Size / / /

Content warning:

They say we broke Nairobi; we whose tears do not burn; whose blood runs cold. We did not, although we did tell lies around it—we used to be the lowlifes; the dregs in the social stew, the spit-out gum, all holes and no people—it was in our nature to break things, but we did not break Nairobi.

It must have been the prophet. He came on prime time television back when the skies were cool enough to walk under—a large, dark, bald man with a thick beard let down in four uneven braids down his navel. He bought slots on every television channel, on the giant advertising screens that tower over Mombasa Road and on YouTube, crowding out other advertisers, so that wherever you looked, for two months preceding the Great Heat, there he was, droning in a low monotone, a scratchy baritone. He wore pale grey starched gowns that went down over his belly to his shoes with a box crease down the middle of each thigh. His large hands with stubby, sausage fingers were ever clasped over his abdomen, under the tip of his beard. His cameras were positioned low on the ground so that he loomed. The prophet warned that if we did not act quickly, the earth’s average temperature would rise dramatically, and it would be unlivable. Hell on earth, he said. He had warned us before, he said, but did we listen?

He unclasped his hands to count the times he’d been right before. The great flood of 1997, the drought of 2003, the blood-shedding of 2007, the locust invasion of 2019. I was right then, he droned, his monotonic voice weaving the illusion of a curse, his starched gowns hardly moving in the wind, why would you not believe me now? With each strand of his beard bouncing up and down his chest independently of the others and eyes shut tight, he recited:

The sky will bleed fire,

The earth will run dry,

The moon will retire,

I know, you will cry.

Terrible poetry that sent us collapsing to the floor in giggling fits. We talked for hours about the madman who used—quite successfully, we agreed—sentimentalism to get a following. Had he not enough followers already? We laughed at the idea that preachers, too, got into that terrible place where you want, want, and want, where nothing can satisfy the vacant crater within, but more wanting. Was it moral in the preacher’s case, we wondered, since his insatiability was towards humankind’s salvation? Some of us laughed at the fact that his sermon was all about fire and brimstone; how funny that his god had chosen an awful spokesperson, one who portrayed only his terrible temper. If we were gods, we argued, assuming we had jurisdiction over knowledge, we would make known only our good deeds so that no mortal could resist us. But then again, if we were gods, we laughed, we would know we were gods and not need approval or worship from the people we created. The more terrible of us decided that were they gods, they would smite everyone for no other reason than to know how it feels.

We sat around and argued and talked and laughed late into the night, for a day—some of us, a little longer—then turned our attention to other things. The slay queen Vera Sidika had turned her skin color, originally dark then bleached to a bright yellow, back to deep brown. (We thought she looked better light-skinned, but we dared not say.) Others turned their attention to the young politician Babu Owino and his ludicrous insults. (He would inevitably wind up dead, we swore, especially after he insulted the president’s mother in public.) Yet others turned to the Deputy President Rutto and his Building Bridges Initiative. (None of us knew entirely what that was about. Was he for it or against it? Were we? But it felt good to have something to be pretend-passionate about.)

Shortly after, we became Runners. There was a terrible heat that fell over Nairobi, that rose with the sun and clung to the air, making it impossible to breathe out without burning the skin between your nose and upper lip. The sun scalded the little hairs right off people's arms, boiled blisters onto their faces. It became so that everyone in the city took cover at once: in office buildings with air conditioning fully blasted, in restaurant kitchens with fridges left running open, in bars with fans whirring wildly and ice passed around and melting so rapidly that people sat in puddles.

Only a few people, we quickly discovered, could venture outside, those of us who could somehow bear the heat. We do not know what algorithm nature used to select us; the only distinguishing factor was that every last one of us had been what they called a terrible person a few days prior. We were lowlifes. Nairobians pressed their purses to their breasts and looked away nervously when some of us walked by. The luckier of us, the ones who did not look too disgusting, endured indifference, colder than hate. Some of us were parking boys, standing around parking lots, waiting to drive cars into tight spaces in exchange for a few coins. Some of us were street children with boxes propped in dark alleys, held in place by a rock and dirty bundles of newspaper blankets, that we called home. Some of us were thugs, robbers, and conmen, people who expected to reap where they did not sow. Still others were drug dealers and the lowest of the low, men who preyed on lonely women, feigning love for a few tens of thousands of shillings. We were lowlifes, but the sun chose not to burn us. No others could bear to walk under the heat, but we could, so they sent us around for food, for water, for business documents—whatever they needed. And in turn, paid us. They called us the Runners.

That was before the Karaf ™, when the currency was money—small squares of paper and minted copper and silver coins—accepted by collective agreement. Nairobi, in those few months of the Great Heat, happened indoors. People lived in their offices, worked in their homes, lived under tables in restaurants, went on with life whenever the Great Heat caught them. It had descended so suddenly that wife was split from husband, boss from subordinate, teacher from student. We were the only way they could keep their outside lives running intact.

