‘Dancing with Ma’ was shortlisted for the 2018 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.
They found Ma in a banana plantation, knees to chest, arms stretched forward, as if she was trying to scoop something towards her bosom. She was naked from the waist down, underwear and skirt next to her, soaked and reddened.
Their attention quickly shifted to you, the baby lying beside her, thumb trying to find mouth, tears dry on face like scales, legs kicking the air. When the thing between your legs confirmed you were a girl, they named you Kec-kom.
Gum-kom, fortune, is the name you’d have preferred: you were Ma’s lone fruit, a constant source of shame for every one that had thought her barren and wanted to forget her name like a bad dream.
But Kec-kom is the name you got. Kec-kom, because you were Aba’s misfortune: Aba was a good man, albeit sonless, widowed at 40 because your big head couldn’t come out without killing his wife. Kec-kom, because you were Ma’s misfortune, too: although her beauty drew men from across the hill, you’d dried her womb until she was 35.
Your presence was a scar, a constant reminder of Ma’s absence. For that, Auntie and Grandma made your life hell. Aba barely came to your rescue when, like hairy worms crawling on bare skin, they punished you for the minutest of mistakes.
And so, when one day they left you alone, as they usually did when they went to the market or garden, you took the only matchstick left in the box and struck it. You lit a blade of grass and watched fire consume the first granary. Eventually, it spread to the other granaries and the main house the way flu spread during dry season.
The smell of burning groundnuts and maize filled the air. You stood under the mango tree and admired the flames’ thirst and the smoke’s quick rise into the sky.
Children like you, left behind to mind the home, ran to join you under the mango tree; they stared, speechless, as if the fire had also burnt their words. By the time Auntie arrived, the fire had quenched its thirst. Only Aba’s hut and the kitchen, which doubled as your bedroom, remained untouched, because they were on the opposite side of the compound.
‘How did the fire start?’ Auntie demanded.
The children turned to look at you.
She marched towards you, stood a breath away and looked at you fixedly. You lifted your head and looked at her, long and hard. You’d never done that before because you were told a good child never looks up at, or talks back, to an adult.
Your stare seemed to pierce through Auntie, because she stepped back and the hand she had raised to strike you shook and slumped to her side. She beckoned the children, told them to call Aba from the garden while she dashed to the market for Grandma.
Soon after, Aba, Grandma and Auntie gathered behind the kitchen to decide your fate, unaware you were inside, packing. Auntie started by declaring that the evil spirit that lived inside you had grown extra teeth and claws.
‘You can’t joke with the spirit of fire,’ she said.
‘We don’t want any other misfortune in this family. Who doesn’t know that you haven’t recovered your head since her useless mother died?’ Grandma said, staring at Aba.
Aba said nothing.
‘I’ve always said that this girl isn’t our blood,’ Grandma continued. ‘Tell me who she resembles.’
‘Who doesn’t know that her mother was generous to all the men that pretended to want her?’ Auntie said.
‘Please, leave Joy out of this,’ Aba said.
‘See! The woman still controls him even from the grave,’ Grandma spat.
‘But how did the fire start?’ he asked.
‘The girl started the fire,’ Grandma and Auntie said at once.
Listening to them insult you and Ma made you pack your bag even faster. You didn’t cry, didn’t think about what you’d eat or where you’d stay. Instead, you imagined their pain – the pain of losing a year’s harvest and the hut. You hoped their pain was as deep as the pain you felt when Auntie pressed a hot iron box into your hand for burning the bean sauce. That it was like the pain of the repeated whacks to your head – Grandma’s way of telling you not to return with half a jerrycan of water. That it was like the early morning frog march on dewy grass, naked, for bed-wetting. Or the empty-stomached night for eating the sweet banana that should have been Aba’s.
You zipped your bag and sneaked out of the kitchen, leaving the trio going on and on about your wickedness. You were glad they didn’t have the pleasure of spitting in your face as you left, or dancing a victory dance for getting rid of you. Imagining their shock, when they found the kitchen empty, made you smile.
From 11am, when you left Layibi, you walked non-stop but slowly. You thought you wouldn’t get tired that way. You walked past several houses in Layibi, waved to the few children with whom you sometimes played, and politely greeted the adults.
When you reached the Gulu-Kampala Highway, you followed the tarmac, trying to count cars whizzing past, looking at men wheeling cabbages, sugarcane or fresh tomatoes on bicycles and women carrying children on their backs and goods on their heads. By the time you saw a signpost that read ‘Palenga’, it was 6pm. You had walked 24 kilometers.
