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The Cracks in Your Mouth
You are the scarf wearing woman shopping for mangoes in the open market. People asked you if you were Muslim or Arab, because you wore your scarf over your face. You tell them no, trying to disguise the lisp you have as you stammer out your answer. You are African and you were never much of a talker. Mzaa said you were an ugly child. You think you are still an ugly child and burrow your face into your scarf to hide what people won’t like. They move on anyways, as if you’re an exotic animal that they find boring after a while.
You find the right mango, it’s a bit bruised on the bottom, but it’s one of the best you’ve seen for that price. You put it into your woven basket and move onto the next stand. Furaha will enjoy the fruit. You can make some atchar, pickled mango. It keeps pretty well too. You find some cashews. Afterwards you pay the man sitting complacently on a mat, who smiles graciously at you. He even lifts his small woven hat off of his head at you. You smile back, but he doesn’t see your lips under the scarf. The scarf is faded yellow. It’s a thick woven material your Mzaa wove for you. She said you were an ugly child.
“Asante, thank you.” He says in a deep rumble. You bow your head to him but say nothing. The sun is lowering in the sky, you must head home. On the way there you stop at the corner meat shop to see if there is any fresh antelope. You buy what you can afford, a small hunk no bigger than your first still speckled with fur. It’s better than nothing you think to yourself as you walk home. The dirt road allows for you to keep your head down and kick rocks aimlessly in front of you. There will never be cars on this road. This is Africa; you’ve never seen a car in Africa in your life. At least, not on this road anyway, or in the market for that matter, you shake your head. There will be no cars on this road. You keep kicking the rocks. No cars to have their tires punctured by the rocks you kick. No cars to kick up dust in your eyes. No cars to make loud noises that scare the ng'ombe, cattle, away.
It’s another hundred breaths to the house. You’ve counted before. Furaha will be there, singing as she weaves what she can. And Jengo will come back from the fields, tanned and sore. You’ll have to rub some coconut oil on his back. You’ve done it before. And once, just a while ago, there was Kibwe, who would cry when you left. He would wail and Furaha would have to quiet him until you came back. Most of the time he just lay in the shade when you went out to the fields with Jengo, but that was a long time ago. He is gone now, and you stop and sigh as you kick rocks on the road that will never have cars on it.
The sun sets by the time you climb down the last hill. The sun massages your neck and upper chest. The scarf has given your chin and mouth a paler color than the rest of your skin. Jengo laughs every time he sees you without the scarf. You feel ashamed and immediately want to put it back on. But he takes your hand in his. His calloused fingers intertwine with yours.
“Upendo wangu, msiwe na aibu ya nini una. My love, do not be ashamed of what you have.” His tone is flat and somewhat uncaring. You try to smile and not to speak. You rarely ever speak anymore. Your words are getting worse. Mzaa always said you were an ugly child. You are a silent ugly child, you think to yourself as you come to the mud hut. It’s not bigger than you and Jengo lying end to end. But you built it with your own two hands. The tanned hands that are used to cover your face, you used them to pat the mud and clay into place. Then you and Jengo looked at it from on top of the hill and he laughed. You smiled and that was before you wore the scarf so he could see your face. So could the rest of the world, but no one was looking at you that day.
“Ni nzuri, it is good.” He said with a satisfied sigh. You nodded. The house is now many summers old. You would know for certain, but you can’t remember the exact numbers the missionary taught you long ago, the same summer you built your house. It has been a long time. Furaha has grown up and Kibwe is gone. And the house is before you. You walk inside. Inside is cooler and you relax. You pull the mat of old corn stalks over the front door. It was a curtain you made a long time ago. It keeps the ghosts of the family out and you in. Mzaa said you were an ugly child.
“Mzaa!” Furaha cried out. She stood up from sitting on her mat in the corner. It’s her bed too and you’re proud that she keeps it clean. She runs over and hugs you. You return the hug. You drop the basket on the floor and walk to the matt in the opposite corner, the one you stuffed so Jengo and you could sleep on it. You don’t know why Jengo married you. When you ask he tells you he loves you, but you know it isn’t the truth. Jengo’s Mzaa didn’t want him to marry you, but she knew that your Mzaa had something stashed away for your future in laws. That’s why Jengo married you. Mzaa always said you were an ugly child.
You slowly unwrap the scarf from your head. You can hear Furaha gasping at the mango in the basket. You wish you could see her face as she caresses it and squeezes it gently, like a hand. But you are unwrapping the scarf from your head. It is twisted many times and tied in a knot right below your left ear. You slowly untie the knot, as if it is a ritual. You’ve done this many times before. The scarf comes untwisted from behind your ears and you feel like you can breathe freely once more. You roll up the scarf and set it on the bed. Jengo likes it as a pillow anyway. You prefer the lumpy mat. It’s something you’re used to.
