They didn't know how long she'd be gone this time but whenever she was away the air was lighter and easier to breathe. The son and the father both knew it. The boy, Chamu, sauntered into his parents' bedroom the Sunday morning before his mother returned and found his father sitting up in bed watching the news on the large television in the wall. The father wasn't wearing a shirt and the hair on his chest looked like ants, millions of little black coils. Chamu laughed, pointing at his father's chest. His dad looked down at himself, looked up at him, and laughed too. He patted the empty space next to him on the bed and the boy jumped up and covered his legs with the blanket.
Chamu sunk back into the pillow and breathed deeply. His father breathed deeply too. They looked at each other and the father made a mock punch at Chamu's shoulder, which sent the boy into a fit of wild giggles. He punched his father back and his little fist fell into the carpet of hair on his chest. It was softer than he thought. His father quickly drew his body together, pretending to be hurt. Chamu laughed until he couldn't breathe. He felt an awful joy electrify his body until he thought he might cry from it. When the laughter faded and there was nothing but the murmur of television voices, his father spoke.
"What shall we do today?" he asked.
Chamu could smell alcohol, old and made heavy by strong cigarettes, on his father's breath. His heart, which had slowed to normal after his fit of laughter, now skipped. If they spent the day at home the smell would get worse. He could imagine how his father's eyes would soon turn bloodshot and wild, not dangerous or dreadful, but wild from the same kind of unrestrained freedom he felt right now. He had never liked that look and couldn't get used to it. He knew what he wanted to do.
"Fishing!" he cried.
"It's raining," his father said softly and cocked his ear to the side as if listening for it. Chamu listened too but all he could hear was the voice on the television. He jumped off the bed and went to the glass doors that led out to the backyard. He parted the heavy burgundy curtains and was greeted by a grey and dismal day. It was raining slowly and steadily. He ran back to the bed and covered himself again.
"It's raining," he repeated his father's words.
"We can go and visit someone," his father said.
"A friend of mine."
"What will I do while you're visiting?"
'my friend has a child about your age. You can play."
Chamu thought for a moment and then shrugged.
"Fine," he said.
The drive was long. Chamu sat in the front seat. His feet didn't touch the floor. His mother always made him sit in the back with her because she had a driver. His father liked to drive himself even though he could have a driver if he wanted to. Chamu turned up the radio and when he was tired of music, he turned it off and looked outside. He had never been this far away from home before, at least not to this part of the city. This part of town had narrow streets and no trees. There was litter on the streets. His father drove slowly and carefully to avoid holes in the road. The houses were small and too close together. A grown man could reach his arms out between the houses and almost touch each wall. Chamu had never seen his neighbours. Their houses were far apart and covered with high walls and fences. In this place, even in the rain, there were children outside playing. The boy looked at them with envy. The children stopped their games and looked at him with envy too. The car he rode in was large and new and foreign. It was not something they were used to seeing.
The street names here were not in English but in Shona. He read them aloud and his father made him guess which animal or tree they were named after. He guessed them all right. He felt the palm of his father's hand, big and warm and hard against his scalp and he closed his eyes.
"You're a smart boy, Chamu," the father said. "A very smart boy."
The car slowed even more and he saw that they were turning into a house. A little boy about his age stood at the gate with a blue umbrella as if he'd been expecting them. He opened the gate. The car barely squeezed into the space and came to a stop in front of a small garden with vegetables and several stalks of corn arranged in very neat rows. The house was painted bright yellow and the door that opened inward just as the car came to a stop was a startling white.
A woman stood there.
She was short and slender. Her skin was light brown like pecans. Her hair was in the skinniest braids he had ever seen and lay about her shoulders. Although he was only nine he knew that she was beautiful. She told the boy with the umbrella to hurry out of the rain. But she wasn't angry. Chamu thought she was laughing as she said it. Indeed, she had a small smile on her face as the boy ran up to her and closed his umbrella. The two of them looked at Chamu and his father as they came out of the car and hurried up to the door so they wouldn't get wet. Chamu had never been inside a house so small, except when he was at his grandmother's in the rural areas. And even she didn't live in a place this small. The whole house was the size of his grandmother's kitchen.
It was nice inside though, something about the place made him feel warm. Doilies decorated the sofa, chairs and coffee table. The boy with the umbrella offered his hand. Chamu looked at his father and his father nodded. Chamu shook the boy's hand.
"I'm Michael," the boy said.
"Chamu," he said. Michael's my father's name too, he wanted to add but he couldn't because the boy started talking a mile a minute as he ushered him to the television and turned it on. Chamu liked Michael but was a little worried over his father because it didn't look like his friend was home. His father stood at the opening that led into the tiny kitchen and was saying something to the woman. She laughed and handed him a beer.