You turned left onto a path that led to several houses. You told yourself you’d walk into the first neat compound you saw. Hopefully, the huts there would have their walls artfully smeared with loam soil, and there would be lots of fruit trees in the backyard. You walked into such a compound 20 minutes later, but there was no one at home. You continued to the next one.
Seated on a stool next to a bonfire was a man that looked as old as Aba and a woman seated on a papyrus mat, legs stretched forward. You walked towards them, slowly, placed your bag next to the woman, and knelt to greet them both.
‘Yes, young girl, how can we be of help?’ the woman said.
‘My name is Gum-kom,’ you lied. ‘I’m asking if I can sleep here tonight.’
‘Where are you coming from? Who are your parents?’ the woman asked, folding her legs as she sat upright.
‘I am an orphan. My relatives chased me away from home.’ Tears flowed down your face, though mainly because you were tired and hungry.
‘People can be wicked. How do you send a child into the unknown at this hour?’ the man said.
‘This world must be under some evil spell,’ the woman reflected.
Later you would learn their story. Simeo Latim, the head teacher of Palenga Secondary School, and his wife, Calina Aber, a nurse at Palenga Health Centre, had been married for 20 years. The first time Calina got pregnant, she was completing her studies at Mulago Nursing School while Simeo was a finalist at Kyambogo Teachers’ College. They had only dated for six months. Calina had insisted on keeping the pregnancy, even joking that they would graduate with a double qualification – a paper and the baby. Simeo had said no. He had taken Calina to Min Odong – a famous midwife in Palenga also known for carrying out abortions – and the baby was removed. When the couple got married two years later, they tried and failed to get a child.
By the time you walked into their compound, they had given up trying. Calina looked you up and down and then, without another word, led you to a small two-roomed grass-thatched hut. The outer room had a cooking stove, jerrycans of water, cooking utensils packed in a wooden rack, and two sacks of sorghum in a corner. The inner room had two sacks of maize on a raised wooden platform and boxes of mutere.
‘This will be your bedroom,’ Calina said.
You retired there after a meal of dried game meat (which Calina told you Simeo had trapped himself) and sweet potatoes.
Later that night, outside the kitchen, you heard Simeo and Calina talk about you.
‘Maybe we can keep her,’ Calina said.
‘What if her family comes looking for her?’
‘Then we can figure something out.’
‘Something like what?’
‘Think about what this could mean.’
‘Don’t get too excited.’
‘She could be a double blessing to us. The child we have always wanted, and the help we need.’
Simeo said nothing in response.
The next day, when Calina said you could stay for as long as you wanted, you thanked her until she told you to stop thanking her and instead prove that she hadn’t, in offering you a home, made a mistake.
For six months you washed, cooked, cleaned, fetched and tended. You didn’t burn food or put too much salt in the sauce. You wondered if the reason Calina hadn’t beaten you was that you were becoming a better cook.
When Simeo started coming home at lunch time, sometimes even earlier, you tried harder to prepare tasty meals. The first day he did, you warmed the pasted peas you’d prepared for supper and served it with millet bread. He let you eat his leftovers, which made you think of what it would have been like to eat Aba’s leftovers, or to share a meal with him.
The next day, Simeo returned, two hours after he had left for work, with a packet of Always. You were glad you wouldn’t be using the reusable pads that Calina had introduced you to the day you had your first period. While you could easily make them with pieces of cloth, they made you itch and smell. On the third day, Simeo bought you Friends, a big bottled pink body-lotion that you imagined would last a year. He bought you underwear too, each of the five a different color.
You knelt. ‘Thank you, Lapwony. Thank you very much. God bless you.’
He told you to stop thanking him because he was just doing what he was supposed to do.
‘Don’t call me Lapwony. I’m a teacher, but Simeo is enough,’ he said, patting your back as he left for school, leaving you in open-mouthed surprise.
Then, as suddenly as he’d started it, Simeo stopped returning early. This went on for a month. He would pick Calina up from the health centre at 6pm and carry her home on his bicycle. You imagined that the lunch they served at school, which he had been complaining about, had become tasty again.
Since you didn’t have to prepare lunch for Simeo anymore, you resumed spending the afternoon with Pam, the maid who lived in the house you admired when you first arrived in Palenga. She had worked for the Okellos for five years and she filled you in on stories about the town, including the one about Simeo and how he slept with his students and paid for their abortions; how he bribed their parents if they threatened to call the police.
Sometimes, Pam read to you from her books, or made you repeat the letters of the alphabet after her. You asked her about school and what it was like. You told her Aba had not bothered to take you to school because he’d claimed he didn’t have the money. You didn’t tell her that the real reason you’d never gone to school was that Auntie and Grandma had told Aba that educating you would be a waste of time and money.
