“Which one is Grandma?”
Nancy was lying on her back next to the smouldering remains of the fire, the straw mat beneath her scratching her bare legs.
“That one” replied her father assuredly, pointing at a particularly bright star in the night sky.
Each night, he would lay down beside her with his powerful arm under her neck and his large hand squeezing the flesh at the top of her arm. She would feel the strength in his muscles and smell the mix of beer and fish and sweat, undeniable signs of a long, hard day at the lake.
All day every day, Nancy waited expectantly for this precious time to study the stars with her father. She never tired of hearing his stories. Some days, the stars were the spirits of the dead watching over the living as they slept….
“And look, those two must be the twins!” she cried out as she gestured excitedly at the heavens, “Mayi’s (1) last babies are up there with Grandma!”
Other times, the stars were tiny holes in the dark night’s cloth which covered the sun. Or glowing embers from the supper’s fire that had drifted up on the wind and stuck on night’s canopy. Or glinting slivers of light that had risen up from the lake of shimmering stars only to fall back into the lake the following day.
Wrapped tight in a blanket of warm, safe, joyous love, Nancy, wishing this moment could last forever, drifted away to the sound of her father’s voice….
“Reach for the stars, little girl. Don’t settle for less. Dream your sweet dreams. And one day, follow the stars and get out of this place.”
Then one day, he did. He listened to his own words, followed the stars and got out. Nancy’s mother said he had gone to the city to find work like all the other men. But deep down, Nancy knew.
No word. No money. No news. No return.
Bambo(2) was reaching for the stars.
And he had gone without her.
From that day on, Nancy’s role was to collect the firewood, light the fire, keep it going through the day and dowse it with the last of the water at night. She had no time to lie by the fire. She had no-one to lie by the fire with.
When her monthly bleed started, Nancy knew what was to come. There could be no escape. She still felt like a child and yet she was about to become a wife. Her mother displayed her young untouched daughter proudly to Samuel, the son of a neighbour. She no longer had enough money to feed all the family. From now on, Samuel would take care of Nancy.
That night, for the first time since her father had left, Nancy lay down with a man. Tiny cuts appeared on her naked back and buttocks as the weight on top of her pushed her body into the straw matting. Not a word was spoken; animal grunts and whimpers were all that emanated from the writhing couple. Samuel’s small bony fingers grasped the flesh at the top of her arms to stop her wriggling away as he poked his male part deep into her like a stick in a shit hole. A sickly smell overwhelmed her senses, a repulsive sweetness that would come to represent a nightly offloading of male seed, satisfying a primal need as inevitable as pissing in the dust.
All day every day, Nancy waited with dread for this shameful, painful time with her husband. She strained to see the stars but Samuel’s bobbing head was always in the way. She closed her eyes and tried to imagine her own pattern of pinpricks, but disgust and fear clouded her vision. After a while, her eyes became fixed on the dust at her feet and she no longer thought to lift her eyes to the heavens. She could no longer recall the sound of her father’s voice or the words of his mouth.
When her first child had come out of her body all shrivelled and deformed and been buried in the ground, Nancy looked for a new star in the darkness. She longed for the night sky to give her baby a home. But no new star appeared to fill the numbing void. The hollowness remained and life, such as it was, continued relentlessly. Nancy went about the business of survival like all the other women. But as she observed them at the borehole waiting to collect water, she was puzzled by their incessant chatter and exuberant laughter. Perplexed, she constantly wondered “Do they feel dead inside too?”
One day, without warning, the village received a visitor. Like all the other local people, Nancy was curious about the mzungu (3) who had come to visit the hut next door and went to see for herself. There, resting on her neighbour’s matting was the most wonderful living being Nancy had ever seen.
Her hair was strands of all the colours of leaves in the dry season, when the burning sun transforms the lush greens into reds and browns and oranges. The stars in her eyes as she smiled must have fallen from the night sky. Sweat glittered on her arms and chest like millions of tiny stars. Her soft flesh was plump and pink like sugary juicy fruit. Strange sweet sounds of a better life flowed from her moist lips.
Nancy wanted to run her rough fingers through those glossy fiery curls. She yearned to reach out for the stars in those green eyes to restore the sparkle in her own dull eyes. She longed to rub the stars of sensual sweat all over her own weary body. She imagined what it would be to caress the flesh of that bare neck, to have those arms encircling her shoulders and those legs wrapped around her hips. The desire to brush those sensuous lips with her fingers was overwhelming.
Nancy did not want to exist any more. She wanted to melt into this white woman’s star. To be enveloped. Consumed. Cleansed. Redeemed. Aroused.
Nancy crashed back into reality with a start. She looked at those gathered around her. Had she actually reached out? Had anyone read the longing in her eyes? Arousal gave way to rising panic. She could be stoned just for imagining such desire.
To cover her emotion, Nancy pushed her young children forcefully towards the object of her yearning. If they could only touch her, perhaps they would be blessed, somehow bringing a special something back for their mother to treasure. But they had never seen a white woman before and they were scared. Clement ran off to play with the fallen apples. Alice crawled off crying, always crying, leaving behind her a trail of yellow shit that had trickled out of her loose knickers and down her chubby thigh. Nancy scooped her up roughly under her arm and went to fetch a shovel for the mess.
When she returned with the shovel, the mzungu (3) had gone. Nancy knew in her heart she would never come back. Just like her father. As the light started to fade, newly awakened life drained from Nancy’s soul. In a state of nothingness, Nancy retrieved the children and started to walk down to the lake. The children clung to her tightly in the silence, in awe of the moon, frightened of the dark, aware that their mother had never done this before.
As she sat on the cooling sand, Nancy felt the stirrings of long forgotten memories. She was bambo’s (2) little girl again. She longed to walk far out into the lake and reach for the stars. Now that she had experienced sweet dreams, she could no longer settle for this life. She had to get out of this place. She was ready to follow the stars, become part of the darkness and be reunited with her firstborn.
“What are those lights in the darkness, mayi (1)?”
Clement was tugging on Nancy’s arm and pointing to the sky.
It took all the strength in Nancy’s soul to pull herself back from the edge and lift her eyes to the heavens. She forced herself to look into her son’s face. Instinct made her smile.
“Those are your sweet dreams, little one. Together, we will reach for the stars. We will not settle for less. And one day, we will follow the stars and get out of this place.”
That night, Nancy had touched the stars and found them to be glimmers of hope in the darkness of despair. She got to her feet and turned resolutely back towards the village with her daughter at her breast and her son’s hand clasped tightly in her own.
“But until then, let’s go home.”
This short story is set in a village situated on the shores of Lake Malawi.
These words are from the Chichewa language widely spoken in Malawi.
1. mayi mother, mum
2. bambo father, dad