Chamu looked away. He watched a video with Michael and absently watched his father from time to time. His father must have had at least six beers as he stood in that doorway talking to the woman while she cooked. Soon she came out with plates of hot food for the boys. She made them wash their hands in the bathroom with soap. She and Chamu's father sat at the small table and the boys sat on the floor in front of the television. Chamu didn't mind playing with Michael but he found himself worrying more about his father as the day progressed. The friend hadn't yet shown up but his father didn't seem to mind. He and the woman were laughing and drinking while they ate, while she washed dishes, while she tidied up the house.
Soon, Chamu forgot all about them.
And then he saw the woman go into a room, leaving the door slightly ajar. Chamu's father followed the woman into the room and closed the door. Chamu felt his chest tighten. He looked at Michael but the other boy was engrossed in the cartoons on the television. Stricken with a fear he couldn't comprehend, he stared at the closed door for so long without blinking that his eyes started to hurt. Feeling a sudden burst of energy, Chamu stood up, making straight for the door that his father had just closed. He was going to knock and tell his father he thought it was time to go. Right now. But he stopped short when he heard something coming from the room. It was barely audible, not a cry, or even anything intelligible, but he knew it was something uttered. He grew cold. The sound cut him inside. He turned to look at the other boy but Michael didn't appear to have heard it. And then he heard it again.
The woman was calling his father's name.
She did it very softly, so softly that Chamu shouldn't have heard it above the cartoons and Michael's laughter and the rain pelting the asbestos roof above them or the other children splashing out in the streets. But he heard it, soft and aching and full of an emotion that he had never heard his mother use when she called his father. He heard it rush from the crevices of the closed door and raise every hair on his body. He thought of being seven and hearing a voice calling him from the shadows, of the fingers that touched his skin in the middle of the night. It was a nightmare that had just recently stopped haunting him and here it was again.
He wanted to scream.
And despite the easier air that had settled since she had gone on her trip, he suddenly wanted his mother. He wanted her more than anything. He was burning now. He was burning and afraid and angry and crying and"
"Hey, you're peeing on yourself!" Michael cried and started laughing. "I'm telling! Amai! Amai, Chamu is peeing on the floor!"
He hadn't felt it at all. From his eyes swollen with tears, he saw the woman come out of the room, her tiny fingers quickly fastening one last button on her dress. He felt her flutter like a bird around him. She brought a towel and wiped him. She didn't yell or chide. She was quiet. And he was quiet. He let her lead him to the bathroom and take off his trousers. She gave him a pair of Michael's sweatpants and put his own clothes in a plastic bag. She led him out of the bathroom and he saw that his father was at the table again, with another beer. His father's eyes were red and wild.
"I suppose you"ve had enough excitement for one day," his father said, smiling. He gulped down the rest of the beer and stood up. He waved goodbye to Michael and took Chamu's hand. But before they could go, the woman crouched in front of Chamu and put her hand palm down on his chest. She didn't speak but she looked in his eyes and smiled. He couldn't smile back. He didn't want to. It was as if she wanted to say something but couldn't. Who did she think she was and what gave her the right to call his father's name like that? He looked toward the door, away from her and she sighed and stood up. She stepped back from them and they walked out.
In the car, before they drove out of the yard, the father placed his hand on the boy's head.
"I'm not angry, all right?" he said.
Chamu did not speak. His father squeezed his head gently and then started the car. When they got home, Chamu removed Michael's trousers and, along with the pants he had soiled, threw them in the big rubbish bin in the garage. He started a bath and scrubbed himself down until he felt clean. When he got into his own clothes and lay down on his bed everything felt like it was going to be all right. He would forget about Michael and his mother and the bright yellow house with the white door and the doilies on the furniture.
But when he fell asleep, all he could hear was that woman calling and calling with that emotion, that aching. But she wasn't calling his father anymore. She was calling him and her hand was on his chest and her eyes were holding his eyes and he couldn't look away and he heard her all night, burning his ears with her calling.
Lynnet Ngulube, raised in Zimbabwe, is a second year student in the MFA in Fiction program at George Mason University . The stories that I write are a direct influence of Shona culture diluted by mostly British colonialist culture and most recently, the American environment. She has been influenced by Charles Dickens, mostly by Bleak House, and by Thomas Hardy, Jamaica Kincaid, and Charles Mungoshi from Zimbabwe.
Copyright 2005, Lynnet Ngulube. This work is protected under the U.S. copyright laws. It may not be reproduced, reprinted, reused, or altered without the expressed written permission of the author.