The light rays coming through the raffia-woven window in the room illuminated the entire space, blinding the younger occupant of the small bed at the corner of the room. The girl, squinting her eyes in a bid to adjust to the light, stretched her body upwards to reach the window which was not far away and used a cloth to block the rays. Able to see properly with the controlled light, the girl breathed in deeply and yawned. She looked down at the older occupant of the bed and greeted in the native language.
“Good Morning, Mama. Lai giesan”
The century-old woman lay rigid like a stone, her face looking up at the palm-frond ceiling and the lizard-infested walls. Her entire body, apart from her face was covered with thick folds of cloth. She blinked slowly, almost deliberately and as if in response to the younger woman’s greeting since her lips were unmoving.
The girl smiled a little and lay on her side, supporting her weight with her elbow. She said a few words of prayer quietly and crossed herself.
As soon as her prayers ended, the century-old woman started to groan, her wordless lips making pouts and her face distorting in a way to show discomfort. The girl scrunched up her nose and sat up. She removed quickly the folds of wrapper on her body and revealed a thick mess of excreta on the bed.
The century-old woman continued to moan and groan painfully, her body still rigid as the girl got up and stood by the side of the bed. She pulled the old woman away from the mess on the bed and made her lie face down. She quickly dashed to the corner of the room, grabbed a pail of water and a thick cloth and went back to the bed.
With care, she wiped the smelling mess off the century-old woman’s naked buttocks and cleaned her legs with a wet towel while the woman’s moaning increased, only subdued by the position she was stuck in—face down.
The girl, finally done with the wiping, sat the old woman up, supporting her back with a stuffed pillow. The century-old woman’s small, shaved skull wobbled like a few-months old baby and her eyes seemed to lose focus. The girl held her neck gently and used a finger to check her eyes. Little particles of what seemed like dirt swam in her startlingly grey pupils and the whites of her eyes were dull- crimson, little purple veins spread like small strings across her eyes. The girl examined the other eye as well and reached for the bottle on the shelf beside the bed. With a hand holding the supporting-pillow in place, she opened the bottle and dropped some of it’s liquid content directly into her eyes.
The century-old woman blinked rapidly—the first sharp movement she had made; and her strange-hued eyes became watery. A low moan came out of her lips again before a tear dropped, lining her squeezed facial skin.
“It’s okay, Mama lie down” The girl whispered, and made her lean on the pillow. The mess on the bed had begun to sting the nose. The girl grabbed the towel again and wiped the thick excreta off and into the bucket. Then, she held the handle and walked out of the room to dispose of it.
Coming back into the room, the century-old woman was slowly falling back into the stain on the bed, her eyes wide and her body stiff. The girl ran to her side at once and held her, preventing her from falling. She heaved a sigh of relief as she held her arms and then, her small, withered legs. Slowly, she carried the seemingly-weightless old woman to a chair by the corner, prepping her up once more with the pillow.
Quickly, she took the stained bedspread off the bed and soaked it in a bucket of water with some soap. She started washing the dirty cloth and humming a song.
“The River bed sings by the river...
Mama where are you?
I am lost and by the river bank...
Sing a song let me come to your side...”
She began to whistle as her hands firmly ran through the cloth.
The century-old woman started to moan again. The girl looked in her direction. Her lips and eyes were moving from side to side and her face was wrinkled visibly. The girl listened for a while to the moaning ; the sound beginning to have a steady rhythm. Then, she smiled, nodding her head as she knew then that the century-old woman was singing the same song she had been singing. When the old woman’s moans became strained—resembling a high-pitched note, the girl laughed heartily, throwing her head back and splashing water from the bucket around.
“Mama, you are such a good singer! You haven’t sung like that in a while. You should do it often” She said cheerily and thought she saw a hint of a smile from the old woman’s stoic face.
The girl paused and angled her head as if in thought. A smile played on her lips.
