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Mother, a short story by Pius Nyondo


I was seven. Short, lumpish and popeyed, with no figure to make noise about and a mess of slackly cropped black hair. Mother was walking me to school.


She had been doing it for the last three years, relentlessly, even after I told her a myriad times that I was a little kid no more.

That morning, Mother and I hadn’t walked with hurried steps as we tried to cross the last of the four rivers that lay on my way to school. We had all the time. Dawn was still breaking, and time was flowing heavy and slow and sweet like honey pouring.

‘One day son,’ Mother always said each time we stared into the eyes of the roaring Bwiba River. ‘You’ll be old enough to tell this story of your life.’

She would then step into the waters, her dress rolled up, to ascertain the water levels. It had become more of a tradition. Most of the times, she used the fat reeds that sprouted healthily on the banks. Sometimes she would walk stealthily into the waters only to retreat when she sensed drowning danger.

‘Not safe,’ she would say, and we would be gone to another spot.

Bwiba River was full and rough and crazy that early morning. Mother had repeated the water levels ascertaining-exercise over and over to no avail. It was getting late and I started getting worried. The fat, gawky wizard we had for a schoolmaster did not buy these kinds of stories as excuses for lateness. He would happily give me a pudding of his favourite six of the best, which no one looked forward to.

‘Khwima! Khwima!’  I had turned towards Mother’s whimpers.

I had shouted. Cried. She was being swung, back and forth, like a carpenter’s plane. At first I did not know the force that tossed my heavy Mother with so much ease until a throng of heavily built young men sliced open the gigantic crocodile that still had part of Mother’s leg between jaws.

She became my one legged Mother. She changed. She no longer lifted me out of my shoes and swung me around, pivoting rapidly until my body was straight out in the air as high as her waist. Life became a gallon of pus.

I walked to school with a few friends I was forced to make, as Mother, though she insisted, could not get me to school in time on her clutches. When I was selected to a nearby community day secondary school, Mother laboriously balanced a basket load of fresh vegetables and fruits each morning to sell at Bwiba Trading Centre to raise my tuition.

‘For the sake of your father, Khwima,’ Mother would say in the evenings after meals. ‘He always wanted the best for you.’

