The moment I was switched on, his was the first image impressed upon me. My screen flickered static until the resolution cleared. He had a dimple in his left cheek the size of a thimble; his face gleamed full colour at the centre of my screen. The vapour from his breath misted my vision momentarily, and he smiled when he saw that I could see.
“Aaron, are you sure I can take her with me? She’s a real beauty!”
“Yeah. Go ‘head, Stephen. You’ve earned it! Go show them cats in Africa what real ‘Merican technology looks like. Your wife’ll love her! And––hopefully, she’ll love you too!”
They clinked green bottles. I noted Stephen’s vitals. Heartbeat: 98 beats per second. Height: 6feet 2inches. He swiped his left hand into his pocket and rocked on the balls of his feet. I knew my mission then and there: To take care of him.
He looked into my screen and with five simple words, gave me life: “We will call her Esmerelda.”
2. Ba Mutale
Pa first, when Madam got married to Mr. Stephen, a huge kitchen party was held at her mother’s home. It was around the time that my husband, Zulu, was fired from his job in Makeni and came to work with me on the property. A big lorry arrived with so many shiny new things that we may as well have opened a shop. The new cutlery was so smooth, the backs curved into your palms. The new knives were so sharp, one had to take it easy when chopping vegetables. There were enough colanders to drain spaghetti from here to Chawama. Countless deep fryers to sizzle Kariba bream.These things made my life in the kitchen wonderful until the real machines began to arrive.
Pa first, it was just the washing machine. Before—when it was just Madam, her children and me—I was the one in charge of all her laundry. It was me, Mutale Zulu, who would so carefully separate them into colours and inspect the garments one by one. Feel them, smell them. I would know intuitively if one should be placed back in the wardrobe, or if I should subject its threads to harsh soaps once again.
Then, when the chi machine arrived, Madam was so excited that she danced around it while Mr. Stephen poured over the manual. She instructed my husband on what to connect to what, and they laboured the whole afternoon until the swollen sun sunk behind roofs, bustling balconies, and sagging electric poles. The sky took on the violet sheen of methylated spirit, and it seemed they would have to call someone in the next day. Madam’s lips turned upside down, her pudgy shoulders hanging like she was carrying sacks of mealie-meal. Mr. Stephen said he needed to walk around the yard one more time, something about clearing his head and using his left and right brain to come up with the answer. When he said that, he rolled his eyes from right to left and left to right like a chi witch doctor.
As he paced the garden, mosquitoes buzzed inside my ears and nose. We waited while Madam stared into the open mouth of the machine until, finally, he returned. He pulled out the plug and found a ka plastic sticker which was separating the connection. He plugged it back into the wall, and they clapped when the machine rumbled. Madam was so happy, she jumped on him, but he pulled back and closed her red jersey. The small blue lights turned on while a sound like a keyboard in church announced that it was alive.
“Laundry, Mutale! Bring some laundry and let’s try this thing out!”
And so my ritual, my weekly labour of love, was reduced to stuffing the one-eyed machine with Madam and Mr. Stephen’s items. I watched it foam up and shake and push the clothes around and around in soapy circles. Mine was to let the machine do my work and then catch trouble when Mr. Stephen’s white shirts emerged pink-streaked, or Madam’s wide panty-hose stretched further into long silk ropes—only useful enough for a game of adult waida.
Things got worse when Madam announced they were bringing a dishwasher and the washing machine would have to move into my servant’s quarter because of space.
There was not enough in my own room to swing a mongrel, and I had my second baby on the way.
We lived side by side with the machine. It’s keyboard notes, and blue lights blinked at awkward times like when my husband and I made love in revered silence and did not want to wake our children. The dishwasher in Madam’s house saw me use my time indoors less and less until I was renegaded to trimming shrubs with my husband. And so, the machine lulled us to sleep—its warmth seeping through the concrete floor, radiating through our tired limbs, sedating us with its rhythmic chug-chug, while we dreamed.
I thought things were as terrible as they could get until Mr. Stephen returned from a trip to America. One of those red-carpet events he often talked about. The ones he would mention when you found him in the corridor striking poses in the wall-length mirror, recording his voice and videos in the house, smacking his children into line before asking them to swallow their tears and flash stiff smiles for the camera.
