Winning Stories 2023
1. THE CONFESSION by NASH COLUNDALUR
Brother Joseph had insisted on being my counsellor. He saw me at least once daily, conveying his tireless kindness and concern. He was treating me as a good specimen, fit for rehabilitation. As if afraid of losing me to someone else, he followed me everywhere. I mostly ignored him.
'Anything Jeevan, you know you can come to me for anything. I'll speak to Him on your behalf. He saves all,' he said with a smile as he came and sat next to me while the class emptied for lunch. 'You must come to me first,' he added with a hint of anxiety.
I nodded and got up to make my way to the dining room.
'Can I have some of your lunch?' He asked, blocking my way and pointing at my three-tiered, stainless steel lunch box.
'Yes, Brother,' I said.
'Come then, you can have some of mine,' he gathered his cassock and led the way to the staff room. I had never been to the staff room. It was always the headmaster's room where I was often summoned to be chastised. I had been there often enough to recognise the shape of the stain on the mosaic floor when I stood at the same spot while Father Joshua Janakiraman, the Headmaster, repetitively warned me of expulsion without ever doing it.
The teacher's staff room, with its high ceilings, stone walls and arched windows, looked like a small chapel. The teacher's tables were arranged against the walls, allowing for an aisle in the centre that led to a large steel almirah. Brother Joseph, doing that thing with his cassock, gathering it with one hand and folding the pleats with the other, sat down behind his desk, piled with test papers. I sat across and waited. He smiled at me. I was his now.
'Well, let's see what your dear father has made for you, shall we?'
I opened my lunch box on the worn teak wood desk and displayed the three containers, hoping he would not notice the bottle gourd.
'You have quite a feast there. Okra, chickpeas, rice, and what is this?'
'Do you like bottle gourd?'
'I don't like it very much. But this must have been made with love. I'll try some,' he said, picking a portion with his fingers, its juice dripping on the test papers.
He opened his plastic, translucent lunch box to reveal a single soggy sandwich. 'I made it myself,' he said. 'Now then,' he said, extending the sandwich to me. 'What is bothering you?'
Brother Joseph's compassion lost its righteousness when his motive was exposed. He wanted me to confess. But what was there to confess? Enticing me with his soggy sandwich, he wanted me to plead guilty. He said it would lift a huge burden off me, and then I could start afresh. He promised that he would neither judge me nor pass sentence. Treat me as a friend, he said. I didn't trust him. He didn't need friends. He needed sinners. But the school was full of good students. I bit into his sandwich. It tasted of cucumber and tomato.
'Can I have some water?' I asked.
He looked at me as though I had asked for something unbelievable just to stall him.
'Of course,' he said and smiled needlessly. Collecting his cassock with exaggerated movements, he left the staff room to fetch water from the dining room. He knew all about me at school, including the actions that led to my punishments. But he wanted me to say it. He wanted the satisfaction of absolving me. He must have felt that I had accumulated enough sins and that this was the right time to save me.
Brother Joseph returned with a glass of water. He locked the door to the staff room. I wondered where the rest of the teachers were. As he made to sit down, I became sure that all of this was planned. I felt trapped in this improvised confession room.
'Here is your water,' he said, 'Do you need anything else?'. Bringing his chair closer to the desk, he appeared taller. Then, anticipating my admission, 'Anything else?' he asked again.
I thought of asking for a cigarette. I turned to look at the standalone steel almirah at the end of the room. Without anything around it, it had started to look dangerous. I hadn't noticed Brother Joseph's feet. He was wearing woollen socks and ugly sandals. His cassock had always covered his feet. I wondered how long it took for him to get into his clothes. It had no buttons or zippers. He raised his eyebrows and smiled at me. He had made it impossible for me not to confess.
I told him about my father's everyday beating with a scale ruler that had supposedly belonged to my grandfather. I told him how my father locked me up in darkness in the second bedroom and came for me, hoping to miss every time he lunged at me. I told him about the game I had invented that helped me survive the uncertainty of it. I would start reciting the nine times multiplication
table under my breath, and every time my father made contact, yelling the answer aloud, I would make it a point to forget the answer forever.