Her struggles and our abysmal standards of living became an inspiration for me; to work even harder in school.
~~~

I’m in Form Three, expected to sit for my secondary school leaving certificate of education next year. I just turned nineteen.

But Mother has been very sick. It’s her leg problem. They are early signs of cancer, the doctor has told me. We’re at Mwaiwathu Private Hospital.

The district hospital back home is out of drugs and many other medical supplies.

Mwaiwathu is such a big hospital and classy and ever fresh. The wards are not as crowded as those at Bwiba District Hospital. The doctors, too. They say they will help heal mother. I believe them. They look convincing. They speak well, with a sincerity in the tone of their voice.

‘Cancer is always effectively treated in its early stages,’ the young doctor, stethoscope hanging like a snake round his neck, says. ‘It was thoughtful of you to bring her in time.’

I want to tell him that it is not me who made it possible for mother to come here. I want to talk about Hon. Bwanali, our Member of Parliament, who left us here and disappeared. It has been three days now.

‘Please doctor,’ I say. ‘Go ahead and help me.’

‘Of course, of course Mr−,’ he turns to one of the many forms I have filled in. ‘Of course, Mr Khwima we’ll treat your mother. We need half of the bill paid to get started.’

‘Please, sir,’ I beg. ‘I will pay – next week.’

‘But you said you would today, sir,’ he says sharply. ‘We’re not a government hospital, you know.’

Of course they are not.

He walks away with quick, short steps towards the next ward. The thick smell of hospital disinfectants muddled with that of Mother’s leg is incessant. My intestines somersault. My stomach lets out a loud groan.

I stare at mother who is lying helplessly on the hospital bed, cream-white sheets covering her. I’m thinking of how I am going to raise K250 000. The nurse, who periodically comes to check on Mother’s leg, shrugs at the mention of the bill just as we do.

‘Khwima,’ Mother groans. ‘Has he come yet?’

I shake my head. ‘But I’m sure he will come Mother.’

‘Does the doctor say I’m going to live?’

‘Yes,’ I say, looking into her eyes. They are dry and weak and dying.

‘But K250 000 is too much.’

‘I will try Mother,’ my voice is shaky.

‘Try to borrow a phone and call the MP.’

‘I already tried Mother. The numbers can’t be reached.’

‘You know your father−’

‘You need to sleep. Get some rest.’

She falls back, into sleep.

The story of my Father has been retold several times. By Mother. And everyone. Young and old, short and tall. The story of my Father is a legend in the village. Father died before I was born. He was a hawker, and owned a thriving grocery at Bwiba Trading Centre. Everyone believes he was murdered on a Saturday afternoon. Mother does not forget the date. 20th November, 1996.

That day Father, who always came home before sunset, did not return. Mother reported the matter to the village head and a team of energetic young men was organised to scout through the entire village and those surrounding. The hunt yielded nothing. Father was still missing.

The following morning two women came running to Mother saying they had seen him. Father lying in a pool of his own blood just next to the village water well. When the chief, Mother and other strong villagers rushed to the scene, they found father lying there, his private parts and eyes missing.

Intense investigations were launched in pursuit of Father’s killers. Fortunately, says Mother, the killer surrendered himself over after the businessman who had hired him duped him on payment. The businessman wanted to use the body parts for rituals to expand his business empire. Albino’s parts were said to be the best for the rituals.

And Father was an albino.

‘Rituals are evil, son. They killed your Father,’ Mother says each time this story is told. ‘Work hard in school and get clean money.’

I am thinking of where to get the clean money when a hand taps at my shoulder. I hope it is Hon. Bwanali. He is supposed to be here, after all, helping us. That is what he usually does when parliamentary elections are around the corner.

‘Have you fetched the money, sir?’ it is the doctor, lighting a cigarette. It must be the last stick he has taken out for he throws away the box. It lands just next to me. ‘Smoking is hazardous to health,’ I read.

I’m seated at the portico of the emergency shelter, on one of the mahogany benches, head clasped in hands.

‘Are you OK?’

Of course I am not okay. Mother is dying.

I walk away. The minute I am out of the doctor’s sight, confusion slaps my mind like a rabid dog. I kick my legs aimlessly in the air as I walk out of the confines of Mwaiwathu Private Hospital. It is speedily getting cooler and cloudier each passing minute. It promises to rain.

‘Help, help me, please.’

I look back at the woman in crappy outfit, her hands opened up. She looks so without life, with one, two, three teeth. At first, I am tempted to beg too. But, on second thought, I am scared the recent ban government has effected to curb street begging can cause the unimaginable to me.

I don’t have to be arrested. No. At least for now.

So, I walk on, directionless. Still kicking in the air like a mad cow. Now and again, those I walk past stop to look at me quizzically and proceed with their journeys. Most say nothing; some shake their heads and others blab things I can’t grasp.

It is when a sign post announces to me: ‘Welcome to Limbe,’ that I realise I have walked some considerable distance in the strange city. My updated knowledge in geography reminds me that Limbe and Mwaiwathu Private Hospital are a distance of about one hundred football grounds apart.

Limbe lies in a hollow bowl, ringed by naked mountains. During the colonial era, it was small town. A no go zone area for black people. It has grown big and vast over the last fifty years. She is the commercial capital in the country. The heart of business and commerce. As I walk into the flesh of her, a visibly angry storm hangs over the town in massed black clouds. Thunderclaps echo from the mountains and lightening deluges the landscape. Then the rain comes down, solid and sudden as waterfall from the sky.

I ran towards the nearest building to seek refuge. It is a big shop, with a spacious terrace and enormous burglar bars. I am not lucky. At the time of my arrival at the porch, a young man – probably the owner of the shop, stout and tall – shouts at us, sending us away.

‘You’re not buying anything,’ he snarls repeatedly, like a chorus to a church hymn.

The young man pushes those that are close to him into the rain. I am one of them.

‘Khwima!’ I am about to slump into the mud when he holds me back. ‘What brings you to Blantyre?’

Of course I remember my childhood friend.

He was Peter, at least before he hit the jackpot – only God knows where – half a decade years ago. Those of us who had swam and moulded and fought countless times with him knew him as Adolf Hitler.

He was older than most of us in class, and beat if you annoyed him or talked to him in a way he didn’t like. Those were moments you would endure the punitive Peter. Most of the times he gave his most cherished therapy of having you balance on one leg, arms stretched out for hours, like a kite. Or, he would ask you to do his homework in retribution which, often, got him in problems as our class teachers always questioned his ‘rare moments of academic success.’ He would fail to convince the teachers on what, for instance, the phrases ‘in a nutshell’ or ‘far-fetched idea,’ which would at the time be neatly slotted in his composition, meant.

He was such an honest boy that each time he was cornered for these academic mischief, he bloated and confessed of one of us in the class doing it for him. The teachers would then give him punishments to do after school which we, of course, did as he looked on – belt in hands.

This dark side of Peter was, to say the least, just one side of the coin. The other face, which we enjoyed, was studded with amorous stories and adventures most of which none of us were aware about in our boyhood, even in our dreams. Ably, he used to narrate stories about ‘fuck my ass’ or ‘sexy pussies’ movies and pictures which we enjoyed the most. The other time, he brought a ‘fuck my ass’ and ‘sexy pussies’ magazine for practical experience on what he had lectured. The magazine, a few days later, got me into hellfire. Mother had caught me in the privacy of my room masturbating, my eyes looking fixatedly at some of the ‘sexy pussies.’

I was forced to let the cat out of the bag, and the matter was reported to the schoolmaster. He rusticated Peter for three weeks and told us during the assembly that we would have been sent to jail for being found in possession of the magazines. We were frightened, and recoiled to our former selves.

Long after his three-week rustication expired, Peter was nowhere to be seen. Five months later, everyone heard that Peter, alongside a colleague from the neighbouring village, had left to hunt for employment in the city. We forgot about him.

Then he made a grand appearance four years later, as Miliyoneya Peteli, when he arrived in the village with a car that breathed and a phone that literally talked. His looks confessed of a man swimming in the coveted waters of wealth. He told us, now his admirers, about the fortune he made in town. He didn’t explain how.
~~~

