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On Monday evening Kondi dreaded to have her father come home. Any moment she expected to hear his voice singing drunkenly at the turning of the road, or the thud of his lurching steps in the hard-packed yard, but he did not come. Mai waited with supper for about an hour, because Bambo always ate first. Finally, she and Kondi ate and washed their dishes.
Kondi, tired from helping her mother all day, rolled out her sleeping mat in a corner of the bedroom, wrapped herself in her blanket, and lay down. Her thoughts returned to that morning. Bambo had been digging along the path from the road to their house. He had some flower cuttings that he intended to plant on either side. Boniko’s father came along the road just as Bambo was beginning to put in the first cutting.
“Moni, Chisale. How are you?” Boniko’s father asked. “I see you are going to plant flowers. Flowers are for women and old folks. Are you trying to make the rest of our houses look bad?”
Bambo forced a smile, but his eyes were dark with suppressed anger. As soon as Boniko’s father walked out of sight, Bambo threw the rest of the cuttings on the garbage heap and walked away, muttering, toward the local bar.
Outside in the moonlight, a cricket scraped his fiddle at the corner of the house. Why are people like that? Kondi yawned deeply. Last month our other neighbor made fun of Bambo for cutting the ragged grass on the eaves of our thatched roof. It made Bambo angry, but he finished all the way around the house. I like pretty things. They make me happy. A chicken ruffled its feathers and croaked in the little round chicken house on the other side of the open window. Kondi’s eyes felt heavy with sleep, but she stared at the gyrations of three mosquitoes dancing in a shaft of moonlight. Their tiny shadows danced in the white square of moonlight on the floor. Finally, she folded her arm under her head for a pillow and pulled the blanket up over her head to protect herself from mosquitoes. Soon she was asleep.
A loud shout woke her. Kondi flung back her blanket and sat straight up on her mat. The white square on the floor was gone. Someone shouted and a bucket clanked loudly in the dark. Bambo’s slurred voice demanded his supper.
Mai said, “I have food for you. It will only take a minute to heat it.” A chair creaked as her mother stood heavily to her feet to reheat the food.
“I don’t want to wait. I want to eat now!” Bambo roared with rage, and the bucket crashed and clattered into the yard. His drunken muttering broke into another snarl. A chair cracked as it hit the wall. The table crashed over. Kondi huddled as far into her corner as she could, turned her face away and hid her eyes.
Kondi heard a resounding slap. She winced and ducked her head.
A thud. Mai moaned as she fell against the wall.
Kondi crawled along the wall, hid in the farthest corner of the bedroom and plugged her ears. Still she could hear as the beating went on and on. Blood pounded in her throat. In her mind she screamed, Don’t hit Mai! Don’t hit Mai! But no sound came from her throat. Hot tears spilled down her cheeks. Her chest ached from her own pounding heart, and searing hot breaths dried her mouth. Fear prickled across her scalp and blood pulsed in her temples.
The beating stopped as suddenly as it had begun. A body fell against the table and then to the floor. Bambo muttered and cursed. He crashed into the wall, fumbled for the door and staggered out into the night.
The complete silence frightened Kondi as much as the noise. “Mai!”
“Mai!” she said louder.
Kondi crept to the doorway of the sitting room. Mai lay on the floor with her hand on her stomach. Blood trickled from a corner of her mouth.
She’s dead! Mai and my baby sister are dead! Father has killed them both! She leaped to her feet and ran out the door screaming, “Mai-o! Mai-o! My mother is dead!”
The yard suddenly churned with neighbors, their eyes wide with alarm. Kondi staggered to the shadow of the maize garner and fell to the ground, sobbing. With Mai gone, who would take care of her? Only her drunken father! Fear snatched at her and her body jerked and trembled. People hurried here and there helping Mai, but Kondi only rocked herself in the moon-shadow of the maize crib, moaning over and over, “Mai-o! Mai-o! Mai-o!”
“Kondi?” A hand shook her shoulder. Mai Mbewe’s voice sounded close to her ear. “Your mother is not dead, only badly hurt. You must come in the ox cart with us to take her to the hospital. She needs you, Kondi. Come!”
