Little Mother's House
When I was a baby, I called my father Bambo. But when I was old enough I called him Mr. Tembe. To distinguish him from the other Mr. Tembes in our village, I called him Mr. Tembe of Mtengo Road. My mother I always called Mai, unless one of the ladies in the market asked after her, then I would call her Mrs. Tembe. “Little boy, who are your parents?”
I’d square the pressed white shoulders of my school uniform and say, “Ma’am, I am the oldest son of Mr. and Mrs. Tembe of Mtengo Road.”
My father named me Kingsley because I was his eldest son. A good English name. A strong name. A name with dignity. I resisted the nicknames of childhood and insisted that my brothers and my classmates call me by my full Christian name. “Would you call the Honorable President for Life Ngwazi Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda by any other name? No, you would not.”
Mine was a prosperous and respectable family. When my mother woke at dawn to prepare our breakfast over the fire outside our house, there were potatoes in her aluminum pot just as often as there was nsima. My school uniform was bought new from the seamstress in the market, the fabric of the shirts as bright as the whites of my eyes, the navy trousers dark and smooth against my legs. My younger brothers wore my uniforms when I grew too large for them; that was the unfortunate outcome of their unlucky birth order. Edward, Henry, and William wore my old shoes and carried my old textbooks as they followed me along the path to school. “Keep the dust off the knees of your trousers.” I told them. “Turn down the edges of your collar.” “Remember to call the headmaster ‘Sir.’”
Our house was built of red mud brick and had a flat tin roof. In the front wall of the house there were two glass windows that kept out the mean, gritty wind of the dry season. The yard was clean swept earth edged by a cooking hut, a chicken house, and a privy. In the evenings, after her day of work, my mother had her visitors sit on furniture built by the coffin maker in the same sturdy, sweet-smelling azanza wood as the coffins. She had many friends, mostly women whom she attended in labor. She had the respect of both the women of the village, for easing their suffering, and the men, to whom she delivered breathing, bawling babies. In addition to our family plot of maize, my mother kept an herb garden for medicines and charms. My mother was a woman always moving; she barely maintained the slight plumpness that our prosperity afforded her.
My father had traveled all the roads of our small country, as well as the wide highways to Dar es Salaam, Harare, and Maputo. He drove a truck for the Katal Trucking Company, riding up high in the cab during the day and sleeping on a mat beside his truck at night. He brought gifts from the foreign capitals: enamel dishes for my mother, chocolate for us, a painting of our Lord Jesus on the cross for the wall of our house. “On the highway to Harare, the road is edged on both sides by irrigated fields that are green and lush no matter what the season. It is a sight to see,” he told us. “The harbor in Dar es Salaam has ships so large that they could carry a hundred trucks.” He would tell us of these dazzling sights, but he would remind us to be proud of our own small nation. “Nowhere else are the women as beautiful, the food as tasty, or the friends as warm-hearted as in Malawi.”
In my family, I grew up learning the proper names for people and things. I called the village I lived in “our village” and knew that only the chief could call it “my village.” I addressed my aunties with the proper suffixes of respect. I knew to call a frog by the name “chule,” but a toad by the name “finye.” I learned the small distinctions. I told my mother, my father and my brothers every night that I loved them: ndimakukonda. I told them I loved them because that is what a good son tells his parents and a loyal brother tells his brothers; but I also said it because it was the true name of my feeling for them. It wasn’t until I was thirteen years old that I came across a name that did not fit into the lexicon of my family.
“Children, this is your new Little Mother. I expect that you will welcome her and respect her. You may call her Little Mrs. Tembe.” My father puffed up like a rooster. Little Mother was larger than my mother, with ample arms and a round face; she wore rings on her fat fingers. My mother wore a traditional wrap-around skirt, a chilundu in a bright design of birds in flight, and a white blouse from the used clothing dealer in the market. Little Mother wore clothes of a modern foreign design: skirt and blouse made in a matching shiny green material. She looked almost like a foreigner, but when she took my mother’s hand, she offered her right hand and placed her left hand on her right forearm in a proper gesture of greeting and respect. “Muli bwanji? How are you?” she asked.
“Ndiri bwino. I am well,” my mother responded, “ and how are you?”
“I am also well.”
“You are welcome. Please come in and take some rest after your journey.”
“Zikomo. Thank you.”
“She looks nervous. Be charitable to her,” my mother urged me as she followed my father and Little Mother into the house.
