Ousman is a sad boy in his childhood. The woman he is forced to call Tantie never really cares for him. He is a worried boy, with tall lanky legs that he uses to climb the Ivorian mango tree in his backyard. He spends all the time he can in the tree, away from the woman he is forced to call his aunt, thinking of the day he’ll find someone as sweet as the juice that rides the sides of his brown mouth. Ousman worries about Tantie’s pregnancy, not that he loves her or anything, but because he’ll be forced to care for the child once it comes. His hands tremor in the dry heat of the Mango tree as he thinks.
Ousman was only seven when he was brought to live here. His real mother’s voice has left him now but her face is still clear. He can still remember the toy cars he used to run across the kitchen tile while his mother fried Aloco on the stove top. It’s weird to think that the popping of grease against the moist plantain is a sound that he hasn’t forgotten, yet when he tries to recall his mother saying goodnight, he can’t.
His father had come for him on his birthday. It was an August afternoon. Ousman and his mother sat on their modest porch, half under the shade of their big hearted coconut tree, if you could even call it shade. You could still smell the Orangina on their breath. His mother had been singing him a song her own Congolese father had sung her when she was a child, before she knew how to pronounce Cote d’Ivoire. She held Ousman in her arms as they sung: Olélé, Olélé, moliba makasi/ luka luka/ mboka nayé/ mboka mboka kasai.// Eyy oh, ey ey oh./ Benguela aya: The current is very strong./Row! Row! His country is the Kasai. /Eyy oh, ey ey oh, let the Benguela come.
The Uele and the Kasai are rivers in the Congo while Benguela is a cold current in the waters off the southwest coast of Africa, that brings the wind along for company. When the dry season came, Ousman and his mother dreamed of cold rivers to cool themselves with. They sang this song as a wishful act of cooling the air around them. When they finished, Ousman’s mother spoke. His mother explained as best she could to her son of seven years.
“Mon chéri,” his mother said, “you’re going to live with Papa for a little while. I’ll come and visit when I can. I promise.” An Ivorian woman’s countenance always reads the way you want it to, so Ousman believed his mother when she spoke these words.
“Why can’t you come with me?” Ousman said aloud, breathing words into the dry season, the time when fish bury themselves under the mud near their rivers.
“I thought you were a big boy,” his mother said playfully. “Can you be strong for your mother?” she half whispered, her eyes without tears like the baobab trees in the savanna that store water in their trunks when the rainy season bids them farewell.
“Ok, Mama, I will,” Ousman said with confidence, some four years ago.
“You have all your bags?” his father questioned. Ousman only shook his head up and down, in that shy manner most boys never shared with their fathers.
“I know it’s been a long time since I’ve seen you, boy, but I am your father and I know what’s best for you. Do you understand? ” Ousman’s father said in his deep voice.
“I know, Papa,” Ousman responded.
“Good. Good. I have your present waiting at home. I think you’ll like it,” his father said while the exhaust fumes from his car irritated both the village air and their noses.
“Do you have a tree. Like the one in our backyard?” Ousman asked in his little voice.
“Of course we have a tree. We have many trees,” Ousman’s father said while laughing his big laugh. “You can climb them all you want when you get home.”
“Okay,” Ousman said.
“Now kiss Mama goodbye and let’s get going,” Ousman’s father ordered. And with that Ousman hugged his mother so tight that the fabric from her boubou clouded his nostrils and he thought about how much he’d miss her smell.
It was then that he took his father’s hand, a man that had been a sort of ghost figure his entire life. He took this man’s hand, along with the new toy car his mother had given him for his seventh birthday, and he climbed into his father’s grey Volkswagen, repeating goodbye out of the window until he couldn’t see his little white house anymore.