You also didn’t tell her when, one day, Simeo returned at lunch time and asked if you wanted to go to school. He’d called you to the main house, sat you on his lap, and promised to pay your fees up to Makerere University. He’d taken advantage of your stunned silence to slip his hand into your blouse. You’d pulled his hand out, remembering what Pam had told you. But when he smiled, and continued talking about Makerere, you let him find whatever he was looking for inside your blouse.
The next week, when Calina left for Odek Village for polio immunisation outreach, Simeo kept coming home for lunch. He would eat the food you served him, say you were the best cook, and return to school. On the day Calina was supposed to return, Simeo came home bearing three dresses. He called you to the main house to get them and, once there, sat you on his lap again.
‘So, when do you want to start school?’ he said.
‘That’s good,’ he said, stretching the o in the good because his hand was in your underwear.
He carried you to the bed he shared with Calina, removed the red knicker he had bought you, and laid next to you, stroking your face and saying you were very beautiful and that your mother must have been a beautiful woman. You were quiet, steeled inside, your legs pressed together.
‘I should take you to town soon and take measurements for your school uniform,’ he said, as his hand moved to your thigh, caressing it as he propped himself up on his knees. ‘I’m sure you will be number one in class, throughout,’ he continued, as he forced your legs apart, his breathing quickening.
‘You are a strong girl. A sweet girl,’ he said, after your first yelp, and thereafter placed a firm hand on your mouth, telling you to relax so it wouldn’t hurt. You dug your teeth in his palm, as he rolled off you.
‘Ooh this girl!’ he cursed, but you could still see a smile lingering on his face as you limped out of the main house, whimpering like a wounded puppy.
When Calina returned that evening, you were already in bed; you lay with your legs wide apart to ease the burning pain between them. She came to your bedroom and asked how you had been and if you were a chicken.
‘Only chickens go to bed early,’ she said.
Usually, you would have both laughed at the joke. But, this time, you pretended to be asleep. You heard Simeo tell her that you must be tired from doing all the housework in her absence.
After that incident, you avoided Simeo, who had again stopped coming home for lunch. In the evenings, you sat close to Calina at the bonfire and ate supper with your head bowed. You didn’t laugh whenever Simeo cracked a joke, and you avoided joining conversations he started to draw your attention.
Calina started looking at you intently, asking why you’d become quieter and withdrawn. ‘It’s nothing,’ you said whenever she asked. As the months went by, Calina’s eyes lingered more on your stomach. She asked whether you were fine, wondered why you were slower than usual, lighter and pimpled. She touched your forehead frequently, asking whether you felt feverish. Although you insisted that you weren’t sick, she told Simeo. He told her he would make you tell the truth; he would take you to hospital, by force, if necessary.
Simeo came home the next day at lunch time.
‘Do you still have the pads I bought for you?’
‘Shouldn’t they be finished by now?’
You kept quiet.
‘Have you missed your periods?’
‘Vomiting? In the mornings?’
‘Yes. But only twice.’
He wasn’t angry. He just looked at you keenly, the way Calina had over the past months, and then he held your hand the way you imagined a father would hold his daughter’s, the other hand steering the bicycle as you walked to Min Odong’s home. After the greetings, she led you to a room, like she already knew why you were there.
‘Lie down, young girl, on your back,’ she said, pointing to the papyrus mat padded with kitenge cloth. She pulled up your blouse and started pressing your stomach.
‘When did you last see your moon?’
‘One month ago? Two months?’
‘I think three months ago.’
She breathed long and hard, looked straight ahead in silence for about two minutes. Then she left the room. She spoke in hushed tones to Simeo.
‘When will you stop doing this, Lapwony?’
‘So it’s there? Have you removed it?’
‘You think it takes just two minutes?’
‘Min Odong, do you now doubt your own expertise?’
‘I’m a midwife, Lapwony.’
‘I know that. I will give you a top up.’
‘It’s not about the money. You have to stop doing this.’
‘Min Odong! Let’s focus on the most urgent issue for now.’
‘My work is to help women deliver, not to empty their wombs.’
‘This is the last time.’
‘You have said that many times.’
‘Please help me. I promise you.’
‘Don’t promise anything. If it wasn’t because you got a scholarship for Odong.’
She burst into the room and told you to sit up.
‘Have you eaten?’
‘Good. The medicine will work better on an empty stomach.’
She pulled a white five-litre jerrycan from under the bed and poured some of the green liquid the jerrycan contained into a mug. You sipped from the mug.
She gave you two more cups. By the time you were done, your stomach was full, your mouth bitter.
‘Lie on your back,’ she said. ‘Let me know when you start feeling pain.’
