Boy Lazarus

Ema Babikwa

“Give me that bucket.” 

He handed it to her. She filled it again and went into the bathroom after him. He heard her pour the water over the bathroom floor to rinse it. She did it thrice then she waved him off. He wanted to ask her what it was – the powder she had sprinkled into the bucket – and why he had to use the outside bathroom instead of the indoors one, which was both more comfortable and unoccupied. Why did she have to rinse the bathroom so many times? He didn’t ask. He knew that when someone offers you healing, you don’t question their methods. And besides, it was his mother. She could do him no harm. That was the first bath. 

*

The first time Kash felt like a failure was a year ago. He had been out of university for about two years, and he decided to take on a volunteering job at a call centre. Growing up, he had been told that education was the key to his success. That he would take the world by storm. That jobs would be falling at his feet when he finished school. He often wondered while on his way to the call centre whether the other appealing jobs he had been promised had somehow missed his address. It was the only place he had gotten feedback from for months. An added advantage was that it was near home. A 25-minute walk. He could do that in the meantime. Besides, the only man without food in his mouth was the man who sat on his hands. He had to start somewhere. 

The days bit chunks into weeks. The weeks ate into months. He walked to and from the office complex with a chest full of hope five days a week. Sometimes over the weekend too. The collars of his shirts wore out from prolonged hand washing. The ground made souvenirs out of his shoe soles. He became impassive. The earnest look he had had on his face in the earlier days of the job morphed into a clenched jaw and furrowed eyebrows. He could feel his optimism dissipating. At each day’s end, he seemed to have less joy than he had left home with in the morning. One evening, as the grey gravel crunched under his feet, he realised he was never going to get the news he wanted. He was never going to be retained. He was never going to be on the payroll. Not at the call centre. He needed to know when to kill hope. It wasn’t fair that he worked as hard as he did for no reward but experience. Experience, for him, was hopeless currency. 

Kash quit and started collecting cutouts from the job section of newspapers shortly after. He would pick them from his father’s study and highlight the ones he liked with blue ink. He would then spread them across the small table in his room, which functioned as a dresser, ironing board, and reading table. And they grew into mounds that he kept evacuating so he could use the table for other purposes. He became a regular at Sean’s internet café, where he sent an application via email every day. His movements in the street to and from the café became a grand time-lapse of fruitlessness. He refreshed and refreshed his email as the days went by and got no good news, just rejections and promo emails that stacked themselves on top of each other like a pile of mournful letters. 

*

Kashillingi bowed his head at the sink outdoors. His mother called him Kash for short. She stood behind him holding a jar of water over his head. He rinsed and rinsed until the strands of hair squeaked. He rinsed for the last time and with his now bloodshot eyes watched the water swirl through the six holes in the sink – something greater than the water dragging it down, as the drain gurgled. She unwrapped a blue kaveera, poured a brown powder into a bucket of water, and lathered. A thin film of bubbles sat on the surface of the water and soon evanesced. 

“Go into the bathroom now. I won’t come in with you. Undress. Pour water over yourself as you mention all the things in your life you want to get rid of. All the things you don’t want to deal with again. All the things you want to change. Pray for yourself. Just pray. I don’t know if this can be called that, but pray,” she instructed.

He heard the kaveera rustling as his mother wrapped it up again as though to shield the contents from the sun. He was in the bathroom for about five minutes. She waited for him. He mumbled some things to himself. He didn’t know what they were either. Beads of water stuck to his skin and fell off like dew as he poured more water onto his body. He poured the brown sediment into the drain, whose mouth opened in the cemented floor. He flicked the remaining water off his body with his hands, slipped on his chequered boxer shorts, and stepped out of the bathroom.

*

Four orgasms into the day, three of his own making and one from a stranger he had met off an app, Kash sat under the pomegranate tree in the backyard gulping dregs of five-hour old tea to chase down his 3pm chapati lunch. He wondered if he loved himself at all. 