The story of Ousman is partly a tale of tradition. His father, Felix, was a sort of political figure in the country. He was an important man, and like any important man with a little bit of power, he took a liking to his women. Felix had a wife at home but Ousman’s mother was not Felix’s wife; Ousman was born anyhow, in the same little white house, with the help of what we Ivorians like to call une sage-femme: a wise woman: a midwife. But after all, Ousman’s father, Felix, was a very important man, with a very important reputation, and a short temper. Felix had wanted to continue seeing Ousman’s mother (her name was Veronique), without any intention of marrying her, but she just wouldn’t have it. So, after seven years it was agreed that Felix would come and claim his son to live with his own wife and family. You could say this was an act of indignation. It was long enough for Ousman to have all the basic essentials one would need from a mother, and just short enough a time interval that not too many questions would be asked. From this day, Ousman was expected to live in the family home.
Ousman’s first night in his father’s house was a sort of foreshadowing for things to come. They all ate dinner together, with the kitchen door open, thirsty for any breeze the dry season could provide. Felix had three other children of his own. Two boys, age ten and twelve at the time, and one daughter who was eleven. They sat at the table as well. As Ousman ate his bowl of rice and vegetables, the other children would take turns kicking his little dangling feet, and with each kick they would giggle, their meek laughter resembling the fruit bats which flew outside. (Ousman wanted them to stop but he was afraid and since he was new, he thought it better to just shut up and take it). Soon after the plates had been cleared, Ousman’s father took the last swig from his beer and announced to the family he would be departing because there was a very important meeting that he had to attend. His beard was thick and graying. His eyes were red from a long day’s work but he managed to place his eye-glasses back on his face. He had big hands that didn’t put Ousman at ease, because he was used to his own mother’s delicate ones. But with that, Ousman saw his father’s back yet again, with a feeling inside of him he’d be able to explain with time. He wanted his mother more than ever. But, as Ousman would learn quickly, there would be no time for nostalgia in this household. Tantie, his new matriarch, Felix’s wife, was in no mood for games. Upon his father’s departure, she demanded that Ousman follow her to the kitchen.
“Boy, did your mother teach you how to wash the dishes?” she had demanded with her husky voice. She was a tall woman but she wasn’t skinny. She had put on the weight any mother with three children is allowed to accumulate. Her hair was thick and long but you couldn’t tell it’s length because she always kept it in a neat bun atop her head. She was the type of woman who indulged in her habitual skin bleaching lotions and you could tell by the way her skin was starting to peel. But you could also tell that she had been a beautiful girl in her day, before she was sold to Felix’s family for marriage.
But in response to Tantie’s question, Ousman shook his head back and forth, as he stared at the kitchen floor.
“Well you will now,” Tantie said, as she handed him the dish towel and soap. Ousman spent the rest of the evening cleaning the family’s dishes, his hands becoming shriveled, like the wrinkles on a grandmother’s face. He strained to scrape the dishes that were plagued with hard bits of food, and his little hands slipped every now and then under the weight of the plates. He even had to stand on his tippy toes to reach the drying rack. When he poured the remains from the wine glasses down the sink, the red hue clung to his palms, like blood on his hands. The other children came and went through the kitchen door, with bonbons on their breath and stories about insects they had captured in the nighttime heat. All Ousman could do was turn on the tap water to block the sound of their laughter when they came running through. They didn’t pay him any attention. And later Tantie returned and told him to dry the dishes more thoroughly next time cause she hated putting half-dry dishes in her cabinets. Ousman had nodded in her direction, with his thumb hanging from his mouth in boyish innocence.
"So we’ve got ourselves a thumb sucker,” Tantie said in her round voice, as Ousman proceeded to drop his finger from the insides of his mouth. He eyed Tantie but said nothing.
“Well, we’re gonna break that,” Tantie said, with the day’s humidity fuming from her lips.
She walked to the refrigerator and opened its white door, taking out a red pepper that had been in the very far back. She reached for a cutting knife and sliced a thin piece from the the pepper’s backside. She placed the pepper slice in the blender and they waited. When she beckoned with her finger for Ousman to come closer, Ousman started to catch on.
“Open your mouth, boy,” she said, as she lined the inside of Ousman’s little mouth with the juice of the hot pepper. She did not care for the sound of the small boy’s screams as she clutched his cheeks with the sides of her two fingers and forced the pepper concoction into his mouth, while they stood by the open refrigerator and cool air drifted to Ousman’s ankles.
