Fiction: Farley Urmston
Published in the Autumn 2011 issue of The Southern Review
The streets are quiet near Samuel’s house and no one is in the shops, not even the shopkeepers. Mr. Chigudu’s OK Market is empty, too; anyone can go inside at any time because there is nothing to steal or protect, only trash and dirt. When Samuel and his sisters dribble their football down toward the hospital, Prisca likes to stop at Mr. Chigudu’s and go inside to play a game. She likes to pretend she is the president’s wife, that she is shopping for clothes and jewelry in Italy even though Mr. Chigudu only sold powdered milk and maize, and this is Zimbabwe. Mr. Chigudu does not know that his store is empty, that the glass in the front is broken, that even some of the shelves are missing. Mr. Chigudu went to South Africa a long time ago, down across the border, and Samuel thinks he probably has a new shop there.
Samuel is eleven, and Prisca is nine, and their sister Lasha is only six. When Prisca jumps across the broken glass and pretends to be the president’s wife, she makes Lasha be the Italian salesgirl. Lasha would rather be from France because Lasha can count to ten in French, but Prisca says she must be Italian. “She can’t go shopping in Paris anymore,” Prisca says about the president’s wife, because she has heard this from their mother. “It is too far away,” she says, because she knows that Italy is closer to Africa. Samuel thinks this is not the only reason.
Sometimes Samuel goes in with his sisters and pretends to be the president. On those days he acts the right way—standing still and straight and serious with his hands at his sides—but he thinks about other things, like the World Cup or chocolate pudding. Usually it is not until later, when he is alone or trying to fall asleep, that he imagines what it would be like to really be the president: in control of everything, and rich. Samuel has discovered that his left palm is the shape of Zimbabwe, and sometimes at night he looks at his own palm and imagines the president’s, which must have a similar shape. In the store, however, he is just patient. “I humor them,” he said to his friend Honest, after Samuel’s mother told him that “humor” does not always involve laughing. If Prisca pretends to show him a dress, he says, “Yes, very nice,” or “How about a bathing costume?” When he gets impatient or restless he says, “We must go. I must meet with my generals,” or “Hurry, there is a crisis at the Ministry of Defense!” and then they all go outside again with the ball.
Samuel’s sisters are good at football now, and when they have bought and sold their silk shirts and new shoes, they are even better, especially Prisca, who never lets the ball go into the gutter when she is on the wing. Prisca always plays wing on this side of town, and Samuel does, too; they keep Lasha in the middle because Lasha’s feet are the clumsiest and if she is on the side the ball could go into the gutter and they would have to leave it behind.
Lately, they have not played as much football because it makes them hungry and thirsty and there is not very much food anymore and all of the water is dirty. But one morning after two days of rain and a breakfast of sadza and one egg from the chickens, they cannot contain themselves, and neither can their mother; she lets them fly like birds from the darkness of the house with its two dark rooms and its neat piles of folded clothes. They do not get far, though, before she calls Samuel back. He turns and jogs to where she stands in the doorway, clutching the bricks near her shoulder as if holding the wall in place. Samuel’s mother usually speaks Shona to them, but now her words are in English: “Be careful, yes?”
“I am always careful,” Samuel says, waiting for her dismissal but jogging still, impatient.
She looks at him and one of her thumbs taps a groove of mortar.
“I will be, I promise,” he says, and after another second she smiles and he sees her yellow teeth behind the whites ones, and the lines next to her eyes.
“Go,” she says, and she waves the back of her hand at him as if she has been waiting for days to get them out of the house.
The president says that cholera is gone. On TV he said, “Cholera has been arrested,” and Samuel knows that arrested is another word that has more than one meaning. Honest had a TV until yesterday when his father took it away to sell, and they used to watch football on it together if football was ever on, and sometimes they saw the president. When the president said that cholera was arrested, he was leaning on the podium and scratching his head as he talked. It was a hot day but the president and the men sitting behind him were shaded by a red-and-white tent with ruffled edges that would have moved in a breeze. There were two rows of men in the shade behind the president. In the back they were younger and wore yellow hats and listened with very serious expressions and straight backs. The men in front listened, too, but their uniforms were darker and looked thicker, and they sat back in their chairs and stretched their legs out in front of them as if they were watching football on TV, or as if they were Americans and it was the weekend. Honest said these men were the generals.
