“Growing up” by Nzube Ifechukwu

 

JAFearB-F3-TheSurviving


Today, our guidance and counselling teacher taught us the meaning of growing up. “Growing up,” she said, pacing up and down the cramped space in front of the class, “does not necessarily have to do with age.

“It has to do, instead, with the mind. You could be thirty and still think like a kid who just turned seven.  Remember that myth about seven being the age of reason? And you could be seven. Okay, seven may be an illogical overstatement. Let’s say fourteen. You could be fourteen and think like you’re forty.”

When I was fourteen, I began to wobble on the word ‘God’ and wondered if those who easily uttered it as though it were some word of greeting felt what I felt. Na God, God dey, by God’s grace, they would say impulsively at a question about their well-being, feats they achieved or something they intended doing.

Since then, I’ve felt my heart twitch at that G-word, something akin to a deep-rooted unanswered question; an unutterable doubt. I still say ‘God bless you,’ after an acute heart twitch or when I deeply appreciate a kind gesture done to me. Often though, I add ‘your’ before the word–I can’t even utter it now–and visualize the ‘g’ in lower case.

I told Mum, whom I always confide in with every issue, when I had the first twitch. “What should we call that one?” alarmingly escaped her full lips, so I knew the issue was a bog where no one dared tread lest they slipped and dislocated their hips. “You shouldn’t feel that way. Just believe. Believe.”

In the classroom this morning, I learned what that could be called: growing up.

•••

Dad has not grown up. He still goes to church every Sunday and swallows every gibberish the priest spews, hook, line and sinker. I still go, too, but only because Dad will toss me out of the front balcony of our flat if I don’t.

If he could do so to Abụchi and Nneka–now don’t be a fool, he didn’t actually throw them downstairs from the balcony–big boy and girl like them, how much more me?

Over the years, we’ve had to bear the brunt of Dad’s training; the harsh scolding and flogging with twisted wire at the slightest, most trivial erring.

“Nnaa, this is not the way to rear children,” Mum would say each time he hit us. “You’ll inflict them with perpetual foolishness by hitting them so.”

Later, she would boil water, bathe us and rub Robb all over our bodies, all the while saying, “He remains your father. He means well. I’m sure he’ll mellow by the time you’ve grown up.”

But Dad never mellowed, grew up. At any rate, he grew, has grown, worse.

•••

One day when Nneka–big girl like her–had completed secondary school and began to plait her hair and I just turned fourteen, Dad beat her till she became a mash, like the alibo we often eat.

I don’t remember how it all started, but I know Nneka sassed Dad and Dad asked her who she sassed and she threw her face away and did as though it wasn’t her Dad was talking to and made to leave–see Nneka oo! Dad’s face became puffy that instant, like he just woke up from sleep, and his eyes became bloodshot, like he just took snuff, as he yanked Nneka back by her left arm.

Then he socked Nneka on the face. Then he socked her again, and again, and again. He wouldn’t stop even when Nneka dribbled tears and blood and snot and saliva from her eyes, mouth and nose. And Nneka–wherever went that Dad-dread?–was all the while hurling incoherent abuses at Dad.

Dad held her tightly by the collar of her blouse as he unbuckled his leather belt. He pushed her to the ground and flogged her on all her body. Yet Nneka wouldn’t shut up as she thrashed and rolled on the floor of the living room.

Nneka was really unlucky that day; Mum had travelled home to Ichi for August meeting.

I burst into tears, pleading with Nneka to shut up. Did she want Dad to kill her? But, apparently, she was bent on dying, as she continued abusing Dad. My sobs had heightened when, miraculously, Dad stopped hitting her. I muttered ‘thank God’ for the first time in months without wobbling on the word or feeling any heart twitch. Nneka fell asleep almost immediately and I watched her, her wounds and welts, till my lids succumbed to the pounding in my head and I slept, too.

•••

“Sorry, Nne,” I said when we were in the bathroom later that evening.

She smirked, a gleeful stretch of her lips that exposed two buck teeth. Her stark naked body was draped in red welts and her face was bumpy like Papa’s yam farm at Ichi with mountainous ridges.

“You shouldn’t have talked back at him.” I peeled off my black nylon underpants.

She glanced down at my sparsely haired vulva. “I wanted to deflate his blom-blom ego,” she drawled, as though the movement of her jaws and lips caused her pain.

“Sorry.” I fought the hot tears that raged within me.

“He told me sorry. He took me to Doc’s shop. Come.” She bent her face towards mine. “My face reeks of Spirit, doesn’t it?”

I didn’t smell antiseptic; her warm breath was what hit me.

She moved away and, with lightning-speed, stooped over the bucket and splashed water on my belly. I shuddered with a chill. I moved to splash her, but she gripped my arm, giggling. I used the other hand and she let out a soft gasp and swivelled in a circle. We splashed more water, all the while giggling and trying to block each other but those subsequent splashes didn’t have the ice-cold chill of the first.

•••

Dad quarrelled with Mum about a year later, when Nneka had become a campus babe who wore heavy make-up, wore skin-clinging nylon trousers, and said ‘as in’ and ‘like seriously’ several times in a conversation.

He had come home from the market one evening chuntering to no one in particular about how nowadays girls preferred to ‘spoil’ before getting married. Mum and I were in the kitchen preparing onugbu soup and Abụchi had gone to fetch water at Bishop’s place. We knew it was about Nneka—not as though we would have asked if we didn’t—who was away at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka.

“Nne Nneka,” Dad hailed from the passageway linking the kitchen to the living room when no one responded to his chuntering. “So it’s a dog that has been barking, eh?” I stopped pounding the pepper and crayfish in the mortar immediately he called Mum, fraught.

Mum’s reply amused as much as it surprised me. “Dog kwa?”

“Didn’t you hear what I was saying about your daughter?” His footsteps could be heard approaching the kitchen.

Mum turned on her low stool to face him. “Did I know it was her you were talking about?”

Dad was dumbfounded as he stared at her, chagrin glinting in his eyes.

“But I think we have been through this” Mum continued. “If Nneka suddenly realized, like you think, though I know she has known all the while, that she can’t live with the man, then why not let her be? Nne is still a baby. She’ll still find a man she’s comfortable with. If it’s about money, a richer man will come.”

“O, o!” Dad exclaimed. “So you knew all this while? Yes, Nneka is a suckling! Because I sent her to university. Some of her mates, haven’t they nursed up to three babies?”

“Not only three, seven! Yes, I knew. You shoo away your children, that’s why they tell you nothing.” I tugged at a fringe of Mum’s wrapper, a silent plea to her to keep quiet. “Leave me!” she cried, and, in my alarm, the bulbous handle of the pestle hit my chin. “Pound what you were pounding, ọsọ!”

•••

Abụchi and I were in the kitchen to drink water when we heard Dad’s voice. We had been playing swell on the back balcony, hopping about on one foot within a wide rectangle of smaller rectangles. Was Dad back already? He had left for a Catholic Men’s Organization meeting at the church. Fearful, Abụchi dropped the glass he had been slurping from. The rasp of the chattering glass grated on my ears.