After my father married the second Mrs. Tembe, he stayed with us for two weeks. There was much merriment in our house. My father butchered a chicken. We had many guests and my mother’s cooking fire was lit from dawn until dark. Little Mother helped my mother prepare the nsima, the squash, and the chicken. She carried cups of sugary tea to the guests. She washed the dishes under the tap in the yard, first rubbing them with earth like the traditional women. When she cleaned, Little Mother took off her rings and put them in a pocket of her blouse.
My father smoked cigarettes with the men in the living room. “I have a good house. I have four sons,” he said. “Now I have two good wives. With all this good fortune, I will have to be careful to be humble or someone might put a curse on me. If I am not careful, the second Mrs. Tembe will give me only daughters.” Little Mother would smile and giggle and put her hand on her fat bosom when my father talked like this. I would imagine little mother waddling like a duck with baby little mothers—with the same odd clothes and rings on their chubby baby fingers—following her like ducklings.
“How can you talk about a curse on your own second wife? In your own house! What will become of us?” My mother shook her head at my father.
“My old wife believes in the old ways.” The guests laughed and Little Mother poured more tea for them.
In the evening, scooping water out of our plastic bathing bucket with a chipped cup, Little Mother washed the dust off my naked little brothers. They squished their eyes shut when she poured the cool water over their heads and squirmed when she rubbed their knees with a cloth to dry them. “Kingsley and Edward are almost men. Too old for their mothers to see their nakedness.” She winked at us. Edward smiled back at her. He was only eight years old, not yet done his standard two exams, hardly a man yet. I poked him in the ribs to make him stop smiling. After she bathed Henry and William, little mother rubbed Vaseline into their skin until it gleamed.
“Her hands are soft like Mai’s,” William told us later.
“But they are big like a man’s,” I said.
“No, they feel just the same.”
“What do you want me to bring you from Dar es Salaam?” My father was leaving in the morning to haul a load of tobacco to the port in Tanzania. “Beads to adorn the hair of my beautiful wives?” he suggested. “Dresses? Shoes? Or a mirror so that you might admire yourselves?” When my father teased, the edges of his mouth twitched as he forced his lips into an expression of mock seriousness. “And for my sons? A pet monkey, perhaps? A television?”
My mother packed his newly laundered clothes into his satchel. “The beauty queens would like new mosquito netting. The blue kind.”
“Then I will get it, but only if you wear it slung over your shoulders like sashes, like Miss Malawi.”
Little Mother giggled. “Mrs. Malawi, more like.”
“Yes, like the two Mrs. Malawi.”
After my father had gone, Little Mother sat on the edge of one of my mother’s living room chairs and told my mother to go to the marketplace to buy pumpkin leaves for a stew, soap for the dishes, and nit shampoo. “The headmaster sent a note today,” she said. “Shampoo the boys’ hair right away and lay their bedding in the sun. If that doesn’t work, their blankets will have to be burned.” As she spoke, Little Mother seemed to grow even bigger. She jutted out her chin and squinted at my mother.
When my mother combed the nit shampoo into his hair William bawled. “Big Mother, why are you pulling out my hair?”
“Cleanliness shows respect for oneself,” my mother said.
“Don’t call her ‘Big Mother.’” My scalp tingled. I did not cry even though it was only Henry who had nits and I knew my shampoo had been an unnecessary agony. “Call her ‘Mai.’”
One morning, when my mother was out turning a breech, Little Mother had William and Henry pull up the herbs in my mother’s garden. She was planting squash and potatoes when my mother returned. Little Mother looked strange bent over the dirt in her modern clothes, and there were beads of sweat on her upper lip. “Why waste a garden on flowers?” she said. “It is better to grow vegetables.”
A few weeks later, just after breakfast, Little Mother left the house wearing the same green clothes she had worn the day she arrived in our village. She caught a mini-bus in the marketplace that took the highway toward the capital. “Maybe she isn’t coming back,” I told my brothers. “Maybe she has stolen all of father’s money and has left to go back to her village. Maybe she will be hit by lightning. Maybe she will be killed in a road accident.” Henry looked stricken, the white showed all the way around his irises. William sniffled. “Don’t cry, William,” I said. “She is not your mother.”
Little Mother returned in the afternoon with her hair newly braided with lucky red beads. She settled onto a chair in the living room and placed her many plastic bags of shopping around her feet like a nest. She called to my mother and asked her to bring her some tea. “I have been to visit a doctor at the hospital in town,” she said. “Now that I am carrying a child, I will have to give you direction in the running of the household, instead of doing it myself. Could you put this shopping away?”
