Ammar was devastated to find out that Superman would not feature at his seventh birthday. He stood there, furiously mute, with his red and blue school bag still on his back. He was about to explode into a tantrum, but his mother did not give him that opportunity. She bent down and fed him one of the baobab seeds, coated with sugar and colouring, on the coffee table.
“I will make you another cake instead. A better one and it will be so delicious. You wait and see,” his mother said in a honeyed voice as she turned towards the window that overlooked the balcony to call Juma, the house servant.
“Juma! Njooooo!” Mama bellowed.
Ammar’s heart sank as he heard the familiar ingredients of a lousy chocolate cake being reported to Juma. Ammar started to despise the earnest looking house servant even though he was not at fault per se. Still, Juma knew very well that Mama had promised Ammar a Superman cake on his birthday almost a month prior. It was a promise, one of those things Ammar was fooled into thinking were hallowed covenants. He knew that Mama loved chocolate but this was not the day for her indulgences. After she sent Juma to the grocery, she looked at Ammar.
“What are you waiting for?” Her attitude had changed and her voice peaked at the end, showing signs of wrathful fatigue. Maybe because Lady Diana was now the late Lady Diana. Mama adored her and refused to hear anything about the conspiracies that arose soon after that fateful Parisian night at the end of August. Besides, the in-laws not being nice was not a concept that was news to her. In fact her own were living right below her and she had managed to avoid them for a week now.
“Yallah, go take off your uniform and shower. Your tuition teacher will be here soon.” Ammar now despised his ears. Tuition? On his birthday? As if dealing with a broken cake promise was not tragic enough, now he would have to listen to Mzee Hamisi drone about pronouns and nouns and the stuff that he mumbled over because he did not know how to explain them properly to a newly seven year old child. Ammar was convinced his mother wanted to sabotage his celebrations. He staggered his way to his brightly sunlit room. All the drapes were being washed, giving the sun plenty of space to touch everything in the room.
“The water is waiting for you!” His mother yelled from the living room.
Ammar first noticed Mama’s sporadic wrathful bursts two weeks ago when Baba came home after a good game to see her still mourning Lady Diana’s death.
“Baaassssss!” He shouted in his deep Arabic accent that only came out when he was angered or elated. Both phenomena were rare but Ammar mentally noted down whenever they occurred in his presence. Mama remained silent and sighed as she closed her eyes.
“Till when will you mourn the death of a woman you have never met?” Baba asked without a kernel of sympathy. Mama chose not to respond and just looked at him with a face that said nothing. She got up and locked herself in their bedroom till supper.
Ammar remembered the first time his father took him to kidongo chekundu, the football pitch at the eastern side of Gerezani. The pitch was essentially a field of hardened red mud. Ammar wanted to goof around on the sidelines with the other kids but he feared he would not get a glimpse of genius when his father played. He found it rather tiresome to stop and watch every time his father was with the ball. Baba was lightning fast. His left foot was dazzling, performing miracles on the pitch and leaving his hapless opponents bewildered. It seemed like a cakewalk to him.
Yesterday at kidongo chekundu, Ammar saw Baba in pain, something Ammar had never witnessed before. Not from this man who could carry the living room coffee table with one hand and hold it up high from Ammar’s grasp who jumped for it knowing he would never reach it. As soon as he heard shouts of aggravation coming from the right side of the pitch, Ammar turned and saw his father crouched down while holding onto his left knee. Other players were jogging towards Baba to see if he needed immediate attention. Ammar raced them. He ran as fast as he could, trying to channel the work of simple genetics. He wished Baba could see how fast he had run. When Ammar approached him, Baba nudged him away. Ammar giggled and stood staring at Baba as two of his teammates helped him to the sideline.
The clock struck 6pm and chimed melancholy. Ammar knew that the clock felt his grief. It had to. The betrayal was too grievous to ignore. How dare she change her mind about the Superman cake? Ammar thought. He realised that promises are things not meant to be kept, like soiled diapers. One does not pin one’s hopes on promises.
Mama was delicately icing the finishing touches on her chocolate cake when Ammar entered the kitchen. He stared at the dark brown cake long enough to imagine it being red and blue with a splash of yellow. His mother noticed the frown that began to grow on his face. Sensing an oncoming whine, she immediately commanded Ammar to go call up his father from the balcony for the cake cutting ceremony. Ammar did not move. His mother raised the spatula and that was warning enough to get Ammar going. He half jogged his way through the balcony in search of his father. For a moment, he smiled thinking about how Baba must have flown off the balcony ledge. No, that would be silly, he reckoned. He circled the balcony and found no one. His hypothesis was starting to seem more of a fact. He peered over the ledge and saw the seemingly vast expanse of his neighbourhood district.