'Right,' he said, ignoring me. 'Can we talk about when you hit the school gardener the other day? What is that in your pocket, Jeevan?'
I told him I had completely forgotten the nine times table, forcing me to move on to other numbers. Brother Joseph was eating most of the Bottle Gourd.
'Is that a packet of cigarettes in your pocket, Jeevan?'
I told Brother Joseph about the tutor, who came home to teach mathematics and how he liked to stroke my thigh.
I thought I heard mild knocking on the closed door. I turned to look at the almirah. It was either becoming bigger or getting closer to us. Taking the pack from my pocket and retrieving a cigarette, I offered Brother Joseph one. He politely refused. Putting the cigarette between my lips, I patted my pockets, looking for a light. I looked at Brother Joseph. Pretending to fumble in his draw, he shook his head. I saw his toes curl inside those woollen socks.
I took the cigarette out of my mouth and tapped it on the desk. I told him that while we had our tuitions these days, the tutor insisted on keeping my shirt's top three buttons undone. I told him that on days when he drew circles on my chest, his grin resembled that of a monkey. He had bad breath and wore the same white, half sleeves shirt every time.
'Right,' said Brother Joseph.
I asked him if his father beat him too.
I retrieved my lunch box from his side of the table and used my hands to mix the fried okra with the rice. When I had finished eating that, I started on the chickpeas. The bottle gourd had already been devoured. I saw Brother Joseph looking at me with his hands intertwined and neatly placed on his lap. He appeared to have become smaller. The almirah was almost at our doorstep.
'Isn't it time to go back to your class?' he said, leaning back in his chair.
2. LYDIA AND OSMAN by PAULINE HUGHES
Lydia brought a beer to Moussa in the back yard, in shadow since the sun had moved westward. He took the metal cap off the bottle with his teeth and the cold bubbles slipped down his throat chilling him inside. His face and arms felt the cold edge to the wind off the North Sea. The beer bottle clinked as he put it down on the paving. Lydia, with a glass of wine in her hand was leaning towards him, with that stiff smile where her mouth stretched across her face but her eyes did not show any warmth.
‘You’ll meet someone else you know.’
Moussa nodded but said nothing. He hadn’t meant to tell her how he’d ended up homeless but her clever questioning had loosened his tongue
‘I’m going to get dinner ready. It’s chicken tonight. OK?’ asked Lydia. ‘Rice?’
‘Let me help. I can chop vegetables,’ he said. ‘Can I please skin the chicken? I don’t like it.’
His accent was thick as if he was speaking with a mouthful of treacle so there was a pause while she seemed to be working out what he had said and then ‘Really? Oh, OK.’ In the bright lights of her spotless white kitchen, he forced his fingers under the rubbery skin and pulled at it, ripping it with a splat.
‘When I was in Malta I got work in a kitchen,’ he said as he was chopping onions and garlic.
She poured oil in a pan and turned on the heat.
‘I put onions in the pan?’ he asked, unsure whether she wanted his help. Maybe she liked to get on with it on her own. Women tended to be possessive about their kitchens and she lived alone, completely alone. It was curious now many people lived like this here, even, very old people. He wondered why their families didn’t take them into their homes. Perhaps that was why she volunteered to take in people like him who had been refused asylum and were left destitute. Perhaps she was lonely.
She’d nodded and as the onions sizzled she moved around him, brushing against him as she started cooking rice and opening a tin of tomatoes.
Oh’ she said, a look of shock on her face. ‘The chicken’s not halal. Is that a problem? I haven’t had time to get to the Asian shops.’
He shook his head. ‘The places where I’ve had to sleep, I’ve eaten anything to stay alive.’
During the meal he told her the story so many times, the crossing of the desert from Sudan into Libya, the years in Libya, the terrible boat to Malta, then Italy, then sleeping rough in France and then Calais, waiting and waiting. Her eyes widened and shone at the telling. The way she stared straight into his eyes was unnerving but he guessed she hadn’t heard stories like his before. Perhaps it sounded like some kind of folk tale. After they had eaten he asked if he could go for a walk and she pointed out the route to the sea. Even though it was dusk the beach was full of people walking alone, walking in groups, walking dogs, sitting on benches and looking out at the darkening sea. He could smell fish frying and pizza and car fumes from the road. He thought about Tilly, the girlfriend he’d been living with who had thrown him out. To be homeless. And stateless. Refused. What would happen to him? He sat on a bench and called his friend Mohammed. At least he had somewhere to stay for a month. That was how long the arrangement was to last. ‘It’s clean and I have meals here. My room has a bed and a desk. The woman does it for a charity. So she must have a good soul,’ he told Mohammed
‘Inshallah,’ said Mohammed.