The president said, “Because of cholera Mr. Brown wants military intervention, Sarkozy wants military intervention. Bush wants military intervention because of cholera.” Samuel knows that “military intervention” means war, but he saw two generals smile after the president said this, and he smiled, too. When the president said, “We need doctors if there is cholera, we do not need soldiers from outside; we have enough of our own,” Samuel nodded. He scratched his own head and felt his short, dusty hair. When the president said, “Shall we also say the mad cow disease deserves a war in Britain?”, Samuel felt his chest fill up. Then the president said, “Mr. Brown, your thinking must undergo some medical correction,” and Samuel laughed even before he realized that people in the audience were laughing, too, and before Honest, who didn’t laugh at all. Samuel had never heard of mad cow disease, but he knew about Mr. Brown. Mr. Brown is the prime minister of Great Britain, which used to own this country when it was called Rhodesia. Now it is Zimbabwe and no one owns it other than the people who live here like the president and Samuel and the people Samuel knows, like his sisters and Honest. Samuel thinks that if there is ever military intervention, he would like to be a soldier. Someday he could be president.
When it rains for only an hour, the dry land gasps in surprise. The leaves spring up as if at attention, and dust is rinsed from the air. When it rains for a day or more the leaves get heavy and sag on their stems or fold in the middle if they are long enough, and the streets hold on to puddles. On this day, the day after the rain, the puddles are gone from the streets and no green is greener than the white-green of the field by the school, but the air still sparkles and the gutters are full, and the children are fast on their feet. Even Lasha is able to keep the ball close to her toes, to dance with it like Samuel has told her to do. In the field by the school they spread way out and practice long kicks until Lasha calls, “It’s too far for me!” and they close in on the space between them and pass like that for a few minutes before deciding to move on, to dribble the ball past the school and Honest’s house and into the wide street with its empty hospital and imaginary things.
Usually they stop to see if Honest can play football, too, or to see if there is anything on TV, but on this bright morning the TV is gone, and when Samuel calls, “Honest!” no one answers, so the three keep running. When they get to the hospital street, Samuel and Prisca take their wings and Samuel says, “Fall back” to Lasha, who slows down with the ball and waits to pass it forward.
Samuel’s mother says the president is a monster. She says that he will kill them all. She says, “He was a hero once, but now he is crazy.” Two days ago, when Lasha said that Prisca sometimes pretends to be the president’s wife, their mother spun around and knocked into Prisca, who stumbled in surprise and then fell sideways against the iron latch of the inside door, which ripped into the skin in front of her ear. When that happened their mother fell onto her knees and pressed the edge of her skirt against the side of Prisca’s head, and Samuel went outside to check the chicken pen for eggs.
When Samuel’s father was alive, they had many chickens, and those chickens were fat, not bony like these, and when his father killed them he did it quickly so that they were dead before the pain came. When Samuel’s father died he knew it was coming; all of them did. He got sick when Lasha was small, and at first their mother was so angry at him, and yelled at him as if he could have helped it. When he got really thin and weak she was nice to him again, and she cried hard when he died. Samuel did not cry when his father died, because now he was the man of the house; now it was Samuel who used the heavy ax to slice off the chickens’ heads when it was time to eat their bodies.
Samuel does not kill the chickens anymore, because then there will be nothing, and the chickens still lay eggs sometimes. On the day that Prisca cut her face, there was one egg, but it had been crushed beneath the chicken that laid it, even though the chickens are so skinny and light. Samuel reached into the wooden chicken box and peeled the bits of broken shell from the pieces of straw. The egg was not sticky anymore, but dry. He put his tongue to a piece of shell and tasted nothing.
Inside, his family was still there on the floor, his mother with her skirt stretched around her backside and pressed against Prisca’s face, Prisca frozen, Lasha sliding her hands over Prisca’s hair as if it were still long. When she saw Samuel, his mother said, “My lovelies. You must not admire them.” Then she looked at Prisca. “If you would like to pick a president’s wife to imitate, pick the first one. This one does not deserve it. This one is a monster, too, just like her husband.”
“What happened to the first one?” Lasha asked.
“She died a long time ago,” their mother said. She lifted the edge of her skirt from Prisca’s face but the blood by her ear was still slick and shiny. “She loved this country,” she said, replacing the skirt.
“I love this country,” Lasha said, and Prisca rolled her eyes.
“I know you do,” their mother said.