“Ha for this Abụchi! What kind of Dad-dread is this one kwa?” I snickered.

He made no attempt to deny that Dad’s voice and presence were a terror to him, like I would have. “Fast fast, let’s pack it before he sees it,” he panted, his embarrassed tone charged with a ring of self-pity.

I felt bad that I’d mocked him. I dashed towards the kitchen door and took the dustpan and broom propped up against the wall behind it. We had disposed of most of the bigger splinters when a dark silhouette loomed around the kitchen door. My knees were already buckling, my heart pounding, when I looked up and saw Mum.

“These children.” Mum cast a sympathetic eye over the scene. “Such haste! He remains your father, warts and all. You shouldn’t fear him.”

We both said nothing. Mum was the towering guardian angel that kept watch over us as we hastily, carefully disposed of the tiny shards.

The next day, at the dining table after church, Abụchi requested for an audience. He was going to leave home because of Dad. He couldn’t stay with him any longer. He needed peace of mind. He’d find some relatives to stay with or go and stay with Papa in the village. Anybody, anywhere but here, not with Dad. Abuchi’s belongings were ready. He’d packed them last night.

Dad swallowed hard, as though he choked on a chunk of akara. He got up quietly and went towards Abụchi’s room. Next, we saw him carrying out luggage to his own room.

“Nnaa,” Mum called out to dad with an affection she hadn’t expressed in a long time. “This is why your son would want to do these kinds of things, abscond from home. Why confiscate his luggage?”

Dad returned to the table and snatched Abụchi’s phone, with a speed that upended the big bowl of pap.

“Do you think you can stop him this way?” Mum continued, her tearful voice having lost some of its affection.

“I see you’re the one backing them,” Dad responded matter-of-factly.

“Yes.” The tears now flowed. “Why won’t I back them? Do you think you’d still be a father today if I had added to their horror by treating them the way you do? They all would have been dead by now.”

Dad seemed to have no time responding to what he always offhandedly dismissed as ‘women’s talk.’ He went out through the back door of the living room and returned with the gate key.

That key, clasped by a stainless steel ring, had been in my custody. I usually left it in the keyhole on the padlock – Mum and Dad had a spare each – since Abụchi finished secondary school and joined Dad at Ochanja.

Mum and I spent the Sunday with Abụchi in his room. She tried to convince him not to run away from home, stating that she’d die if he did. Abụchi just sat on his bed with his back against the wall, knees bent up towards his chin, and stared at whatever. I lay prone beside him, my elbow propping my torso, and watched his big misshapen feet with bulging insteps.

I fell asleep beside him and woke up very hungry. The curtains were drawn back and the sun rays came in through the polycarbonate window, blinding my eyes. Mum and Abụchi were not in the room. I went outside and saw Abụchi closing the toilet door behind him. Mum was in the kitchen drinking from a bottle of chilled water. I padded towards the cupboard.

•••

Dad detained Abụchi for a week and ran every errand that would have had him leave the flat. He told Abụchi he didn’t need his help again at the shop and made sure he was at my school just before or after dismissal each day to pick me up since he’d confiscated my key.

But after a week he began to tire or think Abụchi wouldn’t run away again. Abụchi began to fetch water again and run other errands that were his due. In the evening of his second day of freedom, Abuchi went to dispose of refuse at Nwaṅgene when the sun was only beginning to turn into the orange-red of rusted iron.

His prolonged absence only struck Dad, who was recumbent on the brocaded sofa in the living room watching Akkwa on ABS, when Mum came from the kitchen and said, “Is Abụchi not yet back?”

Dad flared up, a stoked fire. “I’ll beat the drum of the spirits for this child to dance!” He flounced out of the room, wearing his black polo shirt which had been on his lap while he watched TV.

I went to the front balcony and leaned on the iron railing. It was twilight. I saw Dad skitter across the busy road our house was along and continue his flouncing into the squalid expanse of rank puddles and garbage and fresh and decaying pig turds that is Nwaṅgene. Mum joined me in the balcony and we hoped in brooding silence for Dad to return with Abụchi.

•••

Our house has been as sombre and taut as Obinagụ Cemetery since Abụchi disappeared. Dad had reported to the police the next day, even given them Abuchi’s picture where he clutched theugili tree in the church compound, but it’s over a week now and he is yet to be found.

Dad reported to ABS, too, and they showed the picture that night during the commercials before Akk wa, with ‘missing boy’ written in a bold red font just above his head. Dad sulks and stays alone in the Master bedroom he shares with Mum after market each evening. He doesn’t watch Akk waagain, on the telly anymore. His eyes are always swollen, like he just stopped crying.

Mum sleeps in Abụchi’s room; that space with bare floors and decrepit household tools stacked at a corner and mosquitoes buzzing endlessly like Dad’s Volvo engine. She doesn’t tell me stories of her brilliant students anymore, of Abụchi’s namesake whom she said was more brilliant than she. We just cook in a disconcerting silence that amplifies the pounding of pestle in the mortar, the sizzling of frying oil on fire and the gurgling of washing water in the sink.

Dad still has my key and comes just in time to pick me up. He has mellowed; he doesn’t howl and glower at me anymore. He strokes my hair, chucks me under the chin, calls me ‘my dear daughter.’

•••

Dad has taken too long to come pick me up today. Is this my chance to find Abụchi? I trundle out of the school premises. Dad hasn’t put in enough effort in the search. How can he trust the police and the ABS people so? So he can have time for his shop? Is Abụchi not worth much more than money? Those police and ABS people–who knows if they still show Abụchi?–only care about the money Dad paid them, not Abụchi’s whereabouts. Lock up your shop, ransack every crevice of Onitsha, search and search till you’ve found your one son!

Let me take this bend, the other is a cul-de-sac. I’ll search and search, stare at every boy’s face I come across to be sure he’s not Abụchi. No going home until I’ve found him, I must find him. We will return home together this evening and Mum and Dad will sleep together again. Life will return to that hollow husk of a home this evening.


Nzube Ifechukwu grew up in Onitsha, where he was born on May 25 1992, and Ichi, his father’s hometown. He holds a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. He has published poems in English and Igbo and an Igbo translation of a fable by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, all on Jalada.

Credits: Bonus Edition, Jalada 05: The Fear Issue

fear bonus cover

**

Editor: Wanjeri Gakuru

Fiction Editors: Abdul Adan, Zak Waweru

Poetry Editor: Richard Ali

Cover Art (Source Image): John Jennings, Get Out, Buck!, 2017. Digital Media.

Cover Design: Marziya Mohammedali.


First published in July 2018
ISSN 2413-0524

© Jalada Africa Trust, 2018
P.O. Box 45140
Nairobi 00100
Kenya.
letters@jalada.org

Copyright © 2018 by Jalada Africa.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, reprinted, or reposted elsewhere without the prior permission in writing of Jalada Africa.

For enquiries concerning reproduction of selections from this anthology, write to jaladaafrica@gmail.com


Creative Commons License
JA 05: Bonus Edition by Jalada Africa is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at http://jalada.org/about/.