“Don’t let me catch you again,” she threatened, and with that she called her oldest son to lead Ousman to his bed. He nodded to his mother and tipped the side of his head in one direction as a way to say follow me. As Ousman walked away in the darkness of the hallway he whispered under his breath that he would tell his father, as he hung on to the sides of his cheek in pain. Tantie caught on and screamed after him:
“Tell him what? He’s not coming back for a long time; probably out with some whore like your mother.”
Ousman’s next day at the home wasn’t any less terrifying than the first. He remembers rising from his sleeping place on the floor and walking into the living room. Tantie was on the floor shaking. The housemaid and the gardener were moving the couch out of her way. They stood on opposite sides of the sofa and lifted it to another area of the room. They didn’t look up to see little Ousman. While the gardener was still moving other furniture, the housemaid retreated back to Tantie and positioned her so she lay on her side. Then they just sat and waited as the tall woman shook on the floor of her home, her legs banging against the hardwood floors, the biting of her tongue like a sort of silent dissonance against the soft hum of mosquitoes in heat. Tantie was wearing a bright green BouBou, and her face twitched every so often. Even the paintings on the walls looked down in horror. Ousman ran out the front door and jumped into the mango tree. He hid there for the rest of the day. He found salvation in that mango tree. When he grew older, he’d come to understand that Tantie was an epileptic. He’d come to understand the habitual nature of her disease. And he’d come to understand that this was something she could never know he knew.
But over time, Ousman became accustomed to the way things worked here. He stopped expecting his mother to come. He did what he was told. Life became a sort of cycle and every Saturday morning he’d find himself on the kitchen floor. The casablanca lilies in the yard would close their petals back up for the new day. Tantie ordered Ousman to clean all the floors in the home. While the other children slept, he started his task in the kitchen. He’d get down on his square knees and pretend the sponge he pushed back and forth was the toy car he used to play with when his mother would cook. Later the youngest brother would get up to turn on the television, so Ousman was forced to listen to Saturday morning cartoons, with the scent of bleach traveling up his nose. The familiar voices of the cartoon characters put Ousman in a bad mood until the housemaid would come and alleviate his pains. But through all his Saturdays spent on his knees he’d be blessed. Not that he liked this job in particular but four years ago at the age of seven he met Sayibah while scrubbing the back porch.
Sayibah was lanky and tall like Ousman and the first morning they had met each other could be explained by the fact that Sayibah’s soccer ball was kicked into the yard. Sayibah was a neighborhood boy and had asked Ousman if he wanted to play.
“Hey, what’s your name? I haven’t seen you before,” Sayibah said with wonder in his voice.
“Ousman. My name is Ousman,” and when the silence got awkward Ousman asked “you play a lot of soccer?” as he pointed to the ball in Sayibah’s hand.
“Oh, this. Yeah, I play a lot at the market down the road. You?” Sayibah asked.
“I’m okay, I guess, but I used to watch a lot of the matches with my mom on the television. I really like Drogba,” Ousman said, almost forgetting he had left his mother.
“Oh, Drogba’s okay but Boubacar Barry is cooler. He’s like two feet tall yet he manages to keep goal like a crazy man,” Sayibah said with excitement. “Do you want to come and play?” he asked. “My mother says that if I keep playing with the big boys I’ll get big and strong like them.”
So with Ousman’s agreement they ran to the market place together and kicked the soccer ball in the Harmattan dust of the dry season, with the older boys in the area. While Ousman played, hardly able to control his excited breathing, he realized that the sound of soccer balls against bare feet and the bartering of the market folk in the background reminded him of his own Marché when he lived with his mother.
While he sits in the mango tree he can tell that the housemaid is cooking. Ousman is not seven years old anymore. He’s eleven and getting as tall as the coconut trees by the Ivorian beaches. He never eats with the family because Tantie makes him sit outside while they dine at the table. He used to get lonely, with only the salamanders that slithered in the grass for company; the salamanders that spooked little brown boys like Ousman. He didn’t like them very much so he’d scrunch up his knees to his chest in protection and gulp down the dry rice Tantie would give him. But when Sayibah figured out that his friend wasn’t eating outside due to humid temperatures in the house, he began bringing his own dinner leftovers.
