A Short Story
By Olufemi Agunbiade
The rain came late in the day. The earlier evening winds from the hills had been cool and signalled the rain. So, it came as a little surprise. The rain is always a welcomed thing, really. The land is thirsty for water. The villagers would be happy too, I believe. Rainfall is a good omen.
Through the little window, I saw the sky had gone dark and swollen. The twinkling stars had disappeared.
The wind rustled our tin roof. The mud hut shook a little. The livestock were in their shed at the back, battened down securely for the night.
I aroused from my mat and quickly brought out the clay bowls. I went around our little hut, putting the bowls in the right places. It had to be exact, mother had insisted, or the whole floor would soon be flooded. Six bowls for the six holes. Right on target. The tiny drips soon became thin, steady torrents, somehow louder to the ears than that of the corrugated rusty roof.
In the dim light of the oil lamp, I looked at my mother’s face again. She was so peaceful in her sleep. So wrinkled with lines of stress and hard work and the harsh weather. My heart went out to her for all her efforts to keep us all together. For all her love and care and protection. For she was a woman among all women.
She had to. There are six hungry mouths to feed.
I went back to my mat and covered myself with my thin shroud. Sleeping shapes all around me. I identified them all- six shapes. The empty space beside mother still evident in the dimness.
Father, the wicked soul that he was had left us. My mother did not give him a male child. An heir. Even, after eight births (two died before their first year). So, he had left with the lonely widow Madaraka. Maybe she will give him his desired heir. She already had four little sons. Maybe, maybe she will. Maybe she will not. I care less now though. Men.
I always pity Mother and her fate. No man in the village will ever deign to marry her again. She already looked old with a wrinkled body and work-worn hands. Not only that, she cannot have another child. So, the men will say in their minds: What is the use of a woman who cannot bear a male child? Can female children till the land, rear the goats and cows and sheep and hunt when the rain becomes scarce? Can they defend the herds from hyenas or chase away the seasonal herds of rampaging wildebeests?
I once asked her about the thought of another man.
“No. Nothing like that again.”
“Mother, you need a man to protect you. And us.”
“Nothing like that again, Uviwe. You, all of you, are my husband now. My entire world. Together, we will protect one another and survive and shame them. All of them.”
“What if he comes back to your side?”
“He dare not,” she replied vehemently. “It is over with him.”
My teenage heart had warmed at her words. Father had always taken the whip to us after his drinking binges. His permanent absence meant no more slaps and kicks. Who knows what another man will turn out to be?
“We just need to stick together and be focused, my daughter,” she continued.
“Okay, mother,” I agreed solemnly.
We are on our own.
And we are not doing badly.
The hectare of good land by the river was well maintained. Our haul of maize became the largest in the village for last harvest season. We had all worked hard. Dawn to dusk. While other villagers lazed around under the acacia trees at the square during the noontime heat, we had bent our backs and worked! The little ones – Asali and Unathi – are now adept at milking the cow and goats. I, the oldest child, am the cook (the one who scrape all scraps together and gets something hot and nourishing in our wooden plates). Phindiswa sees to house-keeping after her toil at the farm. Vuyi takes care of the poultry. Noloolo just weaned from suckling, would run around, doing nothing except annoying us all in an amusing way.
Often, on clear nights, we would huddle near the warm hearth and listen to stories of days gone by from mother. Tales of ancient heroines. Women who came from far away and left trails of valour and history. She exhorted us to emulate them. To be the best. To be strong. To be noble.
We always listened to her with slack mouths. Enthralled. All of us together, a tribe of women surviving together.
The rains had stopped.
The wild beating on the roof had ceased, as well as the dripping into the six bowls.
I got up again and peered out from the low slung doorway. Outside was still dark as a slice of the moon was trying to peer out behind the sailing clouds. I picked up the oil lamp again and went around the bowls, now full of rainwater. I poured the contents one by one into the big earthenware pot by the corner. No need to waste water. This will do for drinking.
The day will soon break golden, heralded by the village cocks. We would be up to face the mocking world of the villagers, again.
I went to my beddings again to sleep off the few remaining minutes.