On the way back he was confused by the identical, terraced streets but he recognised Lydia’s house by the pink flowering tree in the front garden.
He could smell her perfume in the bathroom and there were pots of makeup, sticks of eye pencils in jars on the shelves. She invited him to sit and watch TV with him before going to bed but he shook his head. It felt too uncomfortable, her in a silky gown that flowed over her body.
As he lay in the narrow bed his senses were on high alert – the voices and music from the television in the room below – the seagulls outside - the sound of his mattress as his restless body turned - the boiler igniting and water being flushed in the bathroom – her step on the stair and the creak of floorboards – a door being opened and closed - her bed creaking – she must be getting into it – a car going fast down the street. Was that a child coughing from next door? How thin these walls must be. Then finally sleep came into him, bringing relief.
Some days passed. He would clear up the breakfast things when Lydia went off to work and then go to the library or go for a walk or go to one of the charities where there was always a cup of tea, a bag of food and toiletries, someone to talk to, sometimes cash, and maybe a football game in the park. One project offered to try to find a lawyer who would see if there was any possibility of an appeal.
‘Well if you like cooking Moussa, you can make us some dinners.’ Lydia had said so she gave him free rein in the kitchen where he made meaty or vegetable sauces for pasta or rice and flatbreads. He swept the floors and the yard, hung the washing out on a line, embarrassed at handling her underwear, cut the grass and sometimes in the late afternoon sat on the bench in the yard and waited for her to come back from work. It was an office job she’d told him so she was always in a suit and heels, wearing a lot of make-up. How old was she? She had a daughter older than him who lived in Australia so perhaps she was his mother’s age.
He’d told her how problems with money had eventually worn away the affection Tilly had for him. He was only able to get occasional illegal work in a kitchen. Lydia put her hand on his arm. ‘A good looking young man like you. There’ll be others. Don’t upset yourself. But you must get bored during the day. Come to the gym with me. I’m allowed to have a guest for a number of days.’
‘I don’t have the right clothes.’
‘No worries,’ she said and the next day came back with gym gear, shorts and a sleeveless tank. He thanked her profusely but felt shame and embarrassment.
She introduced him to the staff who took him round the machines. In her stretchy purple tracksuit and top he could see her shape, trim and curving. When he stepped off the rowing machine, he was covered in sweat, she wiped his face with her hand towel.
She said she would shower at home and when he was relaxing on the sofa watching some music show she came in wrapped in a towel and rubbed cream into her legs. He got up to leave the room. ‘Moussa,’ she said, smiling at him, ‘Would you bring me my hair dryer, it’s on the side in the kitchen.’
As he handed it over, she reached for his hand. ‘Moussa,’ she said quietly ‘You’re a very handsome man. Come.’
His head spun. She was old enough to be his mother. This wasn’t what he wanted but was it the price of having a room? He slowly backed off. ‘I need to say my prayers he said’ and rushed upstairs.
The prayer mat was rolled in the corner of the room, not that he used it every day but still, he needed it now; it would help him think about the right thing to do. After praying he lay on his bed remembering the hard benches in central station and the cold of early morning, the menacing approaches of English homeless, some of them high, or drunk. He thought of the park where he’d taken his sleeping bag but how foxes had torn at the fabric in the night, thinking there was food in or under it. He had the feeling she would not give up.
He tried to sleep but the knocks on the door brought him into alert consciousness. The door opened, there was no lock. In the dark he could smell her perfume and felt her weight as she sat on the edge of the bed and pulled back the duvet.
‘Moussa. I need sex. Don’t you want me? I’m good for my age.’ She slid beside his stiff and angry body.