Gerezani was bordered by Msimbazi, Pugu, Kitchewele, and New Street. Six untarred streets ran north to south whereas five narrow east-to-west paths divided the district into 42 blocks. Rectangular structures made of earth, plastered thickly on a wooden frame with a thatch roof. Most houses had six rooms, three on each side with a central corridor leading on to the baraza, the small front veranda overlooking the street. The earthy houses were often shared between a family of eight tenants, just like the house Hawa, his crush, lived in opposite the northern side of the balcony. To most of the Gerezani folks, “family” meant more than the immediate family. Under one roof, multiple generations and individuals, who may or may not be related, lived their lives in harmony and complete lack of haste. Formerly the largest imperial jail in German East Africa, Gerezani used to house outlaws rebelling against German colonial powers. Non compliers plotting and participating in rebellious upheavals were caught and locked up. Ammar ran to the eastern side of the balcony and gazed around. He caught glimpses of kidongo chekundu at the end of Gerezani. The extremist rebels were executed and hanged there, over the warm moist clay that soaked their red blood with much reluctance.
Ammar looked down over the ledge and saw Mzee Issa sitting outside his house, a light green villa raised above ground, with thick white washed stone walls, and a concrete veranda. Mzee Issa was a humble man whose generosity surpassed his wealth. Ammar referred to him as Babu in his presence and ‘maskio’, the floppy eared’, amongst his friends. Every Friday, Mzee Issa would return after the prayer and remove the pilau that was warming on the charcoal stove. After placing the food on a large metal plate with slightly elevated brims, he would bring it out along with a jar of water and three glasses. Then he would wait. Anyone who did not have lunch plans found themselves to be a royal guest at the Mzee Issa Exclusive Luncheon. Sometimes, he would wait for thirty minutes. Once even up to an hour. The longest he waited was an hour and fourty two minutes during which he warmed the food three times. Mzee Issa caught sight of Ammar’s head on the balcony.
“Wewe mtoto balaa! You mischievous boy!” He scolded at Ammar. “Rudi ndani! Go back inside!”
Ammar ducked down and crawled his way back to the kitchen.
“Baba is not outside in the balcony.” he reported back to his mother, standing up and dusting himself.
“Aka! I just saw him outside.”
Ammar widened his eyes and smiled. Maybe his father did fly off the ledge like Superman. His face quickly turned sour when he realised that his father could actually be throttling in the skies right now while he is stuck here in a stuffy kitchen looking at this miserly woman indulge herself in baking an unwarranted chocolate cake.
“Maybe he is resting in the bedroom,” his mother finally said, breaking his day dream. “Go and see if he is inside.”
Ammar darted into his parents’ bedroom, not out of anticipation of the cake cutting ceremony but rather to see if Baba was actually inside the house. His father was lying on bed. Ammar jumped on top of the bed, landing just a hair’s breadth away from his father’s wounded left knee. He giggled. Baba was so still when he slept. Ammar put his hand next to his father’s left ear.
“Baba, the birthday cake is ready. Let’s go cut it.” he whispered
His father slowly turned towards Ammar and moved his mouth inaudibly. His father reached out his right hand, startling Ammar who thought he was about to get his due for disturbing a wounded knee. Baba touched Ammar’s forehead. His index finger was slightly moist as he traced Ammar’s passion vein right above the bridge of his nose up to his hairline. Ammar moved his mouth too, trying to sync it with his father’s lip movements. He still could not understand him. Maybe Baba was speaking another language, an alien vernacular. Ammar looked outside the window. The black crows were caw-cawing back home as sunset began to set in.
Ammar looked back at his father and noticed his hands clawing the pillow. Baba started beating the bed with his feet as Ammar held his breath, terrified. “Mama…” he whimpered. His father clung to the pillow like he was about to tear it apart. “Mama!” Ammar managed to speak above the decibels of a whimper now. His mother could not hear him over the clanking of cooking utensils she was pushing into the kitchen sink. Baba’s face no longer had the dark tan complexion of a Yemeni bedouin. It had turned into a flush of reddish purple. He was radiating intense heat. Ammar called out again, this time with a bellow so loud his passion vein popped and stood out on his forehead. His mother came rushing but stopped short at the door when she saw his father’s face. She stared at him, aghast at the change of skin colour. She hurried to his large chest and gently placed her hand on his heart, searching for something. She touched his legs, now still and quiet. Ammar watched her hand shiver as soon as she touched Baba’s feet. They were cold and stiff. She picked up Ammar from the bed and hurried downstairs to her in-laws.
Later that night, when the commotion stopped and the early mourners had left, Ammar woke up. He thought about what Mzee Issa said to him after he came in to give out his condolences. The words rang in his head.
“You are a big boy now, always take care of your mom.”
He turned to the cool, right side of his mattress and found himself looking right through the window mesh at the sparkling moon, shy of a day from being full.
Ally A. Baharoon (@) is a recent English grad living in Vancouver and pursuing a career as a full-time intergalactic journalist. Born and raised in Tanzania, his nomadic tendencies took charge when he was 10 and has since then moved him around the world. He began writing shortly after and has been a strong proponent of compassion and curiousity ever since. In Fiction, he finds both and through it, he helps the world.
Related country: Tanzania