Bonus Edition, Jalada 05: The Fear Issue

fear bonus cover


First Part


» ・“The Girl That Wears Fear On Her Skin” by Adedayo Agarau ・“Haunt Me Well” by Daniel Many Owiti ・ “Ice” by Janneth Mornan-Green ・“The Devil Came Home” by Waiganjo Ndirangu ・ “From the Insects under Your Skin” by Megan-Leigh Heilig ・ “Next Time” and “This Time” by Sitawa Namwalie ・“The Lonely Chord” by Gloria D. Gonsalves ・ “A Petition to the Heavens” by Caiphus Mmino Mangenela ・“And on the Seventh Day” by Nomali Minenhle Cele ・ «


Second Part

»・“A Place Within” by Vivian Uchechi Ogbonna ・“Brown Boy” By Osahon Ize-Iyamu ・ “Social Anxiety” by Lydia Kasese・ “One Hundred Lashes” by Jason Mykl Snyman ・  “The Playlist” by Laila Le Guen ・ “Purple” by Olubunmi Familoni  ・ “The Enlightenment II” by Uchenna Franklin Ekweremadu ・ “Lines Found In A Black Croxley Notebook” by Abigail George・“Growing up” by Nzube Ifechukwu・ «


Credits

 

“Lines Found In A Black Croxley Notebook” by Abigail George

JAFearB-P1-AbigailGeorge


Daylight is merely
repetition. Fear too. Mania
days deserve their dress rehearsal too.
The project management
style of Elijah and
Job are housed there.
Chapters of swimmers
worshipping their childhood summers.
She was my videotape.
She was my pursuit.
Now age and infirmity surfaces
intent on possession.
Underneath the sea
I wrote a letter to myself.
Called it poetry.
I’m turning into
my mother and
I am loving every minute of it.
Every make-believe,
imaginary, flying
on the seat of fear’s pants
minute of it. She
came from the Johannesburg people.
The tribe of girls who
played tennis but to
me she was a closed
book. In her presence
I wore a blindfold.
Daily she was my assassin.
She’s electric.
A rose in each cheek. Stars in her hair.
She burns me up.

Reading to me
was like eating.
Eating spaghetti
bolognaise on
a rainy day. I never thought of asking
her if she liked
to read poetry (my poetry).
She was always
a stranger to me.
A beautiful stranger
with elegant limbs meant for climbing.
My poetry
was like a heady broth to me.
A meat tea
with a hint of an open door.


Pushcart Prize nominated Abigail George is a South Africa-based blogger, essayist, poet and writer. She briefly studied film at the Newtown Film and Television School in Johannesburg. She is the recipient of two grants from the National Arts Council, the Centre for the Book, and ECPACC.

“Brown Boy” By Osahon Ize-Iyamu


Jimi took a deep breath and smiled, letting all the muscles knotted in his back relax. He reached for his spoon and took in the delicious fried rice, savouring each taste as he let the flavours swim in his mouth before resting on his tongue. He lit a lavender scented candle and let out a huge sigh.

When he was done eating, he cracked the bones and sucked out the red marrow from the chicken. He licked the plate and sucked all the juices from his fingers. He unbuckled his trousers and let his potbelly sag.

It was midnight. A Friday night. If he opened his phone he would see messages of his friends inviting him out, texting the address of a party nearby. But where was the money?

He dropped his plate in the sink and went back to his favorite chair—the puffy brown one in the middle of the sitting room—and grabbed the remote, looking through all the recordings, settling on whether to commit to a show or movie, maybe even a novel. He hadn’t even considered that option.

The urge to pee came out of nowhere and he rushed into the bathroom, trying to pull down the trousers. He scanned the walls and laughed in relief before turning to the toilet to start peeing.

Something crawled past him and all the hairs on his body stood up. He felt the first set of goosebumps rise on his skin. He held his breath, turning around, his urine dripping to the floor. He stared straight at it: its long, smooth brown body and antennas that stretched out; the hairy legs that poked out from the sides of its body that scurried along the floors.

A cockroach!

He screamed and ran out as fast he could, trying to raise his trousers up at the same time. He almost tripped. He slammed the door against him and leaned on it, panting. His heart beat heavily and tried to break out of his skin. His eyes were wide and he looked down at his trousers, wet from piss.

He looked both ways, unsure, before rushing into the kitchen and raiding the cupboards. He rummaged through all the things and cursed loudly with each drawer he closed. Why was it that you could never find something when you really needed it?

He spotted what he was looking for in the cupboard under the sink and shouted happily, thanking God. He loved the sleek, red can and the wonderful acidic lemon odour of the bug spray. He loved watching the cockroaches die, with their backs turned over, their legs flapping in the air. Helpless.

The can felt light. Why did it feel light? He shook the can and sprayed it in the air, and a dull, low hiss came out. His eyes widened. The useless thing had finished! He paced around the room and stopped to look at his phone, grabbing it and turning it on. He dialed a number.

“Zuma Zuma! Zuma Rock! How you dey?” Zuma did not reply. There was silence on the line.

“Eh… please you will come to my house and help me kill this cockroach?”

“Fool. You don’t have shame. It’s small cockroach that you are calling me? How much do you even owe me?”

Jimi hissed and Zuma cut the call. He threw the phone across the room and bit his nails. He swore loudly and went to pick up his phone, looked at the screen and saw a small crack. He put his hands on his head, already giving up. He opened the door to the bathroom again and poked his head through the crack and saw the cockroach on the wall.

Taking small steps, he entered the room again and looked at the insect. He moaned; it was an adult, not even a nymph. He could kill nymphs with his slippers, but not adults. Allowing himself to get a little bit closer, he inspected the roach, sure it was looking back at him—the useless thing, the reincarnation of evil.

He puffed out his chest and held up his shoe. It was just a cockroach, after all. He was the evolved species; the thing was more scared of him than he was of it.

The insect spread out his wings and flew across to the other side of the room. He ducked and fled, almost knocking the door off its hinges, calling on God for help. He didn’t understand how he would sleep this night, knowing that the thing was moving about. It was an adult, so there could be eggs everywhere. Eggs!

The cockroach just came to torment his life. He had been so happy before, lounging and enjoying himself, ready to stay up all night, full of possibilities. He slumped on his chair and looked to the bathroom again, rolling his eyes. He wasn’t sure how he could be such a baby.

Jimi thought about it. The best course of action would be to use his shoe and kill it, or maybe a broom, but he didn’t want to see the weird pus everywhere. That would complicate things; having to sweep the body away was enough torture, but also having to use the mop to wipe the gooey mess made his skin crawl.

Bile rose up his throat but he swallowed it. Why was this happening to him? He hadn’t even done anything wrong. His house was clean, spick and span, so much so that he could eat off the floor. Cockroaches were only supposed to be in dirty homes!

He had even done the extra work of arranging his rooms in a way that there would be no hidden spots for any of them. He sprayed the whole house every day before going to work. He was the last person in the world who deserved such a cruel fate.

He heard a sound from the bathroom and threw his legs up on the chair, wary of the floor. There could be another one. Oh my goodness, two cockroaches on the same day? At the same time? He wouldn’t even hesitate to pack up his things and move out.