An hour later, you felt a prick, a tear, a pull and twist in your stomach, as if a knife was in there. You groaned. Min Odong dashed into the room.
‘Shh! You have to be strong.’
She picked up a bottle, poured oil in her palms and rubbed them together. She started stroking your stomach, but the pain worsened.
You cried and pressed your stomach with both hands.
‘Try to keep still.’
After about 30 minutes, the pain had numbed you. Tears flowed but you didn’t utter a sound. She pushed a black kaveera between your legs, onto which blood flowed. You stopped rubbing your tummy and Min Odong sat there, watching you in silence like she was counting your heart beat. By the time the pain subsided, you were hungry, weak and sleepy.
When you stirred, the sun was setting. A jug of millet porridge was on the floor next to you. You didn’t wait for Min Odong to show up before you took it. Later, she gave you a bottle of the green liquid concoction.
‘Pour five bottle tops of this in half a basin of warm water, and sit in it until the water cools.’
You didn’t ask her what purpose it was supposed to serve.
‘The blood will stop by tomorrow evening.’
Simeo was there when you hobbled out of Min Odong’s hut.
‘Strong girl,’ he said, trying to help you onto the bicycle. You pulled away.
When you arrived home, Calina was seated outside, her eyes fixed in the direction from which you had come. She arose as you approached. You held your abdomen as you climbed down from Simeo’s bicycle, pain ripping through your body. Calina stood there, looking from you to Simeo, expecting one of you to say something. You limped towards the kitchen as Simeo wordlessly wheeled the bicycle to the main house.
Later that night, when they were sure you were asleep, and after what felt like hours of silence, you heard them talk, the words coming out heavy.
‘You took her to Min Odong, didn’t you?’
‘When are you going to stop?’
‘It was a mistake, Calina.’
‘It is always a mistake. Five girls, Latim. Five young girls!’
‘Keep your voice down, please. Tima kica.’
‘I have forgiven you so many times already.’
‘Satan always finds me at my weakest.’
‘Leave the devil alone!’
Then she broke down and cried. Simeo remained silent. You lay in the sitting room, a blanket over your head, wishing you were sleeping in the kitchen like you always did. But Calina couldn’t let you sleep in the kitchen alone. What if your situation worsened at night, she had said.
She didn’t talk to you the next day, or the day after, about your situation. But when she was sure you were fine and back to your feet, she beat you while crying for the child you had killed, as if you had been carrying it for her. You didn’t shed a tear, even when you bled from the tooth she had knocked out and your buttocks burned from the cane. Why did you do it? Why didn’t you tell me?
You said nothing.
It was time to leave. There was no way you were going to stay in the home of a woman whose husband had paid for your abortion.
When Simeo came home the next day at lunch time, you asked whether he was still taking you to school.
‘Ah, I don’t know if that will be possible my girl, not after what happened,’ he said, avoiding eye contact.
‘You promised me!’
‘I know. But my wife, I don’t know what she is planning. I have to avoid making another mistake.’
He started to walk to the main house.
‘Wait,’ you told him. ‘Let me organise the house first.’
You dashed to the main house, and put your Plan B in motion, a plan you had thought about in case Simeo went back on his word. He smiled when, minutes later, you told him the house was ready and he could go eat his lunch. Shortly after entering the house, Simeo screamed. You picked your bag and went to check that everything had gone as planned. He was lying on the floor, teeth firmly gritted, right leg lifted up. You bent over him and asked what happened.
‘I don’t know how this animal trap moved from behind the door to under my chair. I stepped right into it.’
‘Sorry Lapwony. I didn’t even see it as I cleaned the house,’ you lied, a scornful smile on your face, but his eyes were shut because of the pain. You counted your luck, for Simeo had worn open shoes that day, making his feet exposed and perfect for a bite by the trap.
‘Please call for help.’ Blood dripped from the part where the claws of the trap had dug into flesh.
‘Don’t worry Lapwony. I’ll be back.’
You walked swiftly out of the house, locked it after you with a padlock, and threw the key in the soy garden.
‘Is everything okay?’ Pam shouted from their house, when she saw you leave hurriedly.
‘Yes, Pam, I am okay.’
‘Where are you going, with that bag on your back?’ she asked, running after you.
‘This? I’m just going to the tailor.’
‘I still have to fetch water. I would have come with you.’
‘Don’t worry. See you my friend,’ you said, playfully pinching her on the cheek.
She had raised her brows when you called her my friend. You wondered whether she was surprised or suspicious.
