Written by Kate Harrison.
In school it did not matter that my mind was quick as a bird, if my mother kept me late at home to sweep and mop and make food for the afternoon meal. My smooth skin and enviably soft hair did nothing for me when my hips remained sharp, curveless long after the other girls had softened into women and talked monthly in elliptical whispers of “killing their chickens.” It was not until I was sixteen and began to bleed that I understood where the euphemism came from.
Mama Fadhili bends at the waist to shift her ten-month-old son in his cloth on her back, reties the knot over her breasts that holds him there. “Have you slaughtered your chicken?”
“Not yet, elder sister.” I must speak deferentially to my sisters-in-law, even Mama Fadhili who is two years younger than I, for they are mothers and I am not. Nearly twenty-two, I am, and dozens of chickens came and went as I saw the other girls of the village find boyfriends, receive letters of proposal, sit properly unsmiling through negotiations, farewell parties, and weddings.
One by one, each of them entered motherhood, shedding the given name of her girlhood to be known forever after as the mother of her oldest child. Mama Neema. Mama Upendo. Mama Fadhili. Only I was left behind, waiting. Four, five, six years of carrying water, sweeping the yard, milking the goats, watching the children, mopping and cooking and marketing and hoeing, forever Jubi and never Mama anybody.
The gushing sound of the water changes and I pull the bucket heavily away so the next woman can fill hers. We lift the plastic containers to our heads, balancing them carefully for the long walk home. This is not the path I paced so many times in waiting; last year rich Americans came to our village and built a new faucet to be shared by three villages.
Mama Fadhili sucks her teeth in thought, one hand balancing her bucket. This new road is still shallow in the grass and over a kilometer longer than the path to the muddy, drought-vulnerable river, but it is a great blessing. While the white foreigners were still building it, the man who is now my husband sent his proposal to my father. The negotiations were brief, for my father had not thought to get a bride-price for me, and it is already four months since I was made a wife.
Still I walk unladen with child, carrying my water hands-free like a daughter and not a mother. Each month my sisters-in-law inquire after my health and the condition of my stomach and for the first time in my life I am exactly on time when I wish I were not.
“Mama Neema finished hers the day before last, Mama Upendo finished yesterday, and this morning when I woke I found I, too, have already done. You are late, Jubi.”
I trip over a root in the path but steady my bucket before it falls. “What did you say, Mama Fadhili?”
“Young sister, I say this: Your husband will celebrate and our mother will shout with joy, for we three have finished and you–you are late. What shall you call him, if he is a male child?”
My hand finds my stomach, searching for the first flutter of life, and I cannot find words to answer.
This is the fourth post of Flash Fiction Week VI: Fathers, Mothers, Others, a theme week on Magnificent Nose.
When she’s not making drinks at her local Starbucks, Kate Harrison works on her first fantasy novel and wishes she was still living in East Africa. Read more about that adventure at A Room of My Own.