Archive for January, 2013

(I submitted this for a short story competition last year, 2000 words, title: the secret. I never heard back from them, so will assume I didn’t win! Seems a pity to let it languish in a folder on my computer, so here it is).

As I stand at the foot of her open grave I can hear them, their words a coven of crows, squabbling as they scavenge at my feet. They think they are discreet as they stand at a distance beside the lone acacia tree; their broken umbrellas, spokes fractured and draped in torn black fabric, drip onto the parched grass.  Standing close together, barely a sliver of sky appears between the spaces left by jutting elbows and skirts, which cling soddenly to legs and thighs. Their anger and fear flows in a torrent across the space which both divides, and connects us, to the one thing that we are bound by. For we know something, these women and I; it swirls around us like smoke from a fire, and we carry its scent wherever we go.

The smell of the earth rises up to meet me as splashes of water streak against the dark chocolate of my skin. How long I stand here I do not know, my mind blank and unresponsive. The rain continues to fall, softly and at an impossible angle, so that my umbrella proves a useless shield against its presence, and tiny drops settle weightlessly onto my lashes. I am wearing my mother’s only jersey, for it is the first time in many months that the air is cool and the rain is whispering around us. In this place the days are bone dry, the air steeped in a heat so overwhelming that it is nearly impossible to breathe. It seems right that today has softened, the edges smoothed and the air inviting, as if preparing the heavens for my mothers arrival. It was not a large gathering; my siblings and I, her few faithful friends and of course, the onlookers. Those that refused to pay their respects, but circled like vultures over a kill, waiting patiently for us to leave so they could weave their stories of hate and slander.

Out of the corner of my eye I see her move away from the women sheltering under the acacia tree and make her way towards me. She is a large woman, moving slowly but determinedly. I lift my head and stare her straight in the eye; let her come, let her try and rile me. For today I feel bold enough to fight back, to voice the many thoughts which have swarmed in my head like locusts these past months. As she nears I prepare myself, my body tenses and my mouth opens to respond but before I can say anything, she spits at my feet, leaving a yellowish foam on the shine of my school shoes. I am so shocked I can barely contain the tremble which flies through my body. This woman’s hate is greater than anything I have ever experienced, greater even than the force which took my mother.

I feel small hands plucking at my skirt; tentatively, shyly. It is my littlest sister, my mother’s favourite, and the one who is most lost in this time of uncertainty. Together we leave my mother’s grave and wander down the dirt track towards the home, which I at fifteen, now run. My siblings, all four of them, are waiting for me, expecting from me, a way forward into this unknown future.

It is a new day and we wake under a haze of sadness; I hurry the children, forcing them into their school uniforms, giving mine over to my sister who has outgrown hers, and anyway, I have no need for it. School and education is now a dream from my old life, in this my new life, I am mother and provider. I take hold of my mother’s homemade broom and begin to sweep the dusty floor of our hut. As I sweep images of both my past and my future float before me, and I think carefully about who I can trust and who can help me raise this family of mine. My situation is not unique, I know of many girls, girls I went to school with, who one day did not arrive at the gates, who did not sit next to me in class. They simply vanished from our realm of existence. You would see them from time to time, girls who had become women under the weight of their new responsibility.  I am that girl now, that new woman, so I face the day and look out across the huts which slowly emerge as the mist burns off in the morning heat.

Something is happening in the village; there’s a sense of excitement but also a hint of fear. A stranger has arrived and behind him trails the pollution of the outside world. He is a tall man but terribly thin, his skin drawn over the sharp bones of his face, pulling his lips up and revealing large white teeth. He takes slow and measured steps and it’s as if he knows this place, our little village. No one has spoken to him, yet his path is set. He stops at the entrance of a hut I know well, only because I avoid it daily, taking the long route home so as not to invite the wrath of the woman inside. He waits, his hands fluttering by his sides, and then he propels himself up the sandy path and enters the open doorway. Suddenly a horrible wailing, a feral keening, can be heard clear across the village. A sound so primitive my heart almost bursts through my breastbone as it beats a furious tattoo in my chest. I have to sit on the bed as my legs have grown weak and a sweat has broken out on my brow. For all the agony and torment she has caused me, I cannot find even a hint of pleasure in the pain this woman is unable to contain; for I know this pain and it should not be borne alone.