Little Mother called William and sat him on her fat lap. “I have a present for you.”
“I’ve been very good.”
She pulled a pack of chewing gum from her one of the shopping bags and put it in his hand. “Now remember to share it with your brothers.”
Henry and Edward shifted toward William as he bounced off Little Mother’s lap, but I grabbed the edges of their shirts. “Do not let her bribe you. It is beneath your dignity,” I hissed at them. William ate the whole pack himself. The piece of pink gum was so large inside his small mouth that he couldn’t talk properly until our mother made him spit it out.
In the marketplace, when the shopkeepers asked after my family, they made jokes about the names of the two Mrs. Tembes. “How is the littler but bigger Mrs. Tembe?” the coal seller would ask with a smirk. I would not answer him, but held my head high and bought coal from another man who did not know my family.
My father bought a second house, closer to our maize field. “We are lucky to be so prosperous that we can have two homes,” he said. He smiled at my mother so wide that he showed all of his teeth. The second house was also built of red mud brick and had a metal roof, but it was smaller and had no glass in the window frames. The new house was for my mother.
The first night in her new house, my brothers and I did chores for our mother as she prepared the evening meal. Edward searched the bushes beside the house for snakes and poisonous spiders. Henry swept the dirt in front of the house with my mother’s hand broom. I brought firewood from the main house and piled it carefully into a triangle. William mostly got in our way as he tried to help us; he was covered in dust from the sweeping, and he found a nest of fire ants with his feet. “I will help mother with the nsima,” he decided and crouched next to the fire with a spoon.
“Are you a daughter to help me with the cooking?” my mother asked him.
William narrowed his eyes and threw down the spoon.
“He has the temper of a woman,” I laughed at him.
“I am going back home. To our real home.” William stood up and walked away, leaving the spoon in the dust.
My mother’s face looked sad as she watched William disappear into the twilight. “A small boy is more fragile than a girl,” she said. “A word can emasculate a boy, make a boy into a gojo, a eunuch.”
Though I am too old, I slept next to my mother that night. Long after she was asleep, I listened to the quiet night sound of her breathing and it sustained me like my own heartbeat. I curled up next to her and wrapped myself in the scent of my mother, the wood smoke, Vaseline, and a sweet smell like a crushed leaf from the jacaranda tree. Her hands were cool against my shoulder and her breath was warm against my neck. I wished she could still carry me in a sling across her back. I held the soft worn fabric of her skirt against my mouth as I cried. I love her more than any woman in the world.
I went to visit our neighbor, old Dr. Ndalama. His room was crowded with shelves of metal tins full of herbs and powders, roots from the medicinal trees in neat piles against the wall, and a large mortar and pestle in one corner. On the wall hung his certificate from the government. “Traditional Healer registered in the region of Nkota kota.” The certificate also had a black and white photograph of Dr. Ndalama with his hair wild around his face. I greeted him and touched his feet in respect. “Mr. Doctor sir, I need a charm,” I told him.
“A charm to do what kind of thing?”
“A protection charm. A charm to remove an evil person.”
“That is a serious thing for a small boy.”
“It is a serious matter.”
“You are the son of Mr. Tembe?”
“I will need to know more if I am to give you medicines that are strong enough to remove a person. Is it a man or a woman or a child that you wish to remove?”
“A woman. A quite large one.”
“I see. And is she a witch?” Dr. Ndalama cocked his eyebrow and glared at me.
“She could be.”
“And how does she threaten you?”
“She threatens my family.”
“Is she a woman recently married?”
“I will not be able to give you any charm against your Little Mother. It is wicked to put a curse on a person of your own family. Have you no respect for your father?”
On the way home from school, I surprised my youngest brother with a present.
“William, for you,” I said and held out some soda cans and a length of wire that I had been hiding behind my back.
“And you will show me how to build it?”
“I will show you.”
Using a blade borrowed from my mother’s cooking utensils I cut open the cans and showed William how to bend them against the right angles of a block of wood.
“I want to cut the windows.”
“You are too small and will cut your fingers off.”
“I will not.”
I did not give him the blade, but I showed him how to twist the wire into a knot that would hold the pieces of metal together. I cut little circles out of the coke can for wheels.
“It is a Mercedes. Like the Honorable President for Life Ngwazi Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda has. And now it is yours.”