We took advantage of the situation, tagging our delivery prices to the level of desperation, charging an arm and a leg to move imaginary things like kisses and hugs. It was in our nature to want more. Most of us came from lack. Some had had then lost everything and had experienced the isolation that comes with material loss. Most of us did not know lives where the cards were to our advantage. Others did not have a concept of enough. All of us did not think there would ever come a time when money was not currency. We piled money up, storing it in jars, buckets, drums. We had the odds stacked in our favor.

But still we were not satisfied. Dissatisfaction crept in slowly, a virus infecting one then the other. It started with the original conmen, the scammers, and the grifters. They missed it, they said, sucking their teeth and folding their arms tightly. The thrill that came after twisting someone’s mind into doing what he shouldn’t. That feeling was life. It was too easy, too dull, they grumbled. For them, the hunt is the kill. Life moving along this smooth was unnatural. Only the dead should get everything they want so quickly.

They started lingering after making deliveries, standing behind doors, feigning shyness while whispering to clients about a balm that could make the sun hurt less. They sold engine oil for the price of houses and land. People bought it and walked into the open, their faces rubbed black and shining like masquerades, joyful at the thought of reuniting with their loved ones, only to melt into their deaths. We imagined their thoughts as they signed over ownership of their prized possessions. Maybe, we thought, they rehearsed dialogs: honey, I sold the house, baby, I sold our car, darling, just for a chance to touch your face. Honey, I literally gave them everything for you. I signed away my property, just for a chance to look into your eyes. Do you finally see, my love, how great my love is for you? But they died—each one. There was no way for them to warn each other. Internet and telephone lines had long since been destroyed by overheating. We were their internet, their phones, and their censors.

Some of us thought it was funny but remained neutral, maintaining the status quo, making the usual delivery rounds and asking for nothing more. Others upped the ante, starting a rumor that it was not the balm but our hypothalamus that was hyperactive in the process of heat regulation, that a simple hormone transfer would cure people, that there was a doctor who performed this low-risk medical procedure inside what used to be Nairobi Hospital. Others violently rejected this behavior, saying it was wise to minimize variables, that in an environment where everything was changing, the only way forward was to keep to what was working. No one was willing to negotiate. Every one of us stood firmly by our ideas, none of us willing to let out even an inch.

And in that way, we broke into factions, little tribes that took over different parts of Nairobi. The original conmen and grifters, who were the most brilliant of us and therefore also the strongest, took over the central business district, and with it, access to most clients. They made it their job to dish out delivery jobs like favors in return for hefty commissions. All four factions from different parts of the city would meet at sunrise in what used to be Jeevanjee Gardens, now a brown patch of thirsty dirt near Nation Center, to get assignments for the day.

All this was before the Happeknot™, before the night, the time between sunset and sunrise, became only one hour. Before our clients invented the tactic of paying some of us to hunt the rest for our pituitary glands, which could only, for lack of cold, be preserved in our live bodies. Before several of us woke up with arms and legs bound using an electric cable in anticipation of a transfusion by an imaginary doctor in a non-existent hospital. Before we became the hunted. Before we raided the Department of Defense headquarters in Kilimani, climbing over the barred gate that stood across the road from a mosque and killing all the others who tried to hold us off.

We were terrible people, but most of us did not know death. We took things from people, but never before their lives. But to kill is easy if the only other option is that you die. We speared, stabbed, shot our way into the building, without daring to look back. The smell of blood was a metallic heaviness that clung to the back of the throat. The sounds of death were not those we had never heard before; they were the sounds of hunger, of loneliness, of regret. Death, we discovered as we pressed on unapologetically, was but another version of life.

We dragged off heavy artillery, big weapons whose manuals took us days to begin to understand and used them to sink deep and wide gullies around the arboretum—twenty-eight in total, circling down from State House Road towards Westlands and back up into town—to cordon ourselves off. Now we had a safe place to call home, a fort in which to sleep without fear of being hunted. The trees in the park, though dry, provided shade and shelter. We drove off great military trucks too, armored tanks, jeeps, and artillery tractors which we used to make deliveries as all the tires had begun to melt off other cars as the heat grew worse. These we parked at the entrance gate to the arboretum, heavily guarded and used when needed, the need dictated solely by distance, to save fuel. All this was before the Happeknot™.

On the day of the Happeknot™, the morning sky was a pale blue, with not a single cloud. The sun was a perfect circle, bold yellow, a dare. Daytime was already longer then, lasting up to sixteen hours. There was a game between night and day, back in the days of the Great Heat, a push and pull, up and down like a see-saw, but skewed in advantage towards the day, night losing out a little more each day. We didn’t know then that there would come a time when one day would be twenty-three hours long. That morning, we the Runners converged where we usually did, in Jeevanjee Gardens at the center of the city, to collect packages for redistribution. The youngest of us rode in roller skates within the town, the older ones in bicycles to the suburbs that hugged the city from every side, the most experienced of us in armored trucks, to be dispatched to Nakuru, Mombasa, Kisumu, places that were struggling more than Nairobi, for lack of a good network of Runners.