As the maid fries the aloco in the kitchen and Ousman swings himself from the limbs of the mango tree, he remembers his first meal with Sayibah.
“Do you eat Aloco?” Sayibah asked him some time ago on the back porch.
Ousman only nodded in reaction, placing his hands out towards Sayibah in his shyness. He remembers the way the plantain felt between his fingers. It was round and had lost its heat but he slipped them onto his tongue and remembered his mother. Sayibah passed him the fried plantain one at a time and Ousman savored every bite, thinking that if he couldn’t have his mother, he’d find love somewhere else. But Sayibah always had a home to go back to and a mother that could tuck him into bed. Ousman did not.
As Ousman tries to wrap his long legs around the bark of the tree, so the blood in his head can rush towards the ground, he thinks of “George: Le Petit Curieux.” George is a curious monkey and happens to be Ousman’s favorite book character. He remembers the night he slept over at Sayibah’s house and his mother, Mrs Oulatté, offered to read them a bedtime story.
“Do you remember when your mom told us that story about Curious George?” Ousman asks as he continues to swing from his favorite branch.
“Yeah, you didn’t even know who the man with the yellow hat was,” Sayibah laughs in response. “You thought he was just a man with a yellow hat,” Sayibah says in fragmented laughter as he falls from the tree.
Ousman remembers his answer well. He remembers being so happy that he almost forgot he had no mother.
“That was the best”, Ousman says with a smile. “Do that imitation of your mother describing Curious George. I’m still not over that,” he says in a wild excitement.
“He has a Biiiiiiiiiiiig yellow hat and looooooooonnnnng yellow suit,” Sayibah says while stretching his arms wide around the air outside.
Ousman can’t hold his own laughter any longer so he drops his body from the branch and joins Sayibah in the grass. When their laughter dies down Ousman climbs back up to his favorite branch and he thinks. He remembers the question that came next that night:
“Did Curious George not have a home or something?” Ousman had asked aloud.
“He only had the trees,” Mrs. Oulatté responded. “He needed a real home. That’s why the man with the yellow hat takes Curious George home to America.”
When Mrs. Oulatté had put the boys to bed that night, Ousman shed tears in his sleeping bag because he didn’t have a mother to say goodnight to. Ousman knew he would have to return to Tantie when daylight swallowed the night. He had wished that he could steal Mrs. Oulatté for himself. He started believing that he would never be loved. Tantie was always on his tail and his father was always in and out of the home. Sometimes he would catch glimpses of this big man in the hallways at night, returning to his bedroom from the kitchen. Sometimes Ousman could even feel his father at his doorway when the big man thought everyone was fast asleep. He felt his father’s eyes on his back in the darkness. Ousman would tell himself in his half-sleep condition that his father’s eyes had once looked into his mother’s with love, so when Ousman’s father looked upon his back in the darkness, his mother looked upon him as well. Ousman never really knew if he loved his father, but he knew he felt at ease whenever he was in the house, even with his big hands.
But it’s been forever since that night and Ousman remembers Mrs. Oulatté’s voice echoing off the walls as she told the story of Curious George and his many adventures in the treetops of American Suburbia. He believes that Curious George would have been a book his own mother would have read him. The two boys are in the mango tree and as Ousman listens to Sayibah’s short breath from too much laughing, and the shaking of thin branches, he thinks of other things as well. As Ousman hangs limply from the mango tree, he wishes he could find a man with a yellow hat that could give him the gift of home. He wishes he could remember his mother’s voice more than ever because now he has stories he knows by heart. If only he could recall the octave of her words, he could tell the story to himself in her voice.
Sayibah is eating the unripe mangoes because he is thirsty and the dry season has come around once again, and taken all the life from the fruit that hangs, almost deathlike. The tree can hardly hold the weight of the two eleven-year-old boys.