“It looks like a mini-bus like mother takes to the city.” William pushed the metal car we had made, tested its wheels. He ran his fingers appreciatively across the sharp inside edges of the windows I had cut.
“You see, William. Little Mother is not the only one who gives you things. I also give you things. And mother carried you around inside her belly and birthed you with much pain. She gave you life.”
“Of course, you idiot.”
In the marketplace, I found one of the traveling healers who visit only for a few days to sell their cures. “If you are feeling tired all the time, I have a medicine that will fill you with the energy of a lion,” he said. "If you have no appetite for even the most delicious of food, my medicine will make you hungry like an ox. Just one dose and you will feel better. Two doses and you will be cured.” He had a hand-lettered sign and several plastic bags of medicine laid out on a plastic sheet on the ground. His clothes and hair were soiled and his eyes shiny and wild. “Boy, do you need medicine? Your mother is ailing? Your father is sick?”
“Sir, I need a charm. One that will remove a person.”
“It will cost money to buy a charm.”
“I come from a prosperous family.”
With money that Little Mother had given me for coal, I visited the seller of cures again. He gave me three small packages of paper with herbs folded inside.
“The first, you must bury outside the door of the witch on a night when the moon is new,” he said. “The second, you must sprinkle in her shoes if she wears shoes, or you can sprinkle it where she sleeps. The third, you must put in the nsima that she eats the day after the new moon. Then she will vanish.”
“She will not stay for another night in her house. She will go away fast-fast.”
I carefully unfolded the first herb packet and sniffed the spicy musty smell of the leaves.
“Be very careful with that, little boy. It’s strong medicine.”
When I got home, I told Little Mother that I had lost the money on the way to the market. “I thought you were a responsible boy, the man in the house when your father is away,” she scolded me. I squared my shoulders and fixed my eyes on the floor. I waited for her to yell or even slap my face. I could feel the pressure of the packets of herbs against my foot where they were hidden in my shoe. Let her chastise me. I could weather her anger, her witch’s temper. “I need a little help in the house and who can I depend on? We are not so rich that we can lose 20 kwatcha here, 30 kwatcha there. We are humble people.” Little Mother’s mouth was pinched like she’d eaten bitter food. She slumped down on my mother’s old chair, deflated. “You must be more careful when I give you money.”
The night of the new moon was too dark to see anything, so my feet found my path around my mother’s old house by memory alone. I used a metal spoon to dig a little hole outside the door, and the smell of the turned-over earth rose rich into my nostrils. I had worn the herb packets in my shoes for two weeks and only when I was ready to plant the first packet in the ground did I take them out. Even the white paper was invisible as I held it in my hands. After I’d refilled the hole with dirt, I patted the mound down with my hands until it felt as flat as the rest of the yard.
As I crept through the house I hoped that the songs of the crickets were loud enough to cover the sounds of my feet against the floor. I lifted the edge of the mosquito netting with one hand and with the other I sprinkled the second packet of herbs on Little Mother.
At the noontime meal, Little Mother ate a generous portion of nsima. I watched her carefully as she mixed her food with her chubby fingers and lifted it to her mouth. She pushed the little balls of food past her thick lips. She was missing two teeth on the bottom, I noticed. I imagined the white mush sliding down her throat into her round gut and sitting there as the medicine spread through her body like a poison. Fat Little Mother gone by sundown. I had to keep the corners of my mouth from twitching as I suppressed my secret delight. My mother could move back into her old house. I would tell father that Little Mother had run off. Maybe I would hide her clothes and her scented soap so my father would think she had taken her things with her. My father couldn’t love her too much; they had only been married a few months. He would curse her for her lack of loyalty. Only little simpering William would be sad, but the sadness of little children is quickly forgotten.
“Little Mother, you should finish the rest, we have all had enough and you have the baby to consider,” I said, scraping out the pot.
“Oh, you are such a considerate eldest son, with such respect for his mother.”
In the afternoon, Little Mother worked in the maize field close to my mother’s little house. She weeded, bent down with her hands in the dirt. She checked the leaves for parasites. I watched her lugging a plastic pail of water between the tall green stalks, vanishing and reappearing among the plants. I waited for her to disappear completely, lost like a drop of water in a river.
“Why are you not at school?” she said. She’d caught me. “What kind of degenerate boy loiters all day at the edge of a maize crop?” Her eyes had found me from half way across the field.
