First published in Water Birds on The Lake Shore
‘I don’t get humanity,’ Mbachi states as he plops a piece of watermelon into his mouth. ‘Why isn’t there such a thing as watermelon juice?’
I want to tell him that watermelon juice exists and that it’s just him who wouldn’t know such a trivial thing but I know what he is trying to do. He and I have grown distant throughout the years but big brothers will always try to protect their little sisters from the horrors of the world.
‘I mean they can juice a freaking apple but not this thing that is 98% water.’
He is trying to divert my attention from the kitchen. Usually it works but not today. My eyes are glued on our parents. My mother is cutting carrots for whatever it is she is cooking for dinner. My father is next to her, gripping the edge of the counter with so much intensity I think he might pop a knuckle. He is glaring at mother whose face is just as hard. My parents’ animosity towards each other is something that is not unusual anymore. It is clear as day that they are fighting again because that is all they seem to do these days. Their tones are hushed but I can still make out some words.
…so much has changed now.
…trying not to hate you right now.
…not in front of the kids.
‘Did you hear me, Life?’ Mbachi asks softly.
I bet it’s times like this he wishes our house wasn’t an open plan one.
‘Huh?’ I try to rip my eyes away from my parents so that I can look at my brother but I fail to do so.
‘Why don’t you and all your little mistresses go right ahead and die, Vitumbiko,’ my mother’s voice suddenly rises from the hushed whispers.
My father shuts his mouth as his eyes widen in shock. Mbachi freezes, a piece of watermelon is trying to kiss his mouth. I hold my breath. Everything stops in that moment.
Not because of what my mother has said but because the knife she was cutting carrots with is angled for my father’s throat. I think it’s only I who knows my mother does not mean to slit my father’s throat. At least I hope not. It’s just that she is a very animated person and talks with her limbs. She probably forgot she has a knife in her hand and had only meant to point an angry finger at him and I am the only one who understands it. At least that’s what I hope she meant to do.
The world seems to resume spinning on its axis. I continue to watch as my mother slowly lowers the knife, realising what she just insinuated with her words and actions. My father swallows hard. His shocked expression starts to morph into anger then rage.
‘That’s it,’ he spits. ‘I am done, Thoko, do you hear me? Done.’
He storms out of the kitchen. My mother goes back to chopping carrots— as if nothing happened.
Not long after, the faint hum of sliding wheels against tiles fills the corridors. My father re-emerges with a suitcase at his heels. There is a small piece of fabric peeking out from a tiny opening. I wonder whether he just haphazardly threw the things that matter in his life into that tiny suitcase and then decided to leave. He stops at the door before giving a tired sort of look to my mother. As though silently willing her to tell him to stay.
She doesn’t even acknowledge him. She just goes on chopping the carrots without passing him the slightest glance.
My father clicks his tongue before looking at the living room— staring at us. He opens his mouth almost like he wants to say something but then he closes it again— I mean, what’s there to say? He shakes his head before he unlocks the door of our house and gets out. The next sounds I hear are those of my father shouting at the guard to open the stupid gate and then his car driving out the premises.
Mbachi puts the piece of watermelon back in his bowl of chopped fruits and curses under his breath. He has nothing left to say about the “non-existence of watermelon juice.”I go on looking like there is something left to observe. My mother continues chopping carrots.
My father left on thirteenth August, thirteen days after my thirteenth birthday. And now I hate the number thirteen.
On the second night after he’s gone I find it hard to fall sleep. I get out of bed, unlock my door and tiptoe to Mbachi’s room, to check if he is sleeping fine. I pull on the handle. It’s locked, as it should be. Once upon a time he used to leave it open in case I had a nightmare— but that was a long time ago. Once upon a time I thought I had outgrown sharing a bed with other people in the family. Yet here I am, feeling alone and like a child again, creeping around the house looking for someone to sleep with.
I proceed to tiptoe to my mother’s room, expecting it to be locked but it opens. My mother is sleeping in only her underwear on top of the sheets and her back is to the door. Her long and thick dreadlocks are sprawled behind her. I walk in as silently as I can and crawl onto the bed next to her. She stiffens a bit.
‘Vitumbiko?’ she sounds hopeful and it breaks my heart.
I don’t answer. Instead I wrap my small socked feet around her cold bare ones. I throw my arm around her waist and snuggle into her back. If emotions had a smell she, would reek of despair. She lets out a shaky breath. I wonder if she is disappointed that I am not who she left the door open for. Regardless, she shifts so that we are closer. I leave in the morning, ten minutes before her alarm wakes her so that I can get ready for school.
I do the same thing the next night and the next until it becomes a nightly routine. On weekends she gets up earlier than I do. I wonder if Mbachi knows about the change in sleeping arrangements.
