by Gladys Mambo
Age Eleven. A shrub. A long avenue. A parade. She appears. Just the way I remember her; she has not changed. I recognize the innocence. An outstretched hand. A crooked smile.
"Come with me," she invites.
"I can’t," shivering from sheer shock at seeing her.
"Please come. I am happy there. You would be too if you came."
"No, I can’t. If I do, they’ll be looking for me like they’ve been looking for you for years. You did not say where you were going and everyone has been looking for you since. I can’t do that too."
The crooked smile again, except this time it is more intense. She is still very shy as she lowers her sad eyes to the ground near my feet. Her innocence and what seems to be a little sun radiate around her head. The brightness astounds me. She is wearing the short black skirt and schoolgirl white shirt I last remember her in. Little has changed.
"I cannot come. I want to but I can’t. Where are you now, anyway?"
"I’ll tell you all about it if you just come with me." She never moves her feet. She’s leaning against the shrub, her hands fidgeting with its greens. The parade continues. We both go unnoticed. It’s a different world... She cocks her head to one side but I am not mistaken - she fills up the space and I struggle to be.
"Come now. Please come, come. I came to take you to where I am and then you can tell them." She reaches for me and gently but relentlessly pulls my arm.
"I can’t. I can’t. I can’t..." and my voice echoes and eventually is fading...
The bell goes and again, I am alone in my pajamas. I am still on the upper bunk and my blanket is halfway to the ground, leaving my flustered face without a shield against her brightness. I hug myself and reach for the suspending blanket. The dormitory extends in the looming darkness as the fifty or so girls travel silently through their counterparts’ snores. Some are presently freeing their saturated bladders onto their thin mattresses as they dream that they’re squatting on a cistern. The flowerbed outside the window has ghost hairs in its shadows reflected on the walls of Fatima House. I look away from the glass panes and dreadful flowerbed shadows. I ignore the sounds from the visiting owls in Fatima, staring instead at the empty ceiling above my head. Too close for comfort, it feels like the ceiling is caving in on me. Upper bunk. The Virgin stares at me with sad eyes, her hands stretched forth to all her lost daughters wallowing in their greed and lusts. Christ looks straight ahead from the heights of his carved wood, hands above a bleeding head of thorns, into the pitch darkness of the long dormitory. I’ve had a visitor. Quite a strange guest but one nonetheless.
Age Eight. We are at it again. Up early in the morning and daring each other to run to the veranda and look. We’re excited. Our parents are still asleep and we know they should never catch us here. I open the door wide enough to peer outside. There is just the empty space between four curious eyes and IT. The block of cement brick is still lying there. It is comfortable in the February sun. The harmattan wind rages on and our lips quiver from the cold that defies the sun. It will all change by noon though. It will get really hot and dry, my bottom lip will crack due to the dryness and I will lick my own blood. Every time I open my mouth to speak or eat, it will hurt and bring forth more blood, which I will again consume generously.
We make a run for it, stay there for five seconds and run back into the house. We live on the third floor so our view of IT is clear. IT is starting to welcome the sun, swelling to acknowledge that. Today is Tuesday and it has been six days. The red and white of the torn shirt are still there although it is getting damp. The deep brownness is, however, turning to a high yellow. IT yearns for the sun further and continues to grow towards it. My eyes travel the entire course of IT, disregarding the scolding or possible whooping I will be offered without choice if Mummy or Daddy catches me.
I do not look outside my window at night. The dusty football stadium is still there, although the runners and football players have ceased to come for their daily practices or runs. Our primary school is only a five minute walk away from home and from IT. The other pupils admire our courage in dealing with IT and although we brag about our success, after this number of days my patience is beginning to wear out. The adults never wanted it there - an omen of evil. But for us kids, it was fun - for a while... and then it began invading our play, lives and our dreams. These days, no one shows up at the field - IT fills up the entire space, all of it and we hate such crisp silence.
It is Friday morning. I wake up and shower with cold water as usual. I get into my beautiful knee-length blue school dress. The trimmings around the neck and arms are white. I put on my polished black shoes and ask the others to hurry. Boys! You can never get them to do anything on time.
Today is a strange day. It’s been nine days since IT arrived, but today is the only day that I am not excited about seeing IT. The novelty of ITS presence on the side street in front of our home has worn off, although the smell is still pungent. After all these days, it just booms - it’s no longer just a smell, it is a presence, a vacuum that denies filling, a question, a fear, reality even. It assails our clothes, our shoes, our hair and our food. We children have rejected our meals on several occasions, although the kitchen faces a completely opposite direction from IT. Today, the smell is even stronger. The brown is now the highest yellow it has ever been and the protrusion is quite close, in my eight-year-old opinion, to bursting point. I can almost see through the stretches, the wiry strings underneath the thinning surface.
We leave for school and because IT has made it impossible for us to cut through the field to get to school, we have invented a new but longer way to school. I am unhappy about that. Today, some vagabond children muster the nerve to come closer to the cement block where they perceive on it a colored patch - in red. These same bold loafers come even closer to IT and lift... Two deep holes where there shouldn’t be any. I am horrified. Today is indeed an unusual day - even the sun says that. It’s burning hot at 7:30 a.m.
The last nine days, I have made my own stories about how IT got there. I ignore all the adults’ speculations. I don’t want to share my stories - I am greedy and I don’t want someone to tell them and claim ownership. I just change the plot when I feel like it and shed a tear when my story demands it. In my world, IT is alive in ITS present form, and mine to do with as I please.
It is soon 3:00 p.m. and the school day ends. We head home and then we hear. Rumors. IT is gone... Gone? Gone where? I hurry towards the field and sure enough, my IT is gone. I am happy. Hereafter, I can stare out my window without worrying about the stretching contours of the body lying undisturbed on the cold, hard concrete. The smell lingers however, stronger than ever. It is extremely hot, and the street side that this murdered boy’s corpse inhabits has quenched its own thirst from his juices. The street seeps in just enough to leave a clear trace of where he has been laying these nine days.
At the time of the good news, we clap. We all shout and celebrate. IT no longer fills our days and nights, our meals and outings, our trips to school and lunch breaks. IT no longer fills our conversations and imaginations. IT no longer invades our deadened consciences - consciences that allow a man to murder another for a mere ten thousand francs, without raising a finger. We are satisfied to have it gone from the comfort of our homes and neighborhoods, leaving behind relieved but haunted people. In a way, I am happy that IT was most kind not to have given in to the greedy sun’s demand. IT stretched far out enough to call and get help. But IT never gave in! The prisoners came in the nick of time to whisk away the disintegrating body already returning to its natural biblical form.
I stare at the image in the ground. It will be there for a few more years, despite the rain and shine. No one touches the cement block - no one has the nerve to. But a mother’s memory is etched there, among us, strangers to her and her own. A father’s pride is on the colored patch of a lone cement block. A future is lying there, having quenched the thirst of an insatiable tarred street which, like its mother earth that incessantly swallows bodies, never satisfies. I am eight and frightened. Some days, IT visits me in that place where I am not I but a voyeur, peering through a screen into my own life.
Three years later IT doesn’t visit but IT sends a most beloved emissary, although it would be another three years before her arrival. The smell of IT was pungent and evoked from deep within all things terribly disgusting and best forgotten. But when she comes, I am eleven and sleeping in an upper bunk in Rosary House. She smells of cypress - the wreaths! the wreaths! I put one of those on her wooden box back in 1987. She also smells of cypress, the kind of trees that enclose the yard into which she and grandma have relocated. But it’s her and not the cypress that almost engulfs me. I am losing grip and ready to go but oh! the morning bell saves... it saves...