By Nelson Lowhim
Copyright 2012 Nelson Lowhim
This is a work of fiction. All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real people, living or dead or otherwise, is purely coincidental.
Clara watched as the men lowered the coffin into the gaping mouth in the ground. The same orange, dry ground she stood on. Tears rolled down her cheek and blotted her dress. The sun was setting behind her. As the ground swallowed the coffin, she wondered how it was that everyone seemed to be eyeing her with both sorrow and disgust. Most of the villagers had been kind enough to show up but had flinched when she reached to take their hands. They knew. They all knew. She held on to her son, Manuel, with one hand and wiped the tears from her cheeks with the other. A look at the boy sent shards into her heart. She had tried to protect him from all this, the horrible parts of the world, but there was no holding back the tide now. He would be hit no matter what. She looked at his round face, which looked up to her sad, confused, as if he weren't sure what to feel. When the coffin disappeared and the same men shoveled dirt onto it, she bit her lip hard enough to draw some blood. The taste was sweet, and the fact that she was able to consume a part of herself settled her heart; reminded her of magic potions, ancient healers, and miracle touches. She kicked some of the soil in front of her and the dust exploded into a small cloud. Some of it drifted into her lungs, dry, stale, a mixture of life and death. She coughed, weakness spreading through her body. She was losing it and needed to bring herself together. If not for herself, then at least for Manuel. He needed her.
When the last villagers left, without a word, she turned from the grave with Manuel in hand.
"I miss baba," he looked up with those big round brown eyes of his. So much like his father; it threw their memories clashing into each other and made her want to spit.
The shards returned to her heart and tightened her stomach. She had to tell him. But tell him what? "Yes, Manuel. He is gone," she spoke tersely, angry at her foolishness. Angry, somehow, at Manuel for speaking. Never quite knowing why it was that she had fallen for his father. She turned and pulled the boy with un-motherly force as she walked back towards their house.
Her mother had warned her about marrying the wrong man. She remembered mama leaning over her, so large, so passionate; while Clara held her naked one-legged doll in her hand, twisted at her torn dress with her hands, and listened to the booming voice from above.
"You must not trust men, Clara, you must beware what they say. They will tell you anything. Anything at all. Just to get into your," her mother roughly pointed at her crotch. "Remember that."
Clara had never known her father. He had left before she was anything more than a bump in the mother's belly. All she heard were stories and warnings about how horrible of a man he was. She never even saw a photo.
"Mama, what's that called?" Manuel pointed at a beetle as it rolled a piece of manure along the path they were on.
Usually, she would enthusiastically answer him. Now, however, it seemed pointless. What if she told him a complete lie? It wouldn't matter, would it? The thought was glue to her mind. She was out of energy; inside her, voices clashed. And after all she had been through—the hurt, the pain—she was willing to lie to her son? How could she?
"Dung beetles," she whispered, her voice sounded like an old lady's to her ears. Her anger had turned back on her. Manuel was smart. He deserved to know as much as he wanted. He had skipped a grade and at eight years old seemed to have an innate ability to piece ideas together. He could have become anything. She fought back tears at the thought.
"That's silly, why do they always push crap around?" he asked, eyes beaming at having found something wrong with the world.
She kept silent. He reminded her too much of Henry, the father. Her husband. Manuel's smile was his smile. Her son's smell had that same sour-sweetness that he always emitted, though without the stink of man-musk. She hated and missed everything about him. She had never expected to meet someone like him.
As she grew up, she studied and managed the best grades in her class. She stayed away from boys, assumed that all their words were lies. So, no dates, and all the time in the world to study. Her friends would make fun of her as she turned down offer after offer. Told her she was a fool for saying no to the cutest boys in class. Then they accused her of being a lesbian. It didn't matter; her mother was proud of her.
Then Henry showed up one day, during her final year of nursing school and changed everything.
"Manuel... Come back," she murmured, as the boy used her loss of attention to break free and grab a stone to throw at a white-necked crow that flew near their heads. The crow hardly changed its trajectory as it deftly dodged the rock. As dusk fell over the landscape and the chirp of crickets became a background din, other insects flashed through the air and the swallows swooped out and darted between them for their feast.
Manuel trotted back, his stomach sticking out. "I'm hungry mama."
She sighed. Hungry like nothing else mattered. "We'll be home soon. You finish your homework?"
