BY
ASANTE LUCY MTENJE
It is the summer just before the rains. The blouse I had worn that day clings stubbornly to my torso as I try to shift my tired body on the reed mat. My sister, who is lying next to me, looks at me as if to ask if I was okay. I mumble something inaudible and she squeezes my hand as if to tell me to be strong. I smile at her despite the obvious pain in my eyes and the heaviness of my chest. My sister had a way of holding me together even when she too was falling apart. I suppose that came with the responsibility of being the eldest, of always being told to look after the younger ones. It was a job she did very well. Seated next to me on my right side, my mother seems to have become unsettled with my movements too. She runs a hand over my back for a few seconds the way she used to when I was little. I think she is worried I might become hysterical again like in the afternoon when I saw him. Everybody is.
Fifteen minutes later my mind still refuses to settle down. It travels to another summer before the rains many moons ago. I am seven years old again. Clutching the thin blanket to my chest, I listen to the shallow breathing of my three cousins lying next to me, prostate like the lifeless body in my grandmother’s house next door. I will always dream of that face, frozen, expressionless. I think to myself. Is that what it means to die? Nafe, my seven year old cousin, my age mate, suddenly breaks into my melancholic thoughts when she wrestles the blanket away from me, leaving my torso bare. It is no use trying to wrestle it away from her. She always does that whenever we sleep on the same mattress. Taking, that is what she is good at, even during the day. Agogo, our grandmother has spanked her several times for refusing to share with us. She says Nafe will be a mean old lady when she grows up, nobody will want to be her neighbor if she continues taking and not giving. Of course my cousin Nafe doesn’t really care what Agogo thinks. She is stubborn like that. I suspect she has now gotten so used to being spanked that she doesn’t feel the pain anymore. “She has taken after her mother. Growing up her mother was naughty too,” I once heard my mother say to my father one holiday when Nafe came to our house for the end of year break. It was also during that same holiday that my mother, tired of seeing my tear stained face, gave me permission to hit Nafe back. She never hit me again after that.
Without the blanket, I can freely toss and turn in the October heat. I wish I could open the window, the only one in the tiny, ant infested room. I wish I could let the moonlight flood the room to keep me company, to warm my heavy heart. Is that what death makes you feel? I can’t sleep. I continue to listen with envy at my cousins’ peaceful breathing. I wonder if, in their sleep, they can smell the faint rancid urine deeply embedded in the mattress. Turning to lie on my belly, I put my head close to the mattress to breath in the stench, to determine how old the urine is. My mother once told me that the age of urine can easily be determined by how strong the stench is. She has always had a strong nose. When we were younger, she could always tell if my sister and I had wet the bed even before coming to our bedroom. And covering the soiled sheets with blankets did not help to hide it from her either. In fact, it only got us a beating for being deceitful.
I breathe in the mattress gently. I hastily pull my head back when the stench chokes me and I clutch my neck as I cough incessantly for a few seconds. I glance at my cousins. None of them wake up. So Abiti Mtambalika’s children wee wee too. I smile despite myself. My grandmother’s neighbor, the owner of the mattress, has two obnoxious teenage girls who take pleasure in making us carry heavy pails of water on our heads whenever we visit our grandmother. Abiti Mtambalika’s daughters are mean and hurtful girls who taunt us for living in the city. It pleases me to think that it must be their stinky urine which had shrank and stained this old mattress.
Suddenly, a sharp wail from my grandmother’s house pierces through the silent night and I hear the other voices join in the wailing. “Achimwene, you are here!” I hear the wailers say and I immediately realize that my uncle, mwini mbumba, the head of the clan, whom we had all been waiting for has finally arrived for his father’s funeral. The wailing is uncontrollable and I strain my ears to listen to what the women are saying in the midst of their tears as they escort my uncle into the house. Earlier when we arrived, they had done the same for mother. Overwhelmed by grief, no one had stopped us from following my parents inside the house to the living room where the body lay in state. As per custom, children are not allowed to see a dead body or attend a funeral. So my sister and I had innocently closely followed them into my grandmother’s house. I will never forget the sight of my mother as she collapsed in front of her father’s coffin, broken, lost, shaking violently as if possessed by an angry demon. I will never forget my father’s feeble attempts to calm down my mother, his humble efforts to cage her in his arms, to protect her from hurting herself. It was my grandmother, weeping softly and sitting next to her husband’s coffin that had calmed my mother down. It was my grandmother, broken but still strong that had laid my mother’s head on her lap and wiped her brow as if she was a little girl again. It was already too late when the women realized that there were children in the room. The meaning of a funeral had already left a print on my mind.
I must have been moaning or something as my mother pats me back to the present. I realize that my head is now lying on her lap. While my mind wandered off to the past, my gaze had remained transfixed on my father’s ivory casket throughout the monotonous wailing of my aunt, my father’s sister, who had arrived about half an hour ago. My mother pats me again and I raise my head from her lap to look at her eyes, hollow and puffy. Suddenly I feel selfish for draining her strength, for letting her comfort me when the sight of my father confined in a casket made me realize that I was never going to hear the soothing tenor in his voice again. It had finally hit me that cancer had really robbed us of an anchor. My mother tells me she wants to go out to stretch her legs because she has been sitting all afternoon. As she gets up from the mat, she refuses to be held by my aunt, Nafe’s mother. Wordlessly, my aunt allows her younger sister to walk unaided and they quietly walk to the door. As I watch my tired mother wobble to the exit, I sigh heavily, hoping to fill the emptiness in me. So is this what death made you feel? Ten years later, I find myself echoing the same question I had asked my seven year old self.

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