‘Ngozi’ by Wendy Holborow
Our short story this month is ‘Ngozi’ by Wendy Holborow. Wendy was born in South Wales, but lived in Greece for fourteen years where she founded and co-edited Poetry Greece. She has won prizes for her short stories and poetry which has appeared in Quality Women’s Fiction, Agenda, Envoi, Poetry Ireland Review, Poetry Salzburg Review, Roundyhouse, and many others internationally. She is currently studying for a Masters in Creative Writing at Swansea University. Her pamphlet After the Silent Phone Call (2015) has just been published by Poetry Salzburg. She was selected as an International Merit Award winner by the Atlanta Review in 2015 and has recently won the Allen Raine Prize for short stories with her story ‘Crows Caw in Cwmdonkin Park’.
Ngozi arranges her children beneath the acacia tree near their village. Four upturned faces brimming with trust. How their faith in her pierces her heart. She averts her face, distracting herself to contemplate the slant of leaves in the red-stained sky of dawn, evaluating the most suitable position for the children later on when the sun will blister and scorch. Baby Mchumba cries, and crawling forward, attaches herself to Ngozi’s legs. Ngozi swings her baby onto her hip.
“I know, baby,” she murmurs, “We’re all hungry.”
Not wanting to be left out, two-year-old Leena stumbles towards her mother and clutches her hand. Ngozi hoists Leena onto her other hip, struggling to hold the two babies in her weakened state. She slides Leena to the ground, calling Achieng.
“Hold your sister, come and sit where I showed you.” She pulls the two girls back to their place under the tree and crouches down to whisper to Achieng. “See over there? On the line where the ground and sky meet?” Achieng nods. “See the trees? That is as far as I will go. Look after Leena. You’re a big girl now, she listens to you.” Achieng is crying. How can she bear her mother leaving? How can she comfort her little sister who is already sobbing for her mother? Ngozi picks up the water carrier and winds a wrapper around herself to swaddle Mchumba for the journey.
“Come Masego, we must start. Carry the water.” Masego hoists the water container on to his head and he and his mother and baby sister depart from the village, from the acacia tree and the two crying girls. Ngozi feels her heart will snap in two, the way she has had to split her little family in two.
As they shuffle along the dusty track, the sound of crying recedes.
“They’ll be all right Mama?” Masego asks. Mchumba has fallen asleep to the rhythm of their steps. “Will the soldiers come back?”
“There’s nothing for them to come back for, they took everything.” She looks fondly down at her only son. Her husband, Ebuka, was thrilled to have a son after his first-born was a girl. Ebuka had taken Masego with him everywhere, carrying him high on his shoulders, showing him off all around their village and neighbouring villages. Then he left, to work in the city and Masego had pined for him.
“Will we find Dada at the camp?”
“I don’t know. But we will find food and shelter and we will be safe, and you will find your friends again.” She hopes she sounds more positive than she feels.
“Why didn’t we leave when they did?”
Ngozi doesn’t know what to tell him. How silly she had been to believe that Ebuka would come back to save them.
Each step they take leads towards the sun. It is almost at its zenith, lighting up the veldt as far as she can see. Ngozi tries not to look back at the village and the acacia tree, which is now just a dot on the horizon. The trees she pointed out to Achieng are coming nearer and nearer.
“Look Masego, you can rest soon.”
Mchumba has woken, grizzly. She is hungry so they sit in the shade of the leafiest tree while Ngozi unwraps her dress to expose her skinny breasts. There is still a little milk for the baby. “Drink some water” she tells Masego. She takes only a few sips for herself. She wants to leave enough water for the two children when she leaves them.
“Look after Mchumba.” She doesn’t need to tell him; he is good with the little ones.
Ngozi walks away. Masego is distracting his baby sister by drawing patterns in the dust so there is no crying this time as she leaves. The sun is beginning to sink and it is a little cooler as she walks along. She is completely childless at this moment in time. How strange it is. She has forgotten what that feels like. Only a child herself when she married Ebuka and had Achieng. What different times they were. No war, no one went hungry. She quickens her pace.
Leena toddles to her mother, fresh crying breaking out in relief. As she sits to breast feed Leena, it is mostly for comfort.
“Go and fill the water bottle, Achieng.” She doesn’t worry her daughter by telling her it might be the last time they will be able to get water. When they are ready, she folds Leena in the wrapper, Achieng carries the water and Ngozi is walking the same track she walked that morning, but Leena is heavier than Mchumba and Ngozi is weary. She trudges along with the glazed faraway look of a sleepwalker. The sun is plunging rapidly to the skyline and she must get the two children to the trees before night settles in with its own fears and dangers.
There is a nailparing of moon as the family is reunited. There is a lot of crying and hugging, Ngozi shushing them, not wanting to alert any hungry animals. She settles her four little ones on fallen leaves, covers them with the wrappers and they sleep, curled into each other for warmth and comfort. Ngozi indents her thin body into the rough bark of the tree trunk. She is watchful. She stares at the stars until her tiredness overcomes her and she curls into Achieng’s warm body.
