It is an especially humid day. The air is stifling and rivulets of sweat run down my back and stain my white shirt. “Ma,” I say. “Why don’t we open a window? This heat is killing me.” My mother is lying very still on the floor, lethargic. She is sweating but she does not answer me.
“You know we can’t open any window, son,” says my father. He shakes his head sadly. He is sitting on the floor beside mother with his back against the wall. “Why do you keep asking what you know the answer to?” He fixes his eyes on me and I notice how gaunt he has become. His eyes seem lost in their bony socket. I shrug my good shoulder and begin to shuffle towards the wall. One good kick and this wall should come crashing down, I think.
“No good son, no good”. My father moves towards me. “I tried all of that when we first got here. It’s no use”. I return to my bed- a narrow and uncomfortable contraption that my family and I have no choice than to use. The bedcover is now a dull brown, far from its original white.
The wood is slowly being eaten by ants and the iron support is falling apart. The government, those uncaring people – that’s all they’d provided us. I jump out of the bed; the nylon cover is sticking uncomfortably to my flesh. My mother starts to cry, and her voice is hoarse as if she has a dry morsel of bread stuck in her throat. Her voice is no longer what it used to be since she broke her neck. “They are coming,” she mumbles. “The walkers are coming.” She’s sweating profusely now and there’s a wet stain like the map of Lesotho over her chest. Her sense of hearing is very keen. Father says it’s the only positive from the accident. In no time we begin to hear it ourselves. First it is faint and distant, but starts to get louder and louder until it is directly overhead.
Tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap.
“This one’s in a mighty hurry,” father says, looking up.
“And of medium build,” I add, my hand feeling the wall.
“More weight than height,” argues father. “See how the vibrations are travelling really low”. He places his hand over mine and slides my palm towards the bottom of the wall.
“Think she’s a woman?” I ask.
“Not sure, but whoever they are, they’ve got to work on their temper as well,” father responds. “See how deep their instep goes?” We stay side by side, feeling the vibrations bounce off the wall and become faint as the footsteps fade away. In no time, the room begins to shake like a leaf in November’s wind. “Oh my! Something must be happening in town today,” says father as we hear the sounds of many footsteps approaching. Mother begins her long panicky wail and father goes over and strokes her hair – or rather what’s left of it. She calms down eventually.
“It’s a hard day for your mother,” he says.
“I know,” I answer, but not with my mouth.
“It’s a pity she does not enjoy our little game,” father shakes his head sadly. “That’s the only way to pass time around here”.
“Yes,” I reply silently. Father nods. He hears me better when I talk with my head than with my mouth.
“This one’s a family,” says father after a while, as the vibrations that set mother off intensify. “The man is in front. His wife is on his left, approximately two steps behind. She is holding onto two children”.
“Prob’ly two boys,” I add. I feel the wall with practised familiarity.
“The one on the right of the woman may be a girl and probably just stomps like a boy.” My father places his hands on the wall and measures its vibrations. “You know, I think you’re right. You are really good at this”.
Another group of people walk through. The ‘spat, spat, spat’ of their footsteps are slow, like they are not in a hurry to reach their destination. It is difficult to properly feel where they are because of a rain that’s falling now. Rain messes with the travel of sound down here. Mother is crying again. Footsteps of any kind upset her but the worst are the unhurried, dragging of feet across a pavement. The kind that causes shoe heels to lose their edges very quickly.
“She could never abide slowness in people,” says father, reading my thoughts again.“Then why does she cry even when people walk fast?” I ask.
“She cries because she can’t move anymore while they can,” father says sadly. “Not being able to move is killing her.”
“Don’t you mean it the other way?” I ask. “Her moving too fast killed her, and us, in the crash. That’s why we’re here.”
Father is silent as he reflects on what I said. “Yes but…,” he says eventually, “we aren’t really dead, are we? Not dead as in D-E-A-D”. I am not convinced and say so in my head. “All we’ve done,” adds father, “is change location and appearances. If we were dead we wouldn’t be able to hear them, these walkers, who walk so carelessly over and around our grave”.
I contemplate the meaning of father’s words. Something strikes me. “Well we can’t really blame them can we?” I ask. “You did say that ours might be an unmarked grave. Perhaps that’s why they don’t notice it.”
“Maybe” he replies, scratching his skull with two bony fingers. The rest are missing from the accident. “But that’s no excuse. It’s just the way humans are. They walk one way when they think the world is watching and then walk another way when they think no one is.”
“But they’re wrong dad, aren’t they?” I say, and slide over to rest my skull on my dad’s ribs. “We are watching”.
“Of course we are son. But they don’t know that, do they?”
Ayibu Makolo (@) writes stories that are human and personal. Her stories have been published in the Scottish PEN, Bare Fiction magazine, Brittle Paper and Kalahari review. One of her stories is due to be published soon in Jungle Jim. She was longlisted in the 2013 Golden Baobab Prize across two categories. Ayibu lives in Scotland with her family and she works as a medical doctor.
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