Watching the Rain
If the storm had caught us on the beach, Bia and I could’ve danced on the sand. There’s no fun to it here in the village. The sheet of water coming down is a grey wrap weighted with stones. It slices in front of us like the zinc plate the cyclone ripped off our school and sent flying round the village as a giant razor blade cutting the tops off everyone’s cassava crop and executing Next-Door-Fatima’s favourite goat.
Yesterday we gave up catching leaks. We don’t have enough pots or pans or Jerry cans. Then the grass roof collapsed and now almost our whole roof is a leak. Aunt Ana says when the sun comes out we can dry the grass and use it again. I want to tell her that everyone knows rotten straw is rubbish, but I don’t dare because, ever since Mama died, we have to do whatever Aunt Ana says.
This morning, Paulo asked Dad to help him throw out the wet thatch, but Dad just blinked, dazed as a bush baby woken in the day, and, as usual, he said nothing. So that means we’ll have to try and re-use the straw mush while Next-Door-Fatima’s boys stand by and laugh.
A big cobra with black and white diamonds on its back slithered out when the thatch fell. Even though it slid quickly, I could have hit it with a stick; but Paulo said I had to leave it in peace because that is what the Ancestors would wish. Just because he’s my big brother, Paulo always wants to decide what I do. And he always claims he knows what the Ancestors would think about it. Then, of course, there is nothing I can do.
That snake was my ally. I wanted to kill it and sneak over to Next-Door-Fatima’s hut and put it by her cooking pot to scare her because she didn’t pick me or Bia for the new dance group. And she always finds ways to get me into trouble; and she says Mama would be ashamed of me.
Since I am not brave enough to pick up a live snake, I had to let it go. That was yesterday. Today, we are all standing in a line under the eaves of our hut watching the rain. We are seven kids, plus Dad, Aunt Ana, and Old Abdul, who lives with us and is someone’s wife’s cousin. Buckets of rainwater pour through the mango tree making a pond. Beside us, Bia is standing in line with her family, sheltering under their roof, waiting for the rain to stop.
Bia’s grandmother is covered in mud. She keeps falling down and the others prop her up again. She looks like a stick insect. On the Ilha side, beyond Dad and poor Chaly, Next-Door-Fatima and her three boys are pressed flat against the front wall of their hut. The mud on it is melting. She doesn’t have a husband to repair it. Aunt Ana says Next-Door-Fatima has never had one and her boys don’t even have the same father. And she says there were two more babies who died from malaria: both from other men; and that is why she’s bitter with life and mean to me. I think there is more to it than that because Paulo is nasty to me too and so is Professor Dominguez, our school teacher.
All our clothes are wet and yet Aunt Ana’s wraps aren’t even damp. She has seven beautiful cotton wraps which she keeps in a sandalwood trunk covered with a rubber mat and raised off the ground on bamboo stilts. Rats shared two of the wraps when she was in hospital, but the other five are perfect. One of them is orange with black circles, and one is green with big yellow flowers painted along the edge under some funny writing. She even has one from Beira with the name printed on it in blue letters with birds and butterflies and little brown stripes. They are always neatly folded but she pretends they aren’t so she can take them out and flapper them open for everyone to admire their prints and their spicy perfume while she re-folds them. Sometimes, she takes forever to fold up the Beira one, doubling it and opening it over and over again as though the memories it brings back don’t want to be packed away yet and she has to force them down with the flat of her hand.
When I grow up, I want to have seven wraps. Next-Door-Fatima only has three, and they are so thin I can see the mangroves through them when she hangs them out to dry. They also have peepholes where rats have shared them because she has no wooden trunk. When I grow up I want a sandalwood box with squiggly iron loops to lock it, and a padlock like Aunt Ana’s with a key I’ll keep on a gold chain round my neck. But I won’t line my box with yellowy newspapers from the War: mine will have shiny blue plastic bags stretched out inside it.
And I want to have gold earrings like Bia’s mum; and a roof with layer upon layer of really thick grass pressed down on the edges with bamboo sticks. And when it rains we will sit inside in the dry like at the shop with the soap and rice. And I want a husband who brings me these things and who takes pleasure in life and is not grumpy like Paulo or silent like my Dad. And I want to have babies: but not so many that I die.
