Lizbet is worn out. This afternoon, while Soly taught Pako how to play Elephant Charge, Iris asked Auntie to take her on a walking tour to the general dealer's and back. To Granny's amazement, Auntie Lizbet agreed. Granny and I watched them walk hand in hand down the road. “You should bottle that girl, she's a tonic,” Granny laughed. “She's one of the few people to make your auntie smile, much less take to town without a cart.”
Well, I thought, let's bottle Auntie Lizbet while we're at it. She's one of the few people to make Iris act like a human being. Iris likes Esther for her jewelry, the Lesoles for their stories, and Mrs. Tafa for her treats. That's about it. She ignores Soly, except to scare him. With me, she's plain mean.
Mrs. Tafa's told me not to worry, it'll pass: “The poor thing's grieving your mama. She's lost and angry, and you're
the one minding her. Who else is she going to get mad at?”
“She could get mad at you,” I said.
Mrs. Tafa shook her head: “I'm a mama. Her mama's what she's missing. It's what she's looking for.”
“But I'm her mama now.”
“You're her sister; it's different.”
“I know, I know.” Still, when I see the way that Iris sticks to Mrs. Tafa and Auntie Lizbet, I feel so jealous.
Anyway, Auntie and Iris's walk to the general dealer's turned out to be too much of a good thing. Mr. Kamwendo had to get Auntie a lift back home with a trucker who'd stopped for gas. Now her feet are puffed up like sausage fruit. She's sitting at the table in the main room, her good foot soaking in a pot of warm water, her club foot raised on a chair. Iris is on her knees, gently rubbing the club foot, touching the distended arch and webbed toes as if they were the most wondrous things in the world.
Granny's on her rocker knitting. Soly's in bed, and I'm cleaning the food bowls. Everything's quiet, except for the soft moan coming from Grampa in the back room. We haven't been brought to him yet. “Your grampa's not himself today,” Granny said this afternoon. “Maybe tomorrow. I know he wants to see you.”
“What's wrong with him?” I asked.
“Oh nothing. Don't you fret about that moaning. It's a sound he makes in his sleep. If he was in pain, we'd know about it, believe me.”
So here we are, thinking our thoughts, big and small, when out of nowhere, Iris says: “Auntie, why didn't you ever get married?”
Auntie Lizbet nearly chokes on her tongue. “Who says I wanted to?”
“Well, didn't you?”
“Wouldn't you like to know.”
“Yes, please and thank you.”
Auntie raises her eyebrows. “Well, if you must know, I never got married because I never got married.”
Iris scrunches her nose. “That's a reason?”
“I don't know. But it's the one you're getting.”
“You must have had lots of fellows.”
“Maybe I did, maybe I didn't.”
“Weren't there any you wanted?”
“It's too far back to remember. Now hush with the questions.”
Auntie's eyes are misty. According to Mama, she wanted a husband more than anything in the world, but no man
would have her. How could she fetch water, haul wood, and run after children with that club foot of hers? They made jokes about her. It put a hurt on Auntie's heart, a hurt that hardened to stone. Mama told me to remember that, whenever Auntie was cruel, and to try and forgive. All I know is, looking at Auntie, I never want to be in love. Love's just another thing to break your heart.
Suddenly, shouts from across the road. Iris jumps up. I run to the window.
“Nothing to worry about,” Granny says, eyes on her knitting. “Just the Malunga boys, home from the post.”
“What are they doing?”
“Not much of anything I expect.”
“And none of our business, besides,” Auntie adds.
“Nelson's walking off down the road,” I say, peeking through the shutters.
“Always does when things get lively.”
A bottle smashes. A woman curses, screams. It's not Mrs. Malunga. A daughter-in-law? “We should do something.”
“Sit yourself down,” Granny snaps.
More shouting and screaming.
“It's love pecks,” Auntie says. “Nothing but love pecks.
The Malungas scratch and claw, nine months later there's a baby.”
In a few minutes, the shouting settles down.
“You see?” Auntie says. “All done. Nothing to worry about.” She sticks her club foot in the pail of water and lifts the wet one onto the chair seat. “How be you do Auntie's other foot?” she coos to Iris.
Iris looks from Auntie to me and back again. She tosses her head and resumes her work as if nothing's happened. But the noise has bothered Soly. “Chanda?” he calls out. “Chanda, can you come here, please?”
I go into the bedroom. Soly is curled up, hugging his pillow. I sit cross-legged beside him. “Don't worry. The fighting's over.”
