I wonder if Bambo would give me fifty tambala for thread. Chikondi carried the tin cup of steaming, sweet tea. Very carefully she shifted the hot cup from one hand to the other, but she kept her eyes on the silver rim where the tea might slosh over. She was afraid to ask him. She
couldn't tell him it was for embroidery thread. He’d be so angry! She knew there were no extra tambalas for what he would call “nonsense.” She glanced up at him. He sat on the far side of their earthen yard, the unbuttoned sleeves of his red-and-black-checked shirt pushed up his arms.
She looked at the tea leaves moving in the bottom of the cup, patterns swimming and changing. In her mind she saw the design she was sewing. If only I had some more red thread to finish it. Maybe after he's had his tea, I can ask him. But he’s been looking at the papers in his brown envelope again, and then he’s always cross.
The tea was light and clear because her mother had put lemon in it instead of milk. Last night Bambo had taken his brown envelope and gone to the bar to drink. He was there until late in the night. He preferred lemon in his morning tea after he had been drinking.
Now he sat in the deep shade of an avocado tree at the edge of the clearing around their
house. Near him the big brown envelope rested across some stones to keep it from getting dirty.
Kondi shifted the cup in her hands again, being very careful not to spill it as she walked across the yard. He’ll go to sleep after his tea, she thought. I'd better ask him when he wakes up.
Bending to hand the cup to Bambo, she tripped on a stick of firewood in front of her
foot. With the next step she stumbled. Hot tea spilled over her hand. She jerked, and scalding tea poured down her father’s arm to his elbow and onto the brown envelope below.
“Ahh!” Bambo yelled, shaking his scalded arm. “Worthless child! You are always careless!”
Kondi’s hand flew to her mouth. “Mai-o! Pepani! Don’t beat—” Bambo’s fist slashed toward Kondi’s head. She threw up her arm to protect herself. Bambo’s hand connected and she spun sideways across the hard-packed yard. A chicken flapped away with a loud squawk as she fell in the gravel on one knee.
“My envelope! You've ruined my envelope!” Bambo danced with rage.
Needles of pain stabbed through her head. Clutching her ear and clamping her eyes shut she clenched her teeth to keep from crying. Jumping to her feet, she stumbled down the short path to the road, opening her eyes long enough to drop over the steep embankment onto the dirt roadside.
A truck loaded with bags of maize careened around the corner. Fear squeezed Kondi's heart and pumped her feet into a wild dash. She leaped up the bank on the other side of the road and grabbed a handful of coarse grass with one hand, thrashing like a rabbit in a snare. The truck blared as it roared behind her. With the other hand she caught the root of a tree and hauled herself up. Men sat laughing on the top of the bags of maize. Throwing herself into the rough grass, Kondi wriggled from bush to bush, crawling on her hands and knees. After a bit she stopped to rest beneath a flame tree.
“Where are you? I’ll beat you flat!”
Kondi’s head jerked around.
“You’ve ruined my envelope! I’ll beat your skinny bones!” Her father stood on the road bank brandishing a stout stick over his head. She scrambled away through the weeds deeper into the brush.
Finally, exhausted, she propped herself under the shade of a large protea bush with its spiky pink-and-white flowers turning themselves inside out. Tears began to roll down her cheeks as she rubbed her stinging face and aching ear. The meaning of my name is a cruel joke. A trickle of blood ran down her leg. To me, love is only a dream. Mai may love me, but Bambo doesn’t. If only he would!
“I hate Bambo!” she asserted angrily, plucking a soft leaf to wipe away the blood. She remembered the laughing men in the truck. “I hate them, too!” In her mind she threw rocks at them.
After awhile she heard her mother calling from the edge of the road, but she didn't answer.
Kondi moaned to herself. No one loves me – not even Mai. Why does Bambo beat me? I didn’t mean to spill the tea. Even adults have accidents sometimes. Kondi held one hand to her throbbing ear. She knew Mai would never leave Bambo, but she wished, somehow, for their home to be a place of peace, instead of fear. Using another leaf, she wiped her knee again—red blood on brown skin.
When the sun beamed high overhead, she stood up and started down the hill toward the well near the bottom where she could wash her knee and get a drink. She gazed at the purple-blue
mountains across the wide valley. They seemed painted against the blue sky, so clear she felt she could reach out and touch them. Each peak wore a fluffy white cloud. Like old, humped women with wooly hats on. But seeing the purple mountains like that didn’t make her feel happy as it usually did.
At the well, Kondi put her leg under the spout. The hot metal handle reminded her of the hot tin tea cup and all the morning’s trouble. The pump screeched several times before warm water gushed over her leg. Gingerly, she washed the dried blood from her knee and gently blotted it with the hem of her skirt.
Just then she heard steps on the path. Someone was coming! Is that Bambo's red and black shirt? Fear pulsed into her fingertips as she started to run.
She stopped and turned. It was her mother. Kondi stood still near a bush, punching holes in one of its broad leaves with her fingernail. She looked at her mother, then looked away.
“I’ve been calling and calling you, Kondi.”
“I didn’t burn him on purpose, Mai. I didn’t! It was an accident.”
“Of course it was.” Mai moved closer. “I wasn’t calling you to punish you. Are you all right? Your knee is bleeding!” She began to pump a bucket full to the brim while she talked. “Come. I’ll send you to the clinic in town. You need a bandage. On your way home you can stop at the market to buy greens for supper.”
* * * * *
Most of the girls her age had several brothers and sisters to look after. “Maybe Mai will have a baby girl soon,” she would tell her friends at school. “Then I’ll have a baby sister to carry
on my back, just like the rest of you!”
Today, though, on her long walk to town, she felt too worried to even think about having a baby sister. She kept seeing her father’s arm come slashing down toward her head. Usually she enjoyed the scorching sun on her shoulders and seeing the wild flowers and butterflies. Usually she would stop near the road and take a long look at the black tracery of the jacaranda tree, with its lavender breath of blossom. Usually she would skip and run and call to her friends.
Today she walked head down, shoulders drooped, whacking here and there with a stick, raising dust. She struck at a yellow butterfly. It fell to the road and thrashed away with a torn wing. Kondi turned and walked backward, watching the butterfly stagger and dip in its erratic flight.
What’s in Bambo’s envelope anyway? Kondi dragged her stick in the dust. He carries it everywhere. Is there money in there, or letters, or what? She sighed heavily. I can’t see how an old torn envelope can be so important.
Suddenly, she bumped into something warm and soft. Bambo! She squinched her eyes and threw her hands up to protect her head. Something fell with a thud and a rattle, like spilling gravel. Metallic prickles of fear danced across her tongue.