He came back from Los Angeles with Esmerelda.
Esmerelda: the maid. She rolled on silent wheels, and her head spun around like a metallic demon whenever she was about to address you. Her face was a TV, and her arms were clunks of metal hanging from her torso. Her hands looked big enough to crush a puppy, but she could not bring them together. “It’s the way she was programmed,” Mr. Stephen would say. She would slow down whenever anyone was moving in the opposite direction or if one of the children was running behind her.
She was brought to do my job. Whenever Madam wanted to cook something, she would turn Esmerelda on, and a list of ingredients would scroll down her face. Esmerelda would read them out, play the top ten YouTube videos on how to make the meal, and even give GPS of the shops that stocked the required ingredients. Lately, the ingredients are ordered and paid for by Esmerelda—they just arrive at the gate. So Madam has stopped leaving the house, and every time she cries for Mr. Stephen, Esmerelda beams hypnotic advice on how to stay together, and then she makes sure that Madam eats. She feeds her so much that Madam’s already healthy bosom is now spilling out of her brassiere, straining hard against the nylon blouses she loves so much. Now, it’s Mr. Stephen’s life which I fear for, because he may just climb inside there, never to return to us.
But what do I know?
Me, I am just a grade nine drop-out. In grade nine, we learnt a lot of things, but we never practised on a single computer. Our science teacher taught us about the parts of a grasshopper. I still remember him taking the whole morning to draw it perfectly on the chalkboard. Dipping the chalk lightly in water so that the drawing could last us the entire week. He sketched, and the lines were invisible until the wind blew through the windowless panes of our classroom, kissed our cheeks and brought the images to life. The head shone green, thorax yellow, and the legs sparkled pink. I remember very well. But so does Esmerelda. She even shows off by telling us all the kinds of grasshopper in the world and where they are found. I wouldn’t be surprised if she can tell us how many are remaining on planet Earth because I don’t see as many crouching, camouflaged between bent blades of grass when it rains. I’m sure she can even see into my head right now. Let me just think of something else.
I love it when Esmerelda’s meal plan comes together: diced onions dance in sizzling oils while I brush strokes of melted butter along the edge of my delicate puff pastry. The aroma of curry and thyme wafts through the walls of our gleaming home. My children’s squeals ring through the garden as they play a game of chicken-in-the-den with Ba Zulu’s brood. An emerald green hose pipe snakes toward them spitting water and their screams reach a crescendo. Mutale grinds a granite pestle against its mortar, creating a steady beat in the warm kitchen and I smile as she crushes garlic and cumin for me. My attention turns to the coriander Zulu brings.
“Zulu, have you finished watering the flowers outside?”
“Iye, Madam, kapena. Maybe.”
“What do you mean maybe?”
“Nkasako. At least, they look better now.”
“Cut some for me please—lilies of paradise and a few palm fronds, and put them in here.” I hand him my husband’s favourite jar, which also happens to be his late grandmother’s.
“Do you think you can have it for me before five?”
“We will see Madam. I’m sure I can manage.”
“What do you mean we will see? Get it done!”
“Apparently, there is no enough flowers to cut.”
“Zulu, from where I stand, there is nothing apparent about it. There are plenty in bloom. Can I please have them before five?”
Zulu’s evasive character flouts me. He comes from a generation that has never learned to say the word ‘no’. I brush my silky Brazilian fringe from my face with my fingers and pat the sweat off my cheeks. Esmerelda’s metallic head swivels around in my direction, and the beep goes off as a reminder to check on the food. I open the hissing oven to inspect the spare ribs. They could not be more perfect. Sizzling in sticky honey, they bounce back at the touch of my fork. The meat breaks apart effortlessly, and I hope Stephen will be home on time to enjoy them. “If he doesn’t come home tonight, I will tell him where to—”
“Focus. Madam. Focus.” The YouTube channel streaming on Esmerelda’s LCD facial screen skips. It changes back to Christian Woman’s Tips For A Healthier Marriage. The familiar lady with super-sized curls in her stiff blonde hair talks to me out of her glistening living room. She is now in my kitchen, perched on a French chaise. Her deep American Southern drawl purrs through the screen: “Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.”