He sauntered back to his room. It was a humid afternoon, and everyone was home. His brother, Turi passed by him in the corridor, and he caught a whiff of body odour off him. It was one of those days where smells were loud. As a big brother, his first instinct was to fix it – fix it with all the tenderness he could muster. Take Turi to the new mart down the street where the old buildings were being demolished and newer, grander ones erected in their place. He wanted to walk in with him, pick something out for him—roll on, deo stick, body spray, anything –without antagonising his brother. It would be his treat. 

Kash didn’t do any of that. He had no means. For all he knew, his own antiperspirant had about three spritzes left. Five if he used it more frugally than he already was. When Kash had nothing to say, he chuckled awkwardly. He did that and continued to his own room. Holding his breath. And that, too, was a form of kindness—his silence. He said that to himself but felt like he had failed again. As he disappeared into his room, he wondered what that extra scent on Turi was. He was sure it wasn’t just a lapse of hygiene as Kash also experienced bouts where he forgot to take care of himself. But it was nothing like this. He really needed to know what was going on. 

“Jacinta! Jacinta!” their mother’s voice cracked the still, quiet air like a whip. She was generally impatient, but especially with Jacinta, her last born. 

“JACINTA!” 

“Let me call her for you.” Kash intervened because their mother would only get louder. 

Jacinta scampered into the living room, trying to announce her presence as subtly as her body could let her. She knelt beside the door post, and their mother caught her shadow from the corner of her eye. 

“Madam, these days you’re hard of hearing? Or you’re now a big girl; your ears have grown into wings?” 

Jacinta knew not to respond to those questions. They were rhetorical. 

“I want you to light the sigiri and put the katogo on. That’s what we shall break our fast with this evening. And pack up your things. Free the room. The pastor is on his way, and that’s where he is going to sleep. You’ll sleep here in the living room. Owulidde?” 

“Ye mummy,” Jacinta replied timidly before she continued. “Mummy, I’m also asking ca-can’t the-the p-p-pastor s-s-sleep in one of the-the boys’ rooms t-t-tonight? The boys c-c-could share a room between themselves and-nd the pastor c-c-could use the-the spare room?” 

“Madam. Madam. Madam. I don’t want you to disorganise yourself, and above all, I don’t want you to disorganise me. You’ll make your own rules in your house. Kola byenkugambye!” 

“K-k-kale mummy. But I have s-s-slept in the living room th-th-the past three times the pastor has b-b-been here. I thought it would only be fair if-f-f–” 

“Ba-ba-ba! Get out please!” 

Jacinta got up and left, her eyes watering from the peppery sensation in her nostrils. 

“I want you to understand something Jacinta. You are not your brothers. You will never be.” 

An awkward silence lingered across the room. Kash himself didn’t know what his mother meant. He didn’t know what she meant a lot of the time. He also didn’t know that the family had been fasting that day. No one had told him. 

*

This wasn’t the first time Kash had seen the ritual. When he was 15, his father returned home from the men’s correctional facility. Kash’s father had been detained during a campaign rally at the district headquarters. He was released a week later, and he found his mother, Kash’s grandmother, at his house. She had already prepared his bath water. Before entering the house, he had to wash the prison off himself and any other bad luck that could still be latching onto him to keep it from recurring. 

“Misfortune has sticky hands,” the old lady warned. 

“And you have sons. You don’t want it rubbing off on them.” 

That was the first time Kash had witnessed the cleansing power of water. 

For his second bath, Kash had to repeat what he had done the first time, in exact detail—wash his hair in the outdoor sink and rinse himself repeatedly with the water his mother had prepared for him. He was quick with it—a fast learner. He squatted, cupped his hands, and drew water from the bucket. He let it run across the hairy terrain of his body as his lips moved, mumbling a prayer with shuffled words. Outside the bathroom, he heard his mother fold up the plastic bag. 

“You know I am your mother and you can tell me anything. I feel like you don’t open up to me the way you used to,” she remarked. 

Kash heard her but didn’t know how to have a conversation with his mother while he was squatting, water and herbs dripping off his bottom. He let her speak. 

“Hm, if you don’t trust your mother, who on earth will you trust?” 

