hand one by one. I had to do something here to save my mothers. If my father finished my sisters, he was going to get to my mothers and then I would be the last one. But every time I tried stepping onto his shadow, he kept moving out of my reach.

Then he was done with my sisters. Only Hannah was left at last but she was just a shifta woman in the candle flame. I was the only help my mother had now. My father moved to the closest one of my mothers to him, held her by the throat, and shoved her into the mirror. I stood there, stifling a cry as I watched one of my mothers disappear, back to an intangible form. Then he went onto the next one and then onto the next one until it was just me and him remaining in the bathroom, with my sister looking at us from the flame and my mother from the mirror. But then, he smiled and said:

-You fight like a girl, Jane. You need to do better than that.

The knock on the door was now persistent and Mama Atieno was getting louder. My father nodded at me, and since there was no way out of this, I went ahead to open it.

Mama Atieno moved in. It was clear that she was too annoyed to notice my father, who nodded at me and moved his hands towards his throat. I got his message. I grabbed Mama Atieno by the throat and was surprised at how light she was for a woman of her size. Then I shoved her into the mirror and watched as she disappeared with a look of shock on her face. I saw her turn into a shifta woman and then become my mother. My father just smiled, obviously satisfied. We then stood there, none of us talking, as my father went on smiling with that satisfied look on his face.

The sudden silence must have caught Atieno’s curiosity. She came towards the door, peering and craning her neck. My father must have been invisible to her too. When she got within reach, I grabbed at her neck, but she slithered away, more out of surprise than out of defensive instinct, and screamed as she did. I made a move at her again and this time round, my grip was vice-like. I watched her face, looking for that scowl she had been giving me. There was nothing. Just a scared girl’s face that I shoved into the mirror too.

Then I left my father in the toilet as my mothers looked at me with questioning eyes from the mirror. My sister was silent as I dropped the still burning candle to the carpeted floor. I found Aunt Leah standing in the corridor, her mouth agape and her knees shaking, as she watched the smoke rise from behind me. She must have heard Atieno’s scream and noticed the sudden silence.

-What have you done, Jane? She asked, her voice crackling.

-Let’s go home, Auntie. I answered in a tone that said it all.

We walked out of the Mama Atieno’s home leaving the silence behind us, with my mothers in their mirrors and my father in their bathroom. I left my sisters about to multiply to one thousand Hannahs and my aunt following me in silence and her hands shaking. She must have been scared, but the flames danced high up into the air and lit our path as we headed home in silence. My sisters lit our way home.

Sanya Noel
Sanya Noel is a Kenyan writer living in Nairobi. He works as a mechatronic engineer during the day and morphs into a writer at night. His works have previously been published in the Lawino magazine and the Storymoja blog. He writes poems, short stories and essays and loves eating apples in matatus on his way home.


  1. I obliged to say that the story is flowing superlatively ranging from the use of symbolism to personification of the mirror.
    I desire to have such a writer at my disposal, to ask him how he goes all this literature.
    I like everything about the piece of art .
    For the writer, continue with the good work. . . I love it!

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