The days after that are too routine-like.Mbachi, who was so excited to hang around his friends during his gap year, spends more time than ever in his room. He only comes out for meals or to pick me up from school. My father used to be the one who did that. Mbachi is too young to be driving but my mother let’s him. Although, he doesn’t have a license, it’s my father who taught him how to drive. He asks me how school was and I reply it was fine. Then he turns up the volume of one of the CDs playing in the car stereo as if to fill the silence where proper conversation should be. Sometimes I hear him on the phone talking to who I assume is my father.
My mother drops me off at school in the morning, goes to work, comes home to cook dinner and then goes off to her bedroom. Her phone is always ringing but she never answers it— probably my father.
I spend most of my time after school sitting on the veranda as I read the Sweet Valley High series or the “big girl books” my teacher keeps suggesting to me. She says they will expand my English. She says my grammar and vocabulary are outstanding. She thinks I am a prodigy in literature.
I usually sit facing the gate as I read and silently will my father to return. I pray for him to come back as though my thoughts and prayers can change this situation. It does not happen. I do not have a phone yet, so my father does not call me. Nobody tells me how he is either and I do not ask.
At night, we have dinner together before we all disappear to our rooms. Sometimes mother lingers a bit and watches television. Sometimes she sits on the stool of our mini bar with Mbachi sitting on the stool next to her. I watch their backs hidden from behind the doorframe of the corridor. My brother is usually the one to pour Jack Daniels for my mother and himself. She doesn’t reprimand him even though he is only seventeen and probably too young to drink. I think she needs his comfort in those times. She always did say that he looks so much like my father. They click their glasses together. They drink it without ice. Most times they sit in silence but on rare occasions they talk about my father.
‘Is he coming back?’ Mbachi’s usual question.
‘I don’t know.’ My mother’s usual answer, followed by a gulp of the whiskey.
‘How is Life taking it?’ My mother’s follow up question.
‘I don’t know.’ My brother’s follow up answer followed by a gulp of whiskey.
‘Better than us, I s’ppose.’
‘God, I hope so.’
Then they refill their glasses. They never ask me how I am doing. I wonder if they are as afraid of my answer as I am of their question.
I realise my mother starts to gain a bit of weight somewhere in mid-October, about two months after my father leaves. She stops drinking whiskey with Mbachi about a month earlier and started going to bed earlier as well. From the forlorn way Mbachi’s eyes lingers on her, I can tell he notices it too. But like the whiskey nightsnone of us talks about it.
By November I can feel how much her tummy is expanding when I throw my hand over her waist during the depths of the night.
School closes on the twentieth of that month. I spend more time on the veranda actually reading than I do expecting my father to come back home. Mbachi comes to sit with me one day when I am sittingfar from the edge. It’s raining so I don’t bring my book with me. Instead I watch the rain pour with my knees tucked under my chin.
‘You’re going to get wet,’ he says even though he goes right ahead to sit next to me and tuck his knees as well.
I do not respond. We stay quiet for a while as rain splashes and sploshes, wetting our makeshift veranda shelter.
‘I told dad’ Mbachi says after some time.
It comes out so softly that I almost don’t hear him.This piques my interest and I stare at him to show that I am listening. For the first time I notice that he looks weary. He looks a lot older than his years. He looks like our father.
‘He called me. He asked how we are. I told him you were doing great in school. You’ve always been a genius, you know that kiddo? You get that from mom.’
Mbachi says this as a joke but the smile fails to reach his eyes.
‘I—I also told him I think mom is pregnant.’ he stammers when he says this bit.‘He cut the phone.’
My shoulders slump at hearing this news. Mbachi extends his arm towards me as though to comfort me but decides against it and draws back. I stare at him and he holds my gaze.
‘Don’t worry, we’ll be okay.’ It sounds as though he is trying to reassure himself instead of me.
We turn our eyes away from each other and go back to watching the rain as it soaks our trousers.
That night, as I hug my mother, I whisper the same words Mbachi tried to reassure me with into her back. I go on to say that she doesn’t need to worry if my father doesn’t want to come back. I tell her she still has me and Mbachi and that we will help her with the baby. I tell her that I hope it’s a girl and that I want to name it. I keep talking on about a lot of nothings and I gently cry as I say them. Her snoring and the sound of the pouring rain drown out my whispers and tears. It’s okay though, because in that moment I don’t know if the words are for her or if they are for me.
We reopen school early December because the government is trying to change the school year calendar. At the beginning of that term Mbachi starts dropping me off at school instead of only picking me up. These days we seem to converse more. I go into details about my day and he adds in a few comments. The CDs on the car stereo only provide background music now.
My mother starts wearing more loose clothing and fewer shoes with high heels. Mbachi brings her orange juice and massages her temples every now and then. Their talks during these times are different from their whiskey nights. I know this because sometimes they smile. On rare occasions one of them laughs and on extremely miraculous ones they both do.