Samuel knows that the streets should not look like this, that he and his sisters should not be able to play football here without interruption, or to jump into a store and pretend to buy things. He knows that two men should not be stealing the front doors from the hospital and that a woman with a child on her back should not have reason to gather shards of broken glass from one of its windows. He knows that his mother, who used to be a teacher, should not have had to trade the wheelbarrow for cornmeal, or to give away beans for clean water so that they can drink without getting sick. Samuel’s mother thinks that cholera still exists, and this is why she tells them to be careful and still gives away the beans. When Samuel told her what the president said on TV and that everyone clapped when he said it, his mother said, “He should be arrested.”
Samuel knows what happens when you get cholera, because Honest told him. Honest said, “If you have the medicine you don’t have to worry, but the medicine is hard to find.” Honest said it all happens very fast: one moment you are fine, he said, your regular self, and then you are not. Honest said that first your stomach starts to hurt and then the dirty water that you drank or touched comes out of your other end. First you shit, he said, and then you pee dirty water from the shitting place, but it’s not a stream, it’s like a dumped-out bucket. Honest said that after a while your eyes get dry and you stop blinking and people find water somewhere that has sugar in it, which must taste good. Honest said that this is what happened to his mother, except the sugar water didn’t help and she died anyway, and couldn’t move or speak at the end and neither could Honest. That was in the springtime, a few months ago, before things started to get better.
Today, when they get to Mr. Chigudu’s store, Prisca stops and Lasha catches up, stopping, too. Prisca says, “Shashie, you be my assistant today, and Sammy will be the salesman.” She skips over the gutter and into the store and Lasha follows more carefully. Samuel does not follow. He wants to keep going with the ball, to make it all the way to where the road thins out again and bends and turns completely to dirt.
“Come on, Sammy!” Prisca says when she sees him still in the street.
“I’m staying here,” he says. He bounces the ball off his knee and catches it.
“Come on, Sammy!” Lasha says.
“You can be Mugabe.”
“No. Just hurry,” he says. He juggles the ball with his knees and against the sides of his feet until it hits one of his anklebones and goes off at the wrong angle. It lands on the ground and rolls away toward the edge of the street and the gutter, which runs after the rains with its dirty water and bits of trash. Out of habit, and because the habit has made him a better, faster player, Samuel stops the ball. From the far end of the street, he hears “Samuel!” in Honest’s voice, in the short chunk of sound that each of them uses to call the other’s name. Samuel picks up the ball and holds it and watches as Honest jogs toward him down the middle of the street, his legs covered in long pants.
“We called for you,” Samuel says.
“Papa and me,” Honest says, and waves up the street to where his father stands. Honest’s father is a very tall man, and quiet, and in the middle of the street he looks taller and quieter than ever. He is wearing the shirt that he usually wears, a red football jersey from Scotland, and he has a cloth bag on his shoulder.
“Where are you going?”
Samuel does not have to ask where this is. Musina is the first town in South Africa; Musina is where everyone goes, although some people get sent back.
“I didn’t know we were going today,” Honest says. “I thought soon, but not today.”
“Are you coming back?”
“Yah, certainly. After we make money. Perhaps you can come soon, too?”
Samuel glances again at Honest’s father. “How do you go?”
“You have to pay someone to help you get down there.”
Honest’s father calls him and Honest half turns away from Samuel. “Or you can walk, but it takes longer. When you get there you have to cross a river and get through a fence. You have to find a hole in the fence or cut one or climb over it. You have to be fast.”
Samuel’s eyes find his sisters in the dark store. Lasha is behind Mr. Chigudu’s counter and Prisca’s arms are lifted; the fingers on the hand he can see are straight and extended as if she is dancing.
“You can’t bring girls,” Honest says.
“Girls aren’t fast enough; they get raped.”
“I don’t know. People near the river.”
“If they were fast enough they wouldn’t get raped.”
“I suppose not.”
“If they were really fast?”
“Yah, I suppose not. If they were really fast.”
Honest and his father are gone when the girls come back outside, squinting in the sunlight and stepping down onto the street as if they are queens in long dresses. This is what they always do, but today Samuel is impatient.
“Come on, let’s go,” he says, and he runs forward with the ball, almost tripping over it, and they follow. The road, broken in parts with grass growing out of its cracks, is empty again before him, and far ahead, where the buildings become houses, it is flanked by trees. Samuel knows that this road does not lead south to Musina, but for a minute he imagines that it does, that it is empty and unobstructed the whole way, that he and his family could get to Musina and stay there until there was food here again, and the schools were back open. Samuel has heard about bad things happening at the border, and about crocodiles in the river, and now he knows about the rapes. But he thinks that his mother could get through all right because she is strong and brave, and he thinks his sisters would be fast enough, although he will have to make sure.