“It's not that,” he says.
“Then what is it?”
“Chanda,” he says slowly, “can spirits come out of the ground?”
“Why do you ask?”
“I don't know. But can they? Can they come out of the ground and hurt people?”
“Who's been telling you stories?”
“Is ânobody' Iris?”
He shakes his head.
“I see. Then is ânobody' Pako?”
He looks away.
I turn his head toward me and ask the question I've wanted to ask all day. “Solyâ¦this morning in the cemeteryâ¦what were you and Pako doing at Mr. Malunga's grave?”
Soly bites his lip. “We were praying.”
“Pounding a grave with rocks isn't praying.”
“So don't believe me then.” He squeezes his pillow.
“Soly, if you don't tell me the truth, I can't help you.”
“But it's a secret.”
I lie down beside him. “Soly,” I whisper, “you can tell me. No one will ever know.”
Soly hesitates, then he hugs me around the neck and presses his mouth to my ear. “All right. But this is very very very secretâ¦At nightâ¦”
“At night. Yes?”
“At night, Mr. Malunga comes out of the ground. He flies from his grave and into Pako's room. He beats Pako
like he did when he was alive. Pako wakes up with bruises. His papa wants him in the graveyard with his brothers.”
“That's why the two of you were pounding the burial mound?”
Soly nods. “We were trying to keep his papa in the earth. But what if it didn't work? His papa will know I pounded his grave. He'll come for me too.”
“No, he won't,” I say. “Spirits don't rise from the grave. Not even Mr. Malunga.”
“But Pako's bruisesâ”
“Pako hits himself in his sleep. Or his brothers hit him.”
“How do you know that?”
“I don't, but I'm pretty sure. I'll have a quiet talk with his mama.”
“No! You promised you wouldn't tell. He'll get in trouble.”
I hold him close. “Soly, things are happening at the Malungas'. Bad things. We need to help, don't we?”
“I don't know,” he says. “Just don't tell. If you tell, I'll never talk to you again. Not ever.”
HE ROOSTERS CROW.
My head is splitting.
I get up, have breakfast with Granny, Iris, and Soly. Auntie Lizbet is in the back room, feeding Grampa. When she comes out, she says: “Your grampa's more himself this morning. He'd like to see you.”
We cluster at the door.
“Gently, gently,” Granny says. “Your grampa doesn't get many visitors. This is a lot of excitement. Don't be upset if he's a little confused.”
Grampa's room smells of old food. It's dark. At first I don't see much, but as we kneel beside him, my eyes get accustomed to the dim. Grampa's propped up on pillows on his mat. He's wearing a bib with bits of dried things on it. Auntie Lizbet tells him who we are, and asks us to lean in, one at a time. Grampa feels our faces. He pauses on
mine, his fingers fluttering like butterflies. “Lilian? Is this Lilian?”
“No, Papa,” Auntie says. “Lilian is passed. This is her daughter, Chanda.”
“Yes. Your granddaughter. Chanda.”
“Chanda. Ah yes.”
“And this is your granddaughter, Iris. And your grandson, Soly.”
Grampa fidgets. “Iris?â¦Soly?”
“And Lilian? Where's Lilian?”
“Lilian is passed, Papa.”
“Ah yes. Lilian has to marry Tuelo.”
He has a spasm in his legs, and we're ushered out.
“Grampa's ears are huge,” Soly says quietly.
“And there's hair in them,” Iris adds.
“That's because he's old,” I tell them.
“Why doesn't he know about Mama?” Soly asks.
“He does,” I pretend. “He just needs to be reminded, that's all.”
Auntie Lizbet takes Iris and Soly into the yard.
“Watch me skip, Auntie,” Iris says. “I can skip to over two hundred.”
Granny stands with her back to me, watching the children, her hands pressed to the windowsill. “They never knew him when he was himself,” she says quietly. “Do you remember your grampa from when he was strong?”
“Yes,” I say. But not like she hopes. I remember Mama bringing me to visit when I was little and Granny and Grampa were on the cattle post. They'd take us to Auntie Amanthe's burial stone at the abandoned ruin. “Amanthe would be alive today, if you'd married Tuelo Malunga,” Grampa would say to Mama. Then he'd stare, and Granny would feed us tea and biscuits. I tried not to eat, even if I was hungry, because if I dropped a crumb, they'd get angry. I was afraid of them. They were so big. And nowâ¦Now they're so small.