3. THE BOY IN BOOTH 7 by KIM BUNDY
Mom and sister are on one side of the booth, Dad and the boy on the other. You hand Dad the menus and he slides the kid version over to the boy. Little man first, he says. You ask what they want to drink and Dad puts his arm around the boy’s shoulders. What’ll it be, buddy? The kiddie menu is like a neighborhood, with hotdogs and burgers dancing in and out of houses, and ice cream cones in the trees. The boy asks if all the hotdogs have their own bedrooms and the dad snaps up the menu and hands it to you. Courtney, is it? You heard him, honey. Chocolate milk.
You go to the kitchen and the manager sees you rubbing your arm. What is it, he says. Nothing, you tell him. You fill the drinks and take them back to the table and ask what everyone wants to eat. Mom starts to say something then asks Dad what he wants and he says, no, no–you go. The boy, rocking, rocking, rocking a spoon with his index finger is watching Mom, and when she says cheeseburger he quickly says cheeseburger, too. Sister closes her hand over the boy’s finger, quiets the spoon, and asks for a cheeseburger without the cheese. Why didn’t you just say hamburger, Dad snorts. Steak sandwich for me, Courtney.
You begin gathering the menus and you notice a yellow green bruise by the boy’s mouth. You start to go to the kitchen and then turn back, asking if he saw the aquarium by the cash register, and would he want to go look at the fish? We saw the aquarium, Dad says, pulling the boy toward him. When was the last time you folks cleaned that thing? The boy begins circling the bowl of the spoon with his finger again.
You get to the kitchen and tell the manager about the bruise. He tells you it’s not your problem but you pick up the phone, anyway, palms slick. Police dispatch asks how old and you guess four. Maybe five? They radio a couple of officers and tell you to stall.
You deliver their food, your armpits swampy, now not sure you should’ve called. The boy takes a bite of his burger and while he’s chewing he fingers the bruise. Dad tears into his sandwich, sees you looking at the boy, and drops his sandwich on the plate. We’ll take the bill, Courtney, he says, his mouth full of chewed-up steak and bread. You remember the time your first-grade teacher Mrs. Lane asked about a bruise on your arm and you told her you fell off the jungle gym. How it hurt for a long time and years later an x-ray showed a hairline fracture. Not much we can do about it now, the doctor said. You’ll just have to live with it.
Dad gets antsy and asks why you’re just standing there so you offer apple pie on the house. Oh, yeah, Courtney? On the house? He stares at you, his pupils huge. You hurry to the kitchen, rubbing your arm again, and scoop pie on plates. As you walk back into the dining room two cops walk in, a guy and a lady.
Dad’s face turns scarlet and the lady cop looks at him then at you. You nod and your skin prickles. Jesus. Dad starts grabbing everyone’s napkins, crumpling them up, and says they’re leaving. Papa, what about the pie, asks the boy. Dad tells him to shut the hell up and the plates in your hands start to crater. Lady cop walks up to their table and asks if everybody’s doing okay. What’s it look like to you, Dad says, and everything goes quiet except for the tap, tap, tap of the spoon.
Lady cop says look, we don’t want any trouble here, and there’s a loud crack. You wonder for a second if somebody pulled a gun but no, you’ve dropped the plates. Tart apple slices through the fog of body odor hanging in the air and guy cop turns his head, mumbling into a radio on his shoulder.
Dad says let’s get out of this dump and pulls the boy out of the booth by his arm. Guy cop grabs Dad by the shoulders and the boy, eyes wide, covers his mouth with a small, trembling hand. The manager comes out with a broom, tells you to clean up your mess. You just had to go and make it your problem, didn’t you, he says, shoving the broom into your hands. Jagged shards are everywhere–under booths, the cash register, by the front door. You know you’ll never get them all.
The boy starts crying and it courses through you, settling into the tender split in your bone. The doctor said your body healed itself as best it could, the tiny bones knitting themselves back together. You pick through the broken bits of plate, knowing the yellow part of the boy’s bruise will fade first and then the green, and you remember how much you wanted your own room, the kind with a door that locked. Then you feel what’s coming and you tell yourself to stop, but everything in your head gets cottony, and you grab a shard and make a neat slice in the white scar tissue on your arm, exhale when little red beads bubble up, and wonder how long you’ve been holding your breath.