You touch your upper lip. The crack was there ever since you were little. You remember when Baba first saw you, he looked disgusted. Mzaa had to soothe him. He didn’t really love you like he loved your brothers and sisters. You were always different to them. Mzaa thought the crack was a ghost who haunted the bed where you slept. She kept asking you where you came from and what you had done wrong before birth. You didn’t know. You didn’t know whether Mzaa was mad at you or at herself for you. You didn’t know whether there was a ghost who had given you the crack or whether you had done something.
You touch your bottom lip. There is a crack there too, only smaller and more towards your left ear than the one on top. You wouldn’t mind having just that crack, but you have both. You have to eat slowly and speak slowly. Jengo says eating slowly is good for digestion anyways. You asked him where he heard that from and he told you that Zuberi told him. You told him that Zuberi doesn’t know anything.
You try to smile at Fuhara. She’s smiling at you. She’s learned to look past the cracks in your face. She’s learned not to question why you wear the scarf. You put her to work right away. Jengo will be here soon and food needs to be ready for him.
The meat and cashews are cooking over the fire. You forgot how hungry you were until you smelled the food. Furaha is hungry too. She looks at you with hungry eyes and you smile at her because this time she will get something to eat. Jengo always gets something to eat, and Furaha does too, mostly. If it’s been a good day in the field then you get to eat too. Today there looks to be enough for all of you. Your stomach growls and you look ravenously at the meat.
You hear laughter outside. Jengo must be back early. You are used to his coming before. The sun is lower before he comes though, so something bad must have happened today. You run up to the curtain and eagerly brush it aside. Zuberi is standing there with Jengo. They are talking. They stop talking when you come outside. You see Jengo hide something behind his tanned back. Zuberi says nothing.
“I will be inside in a moment.” Jengo says. You shake your head. Jengo hisses something at Zuberi. He looks at you. He walks towards you, with his pompous man strides. You know better than to trust him. He has all sorts of spells and potions to keep the ghosts away. Mzaa even asked him once about the cracks on your face, but he had nothing for you. You’ve never seen him in person, at least not without your scarf on. You feel naked standing in front of him. You look down. You want to run back inside and hide from the world. Zuberi stops walking.
“Jengo said you were ugly, but he was lying to me. You are hideous.” Zuberi says and spits at your face. You reel back in surprise and shame. Zuberi starts to laugh. “The ghost has not gone away from her face!” He exclaims to Jengo.
“No.” Jengo says quietly. He nods for you to go inside. Numb, you walk back inside. Furaha is sitting guiltily on her mat. The meat is still cooking on the fire, though it looks smaller than usual.
“D-did you eat-t thome?” You ask. She shakes her head. She giggles. “What-t?”
“You talked Mzaa.” She said, chuckling. “You talk funny.” She smiles at you. You do not respond. You walk out the door again. Zuberi is walking down the road. Jengo calls after you as you walk behind the house. He follows you to the grass. You clench your fists. Mzaa always said you were an ugly child, but was it your fault? Did you cause the cracks to appear? Did you cause Furaha to get sick and so you couldn’t get the cracks to go away? Jengo walks up behind you. He puts his hand on your shoulder. You move away.
“You bought-t them-m ag…ain didn’t-t you?” You ask, thinking about the thing behind his back. He steps back, looking offended.
“Yes.” He finally replies.
“Why d-do you d-do it?” You ask.
“I do it,” he says angrily. “For the same reason you wear the scarf.” You shake your head.
“Not-t tr…ue.” You reply. He grabs your wrist and pulls you to him. You find yourself bent over backwards and looking into his angry eyes.
“I do it because I have to. I have to feel the comfort again. I have to feel happy. Subira, I hate this life. I’m married to a hideous woman. I have to work every day for a measly handful of food. I want to feel happy.” He looks like a furious cow just before it is about to charge. You know this look before. Earlier when you were first married you could soothe him. These days he has become a harder man to soothe. Instead you find yourself pleading.
“T-then l-leave m-me if…if you th…ink…I’m ug-gly.” You reply. He squints his eyes at you and punches you in the mouth. You double over in pain. You close your eyes as the pain shoots into your mouth and nose.
“I can’t.” He says. “People will talk.” He’s blunt. “Come, let’s eat.” He stands you up and drags you back to the hut. You say nothing. The cracks in your mouth begin to bleed. You wipe them off as much as you can.
The missionaries taught you about a man in the sky. You pictured Jengo’s smiling face looking down on you. But now you know it’s not right. The missionaries said you were separate from the man in the sky, that you were fragmented, from the man in the sky. At the time you wondered what that long word, fragmented meant. But now, as Jengo drags you to the house, as the cracks in your lips bleed, you understand what it means.