In the dark of the early morning, Ngozi struggles to wake. She wants to be ready to leave at the first flare of dawn’s red streaks. How she aches; from the walking and from sleeping on the hard ground with no ounce of fat to cushion her against its roughness. She rouses the children. Achieng waits with Leena under the trees as the others walk as far as the eye can see. This is the pattern for the next three days. There is no more water and they are all fretful; even the stoic Masego is crying. Like Achieng and his mother, he has blisters on his feet, which hurt more at every step. Ngozi rips material from the bottom of her dress.
“Sit down Masego, let me bind your feet, it will help.” She winds the coral patterned material round and round his feet like bleeding bandages. It is her favourite dress, the one with the red hibiscus flowers intertwined with butterflies and little songbirds.
Masego is eager to be off because although his feet hurt and his mouth and lips are dry, he has the camp and his friends in his mind’s eye. Ngozi doesn’t walk as far each day now. How can she go on? Carrying the babies, thirsty, hungry, averting her gaze from the reproach on her children’s faces as if it were all her fault. Where is Ebuka in all this? What is he doing while his children are slowly starving to death? She will have nothing to do with him if she finds him fat and well at the camp. If he hadn’t returned from the city when he had, she would only have had Achieng and Masego and would have had to walk the track just once. How weary she is. But Ebuka had returned and they’d had a third child, a daughter they named Leena. Wanting another boy, Ebuka wouldn’t leave her alone, though she was still recovering from having Leena. She produced a third girl, and he left again. What use were three girls? He complained. What use girls? The brave Achieng, so good with the little ones. The delightful baby girls. How would he, the great Ebuka have coped in this situation? Her guess is that he would have abandoned his daughters and just taken his son. Well, good riddance. Why should she have any love left for him? The years of regular abandonment and admonishment that she could produce only one boy had diminished the early love. These bitter thoughts keep her striding on. Yet, she wakes on the morning of their fifth day in utter despair. How can she walk much further? Could she carry both babies so she won’t have to make the journey twice? That would be impossible; carrying one at a time has worn her out.
She starts out again on the fifth morning with Mchumba, Masego carrying empty water containers. Is the village in the distance a mirage? Masego cries out that he has seen it too. They walk faster, adrenaline coursing through them. She hears the quarrelsome vultures first, then the loud buzzing of flies. She smells the stench of rotting flesh. They cover their nostrils with their hands. Masego pulls her hand.
‘Come on Mama. There might be water, even food,’ he pleads. They creep into the village. Dead bodies everywhere. Was it the soldiers or hunger? The blood suggests a Our massacre.
“Don’t look Masego,” but the possibility of food has him running in and out of the huts. He squeals with delight at some morsel of food the soldiers have missed. Ngozi settles the two children in the hut furthest away from the carnage and takes the water carriers to the well. Please God, don’t let the water be contaminated. It is clean. She splashes water all over her body and takes huge swallows. How wonderful it is. Is it wrong of her to satisfy herself first? But now she is refreshed and can take a little food and water back to Achieng and Leena. They will stay in this hut for the night, maybe even two nights. She tells Masego to hide himself and the baby in the corner of the hut and to keep really quiet.
As she almost skips back to the other two, she talks to her shadow. She has been doing this on her lonely treks, to pass the time, to take her mind off her dire situation. Her shadow elongates with the angles of the sun. Why can’t you have helped us? Why don’t you need food and water? Do you love me, for you are never parted from me? Although in the dark of night I don’t see you. Do you have another life? A different person to stalk? Where do you go when we are dead? I’ve never seen a shadow buried. She laughs at the absurdity of her conversation until she thinks of the possibility of disease in the village and that the soldiers might still be in the vicinity. She runs to reach Achieng and Leena. The girls eat and drink greedily, before Ngozi hurries them on; she doesn’t rest this time, needs to get back to the village.
All is as she left it. How wonderful to see Masego asleep with Mchumba in his arms. He has heard nothing but the vultures, he assures her. Ngozi explores the village, searching each hut, looking in the kinds of hiding places she herself had hidden food in case the soldiers came. She holds a length of ripped dress over her mouth and nose against the putrid smell. She finds no food. What will they do now? What Masego found earlier was just enough to scratch their hunger. How will they make it to the camp without food? She searches each hut again but the soldiers have taken everything. Why, oh why can’t she find food for her children? She can’t let her beautiful children die. She stands and watches the vultures pulling at the flesh of a woman.
Later, over a fire they have lit outside the hut, the children are enjoying the first taste of meat they have had in a long while. When the meat cools, Ngozi wraps what is left and they take it with them, it will sustain them for the next few days, and then maybe the camp will be in sight. The water canisters are full, and she sets off with Masego and Mchumba for the next day’s journey.