4. MAUD DUSTS AROUND HER SPECIAL THINGS by PIP BRENNAN
I dust around her special things—her notebooks, typewriter, and so, so many books. Miss Ginnie that is, Virginia Woolf to those outside the household. Now in Bloomsbury she finally has a Room, away from that awful George Duckworth and his wandering hands. A Room of One’s Own she calls it, because she’s proper posh. And it is, but she needs me to keep in clean. She trusts me with her Room, so maybe it’s my Room too.
Around the dinner table the writers and scientists and revolutionaries speak in words as long as your arm. Their phrases roll off their tongues like a child down a slide. I want those words too, but I’ve not the learning. I know my letters but not much more. As I’m threading in and out between them, meat here, gravy there, more peas, I hear them talk a big talk about disrupting society. But they can’t cook or feed themselves. Still, I’m grateful for the work, the roof over my head. Up into the attic I go at the end of the long day, look over London.
Without their long words I’ve a story to tell myself, but it never gets heard around their lively dining tables, with their thinkers and poets and lovers coming and going. As I dust her Room, if you’ll listen, I’ll tell you.
I was born in Deptford, the eldest child of my little family. While she never thought about it, I was born the same year as Ginnie. My Ma called me Maud—it was her mother’s name. I found out later it means “powerful battler,”
and this must’ve been the right name for the both of us. Battles with poverty, battles to survive. Battles to step out from the nameless role of “servant” to vivid human.
Our Deptford house was tiny—but we knew nothing else and we loved its red brick walls, the streets and churchyard with neighbourhood children just outside the door. In the streets I’d have to watch my little brother carefully. Down to the muddy Thames we’d go with the others and I was always calling him back from some mischief or other. They were happy times.
As the eldest I had to help Ma. So beautiful and kind is how I remember her. Close wrapped shawl in the winter, its roughness rubbing my tender cheek when she pulled me on her lap for a bear hug. Our Da was a good man, so we were lucky. He loved my Ma to bits, stayed away from the grog and came home promptly on payday with the housekeeping money that she’d stretch till next time. Warm, simple meals and some nights he’d get out his tin whistle and play a few tunes.
But next door and down the hall there’d be fighting and cursing, women wailing. Some nights Ma would come to our beds and sing to us the to drown out the racket. By then there were three of us children and she was stouter but still pretty. The hugs weren’t so often now, there always seemed to be a squalling infant she had to soothe.
When Da passed before age 30, the consumption it was, we were stranded in poverty. Ma and I laid him out, I had to help her, she couldn’t see through
her tears. Crossed his hands, pennies on his eyes. Women whispered I was too young to be doing this, but I was twelve and there was no-one else. Then Ma followed him in the Spring. I knew the drill, lay her out, the coins. I put bluebells from the local park into her worn, icy hands. A last bouquet for my dear Ma.
And so it was I was fourteen, and I had to go into service, seek my food and shelter. My younger brother took off into the navy, they were always on the lookout for Thames boys like him nobody would miss.
“Don’t make us go, Maud” my little sisters begged, but what choice did I have? I sent them in a coach down to an Aunt down in Kent, clutching their little bags with almost nothing in them. In the end I just had to leave. From that day to this, I never saw any of my siblings again.
It’s a long way from Deptford to Hyde Park but I was lucky enough to get a position there with the Stephens family. Cook looked me over with an unsmiling face but I passed her test, whatever it was. Girls my age were grumbling about going into service. They preferred shop jobs and the like. For me, I just wanted to know I had a roof over my head.
When I started at Ginnie’s Hyde Park house, her parents were respectable, ran a rambling home with plenty of servants. Enough of us to squabble and gossip. Up early in the mornings, empty the slops, water for the ladies to wash in, curtains back to let in the day. Carpets to beat, floors to sweep and scrub. And then into our black dresses and waiting on the tables. Down into
the gloom of the kitchen we’d go, pile up the trays and up to the table again. Weaving in between with the towering plates of meat, tippy jugs of gravy and wandering hands of the men. Up into the attic to sleep at night. I’d slip around the house, mostly unseen, astonished at how Cook would rail and rant and still keep her place. She was a fine cook.
