I remember watching them high up in the sky, so high I had to squint my eyes. I remember Papa taking me to the falls where they would dive with the water, quickly lost to the mist-filled canyon beneath us. I remember the evenings sat on Mama’s lap, outside our brick home, listening to them sing to the stars and me. That’s how I want to remember them, and not as this small pile of bones, with their flesh lost to the red arid-soil before me.
Bones are all that remain of the starved, Papa once told me. But we live off them; they feed us Daya, because the sugar company needs them to bleach their cane. I look at my rice sac, thinking back to Papa’s words, haunting me. But they’re just bones in the end; like all of us, aren’t they? I want to say to him.
I dust it clean and pinch the tiny breastbone between my fingers, before dropping it into my sac. It clinks like a note I had once played on a long wooden instrument at school. I had hit it with a stick, the instrument, and it sounded just like tapping two bones together. I peer inside against the smell. Not many of them are birds; they’re too big to be birds, too big to be animal.
It’s almost as tall as me now, and too heavy to lift, but if I drag it then my sac slides easy enough over the land, causing a red mist to rise up behind me. I pull as the rough hemp cuts into my shoulder. I squint against the pain as I mimic the sound of that musical note I had once played.
‘Mama,’ I call out after arriving at our tent home. ‘Mama, I found lots Mama!’
But Mama doesn’t respond. I tie my sac tightly shut, and turn to see the amber sky deepening over the village. Sand is lifted by the rising winds of dusk, causing everything to shimmer beneath the descending darkness. I see him, leaning against the canvas walls of my neighbour’s home, staring at me and my sac. I want to take it inside, but Mama says we live with Death close enough already, without inviting it into our homes as well. So I push my sac up against the tent, turning to see that the man I don’t know has gone. I open the flap and walk inside.
‘Mama,’ I say running to lower myself into her arms. ‘What’s wrong, why are you crying?’
The blanket I had placed over her before leaving in the morning to collect had barely moved. She remains lying on the floor, with my baby brother asleep by her side.
‘Oh Daya, my sweet girl, Mama is not well today.’
She then begins violently coughing. I hold her tightly in my arms.
‘It’s OK Mama; I collected half a sac today. The sugar men will give us twenty cents for half a sac. We will eat tomorrow.’
‘Tomorrow,’ she says before closing her eyes.
I stand and walk around Mama to kiss Rudo on the head. He was born in the village and never saw our brick home, or Papa. When I’m not collecting then I tell Rudo about our life before; I tell him about Papa. I miss Papa. I felt safe when he was alive, as he could collect much better than me.
I pull my dusty clothes off and place them in one corner for tomorrow, as Mama’s wheezing breath fills the growing silence of the night. I light our only candle to get ready for bed, shadows dance around me in its flickering light. After putting on one of Papa’s old blue t-shirts, which falls all the way to my shins, I cross to the door to tie it shut. But first, I peer out to see my sac, illuminated under the glare of the moon. I briefly look up to see a world of stars above me.
‘Please God,’ I whisper.
Turning, I blow out the candle and find Mama’s side in the darkness. I lie pressed up against her and close my eyes, listening to her breath in order to drown out the hunger that’s constantly punching me in my belly.
‘Papa was a great man,’ I tell Rudo, as he sits chewing his fingers on my lap. ‘We were never hungry when Papa was alive; he was a wise man and could make bird traps out of sticky berries. Mama would then pluck the Dusky Larks, roast them, and then we would sit just here,’ I tap the earth beneath us, ‘in a circle, laughing and eating larks. Yes, Papa was a great man Rudo, but,’ I look at Mama drifting between her delusions and dreams, ‘Death took him from us.’
Rudo giggles and climbs up my chest to begin chewing my nose.
‘Mira Baby,’ stop I say, ‘it’s sticky,’ I add, laughing and hugging him tightly.
I like my mornings with Rudo. Before Mama wakes I sit and play with him. I let myself be nine again. But once Mama is up I must start work again, because if I don’t try and find food, if I don’t care for us, then no one will.
After placing Rudo on the edge of Mama’s frayed blanket, I pull Papa’s t-shirt up over my head and quickly run from the morning chill to the corner of the tent. My work clothes scratch against my skin from all the dirt trapped inside them. The river is a morning away, so I can only wash them once a week. I pick up the broom, which stands taller than me, and fill the dawn silence with the shiver of bristles sweeping dust. Rudo begins scratching at the ground. I work around him, laughing as he crawls after the brush-head at my feet.