“Your grampa used to be young, once,” Granny says. She breathes in deep. And again. And again.
I go up behind her. I hold her. She trembles.
When Granny collects herself, she goes into the back room for a lie-down. I try and get the kids' things in order. We haven't shared a sleeping space since I moved into Mama's old room. Somehow, Iris's torn mosquito net has gotten mixed up with my clothes. The cell phone I'd wrapped so carefully in my underthings is lying in the corner. Was Iris
playing dress-up in my panties? I'll strangle her.
I turn on the cell to make sure it's still working. It is. There's three messages. Mrs. Tafa! I feel guilty. I should have called to let everyone know we arrived safely. How could I be so thoughtless? I slip the phone in my pocket and wander out back to the woodpile for a little privacy.
Two rings and Mrs. Tafa picks up. I decide to be nice and call her “Auntie” like she likes: “Hello. Auntie Rose, it's Chanda.”
“Hallelujah! The blessÃ¨d cell works.”
“I just called to say we're fine. Sorry I didn't phone earlier.”
“Never mind. What a relief! And the children? The children are fine too?”
“Yes. Why do you ask?”
“No reason,” she clucks. “And you're sure? You're sure the children are fine?”
“I'm sure! How's everyone there?”
“Oh, couldn't be better. Except for Mr. Lesole.”
“Mr. Lesole? Isn't he up at his camp?”
“Was.” There's a tick in her voice. “They flew him back yesterday.”
“Why? What's the matter?”
“Just flu, I expect. He's kept indoors. I'll give him your best. Not a word to Soly and Iris.”
“No, not a word.”
“Andâ¦and,” she hesitates, “you're
you're all fine?”
“Yes!” I'm starting to get annoyed.
“All my love to you and the little ones, then.”
“Thanks, andâAuntie Rose, before you hang up, could I speak to Esther, please?”
“I'm afraid she's off with Sammy and Magda.”
I hear Esther shouting in the background: “I'm here! I'm here!”
“Why, look who's coming up the road,” Mrs. Tafa lies. As she passes the phone to Esther, I hear her whisper: “Don't say a word to upset Chanda. They're only rumors. We don't know anything for sure.”
“Chanda!” Esther says. Her voice is so clear, I close my eyes and I'm home again.
“Esther, it's so good to hear you. What's happened to Mr. Lesole?”
“Well, like Mrs. Tafa says, everything's fine down here.”
“Except for Mr. Lesole. Tell me the truth. What's happened? What are you hiding?”
Esther laughs like I've told the funniest joke in the
world. I'm about to explode, when she says in a low voice: “Chanda, sorry, Mrs. Tafa's watching me like a hawk from her lawn chair. I'm as far away as I can get. Last night, Mr. Lesole came home in an army jeep. He had a bloody coat over his head. Soldiers are guarding his house. Mrs. Lesole is wailing. Government cars have come and gone all morning.”
“One of the guards says, when the tourists were sleeping, poachers attacked the safari camp. They left the tourists alone. But they stole the camp's guns and cleaned out the safe. Mr. Lesole tried to stop them. They did something to him.”
“Nobody knows. The soldier wouldn't say. There's all these rumors. Mrs. Tafa thinks the poachers wanted revenge. Mr. Lesole's sent poachers to jail.”
“But Mr. Lesole also said poachers don't go near the camps. They're too afraid to get caught.”
“I know,” Esther says. “Here's something else that's strange. When Mrs. Gulubane dropped by, Mrs. Lesole ran out of the house. She screamed how Mrs. Gulubane was a quack and threw a small bag at her head.”
I gasp. Mr. Lesole's magic pouch. The one to ward off the rebels.
“Don't lie. You know something. What?”
“Nothing. Really. Mrs. Lesole's upset. She could be screaming about anything. And Mrs. Tafa, she could be right about poachers getting revenge.”
Esther laughs. A little too loudly.
“Is Mrs. Tafa coming over?” I ask.
“Yes.” Esther laughs even louder. “I have to go.” I can feel her turning around, turning her back on Mrs. Tafa. She talks fast, deadly quiet. “Chanda. Chanda, about the rumors. About what the poachers did to Mr. Lesoleâ”
“There's these soundsâthese terrible sounds coming out of his place.”
“Animal howls. Animal cries. It's like it's Mr. Lesole, but it's not. Like he's trying to talk, but he can't.”
“What do you mean, he can't?”
“Chandaâ¦The rumor is they cut out his tongue.”