In the house Tantie’s feet are sore and she stays in her room most of the day sipping on tonic water in her fancy cocktail glass. The baby is coming soon and Ousman can tell when it kicks, even while he swings from the tree, because Tantie’s screams emanate from her bedroom window. The midwife is always here now, caring for Tantie, but even in Tantie’s bedridden state, she calls Ousman into her room every now and then and makes her demands.
But today is different. As Ousman lets go of the branch and catches himself on his palms, loud screams can be heard from Tantie’s bedroom. Even the roses by her bedroom window look shocked, their petals quivering in the dry wind. Sayibah takes Ousman’s departure as a cue for his own farewell. Ousman runs into the home but the maid stops him in the hallway and tells him to help her prepare the fish. The maid’s hands are wet and smell of the ocean and a mermaid’s hair. The hallway is dark and humid.
“Your aunt is having the baby. No need to get all worked up over nothing. Start scaling the fish over the sink,” the maid barks at Ousman from the kitchen. With the scent of raw Capitaine swimming up his nose and Tantie’s screams, which seems to plague the walls of the house, Ousman gets an urge to throw up. Ousman enters the kitchen and the maid hands him the butter knife for scaling. Here, in Cote d’Ivoire, the heads of the fish stay intact for consumption. As the eyes of the Capitaine glare at Ousman, he starts at the tail and scrapes the scales with a force not most young boys have. The fish skin flies everywhere. The maid tells him to be careful but he’s not listening to her, all he can hear is Tantie’s rapid breaths as her contractions start to plague her. He guts the fish with one hand, holds the dead water dweller while its innards stain Ousman’s hands, while something living is coming into this world. By the time the fish is fried and eaten, by the time Ousman must brush his teeth, he hears a cry and knows a soul has entered the world. He can hear the other children in the room with their mother. He can hear the baby. He wonders if Tantie will love it.
When the midwife leaves and the maid is fast asleep on the porch, the baby commences with its crying. Tantie screams for someone to come and shut the baby up but no one is there to do so. Ousman walks down the hallway and into Tantie's room. The moon is out by now and she is so delirious that she doesn't notice that Ousman is not the maid.
“Just do something about her crying,” she demands in the dark of the room.
Ousman doesn't say a word and he picks up the baby girl and holds it the way he used to see the village women handle their young. The baby immediately stops crying and Tantie dozes back to sleep. The baby is now reaching for his nose and it laughs in the darkness and something inside of Ousman changes. He remembers how when he couldn’t sleep his mother would hold him in the rocking chair on their porch and he’d doze to sleep under the moonlight. But he's holding this baby and it knows nothing about him but he can sense that it wants to love him. So in return, he wants to love it. He rocks the baby back and forth in the moonlight while she laughs and Tantie snores in the background.
The next day Sayibah comes in the afternoon. Ousman’s been up since six in the morning, rising even before the roosters at the market do. The baby started crying in the night again. She needed her diaper changed but the maid was still snoring outside by the roses that loomed over the front porch. Ousman found the diapers in the closet by Tantie’s bed, and he grabbed them from the top shelf while his aunt tossed and turned in her deep sleep, like an animal that could never love. When he finished, the baby girl didn’t stop crying so he ran to the kitchen in search of the bananas. When he would have bad dreams or when the rainy season made his bed too cold to fall asleep in, his mother would feed him crushed bananas from the bush in their backyard. She said the potassium called the sleeping spirits. Ousman let the baby drink small sips of what had become banana juice, while her siblings lay motionless in the next room under their covers. Ousman cares for the baby but he doesn’t mind the responsibility. When Saybah arrives, he tells him of his experience.
“Sayibah, you ever hold a baby in your arms? Like really hold it?” Ousman demands.
“No. I don’t know any babies,” Sayibah answers. “Anyways, babies are gross.”
“No, not Tantie’s baby,” Ousman responds almost too fast. “I was holding her last night and for a quick second when she laughed it looked just like my mother’s smile back home. Sayibah, it was so weird but I can almost swear it looked just like her.”
“Oh yeah?” Sayibah says with both confusion and disinterest.