We sat around, as we usually did, on the curb, our feet kicking into old flower beds, on the ground with our backs propped against dead trees, on little concrete blocks that once held hawkers’ wares. We ate, drank, smoked while waiting for our dispatch orders. A few of us began to get called out for assignments when, suddenly, there was a wave of panic that started as a ripple from one end of the crowd. We were reeled back into the moment from our conversations by the realization that the clothes were melting off our backs. Leather jackets, synthetic silks, rubber sneakers, all boiled off our body like a thick broth. Yet we did not burn. We stood naked, with bits of cloth clinging to our skins. Then, like a choir arriving at a sudden and dramatic chorus, we screamed and scampered and tore off whatever was left of our clothes. Some of us got down on our knees to pray. Others ran away in every direction, yelling and calling on the prophet. But the sun did not give, did not blink.

The glass windows started melting off buildings and flowing down streets. Kenyatta Avenue became one giant, slow-moving river of molten glass, clothes, filing cabinets, everything. It was a deep shiny black, the color of soot that has gathered over a fireplace for years, a black so deep it looks green. It moved luxuriously, swallowing everything in its path and branching off to other streets in little rivulets as it went. We saw people falling right off the buildings and melting into the river, falling in without a splash, without a thud, just falling to their deaths, headfirst, in profound silence, disappearing into the murk, as if in surrender. Everything—billboards, glass, lighting—peeled off buildings, leaving only steel skeletons standing in prayer to the sun. Still, we were fine, we could breathe, we could cry, our skin did not burn. But we were afraid.

Tar melted off the roads. Our best option was to skip quickly from one island to the next, sometimes riding on pieces of unmolten metal that floated toward us, sometimes rowing concrete boats along the horrible river that stank so bad our eyes watered, retreating out to the safety of the arboretum where the earth held its place. We were thirsty, so thirsty our voices squealed when we spoke, but wherever we looked, there was no water to drink; all of it had been evaporated right out of existence in one moment. We were dry. We hunted for water everywhere, but got none. Not a drop in the river that ran through the park, splitting the grounds into two; none in the earthen pots we used to keep underground in burrowed holes to prevent boiling; not even tree trunks held any sap that we could nibble at to delay thirst. The money that we had gathered, our safe spots, all the factions and little gangs we had created suddenly meant nothing.

But the prophet had seen it all in a dream before it happened and had planned for it. Some people had believed his prophecy. They had been working together long before the Great Heat and now were holed deep under Times Towers, in an extensive network of units all coated in aluminum. The tunnels and rooms spread three stories under Nairobi and spread to about half of the city. We caught a glimpse of the shiny interior when we went to beg for water.

We stood outside a large square gate that led underground and called out to the prophet, but he did not come. He sent out his men, two tall men who stood naked before us but for the engine oil darkening their skin and glistening in the shade. They did not step out beyond the shadows of their walls. Cold air blew from behind them, inviting us to rise above our fears and move closer to them. They told us then, these two perfectly carved men that did not speak louder than a whisper, that from that day on, the prophet had declared a new currency, the Karaf™, the standard unit of which was one aluminum flask shaped like a waterdrop, bordered by liquid nitrogen on the inside, walled by steel, filled with potable water.

They let us touch one, these men who did not leave the shadow of their home, passing it to us but never taking their eyes off it. It fit snugly into one palm and was cool to the touch. We held it to our cheeks, rolled it over our naked chests, unplugged its rubber cork that popped like a bubble. Inside was water, so precious, so beautiful. We could smell the nothingness of it, but they pulled it away before we could sip. They had, they said, several atmospheric water generators that extracted water from the air by the process of condensation, and, they added, the prophet had taken advantage of that process, to rig it into creating nitrogen as a byproduct for its cooling effects. They had everything everyone wanted, and they could live forever. Everything that is, except our hypothalami.

Noel is a Kenyan writer whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in Harvard’s Transition Magazine, The Boston Review, Oscilloscope Literary Magazine, the Hotel Africa anthology, the Yellow Means Stay anthology, Johannesburg Review of Books, Kikwetu Journal, On the Premises magazine, and elsewhere. She lives in Nairobi. Twitter: @NoelCheruto
Current Issue
3 Oct 2022

Lying in bed last night I felt fingers reach in, grabbing. I opened in spite of myself as you clawed me with your fingernails, flattened, panicked. Split throat, iron tongue, white masks ranged overhead, the rings on their fingers scraping me as they reached in to take you.
from my tower we climb, shroud as my veil. We leap on his fae steed
I tell smug Cyclops that I’m as gay as the next mutant, and that all mutants find themselves within battles
Get ready to feel hungry, because the theme for this quarterly roundup is food.
Friday: The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo 
Issue 26 Sep 2022
Issue 21 Sep 2022
Issue 12 Sep 2022
Issue 5 Sep 2022
Issue 29 Aug 2022
By: Cat T.
Issue 22 Aug 2022
Issue 15 Aug 2022
Issue 8 Aug 2022
Issue 1 Aug 2022
Issue 18 Jul 2022
Load More
%d bloggers like this: