By Patrick Ngugi, Kabete Kenya
I look at the butterfly-shaped tattoo on my right forearm and smile. It is beautiful, but it’s not the beauty that makes me smile, despite the fact I have been seriously ill for almost two years, totally confined to bed.
But the butterfly reminds me of a time, over two decades ago, when something happened that gave me this tattoo. Something I’d never thought of drawing on any part of the body before that incident.
It had started with strange nightmares. One night I was woken by a bright light shining on my face. I woke up thinking that my wife, Sulmina must have left the light on. I had struggled to shield my eyes from the bright light that shone from the ceiling.
Apparently, this light had been disturbing me for quite some time, though I had not given much thought about it.
But now, I had to either call her to switch it off, or do it myself if she would not respond. So I sat up and called out … ‘’Sully… Sully…’’
There was no response. Either she was in the bathroom or she had already left for the farm, which meant I had to get up, walk to the switch, put it off, and come back to sleep, at least for another ten minutes.
I got up and put on my sandals but as I walked towards the switch, I noticed it was already daylight, and in fact the light that was shining on me was actually sunlight from outside. I looked at the watch it was shortly after 9 am.
Gosh, what had happened to me, I wondered as I sat back on the bed. The dream… The dream was back, I thought as memories of the recurring dream hit me. Apparently, this dream had persisted most of the night, and no wonder I had overslept.
Sulmina and I had been married for ages
I left the bed and went to the bathroom, washed my face and came back. Sulmona had already left, and I could see my phone flashing, and I knew it must have been a message from her. She always sent me messages reminding me of this and that. She was too caring, and never trusted me to remember everything.
She would text me that I’d find my breakfast already served in the dining room, and even remind me that there was some juice in the fridge – as if I didn’t know – if I needed any.
Sulmina and I had been married for ages. Our three children were already married with families of their own, but they did not live far from us, so many a weekend they would come visiting with their families and we would have one great reunion. My wife and I loved those moments as we would play and joke with our dotting grandchildren, and later have tête-à-tête with the children and their spouses as the little cousins played outside.
I was a retired soldier and I enjoyed painting which was my passion, whenever I could. Most of the time however, I would join Sulmina at the farm, where she would normally spend most of her day. Since she retired as an agricultural officer, she never rested. She was the workaholic type who cherished spending every minute of her life doing something; unlike me, who spent every minute I had in painting, lazing around [when I was not at the farm pretending to work] or enjoying a glass of whisky with buddies whenever I had the chance.
I sat down and took the phone. Though from experience I could guess what Sulmina was saying in that message, curiosity could not let me ignore it. The message said the same thing, about my breakfast, where I could get a fresh change of clothes [wardrobe of course]; and then she added one more line which hit me on the head like a sledge hammer.
’’You had your dream again. Its time you saw a psychiatrist.’’
No wonder this funny feeling even when I had woken up. The thought was seeing lit bulb in broad daylight and blaming Sulmina for having left it on.
In this recurrent dream I was always lying on a bed, in a room which had an overhead light. There were tubes running into and out of my body. I could not move, but I could see people in masks and white gowns coming in and out of the room. They would touch my body with some tools and then gaze at the tools, then write something on pieces of paper that hung on the wall.
What scared me most in that nightmare is that once in a while these masked people would stick needles into my arm and using a syringe or one of the many tubes that sunk into my flesh, they would push some liquid into the body. At this moment I would wake up and find myself sweating profusely beside Sulmina, who would have been frantically trying to wake me up from the nightmare.
After I cooled down I took a shower and went downstairs to take breakfast. Then the phone rang. It was my eldest son, Dibaji.
‘’Hello,’’ I said.
‘’Hello dad, are you okay?” he asked with a lot of concern.
‘’But I’m okay, what do you mean by that question?’’
Mom called me. She says you’ve been having funny dreams.
“They are not funny,’’ I said with a chuckle… ‘’but they are strange and they are bothering me.’’
“Tell me about it,’’ He said.