“Yeah. It was so weird but when I was holding her I was thinking that babies need people. Like, they can’t really do stuff if you don’t help them, if you don’t love them,” Ousman says while partly still in thought. But Sayibah only laughs, dismissing poor Ousman. Saybiah knows not of a motherless life so he only knows how to laugh at such things. They are in the tree again and the day is slow. The maid comes out on the porch and calls the gardener’s name. She looks frantic and when he finally comes, they run inside together. Ousman knows Tantie is having one of her epileptic fits again. He doesn’t want to be here while she shakes.
“Ey, Sayibah? We should go to the river. I gotta show you something,” Ousman tells his friend in the shade of their mango tree.
“Ahh, Ousman, it’s too hot. Let’s just stay here. Anyway, won't you get in trouble if you leave the house while your aunt has the baby to care for now?”
“Come on, Sayibah,” Ousman says almost baby-like, “It’s boring here and she’s not my aunt. The maid is here today. She won’t tell. Come on. We have nothing to do here anyway,” Ousman reasons with his buddy.
“Fine. Let’s go,” Sayibah finally agrees.
They jump down onto the warm grass, their feet making indents on the ground. The hibiscus flowers are planted not too far from the roots of the tree, so when Ousman lands it looks as though the crushed red petals is blood seeping from his feet. He plucks them from the dirt so Tantie won’t notice that he's ruined her favorite flowers. And with that they head to the river.
There is a dry heat that permeates the air. Their t-shirts cling to their skin out of want for the rainy season. The river is very shallow and has lost most of its water. There are very few fish left and when the two boys first arrive they take pleasure in catching the fish with their hands. They are stilt walkers in this territory because the river water barely touches their thighs. It is so easy that it seems as though the fish swim eagerly into their hands to meet their death. The boys play in the water for hours, not even noticing how soggy their hands have become and they don't even notice the almost setting sun. When the boys have become tired, they climb out with lethargy in their lungs. Ousman then proceeds to dig a hole in the mud by the river. As he does so, he begins to hum the Congolese lullaby his mother had taught him so long ago. He wishes that Benguela would come and rescue him from this heat and this chaos.
“What are you doing,” Sayibah asks.
“Just wait. You’ll see,” Ousman says excitedly.
Ousman’s hands have become caked in brown muck and after what seemed like centuries he says “there.” Sayibah hovers over the hole and his jaw drops. There is a lungfish lying under the mud.
“We have to get it back into the river. It’ll die here,” Sayibah says frantically with boyish responsibility in his voice.
“No it won't, stupid. It’s a lungfish. The river gets too shallow in the dry season. It lives in the mud until the rains starts up again,” Ousman retorts with a friendly tone.
“So what you’re saying is,” Sayibah starts “that it can like breathe air and water?”
“Yeah. I know. It’s amazing,” Ousman says with pride. He doesn’t know why he takes such a liking to the fish. But as he and Sayibah cover the fish back with mud, he realizes he has been drowning almost all his life, but this lungfish is just like Tantie’s baby girl; they have both given him the chance to breathe.
When they finish up with the fish hole, they head back to Ousman’s. Sayibah suggests they take the shortcut but Ousman thinks it's better to stay on the roads because it is getting dark and they need to be able to see where they are going. The vendors have left but the road still smells of atcheke and papaya. The headlights from the passing cars blind the boys in short intervals. They head in the direction of Ousman’s home, soaked in that fresh water scent with dirt lodged in their fingernails from the day’s playful mischief. But as they walk opposite the approaching cars that zoom past them, a stray dog runs in their direction.