When I sweep I think about our brick home, and how tidy Mama used to keep it, and how Mama and Papa both wailed on their knees, crying out to God, when the bad men came and bulldozed it. I sweep and see a sea of us, lost in our own country, all walking together to this: I sweep a pile of dust to the door and, after opening it, force a small grey cloud outside into the face of the rising sun.
The engine of a truck hums in the horizon. I smile, now knowing that for at least today and tomorrow we will not die, for twenty cents will buy enough maize to feed us.
‘Mama,’ I call. ‘The sugar men are here.’
Rudo claps his hands together before patting Mama on the head. She fights to wake but her dreams are too safe to leave. Gazing back outside, I watch people beginning to exit their tents around me, carrying their sacs to the truck which hoots its horn. Two men step out and begin assessing the sacs, before tossing them on the back of the truck and handing out coins. I look down at my own sac, but it is gone.
‘No!’ I cry. ‘My bones, my bones have been stolen!’
My mouth is filled by a desperate saltiness, as my tears crash from the brink of my lip. I turn to look back at Mama and Rudo, who has also fallen asleep beside her, with his bulging belly rising and falling beneath his tiny ribs. I run.
‘Pamusoro, pamusoro,’ excuse-me I say, pulling at the jacket of the man who is giving out coins. ‘My sac was stolen but I collected half, please give me twenty cents to feed my family.’
He raises the clipboard in his hand and slaps me around the face with it, hard enough to knock me to the ground.
‘No bones, no money,’ he hisses, before kicking the dusty soil over me.
‘But I will get you half a sac next time; just give me twenty cents for today. My Mama and baby brother are starving. I’m starving, please.’
He raises the clipboard high above my head, as I scramble away between the legs of my neighbours.
The soil crumbles as I dig down, sifting amongst the rubbish buried within it. I lift my hoe to try again, but my empty stomach feels as though it might collapse under the strain. The hoe drops to the ground, as I bring my hand to my belly to soothe it, with my vision misted by the sun’s hot rays.
‘Papa,’ I say, ‘I can’t dig Papa, my hunger eats me.’
Papa looks up at me and smiles, as he avidly turns over the soil picking up bone after bone.
‘We dig to eat, Daya; the sugar company will reward us for our hard work.’
I lean over and collect my hoe, seeing a partially covered bone beside its stone-scratched metal head. I scrap it free with my fingers, and tap it against the hoe’s wooden handle. It makes the right note so I stumble to the white sac and drop it inside.
‘But Papa,’ I say again, turning back to the shrunken man, with his blue t-shirt hanging loser each day, ‘I don’t want to scavenge anymore; the other girls laugh at me Papa.’
He forces his hoe into the ground and pushes his curved spine up straight as he turns to face me; his breaths falter as he fills his lungs with the sticky-air.
‘It’s not scavenging Daya,’ he says, looking out across the rubbish heap we’re stood upon, lifting us high up into the cloudless sky. ‘We dig to survive, and there’s nothing wrong about surviving.’ Papa lifts his hoe before breaking though the heap’s crust, releasing the potency of poverty further more. ‘There’s nothing wrong in survival Daya, and never let anyone tell you otherwise – understand?’
‘Yes Papa,’ I reply, but my words are cast astray on the breeze, lost with my dreams.
I sigh and turn to my sac, with them rattling inside as I shake it. I begin to drag it behind me, stopping to look for Papa once more, but my vision clears with the setting sun, and Papa is gone. I often cry while I’m out on the heap, as it’s the one place where I’m always alone.
I don’t know what it’s like elsewhere in the world, but here, in my village, suffering seems to find its way into all of us.
‘Mhoro!’ I call out, pushing the air in the top of my sac downwards to make it bulge at the bottom.
A flickering light seeps beneath the walls of the tent, licking at the darkness by my feet.
‘Hello,’ I call again. ‘Mother Amadika, mhoro, it’s me – Daya.’
The flap drops and I am bathed in light, blinded, and unable to find the eyes of the black silhouette before me.
‘What is it child?’
My vision adjusts to see the vibrant colours of her dress, tainted by hardship and sweat.
‘Mother Amadika, please take these bones I have collected, and all for a little bit of maize.’