But times move, and people die, even rich people. Through all the deaths I was there—first her mother, then her half-sister and finally her father. Saw Ma’s hand with her bluebells, Da and his pennies on his eyes.
I watched over Ginnie, prayed for her as she came in and out of madness. Prayed like I wish someone had prayed for me.
Just Cook and I came to this new Bloomsbury house. They think we don’t listen, but we knew the young people wanted to try being servant-less. There were days I couldn’t eat or sleep thinking they would let us all go. But Bohemian ways apparently don’t include dusting and slops, so in the end, we came too.
I have my little attic, but it’s not my own. With each move and change I could tumble from my precarious perch. The search for My Own Room must go on.
5. THE SOUND OF A WIFE by ELIZABETH BRUS
The village sits in the throat of the Maloti mountains, which hum pink and mauve in the twilight. Shades of green flood the mountain range and spill, babbling, over its ridges; from east to west, the mountains resemble many fists, the knuckles as peaks, the fingers as slopes, the space between a deep emerald. Farther behind, the second row sits scabrous, the light on them paler, less pink. The tallest knuckle glows, straining for view above clouds of purple and pink that drip into the waving crops of samp.
Tsepiso– lover of fat cakes, algebraic maths, The Bold and the Beautiful, and the Greek-American singer Yanni – must walk to the village pump to collect water and return home before dark. She must be in her room before Thabang returns, takes her into the maize field, and lays her down to make her a wife. These are the choices men make.
Thabang, her neighbor, who saved sweets for her from the Chinese shop when she was a small girl, has announced that he intends to marry Tsepiso. This news has drifted through the village like a Sunlight soap bubble, and so Tsepiso’s mother has sent her to the pump earlier so that she will not be tempted to marry.
Tsepiso is fifteen, and she knows how to become a wife. Last year, her deskmate at school, Lebohong, went missing when she went to her latrine in the evening. When she did not return, Lebohang’s parents, afraid to look for her for fear of village gossip, did not report her missing. She arrived with an unknown man two days later, quiet, with a new blue skirt. The man met with Lebohong’s parents in their house, and then they drove together to the man’s village. Lebohang did not return to school.
Next, Palesa, the light-skinned girl in Form D, informed the other girls at lunch that she intended to become married to her mohlankana, Tsebo. Tsepiso was sitting next to Palesa as they shared pap and peas, and she remembered the hiss of heat that transferred between their shoulders as Palesa spoke. Tsebo knew true love, Palesa said, and she was tired of working late into the evening cooking and fetching water for her siblings while her mother worked at the cell phone shop. Tsepiso knew Tsebo, a shy, dark-skinned boy who was known in primary school for winning the school multiplication contest, and who had once touched her knee during a game of cards. As Palesa talked, Tsepiso looked at Palesa’s ribbed stockings, pressed against Tsepiso’s leg on the wood bench, and imagined Tsebo’s fingers running up the ridges, under Palesa’s skirt. Two weeks later, Palesa and Tsebo moved to a house in town with an indoor toilet. Palesa did not return to school.
But when Thabiso grabbed Lineo, Form A, by the arm in the taxi rank to force her to the room behind his shop, she scraped her nails across his face. For a week, his cheek shone with a long red line that looked like the red worm sweets from South Africa, and the other men laughed at his failure. After a meeting with the village chief and Lineo’s parents, Thabiso was instructed to leave Lineo alone. If Thabang tried to take Tsepiso, her mother warned, Tsepiso must also refuse. Mo shapa, her mother said, snapping her wrist so the knuckles of her fingers cracked together. Whip him.
Tonight, Tsepiso wishes to watch The Bold and the Beautiful. Her home sits at the top of the ridge, overlooking the village. Her parents sleep in a round home with a thatch roof, but her room is next door: rectangular, tin-roofed, with two windows. Her roof prevents her from studying in the rain because of the noise, but it is hers alone. If she became married, would Thabang consent to have her continue her studies? He enjoys when Tsepiso reads to him. His favorite story was a passage from Tsepiso’s examination papers that described the interior of an airplane. Tsepiso read it to him after he returned home from the field, his eyes closed and his hands folded.