At first sight, the dog has an air of innocence. The rhythm in which he approaches them is constant and unmenacing. But as he comes closer, his tongue appears to be hanging from his mouth and a collection of white froth slides down his mid-cheek. Having never seen a dog with rabies, the boys don't question this. The dog is a tan-ish hue with stilt-like legs and ears that droop like the plants in the dry season. The dog’s eyes are big and they want something. His collar appears to still be around his neck but it’s obvious that its owner has abandoned it. Maybe its eyes want home. Soon the stray starts moving faster and the boys’ hearts thump in union. The crickets are out and they chirp with ominous intentions, like they know what’s coming. Their sound rings loudly in the the boys’ ears. The dog is getting closer, slapping its paws against the dirt road with much conviction. It runs like a broken horse, something that’s meant to be wild but was never given the chance until now. Fish water seems to rests heavy on Ousman’s breath. He can taste the day that is behind him and he fears the animal that approaches. His father told him that Mama couldn’t give Ousman a life in her small village. He told Ousman he’d be better off with him. With all the money and reputation to his father’s name, where was his father now? Ousman doesn’t whisper for his father in the dark as the dog comes closer; he calls for his mother.
Sayibah and Ousman decide to turn around but know better than to run. They consider crossing the street but the number of cars zooming past will not allow it. The garbage in the area hasn't been picked up, so the stench of unwanted leftovers and grief clouds Ousman’s nose, contributing to his hysteria. He can feel the sweat dripping from his hands like rain water off his favorite mango tree. He can feel the dog’s breath on the back of his lanky legs as it gets closer. When the dog is close enough it pounces on tall Sayibah. When his head hits the dirt road the dog sinks its teeth into the boy’s ribs and an almost deranged sound emanates from the dog’s mouth. Sayibah screams with pain and curses the evening air. Tears begin rolling down his cheeks and he grapples onto the dirt ground as he screams.
The dog does not stop. At first Ousman tries to pull the dog off of Sayibah with his thin thin arms. He wraps them around the dog’s rib cage and attempts at squeezing the animal against his chest, but when that proves unsuccessful he can no longer take the screams of his friend so he panics. He knows they need help so it takes everything in him to leave Sayibah screaming on the side of the road while cars roll by in oblivion. They aren't far from home so he makes plans in his head to get the gardener for help because he should be there hosing the plants out back.
When Ousman gets home, the gardener is nowhere to be found. Ousman’s breathing becomes heavy and he trips over a rock during his search for the gardener. His knee becomes a sea of red but he just brushes it off with his hands. His worn down flip-flops can't keep up with his feet so they are left behind in the yard. The blood on his hands dry quickly in the heat. There a fruit bats in the sky by this time and their laughter sounds aged and deformed. The grass is wet like it has rained but Ousman knows it hasn’t. The gardener must have come earlier today and watered the roses out front. Ousman finds it hard to run because the water on the grass makes his feet slide. The sun hasn’t completely set but he keeps stepping on the escargot because they are invisible this time around. He decides to get help from Tantie who should be at home.
When he enters the house it is quiet and no lamps have been turned on. Natural light seeps into the home but it is still dark. No one appears to be home. He knows what needs to be done. Tantie keeps a little handgun in an old shoebox in her closet. It sits high above, almost touching the ceiling. After the many robberies that had taken place in the neighborhood, Tantie decided to purchase a gun. She had told her oldest son a month ago where she kept the house gun and what he needed to do if the situation ever showed itself. Ousman had been listening and had thought nothing of it. But this evening his fingers tremble and he can feel that anxiety traveling up his spine from the depths of his stomach. He sneaks into Tantie’s room and grabs her desk chair to stand on so he can reach for the little brown box. He takes it down from its safe haven and takes the gun out, feeling its heaviness in his hand. His hands are sweat-ridden and the gun almost slips from his grip. He places it into a little pouch and runs to the front of the house to go rescue his friend. Just as he is pushing the screen door open, he hears a familiar voice behind him.
“Where do you think you’re going, boy,” his aunt asks from the comfort of her sofa. She must have been sleeping when Ousman entered and since he was so rushed he didn’t notice her body on the couch until now.
“I really have to go Tantie! Sayibah’s been hurt and I really have to go,” Ousman shouts, without enunciating the words. He tries to leave once more but his Aunt gets to her feet by then and takes ahold of his arm.
“What did I tell you to do before I came back,” she says while still holding onto the boy’s arm.
“You told me to dust and I dusted,” Ousman says desperately, hoping that if he answers her questions quickly she’ll let him go.