Kash wondered what she was going on about. 

“You see, maybe we are going about this all wrong. There could be something else we can do. You can’t tell me that a boy as smart as yourself has not gotten a call back from any of the places you have applied to. Not even one. How long has it been? Two years? For two years? It is July. Everybody but you is busy in July. Even I, who went to school under not-so-good conditions, was able to get paid work weeks after graduation. So tell me, my son, what do you think went wrong? For all we know, we could be fighting one demon, yet the culprit is of another name.”

She paused to catch her breath and think about what she was going to say next. Kash was still as before, knees pulled in, the water starting to dry on his skin. 

“I worry, my son. I worry a lot. Because if I can’t make someone out of you, then who do I take my chance on? Turi? TU-RI? You know him. How he thinks he is slick, walking in and out of here like he owns the place. Running off in the evenings to play ‘football’ and coming back here smelling like a distillery. And he is a young boy. He thinks I don’t know what he is doing, but I do. He reminds me of my brother Simeon. Yes, I wasn’t an only child. I know you’ve smelled Turi. The smell that comes out of him isn’t because he forgets to bathe. No! It’s that cheap liquor he drinks that is seeping out of his pores. That’s exactly what my brother smelled like in his twenties. Exactly! ‘Where is Simeon?’, you might ask. Take a wild guess. Guess! Well, that’s where Turi is headed. I hate to say it because I am his mother, and no bad thing about him should ever leave my mouth, but that’s where he is headed. And his head is so swollen. He never listens! Funny thing is, people aren’t going to blame you kids or your father. People are watching, and they are going to blame me. 

That I didn’t raise you right. When did you last see me at a family event? I don’t go anywhere anymore. I am tired of being asked about you. I don’t know what to tell people. And they are laughing at us, and you don’t seem to care. Your father and I are old and tired. We have nothing more to give the world. We are retiring soon but we don’t sleep. We lie in bed thinking of what we are going to do for you. Wondering if you will ever be okay. All of you. We cannot raise you and your siblings and also maintain a household on just pension. We shall soon have nothing to give you. Your father has given up already. Abalaba bulabi. I also don’t stress him about any of you kids’ issues. He is ill. What’ll happen when I tell him Turi is turning into the village drunk, that you have utterly failed to find a job, or that Jacinta is doing so poorly in school? Hypertension? Diabetes attack? Then what? I am a widow with three children, none of whom can support themselves? Do you want to kill us? Do you want to kill me?” 

“No Mum,” Kash replied, holding his knees as he sat on the bathroom floor, still naked. 

“And I actually see you judging me and how I’m raising Jacinta – how I talk to her. You don’t like it when I order her around the house or when I send her to your aunties to teach her girl stuff. But I am a dog pushed against the wall, Kashillingi. I am biting everything I can sink my teeth into. I cannot fail with Jacinta. She is a girl, and she has to grow teeth too. She must learn to work with her hands to be a homemaker. And I love that she fights me every step of the way, but it’s for her own good. She will thank me someday. She makes it seem like I favour you guys over her, but the truth is, girls get married, they leave home. When boys fail in the world, they stay home. They become their mothers’ burdens. Kash, I am a 59 year-old woman. I cannot carry you for much longer. I cannot. So, if there’s something you have done or that you are doing that could be standing in the way of your blessings, please tell me. Now.” 

“Mum, I’m not hiding anything from you.”

“Okay. If you say so. Come out of the bathroom now and let me rinse the floor. I hope you remembered to cast off any and all things you don’t want in your life anymore.”

“I did.” 

He sat outside with his towel wrapped around his neck and let the sun dry him like maize.

*

The sun crept into the room in small, lustrous streams of light. The dust particles seemed to glow on the window sill. Kash got up from bed to draw the curtains. He wound the clock and the day started. He pressed the clothes that lay on the chair for the past week before taking a bite of toothpaste and wiping his face with his damp right hand. Jacinta came in and stumbled over her words like she often did. She took away his plate from the previous night. He heard it drop into the kitchen sink. He sat on the edge of his bed and wondered what to do with his day. What to do with all the hours.

