I’m staring at the blinking cursor on my empty screen when the headache hits. Concentrated on the back of my head, where skull meets vertebra, the pain throbs and grows heavier. It radiates to my eye sockets as the stalemate with the taunting cursor progresses. I’m writing a memoir, supposedly. The white space before me suggests otherwise. I’d love to be stretched out on a mpasa in the cool shade of a mango tree. Instead, I am marooned at my desk, gripped in a quagmire of interminable writer’s block.
I slam the laptop shut and climb into my still unmade bed which, in its rumpled state, blends in well with the rest of my bedroom. Piles of clean laundry and to-do laundry. Books that have escaped the bookshelf and organised themselves into little towers across the carpet. And socks. These little-girl unmatched socks that sprout everywhere like an invasive species of mushrooms. I’m grateful my alangizi is not here to witness how I have failed to put into practice her many lessons on how to keep a home.
The onset of fever soon banishes all thoughts of my alangizi. Chills sweep in as though to counter the hot tide under my skin. I pull the covers over my head, shaking one minute and sweating the next. Not quite asleep nor fully awake, I drift in the unclaimed space, the no man’s land, until the thump of footsteps on the staircase announces my husband’s arrival from the school run.
“What’s up, Busiku?” asks Tony.
I poke my head out from under the covers. “Nothing. Flu, I think.”
He switches on the light.
“Don’t!” I flinch and dive back under. “I’m turning into a vampire.”
“A bampire?” My daughter giggles. “Mummy’s turning into a bampire!”
Luyando loves Halloween. After evil queens, vampires are her favourite. She tells me they have sharp teeth and wings and she can draw me one if I like. Squinting against the light, I sit up to accept both her offer of a drawing and the thermometer Tony holds out.
My temperature is 38.5 degrees Celsius. A couple of hours later, it’s 40. I feel awful. This is flu like I’ve never known. Perhaps it’s not flu at all. I call the health service helpline. The call handler asks me a series of questions:
—Any chest pain?
—Recent travel abroad?
Yes, I recently traveled abroad. I visited my homeland, Zambia, about four weeks ago. Yes, it’s well-known as a malaria zone. No, I didn’t take prophylactic treatment. No, it wasn’t a clever thing to do.
The call handler sends me to A and E, disapproval in his tone.
Triage takes hours, but after that, they fast-track me to the centre for tropical diseases on the eleventh floor of the hospital. There, I’m parked in a side room and left to ruminate. Nothing to do but think about the hundreds of times I’ve been bitten by mosquitoes. Hundreds of incidences of exposure to the malaria parasite.
That’s when the jump-off happens, at three in the morning, with the overhead lights dimmed, the blinds open, and millions of orange lights twinkling in the city below. I see the lights, but I see other things also. And it’s like swimming through sepia-toned water towards the bottom of a lake where the silk scarves lie. Each scarf is a different colour, a different memory.
I pick one up and shake it out to see what pictures it holds. It undulates in the water current, tells a terrible tale. I let it slip from my fingers and reach for another scarf. This one is pure and fragile and old. It starts to disintegrate even as I try to hold it closer.
I understand now why I’ve been avoiding writing the memoir. To find the memories I’m willing to share, I must delve through the red and black scarves and look again at those memories I would sooner stay buried in silt. I feel again what I felt back when I first wore the scarf.
And even the happy memories, the yellows and light blues and greens and golds, depending on who is in them, they are not happy when viewed in juxtaposition to the present because those people aren’t here anymore. So you’re left with this ache that’s been accentuated by your wearing their scarf.
My mother. She’s definitely a yellow, warm as the sun. But in this memory, black rings the yellow like a tie-dye pattern.
She had malaria. Not the kind a few Chloroquine tablets could suck up. My mother, who never got sick, had cerebral malaria. The type where you are bedridden for weeks, the medication ineffectual. I crept in to check on her. The ceiling above her bed was water-stained and bowed, heavy with honeycombs where the bees had made a home. Honey trickled from the cornice of the wall nearest the bed, leaving sticky, pale gold streaks all the way down to the skirting board.
I sat on the edge of the bed, my gaze darting from my mother to the bulging ceiling above which bees droned in the roof space. I imagined the ceiling bursting. Irate bees crashing down over my mother and me like a lethal waterfall.
I took her hand, striving to be gentle. Her skin was paper-thin and hot. Shallow breathing, her lips dry and cracked. She opened her eyes, looked at me. Then, wordless, closed them again. I was glad. The whites were too white, the gaze uncomprehending. The idea that I was a stranger to her cranked up my panic. How ill she had to be, unable to recognise her own daughter.