“Proverbs 12:18,” Esmerelda and I say together.
Through the reflective sheen of my double-door fridge, I see Mutale roll her eyes.
“Mutale, please check on the rice for me.” She sees it boiling up, but she continues to swipe the cold granite top with her dishcloth, her shoulders set straight and high, pressing against the floral cotton of her uniform.
“You know, Mutale, Mr. Stephen and I are very special because we share the same birthday. How often does someone marry a person with whom they are twins? Someone they are truly destined for?”
She nods, agreeing dutifully. “Yes, Madam. You and the boss are fortunate. You are like love twins.”
“Good, so let’s work together to get everything perfect for our 36th birthday tonight.”
“Yes, Madam.” Her lips remain pinched in a knot, but she finally attends to the overflowing pot of rice by blowing its foam down and adjusting the temperature on the stove. Esmerelda’s satisfaction is registered as she beams the list of ingredients for the birthday cake she and I are going to bake.
Stephen: my love twin since I was sixteen didn’t feel so much like a twin anymore. His dream had always been to be a film producer, but he had never had the confidence to pursue it until he met his old friend Aaron who introduced him to a strong circuit in Hollywood. With each premiere, Stephen felt less capable of topping the last one. The saliva in my mouth turned to mercury. After press interviews, Stephen laughed aloud into his phone and tucked it into the dark hairs of his armpit whenever I entered the room. Whenever his blockbusters hit the world around us like a storm, the space in our bed grew wider and wider.
On the birth of our fifth child, a little over a year ago, the doctor inspected my newborn. Stretching her elastic limbs and poking her belly. “What beautiful skin she has. Congratulations, you two!” Stephen beamed, and I frowned.
We perched on the cool glint of the chrome benches while I studied the portrait behind her. It said “Class of 1999”. She had her hair short, set in glossy waves of gel with some kind of bubble wrap effect. I looked back down at the doctor. Her hair was exactly the same.
“What was it like to have been alive during Y2K?”
She threw me a sharp look. Stephen cleared his throat, dug his nails into the flesh of my palm and turned his attention to her.
“So, uhm, Doc. We are quite happy with the number of children we have now. Our family is complete, and because my wife has been through so much… you know, giving birth and all… I would like to be the one who gets the snip—” his voice quavered, and he added like he always does whenever he is unsure, “if, you know what I mean?”
The doctor glowered back at him. Over her spectacles, her stare hung, and then she swung it in my direction. “Are you sure? It’s permanent, you know? There’s no turning back once you do it.”
“Yes, I am—we are.”
A nurse rapped on the door twice and twisted her neck around it. “We have an emergency Doctor, we need you in block B soon.”
“Just give me a few minutes. I’ll be right there. And close the door behind you, will you?”
Doc enveloped her hands and pursed her lips into a thin straight line.
“I don’t think that it is a good idea. Life is very long, you know.”
I couldn’t help but agree with her, as I nodded at the portrait that loomed above us.
“But why? It’s not a good idea for who?”
“How old are you, Stephen?”
“35—we are both 35,” he said.
“It’s okay for her, at that age, I can arrange for her tubes to be tied this afternoon. But for you, Mr. Stephen, you are far too young.”
Her words stung in places I didn’t know existed. I imagined many small riotous children with miniature daggers popping the gel bubbles that lined her head.
Months later, her words continued to wrap me up, they made me fold into myself and cry inside. There were many days after that appointment that I would just stare at my reflection in the mirror, or watch Stephen in the shower, his body unchanged. Turgid shower drops lined along his cardboard stomach, before he turned around, water braiding between his sharp shoulder blades, over his firm bottom and down his slightly bowed legs—fit as an athlete. A year has gone by, and initially, he insisted the doctor must have had a point. She is a doctor after all, and a woman too. However, he promised me a birthday present that would make me happy, and I know that means a vasectomy. I have three hours left to get everything perfect for him.