The oxen bawled their midnight displeasure. Mai’s groans of pain punctuated the night as the ox cart lurched over the rough road. Mai Mbewe bent over her as the cart rumbled on, wiping her face with a cold wet cloth. Kondi wiped her own face with the corner of her chirundu, her sobs making a breath-cloud in the cold night air. Her heart ached during the whole long moonlit journey.
At the hospital, she stepped out of the cart and into a shadowed corner. Nurses put Mai on a bed with wheels and pushed her through a yellow-lighted doorway. Kondi sat on the cold damp ground with her back against the wall. Mai Mbewe sat down beside her.
“Mai isn’t dead yet, but she may die soon!” Kondi sobbed. “She may die soon, and my baby sister, too!” After awhile she realized she was alone again. Mai Mbewe must have gone to be with her mother.
Hours later Mai Mbewe found her there with her chirundu over her head, shivering in half-sleep, as the dawn etched the eastern hills with a gold and crimson line. “Come, Kondi,” Mai Mbewe said. “Your mother is asking for you.” Her voice sounded tired and, taking Kondi’s hand, she led her into the hospital.
Kondi hung back and glanced around in fright. She had heard many times that a hospital was a place to go to die. She almost expected to see the face of Death leering at her from a corner, or behind a door. Mai lay on a bed near the door of her room. Her eyes were closed and a nurse held her wrist. The bandage circling her head showed starkly white against her smooth brown skin. Under the edge of the bandage an ugly bruise formed and blood seeped through to the surface. Kondi stopped short. “Will she die?” she whispered.
“Iai,” the nurse said with a smile. Her crisp, white uniform rustled, and she smelled of sweet soap. “No, a hospital is a place to get well. We will help her all we can.” She smiled and beckoned Kondi to come near.
Mai opened her eyes and slowly turned her head. A weak smile softened her mouth, but she winced when she tried to lift her arm.
“I’m sorry, Mai,” Kondi whispered. “I was too afraid to do anything.”
“You couldn’t do anything,” Mai said softly, rubbing Kondi’s arm with her good hand. “But you can do something now. This hospital doesn’t supply food. I will need good food to make me well. Mai Mbewe will give you money to go buy a chicken at the market. Will you do that for me? Be sure it is a fat one.” Mai always said that when she sent Kondi for a chicken.
Kondi felt better hearing her talk in her usual way. “Yes, I’ll buy a fat one, Mai.” Tears blurred her eyes as she walked out to the hospital garden. She paced restlessly, shivering in the cold morning air. What is taking Mai Mbewe so long?
Soon the sun topped the eastern hills and bathed the yard with warm yellow light. Kondi backed up against the sunlit wall, and wrapped her extra chirundu closer around her shoulders. The sun felt good and her shivering lessened.
At the edge of the yard three peach trees huddled together as if for company. Their froth of pink blossoms lightly perfumed the air. Kondi closed her eyes and turned her face to the sun to enjoy the fragrance of the flowers and the sun’s warmth. I’ll embroider pink flowers like those on one of my baby sister’s dresses. A tiny smile lifted the corners of her mouth. She’ll soon be here.
Suddenly the inside of her eyelids went dark. Her eyes flew open in alarm. A dark cloud had swallowed the sun, and an icy wind whipped down from the purple mountains, driving dust wraiths along the ground. Kondi hunched her shoulders as her chirundu whipped her ankles.
The peach trees bent in the wind, their branches dipping and thrashing. Kondi squatted by the hospital wall and covered her head with her extra chirundu. Inside her chirundu tent she listened to the gusts that skittered leaves over the ground. She made a peephole to look out. A piece of newspaper scraped past her feet and plastered itself against the hospital fence.
The peach trees writhed as if in pain, their delicate blossoms turning inside out, then back. A few petals twisted away on the wind, then more. Soon pink petals danced all over the yard, stripped from their branches, streaming away in twisting trails. Kondi’s heart thumped in fear. “Is this an omen of death? Does this mean my baby sister will die?” She swallowed hard. “Maybe Mai, too!”
The cold, whipping wind flung her words out over the Rift Valley far below.