Samuel is in the middle of the road when they get to where it turns to dirt, and now it is he who falls back with the ball in order to pass it forward, and when he does he kicks it hard and fast so that it sails past the leaves of the baobab tree and over the tops of the mohobohobos. He kicks the ball and stops, and his sisters fly ahead after it, sprinting, Prisca’s heels coming high against the back of her brown skirt, Lasha’s elbow sticking out, their plastic sandals flapping against their feet. Their bodies are straight and steady as they run and Samuel thinks that they are very fast for girls. He thinks of the border at night with its hidden crocodiles and men. He watches his sisters run, and although he points out to himself how much faster he would run if he were next to them, he is satisfied. He is sure that they are fast enough.
The ball bounces and goes straight where the road, on an embankment, curves slowly to the left. The girls follow the ball off the lifted land so that Samuel loses sight of them. He looks up at the sun again and then turns a quarter turn to face south. Here is Jacob Nyota’s house, which is empty, its door open, a corner of its metal roof bent up—Jacob, who also went to South Africa, but who came back on a police bus and then left again, who must’ve known for his whole life that he could walk out his back door and be on his way to South Africa, with its giant city and its endless ocean. Samuel has never seen the ocean, and does not think he will like it; the thought of it makes him feel as though he is balancing on a single foot. Samuel will see the ocean, he thinks, someday, in South Africa, but he will return to this country, to this land of rivers, which, during some months, run fast between solid banks. Even the Limpopo and its crocodiles sound better to Samuel than the ocean; he knows about its great white sharks.
His sisters appear next to him. They are out of breath. Prisca has the ball, which is dirty and seems to have new dents. Despite their still-churning energy, the girls look deflated, too: Prisca’s eyes have shadows around them, and Lasha’s thin arms look like sticks poking out of her too-small yellow dress. She seeks Samuel’s attention, her hair loosened and sprouting where it is supposed to be smooth. “I got to it first,” she says, prancing in place next to him and then darting after her sister and the ball.
“No, you didn’t,” Prisca says. She circles the ball behind one foot, possessing it calmly.
“I touched it first!” Lasha says, ducking around Samuel, pushing into Prisca. “Sammy!”
Samuel wonders, as he has so many times, what it would be like to have a brother. He turns to take the ball but Prisca maneuvers away. To Lasha she says with slow emphasis, a repeated admonishment: “You can’t use your hands.”
“We weren’t playing!”
Samuel gets his foot on the ball, and Prisca relinquishes it with a shrug that at once dismisses both the ball and her sister. “Let’s go home,” she says to Samuel, and to Lasha, under her breath: “You can never use your hands.”
The sun is still high and behind them on the way home. The air before them is thicker again, and the weak lines of grass in the concrete look pale and pinched, thirsty. Samuel is thirsty, too, and hungry, but he points his mind away from these things. He thinks of the ocean again, this time more charitably. He remembers that the land does not suddenly drop off, but gradually slides beneath shallow water. He remembers that there are boats on the ocean, and birds that dive into it, and families who go there to cool off. He wonders if his mother has seen the ocean, and guesses that she has not. It will be the first time for everyone.
From behind the corner of a shed, a man on a bicycle appears. The metal of the bicycle catches the sunlight and the reflection flashes bright against the early afternoon’s washed-out colors. Samuel thinks at first that it is Honest’s father on the bike, but it is someone else, an older boy he’s seen before. Honest’s father is somewhere south, Samuel thinks, maybe already across the Limpopo. He remembers once seeing Honest and his father laughing together, and this is how he pictures them now: laughing, striding through a short forest, wet from a swim, almost in South Africa. Tonight, Samuel thinks, he will speak to his mother. He wonders how much money she has, if she will agree to use it for the trip. If not, they can walk. He will say to his mother, about his sisters, that they are as fast as men. “Unstoppable,” he’ll say with authority, shaking his head.
But Samuel does not have a chance to talk to his mother after his sisters are asleep. Although it waits for darkness, it comes in the end; the girls are fast but the cholera is faster. First it is Prisca’s belly that hurts, and in the beginning Samuel thinks it is just because she is hungry. He does not know yet that it is cholera, just as he does not know that on the other side of the road’s embankment there was a muddy puddle of still water, that this is where the ball rolled after he kicked it and after the road curved away, that this is where Lasha found it with her hands. He does not know that when Prisca saw Lasha holding the ball, she slid down the miniature slope and kicked it out of Lasha’s hands as fast as she could, and faster, she hoped, than Samuel would take to get to them. “Quick, wipe your hands,” Prisca said to her sister then, pointing to the dirty grass. Samuel knows about none of this. But Samuel is smart, and he is eleven, and despite the president’s words, he has not forgotten about Honest’s mother, about cholera and how easy it is to get. When Lasha cries, too, and their mother leaves the room, Samuel can make a guess.