For what seems like days there is no movement in or around that hut of agony. We all watch secretly as we go about our daily chores; sweeping the path for longer than necessary, slowly hanging the washing out to dry, or tending the vegetable garden in the midday sun. Many days go by and we are not rewarded for our efforts, soon we grow bored of watching and waiting, and village life resumes, the hut and its occupants forgotten for now.

I am sitting up late one night mending a tear on a shirt. My eyes strain as I try to thread the needle by the dim light of a candle. The children are fast asleep and I feel comforted by the steady exhalation of breath, and the occasional murmur. Before I even hear the noise my body has responded to the change in atmosphere, my skin pimples and prickles. It happens so quickly I am not sure I really heard it. I wait, my body angled and my head titled, hoping that I imagined it. But as I relax into my seat, the sound returns, a soft shuffling on laboured breathing. There is someone outside. I rise slowly from my chair, the needle and thread held high, ready to complete their loop. I’m not sure what to do so I blow out the candle and immediately regret it for now I cannot see where I am going, the darkness is so complete. The shuffling stops at the door to our hut and a tentative knock against wood can be heard. That simple act calms my frayed nerves; surely a robber would not be so polite as to knock. My hand pats the table in search of the box of matches and as I light the candle, a glow floods the small space and I take a few quick steps to the door. I grasp the handle and push the door outwards, shielding myself behind the frame, just in case. In the triangle of light a familiar form stutters, moving back and forth on unsure feet.

I let her in; what else can I do. It is late and the cold air seeps in through the open space, so I hurry her in and shut the door behind us. She sits heavily on the only chair we own and looks up at me with haunted eyes. She is a shade, a shadow of her former self. As I stand before her I realise she is no longer a woman to fear; the hatred which enveloped her like a cloud ebbs away in the soft light of the candle.

“Ma”, I whisper, “why did you come?”

Her eyes slide down to focus on her knees and I must wait some time for her to gather her thoughts, and her courage. Eventually she takes a deep breath, her body preparing itself for what she is about to say. She begins to talk and a rambling tale unfolds, describing the life of a favourite son, the apple of her eye. I did not know this boy; he had left our village when I was still a child. He left in search of a better life, like so many of our young men he packed his bags and headed for the city, hoping to make something of himself. Every year she would wait for him to return, to bring back a wife and to start a family. She hoped he would return a rich man, a man of means who would provide for her in her old age. She dreamt of a bigger house, a velvet sofa and a full set of pots and pans. Every year she waited, but he never returned. He never wrote nor sent a message with relatives. He simply disappeared. Her loneliness turned to sadness which in turn gave way to bitterness, a black stone of anger grew in her chest, replacing her soft heart. Over time she allowed herself to forget about her boy, never mentioning him again, pushing him into the dark places of her mind.

She looks up at me, tears slowly falling onto brown hands clenched tightly in her lap, and the words trip off her tongue, “I was jealous of you and your mother; I would watch you each and every day and my jealously turned quickly to a kind of hatred. I was angry that she had a daughter like you, a daughter to share her life with, while I had a nothing but a son who was dead to me. When your mother became ill I felt a surge of gratitude, I felt like I was no longer alone.”

When she talks of my mothers illness she holds up three shaking fingers; for no one calls it by name, no one invites it in. Those three fingers speak of the shame and secrecy that surrounds this illness, an illness which takes our young men and women, our mothers and our fathers. It robs grandparents of their twilight years as they now raise tiny grandchildren and sullen teenagers who no longer want to live a traditional way of life.

She is gazing into the distance; no longer sitting in my hut as she continues to speak,

“I never imagined he would come home at all, I had dreamt about it often but I never truly believed he would return. I have buried him many times in my head; I have cried at his grave and thrown sand on his coffin. So I wasn’t prepared. I did not expect it. He walked through the door, a skeleton of a man, and I knew two things: here is my son, my favourite boy, and that he is dying.”

Three fingers suspended in the light cast long shadows against my wall.  My throat is tight with tears and the agony of loss and sadness. This woman will bury her son, this golden child who did not share his life when it was filled with hope and happiness, but instead came home to die, an empty husk, in the arms of his mother.




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