MAMA Pelela did not quit the garden.
She sat on the ground and Simba laid his head on her leg. “With an old man? With a mzungu?--with Syprosa?”
Like everybody else in the village, Mama Pelela knew Syprosa to be a pious girl, who, alongside her family, deemed her (Mama Pelela) a witch. What possible inducement would unite Syprosa with her grandson? And what of the old man and the mzungu? Bruno called them his friends--from the university? That they were evaluating business ideas?--are they doing pornography, --my Bruno?--are they transporting drugs?--could Syprosa do this? Mama Pelela told her dog, “Something is not right. When you live long, you see the unthinkable.”
Now a bark from the other dog, which had remained in the home, alarmed Mama Pelela of the presence of somebody at her gate. Rarely did people visit her, especially in the morning hours. There was a widower who used to see her once in two or three months; and they would settle under the tree and chat for hours, at the end of which he would ask her for vegetables. It would be too soon for this man to return, for he had visited but two weeks prior. --And for sure, it wasn’t the widow at the gate.
It was Mama Gaudencia, Syprosa’s mother.
The two had not spoken in five years. Whenever they chanced upon each other, at a social gathering or along a path, one would give way to the other. The hostility which we noted in the beginning between Syprosa and Bruno, had descended from these two women. Doesn’t a common adversity have a way of unifying people?
Mama Gaudencia’s sadness had robbed her of all civility. She was haggard. A greeting she did not say. From her eyes proceeded an appeal for truce. Mama Pelela had not yet spoken. She was standing under her tree, and Mama Gaudencia stood before her. Being the visitor, it now behooved Mama Gaudencia to speak; and she said, “My Syprosa.”
The affliction that a wayward child causes in the breast of the mother or the grandmother is the same for all women. Mama Pelela recognized Mama Gaudencia’s torment; and although she did not like her--no doubt, as Mama Gaudencia her--Mama Pelela said, in a tone devoid of hostility, “I don’t know where they are.”
Mama Gaudencia threw her hands over her head, and was about to sob when Mama Pelela said, “I will look for them.”
“You are most kind,” said Mama Gaudencia. She knew Mama Pelela would not believe what she said, yet she spoke the truth in her heart. A wave of embarrassment then passed over her face momentarily. Not desiring to extend the assembly any further, Mama Pelela whistled at her dogs. Mama Gaudencia understood the hint, and she turned to go, leaving behind a heap of thanks. Upon reaching the gate she stopped, turned and said to Mama Pelela, who was watching her: “Will you tell me?”
“Yes, I will tell you when I find them.”
“In that case, can I have your number?”
“Give me yours.”
“I need somewhere to write it.”
“Say it to me.”
“Will you remem--”
“Zero seven one two...three nine--do I repeat?”
Mama Gaudencia did not believe our grandmother to have memorized the number. She thought Mama Pelela wanted to remove her from her home soonest. Away she then went, murmuring more thanks.
THE calm demeanor that Mama Pelela had so far displayed to her visitor now vanished; and the anxiety over her grandson increased. Into her house she entered. She found her phone, and called one of her former colleagues, whose promotion, two ranks up, she had aided before she retired. This former colleague was now an OCS.
After greetings, Mama Pelela informed this man about her crisis. “Pelela,” said the man, “this is nothing.”
“Do not talk like that,” said Mama Pelela.
“He is a youth, you are a grandmother--don’t interfere. He will come back before you know it.”
“This is not my Bruno. I feel bad about this.”
“You have not changed at all. Stop worrying about small things.”
The conversation then moved on to other matters. The call did not relieve Mama Pelela of her distress, as at the end of it--when she had thanked the man and wished him well--she tore away her scarf, and issued a muffled wail.
We all have a proclivity for self-blame whenever those close to us act in a manner to harm themselves (in body or reputation). When a child misbehaves, the mother admonishes herself for not filling the child’s cup of morality; when a spouse breaks away from the marital tie, the other pesters the heart and mind for years--wondering whether an error of commission or omission lay with them. So it was with our grandmother, Mama Pelela. Did she raise Bruno, the orphaned boy, well?
She was now sitting on the table. Her scarf was on the floor. And her breathing was uneven. The OCS had told her to wait; that Bruno would return home after several days. Her instinct disagreed. At once, she rushed to her bedroom, packed some clothes in a travel bag; then she bathed, spruced herself up, and wore a white hat.
Out of the house she stepped, and padlocked the door. Her dogs scurried to her and whined. They knew she was leaving. Mama Pelela’s eyes were sorrowful; she however presented a smiling face to her dogs. They would not permit her to go; they tagged at her bag and dress. She calmed them, as she moved toward the gate--then she shut them in.
It happened that around the corner that traced her compound, she met a group of boys and girls, playing; among whom there was the boy who she had caught the other day in her garden. When the children saw her they scattered away like birds. The boy who she had caught did not scamper like the others. He stepped backwards slowly; he seemed to debate whether to run or stay. At Mama Pelela’s eyes he focused. “Boy,” said our grandmother, “come here.”
The other children now waited from a distance. The boy obeyed the summon. He approached, but stopped seven meters away. “Come closer,” said Mama Pelela.
“What do you want with me?” the boy said.
“I want to tell you something.”
“I can hear from here.”
Mama Pelela now took her purse from the shoulder, which she had also carried, beside the travel bag; and opened it. The boy remained alert; if Mama Pelela removed a gun (she was a retired policewoman who was hostile) he would plunge himself into the fence, the thorns and prickles notwithstanding. Mama Pelela removed a two hundred shillings note, and waved it to him. The boy moved closer.
“Now,” said Mama Pelela, “you said you could catch the other children for me?”
“Yes,” the boy said quickly.
“I am going away--”
“For how many days?”
She disliked the boy’s transgressions, but appreciated his quick wits.
“I will be away for three days.” She lied; she did not know how long the trace would take. “While I am away, look after my dogs.”
“Of course, and fruits.”
She gave the boy the money. The boy held the note against the light, to verify its authenticity. Mama Pelela smiled. Then the boy said, “To look after your dogs and protect your fruits for three days, I will need more.”
Mama Pelela jerked her head and squinted at the boy.
“Yes. You see, if I am to stop those children from taking your mangoes, I must give them five shillings each to buy something else.”
“How much do you suggest?” said Mama Pelela, with a tinge of respect for the boy.
“Two hundred more.”
Mama Pelela gave him a hundred more. “That will be enough. If you don’t take it, I’ll talk to another boy.”
The bargain was thus struck; and the boy raised his hand to her for a shake. She touched his fingers quickly, and hurried away past him, murmuring and shaking her head slightly: “Little rat.”
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