‘I’m sorry about Mother,’ Miliyoneya Peteli says, as we wait for a meal in the living room of his mansion at Sunnyside. ‘Don’t be hard on yourself. It will be fine.’

‘But you see,’ I say. ‘I don’t have the means to raise that money.’

‘You’ve to,’ he says. ‘Or do you want her to die?’

I shout no. ‘Please help me Peter.’

‘Do you really need my help?’

The question takes me aback. I am hoping that helping me is what, after all, he is likely to be thinking about. He has expressed interest to contest for the parliamentary seat in the village, too.

‘I must save ma,’ I say.

‘I’ll help you,’ he says walking up towards the fridge, where he takes out two bottles of Carlsberg beer. I shake my head as he hands me one.

‘You need it,’ he says pensively. ‘For what you are about to do.’

The seriousness Miliyoneya Peteli’s face wears raises lumps of flesh on my bare arms and makes my hair stand away from my neck. ‘What I am about to do?’

He nods. ‘Every rich man in this town has gone through that.’

My heart skips a beat. Nasty stories about some of the rituals people go through in their pursuits to become millionaires overnight cram my mind. Stories of people sleeping with their mothers. Stories of people sacrificing their children.

‘How much are we talking about?’

‘Two hundred thousand kwacha,’ I almost stammer with joy.

‘That’s not much,’ Miliyoneya says, empties half of the contents in his bottle in just a gulp. ‘You’ll have to do a small job for me.’

‘What job?’

‘Come.’

I trail behind Miliyoneya like rain water in after a drain, to the room across the lounge. It is tidy and spacious, except for the haunting darkness which hovers over and about like cruel death. Posted on the walls are pictures of Hollywood hip-hop superstars: Jay Z, P Diddy and Dr. Dre.  