"No..." he kicked the dirt in front of him. It unearthed some grubs that went on burrowing into the ground.
It seemed so unfair that life marched on. Henry. It was all his fault. Everything, from the first time they met, had been his fault.
"Hi, I'm Henry. Your name?" he reached his hand out, looked around, as if he didn't care what she would do. She had to grab it. He teased her for a few minutes, then asked to meet her again before leaving the library. They went on a date several days later and though she found him easy to talk to, she was surprised when he never made any advances on her. His behavior made her wonder if he cared for her at all. And so she kept seeing him.
"Stop it, Manuel," she hissed at the boy as he threw some more pebbles at the swallows dipping here and there. She grabbed a hold of his wrist and held on tightly. He looked up at her surprised, hurt.
"Why?" his face had morphed into defiance. He was smart enough to know when her anger was without cause.
Clara thought again of her mother. The advice she had provided, when Clara was young, had been invaluable. She wanted to hear her mother's certain voice, the rock in her life, the instruction she had lived by. Exceled by. Or at least she tried to. "If you're foolish enough to believe a man, at least wear a condom. But expect him to leave right after," her mother had warned.
After dating Henry for a year, she consented to sleep with him—with a prophylactic. Yet Henry had stayed with her after that night and Clara liked him more; drawn to him by a cord made of something she could not explain, but that cleared the space between them. She loved every moment with him: holding his hand, listening to how he described their future together. It felt like life was giving her everything she needed.
But some clouds were gathering in the distance. Her mother's health was deteriorating at the time. Clara watched helpless as the proud woman shed flesh and gained wrinkles.
A year later, she took him to see her mother.
"Leave us be," her mother ordered and she walked outside. She only heard a slow murmur from outside the room. When she went back inside Henry was hunched over her mother holding her hand. She was surprised at the connection that had already transpired between them.
"Now you leave us," her mother said to Henry. Henry walked out, gently stroking her belly as he walked by.
Clara waited until the door closed behind him to speak: "What do you think, mama?" she leaned over and clasped her mother's hand. It was sad to see her like this, to see her mother so frail, no longer the loud proud woman from her childhood.
"This is the man who has been making you happy all this time, isn't it?" her mother smiled.
"Yes, it is," she beamed, happy that her mother had known about it even though she had worked hard to keep it a secret.
"He said he proposed to you?"
"He did," her heart fluttered. He had taken her on a hike and when they reached a secluded spot with a view of the surrounding land he had dropped to one knee and asked for her hand in marriage. She had never felt a more certain joy in her life.
"I'm glad for you, Clara," her mother stroked her cheek. "I really am. You two will be just fine. He's a good one. Not one to leave you." And yet there was a fear in her mother's eyes as she spoke, something Clara couldn't quite understand so she ignored it.
What she had always desired was her mother's approval. As always, it stroked her confidence in the future and Clara hugged her with all the love she could muster.
Two weeks later, her mother died and a month after that, Clara and Henry married in a large wedding party in their new home. Henry had to leave after their honeymoon for a business trip, but Clara didn't worry. She started her job at the hospital and kept herself busy during the day. In the evenings she sat on the veranda in their house and hoped that Henry would return early from his trip. She watched the insects settle with the darkening sky and felt an attachment with the humming of life around her; like she was growing with the world and everything had been put in place to help her along her path, to enjoy as much as she could. The aroma of plants, insects, animals and their fecundity tickled her from within.
She missed Henry, with the pain of a body part gone, but she hoped that his job would bring them all that she wanted in life. The house was theirs, a car soon to arrive. She looked around. The car would park perfectly on the side of the house. It would complete her. At this moment, a stream of ants was slowly approaching the house. The previous day she had tried to wash them out with a hose. Now, she decided to let them be. Life was not about taking away from others.
Their garden was mostly dirt, but had a few patches of growth: their two banana trees and an area for tomatoes. She planned to someday cook only from what they grew.
Finally, on one of those evenings, positioned on the steps of the house, she noticed a distant figure, long and lanky, sauntering with Henry's signature walk.
"Henry!" she half-screamed as her husband walked into their garden.
"Honey," he kissed her and took her arm as he led her up the stairs. The life-fragrance of the garden gave way to sharp cleaning agents from inside the house. In their bedroom they made love until she was certain they thought as one, her mind exhausted, happy.