Her towering figure and heavy breasts fall forwards as she lifts the sac, assessing its value, before carrying it inside.
‘I have little maize to give,’ she says, no louder than a whisper.
I follow her into the tent; a small fire warms a pot in one corner, with the flames ravaging the air around them. Mother Amadika lifts a small tin bowl and lowers herself beside the pot, scraping at the contents with a metal spoon. I turn to the sound of the wheezing man, lying along the far canvas wall – his body shaking with fever.
‘I can give no more.’
Mother Amadika places the bowl into my outstretched hand, too hot to hold on its bottom. I look at the few spoonfuls of porridge; there’s barely enough to feed Rudo, let alone Mama and me.
‘Ndatenda Mother Amadika,’ thank you I say stepping away.
I stop at the entrance, trapped by my thoughts. I turn and face Mother Amadika, whose curly her hair is cut short like mine.
‘He’s dying, isn’t he?’ I ask, pointing at her son, now lying still with his eyes wide-open – searching.
She walks towards me and places her heavy hand on my shoulder.
‘We’re all dying Daya, but,’ her sadness clenches me tighter, ‘some of us are freed from this life much sooner than others.’ She lets my shoulder go and lifts the flap, covering me in shadow. ‘Now run home child. Don’t get caught with that maize in your hands.’
‘I won’t Mother Amadika, ndatenda.’
I hug the warm bowl close to my chest and run quickly, skipping over the black festering puddles.
I hear his cries from far away.
‘Rudo!’ I call, running quicker towards our home. ‘I’m coming Rudo!’
I dash towards the full moon that hangs like a beacon, directing me towards the village’s end, while dodging the shadows calling out to me to sit with them, to keep them company just for tonight.
‘Rudo,’ I shout, tearing at the door shielding his screams inside.
I enter our home and edge my way through the darkness, placing the bowl of maize on the floor, before collecting Rudo in my arms.
‘It’s OK Baby, I’m here.’
His screams fade as he digs his head into my neck, clenching me tighter.
‘Mama,’ I say, lowering to find her hand in the darkness; it’s as cold as a pebble exposed to a winter’s night. ‘Mama?’ I say again.
I place Rudo back on the floor; his sniffles are accompanied by my scrambling to light our candle. The match sparks and I meet it with the blackened wick, before the tent is given a shimmering light. I slowly walk back to Mama and lean over her; her eyes peer right through me. I fall with my tears to her side, and hold her before kissing her cheek. I push back her hair, and see that her pain has now left her. I wish her goodnight.
‘Urare zvakanakat Mama,’ I whisper, pulling the blanket up to cover her face, ‘kiss Papa for me.’
I look over Mama at Rudo; his little hands and parting smile are covered in sticky porridge. Moonbeams fight their way through the many holes in our canvass walls, creating a pattern of stars in the black universe behind him.
‘It’s just us now Baby,’ I say.
The soil trickles between my fingers, before I smooth it with my palm as Rudo plays with two sticks beside me.
‘We’ll be OK now Rudo,’ I say to him, taking the sticks before tying them into a small cross with some string. ‘Now Papa can take care of Mama, and I will be able to feed us better.’
Rudo reaches out for the cross, but I place it into the centre of the newly turned soil.
I stand and pull him up into my arms. Stumbling, I begin to walk away but I’m soon drawn towards a small slope, and the sound of scraping being carried up it on the morning breeze. I wait with the moment; familiar with the noise of collecting; familiar with Death’s song. A man, the stranger, staggers up the horizon before me, with my white rice sac sliding over the land behind him. I look down at Mama, hidden beneath the red arid soil. I lean over with Rudo still in my arms and pull out the cross. May they never find her, I say silently.
I hold Rudo and head towards our tent home; humming in his ear like Papa would once do to me. But he points at something over my shoulder and burbles the word, Mama. I smile with Rudo’s first word, but I turn as he says Mama once again.
There, pecking at the soil above Mama’s grave, is a small bird so white, I imagine the feathers of an angel could not fall any purer. I stand and stare, before watching the bird, and Mama, fly away.
My thanks to photographer Peter Reid from Green Horizons for accompanying photo - www.greenhorizons.eu
Flightless can be read in print as part of the All Walks of Life short story collection, available to buy in paperback on Amazon.
© Matthew Small 2013