Jimi concluded that the cockroach could only have been from his neighbour’s house. He had never gone to visit any of them, but now he was sure they were filthy. No, no, this evil beast could not be a permanent resident in his house.

He continued flipping through the channels, occasionally looking back, hoping nothing had changed. He settled on a movie, but he was unsettled and his mind stirred, unfocused. At every small sound, he jumped up, almost running towards the door.

This is no way to live. He wished he was somewhere, anywhere else. It would have been better if he had never discovered it. But, what if he had never seen it and it quietly multiplied? He rejected the thought. His enemies had surely planned for him this night. His eyes grew heavy and his mind faded, falling asleep.

In the morning, he jumped up to the sound of the alarm on his phone, another demon in his life. He turned it off and wiped the sleep from his eyes, unconsciously walking towards the bathroom. He stopped himself and took a step back, reaching for his phone. He dialed another number.

“Hello?”

“Hello, Mr. Ogbo, good morning. It’s me, Mr. Idiosa.”

“Ah, my favorite customer!” Jimi bit his lip, holding back a very terrible insult.

“Yeah, it’s like you will come and spray the house again.”

“Yes, sir!”

“Please as early as possible, eh?”

“Yes, sir!”

He sighed and rubbed his eyes. Jimi went into his bedroom and took out the clothes he’d ironed the night before. Dressed for the day, he checked his breath, grimaced then popped a handful of mints. He sniffed his armpits then reached for a lime in the fridge, slicing it into two and squeezing out the juice on to his hands, he rubbed the juice around his armpits.

Jimi nodded at his reflection then opened the front door. He entered into his car, a polished old station wagon past its prime, and put it in gear. When he checked his side mirrors, something zipped past, almost a blur. He paused, brows furrowing in confusion. What it could be? Whatever it was, it was the exterminator’s problem now.

He drove out of his house as fast as possible and went to work.


Osahon Ize-Iyamu lives in Nigeria, where he writes speculative fiction. He has work published in Clarkesworld, and The Dark, and is a graduate of the 2017 Alpha Writers Workshop.

“One Hundred Lashes” by Jason Mykl Snyman

And I had done an hellish thing,
And it would work ’em woe:
For all averred, I had killed the bird
That made the breeze to blow.
Ah wretch! said they, the bird to slay
That made the breeze to blow!

– Samuel Taylor Coleridge (The Rime of the Ancient Mariner)

They had embarked upon the poles of the sea, carrying strange cargo. The wealthy aristocrat – a spoilt lord of some distinction – had paid a great deal for this living, breathing consignment.

An exotic menagerie of rarity and curiosity.  Among the growling, screeching treasures kept below deck were such ferocious beasts as Bengal tigers, lions and a white rhinoceros. There were a number of zebra, gnu and a solitary female panda bear.

There were peacocks and parrots and sinister looking raptors – and in a great steel cage – a single motionless albatross lay in a large heap of crumpled white feathers, stretched out across the bottom of the pen in shallow water. The beautiful gooney-bird of the Pacific was stone dead, and the elderly Captain of the ship looked upon the disheartening scene with dismay.

“When did you find it?” he asked of the first mate, a large bald man; a man red of face and short of humour named Mr. Glass.

“Some of the men shown it to me, sir,” answered Glass, standing ankle-deep in sea water beside the large cage.

“‘Bout two hours before we started taking on water.” Something unseen roared from deep within the foundering hold.

“Who is responsible for this?” The large bald man shrugged almost apathetically, but his eyes were wide and flickering with panic.

“I don’t know, Captain.”

Seabirds, particularly the striking albatross, were long said to carry the souls of sailors blown down by time on the bounding main. It was considered terribly bad luck to cage such a creature, but to kill one, by God such a ghastly thing could prove fatal to their voyage.

Its large pink bill and pink feet lay motionless in the water. The bird’s round eye was black and vacant, the violent winds of its soul extinguished. The Captain could see his reflection in that silent darkness, a silhouette perturbed, staring back at him.

“Superstitious much, Glass?” asked the Captain quietly, unable to tear his gaze from the dead bird.

“Some,” answered Glass.

The Captain nodded grimly. They had been forced to make port hastily when the hull was inexplicably breached and the cargo holds began to flood with water. The ship had begun to heel by the time they reached mooring in a friendly bay, heeling quite badly, and some of the animal cages had come unfastened and overturned.

“Get those up,” rumbled the Captain, pointing into the darkness of the hold. A long cage housing a pair of melancholy llama lay on its side. The unfortunate creatures inside were crouched uncomfortably in their disproportionate enclosure.

“And there, and there,” he said, pointing and pointing. “The rich bastard will have our balls.”

Glass whistled loudly, piercing the damp quiet which had fallen over the hold, and two disheveled men rushed down the creaky stairs into their midst with a splash. While the first mate barked his orders at the men, the Captain turned slowly away.

Still, he found himself unable to pry his vexed gaze from the lifeless albatross. Just as the ill-starred narrator of the Ancient Mariner, the Captain could almost feel the awesome weight of that large, dead bird around his neck, pulling him down into a chasm of aching culpability.

“Glass,” he muttered, and the first mate turned. “Find out who did this, yes?”

“Yes, sir,” said Glass, nodding solemnly, and turned his attention back to the capsized llama cage.

The Captain gradually backed away through the water from that ominous sight, and at a certain moment, he fancied a brief flash of light in the late eye of the albatross, as if an enraged soul had struck sparks from hellish flint.

Cast into the outer darkness, into the furnace of fire. Wailing and gnashing of teeth. From faraway across the briny deep, strange sounds emanated on the wind and carried all the way to the Captain’s cabin. The racks in the crew’s quarters were empty – all save the bravest and blameless of men had abandoned ship.

They had entered the Port to seek comfort in the embrace of alcohol and the dock-whores – whichever found them first. They feared superstition with the deepest kind of fear, but dreaded by far more, the Captain’s retaliation.

A storm was brewing this night, stirring through the clouds above. The night ain’t filled with gentle things, and when the Captain lay woke and restless in his berth he lay with his limbs dangling over the edge – to let the monsters know he was willing.

For a long time, he could not slumber. The haunting eyes of the wandering bird and the howl of thunder were as barbs in his cot.

At last, he fetched his bible from the cabinet beside him, to seek solace in the old weather-worn pages – as he always did in times of dread. Fear could keep a man from rest all through the night, but faith, he found, made a fine pillow.

In the case of the Ancient Mariner, the Captain viewed the visiting albatross of Coleridge as a symbol for Jesus Christ. When stranger tides befell the narrator’s ship, and the storm destroyed all, the albatross appeared as a good omen, saving the ship and leading them back onto the right path.

Just as the narrator shot the good-spirit down, Judas Iscariot turned Christ in to the cross, and both – in their own ways – were weighed down by the crushing weight of guilt. For a long while the Captain lay pondering these seemingly radical ideas, finding comfort in the scriptures that sought him out.