Thoughts about Ma clouded your mind as you walked away from the village that’d become your home. You wondered what she would have done in your situation. Did she fight back when she was being taunted for her childlessness? Ma had appeared to you in dreams several times but only to dance or sing and make a statement or two. The last time she did, she told you she was celebrating you.
Ma had laughed softly, hesitantly, like a young woman being tickled by a suitor she liked but didn’t want to show that she did; because she was told only a slut laughed all her laughter at once.
Ma had danced in tune with the brush of rod against drum and the rhythm of the Lakubu-kubu dance. Like an arena queen who knew she was the best dancer sought after by many men, Ma had shaken her waist gently, teasingly.
Sweat – sparkling like gemstones – had dripped down her face at every turn of neck, twist of waist and thud of feet. She had smiled at you through the wetness of her face.
‘This dance is to shame those who doubted my womb,’ she had said, cupping your face before she’d resumed dancing.
Remembering that dream made you miss Ma like she’d died yesterday, not 13 years ago. You wanted to talk to her. Maybe she would have a name for your next destination, understand the emptiness in your womb and heart. You quickened your pace.
You wanted the sun to set when you were by Ma’s grave.
The compound was silent when you arrived home at 6pm. All the huts were locked, except for the one where Aba slept. He lay on the bed, his breath labored and audible from the doorway as if the air were coming from somewhere in his toes. He coughed – a dry, persistent cough that made him repeatedly clutch his chest. His chest rose and fell in homage to every successful breath. His yellow eyes never left yours. You didn’t ask how he was. The answer to that question was written on his body —a body that had become too small for the 4-by-6 bed on which he lay.
You stepped out of the house to see if Grandma or Auntie, the people who should have been there tending to him, had returned. The two granaries that you torched were still on their knees, identifiable only by the pile of dry mud and two rotting poles that survived the fire. Grass that had not been slashed in a long time thrived in the compound. The branches of the mango tree, under which you stood as you watched the fire, were leafless, as if struck and dried by lightning.
You sat next to Ma’s grave, ran your hands over the stones, pulled at the overgrown grass, and called out her name.
‘I killed a child, Ma. My baby.’
‘I wish you were here.’
Aba’s cough beckoned you to his bedside. You hurried back and stood in the doorway again. He gasped for breath and flailed his hands as if he were trying to catch something in space; his eyes bulged from their sockets, as though he was looking at something at which he shouldn’t be looking.
‘Water,’ he mumbled.
You dashed to the main house, the blue cup from his bedside table in your hand. When you re-entered, minutes later, Aba’s breathing was even louder. He sounded like a radio with worn-out batteries. He resumed coughing but didn’t hold his chest anymore. He just surrendered his bony self to the cough.
He didn’t hold back the drool. You wanted to tell him you knew what it was like to feel helpless. He mumbled something between coughs and you imagined he wanted the water. You moved one step forward and stopped, wondering if the cough would split his chest open if you didn’t give him the water; you imagined the blisters in his throat fattening, the phlegm in his lungs thickening and darkening. He stretched out his hand, pleading for the water.
You remained rooted to the spot. Your mind journeyed to that time when you were eight. When Aba locked you up in the chicken house because you ate what uncle offered when he visited. Instead of saying no, satisfying yourself with the chicken soup and posho, as a good child would have, you’d eaten the gizzard uncle had given you. When the meal was done, you had picked up a basin of water for uncle to wash his hands but it had slipped and spilled water into uncle’s thighs. Instead of apologising, or crying even, you’d laughed, for it seemed as if all Uncle had been doing, while he ate, was urinate on himself. You’d been in the chicken house for two days and two nights, during which you’d been hungry, thirsty, and energy had seeped out of your body.
Lying on that bed, Aba must have felt what you felt then – helpless, resigned.
You took another step towards Aba. This time, his hand was limp by his side, his eyes glued on the cup of water in your hand. You looked at him, unblinking.
That night, as you slept behind Aba’s house, your back against the wall, Ma came. She sat beside you and ran her fingers through your hair. Her own hair fell loosely down her long, ringed, straight-like-a-bamboo neck. Her eyes were fireflies, fingers chocolate-brown wool. She was a goddess, nothing like what Auntie and Grandma described.
‘Your father is a good man.’
‘What do you mean?’
She smiled as she must have done when she was crowned arena queen, the best dancer in Layibi, many times.
‘The father I know doesn’t care whether I lived or died.’
‘Hush, child,’ she said.
‘He joined them against me.’
‘Your real father wouldn’t harm you.’
You were confused and demanded that she explain what she meant.
‘Your father is a respected farmer in Atiak. Find him.’
‘What is his name?’
Ma smiled again, held your hands and started melting like ice-cream left in the open for too long, still sweet to taste.
‘You look like him.’