I sat there for a long time, bloated with twisty emotions I couldn’t name. But I was sure Mum was getting worse, and I told Ba Ignatius as much.
Ba Ignatius, my parents’ domestic worker and the only available adult, took the news by running across the yard. He disappeared through a gap in the hedgerow that separated our house from the neighbours and returned a short while later, riding shotgun in our neighbours’ Corolla.
The neighbour leapt out of the driver’s seat. He was the athletic type and seemed to always be in fast motion.
“Ba Mudala bali kwisa, mama?” asked Mr Neighbour.
I nudged my big toe at a stone on the dusty driveway, clueless. How was I supposed to know where my father was? I hadn’t seen him in days. I had the urge to shout: I’m not your Mama. How could a grade six be a grown man’s mother?
But I yelled nothing, stricken as the neighbour and Ba Ignatius lifted Mum into the car. She’s going to hospital, they said.
I stood on the veranda watching the car take her away. I didn’t cry, because my younger sisters were on either side of me, their hands clammy in mine. If I cried, they would too. So, I put a big smile on, to not show that I was petrified I’d never see Mum again.
Years later, Mum would confide in me her suspicions about that illness. No ordinary malaria, she believed, but the point at which she seroconverted.
“That’s not my Minnie Mouse swimsuit,” says Luyando.
“No, but it’s much nicer.” I stuff the not-Minnie purple tankini set into a pink swim bag and grab a towel off the radiator. “Ready?”
She crosses her arms against her chest. “I want the Minnie Mouse one.”
“I can’t find Minnie, sweetheart.”
“Then I’m not going to the lazy river!” She storms out of the room, down the stairs.
Suits me. Last place I want to be is at a waterpark on a Saturday. All those people packed in the pool like a herd of seals crowded on a sliver of sea ice. I debate going to cajole Luyando and decide against it. She will calm down sooner without an audience, as I’ve learnt. Could do some writing while I wait.
At my desk, I rifle through a cache of photographs I keep close at hand to help with memory. I stop at a picture of my sisters and me posing in front of a red brick house. Wana and Choolwe are part of my earliest memories. Growing up, they were at once my deadly rivals and truest friends. I miss how we’d stay up long into the night as young adults before I emigrated, hooting with laughter as we indulged in “remember when––” conversations.
––when mum caught us playing in the airing cupboard with lit candles?
––when she put Choolwe onto her back and swam laps in the pool, her dress billowing around her like a parachute. Yes, dress. Pale green and lieu of a swimming costume.
––Remember the red house? Dad used to take us to the plot, the house nothing but a concrete foundation surrounded by great big boulders. He would jump on a section of slab and say, “This is the kitchen.” Jump on another section and say, “Here’s the study. Dining room. Den,” and so on; hop-scotch on a building site. With every new visit, there’d be more house and less boulder.
Until one day, the house was completed. Beautiful, with its red brick façade and shimmering pool and landscaped gardens. Our excitement at moving in, picking out rooms, running through the echoing corridors, giddy on the scent of fresh paint.
We came home from school not long after moving in to find an open truck idling on the driveway. It was loaded with boxes, furniture, and Ba Ignatius’ wife and kids. We climbed in. It seemed the only thing to do.
The engine revved, and the truck vibrated around me. I wrinkled my nose at the stink of diesel fumes. Ignatius came out of the house carrying a potted plant. He locked the front door, deposited the plant into the truck and climbed in after it. Mum loved that plant. Gave it a name and everything. Fred had big, dark green leaves. She would dip a cloth in milk and rub each leaf until it shone. Fed him cold, black tea sometimes; I still don’t know the science behind that, but Fred flourished. His leaves stirred as the truck drove down the driveway towards the gates.
The truck picked up speed. Fred’s leaves waved vigorously. Goodbye manicured lawns, trimmed hedges, and houses hiding behind tall wall fences. We drove into the city centre and through to the other side. Goodbye, tarred roads.
A plume of dust rose as the truck’s tyres agitated the gravel road. I could taste the dust, all gritty in my mouth. Deaf from the rush of air in my ears. Eyes streaming from the wind-tunnel effect. Misery is bouncing around untethered in the rear of a speeding vehicle.
When the truck jolted to a stop and dust settled, I did a quick head count. We had all survived the journey. All but Fred. He had lost most of his leaves, and those that remained were wind-torn, sad, and waving no more.
First thing I noticed about our new home was the grass. Tall and tawny, the type that might conceal a predator. A row of guava trees swayed in the sea of grass, and further down the vast garden, a thicket of banana trees huddled around a dripping tap.