“You fucking lazy boy,” Tantie shouts, her voice echoing off the walls. “You call this dusting?” she says while sliding her finger across the table and showcasing the dust that lays upon her index. “I told you to do something and you didn’t do it. And now you try to lie to me. Right in my face?” Tantie shouts. But she knows all too well that Ousman has dusted. She knows all too well that during the Harmattan sand from the Sahara blows in this direction and your home is coated in this environmental science for months. She knows all too well that the boy isn't a liar. But she feels sorry for herself; for everything she couldn’t be for her husband and Ousman reminds her all too well of her failures as a wife. As a woman.
Ousman panics again and wonders if Sayibah is hurt all this time. He can still see the dog’s big black eyes and he feels guilty for leaving Sayibah. He can see Sayibah on the ground in his head, his lanky legs trembling on the dirt road. He can see his friend with his arms stretched taught, begging for some type of mercy. Ousman tries pulling his arm out of Tantie’s grasp and just when he breaks free and tries to run through the door she latches onto the pouch in which the gun is being held.
“Let go,” Ousman screams, tears now rolling down his eyes in long streams, like the movement of the river. She tries to take the the pouch from him so they fight in the heat of the living room until he gives the pouch a hearty tug and then the sound of gunfire is heard. It scares Ousman so he falls backwards onto the ground. Tantie is on her knees now, holding her gut and screaming obscenities into the night air. Her boubou is white with gold trim around the sleeves but the blood is seeping through her garments, so what was pure is now red. The baby, which lies in its crib, is stirred by the gun and starts crying loudly. Tantie’s on her back now and there's blood rushing from her body and there’s so much you don't really know where it’s coming from. Tantie’s eyes are open but she can't say a word. Ousman tries to use his palms to stop the bleeding and the blood rushes over his hands to the point where he can't see the brown anymore. She starts shaking and Ousman tries to push her onto her side but she’s heavy from the pregnancy. Now his hands are on her back as he pushes and begins to sing his mother’s lullaby. There are bloody handprints on her back now. He can feel the pulse of her shaking against his hands and it scares him but he keeps singing, wishing for a cool river and his mother’s voice. Olélé, Olélé, moliba makasi. He’s sorry that Tantie’s mother didn’t want her, didn’t love her. He’s sorry that her mother sold her for the price of a ticket all because she couldn’t control her shaking. Sold her at the age of thirteen to be a slave, sold her daughter who’d later grow into a lonely and abandoned woman.The baby is screaming and Ousman knows his aunt will be gone in a little. He can tell by the way her breathing is moving slower, like the river current during the dry season. It’s the type of breath only grandparents have. The baby is crying and he’s sorry he can't hold it at the moment. He’s sorry he’s taken away the baby’s mother. All he wanted to do was save his friend, but now he can only repeat the chorus to the lullaby, hoping his mother will miraculously show up and save him.
When Ousman can't feel Tantie’s breath against his face, he still continues to attempt to stop the blood. He hopes someone finds Sayibah cause he can’t leave now. The baby’s crying reminds him of his loneliness. The baby will know him as a murderer and she won’t want to love him. He wants to feel her laughter against his face again but he really wants his mother’s breath against his cheek as the Orangina smell travels up his nose when she tells him goodnight. Will he ever be loved? After this?
To Ousman, the blood smells of nothing and his eyes are closed but he can smell his mother in the night. The tears slide down easily and as they enter the sides of his mouth the salt tastes like his mother’s peanut sauce so he can taste his mother in the night. Tantie is dead and he’s sorry he never tried to tell her I love you, even if it was a lie. He knows that if someone had declared their love for him, he wouldn’t be so miserable. He wouldn’t be so lonely.
He’ll hold the baby ‘till they come. He’ll make sure to hold the baby girl in its blanket so she won’t feel what blood feels like. He wants to protect her. He’ll hold the baby and keep singing ‘till they come and have to pull the two young souls apart. Ousman will try to love until they come and say he can’t anymore. Ousman will try to be loved until they say he can’t and put him in an another aunt’s home. Ousman will sing his mother’s song and hold her in his vocal chords in the night. Olélé, Olélé, moliba makasi.