I’ll have three little girls with golden ear-studs, and one baby boy with fat-rings round his neck and wrists from all the maize-porridge we’ll feed him. And I’ll play with them as Mama would have played with us if she hadn’t died giving birth to Chaly.
When it’s raining and we have nothing else to do, I’ll teach my children what I learned at school. I’ll bring in the metal charcoal burner (which my nice husband will buy me) and we’ll stay warm around it. And while we eat donuts, I’ll show them the letters of the alphabet so that they understand them all, including the vowels and the difficult bits at the end. Before they go to school, I’ll teach them to say ‘Good morning, teacher’, and ‘Good afternoon, teacher’ in Portuguese and to know how to say ‘Sorry’ and to ask to be excused in Portuguese so they never feel lost and stupid like I do.
When I’ve had my four babies, I’ll go to the Witchdoctor and pay a lot of money and a black rooster (which my husband will give me because that is how kind and good he’ll be) and I’ll ask for a special tea and a secret spell to take home so that no more babies take root inside me. No one can read the Witchdoctor’s spells because he writes them in Arabic. I’ve heard Aunt Ana and her friends talk about it. They say my Mama should’ve got it too. They say she’d be here now if she’d asked the Witchdoctor for a spell to stop the babies germinating inside her.
When I was little, I was afraid of other people. But Mama used to hold my hand on the way to the well and every time we passed someone, she would squeeze my fingers. It was just a tiny squeeze but it worked: I don’t fear people any more, but I miss my Mama; and I want to find someone who will squeeze my fingers like that: so gently that it never hurts.
I think it is going to rain all afternoon. We’ve been standing here watching since the fishermen came home. Soon the puddles will join up and make a pond. And if it keeps raining, the pond will go inside and spill around the stilts of the wooden trunk. Then Aunt Ana will pet it and tell us again about how her grandfather carried the sandalwood box on his head all the way from Mossuril when my grandmother came to our village as a bride. And she’ll tell us how she gave it to Ana when she married, and how Uncle Adamo died in an attack on the Comboio in the War and how she, Ana, came as a widow to live with her sister who is my Mama. And she’ll tell us again how the fresh smell in our hut comes from her trunk.
And then she will tell us how rapturously Mama could dance, and how well she made donuts whenever there was a holiday. Then she’ll say how young Mama was when she died of a haemorrhage on the path, in the dark, on the way to Chocas-Mar because there was nowhere for her to go and get help with her baby in our village. And she will tell us again how Dad carried Mama all that way stumbling through the high grass in the night; and then how he carried her home again arriving exhausted and soaked in her blood. And she will whisper how hard it was to get him to wash it away to go to her funeral.
It isn’t Chaly’s fault; and I see Dad tries not to let it show that he feels it is. But he does feel it and he can’t bring himself to touch poor Chaly so he feels it too. I want to squeeze Chaly’s hand more; but even though he’s just a skinny kid, he is packed full of memories. I think he is a bit like Aunt Ana’s sandalwood box and her seven wraps: every bit of him is a thread from the past. Not that he looks anything like our past now. Standing at the end of the row, he looks more like a drowned mongoose. But he is made up of bits of everyone’s memories and that is why touching him hurts.
According to Paulo, the Ancestors say we need the rain. Before it came, the cassava leaves were wilting and all our chickens fell sideways last month and the Witchdoctor said they died of thirst. I can’t tell my brother, because he is older than me, but I don’t think the Ancestors say things like ‘We need the rain’ when anyone can see that we do after the drought; I think the Ancestors tell us what we can’t see. The Witchdoctor says my Mama sits with them and that she looks over us all the time. I can feel her looking but I can’t feel her hand. As soon as I’m old enough, I’m going to stop going to school and find someone to gently squeeze me.
Maybe by then Paulo will be nicer. If he is, he can come and visit and I’ll make him lemon grass tea. And if it’s quite soon, poor Chaly can come and live with me; but I think it is already too late for him to grow fat-rings round his neck and wrists. Bia can come and touch my seven wraps whenever she likes. And my four sisters can visit me but they can’t open the sandalwood box my husband will give me.
Only Next-Door-Fatima won’t be welcome. In fact, she will only be allowed to visit me when there is a dance; so she can see how I move like my mother; and how Mama must be
proud of me because she
moves through me as lithe as a snake with black and white diamonds on its back.
Copyright Lisa St Aubin de Teran