The dirt yard is newly swept in two rows of semi-circles, so Tsepiso walks down the edge as she walks to the pump. She wears a floral skirt and a Ramones t-shirt, mended with a new patterned collar. On her head she balances a bucket. Past her family’s gate, she turns left, stepping on the raised mounds of grass, careful not to touch the strands of barbed wire that border the yards.
To the right, Thabang’s sheep pen is empty, his house dark. Tsepiso remembers playing in his yard, turning cartwheels and scrubbing his clothes for washing. When she got older, they discussed the political news, sitting underneath his radio with the five black dials.
She thinks of her mother’s advice.
In the stillness, despite herself, she listens for the sound of Thabang’s sheep returning to the pen. Each night, the sound of the sheep’s bells and hooves thread the flat plane of the village quiet– first a silver needle of sound, low in the eardrum, and then a twisted yarn that engulfs the valley, infecting the mountains.
She listens, her two ears twin pinpricks of fear and desire, but the stillness remains.
The edge of sunlight runs ahead of her, casting the pump below in shadow. The women collecting water move quickly, pausing to help each other hoist the blue buckets on their heads. As Tsepiso passes each yard, she avoids raising her head to greet her neighbors. In her peripheral vision, she imagines their shapes like night-sky phenomena, dark shapes orbiting around the cooking fires.
The pump stands on a concrete square at a dip in the valley. It was built with Western money, the project of a long-departed aid worker with a pink head. The base of the pump gleams with perpendicular lines, an anomaly in a village of haphazard roads. A concrete gully pulls the pump run-off into the grasses below, avoiding the usual circle of mud. Every edge of the pump’s base is smooth and machine-made. When Tsepiso pumps, throwing her bodyweight into the up and down of the silver lever, she thinks of all the smooth edges and silver structures of America, like the hospital machinery in Alexa’s room in The Bold and the Beautiful. Sometimes, she imagines that the pump is a plug at the bottom of the sink of the village, and if she pumps hard enough, she could slip down the drain.
At the pump is Mantuoa, her friend, sixteen. Mantuoa’s husband, a tall, dark-skinned man who has three rastafari necklaces and a nephew in London, does not have any sheep or a TV to watch The Bold and the Beautiful. As she bends over her water bucket, Tsepiso can see Mantuoa’s baby, strapped to her back in a blanket, layered in a pink velour jumpsuit. The baby sweats and sleeps.
Hey-la, Mantuoa greets her. It is late.
Ay, Tsepiso replies. Mantuoa swings her body to pump the lever. The baby rocks with the movement, undisturbed.
Everyone says Thabang is ready, Tsepiso. He is coming to take you. Mantuoa peers at Tsepiso’s face to read her expression.
Tsepiso looks at the field and makes a sound low in her throat.
On the walk back, Tsepiso walks on the rough part of the path, pressing her bare feet into the edges of rocks. She can hear the lap of the water in the bucket on her head, like a lake in an underground cave, unheard by men. At the top of the ridge, she can tell by the light that her mother has turned on the television, and she thinks about Alexa, lonely in her hospital bed, her pale face dark with makeup.
When they marry, women acquire the name of their unborn first son, chosen by their in-laws. For example: Mamafa, mother of Mafa. Tsepiso imagines this new name inside of her, filling her stomach. She pictures a small boy running ahead of her, collecting peaches under the trees.
Thabang’s house remains empty. Almost home, she slows, and then stops, knowing that this bubble of quiet might be the last one before the sound of Thabang’s sheep returning. As she combs through her thoughts, Tsepiso thinks of the day Lebohong returned with her new husband, with her blue skirt and blank face; she thinks of ribbed stockings and a red face scrape.
Whip him, her mother said.
These are the choices men make.
A thin needle of sound pricks the quiet and threads up to the maize field, to
Tsepiso places her water bucket on the ground.
Inside her house, in an American hospital on TV, Alexa waits, eyes closed, surrounded by glistening machines.
As the last sunbeam wraps behind the mountains, she hears bells and hooves.