She finished her meal of maize porridge, moinmoin, and Lipton tea, waited for the food to settle in her gut, then rose from the stool and carried her plates to the kitchen sink. Over the sound of running water she heard Cardinal Rex scramble up the fence of the house onto the roof to sun himself. She had lived in this house for thirty-two years, ever since Mr. Bille left her, and for many of those years she had cohabited with cats, yet she still wondered how come every one of the eight cats she had owned at different times always took the same path onto the roof. Her husband had hated catsthey were arrogant and disloyal, unlike dogs, he used to say. There was a time, when he was still alive, that she, too, favored dogs; but now the sight of their eager bodies, the sound of their yaps and bays and yelps and growls, gave her palpitations.
The first Cardinal Rex had been a white female cat. But after seeing the ease with which her coat got smudged, after suffering through the nighttime caterwauls of wooing males, and after what had to happen happened and she woke up one morning to find a litter of four blind kittens that their mother abandoned because she moved them from the rug in the parlor into a cardboard box lined with old handtowels, Ma Bille learned her lesson. When the animosity that bloomed between cat and owner drove the first Cardinal Rex into exile, Ma Bille replaced her with a black male cat. Until his death from stoning at the hands of some neighborhood children who mistook him for a witch's cat, Cardinal Rex the second lived a happy, simple life. It was from his time that she established her routine of feeding her cats twice a day. It was with him that she fell into the habit of talking to her cats, of threatening to withhold their meals when their conduct called for rebuke, of rewarding them with scraps of dried crawfish when they were good.
Her plate washing done, Ma Bille took up the pot of hot water, shuffled to the bathroom, shouldered open the heavy-timbered door, and went in. The bathroom was small, low-ceilinged, and stank of mildew. A colony of chitinous creatures thrived in the wet earth underneath the metal bathtub. She glanced around out of habit to see if any cockroaches had ignored the daylight signal to return to their hiding places, but in the dim lighting, her eyesight failed her.
With her towel around her waist and her bare feet smearing the floor, Ma Bille emerged from the bathroom. The sun was blazing, the ground was awash with light, her eyes were suffused with the brilliance of everyday colors, and as she crossed the courtyard she stepped on something squishy. She halted in surprise, stooped to see better, released her breath in anger, then picked up the half-eaten rat by the scabby tail and tossed it over the fence. Raising her voice so that Cardinal Rex, wherever he was, would hear her, she said: "No supper for you today, bad pussy!"
On ordinary days, after she took her bath she would slip into one of her old, wash-faded boubous and then walk to God's Time Is Best Supermarket on the street corner to buy a chilled bottle of Harp. She would return home with the beer, go into the kitchen to fetch her beer mug, then carry mug and bottle on a tray to the parlor and place the tray in the chair that stood before the window facing the street. That was where she sat, on the armrest of the chair, sipping her beer, gazing out on the tide of life through the agebrowned, flower-patterned lace drapes, until lunchtime.
But today was not an ordinary day. Ma Bille had somewhere to go.
She entered her fluorescent-lit room, stripped off the towel, and tossed it on the bed. She walked to her jumbled dresser and stared in the tall mirror, searching for soapsuds between her legs and mucus in the corners of her eyes. She rubbed palm kernel oil into her halo of thinning hair, cocoa-buttered her skin, drew on her going-out girdle and a white underwired brassiere. She chose her clothes with painstaking care, as she flitted from trunk to mirror and back again. She settled for a yellow brocade blouse and a George wrapper, and once dressed, powdered her face, applied mascara, glossed over the cracks in her lips with brown lipstick, and clasped on a coral-bead necklace and a matching bracelet. She wrapped some money in the knot of her wrapper, stepped into her rubber-soled Bata slippers, then walked to the front door and went out to buy her beer.
A. Igoni Barrett. "The Worst Thing That Happened," from Love Is Power, or Something Like That. Copyright © 2013 by A. Igoni Barrett. Reprinted with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota, www.graywolfpress.org.
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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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