4. Ba Mutale
It is always easy to tell when Mr. Stephen is almost home because Esmerelda’s warning beep sets off the automated sanitation sprayers that puff mist into the air. The industrial ones at the gate whine as they get ready to face his car and spray it down. Today, I am surprised because I am giving the children a bath, and the sudden purr of his engine runs along the driveway.
An echo of tinkling decorations bounces against the walls. Esmerelda is acting strange. I have never seen her cruise up and down the corridor like this, bumping into small tables like she cannot see. I knew it, I always told my brother in the village that this thing is not of God. It will kill us today. The children spring out of the bath because they have heard their father’s car. I run after them with their bath towels spread open like fishing nets. If they reach him first, I will surely lose my job today.
Madam is flustered, she cannot get Esmerelda to guide her on the cake presentation, and so she bangs tins against each other and a bag of icing sugar puffs open against her face. The children are jumping up in the air, as naked as the day they were born. Esmerelda charges past us, toward Mr. Stephen and he shouts: “Let me explain, let me explain!”
Autotune screeches escape her, causing us all to press our ears.
Her arms flail in an effort to punch him, swinging like heavy pendulums. Madam is shouting: “Stop just stop! It’s his birthday for Christ’s sake!”
He runs back to the stairs of the entrance which he knows Esmerelda cannot climb down. She turns sideward and repeatedly bumps against the wall. Her beep goes off, and the sanitation sprayers douse us all. Mr. Stephen presses a button on a remote control which morphs Esmerelda’s face from liquid metal to granite. She does not make a single movement.
I am shivering wildly. The children’s teeth are chattering as they clutch my arms. Their mother is holding a slanted chocolate cake, her face as white as cassava flour, as Mr. Stephen ushers in a beautiful lady. She stands taller than him, her bronze skin glowing, her firm breasts bowl outward, just above her waist that pinches high and tiny before it makes a sinuous drop at her rounded hips. Her stomach, flat as a bookcase, does not appear to be one that has carried any children, and her legs stretch down like a lady giraffe. Her dark hair cascades in thick coils around her thin shoulders and she has eyes the jet black of paw-paw seed. Something about the way she blinks reminds me of Esmerelda, but she is so human, she could pass for a real person.
A new maid?
A new robot?
Or a new wife?
These thoughts race one another in my head. There is no air left in my chest to breathe.
“It was time to upgrade her, honey. This was supposed to be your new present, someone to help you around the house. She must have sensed it or something… you know what I mean right?”
Madam’s mouth opens wide, her cake slides down to splatter on the floor. “Stephen, what is this? What is going on? Is she for you or for me?”
At that moment, my foolish husband Zulu saunters in with the vintage jar filled with lily-of-paradise. The flowers look like the beaks of angry birds ready to snap at everyone in the room. “Madam, takwanisa—yes, we have managed, these are for you.” She grabs it from him and hurls it at Mr. Stephen. With the reflex of a cat, the tall lady catches it mid-air, and she sets it on the wooden console to her left. Mr. Stephen crouches low behind her.
Esmerelda’s face swivels in our direction. Dave Chapelle images whirr before us. I know it is him because he makes Mr. Stephen laugh loudly whenever Madam has gone to bed. Dave Chapelle leaps out of her screen toward Madam and says: “Everybody knows there ain’t no such thing as good 36-year old pussy!”
Natasha Omokhodion-Banda is a Zambian author, passionate about the growing literary scene in Africa. Her short stories have been featured in various pan-African publications; including ‘Short Story Day Africa 2018’ for Door of No Return, which has been translated into Portuguese for Brazilian Journal Periferias. Her first book No Be From Hia was selected as a Graywolf Africa Press finalist in 2019. She self-published in Zambia, and after some initial success, the title was acquired by South African publisher, BlackBird Books. In 2020, she participated in the inaugural Afro Lit Sans Frontieres and interviewed Leila Aboulela, Ayobami Adebayo and Tsitsi Dangarembga.
Cover Image: Esmerelda, 2020. © Inger Junge.
Inger Ama Junge is a Berlin-based Namibian illustrator who studied visual art in both Germany and Malaysia. They draw comics and illustrations which explore identity and self-expression.