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“Nurse, hand me the scalpel.”

Mumtaz scowled, wiped her dripping brow and handed her brother the letter opener she stole from her Big Mama’s trunk of of important things.

“Why do you always get to be the doctor?”

It didn’t make sense and it certainly wasn’t fair that after stealing the letter opener and killing the gecko with her own hands, even being careful not to squish it’s vital organs, Shine got to be the surgeon.

“Don’t distract me, I’m concentrating.”

If her mother was around, she would say, “Because boys are not supposed to be sissy nurses.” and that would be the end of that conversation. Thankfully, her mother was away on some mysterious errand, wearing her best dress. Big Mama was at the hospital too and all the other less significant adults in the house were away. Her father brought over their cousin Shine after school on Friday evening so he could spend the weekend with them. Mumtaz and her older sister Nawty never understood why they had to play with Shine during the weekends. He was less their cousin and more their very distant cousin. Mumtaz didn’t verbally complain about him though, because only he was up to playing what she wanted to play, things Nawty would never indulge in. But that day, under the merciless scorch of the July afternoon sun, Mumtaz was losing her patience just standing around and being the nurse. Especially because Shine didn’t have the stealth or strength to wack a pillow at the wall to kill an unsuspecting gecko.

She heard Shine tsk.

“What?”

“It’s too small. The insides are too small. We should have caught a frog.”

“I told you we should have used one of Mama’s big safety pins!”

“Let’s catch a frog!”

He’d already let the letter opener fall to the ground, as he looked up at his sister from a squatting position, squinting at the harshness of the sun’s rays. He was the most ridiculous surgeon Mumtaz ever saw. When she accompanied her Big Mama at the hospital, she saw real surgeons, ladies and even gentlemen who took babies out of mothers. And when she asked if that man was a nurse, to which her Big Mama nonchalantly nodded her head, Mumtaz was elated with a wisdom she knew her own mother did not possess.

“No. It’s too hot. I’m going inside!”

As she made her way back into their small front yard she heard Shine yell, irritation and rejection in his voice.

“You’re so black anyway, the sun has already roasted you!”

Mumtaz ignored her stupid cousin brother. He thought that if he used the kind of insults that the adults used on her, he would seem superior. It never prickled Mumtaz because she was sure of how clueless he was. If she were less thirsty, maybe she would have yelled back.

“Go back to your own house! We don’t want you here! You are not our real brother!”

But those thoughts crumbled away in the dry heat when she entered their small home and saw the clay pot lidded with a stainless steel plate. She licked her lips thinking of how cool the water was in there.

“Nawty?”

Mumtaz thought her sister was inside the house, reading as she often does on the weekends. But their weekends have changed since Nawty turned thirteen. She started to accompany her mother on trips to heaven knows where. They returned late in the evening, somehow, just before Big Mama returned from the hospital. Mumtaz took big painful gulps of the cool water as she tried to imagine where Mama and Nawty could be off to all day. She was a little jealous too.

Her meditation was grossly interrupted by a painful jab around her mouth. Shine had pushed the steel cup towards her face to wake her from her concentration, thereby gracefully sending Mumtaz into a coughing fit while she flailed her arms in an attempt to smack her brother – cousin brother.

“What the hell is wrong with you!”

A question best left unanswered, she thought as she used the sleeve of her blouse to wipe her face. So she asked a more valid question.

“Why does Dada even bring you here? Don’t you have other brothers and sisters you can play with at the Kalubowila house?”

Shine took his own cup of water and sat down cross legged on the cool cement floor, with his back to the ageing wall. He knew the answer to her question. He’d recently overheard a conversation Mumtaz’s father had with his mother. Well, the woman he thought was his mother. His new mother, the one he learned about recently, the real one apparently, was currently off with his oldest sister, somewhere, heaven knows where. Shine really enjoyed coming over to play with Mumtaz and even more now, since he found out that they were real brother and sister. She was annoying but he got to be the boss of the all games, whereas at the Kalubowila house, he had many older brothers and sisters who took turns being the boss.

Still, he liked living in the Kalubowila house. It was big and he always got food to eat and tea with biscuits in the evenings. Here on Fuzzels Lane, food was constantly sparse and as much as he enjoyed nicking his sisters’ food right off their plates, his stomach was never completely full. Never full enough to take a long nap after lunch. Worse than that, he knew that the only real nice person in this house was Big Mama. He’d seen the scars and marks on Mumtaz’ face and arms. He knows that those are what happens to any child who is at this house on the unfortunate night that either Big Papa or Mumtaz’ father comes home drunk. He’d only overheard the stories from the mouths at the Kalubowila house but when he came over one Friday evening to Fuzzels Lane and saw the gash on Mumtaz’ neck and the glowing red lines on her skinny arms, his fears were confirmed. So every Sunday evening, even though he was a little sad, he was mostly relieved to be going back home to his first mother. The one who cares for him and feeds him. The one who has never pulled a belt on him.