He bit the soft flesh of his bottom lip as he plucked overgrown hairs out of his face until his left cheek was patchy. He badly needed to pee. He aimed at the porcelain sides, but the stream of piss hit the water in the bowl instead, loudly. Kash sat at the edge of the bed again and stared into space like the air bound by the four walls of his room was infinite. He got up again and pulled the convex lid off the clock face. With his forefinger, he stopped the moving hand and popped the lid back in place. In a fraction of a minute, he was back in bed with the duvet pulled over his head. 

The sun crept in, again, in yellow and crimson rays. The light illuminated the dust particles differently from the day before. He got out of bed feet first,noticing that the floor wasn’t tiled. Instead, a grass lawn spread out under him. The clock’s hands were human fingers, and the clock wound itself without him having to touch its face. The numbers thereon were animated and seemed to pulse with life. Jacinta opened the door and picked the plate off his table like she had done the day before, which he thought was strange since he had no recollection of eating supper. She glanced at him with concern, like she knew he had just woken up but was still exhausted. She told him, without a stutter, “Do what you need to do to get through this day,” before walking out the door backwards. He pulled the covers over his head and slept again. 

He felt the room getting warm. That’s how he knew the sun was up. His eyelids, the only obstacles between his eyes and the sun’s rays glowed orange. When he forced his eyes open, the clock was above him. He pushed it out of his face and didn’t bother winding it like he had done the previous days. Feet first, he slid out of bed again. The floor wasn’t tiled. It wasn’t a grass lawn either. It was a garden of black and yellow pansies that stretched up to the table. On the table sat Ntongo and Brandy, his exes who broke up with him at the same time when he found out he had been dating them both concurrently. His face dropped at the sight of them together, but they seemed happy to see him. In fact, they were holding hands. Their legs swayed blithely, their feet an inch above the ground. 

Brandy tried to speak, but pansy florets fell out of her mouth. Ntongo spoke instead, in a voice that sounded like his and Brandy’s combined. 

“How many hands does it take to kill a dream?” he asked, looking at the dusty guitar, in the corner and shifting his eyes to the clock that had re-hoisted itself upon the wall. 

“I don’t know,” Kash whispered.

“Aren’t you tired of living like this?” Brandy asked in that strange voice that Ntongo had used earlier. 

Kash’s eyes scanned the room, which had all his earthly possessions. He sighed. The response wasn’t satisfactory, and he could see from their faces that they had expected more. 

“Of course I am tired of living like this. You cannot be any sicker of this than I am. I live with myself, and I do not like it. I wake up, and there’s nothing to do. Nothing to give that matters. I am tired! I just sit in this room and rot. Morning. Noon. Night. Well, tell me if anyone can be happy with that. Genuinely. Is it something you can fix? Can you fix it? Can you? I don’t know what else to do. I don’t know what you want me to do. So, if you don’t have solutions, if this talk changes nothing, let’s just stop. And, you can— you can both leave.” 

A silence sat there with them, and they could feel the steady swelling of the seconds. Brandy and Ntongo hopped off the table and onto their feet. They waved before getting into the old television on the floor next to the guitar and disappearing into a shimmering road. 

Jacinta struggled with the door. Kash could hear her, but he was too weak to get out of bed to open up for her. 

“Come in. Just push the door.” 

She failed. 

“What do you want?” 

“K-kash, g-g-good afternoon. M-m-um is calling you.” 

It was the third day. The day for the last bath. He seemed to be waking up from a three-night long sleep, but only one night had gone by. He had a fever. Instead of the brown powder his mother had used the days before, she rubbed olweeza and kayayaana leaves together. The juice dripped into the bucket, and when the water was green enough, she handed him the bucket. She instructed him not to chant what he had been chanting the days before. This time around, he was supposed to say all the good things he wanted to see happening in his life. 

