by Agnes Munthali
First prize winning short story in the 2020 Makewana’s Daughters competition
If I could fly back in time and redo all the things I had done, I wouldn’t be standing in this mirror right now looking at my well painted face. Of course, the lipstick I wore is now faded from brushing my lips to his, the man lying on the bed behind this toilet mirror, the wall next to this toilet mirror. So this is me, but it would not have been me if I had flown back in time.
If Mama had told me what she used to tell me when I was eleven, I wouldn’t be wishing to turn back in time now that I am seventeen. Mama always said, “Zanmi take care of yourself’’, and I did…I showered twice a day, my room was always tidy. My short hair was always combed. “Mama, I took care of myself.” But that’s not what she had meant. At eleven, it meant “stay clean,” but now, at seventeen, Mama’s words mean “Take care of yourself”.
If Mama had woken up from her sleep on that rainy morning, I wouldn’t have been in this room today trying to define me, or the Zanmi in the mirror that looks like the Zanmi me but is nothing like me. She might have had an asthma attack and couldn’t reach for her inhaler. We found her down on the floor with her left hand an inch away from her medicine bag. Mama rested and is still resting till today. And I keep saying “mama wake up” with a little sob even in my sleep. Well, my sister tells me that sometimes.
If Mama told us we have no one but us in the world, we wouldn’t have misused that money they deposited for us. But my twenty-one-year-old sister and I squandered it all…at least Mama left us a house. So we have shelter. But Mama did not leave us money to last us a life time. She left us a lot of words that keep fading with time.
If Mama had written all those things down I would have known exactly what she wanted me to do. Or, I would have been going back to the words and reading them again so I wouldn’t mess up. But she didn’t write anything. Mama always said, “Let your hearts be the books of the words I tell you.” Mama always spoke like she knew what tomorrow would bring. Like we were soldiers and she was training us for a war. She did a good job, because as I am fighting every day in this battlefield I come out alive, yes, but with scars.
If Mama hadn’t called herself “mama lawyer” I would have been married by now. She told me when I grew up I would be a lawyer. So that was Mama’s dream not mine. She badly wanted to be called that, I saw it in her eyes, in her voice, that authoritative voice that roared with determination. Mama wanted me to learn, to go to college and be a lawyer. So when Mama did not wake up that morning, I wanted to make her proud so I worked hard in school and now here I am, studying law.
If Mama had told us how to manage money so well I wouldn’t have been jumping from bed to bed trying to find money for my tuition and upkeep. If Mama had told us life is hard out here in black and white, I would have known that the only colors aren’t only the ones on the rainbow. If Mama had told us…. If Mama had told us.
If Mama had told us words like “sugar daddy” and “blesser” aren’t just words coined to entertain ears and the tongue, if Mama told us they were coined for survival. I would have kept that at least to tell my sister not to drop out of school and find a way to survive.
If Mama had told us we did not have a dad. Oh, she did. She said Dad died on his way home from drinking. Dad used to drink so bad, Mama always said. And he came home late every night just when the moon was up above. All shiny, and dangling to its fullest burst. Mama said Dad came home and slapped Mama every night after his usual night service. And in the morning, Mama made Dad tea every day, boiled water for him to bath. Mama said she respected Dad.
But that one night when the moon didn’t shine, Dad still came home drunk as usual. He tried to pick on Mama, so Mama told us. On that moonless night when Dad raised his hand on her, Mama struck back and Dad fell to the ground. Mama said after that Dad never walked under the moon again. Dad never drank again. Dad never raised a hand on mama again. He rested and Mama didn’t have to wake up every morning to boil water for Dad anymore.
If Mama said, “You weren’t wrong Zanmi, u was only trying to survive, what you do to survive doesn’t define you,” then you had to listen. Mama meant exactly what she said. After I told Mama I had slapped a boy who tried to touch my buttocks at school she said, “You were only trying to survive.” When I told Mama I stole someone’s pen because I lost mine she said, “Zanmi you were trying to survive. “
If Mama hadn’t made survival sound so important. But anyway; she did. Now I am surviving. I tell that to Yewo, my big sister, every time she pays me a visit at my law school with her two-year-old daughter whose name is Tapiwa after Mama. She says, “Stop selling your body.” And I look at her with a lot of mixed up feelings. Anger, pity, annoyance, irritation all the bad feelings in one boiled pot.
And I tell her ” I am surviving. Mama taught me to survive and I am trying to survive. The men in my bed pay for my tuition and give me upkeep allowance. I am surviving”.
Then she tries to act vice parent and says, “You misunderstood Mama’s words. Besides, you have to start listening to me now, Mama is gone but I am here, dead birds don’t sing Zanmi, they don’t.”
I look at her and say, “To me, they do…dead birds sing…lovelier than the live ones.”
If I flew back in time, I don’t know what I would have changed. But I want to change something that wouldn’t get me into multiple beds with multiple men. If I flew back in time I would have interpreted mama’s words in a “take care of yourself’’ type of way. If I could fly back in time, I could have survived but not like this, in a different way where I am looking at myself in the mirror, yes, but not like this, not in the way that a hungry old man waits for the tender me in a hotel bed.