One thing about Dibaji was his caring attitude. He was also a problem solver, and he would usually not rest until a challenging issue had been put to rest. After I had briefed him, he said he would come immediately we discuss this matter further.
‘’Your mother thinks I should see a psychiatrist,’’ I concluded the long story and he smiled it away, as he gave me a faraway look.
“What is it? Why are you smiling?”
He had been listening to the story for the last half an hour since he had arrived, as I narrated the genesis of it. How one day I was fixing a button on my shirt and accidentally pierced my finger with the needle. His mother was away and therefore I had decided to fix that button myself as I loved that shirt and I had to wear it on that day.
“That needle jab was very painful, and I could feel it for days. It was after that I started getting these nightmares, as these needles they were sticking into my body really gave me the shudders. But I don’t know what the room with tubes and people coming in and out would mean,’’ I told Dibaji. But I noticed he was no longer listening.
“What is it? Why are you smiling?” I asked him.
“I know your problem dad, and I think we can solve it” he said, his lips and eyes smiling mischievously and triumphantly.
“How,” I asked.
He explained as I listened keenly, and I thought he made some sense.
He told me that my subconscious mind had been affected by the first needle prick as I mended my shirt. That initial shock was what was causing my nightmares, so he suggested that the only way to sort it out was for me to face my fear.
‘’Face my fear, how?” I asked.
‘’Get more needle pricks,’’ he said almost laughing, and I thought it was a joke.
‘’You are not serious, Dibaji!”
‘’Yes, I am,’’ he said, and this time he was not laughing.
‘’Dad. I Promise your problem will be a thing of the past.’’
‘’That must be crazy… How does one even start taking a needle and pricking himself?”
And it worked like magic
‘’I have an idea,’’ he said after a brief silence.’’
‘’Tell me,’’ I asked curiously.
‘’One way of doing this is getting a tattoo.’’
‘’A tattoo?’’ I asked frowning.
‘’Yes. They use special needles for the job,’’ he said, then when he saw me wince, he added, ‘’they are slightly painful but bearable, I understand. After all if they are going to get rid of your nightmares, it’s worth going through the ordeal.
‘’Okay,’’ I said thoughtfully, then he added;
‘’I think when you go through the tattoo experience, your subconscious mind will treat it as a normal event, and the nightmares will end…’’
The light moves nearer and nearer towards me
His mother arrived at that instant, and after Dibaji told her what he thought would solve the problem, she laughed out loud then said that so long as I got cured of the nightmares, it was okay. I should have the tattoo.
And it worked like magic. The nightmares vanished and I forgot about them like they never happened. But the tattoo remained until now, almost 25 years later, becoming an item of admiration not only to my kids and their kids, our grandchildren, but also my drinking buddies.
But now it looks like only I have the chance to admire it, now that I am bedridden. These days, my visitors who come once in a while, are usually more interested to find out how exactly I am feeling, but not about my once admirable tattoo.
Only Sulmina, when she is not busy keeps me company but then, sometimes I feel she had done enough. Taking care of me religiously for the last 60 or so years…and then… what is this light doing here on the ceiling… I thought the tattoo had taken care of this years ago… You can’t have lights in broad day lights.
The light moves nearer and nearer towards me, and before I can do anything it pierces into my chest. I try to move to avoid it but I can’t… Yes I can… Funny I’d been paralyzed for ages, but I’m now moving … how… and how come my body is still lying on the bed and yet I’m up here… with the light. I just can’t comprehend it.
Then Sulmina walks into the room. She talks to the body… I try to tell her that I’m up here, somehow floating… She continues to monologue with the body. She can’t hear me. Then as she moves out of the room. She stiffens, comes back to the room and stares at my body. She feels it; she shakes it and starts screaming.
No, Zen, no Zen, you can’t leave me… You can’t die on me… No don’t leave me, she screams, as I feel my spirit float upwards, through the ceiling and into other mansions. Mansions of light which shine from all directions, bright but soothing lights, which do not burn my eyes this time.
END OF PART TWO