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Furlough




A short story by Keith Miller, author of The Book on Fire and The Book of Flying.



Jeremy walks past stinking racks of dried fish and the fruit-salad vendor by her cart. He walks past goat carcasses like tattered flags, fatty ribbons of meat smoking on the grill. He walks past hillocks of loquats and bullets, stolen watches, goat heads, jaggery, catechisms, arrowroot, curry powder, tire sandals.

Mama Mwemba nabs him just before he reaches the fence and drags him into the crook of her arm. She smells like sweat and smoke, and he tries to squirm away but she whacks his cheek and takes him by both shoulders and shoves him onto a bench in her kiosk. Inside, it’s cool and dark and smoky. Two enormous pans simmer on jikos—one of milky chai, a pretty brown, the other of medicine, filled with gently jostling sticks and bark. In the glass case of mandazis flies spin, and seven flies lie upturned on the greasy floor of the case. There are four men on the bench, drinking chai. Franco and T.P.O.K Jazz jangle on the radio, the guitars like rills of light. The walls of the kiosk are coated black, and soot-clotted cobwebs hang from the ceiling. On one wall is a fresh calendar, open to last month, with a photograph of a barn and a silo and the inscription: J. S. Smucker Seeds, Lancaster, PA Always a New “Beginning.”

Mama Mwemba dips up an enamel mug of tea and puts it on the sticky bench beside Jeremy, then a saucer with a cold mandazi.

“Asante,” he mutters. The mandazi is cold and dark brown, fissured where it burst in the oil. He dips the mandazi into the tea and takes a bite. The interior is pale and complicated, all hollows and filaments. It’s delicately sweet, at once soft and crispy.

The chai is so hot he must sip noisily at first, but after he’s finished the mandazi it’s cool enough that he can drink it down, milky and sweet, with a sediment of sodden crumbs. Instantly, sweat prickles out on his arms.

Mama Mwemba is plump and brown as a mandazi herself, with three shiny vertical scars on each cheek. She sits across from him, cleaning rice, and touches his arm when she asks him questions in her Kikuyu-flavored Swahili, leaving splinters of rice-husk among the little blond hairs. What does he learn at school? she wants to know. Are the teachers all wazungu? He replies through mouthfuls of mandazi and the men beside him exclaim and guffaw to hear Swahili come out of this mzungu boy’s mouth and Mama Mwemba, grabbing his knee and shaking it, tells them he’s mwenyeji.



Every third summer, Jeremy and his parents go on furlough. Jeremy’s mother does not sleep for a week before these trips, becoming paler and gaunter as the days pass, obsessively organizing and reorganizing their bags. She’ll pack them one way, taking all morning, then pull everything out and refold the clothes and pack them another way.

“Just take the brown suitcase as well and everything will fit, Priscilla,” his father says.

“No, I think I can get everything into these two,” says his mother, and starts refolding shirts.

Jeremy takes his leather Somali bag, filling it with Treasure Island, colored pencils, a chunk of eucalyptus sap (which makes an excellent glue if soaked in water), scissors, string, two packs of Juicy Fruit gum, a pair of socks, half an ear of roasted maize, and Owl, his stuffed owl.



One summer, Mama Mwemba winkles out of his mother the time of the flight.

Jeremy and his parents are standing in line at the KLM counter with their two suitcases, Jeremy’s bag, his mother’s kiondo, and a bulging plastic bag clutched by his father, containing odds and ends that his mother couldn’t fit into the suitcases, including underwear, a sweater, and a kohlrabi from his garden that he couldn’t bear to leave to rot in the fridge (and that he unabashedly slices up with his Swiss Army knife to eat with his breast of chicken in cream and mushroom sauce on the plane). They’re shuffling forward, nudging the bags with their shoe toes, when Mama Mwemba and her daughter bustle up, panting. Mama Mwemba holds a sisal bag and her daughter carries a large, lidded earthenware pot and an entire stem of finger bananas. Mama Mwemba and Jeremy’s mother embrace, and the items are handed over. The sisal bag pulses and emits a croaking as it leaves the comfort of Mama Mwemba’s breasts. Jeremy’s mother opens it and they all see the brown hen nestled within, looking up at them sideways, its eye reflecting the blue of the KLM sign. Jeremy’s mother begins to sob. Mama Mwemba grins. “It’s our turn,” says Jeremy’s father.

