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Fiction

Parebul of the Mother, Asked in Moonlight

Walking, crossing, moon-kissed streets, black top, blue jeans, unwashed. Her afro is home to a million brown-winged birds, everlastingly chirping. There’s a baby boy, eight months old, asleep in her arms, and maybe he dreams of beautiful spinning star-like things because he doesn’t know of the hurt in the heart that loves him. There’s a boy of seven by her side, at her elbow, walking, crossing, moon-kissed streets, maybe he hums that playful up-down melody because he doesn’t know of the hurt in the heart that loves him—or, maybe he knows it well, he’s old enough, and to hum is to reach out a hand in the dark, whispering, Ma, we’ll be alright; Ma, I’m here with you. They arrive at Bombay Market, spat-out angels. It’s dark. It’s cold. A bulb flickers on a far-off wall. There’re others here, who moan, who cry, who murmur to themselves. What pain lives among the clustered people? One more night underneath scarred tables, she whispers to her sons. One more night drenched in the smell of ogiri and onion and pepper. One more night. What’s a mother’s lie in the gloom, if not an act of love, of protection? Tomorrow, they’ll go out and try again.

• • • •

A falling away of the stars, a soft-bluing of the sky, and they go out and try again. Once, she had a name, and the children had names—but be in the streets of Freetown long enough, and your name drowns in the water-logged gutters. What remains with the dirt? The Mother. The Homeless Mother with Two Kids. The Boy of Seven. The Baby Boy.

The Mother stands before an old woman called Nyanya, who’s more a scabrous toad with silver locs than an old woman. I’m looking for a home, she says to her.

Looking, looking, Ma and me and baby boy.

Nyanya asks the Mother, How long have you been looking for a home?

Ten thousand years, lisps the Boy of Seven, sleepy, slippery in his dragon onesies.

No. Three months. His head’s in the clouds, says the Mother, bobbing with the Baby Boy.

Are you running from something?

The Mother gives silence as an offering, and the old toad woman takes it. Anyway, she says. Many come here looking for a place to stay, but are never willing to pay me. She points to the house: pink zinc united, electric blue tarpaulin. The shack lumps in a cut on a mountainside, Mount Sugarloaf, beside that shrubbed scar, that many-yeared-memory of a rainy-day landslide. If not for the rusty anchor weighing it down, it might’ve flown into the clouds. I don’t ask for much. But for you to stay, you gotta win a game of balans-bɔl, yes. Me and my husband Yusuf versus you and your sons.

Okay, says the Mother. She hasn’t played the game since childhood, balans-bɔl. But you can’t say no to anything that means a home.

Come on, then.

On a field behind the mountains, in the shadows of the city: the Mother knows the ball in Nyanya’s hand should be made of wet paper in a sock, but she doesn’t question when she sees a bright orb of fire. Nyanya throws the flame to her husband at the other end. He catches it, throws back.

The first team to get twenty dodges, wins.

Team 1: the Mother, son in arms, son by her side, running, spinning, jumping from flame. One Two Three Four Five Breathless Six Seven Eight Nine Pain on her knee Ten Slip Eleven—the amber ball burns, with a gentle kiss, her left sleeve. Birds fly out her hair. Lost lost lost. Hurt in her heart.

Team 2: Nyanya and Yusuf take the centre. Lovers, after all these years, so they hold hands.

Ball moves, in the air, between the Mother and the Boy of Seven, like dreams, or pain.

The old toad couple give their all to reach twenty dodges. One Two Three. What is the landscape of their existence? Reshaping their bodies, leaping away from the ball, displaying grace made flesh. Effortless. The gravel beneath their aged feet has nothing on them. Eighteen Nineteen Twenty Won.

I’m sorry, you can’t stay here. You can’t pay. Nyanya enters a seizure of laughter, hysterical. You can’t play. You can’t pay. You can’t stay.

