This was one of my first stories written a long while back. Forgive the grammatical errors and sentence construction. I post it here, mostly unedited. Please enjoy!
A short story by Gloria Bwandungi
The sun was returning to its resting place and had lit up the pale blue sky with brilliant fiery colors. The swift decent into night through dusk affected nature exactly the same way every day no matter what the weather was like. The frenzied chirping of the birds had died down to the occasional chirp from a protesting chick whose mother accidentally smothered it under her wing. The crickets and cicadas had started their nightly battle of the choirs which, if one listened carefully, almost sounded orchestrated. The dust raised by travelers had begun to settle and the slow murmur of voices around dinner settings could be heard coming from the different homesteads that made up this close knit community. Occasionally the loud and very vocal protest of one of the younger children was heard pealing through homestead which stirred through all the houses and momentarily raised the level of noise.
Sube sat on top of a small hill that had been an anthill once. She loved watching the sun set and imagining the world that existed beyond her own home. Her father had started this tradition when she had been old enough to walk. They would sit and watch the sun go down, comment on the seeming increase of it’s size, he would tell her stories of other people who lived beyond the hills in the distance. Their customs and traditions seemed wild, uncultured, obscure, fascinating, curious and funny all at the same time. Seven years to the day, her father had set off to discover what lay beyond their world. He had promised to return to tell her everything he had seen. While the rest of the homestead had given up hope of ever seeing him again, Sube had stood on the promise her father had made to her and every day since then she’d sat on the little hill under the cool shade of the musitoni tree that had been planted by her grandfather’s grandfather to preserve the ritual they’d had.
Slowly all the light in the sky faded and the top edge of the sun was all that was left of the glorious sunset. Sube rose to her feet and stood on her tip toes as if that would allow her to see where the sun’s home was. As if by stretching up high she would be able to see the sun a little longer. She closed her eyes and whispered to the wind, sending a message to her father and visualizing it reaching his ear and lifting his heart, reminding him of the home he had left behind. Every day she performed this ritual as though it possessed the magical powers of her ancestors. She opened her eyes and looked towards the dusty road that brought travellers and traders to her home. Her keen eyesight told her what her heart was not ready to hear; her father was not coming home tonight. She closed her eyes and looked again but there was no figure striding towards the town, no one hunched over walking wearily home.
Sighing, she turned to walk back to her mother’s house which was one of the smaller houses that surrounded the main house. The main house was occupied by her grandfather who had turned into a grumbling grouchy old man who was irritated by the sound of children and constantly fought with his sons. There was only one flickering light that could be seen filtering through the curtains that hung across his bedroom window and she could see the shadowy figure of one of his wives fussing over him. Sube quietly passed the main house right by the window and slipped quietly down the path to her mother’s house.
Her mother was sitting on the veranda that surrounded the house that had been built by her father. She was talking to one of the wives of her eldest uncle, Iliwe, who never seemed to have any household chores and did not seem to contribute to the homestead in any significant way. Iliwe and her mother had always been great friends and could be found whispering to one another about the other wives of the homestead and who had been doing what with whom.
“Sube muthani, I’m glad you’re home,” said her mother. “The dusk comes later during this awful dry season and I was afraid for you.”
“Mama, I’m always close by,” Sube replied in a voice that belied her vexation. “You only have to call out and I will hear you and come running.”
“Muthani, I only worry for your safety what with all those unbearable foreigners your grandfather chooses to host. I just need to know that you are okay and have not been captured by any of them,” said her mother.
Iliwe giggled at the response knowing only too well what was meant by “being captured” by one of the travellers. Sube had never understood the bond that existed between her mother and this seemingly vapid woman. Wherever one could be found, the other was close by and seconds away from a witty quip or quick laugh for pure entertainment. Sube shot Iliwe a sour look and entered the house.
“Nina, I told you that girl does not like me. Did you see the look she just gave me? If she could she would have slapped me,” Iliwe said.
Sube could hear her mother’s feeble attempts to defend her, but she did not care to hear any more. She understood her place in her mother’s life as a nursemaid, housekeeper and messenger. As long as she was allowed her hour of peace every evening, she did not care that the rest of her day was consumed with completing different tasks for her mother. It was not that she minded performing the tasks assigned to her, it was the thought that she had never really been a child in her mother’s eyes, which is why she had been so attached to her father. And even now, after seven years of separation, she still cherished her father above all other people.