When finally he dozed with the book open upon his heart, he dreamt of hanging by his neck from a tree in the Field of Blood, and then later the limp albatross hung from his. He dreamt of strange ships pulling alongside his own, out there in the dark waters, and upon these ships writhed unimaginable devils.

He dreamt he was Noah adrift at sea, carrying with him a rare and curious menagerie to a rich and spoilt god of some faraway land… And when the dove returned to the window of his ark it was not a dove, but of course a dead-eyed albatross – and it carried not a freshly plucked olive leaf but a set of dismembered fingers.

Suddenly, the Captain woke from his feverish nightmares as a violent gust rocked the ship in its mooring. The ship was heeling dangerously to the side, creaking and groaning in the wind. Outside in the storm, he could hear his man Glass bellowing over the whip-crack of lightning.

There was a deep roar, too, hollering high above the stampeding feet of the remaining crew. The Captain knew the nature of that roar, and he knew it well. The ship was on fire, and simultaneously taking on a deluge of black water through every crack and hole.

There is but one place in this savage world where man is guaranteed to find the face of God –this the Captain believed doggedly – and that place could be found out there beyond the shifting horizon of the wild blue yonder. Out there lay the edge, and there were precious few moments encountered at sea where one could sail upon it at the mercy of the wind.

The edge…

In those unnerving moments a man could feel the presence of his Maker. As you neared the brink, there were moments where you knew with certainty–you were either going to push the bastard right over and into the mouth of the unknown–or give madness one more kiss upon the lips before pulling back.

The Captain often wondered, as he did now, standing upon his fire-blackened deck in the pale morning sun, just when the final kiss would come. When would they lean too far and go ankles over into the maelstrom?

“The jib boom and bowsprit are gone, sir,” reported Glass quietly. The red-faced man was drenched in blood and sweat and salt water. He looked a wind-swept wretch, that Glass, a dog whipped by flame and rain. The Captain ran a hand over his tangled grey beard, looking out over the burnt deck. The pale morning sun molested every puddle with splotches of ghostly light.

The foremast had been split by lightning, and most of the rigging had burnt away. There were two large holes in the hull, but after a night of heavy work, breaking their backs, stretching the limitations of man, they were able to right her and bring halt to the flooding of the lower decks.

Every man remaining now lay on the flat of their backs with their mouths hanging open and their muscles twitching. Every man save the Captain and his first mate–and how they managed many of the men wondered.

“See to the repairs, my good man,” said the Captain, and Glass nodded exhaustedly. The first mate was long past the point of his reserves, and what manner of fuel the man now burnt to stay upright was anybody’s guess. The old Captain looked out across the deck strewn with what remained of the crew.

“We must away at first opportunity,” he rumbled. “The rich brat waits impatiently for his zoo.” Glass nodded again, too tired to speak.

“Have you rounded up the crew? Have you found the man who killed our sacred albatross?”

The first mate’s shoulders sank and his heavy eyes scanned the rise and fall of the curved horizon. He slowly shook his head from side to side.

“I will, Captain, I will.”

The first people on earth were also the first sinners.

The Captain sat upon the stairs leading down into the hold. There was no light, save for that which spilt across his back and that which burst through the large hole scuttled into the hull near the bow. He could smell the smoldering ashes of the ship.

He ran knotted fingers against the wood. Ships were like whores, thought the Captain, the older ones didn’t always look like much, but they knew how to look after you.

He could hear the sickly, frightened beasts stirring in their cages, but not a sound did any make. When the light caught them just right, he could see their green and red eyes glittering from the dark. They were looking down at the same horror he was – the bloating albatross settled dead at the bottom of its cage.

From time to time they looked up at him, their Noah, and perhaps they too were wondering the same strange thoughts as he. The remaining members of the crew, they had taken to calling this bird ‘the dead man’s tie’ in hushed tones. Dead Man’s Tie. The Captain’s Noose.

Only the maddest of men would sail upon these adverse tides, held only to the promise of riches. Just what in the blistering hell was he going to do about this dreadful curse?

Glass rapped twice upon the Captain’s door, and then opened it to step inside.

“The crew refuse to return to the ship, sir,” he reported. “They won’t sail aboard a cursed vessel, they say.”
The Captain sighed. He sat by the window looking out at the dimming sky and the wine-dark sea. Below, weary men were hammering at the ship.

The wind roared, and so did the cargo. The dead albatross shook in its pen with every reverberating thud. The tigers threw themselves at one another, mad with rage. The hoofed beasts of the African plains kicked and gnashed their teeth, gnawing on their iron bars and on each other.

“They should have nothing to do with irrelevant myths,” said the Captain sternly, “But should instead train themselves unto godliness.”

The words he spoke were from the good book, which sat beside him at the table, and though the Captain trusted in their veracity, in truth, his own sailor’s heart found it all a little too sordid to drum to.

He too believed, deep down, that any wind foul enough to carry this ship forward from now on would sooner wreck them upon the rocky shore of a cannibalistic island than secure them safe passage to a hefty payday.

A near-sinking, an unforgiving storm and a mysterious fire–freak occurrences of nature–too bizarre and successive to be coincidence. It was only a matter of time before one of those striped monsters broke loose below deck and began to eat people. The sails would run red.

Men would throw themselves overboard into open waters. Any man aboard this ship was shark food, until he–the Captain–could right the wrong and lift the dreaded curse of the albatross.

“Have you found the reprobate responsible for the deed?”

Glass shifted his weight, arms clasped behind his back, head bowed low.

“The men who found the bird say the creature had choked to death on the broken neck of a rum bottle,” answered Glass, “But the man who fed the bird cannot be found.”

“You mean nobody is talking.”

“No, sir,” confirmed Glass. “The men respectfully request their wages, Captain, and wish to take leave of their service here at this Port.”

“By hell,” said the Captain. “You go and tell those mutinous bastards, Glass, go and tell them if they wish to collect their wages there will be penance to pay – lest the coward responsible come forward.”

“What manner of penance, my Captain?”

“One hundred lashes upon each back!” yelled the Captain furiously, “Such is a fit punishment!”

“Yes, sir.”

“You tell them, if wages they desire, they will return to the ship at dawn for their flogging,” yelled the Captain, now upon his feet.

“Fetch the cat, Glass. Lashes they shall receive! One hundred lashes! Lash upon lash till the murderer steps forward, or by God, till the albatross flies again!”

Word spread like fire along oiled rigging, it exploded upon the docks and brothels and taverns as a barrel of gunpowder kissed by a rogue spark. The word was this – the Captain would administer the lashes himself at dawn with his cat o’ nine tails.

The nervous stowaways numbered in the seventies, and the one thing to break the anxious mood among them was a thought whispered amid themselves in hushed voices – could those old arms still deliver seven-thousand lashes on an empty stomach?

That night, once more, sleep was hard-earned by the Captain.

When he dreamt, he suffered visions of a white albatross and the Devil playing cards for his soul and ship. They had killed the good-spirit, as Judas had done, as the Mariner had done–and now this vessel was without Christ or heading.

He dreamt of Cain and Abel–of sin and punishment and regret. He dreamt of black tips punctuating the azure. A steady glide into empty vistas, as white headed stallions charged the shores below, sweating salt.