The room is halved further by a red curtain. Miliyoneya leads the way, and I follow still, warily. I freeze the moment see an enormous casket, covered by a thick, red cloth. On top of it a white chicken lies helplessly.

‘Strangle it.’

‘What?’ I ask, bewildered.

‘You must do it,’ Miliyoneya says. ‘You need to do it. To save your mother.’

My mind still shrouded with fear, I pick up the chicken. I almost collapse at its cluck.

‘Go ahead,’ Miliyoneya says, looking on.

Mother is dying.

I strangle the chicken, eyes closed.

‘Good. Now get in.’

‘Where?’

‘Inside,’ he says opening the casket. ‘It will keep you fortified for the job you are about to do.”

‘I can’t. Just help me Peter.’

‘I am helping you. Or don’t you want the money anymore?’ his voice is a bit raised.

‘But...but...’

Rituals are evil, son. They killed your father.

‘You must save your mother, mustn’t you?’

Rituals are evil, son. They killed your father.

‘Can I have moment outside?

‘Sure. But remember you don’t have much time.’

I go out – to decide, out again and again. Warring thoughts battle in my mind, eating into my psyche like acid. It is a taboo for one to enter a casket alive. It brings about bad omen. Hon. Bwanali’s son entered a coffin in a school play, and the following week Hon. Bwanali’s wife died after a short illness.

But I must enter. I must save Mother.

Rituals are evil, son. They killed your father. We need half of the bill to get started.

When I get back, I see the shock of my life. Miliyoneya is cutting off the head of a small boy, about ten or eleven years old, with a whitish skin.

‘Stop it!’

But he continues to maim the body, like a seasoned butcher.

Papa was an albino. Rituals are evil son. They killed your father.

I am cold with fear. I’m shaking. I want to leave.

Father was an albino. Rituals are evil, son. They killed your father. We need half of the bill to get started.

No. I don’t want to leave. I must save Mother. I need to. Miliyoneya says Phiri, Banda and Msowoya have all been. Msowoya owns XXX Rent a Car. Mr Banda owns Limbe International Conference Centre and Phiri St. Mathews International Academy.

‘They’ve all done what I’m doing here at one point in their lives. They’ve all taken such risks. Getting rich is a risky business my homeboy.’

‘Here you are,’ he hands me a plastic bag drenched in blood. ‘You’ll have to deliver it to a friend of mine.’

Then he scribbles an address and a telephone number on a piece of paper cut from his notepad with his childish handwriting. He turns to a table just next to the casket, on which a skull is seated. He is watching us with his big, scary eyes and calmness that seems to say there is nothing to worry about.

‘Go. You don’t have time,’ he said, handing me a bag loaded with K1 000 notes.

When I walked out of Miliyoneya’s mansion, two things were on my mind: to meet businessman Che Yusufu as fast as I could and to make sure that I got to my mother’s hospital bed with good news.  But I was not that lucky. Immediately I hop into a minibus, people who are sitting next to me complain of a strange smell.

I’m forced to empty the contents of my plastic bag. Then something strikes me at the back of my head, really hard.

Darkness!
~~~

They have both been here. Hon. Bwanali has just left. Miliyoneya was here in the morning. They are the only contestants for the parliamentary seat in our constituency. They came to offer me their heartfelt condolences on my loss.

Mother is dead.

She died three months ago. I did not attend her funeral ceremony, and burial. Hon. Bwanali just got me released on bail. I have a murder case to answer. Miliyoneya convinced the authorities that he has no hand in the case.

Uncle Bongani is perpetually talking highly of Miliyoneya Peteli. He is a good man, Uncle Bonga brags. He bought an elegant casket for Mother sleep in, he adds. He is likely to win the elections, he brags still.

But each time, even in my reveries, the contents of the plastic bag Miliyoneya gave me – to save Mother – haunt me. Until now, Hon. Bwanali’s phone cannot be reached, in my reveries, when I try it – to save Mother.

They have both been here. Hon. Bwanali has just left. Miliyoneya Peteli was here in the morning.

I will vote.


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