"The fan is broke," she pointed at the fan teetering and whirring above them with a cyclic tikitaka sound.
"I'll get it fixed soon," he replied, stroking her cheek. His face was dark, round and highly structured. His body was losing the sharp edges it had when they dated, but she took that as a sign of having tamed him.
"Mama, look," Manuel was pointing at one cloud, dark purple from the angled rays of the vanishing sun.
She nodded, almost to herself. Something inside her didn't want him to be happy, another part felt guilty for that thought.
On the veranda, on another day, she had waited for Henry with her intestines in knots.
"Hi," she whispered.
"What's wrong honey?" he took her hand and led her inside to their bedroom with their still-noisy fan.
"I'm pregnant," she studied his face to see what his reaction would be. She was supposed to be on birth control.
"That's wonderful!" he blurted out.
They hugged, kissed, and she felt the power of his grasp lift her heart. That night she experienced a fusion with Henry that scared her; the cord almost suffocated her; at the same time, it felt like an embrace she had needed since she was a child.
"Manuel," she walked towards her son who was now poking a hole with a stick. If it was the home of a black mamba, he would die right there. When she reached him, she slapped him hard. "I told you not to do that, didn't I?"
Manuel looked up at her, sorry then mad, rubbed the place on his face where she slapped him. He didn't say anything and stared forward. She pulled him back to the path. In the back of her mind she felt bad for her son, guilty, for the slap and especially for his life.
Henry had been the perfect father. Though he still went on his long business trips, he always brought back gifts for Manuel and the two were inseparable. Sometimes, when Clara watched Manuel and Henry play soccer in the garden, she was certain that she had achieved everything that she had wanted in life. She was satisfied.
One day, as she prepared snacks for Henry and Manuel, who were watching the World Cup on their new television, she felt the presence of her mother. She was happy, proud.
"Goooaal!" Henry yelled and Manuel followed. They were cheering an unexpected lead by the Cameroon underdogs over the defending world champions. Clara joined them for the rest of the game as the African team held on for the upset. Afterwards, Henry pretended to be Roga Milla and ran around the house with Manuel behind him. Clara ushered them outside.
Lying in bed that night, Henry started coughing.
"Are you feeling all right, honey?"
"It's just a cough."
She believed him, but then the cough grew worse. She eventually dragged him to the hospital, where they tested him for tuberculosis.
Clara led Manuel up the stairs of their empty house. She told him to finish his homework, though she had half a mind to let him play. She sat on the veranda and looked at the house. Some mosquitoes whined in her ear, but she didn't bother to swat them. The banana trees were almost dead; she hadn't watered them through the dry season and now they drooped to the ground. The tomato patch, which she had loved, was now a field of ants and dried leaves that were picked apart by passing winds. The aroma of parched dirt and animal feces overpowered her nerves and she hugged herself.
In the beginning, the doctor was not certain why the medicine hadn't worked. Usually, people's immune systems were able to contain it. So the doctor requested one more blood test. Clara carried Henry to the hospital. Henry was too weak to be considered a man at this point. He had been fired from his job; unable to keep the desk job they had demoted him to.
"That blood test was to check for one last possibility. Once that's done, the doctor will figure out how to help us," she sat next to him on the bed that he only left to use the bathroom. Even that was becoming a problem.
"Okay, honey," he wheezed through his lungs.
"We'll get through this. As long as we stay together, we can get through this," she forced a smile to hide her fear. Henry smiled back, coughed.
"I love you," she leaned over and kissed him on his cheek.
"Me t..." Henry broke out into a loud and backbreaking cough. Clara held his hand with a tight grip and moved away from him. She loved him and never wanted any harm to come to him. She had tried to protect him, thought that her affiliation to the hospital would have helped, but it didn't.
When the blood test came out positive, she agreed to have herself and Manuel tested. On her way back home, after the tests, she sent Manuel to a neighbor, and walked alone to her house, furious, afraid. Henry. Who was he? She was no longer certain.
"Henry, can we talk?" she closed the door behind her and sat down besides her husband.
Henry rolled over. He was emaciated now beyond recognition. His cheekbones now protruded sadly from his face, and his skin hung on his body like an ill-fitting dress. He coughed. "Y..." a voice so meek, she could have sworn he was a child. He could barely string together words these days.
I hope that was good. The rest of the story can be found on the links to the right, in various formats. Thanks for reading.