She heard Iliwe’s footsteps take her down the path back to her own house, and went outside to help her mother bring in the weaning baskets and the coffee beans that had been laid out to dry. They would need every last bean in order to get a fair price from the traders who were coming through. There was a time when money had not been a necessary commodity in the marketplace, but now it was impossible to purchase medicine and clothing without it. Like her grandfather always said, you knew there were evil times coming when a thin piece of paper that had already been written on could represent the value of an entire crop.
“Muthani please hurry up! Why does it always take so long for you to get things done? You’re letting all the mosquitoes in!”
Nina always fussed when she didn’t have Iliwe to entertain her and she always took it out on her youngest child.
“I’m doing my best Mama,” Sube replied, “It’ll all be in before the moisture can seep into it. I promise.”
“Well, let’s just hope your best is good enough or else there will not be any medicine for Anoti and we both know you do not want to be responsible for her pain,” came the expected blackmail.
Sube rolled her eyes and continued to gather the coffee. The exchange between them was always the same. Request. Complaint. Defence. Silence. When she was younger the constant need to defend herself against her mother had been a constant and daily battle. But now she understood that it was a dysfunctional but necessary part of their relationship and that there would never be a real friendship between them.
“Where is dinner?” the dreaded question that plagued the evenings.
“Mom, let me bring the coffee in and then I’ll take care of dinner,” Sube said.
There was a lot of coffee to be brought in but Sube’s expert quick movements made little work of the job. The large baskets her mother made to hold the coffee were barely sufficient for the load, but by vigorously shaking the baskets, she was able to create a little more room. Hefting a basket onto her head, she carried it into the storage room placing it along the cool interior wall.
She stood there for a moment and took a deep breath. The smells of the storage room always filled her heart with warmth. The freshness of the coffee beans seeping slowly out of them, the drying grains of millet and sorghum and the scent of fresh mud that had been smeared on the walls to seal the cracks in order to keep the pests out. Her brief reverie was broken by the sound of her mother calling for her dinner and she hurried off to do her mother’s bidding.
Nina loved her daughter but it was not a great love and she found that her patience for her daughter wore thin as the day waned. Tonight she felt slightly more irritated as she watched her daughter bring dinner. She knew Sube was doing her best, but petulance always worked to get her daughter to work a little harder, to do a little more. It reminded her of the days in her own community, when she had been celebrated as a beauty.
In the years since her husband had gone to seek adventure, she had developed a new appreciation for those days. It had been so easy to get people to work themselves into a frenzy around her, attempting to be the first person to fulfil even her most frivolous wish. On warm afternoons when insects sought out sweaty faces, Nina could be found with her eyes closed and it was almost certain that her mind would be consumed with those memories of her past.
As Sube rolled out the rough sisal dinner mat her grandmother had made, her mother’s critical stare followed her searching for an indication that her daughter was about to make a mistake so she could point it out. She disappeared behind the door that led out of the house and ran across to the kitchen go get the food. Quickly slopping the ground-nut sauce into a serving dish and putting the millet bread in a serving basket, Sube rushed to get dinner to her impatient mother. She still had some more food to bring into the house and so she hurried back to the kitchen to get the rest of it.
“Hurry before the food gets cold,” came her mother’s voice behind her.
“Yes Mama!” Sube replied.
She raced back to the house with two more serving baskets containing softened dodo greens and sweet yellow squash that had been steamed in banana leaves. Before she could serve the food, she had to help Anoti to come to dinner.
Anoti, Sube’s older sister, had been infirm from childhood. They had never really played together or worked together and as such did not share a strong sisterly bond even though they were the only children of Nina. Their grandfather and father had spared no expense in trying to obtain a cure for her. Her weakness and general lack of appetite meant that she was physically slight. She had always been kind to Sube, but could not protect her from their mother’s constant barrage of negativity. As they had grown older their conversations had increased and Anoti’s room had become Sube’s second favourite place quickly following the musitoni tree outside the homestead.
Sube helped Anoti out of bed, got her slippers onto her delicate feet and led her to dinner.