I stood up hastily from where I had been crouching in a furrow and dusted off my school pants as my cheeks burned. No need to answer her last shaming words to me. I turned and started walking toward school, sure that when I returned I would find my life empty of Little Mother. What kind of witch can see a boy hiding in a furrow from that distance? She had the eyes of a bird of prey. And what was my family to her? We were just a cluster of chickens too far from the henhouse. I kicked a rock on the side of the roadway and sent it sailing into the wheel of a passing bicycle.
“Galu! You dog! You could have killed me.” The cyclist’s face was stretched taut with anger, and his hands were in tight fists around his handlebars. “What is your name?” he yelled. “Who is your father?” As the man stepped away from his bicycle, I fled into the maize field on the side of the road; running as fast as I could, I let the plants engulf me. The long thin leaves whipped against my bare arms and my face, but I did not feel them cut me. When I could no longer hear footfalls behind me, I lay flat on the ground, smearing the front of my shirt with soil. Now I could not go to school, I would be sent home in disgrace to clean myself. No, I thought, to maintain my dignity I will stay here, lying in the dirt.
At dusk, as the air filled with the sweet smoke of cooking fires, I went to my mother’s house. When she saw me, she said nothing about my scratches or my filthy clothes. Instead she fetched a bucket of water and set it next to me where I sat slouched next to her fire. She sat beside me, wet the edge of her chilundu, and wiped at my face with it. “Where are my brothers?” I asked.
“They are at the big house eating dinner with your Little Mother.”
“Don’t fuss about it. It saves me cooking for four boys every night.”
I stood up. “But Little Mother is home still? Cooking dinner?”
My mother looked up at me in puzzlement and let the moist edge of her skirt fall to the ground.
When I arrived at the big house, Little Mother was serving William a second helping of nsima. The light from her cooking fire glowed orange on her face as she smiled down at him. She touched his head tenderly as he hunched over his tin plate.
“Why are you still here?” My voice shook as I yelled at her; it came out mangled and high, like a small boy’s. She looked up at me, surprised to see me at the edge of the yard. Her eyes were wide. “Not even gwilagwila, strong medicine, can remove you.” I bent down and picked up a pebble and hurled it at her. “Get out of my mother’s house, you mkazi wa ganyu, you prostitute!” The pebble struck her cheek and she flinched. I raised my head high, making myself so tall I felt like I was on stilts. I imagined that I almost glittered in the firelight, dangerous and beautiful. My brothers huddled together, staring at me like I was mad. “Do you hear me? Get out!” As I searched the ground for more rocks—bigger ones, sharper ones—Little Mother gathered my brothers up and ran into the house. She slammed the front door and I could hear her dragging the living room chair across the dirt floor to bar the door. I was glad she was afraid. I flung a rock at the front of the house and watched it bounce and land, futile, in the dirt. “Whore. Witch.” I stomped out her cooking fire with my feet. The sparks pricked my ankles and the smell of smoking rubber rose from the soles of my shoes. I threw another rock and broke one of the two front windows. “Get out!”
“You’ve gone crazy! Your father will beat you when he gets home!” Little Mother’s face showed through the glass of the other window and I took aim. I heard the smash and jagged shards flew inward into my mother’s living room. “Oh, sweet mulungu, dear God, I call upon you in a time of crisis…” Little Mother droned softly.
“Get out of my mother’s house!” I was weeping, with my nose running like a baby. I threw all the rocks that I had gathered, one after the other, and with each rock, I hurled a word. “Buffalo. Slut. Pig.” I fell to the ground and clutched my belly, where my anger and grief hurt me the most.
When my father came home, I no longer needed to call myself his son; I had my own name. On the road, the women would whisper it and the men would call it out. “Chitsilu pusi” they’d spit. Crazy monkey.
Little Mother stayed in the big house, my mother stayed in hers. “He is sick. It is an illness,” Little Mother said.
“Pride is a mortal sin. And to respect one’s elders is a commandment,” my father said.
My mother said nothing, but tied a talisman around my neck and kept me inside when the moon was new. My father allowed me to live with my mother, which many felt was too generous, foolhardy even.
I continued to go to school and to wear my uniform, but my brothers would not walk with me and my shoulders were always slumped. I had a secret name and I would whisper it to myself like a prayer: Gojo. Impotent man. Eunuch.
Sierra Bellows was a Henry Hoyns Fellow at the University of Virginia, where she received her M.F.A. Her work has appeared in The American Scholar, The Greensboro Review and The New York Times, among other publications. She lives in Brooklyn.