Mama smiled at the glue and winked at me, pushing her tongue through the holes left by her missing teeth. She snapped the tin's top expertly, and the shack swelled with the smell of a shoemaker's stall. I watched her decant the kabire into my plastic "feeding bottle." It glowed warm and yellow in the dull light. Though she still appeared drunk from last night's party, her hands were so steady that her large tinsel Ex- mas bangles, a gift from a church Ex- mas party, did not even sway. When she had poured enough, she cut the flow of the glue by tilting the tin up. The last stream of the gum entering the bottle weakened and braided itself before tapering in midair like an icicle. She covered the plastic with her palm, to retain the glue's power. Sniffing it would kill my hunger in case Maisha did not return with an Ex- mas feast for us.
Mama turned to Baba, shoving his body with her foot. "Wake up, you never work for days!" Baba turned and groaned. His feet were poking outside the shack, under the waterproof wall. His toes had broken free of his wet tennis shoes. Mama shoved him again, and he began to wriggle his legs as if he were walking in his sleep.
Our dog growled outside. Mama snapped her fingers, and the dog came in, her ripe pregnancy swaying like heavy wash in the wind. For a month and a half, Mama, who was good at spotting dog pregnancies, had baited her with tenderness and food until she became ours; Mama hoped to sell the puppies to raise money for my textbooks. Now the dog licked Atieno's face. Mama probed the dog's stomach with crooked fingers, like a native midwife. "Oh, Simba, childbirth is chasing you," she whispered into her ears. "Like school is chasing my son." She pushed the dog outside. Simba lay down, covering Baba's feet with her warmth. Occasionally, she barked to keep the other dogs from tampering with our mobile kitchen, which was leaning against the wall of the store.
"Jigana, did you do well last night with Baby?" Mama asked me suddenly.
"I made a bit," I assured her, and passed her a handful of coins and notes. She pushed the money under her shuka; the zip of the purse released two crisp farts.
Though people were more generous to beggars at Ex- mas, our real bait was Baby. We took turns pushing him in the faces of passersby. "Aii! Son, you never see Ex- mas like this year." Her face widened in a grin. "We shall pay school fees next year. No more randameandering around. No more chomaring your brain with glue, boy. You going back to school! Did the rain beat you and Baby?"
"Rain caught me here," I said.
"And Baby? Who is carrying him?"
"Naema," I said.
"And Maisha? Where is she to do her time with the child?"
"Mama, she is very angry."
"That gal is beat-beating my head. Three months now she is not greeting me. What insects are eating her brain?" Sometimes Mama's words came out like a yawn because the holes between her teeth were wide. "Eh, now that she shakes-shakes her body to moneymen, she thinks she has passed me? Tell me, why did she refuse to stay with Baby?"
"She says it's child abuse."
"Child abuse? Is she now NGO worker? She likes being a prostitute better than begging with Baby?"
"Me, I don't know. She just went with the ma-men tourists. Today, real white people, musungu. With monkey."
Mama spat through the doorway. "Puu, those ones are useless. I know them. They don't ever pay the Ex-mas rateand then they even let their ma-monkey fuck her. Jigana, talk with that gal. Or don't you want to complete school? She can't just give you uniform only."
I nodded. I had already tried on the uniform eight times in two days, anxious to resume school. The green- and- white-checked shirt and olive-green shorts had become wrinkled. Now I reached into the carton and stroked a piece of the uniform that stuck out of the jumble.
Copyright © 2008 by Uwem Akpan
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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