"Happee, happee Ex- mas, tarling!" Mama toasted me after a while, rubbing my head.
"You too, Mama."
"Now, where are these daughters? Don't they want to do Exmas prayer?" She sniffed the bottle until her eyes receded, her face pinched like the face of a mad cow. "And the govament banned this sweet thing. Say thanks to the neighbors, boy. Where did they find this hunger killer?" Sometimes she released her lips from the bottle with a smacking sound. As the night thickened, her face began to swell, and she kept pouting and biting her lips to check the numbness. They turned redthey looked like Maisha's when she had on lipstickand puffed up.
"Mama? So, what can we give the neighbors for Ex-mas?" I asked, remembering that we had not bought anything for our friends.
My question jerked her back. "Petrol . . . we will buy them a half liter of petrol," she said, and belched. Her breath smelled of carbide, then of sour wine. When she looked up again, our eyes met, and I lowered mine in embarrassment. In our machokosh culture, petrol was not as valuable as glue. Any self- respecting street kid should always have his own stock of kabire. "OK, son, next year . . . we get better things. I don't want police business this yearso don't start having ideas."
We heard two drunks stumbling toward our home. Mama hid the bottle. They stood outside announcing that they had come to wish us a merry Ex- mas. "My husband is not here!" Mama lied. I recognized the voices. It was Bwana Marcos Wako and his wife, Cecilia. Baba had owed them money for four years. They came whenever they smelled money, then Baba had to take off for a few days. When Baby was born, we pawned three-quarters of his clothing to defray the debts. A week before Ex-mas, the couple had raided us, confiscating Baba's work clothes in the name of debt servicing.
I quickly covered the trunk with rags and reached into my pocket, tightening my grip around the rusty penknife I carried about.
Mama and I stood by the door. Bwana Wako wore his trousers belted across his forehead; the legs, flailing behind him, were tied in knots and stuffed with ugali flour, which he must have gotten from a street party. Cecilia wore only her jacket and her rain boots.
"Ah, Mama Jigana-ni Ex-mas!" the husband said. "Forget the money. Happee Ex- mas!"
"We hear Jigana is going to school," the wife said.
"Who told you?" Mama said warily. "Me, I don't like rumors."
They turned to me. "Happee to resume school, boy?"
"Me am not going to school," I lied, to spare my tuition money.
"Kai, like mama like son!" the wife said. "You must to know you are the hope of your family."
"Mama Jigana, listen," the man said. "Maisha came to us last week. Good, responsible gal. She begged us to let bygone be bygone so Jigana can go to school. We say forget the moneyour Ex-mas gift to your family."
"You must to go far with education, Jigana," the wife said, handing me a new pen and pencil. "Mpaka university!"
Mama laughed, jumping into the flooded alley. She hugged them and allowed them to come closer to our shack. They staggered to our door, swaying like masqueraders on stilts.
"Asante sana!" I thanked them. I uncorked the pen and wrote all over my palms and smelled the tart scent of the Hero HB pencil. Mama wedged herself between them and the shack to ensure that they did not pull it down. Baba whispered to us from inside, ready to slip away, "Ha, they told me the same thing last year. You watch and see, tomorrow they come looking for me. Make them sign paper this time." Mama quickly got them some paper and they signed, using my back as a table. Then they staggered away, the stuffed trousers bouncing along behind them.
Mama began to sing Maisha's praises and promised never to pound on her trunk again. Recently, Maisha had taken the twins to the barber, and Baby to Kenyatta National Hospital for a checkup. Now she had gotten our debt canceled. I felt like running out to search for her in the streets. I wanted to hug her and laugh until the moon dissolved. I wanted to buy her Coke and chapati, for sometimes she forgot to eat. But when Mama saw me combing my hair, she said nobody was allowed to leave until we had finished saying the Ex-mas prayer.
Copyright © 2008 by Uwem Akpan
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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