“You seem to be in a good mood today, Mama” She commented. The century-old woman’s lips spread wider than usual and the girl took it as a smile. Then, the wrinkled facial skin moved slowly to the side, facing the palm-frond window, half-covered by a small wrapper. The girl followed her gaze, now resting on the light coming from outside. Her eyes were lost-looking, as if she was not seeing what she wanted to see. Moments later, a tear dropped from her eyes.
“Mama, do you want to go out?” She asked, even though she knew the answer already. The century-old woman turned back to her and moaned once. The girl immediately left her washing and went to her chair. She carried the light-weight century-old woman the way she had done for her on the bed and walked out.
The porch was bright; illuminated by the natural light of the sun. The girl had to squint her eyes as she gently lay the old woman down on a small stool. She stood by her side and observed the tall trees in front of them. The light from the sun shone on the trees now, making them look like they burned at the tips. The new sun stood overhead, still peeping half-way through the clouds.
The century-old woman heaved a sigh, her eyes on the scenery and moaned again.
The girl looked at her.
She had never given much thought to what the century-old woman wanted to say or what she was thinking. She had watched the sun rise everyday, from the porch of the mud house with her and she had never thought anything of it.
Oddly then, as she observed the century-old woman’s little, frail form from where she stood beside her, she wanted to ask some of the many questions running through her head.
What was she thinking then, as she stared at the trees? What did she see when she opened those grey-hued eyes swirling with little particles? Did she still see as clearly as she, a young woman? Did the scene blur in her eyes and the trees each appear double? Did she feel frustrated by the obscure sight?
The girl remembered the century-old woman being helpless in a pool of excreta. Did the sight of herself in that mess disgust her? Did she feel ashamed, embarrassed and sad that she could not even help herself?
What did the century-old woman reflect on whenever she sang that River song? Did she sing it once for her children who were still alive? Did she remember them? Did she wonder where they were, what they ate, when they would come visit? Did she think they were right to think of her as a witch, living longer than most of them? Did she hate them? Did she love them, nevertheless?
Why did she cry? Was she tired of living? Did she feel so useless even to herself? Did she remember the day the news of her sons’ deaths in the war came to her? Did she blame herself for the plethora of six-feet dug holes in the compound? Did she cry for all her family and friends she had buried? Did she remember any of them? Or did she cry because she did not remember any of them? Because the faces of all the people she knew were now caricature sketches in her mind? Because she did not know who stared back when she looked at the mirror?
Did she appreciate the girl’s help? Did she see her with distant eyes? Did she sometimes pretend she was not there?
The century-old woman began to moan again on the stool. The girl’s thoughts were disrupted and she raised her brows, listening to her silent request. The girl smiled again after a few seconds. The century-old woman was singing the River Song. Joining in the humming, the girl moved her head from side to side feeling moisture in her eyes.
When the singing/moaning died down, the girl faced the century century-old woman and said:
“Mama, I will go away soon”
It was as if time stopped. The century-old woman remained unmoving. Even the leaves on the trees which swayed in the light breeze seemed to freeze. The girl breathed in deeply. Did she hear her? Did she understand her?
The century-old woman moaned, stopping her from speaking further. It was silent again.
“Mama, let me go and get you your chewing stick” The girl said, and without waiting for a moan of approval, left her on the porch to the guava tree at the side of the house. After plucking a handful of guava-produced chewing sticks, she returned to the porch.
The sight she met on the porch made the guava sticks in her hands fall to the ground. The century-old woman was on the floor beside the wooden stool she sat on minutes before, her legs astride and a pool of tears falling from her eyes.
“Mama! Mama!” The girl ran to her side at once. She had never seen her that way. The century-old woman’s weeping continued even when the girl lifted her back onto the wooden stool.
“Mama!” She whispered as she wiped the tears off her face. More tears from the century-old woman poured out, soaking her hand as they ran through her wrinkled face. The old woman’s eyes were boring into hers, the grey hue in them shining brightly. The girl started to cry as well, holding on to the old woman’s frail arms.
They were many questions the girl wanted to ask this woman. This woman who had lived for a century. But then, she knew the answer to a question then as she held the crying woman in her arms. It was not one of the questions she had asked in her mind, but she knew the answer already.
The century-old woman needed her.
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