Mercy is sick today. She was sick yesterday, and the day before, but tomorrow will be better. An old woman gave me herbs from the bush. I boiled them to juice and made my sister drink. Mercy lies wrapped in her chitenge on a straw mat outside the hut. Her forehead shines and sweat darkens her blouse. Flicking at flies, shooing curious children, I guard her. At midday I light the fire for nsima. Not everyone in the village will eat today. Fearing a neighbour’s jealous magic, I take care not to clatter the cooking pot. As the water simmers I see my sisters altered face in the troubled surface. Last week she returned from the capital. Taking the bucket I walk half an hour to the tap, wait my turn and fetch water to bathe her.
The women ask, “What’s wrong with Mercy”
I say, “She’s tired from the journey. Resting. Tomorrow she’ll get up and tell us about everything: her job and husband and house.”
As I bathe her, dipping and wringing the cloth, I sing our mother’s songs. Strange blotches spoil her skin. Mercy joins in softly. I’m pleased that after all these years she remembers the words.
Now as she sleeps, I wonder. Seven years ago she walked away from the village and our father’s anger. When she woke me that night, wearing her Sunday dress with spare clothes in a bundle, I barely understood — I was only a child. She whispered urgently about a trucker who had passed through and sent for her to join him. She hated to leave me, but loved him and had to go.
Mercy said, “I’ll write and send money every month. When you’re older, you can come too. We’ll live together in the city. You’ll go to a proper school, and when you’ve learned everything, you can paint your fingernails red and work behind the desk in a big hotel.”
The letters and money never came. Every day I thought of my sister as I hacked the cracked earth before school, or stood in line at the water tap. In the dusty school room, singing out times-tables as the sun poured through the open door, she was with me. A new baby came for Mother every spring. When Father died I hoped Mercy would come home, but didn’t know how to reach her. Each year was harder than the last. Mother wasted with worry. Neighbours helped with a cup of sugar or an egg for the baby, but had little to share. The wood on our hut rotted; the red mud won.
When my first bleed came, Mother said I must stop school. Boys began to watch me on my way to the field. I dreamed of Mercy, dancing in high heels or drinking tea at a glass table. Her nails were red and she was always laughing.
Then she came home, as everyone does at last from the capital. Having eaten city fruit, they return with empty bellies and wasted arms. Mother braids my sister’s hair and cries a little. We haven’t mentioned her truck driver. I want to hear about the wedding, but am scared to say his name. Tomorrow she will get up, eat and tell me everything. But today Mercy is sick and we lie on the mat with our arms around each other, staring dark into dark.