The stewardess behind the counter looks so crisp and fresh in her blue uniform and red lipstick that Jeremy thinks she must have just stepped out of the shower. She looks down at Jeremy’s father kindly and he does his little twinkle up at her as he pushes the three passports, thick as novellas, across the counter with the tickets. Jeremy stands next to him while his mother moans on Mama Mwemba’s shoulder. The passports checked and the boarding passes dealt out, the stewardess asks for the bags. Her composure is damaged slightly when she catches sight of the suitcases, which have handles fashioned of sisal twine and have been mended with electric wire, but she swiftly regains her smile and slips the tags on. “Anything else?” she beams. Jeremy’s mother now steps forward and places on the metal shelf the sisal basket containing the brown hen; the pot, from which rises the earthy scent of githeri; and the stem of finger bananas. Now the stewardess’s smile drops away abruptly. She tries, and fails, to summon it again, and her fingernails, bright as tomato skin, shiver as she reaches down and lifts the lid of the pot. A gout of steam rises and she claps the lid shut. She stares at Jeremy’s mother, who stares back, her cheeks wet and pink.

“You have to help me,” Jeremy’s mother says.

“I’m sorry, madam, but we do not allow—”

Jeremy’s mother puts her worn hand over the stewardess’s immaculate fingers and leans forward. “You have to help me,” she says again.

The stewardess is about to speak, but suddenly her eyes sparkle with tears. She nods abruptly. “I will see what I can do.” She speaks to a man behind her, who picks up the pot and basket and places them behind the counter. He’s about to drag down the banana stem when Jeremy’s mother orders him to stop. Taking her time, she chooses three perfect bananas and puts them in her kiondo. Then she turns to give Mama Mwemba and her daughter a last hug. Even as they enter the complicated zone of metal detectors and x-ray machines she is facing backwards, waving.



Jeremy loves flying. He listens carefully to the instructions of the stewardess and follows along in the little pamphlet, noting the emergency exits, feeling for the life-vest beneath his seat. He loves the soft blankets and the dainty headphones and the in-flight magazine, especially the section at the back with the perfumes and fancy pens and watches. Just looking at them makes him feel elegant. He reads articles on Ruisdael and Jakarta while listening to Hall and Oates and Joan Jett on the pop channel. He loves watching the in-flight movie. But more than all these he loves eating on the plane.

When the trolley comes by, Jeremy orders apple juice, as does his father, who calls it appelsaft. Then come the meals, on the little trays, with the choice of meats—Jeremy chooses beef over chicken, and anything over fish—and the dainty compartments and all the little cheeses and chocolates and crackers and butters and jams in their neat wrappers. He eats slowly, savoring each delicious mouthful, and is always astonished to see other passengers leaving half their food untouched. He looks longingly at the trays of his neighbors across the aisle, but would never be able to ask if they are not going to eat their miniature, individually wrapped Gouda.

His mother, however, has no such inhibitions. She gathers, from a wide circle around her seat, unused wet wipes to replenish her stash, chocolates, crackers, and cheeses, and even offers to finish the peas of the man next to her (he declines and, nudging his tray two centimeters farther away from her elbow, pulls out The Bourne Identity, lights a cigarette, and pretends to read).

Long after the trays are cleared away and the movie is over, Jeremy may be found in his cocoon of personal light, reading Treasure Island deep into the night, nibbling his fourth miniature chocolate bar (this one gleaned from a diabetic woman fourteen rows away, with whom his mother had struck up a conversation while waiting to use the toilet), while listening to “I Love Rock and Roll” for the sixth time.



America, in Jeremy’s experience, consists of churches, pot-luck dinners, Anabaptist relatives, and used-clothing stores. The other America, the America of girls in sunglasses driving convertibles and girls with beads and shocked hair and girls in bikini tops walking on sidewalks and girls on bicycles and girls drinking Coke from cans and girls dancing in front of enormous cassette players, he sees from the windows of cars or in the fast food restaurants they stop in out of necessity on their way from church to church.

In the churches, which are carpeted in sukuma wiki green or Maasai maroon, adults greet Jeremy with reverence and many offer anecdotes of his missionary grandparents. Old ladies take his hand and look into his eyes and nod carefully at anything Jeremy mumbles. Jeremy cannot tolerate this for more than a few minutes, and retreats to the immaculate bathrooms, where he reads a smuggled novel with his feet drawn up on the seat, waiting for the service to begin.

American church services are, in equal proportion, wonderful and horrible. The sermons are short, often less than an hour long, and are spiced with humorous anecdotes and useful adages. The singing makes him want to cry. His mother, worried that his East African upbringing has stunted his inherited Mennonite proclivity toward four-part harmony, tries to make him sing alto along with her. When that fails, she tries tenor, tapping each note with her forefinger and leaning toward him, bawling the pitch, and sometimes, in a sustained note, singing: “Uuup a bit, Jeremeee,” or “You’re heeere, Jeremeee.” Meanwhile, Jeremy’s father (whose Amish upbringing has not provided him with the necessary genes of harmony) adds to the confusion by snagging any passing notes—alto, tenor, soprano—to embellish his “bass.”