His teeth chattered with fever, and his body spasmed as the first splash of water hit his skin. He closed his eyes and breathed into the air. “I want to be happy. I want not to lack. I want to be happy. I want not to lack…” which were perhaps the same thing, but he felt the need to mention them separately. It was a great insecurity of Kash’s to love and not be able to give. He wanted to love, to give, and above all, to have the abundance to give from. He wanted not to be empty.

“Pray! Chant! Whichever. Whatever language of your choice. Whatever language your lips can form. Pray!” she yelled. 

Kash chanted faster, the water splashed all over his body, the walls, and the cemented floor. He was learning that there was no single correct way to pray. 

“IwanttobehappyIwantnottolack…IwanttobehappyIwantnottodieIrefusetodie…” 

He poured the last drops of water over his face and exhaled deeply. The chant was over but the deepest prayer he had failed to articulate was he didn’t want to ever have to ask anyone for anything again―not even God. His mother was disappearing into the house as he came out of the bathroom. She didn’t rinse the bathroom this time. 

“I hope among the things you were praying for, you prayed for a child. My grandchild…” she said with her back to him. She had come to terms with Kash’s misogamy. There wasn’t much she could do about it but she felt that a grandchild from him would be a fair compromise.

He muttered something under his breath. 

“What did you say?” 

“Nothing.” 

He hadn’t muttered ‘nothing’. He said, “And what will I feed the kids? Tomato salad?” but that wasn’t something you say to your mother out loud. ‘Nothing’ was a better response. He slapped lotion onto his face then his ankles and got some antimalarials from his mother who was a fully uncertified pharmacist. 

“I’m sure it’s malaria. You’ll take three of these for three days. You’ll be fine. Take them with pain killers. Kwaata ibuprofen. Look at you, your eyes are sunken!” she exclaimed, touching his forehead with her backhand. 

“Jacinta, ono mukolere juice.” 

“Ye mummy.” 

Jacinta went into the kitchen and a few minutes later, the blender screamed.

*

Kash’s parents sat in the living room the way they usually did in the evening in the manner of lovers in the sunset of their lives, revelling in the comfortable silence of their companionship. A few things weren’t going as planned and that made them anxious but they handled them as they had always handled such things. Pray, do their best and when that didn’t work, they let those things go, slowly. They knew that to love life, to enjoy it fully, they had to learn to accept their mortal limits. 

Mzee’s phone rang amid the seven o’clock news bulletin. It was Kash. He put him on speaker. What was good for his ear was good enough for his wife’s. 

“Orahi? I thought you were in the house!” 

“Ngaha. I went to Sean’s, the café.” 

“Okay. What do you need?” 

“Dad, I applied for a procurement job in Oman early this year. They’ve reached out and I got it. And they’ll be paying thrice what I would be getting if I had been put on payroll at the call centre.” 

“That’s great! Ruhanga Asiimwe!” 

“Asiimwe munonga Daddy! My passport is also ready. They emailed me to go and pick it up two days ago.”

“Look at God! That’s great news. The year is ending on a high note! Let me tell your mother as well!” 

“Kare.” 

His mother needed no telling. She was there and so was her phone. No calls from him. 

“Your son has some good news! Have you heard him?”

“Yes, I have. Mukama nga mulungi!” she exclaimed, stifling a scowl.

She knew she wasn’t the parent Kash came to with news of his wins. She had hoped that this would be the first time. It wasn’t and that hurt her. Even the people we love will disappoint us. But her son had sounded happy on the phone, her husband was happy and there was a part of her, remote as it was in that moment, that was happy for him. It was their win. 

“Jacinta, gamba Turi asale enkoko for supper!”

“Kale Mummy,” Jacinta replied in the distance. She walked with loud steps. She could be heard trudging through the corridor. 

Kash’s mother grew lighter as the minutes went by. She could not wait for him to come back so she could hug him. From the living room, the couple could hear Turi rattling the saucepans in passive aggressive protest. He didn’t like to help around the house much. They heard the chicken cluck one last time outdoors before it went silent. The water to pluck it boiled into the air as the lid of the kettle shuddered on top of it. 

Ema Babikwa is a Ugandan writer.

 

*Image by Indre B on Unsplash

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