In his cot he threw to and fro, restless, perspiring, tossing and pitching to the hammer-falls and the thunder and flapping of wide, white-feathered wings. Those wings beat a hurricane, beating all around him, until the beating at last became the knocking upon his chamber door.

It was dawn.

At daybreak seventy-three men lined up along the pier and the docks and the deck of the ship. Gulls stormed the rising sun, screaming violet and fuchsia across the cloudy sky.

The Captain stood ready in the shade of the quarterdeck with his bible tucked beneath his arm, theatrically unfurling the stained leather thongs of the cat o’ nine tails. He was watching the men as they fell into file, unsmiling, and none among them would meet his steely gaze.

“What manner of man would do such a hellish thing to one of God’s own creatures?” bellowed the Captain, his grey beard bristling like pine-needles in the breeze. He received no answer. He placed the bible down beside a tall jug of water upon a table.

He rolled his sleeves up to the elbows with quick, sharp tugs. Cords of muscle in his forearms glistened with sweat. Those were mighty arms indeed, observed the men quietly.

Beside him stood Glass, with his hands clasped before him and his head tilted up to the sky, as if awaiting some divine intervention – a sign to stay the furious hand of the Captain–and before them stood the wooden rack, the triangle and wrist straps awaiting the first man up for a flogging.

The nine knotted thongs of the cat hung menacingly from his white-knuckled grasp. The men shuddered visibly at the sight of them. Few among them had ever bared witness to the damage such a whip was capable of inflicting–the parallel lacerations carved into skin and flesh – but those who had, they had spoken of their experience with pure terror.

The men were in the habit of giving names to the things they dreaded most, and so too they had a name for the cat–they called it, the Captain’s daughter–and she had long been used to flagellate the wicked and ill-disciplined aboard his vessel.

And lo the first brave man stepped up beneath the Captain’s unforgiving gaze.

“Remove your shirt, sailor,” said the Captain, and the man before him did so.

Glass had never before seen his Captain so uncompromising and incensed. Never before. The Captain stood fast, nine knotted tails at the ready. He took up a steady stance, feet far apart, back straight and hard with his eyes up to the calling gulls above.

Slowly, he raised the whip, and was ‘bout to crack the first of one hundred upon the man’s unclothed back when he suddenly halted, gritting his teeth.

“Get rid of this one,” he snarled abruptly.

The astounded Mr. Glass set to it, confused. He led the fortunate man away, pale and all a-quiver, and brought the next hapless wretch before the exasperated Captain, who was too made to remove his shirt. The man waited with trembling hands upon the rack.

The Captain looked down at the man’s uncovered back; a gleam of annoyance had erupted in his eyes. His face began to redden. He shied away from the sight and returned to his bible to take a drink of water from the jug. He placed his palm flat upon the book.

“Next one!” he yelled.

Again, Glass removed this unscathed man and returned with another, already shirtless. Glass looked upon the man’s back as he stretched across the rack, and was swiftly struck with disbelief. He hid his blushing face away behind weathered hands.

The Captain turned at the table, took one glance at the man’s shoulders and yelled “Next!”

He took another drink of water. The cat o’ nine tails remained unbloodied in the crook of his arm.

Glass brought another and another before the Captain; each man removed his shirt and waited with clenched jaw and shut eyes for the lacerating crack of the whip.

None came.

The Captain dismissed every man with a scowl. The scarlet face of Glass sunk deeper and deeper into his collar. To the horror and astonishment of the elderly Captain and his mate–every single one of the crew awaiting flagellation had upon their backs a freshly tattooed crucifix–shoulder to shoulder, from the nape of the neck to the crack of their buttocks–hastily acquired the previous night.

No man of God could lay the whip upon a crucifix, and with every dismissal, the Captain felt his wrath subsiding until finally, he cast the cat o’ nine tails overboard into the lapping harbour seas. He took his bible from the table and made for his cabin.

“Glass,” he said across his shoulder. The big man turned to him, dumbstruck. “Get that rotting albatross off of my ship, and find me a braver crew.”


Jason Mykl Snyman is on a mission to find the line between not enough alcohol and too much alcohol. He’s a lot cooler online than in person, and he’s written a bunch of highly-praised stuff here and there. He lives in South Africa, while he waits for the devil to get back to him about that literary fame deal. Catch him blogging at The Strange Brontides.

“The Playlist” by Laila Le Guen


The boy’s hand didn’t respond to his mother’s touch. She stared at his resting body, trying to imprint the contour of his face, his hands, his chest into her mind.

Dr. Mbugua’s verdict had stayed with her since the previous Friday. Four days of rehashing the cruel words in her head, writing them down again and again on the notebook she kept in her handbag.

It would take miracle.

She remembered the uninspiring painting on the wall behind him, a picture of a mud house in the middle of a field. She had fixed her gaze there to avoid looking at the pity that showed on the doctor’s face. She didn’t believe in miracles and she felt that she might lose it if she saw this expression again that day.

All the eight doctors they had seen had looked up from their files with a variation of that despondent look. Bilal was five years old and without a doubt he was dying.

She couldn’t resign herself to it. Though her father was a practicing Muslim, she leaned more towards her mother’s secular views and had never been a particularly religious person. But she was badly in need of comfort and hope so over the weekend she had reached out to the imam at Adams Arcade Mosque.

A sheikh had come to recite verses of the Qur’an for her son’s remission. Her husband disapproved; he called it superstitious nonsense, but she couldn’t just sit in Bilal’s hospital room day after day gripping the armrest just to have something to hold on to.

She left Bilal to go grab a sandwich and a coffee at the cafeteria, though she already knew she wouldn’t enjoy either. But she had to stay warm, so hospital food had to do.

Waiting in line for her order, she stood staring at the back of the room where two lone posters advertised free breast cancer checkups. One more ailment that could assail the unsuspecting body. She pried her eyes away, eager for any kind of relief from the rising anxiety, when she spotted a man sitting alone, a thick book open in front of him.

He seemed absorbed in his reading, enjoying a moment of peace in this hectic place. She wanted to rest her eyes him, on his face, on the hand that lightly flipped the pages, going back and forth to read a passage again. He looked up and she felt her face flush but she couldn’t look away.

He nodded and smiled. It’s alright, his eyes seemed to say. Eventually it was her turn to be served and she ended up ordering just a black coffee. She went over to the man’s table to apologise.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to stare at you like that. It’s just…I have a lot on my mind.” He smiled again and invited her to sit across from him. She hesitated a little, then she put down the paper cup that was starting to burn her fingers.

“Do you want to talk about it?” he asked.

Until this point, she hadn’t realised how much the accumulated pain of the past year weighed on her. She had been working on autopilot, taking trips to the hospital to visit Bilal, going home to get a change of clothes and cook food none of them would eat. Abdi was at work most of the time and he was never one to talk things out anyway.

So she held her coffee with both hands without drinking it and she told this stranger about Bilal’s curtailed childhood, his leukemia, the child’s suffering, and the doctor’s prognosis that left them with no hope of seeing him grow into an adult.