“You should just stay in Kalubowila where you belong.”

Maybe she was right. He certainly didn’t want to belong in Fuzzels Lane even if Mumtaz’ parents were also his parents. What did it matter anymore, his sisters would never believe it. Mumtaz would roll around on the ground, clutching her ribs with laughter if he ever told her. He decided to change the subject.

“What time are Big Papa and your Dada coming back?”

He saw his sister retreat from herself. She stood up from sitting on the kitchen chair and slinked to her Big Mama’s tiny bed, where she felt safe from this question.

“How should I know?”

She turned away from him and started to pick at something on the cream colored bed sheet. Shine realized he asked the wrong question in an innocent attempt to argue about something else. The two of them knew and somehow didn’t know that they had far too much to hurt each other with even though they were only eleven and twelve years old.

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Gasping

you are with the remnants of a great wave,

sea foam

and there’s the sea spread out behind you

 

the sea that is your life

with all it’s colors

a mile or two

below the the surface

 

when the waters rock the boat

that has the strength of a raft

you and this white foam

are thrown onto sand

 

splintered, salty,

sad

wet

gasping

 

your life is the ocean

a place you cannot breathe.

 

A sheltered hibiscus

I wasn’t trying to be perturbed by his hairy, wide pot belly, or the dirt in his nails. The image only made me feel that way. I took shelter in his cramped shop from the rain. I thought then…

I should have stayed in the rain. 

The grey skies wept and wept that morning, and I had woken too late to catch the report on the radio. I had to rush. The interview wouldn’t wait for the rain. Until the text came in while I fidgeted on the bus.

Aisha, will have to meet you at 10am, the rain is holding me up

I exhaled relief as the congested bus jerked to a stop. I had time to dry off from running to the first bus stand, and maybe find a coffee stall, if anything was functioning on such a hazardous morning, that is. But the wolves in heaven growled, then huffed, then puffed. My dupatta wasn’t pinned to the kameez material on my shoulders. Nevermind the dupatta, I felt lighter than air, ready to be blown away. So I stepped into the shop, because it looked open for business.

Why did he have to look so menacing, hungry? Why was he sweating on such a windy, wet day? He watched me step in, I know he did. He smiled too, which made the acid in my empty stomach intensify.

“Ridiculous, isn’t it, this rain? “

I nodded fast and turned to face the road so he wouldn’t think I wanted to continue with small talk, or any kind of talk, or acknowledgment.

This probably isn’t a good idea. 

If I have my back turned to him, I wouldn’t see an attack coming. I wasn’t so not street savvy. I studied most of the time, inside my two bedroom house. Turning to the side, resting my left elbow on the glass counter, I decided, was the angle at which I would not be ferociously attacked by this shirtless, fat, bald man in his dusty blue sarong. They never wear anything underneath. I shudder. From the cold and other fears.

“You are drenched, daughter. Should I get you a cloth or a towel or something? “

The cheeriness in voice escaped me, so did the concern. I only heard a rasp. I am not his daughter. Why do middle aged people want to own you by titling you as family?

“No. “

He let me by myself, quietly for some time, and retreated to the back room.

Where he could storing some kind of weapon, or some kind of chemical…

He came back out with something long and red in his hand. No, orange.

“I noticed you don’t have an umbrella or a rain coat. This is my wife’s umbrella. Use it. “

I took it.

Say thank you Aisha. 

“Thank you.”

“Don’t mention it, daughter. I woke up late today, opened up shop late too and I forgot to turn on the radio to listen to the weather report. These days come and go. Strange, uneven days. Don’t they.”

I nod, smiling. That’s when I get a look at what he has in the glass case of his shop. He’s a baker. His fingers are covered in a sticky film of dough, that’s what he smells like too. I wish he had a shirt on though. A wife beater, at least.

“I better get back to the kitchen. The rain will stop soon and customers will come in around lunch time. People get hungry for bread during the colder seasons. You take care now. ”

“I will bring the umbrella back. “

“You can if you want. I don’t think the wife will mind if you don’t though. “

I stayed a while, until the shower ceased. He wasn’t in the front to wish him a good day. I regret not smiling a little more, not doing a little something more to show my gratitude, because I never returned the umbrella. I hope his wife isn’t upset. She must have liked the hibiscus pattern on the rim. I do too.