Hedgerow on three sides. Chain-link fence and gate across the front of the property. Empty house to the left on the other side of the hedgerow. No houses behind and to the right of ours. No neat lawns here, no carefully tended garden with lilac flowering bougainvillaea shrubs. Just mango trees standing sentinel on barren stretches of farmland. I had never seen so much untamed nature. The sun burned hotter, seemed closer. The cicada calls more strident. I retreated indoors.
Expecting wooden floors and that new house smell. Instead, I found monochrome lino tiles thick with layers of grime so that my shoes went snick, snick as I walked across the floor. It–– the house––smelt of raw egg whites. The kitchen counters were alive with cockroaches, a colony of dark brown bugs that, once disturbed, swarmed across the surface to take refuge in the crevices of decaying chipboard cabinets. I slammed the door shut, shuddering.
“Choolwe!” A catch in my voice. “Wana!”
Here was a bedroom at the end of a dark, narrow hallway. Choolwe and Wana stood in one corner, staring up at the ceiling.
“What is it?” I asked. “Akaka, mulanga nzi?”
“Shhh,” said Choolwe. “Listen.”
I joined them in the corner and followed their collective gaze at the water-stained ceiling. Faint humming came from beyond the boards. An ominous song. I looked at Choolwe.
She nodded. “Bees.”
Now why would our parents move us here? With the bees and the cockroaches and the grass. No other children in sight. Miles away from school and anything remotely approaching civilisation.
One thing was certain: this house, these conditions, I could not endure them. My mind, blessed with the ability to predict impending calamity even on the brightest of days, supplied a hundred scenarios of the things that would befall me were we to stay. A rat chewing on my toes. Bees swarming into my wide-open, screaming mouth. A cockroach climbing into my ear the moment I fell asleep, its hairy little legs churning inside my head as it scrambled towards my brain. It could happen. People got insects stuck in their ear canals all the time.
I asked mum when she came in from work, her arms looped around the pot plant she’d brought in from the veranda. “When are we going back home?” I asked.
And asked and asked, trailing behind her as she took a tour of the new-old house, asking, pestering: when, when? She set Fred down on the half-wall between the living and dining rooms.
“We’re not going back. This is home now.” Then, arms still around the white ceramic pot in which Fred sagged, she said, “My poor, poor plant,” looking not at the plant but at Wana, Choolwe and me.
It’s time to go. Luyando thinks not. Several other parents at the poolside are engaged in similar battles with their children. Get out of the water now or else! Luyando’s not in the pool but is threatening to go back in. She carries through with her threat, wading in till the water’s lapping at her knees. She looks up at me, like, What are you going to do about it?
I’m out of ultimatums, to be honest. My “or else” bag is empty. I glance at Tony sitting at one of the tables close by. He takes a sip from the disposable paper cup he’s been staring into.
“A little back-up here?”
“Two ticks. Just finishing my coffee,” he says.
Two ticks are all it takes. I look back at the pool, and Luyando isn’t in the shallows anymore. She’s not farther out near the safety line that separates the shallow end from the deep. She’s nowhere.
I ran into the water.
Too many people. Too much splashing. Too much fun going on while my child is missing. I ran out again.
“Tony, I can’t see her.”
“I can’t find her!”
“Don’t panic. I’ll go see if I can spot her from the deck.”
His advice comes too late. Knees shaky and pulse helter-skelter, I bee-line for the nearest lifeguard.
“My daughter’s missing,” I say, my voice rough with unshed tears. “Please help me.”
“How old is she?”
“Four. She’s wearing a pink Minnie Mouse swimsuit.”
“Can she swim?”
Oh, Lord. I hadn’t thought of that. Stranger danger had been looping in my mind. I hadn’t thought about the obvious and greater hazard.
“Not very well. She can’t”––I reign in the high pitch, the rising hysteria. “She’s wearing a pink Minnie Mouse––”
But she isn’t. I couldn’t find Minnie this morning, and now I can’t think what colour Luyando is wearing. Tony returns from the deck. He shakes his head. Paralysed, I watch the lifeguard signal to his colleague.
Matthew seemed alright. Friendly but not in that condescending way that adults tended to be. Lanky, he didn’t quite qualify for proper adult status, in my view, since he didn’t look much older than my uncle, who was about nineteen. Matthew turned up one day out of nowhere. We went to the disused chicken runs attached to the farm to find something to do as usual, and there was a man with a hammer and some nails.
A shrug. “Your dad told me to.”
“Ndimwe ba ndani nzina?”
He stopped hammering to help Wana fashion a ball out of an old maize-meal sack. That done, he didn’t go back to his hammering but joined us in a game of chicken in the den. That’s how Matthew became our friend.