I continue to hug my mother’s ever expanding tummy during the night.
The thirteenth of December is a Sunday. I have always loved Sundays because they are the end of the week and the next day always means a new beginning to me. We don’t go to church because my mother wants to stay home. She brings out a chair so that she can sit outside and read magazines as she sips juice. Mbachi is hovering around the house somewhere. I hear his music blasting through it. I sit on my regular spot on the veranda reading. I have finished theSweet Valley High series and so I am reading Mills and Boons now.
It is well in the afternoon when the hoot of a car jolts my mother from her nap and startles me from my reading. We are not ones to get visitors regularly.
‘I’ll get it,’ I tell her and she smiles thankfully at me.
I go to open the small gate. I freeze as I stare at the man before me.
‘Life,’ he greets. ‘Is your mother home?’
I am speechless as he continues to look at me expectantly. He seems sad. His eyes are bloodshot as though he’s been drinking but I know it’s because he has been crying since his voice sounds like sandpaper. Maybe he has been drinking and crying. Maybe he’s been breathing.
‘Life, honey,’ my mother’s voice is closer than where I left her. ‘Who’s at the gate?’
I move just a little to turn to her and he takes this chance to breeze past me.
‘Thoko,’ his voice cracks as he takes in my mother’s pregnant form.
He takes small, cautious stepsto where my mother is standing. She looks shocked but her body stays still. Then the most unexpected thing happens, my father drops to his knees at my mother’s feet. He pushes up the material covering her bulging tummy and starts to place tiny little kisses all around it.
‘I’m sorry,’ my father says. ‘None of our problems were worth me doing what I did. I was so stupid. So so stupid.’
He rests his forehead lightly on my mother’s stomach. He goes on to hold her sides, thumbs making soft circling motions on her skin. He treats her as though she is fragile- with a gentleness I never knew he possessed. Then he starts to weep— big fat tears. He sounds like a wounded animal.
‘How far along?’ he asks
‘About six months.’ my mother says.
I can almost hear her unspoken words. Just before he left.
I can almost see the realisation form on my father’s face as he registers the time period. He starts to cry harder- as though this is a shock to him. But I am certain he always knew the truth of how my mother was never like him.
‘How could I let you deal with this alone?’ My father places another kiss on her stomach. ‘I am so sorry, my Thoko. Forgive me?’
The air is thick with broken love that is weeping to be fixed.
My mother appears startled by all of this. For a slight moment she seems to be on the verge of tears before her face hardens in a way I have only ever seen it done once before. In this moment she frightens me. I wonder what she would do right now if she had a knife in her hand.
She places her hand on the overgrown hair of his head and clutches it – hard. My father stays completely still waiting for his wife’s wrath.
‘Get up.’ Her voice comes out softer than her face, but there is a coldness to it that could freeze hell over.
Before my father can react she yanks on his hair forcing him to stand on his feet. Despite his staggering height my mother stares him down− straight in the eye.
I have always thought my father to be a mammoth of a man −big and broad−but in this one moment he seems smaller than ever. As though coming back to his home and family could somehow shrink him within himself.
My mother breaks eye contact with him to pass a small gentle glimpse at me before her face hardens again.
Her gaze alone shakes the entire solid stature of who my father is.
‘Don’t be mistaken about what this means, Vitumbiko,’ she says before she walks away from him.
I observe all this in awe from where I was still standing by the gate. Mbachi observes all this from behind a curtain. My father observes all this from his crumbling foundation.
That evening my father tries to converse with us as if everything is magically back to normal. As if things should just fall back in place after him not being in this house in months. He asks me about school and I tell him I was top of my class in the previous term. He tells me I am a genius but only because I take after my mother and not him. He says this to lighten the mood and seems disheartened when none of us acknowledge it. I want to tell him that the joke failed the first time it was ever told and so he shouldn’t feel so bad about it. I want to tell him that he and his son are extremely alike in appearance and in humour. I don’t say this. Instead, after a long awkward silence, I tell him thank you.
My father continues to talk to me, only because my mother doesn’t even acknowledge him and Mbachi keeps giving one word answers.
Out of routine, I get out of bed again that night. I go to my mother’s room only to find it locked. I frown and walk to Mbachi’s room. His door gives way but there is nobody on his bed which is also odd. I trudge to the guest room. I open the door quietly and take a peek. My father is sleeping on his side. Next to him Mbachi lays on his back, hand lazily draped over my father’s body. None of them snores like my mother does. I wonder if anybody will talk about this in the morning. I doubt it. I close the door and go back to my own bed.
I stay awake for a long time despite the next morning being a school day. I think about how the routine in this house has changed yet again. I wonder who will drop me off and who will pick me up. I honest to God hope it’s Mbachi.