He put the book away and looked at her intensely, as if her words were all that mattered in that moment. From time to time he would nod. Then he asked, “Are you a Christian?”

The question unsettled her. Was he one of those preachers who preyed on desperation to rein you in?

She said a tentative no, bracing herself for the coming tide of reassurance that God was watching out for her and Jesus loved her. She wished this elusive God were here right now to make her disappear from this awkward conversation she had inadvertently walked into.

“Whatever you believe in, you can still pray. It helps me find peace in this place, you know.”

She finally took a sip of her coffee. It had gone cold and it left a bitter taste in her mouth.

“Thanks for the advice. I have to go now.”

“My name is Henry.” He extended his hand to offer a handshake. “I’ll see you around.”

“Sarah. Pleasure.”

She shook his hand and left, envying his faith in God’s grace.

Abdi was home when she got back from the hospital. He had left oily wrappers lying on the kitchen counter, probably remnants of a chicken and chips take-away. She threw her handbag on the coffee table and sat on the sofa. She didn’t bother turning on the light.

She could hear Abdi preparing for the night. The sound of the hangers sliding in the wardrobe, then a pause. He was placing his shirt or trousers on the chair, ready for the next day of work. The scraping of the wardrobe drawer: he was selecting his underwear. Back in Stockholm where they both grew up, he already had this routine going.

She was so exhausted. She dreaded the prospect of talking to him about her day. What would she have to say? Our son is still dying, thanks for asking. His hand was limp when I touched him. I met a man called Henry in the cafeteria. That was my day.

He wouldn’t even ask about her day. He would just look at her and talk about things that didn’t matter just to avoid thinking about Bilal lying in the hospital because it hurt too much. When Abdi came back from “there”–the words hospital and leukemia rarely passed his lips–he lay in bed pretending to read.

Finally, she found the energy to join him in the bedroom. He gave her a faint smile and then looked away when she started undressing.  She brushed her hair in front of the bathroom mirror, tied it back in a bun.

The light was too bright, too clinical. She closed her eyes for a few seconds, thinking about Henry’s advice. Try prayer. But it couldn’t work if she didn’t believe that anyone was there on the other end to receive it.

When she went back to the room, Abdi had turned off the light but she knew he wasn’t sleeping. They both lay awake in bed letting time slowly rub its rugged hands against their thoughts, hoping the grimness would erode.

Outside, the gate screeched and the deep bass of a powerful engine filled the bedroom. She remembered when Bilal would play at guessing who had come home by listening to the sound of the cars.

Sometimes he would let his imagination run wild, thinking it was the President or Grandma Gunilla who still lived in Stockholm. He would squeal in anticipation, lifting the curtain of the kitchen window to see who it was.

There was a time when Bilal’s cries would wake them up at night. He had terrifying nightmares sometimes. Nowadays, they mostly lay awake haunted by the dread of a phone call from the hospital.

Friends still offered to visit them but solicitude had fizzled out over time. They had their own lives to take care of. Now, they texted from time to time to ask how she was holding up and if there was any progress with Bilal’s health. Some didn’t dare mention the illness in their messages, leaving the beast undisturbed in case she wanted to talk about something else. As if there was anything else.

In the morning, she went back to the hospital. She had gotten distracted and forgotten her scarf at home so now the July wind was extending its icy fingers around her neck. For once, stepping through the door of the Aga Khan University Hospital was a relief, though the familiar smell of detergent assaulted her nostrils right away.

Sarah passed by the empty bed where a sick child used to be and didn’t need a word from the team to know what had happened. She rushed to her son’s room, nervously fidgeting with the buckle of her handbag.

Bilal was awake, playing with a fluffy teddybear Grandma Gunilla got him for his fifth birthday.

“Good morning Mum!” he said with a brave smile.

“Morning baby! How is Andrea?”

The boy examined the teddy bear, pulling one of its arms up and pressing the wrist with a concerned look on his face, then touching various parts of its body, before pronouncing his opinion:

“Andrea is fine today. Don’t worry Mum,” he finally replied.

She sat on the chair she knew too well, under the large window that let in the timid morning light. She had brought “Big Bad Bun” to read him, a story she knew he enjoyed hearing time and time again.

So she read to him, showing him the pictures on each page. He loved making witty comments about the characters, especially Big Bad Bun who was so facetious and got away with it. They laughed together, and held their breath in unison when he was in trouble with his parents.

It felt like normal life again, were it not for the mask on her face and the sound of steps and wheels moving up and down the corridor. Bilal picked up the book from her lap and started turning the pages, looking at each of them attentively. His lips were moving to the words of the story.

“Mum, you know I can read!” he exclaimed.

“Ok, read something to me then.”

“Big Bad Bun had a good friend called Mister…Bro…Brodway.” He knew the book almost off head and sped through the first three pages.

Sarah saw Nurse Anyango’s face appear through the stained glass rectangle on the door. She was doing her morning rounds.

“How’s my champion today?” she said, and then to Sarah, “I’ll just be a minute.”

Over time, Sarah had come to know most of the nurses in the paediatric ward. Some were impersonal in their dealings with patients and relatives but Anyango tried to be reassuring. She always said a little something to make Bilal feel more comfortable.

She looked young, maybe she hadn’t had time to become jaded by the daily routine of suffering and death that was the lot of nurses treating cancer patients. Nurse Anyango wrote some notes in a scratchpad.

“Everything looks good. See you later, Bilal.”

After the nurse left, they sat in silence until Sarah’s phone rang from the depths of her handbag; an unwieldy thing with a patchwork design. She fumbled for a few seconds before locating it underneath all the junk that always seemed so important when she left in the morning and that just burdened her the whole day.

It was work.

“I have to pick this up, baby. I’ll be right back. I love you!” She sent him an air kiss.

Out in the corridor, she faced the plain white wall to keep her mind focused.

“Hi Catherine. How are you?”

“Good, thanks. Listen, there’s an urgent project I need to send you. Are you available this afternoon? It’s for the Turkish Airlines account.”

“Alright, I’ll take it on. Can you email me the details? I’ll get to it as soon as I’m home from the hospital.”

When the call was over, she stood there scratching a tiny spot on the wall where the paint was cracked. She didn’t have the strength to care but she needed the money. She was so exhausted all the time.

From the corner of her eye, she saw a man approaching. She turned around to face him and saw it was Henry, the man who had been kind enough to listen to her story at the hospital cafeteria the previous day.

They shook hands but skipped the pleasantries, the way people joined in pain tend to do. She felt strangely close to him.

“Do you want to meet my son?” she asked, “He’s in this room.” They went in together. Bilal was still reading Big Bad Bun and he waved hello, barely registering Henry’s presence.

“Hi Bilal. I’m Henry.”

“Nice to meet you, Henry. I’m reading.”

“Oh, I’ll leave you to it then,” he said with an amused smile.

The room had only one chair which she insisted Henry sit in while she perched on the edge of the bed reading over Bilal’s shoulder.

“I’ve brought you a gift,” Henry said. “It’s a collection of gospel songs that I personally find uplifting.” She thanked him but her tone betrayed reluctance.