There was always stuff to do at the chicken runs. Climb the perimeter wall and walk the top of it, like walking a tightrope; see who could get from point A to point B the fastest. Or you could jump over the wall into the adjoining piggery, where the walls were even higher. It didn’t have a roof, so you could walk, or crawl, all along the walls to the gable end. Dizzy heights. The farm laid out below. Mango trees, citrus orchard, someone’s patch of malnourished maize plants. Six-metre drop to the concrete floor.
Now that I’m a parent myself, I think, sometimes, that my mum and dad must have had titanium nerves to let us out of the house at all. To let us wander through the same long grass where snakes made their highways. I came across a puff adder once, dragging its corpulent tan and coffee-banded body across the ground. Perfectly camouflaged in the dense, light brown stalks. Providence alone kept me from stepping on it.
Other times, I think they––my parents––just didn’t see the risks. After all, my mother grew up on the banks of the Zambezi. She and her friends used to swim across the rushing river to get from one bank to the other, drowning and crocodiles be damned. My father grew up on the plains of Southern Province, where a man’s wealth is measured by the number of cattle he owns. Someone had to look after the cattle; herd them across the wild plains. Stay with them in the grasslands for days at a time. My father was that someone, a herd boy tending my grandfather’s cattle alongside his brothers. Considering their own childhoods, it’s no wonder they thought it safe to let us roam free.
It transpired that my father planned to raise chickens and had hired Matthew to help him do that. The chicken run consisted of two long buildings with low roofs made of corrugated iron sheets held up by wooden poles. Stifling hot in there and smelt sort of medicinal. A mixture of disinfectant and wood preserver. Matthew had taken to pushing Choolwe and Wana round and round one of the buildings in a wheelbarrow. Taking sharp corners, whizzing past poles. Wheee! They screeched in delight while I looked on, too cool for the rides.
But when they tired of the game and left, Matthew asked if I wanted a ride. It had looked like so much fun. I jumped in. Matthew gripped the handles and pelted. Wheee! Past the poles. Approaching a corner. He slowed down. Then stopped. Looked down at me with an expression that cut my laughter short. I glanced around on instinct. Muscles tense and ready for flight because there was nothing fun about being parked in the corner of a deserted building with some man, a virtual stranger, standing over me. Blocking all routes of escape.
Matthew hunkered down and grabbed for me. I lunged forward and bit his hand. He tried to dislodge me. I locked on harder, broke through skin, tasted salt. He didn’t make a sound. The barrow scraped against the concrete and made a grating noise with him flapping his arm to loosen my grip. I clamped down harder, totally committed to the bite. Matthew could not shake me off.
I released him of my own volition.
He backed off, and eyes wide, cradled his bleeding hand. I shot out of the wheelbarrow and fled, my heart thudding in my throat. Through the long grass, past the dripping tap, into the kitchen and beyond, tearing along the dark, narrow corridor.
I burst into my parents’ room, where my mother lay under a mound of blankets, shivering in the honey-scented heat.
“I want to go home. Please, Mum, wake up. Why did you bring us here? I hate this place!”
She didn’t respond, didn’t seem able even to open her eyes. Raging at her continuing non-presence, I turned to leave.
The shredded whisper drained my rage away. She could recognise me again, finally.
The lifeguards start the search. I make to follow one of them, but a flash of purple in my peripheral vision snares my attention. Luyando. Strolling towards me from the baby pool.
“Mummy, can I have an ice-cream?”
I scoop her up and hug her tight. Her hair’s soft and fuzzy from the water, and she wriggles to get down. I hang onto her a second longer before calling to the lifeguards.
“She’s here! You can call off the search. She’s safe.”
The lifeguards will lecture me for sure about keeping a closer eye on my child. I prepare for their blistering words, but the lifeguards return to work without comment. Perhaps they’re accustomed to overwhelmed, panicking parents raising false alarms.
Later in the evening, after I put Luyando to bed, I sit at my desk with my laptop. The cursor blinks at me in challenge, daring me to write. Asking, in that silent way that inanimate objects speak, whether my ordinary past really deserves a memoir.
Well, Cursor, everyone deserves to tell their story, and mine starts here.
Mbozi Haimbe was born and raised in Lusaka, Zambia. She writes both speculative and realist fiction inspired by her African childhood. Her short story, “Madam’s Sister” won the Africa Regional Prize of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize in 2019, as well as a PEN America/Dua award for best debut short stories. Climate change is the key theme of her story, “Shelter” which won first runner-up of the 2020 Short Story Day Africa competition; it was also nominated for a Nommo award. Mbozi lives in Norfolk, UK with her family.