The room where they ate their meals was almost bare with the exception of the mats that sat in one corner, the two simple folding chairs that Nina and Anoti sat on for dinner and a small basket filled with fresh bananas and oranges that were collected daily from the main house.
Sube pulled out the other chair and placed it close to the dinner mat so Anoti could be served.
“Finally, we’re going to have something to eat,” grumbled Nina.
Sube served Nina first, and knowing her mother’s love for the sweetness of the yellow squash, she gave her a generous helping. Anoti ate very little and preferred the bland taste of the millet bread. Sube knew enough of her preferences and didn’t serve her any squash. Anoti shot her sister a grateful smile.
“If you princesses are done smiling at each other we can proceed with this meal,” said Nina.
“Sorry mama,” the sisters quipped in perfect unison, still sharing a smile from a shared joke.
Sube’s taste tonight tended towards the bland tonight and she decided that she was not going to have any squash. She sat on a blue and green palm leaf mat with her legs neatly tucked underneath her body and pinched off a little millet bread to dip in the sauce she’d served herself.
As she raised the food to her mouth she heard her mother’s voice cutting through the air with a characteristically cold edge to it.
“If I was a suspicious woman I would think you had poisoned the squash,” Nina said.
Sube looked up from her food towards her mother. She’d never understood this unyielding cruelty that was so consistently projected towards her. Her sister came to her defence.
“Of course not mama, you know we love you.”
“I know you love me muthani, just like I know Sube hates me,” Nina replied.
Sube looked at her mother with sad eyes. She knew that Nina just wanted an excuse to deny her food and send her out of the room. She had learned that rising up to defend herself only brought more punishment and more cruelty.
“Don’t look at me with those eyes! I know what they mean! I know what they are saying!” Nina said.
“Mama,” Anoti said quietly reaching over to touch her mother’s arm, “Sube only wishes you could be happy.”
Nina glared at Sube while saying, “Muthani, I wish that were true. But do not let her deceive you, she has her great-grandmother’s spirit in her!”
Sube closed her eyes and bowed her head, her temples started feeling a little sore and she knew a nasty migraine was on it’s way.
“Mama, you know I love you and I would never do anything to cause you pain,” came Sube’s response.
She opened her eyes and just caught a glimpse of Nina’s hand reaching out to slap her and with the quick reflexes her people were known for, she caught her mother’s hand mid-swing. Anoti’s plate clanged to the floor, spilling it’s contents onto the uneven earth floor as she rose out of her seat to rush to her sister’s aid.
In a voice no one could recognize, Sube spoke sternly to her mother.
“Mother, take a seat and finish your dinner.”
The shocked look in her mother’s eyes was a little satisfying and her actions had served to keep her mother quiet for the rest of their dinner together.
Sube left the room to get Anoti another plate. She smiled and winked at her before swung around and out the door to the kitchen where the plates were kept.
On her way back she stood at the door and placed her hands on her hips and stretched her back upwards and backwards until she heard a familiar and satisfying snap. The tension that she felt every evening manifested itself in the discomfort she would feel in her back. Bracing herself she prepared to enter the house again.
“What? You cannot be serious Mama!” came Anoti’s urgent whisper.
“She was dedicated to the gods the night she was taken by your father into the main house,” came Nina’s response. “I knew she was evil the moment she came out of my womb!”
Sube stayed at the door listening to the conversation with a little smile on her face.
“Mama, that is your irritation talking and I refuse to keep listening to you talk like that about your daughter.”
Nina was adamant, “I know you love her Anoti, but I will not have that abomination living in my house any longer.”
“It’s baba’s house, mama,” Anoti said.
“And where is your father? Is he here to defend his favourite child. You have to remember, he did not love you because you were so ill muthani,” Nina said. “Mind-speak is not common among our people and I refuse to have her looking into my head trying to find stories to spread to the whole homestead. Or worse trying to find a way to end my life.”
A sudden hot white rage that had been brewing for years inside Sube, seared the veins in her head and raced around her body until she was literally vibrating with it’s force. Her soul was weary fighting a never ending battle with her mother and her body had risen to battle on her behalf. The plate she had been holding in her hand fell to the ground with a soft thud, and placing both hands on the door she forcefully swung it open.