She returns with three bottles of water from some hidden place, a big metal bucket, and some old washcloths. She kneels next to Samuel’s bed to wake him and sees that he is already awake. He sits up, and she shows him the water. “I’ll be back soon,” she says. She has pulled her hair tightly back from her face. She kisses him and lets her hand slide over his hair and then down to the base of his skull so that, for a second, it is as though she is holding his whole head in her hand, as though she could hold his entire body up like that, with her thumb touching one ear, a finger the other.
When she has gone, Samuel sits next to his sisters on the mattress they share with their mother. His sisters, who wear T-shirts to bed, lie on their backs with their limbs splayed and bent like spiders’ legs. For a while they are quiet. Samuel tries to picture Honest and his father again, but it is harder; the image from before now seems like a picture-book drawing. Prisca makes a noise. She moves to the side of the bed. She stands and squats and shits into the metal bucket, and it sounds like their roof in a rainstorm. She wipes her mouth with her hand and her bottom with a cloth, and stares at Samuel, who holds the water out for her and helps her drink. The smell is bad. Her body is shiny with sweat. When Samuel sees that her T-shirt is dirty, he finds a dress for her. It is her favorite: white with bits of lace around its edges where more lace used to be. Samuel speaks in what he thinks could be an Italian accent and moves his eyebrows up and down. He says, “Here, take this beautiful dress. It is very expensive. I think you will be quite pleased.” Prisca looks at the dress and Samuel can tell that she wants to protest; this is not a bedtime dress. But she doesn’t, and Samuel lifts her T-shirt by its bottom edge and helps her out of it. When she is in the dress, she seems satisfied, but gets back onto the bed next to Lasha. Lasha looks at Samuel, who turns to her piles of clothes. He finds her green school uniform, which is thick and does not get wrinkled, and which she is not allowed to wear except to school. He says, “And you, Miss. Your dress is terribly old. You must have this new one, which is also very, very expensive.” Lasha nods, pretending. She sits up on the mattress and puts her own arms in the air even though her sleeping shirt is not dirty yet. Her skin is sweaty, too, and her eyes look gray. Samuel undresses and dresses her, too, and ties the sash of the uniform as if he is their mother and school has started up again.
When she, their mother, is back with a woman Samuel knows named Jacoline, and a woman he doesn’t know who is young and white, the shit starts to pour from Lasha’s body, too. His mother helps her squat over the bucket, and then all three women clean and hold his sisters and give them what Samuel guesses is the sweet, salty water. While they are doing this, Samuel sits still on his own mattress with his back against the wall. Now he does not even try to think of Honest. Just as his body presses up against the rough wood of the wall, his mind is stopped by the edges of what he sees before him; he cannot get it to go farther: not to the ocean, not to Musina, not to Mr. Chigudu’s empty store or even to the street outside. Samuel tells himself that some people who get cholera do not die. He watches his mother whisper something in Prisca’s ear. The white woman runs a clean washcloth over Lasha’s arm, which gleams afterward. Samuel thinks of his father and his father’s arms before he got sick, how the veins ran along them like ridges. He straightens his legs and puts a hand on each knee so that his own arms are extended before him. They are still boys’ arms. His hands, though dry like his father’s were, are still boys’ hands; they do not yet have a man’s rocky knuckles. Someday they will. He flips the hands over, so that his paler wrists face the ceiling. In his left palm he looks for the shape of Zimbabwe, but it does not rise off his flesh like it usually does. He considers his sisters in their dresses. They are very quiet in the women’s arms, but still awake. He thinks about what he will say to them when the sun rises into the sky again. He will pretend for Prisca that she is the president’s wife, and Lasha will be the one who loved this country. Samuel hears his own Italian accent in his head and raises his eyebrows in the darkness. He will be the salesman again, not the president. Samuel will not play the president again.
FARLEY URMSTON (Fiction 2009) teaches English at Wellesley High School and lives in Cambridge. This story, originally published in The Southern Review’s Autum 2011 issue, is her first published work of fiction.