Loud Whispers: by Michelle Chepchumba

Her cries for help were more loud whispers than they were screams. Almost as though she did not want the aid that would soon follow were they to be heard. Sarah listened quietly, looking over at Kyle every few minutes to be sure the noise did not wake him. The slaps resounded and each echoed two or three times in her mind, mingling with her mother’s muffled pleas. There was little commotion coming from her mother’s bedroom—she wasn’t putting up much of a fight. Sarah closed her eyes. She would not cry today. And besides, if Kyle woke up cranky, there would be three of them in tears that night, and then Jeff would have really won.

She heard resignation in every blow, in every item that crashed to the floor as Jeff exerted himself on her mother. Four months on, Sarah knew that her mother had left them all to their fate. This was their lot in life, and they would turn the other cheek with every assault—literally. Her mother’s pleas hurt her ears; not because they were loud but because they were soft, yielding. Loud whispers.

Under the slurred gruffness of Jeff’s voice she could barely make out what he said, but she knew he must be saying what he always said when he hit her.

“Ungrateful woman…Mwanamke mjinga…When will you learn that kiereeree yako haitakupeleka mbali? Eh? When will you learn to respect me?”

Sarah knew because once, in the days when the beating had just started, she had crept up to her mother’s shut bedroom door and listened. She couldn’t see; she didn’t need to. That day—the last day she remembered seeing her mother without any scars—her mother had come home lively. She had laughed with Kyle and checked Sarah’s homework.

“You really need to work on your handwriting, Sarah. If I were the one marking your book I would be too irritated to even finish.”

“But nobody even cares about my handwriting…it’s not like in primary school,” Sarah had replied defensively. Her handwriting seemed neat enough to her. With all the notes she had to write in school, who could blame her anyway?

Her mother, propping Kyle on one hip, had smiled. “Well, I’m telling you now that the people who will mark your KCSE papers will care, and if your writing annoys them they could well give you half the marks you deserve.”

“What? But that’s not fair! That actually happens?” Sarah had fumed.

“A quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog,” her mother had chanted mockingly. Sarah had glowered at her. Kyle had shrieked as though he, too, thought Sarah’s handwriting was atrocious. The evening seemed a peaceful one, and Sarah had almost completely forgotten that Jeff had come in earlier, looking a little dazed and smelling rather like he manufactured beer for a living.

When her mother had gone into the bedroom she shared with Jeff, it had only been a few minutes before angry voices wrecked the nightly quiet. Her mother’s voice used to be louder then; more sure. Sarah had known that a slap would soon follow, and it did. Then silence. At the door, Sarah had stood still, making out the scene through her ears. She heard the slaps, she heard the kicks, she heard the insults. She heard things get knocked over. She heard Jeff claim that the only reason that a primary school teacher, whose work day ended at 4pm, would get home at 7:15pm is that she was seeing another man. She heard her mother beg him—the man that, only a few months earlier, Sarah had wanted to be her new dad—to stop hurting her. Sarah had listened at the door, saying nothing, feeling nothing: her mother’s pain numbed her.

That was four months ago and now Sarah regretted the Father’s Day key holder that she had given to Jeff when she still thought he was the best thing that had happened to them. That he had the guts to still carry it around, his keys jingling on it as if to deride her, was ridiculous. But, Sarah sighed, Jeff hadn’t always been like this. He was funny and smelled of cologne and had talked to Sarah as though she were a grown up. She had liked that. He had kissed her mother all the time and when he had moved in, Sarah thought her mother had never been prettier, what with all the glowing. Kyle came soon after and it was like they were a real family. After years of just the two of them, ‘strong independent women who didn’t need no man’, having a man around—a happy and caring one at that—had been a welcome change. No. Jeff hadn’t always been…this. But where did the road vanish from under their feet?

Now Kyle turned in his cot and made some sounds, and Sarah turned to him instantly. He was still asleep. She watched him for a while. “I wonder if he understands what goes on here. Will he grow up watching his mother be battered every day?” At two and a half years old, Kyle was often disturbed by the noises that came from his mother’s sufferings but loved his father the same. He showed the same excitement when he saw Jeff as he always had and giggled delightfully when playing with him. Jeff was ‘Dah-dee’ and that was enough to keep Kyle happy. No, Kyle did not know, Sarah conjectured, and anger shot through her for a moment like a bullet. It left her throat dry and her eyes stinging. A part of her wished Kyle could understand the monster that his father was.

Next door, the timid commotion in the master bedroom died down. It was a few moments before she heard the shower squeak. Did the bruises show on her mother’s dark skin? Did the hot water sting when it fell on them? She imagined Jeff falling asleep in her mother’s bed, wishing she could know whether he felt any guilt at all, whether he saw that her mother didn’t laugh as loud and as often as she used to, that she said less and hardly went out. Did she still love him? They were fine before Jeff, surely they would be fine after him? Sarah lay in bed, wondering how love works, and was soon asleep.

Breakfast the next morning was more of a chore than the delight that breakfasts on Saturdays should be. Even Kyle seemed out of sorts. He fussed over his Weetabix without actually eating any of it and finally pushed his bowl so close to the edge of the table that his father took him out of his seat and set him on the couch with a stern warning that he would soon be hungry and should bother no one because it was his own doing. Kyle only looked at him and giggled.

Sarah ate quietly. Her mother stayed in the kitchen. Jeff focused on the newspaper, muttering to himself here and there on the mediocrity of Kenyan politics. An hour later he picked his Father’s Day keys and walked out, wordless, and only then did Sarah’s mother emerge from the kitchen. Sarah surveyed her mother’s face as she checked on Kyle. Her upper lip was swollen, she had a band aid across her wrist, and she winced every time she bent over or lifted her arms. Sarah was angry.

“Why can’t we just leave?” she asked suddenly. She rarely broached the subject with her mother. It always seemed to be a dead end.

“And go where?” her mother returned, avoiding her eyes.

“Anywhere. Why are we still here?”

Her mother was silent. She played with Kyle, who giggled gleefully and flailed his tiny limbs about in great enjoyment. He was a baby who loved attention.

“Can we please just talk about this?” Her voice was louder than it should be, Sarah knew. She wondered if her mother could even beat her anymore. How could she?

“Talk about what, Sarah? And where would we go?” Her mother spat the words out like hot food.

Frustration rose in Sarah’s chest and clogged her throat. She steeled her gaze on her mother and saw that the iciness in her eyes matched her own. It wasn’t just a cold stare. It was a stern stare. A determined stare.

Perhaps her mother was still in there somewhere.

Sarah took a step back, feeling the pressure in her chest ease up. She turned and walked out of the room, leaving her mother to stare into Kyle’s eyes, which were so much like his father’s.


Michelle Chepchumba (@chepchumba_m) is a regular Kenyan girl who loves cats. She reads and writes to discover the mysteries of the human mind– also why she chose psychology as her field of study. When she’s not doing any of these things she’s thinking about how tomorrow will be the day she finally gets her life together.

Related country: Kenya

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