“Listen, I know you’re not a person of faith. I just thought you would enjoy this music.”

He came over to her side of the bed and handed her a flash disk. She noticed that his nails were neatly manicured, with a fresh coat of transparent polish.

When he left, she stared at the flash disk, wondering what this chance encounter was turning into.

On her way home, she listened to the playlist on the car stereo. The high-pitched voice of the singer and the energizing rhythm pried a smile out of her and she started humming along to “Nibebee“.

Maybe Bilal would like this music after all. If it could melt down his sorrow like it did hers for the few minutes the compilation was playing, it was worth a try.

She was about to put her handbag away in the closet when she stopped in her tracks. Suddenly, she couldn’t stand the idea of carrying this load around every day.

She went back to the living room, lay a kanga over the coffee table and swiftly emptied the contents of her bag, down to the last folded parking ticket. She made a little pile of items to throw away: a movie ticket, an empty tube of face cream, a Lunch Bar wrapper. Her wallet, keys, Kindle, phone, earphones and notebook would stay. The remaining items were wrapped in the kanga and placed in the wardrobe drawer.

Bilal was reeling from his latest chemotherapy cycle.

He looked so pale and fragile, a painful reminder of how tenuous his life was. She didn’t have the energy to disguise her despair. In any case, the boy was probably too weak to notice that behind the surgical mask, her expression was downcast.

“It’s Saturday, Baba is coming today, sweety.” She attempted a note of hope, though it fell flat. “I have a little something for you, since you’ve been so brave.”

He said a faint “OK, Mum” but when he saw the earphones, his eyes sparkled with excitement. She plugged the earphones to the phone, connected them to his ears and pressed play.

They laughed because the earphones kept falling off and Bilal had to hold them to listen to the music. But when he finally found a suitable position, he started bobbing his head to the beat and mouthing mangled lyrics, taking the song into his stride with delightful abandon.

She felt Abdi’s warm hand on hers. She had been too absorbed in their son’s delight to notice his arrival. He stood behind her at the foot of the bed in his usual beige cardigan that made him look like a dashing yuppie on vacation.

“Hi there!” he said, “I’ve brought some drawings from your classmates. Your teacher wrote a letter too.”

He smiled as he took a bulging manila envelope out of his attaché case and placed them on Bilal’s lap. She couldn’t tell if he was really in a good mood or if he was faking cheerfulness.

Bilal beamed, forgetting the song he has been enjoying so deeply just a few seconds ago. He released the earphones to open the envelope. Suddenly, the bed was a riot of colours, Bilal’s friends get-well-soon notes scattered across the cover. Sarah kissed his soft cheek.

“I love you baby. I have to go do some work now.”

“Mum, I want more Yesu songs,” Bilal said as she was about to leave.

Abdi’s face scrunched up and he gave Sarah a meaningful look but he didn’t say anything until they were alone in the corridor, out of Bilal’s earshot.

“What was this about?”

“It’s just a playlist a friend gave me. I thought the music would cheer him up,” she answered.

“Since when are you into gospel?” She rolled her eyes in exasperation.

“Come on! It’s just a bunch of songs. I haven’t found the Lord or anything, if that’s what you’re asking.”

The call came at 9:00pm. Sarah’s forehead creased with worry. She glanced at the phone which was lying next to her plate and then across the table at Abdi. It was the hospital.

She gestured for him to pick up. She felt too brittle to talk to any medical staff right then. He understood and turned away from her so she wouldn’t read the emotions playing on his face. He said very few words, a couple of quick “hmm” and finally, “I understand, we’re on our way”.

She knew Bilal was dying or already gone but all she could think of was how he had wanted more “Yesu songs” and she had promised she would bring him some more and she hadn’t had time to download any.

They both trained their eyes on the road, driving fast through the drizzle that streaked the front lights halo. Abdi kept repeating “we’re going to be OK” like a mantra, speaking straight ahead into the night. They made the last turn into 3rd Avenue Parklands and passed the security gate at the paediatric ward.

The door to Bilal’s room was closed and a nurse Sarah didn’t know greeted them with careful words. Sarah tried to move past her to get to her son but Abdi restrained her by placing his arms around her as she started calling her son’s name again and again.

Finally, the nurse took her hand and said, “I’m so sorry”, her voice tender like a whisper of love.

“Where is he?” Sarah asked.

The nurse gestured towards the room where they had spent so many hours as a family, storing up memories that would never be enough. She held Abdi’s hand and they went in together in silent tears. The tension of the treatment and the endless doctor’s appointments had been released but in its place an inscrutable pit of darkness had opened up that threatened to swallow everything.

Bilal was pale, though it looked like he would rise up any minute and let out his cascading laughter, happy to have played a good prank on all the adults.

So she talked to him gently, begging for a last hug. Abdi was standing very straight, his eyes trained on their lifeless little boy. He squatted beside her, holding her at the waist and cradling his head in her neck.

“I can’t believe it,” he said. The sobs seemed to be wrought out of him. They came from a secret recess where all the pain had piled up like an old suitcase at the back of a closet, the one you might only ever open when you’re moving house. She caressed his knee, digging deep to pour out all the tenderness she had to give.

They stayed in this embrace until the nurse knocked on the door, signalling that it was only their world that had come crashing down.

After the funeral, the walls of the apartment seemed to be closing in. Sarah rarely picked up the phone. She wouldn’t have known what to say. Abdi had taken care of most of the arrangements, calling friends and family to announce the bad news, putting away Bilal’s clothes and toys until they were ready to sort them out, notifying the health insurance provider, obtaining a death certificate.

Even though he had taken a week off work, he didn’t sit down for a minute. She observed his frenzy with an unusual detachment. She was in daze, incapable of fully forming a thought. People they knew would come in and offer condolences, and she would say all the right words and they would respond with appropriate expressions of sadness and pity.

In truth, she barely registered their presence. Then they left and she would prepare her tenth coffee of the day. She would drink it while pretending to be reading an old UP Magazine, sometimes stopping to look at the reflection of her nose in the dark liquid, until the coffee got cold and she threw it away.

She thought about Henry a lot, wondering what he had been in the hospital for on those two days she had met him by chance. She regretted being too preoccupied with her own worries to ask him any questions. Maybe he could have been the kind of friend who would understand that everything was changed.

She imagined his life: a job at as a bank manager, gym twice a week, church on most Sundays. Maybe he was even in the choir. It made her smile to imagine him dressed in one of those corny choir uniforms, singing his heart out. Singing “Yesu songs”.

She connected her phone to the speakers to listen to Henry’s gospel playlist, sitting on the Turkish carpet with her eyes closed, her lips moving to the words of the chorus she had memorised. A rush of electric excitement went through her body and she increased the volume until she felt the vibrations in her chest. And she spun around, her arms outstretched to push back the walls that were still closing in.

This was her prayer.


Laila Le Guen is a writer, translator and serial language learner who enjoys challenging herself to move cities and continents every few years. Born in France, she has fallen under the charm of artsy, bustling Nairobi. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Brainstorm, Saraba Magazine and Afrolivresque.