Jeremy’s mother and father are allotted five minutes each between the sermon and the offering. Jeremy’s father usually starts off with a Bible verse, then talks about sand dams. Jeremy’s mother is more inspirational, telling about drinking chai with Mama Mwemba, but the stimulus of standing in front of all the nodding faces often tips her into tears. While this is terrible for Jeremy, who sits frantically leafing through the hymnbook while his mother barks and snuffles into the microphone, it is good for the old ladies in the congregation, who likewise weep, and come up to his mother afterward with mottled faces and tell her they have never been so moved.

Following the sermon, Jeremy’s religious experience is hampered because he’s constantly alert for the dreaded word: “communion.” Usually once or twice during a furlough, they have to undergo this ritual, and now, when Jeremy hears the word, his ears instantly fill with roaring wind and he tries to sneak off to the toilet. His first escape attempt was successful, but his father now grips his knee whenever the word crops up.

The problem with communion in the Mennonite church is that there are no rules. Jeremy has been to Catholic churches and Coptic Orthodox churches and was impressed by the orderly manner in which the congregation filed to the front and received the tidy wafer from the bored priest, who mumbled his incantation. Everyone seemed to know what to do and no one was crying. But during Mennonite communions anything can happen.

Sometimes only baptized members are allowed to take communion. If this is announced beforehand, Jeremy is in the clear, and can slouch in his chair watching the haphazard proceedings and pretending to sing. But on a couple occasions, Jeremy was escorted to the front, sandwiched between his parents, and was then asked by the pastor if he was baptized. On the first occasion, Jeremy just shook his head and was sent on his way. But on the second occasion, the pastor asked the question after handing the bread over, and was then forced to take it back. The uneaten but sullied chunk of bread now posed a problem. The pastor couldn’t give it to someone else, since it had been in Jeremy’s hand, but he also clearly didn’t feel comfortable tossing it into the pink plastic wastebasket. Holding the chunk of bread in front of him, with a slightly exasperated expression, he conferred with an elderly member in the front row while everyone watched and the hymn began to falter. Finally he just ate it, and Jeremy’s father had to wait to receive his morsel until the pastor had chewed and swallowed.

If Jeremy does manage to get a piece of bread without undergoing interrogation, he is presented with several new problems. Should he eat it in place? If so, should he wait to swallow it till he heads back to his seat, or walk back chewing and looking sanctimonious? Or should he hold it in his hand until he gets back to the seat? And if so, should he cradle it in cupped palms like some do, or just clench it by his side?

The size of the morsel poses yet another problem. If the loaf is proffered to Jeremy, he can tease away a little scrap that goes down his gullet without trouble. But if the pastor is tearing off the pieces or, as is common in the groovier churches, the loaf is passed around and everyone tears off a piece for their neighbor (a technique that invariably leads to general havoc, with one row getting left out or the front rows tearing off too greedily, so there’s not enough to go around, and everyone trying to solve matters by whispering advice across the rows), Jeremy often finds himself confronted by a golf-ball-sized lump of the chewy, dense, whole-wheat bread that seems to be the norm for Mennonite communions. Taking more than one bite from the communion bread, while not specifically prohibited, seems not to be done—everyone just crams the piece whole into their mouths, so Jeremy is forced to do the same. But the terror of the ceremony has usually sapped his mouth of spit, and on more than one occasion he has, after gagging on the communion bread, been forced to pry forth the masticated wad and put it in his pocket.



Returning to Nairobi after a furlough, flying in over the savanna, seeing the thorn trees and the line of the Mua Hills and then the first shantytowns on the edge of the city, brings a little hiccup of tenderness into Jeremy’s throat. And when he smells the special eucalyptus-smoke-and-diesel-exhaust Nairobi smell and hears the first vowel-luscious morsels of Swahili, he thinks he’ll never want to leave again.

Arriving at their house, which always seems dirtier and smaller than they’d left it, Jeremy gets out the presents for the neighbor boys and puts his new books on his shelf. But it’s not until he walks with his mother to Mama Mwemba’s kiosk, to take her a new calendar and a new bright red radio and a stack of sweaters and blouses from American secondhand stores, and smells the simmering chai, and accepts from her hand a greasy, cold mandazi, that he feels like he’s really come home.



About the Author

Keith Miller

Keith Miller graduated from Goshen College in 1991. He has spent most of his life in East and North Africa, and now lives in Camarillo, California. His first novel, The Book of Flying, was published in 2004 by Riverhead Books. The Book on Fire was published by Immanion Press in 2009. He is married to author Sofia Samatar. His website is www.millerworlds.com.