Please, another game . . . I can’t go back. The kids. More hurt in her heart. To be unable to provide a resting place for your children.

No.

To lie again to the boys. One more night. A lie that becomes a mantra, a wish. Please—

Leave my land!

They’re returning, three on moon-kissed streets, reluctant feet, to the place with the clustered people. The Mother sobs. The Baby Boy doesn’t know the difference between his dreaming and waking yet. The Boy of Seven begins to hum.

• • • •

Another day yawns, dozing off into night, and, still, they’ve not found a home.

Tears like glass ghosts on the Boy of Seven’s eyes. Glass ghost, glass ghost, glass ghosts about to fall. A butterfly flutters on the edge of his downturned lips. A faded red plate in his hands. Rice and potato leaves. Spoon lazes with the yellow grains.

The Mother watches him, gaze scalding, scolding. Eat, she says. Please. Eat. Eat.

No, says the Boy of Seven. I want my plate with the dragons in it! I’m a dragon rider.

In plates, in spoons, in cups, in books, in tables, in chairs, little drops of home.

Go for it, Ma, he says.

Know how many kids are starving out there? Know how many kids who’d want to be where you are?

They’re at an old friend’s house, Spur Road, on an inky floating granite rock, a friend who told them she had no space to spare, but she had faded red plates of rice and potato leaves they could enjoy for the evening.

Eat. Or I will—

No! I want my plate—

The Mother slaps the Boy of Seven on the back, when he flings the plate and turns it into a wingless crimson crow crashing down. She hits him again. Why would you do that, why? The sun that burns her neck everyday as she searches for a new home, searches for food, searches for hope. The moon and the stars that laugh at her when she sleeps beneath their nakedness and ice. Her parents, for dying so early, limiting her choices in this world. God because with Him all things are possible, yet He gives her ache, though she prays hard and goes to church every Sunday. Most of all, that man who pushed her to abandon her home with only her sons in her hands and nothing else, that man who once screamed into the vastness of the earth that he loved her with all the blood flowing in his raw heart. What’s the true name of a lifted hand? It lands on her son. Eat.

• • • •

—more night. One more night. One more night. One more night. One more night. One more night. One more night. One more night. One more night in Bombay Market. One more night. A lie becomes a wish in the dark, in the rank, in the damp, becomes a mantra on a mother’s bleeding tongue. One more night. One—

• • • •

When they find the compound in the innards of Kissy Road, behind the half-fallen fence of a cemetery, it’s already night time. It’s windy. It’ll rain, rumble the clouds above. But, first, mother and sons meet with an ageless landlord made of smoke and tales.

Listen, says the landlord, who’s got a name like Warrior or Issa, listen—he always says listen before drifting, like daydreaming pollens, into another of his stories. See the apartments? Dotting my compound? Each has a different colour. Know why? Every colour represents that of someone who impacted my life. Over there, turquoise, my wife Isata. Great woman, changed my soul when I was drowning, you know?

The Mother stares at the landlord, at his mouth’s motion as he pronounces his words. How can such a strong voice leap out of fragile smoke? Her sons are asleep on her body, as are the brown-winged birds in her hair. I don’t think I can pay the money you’re asking, she cuts in. I clean other people’s homes. How much do I make?

And there’s teal for my sister Mabinty. Shell-pink for a father-in-law of an ex-wife, Alicious Cole. He was a writer, before he became dead, wrote short stories and poetry and dreams. He never told me he liked shell-pink or anything, but if you pay attention, really, you’ll see the colour a person carries. Do we come into the world carrying that colour, an innate romance? Does it change over time? I have never met a changing colour. I don’t really know. Yours is pink, by the way, shell-pink,  just like dead Alicious Cole. He made me believe everything I believe now, that fellow.

I need to go. The rain. She begins to leave. She shakes and wakes the Boy of Seven.

I have a room in that one, purple, painted for myself. You could stay there. But only if you tell me a parebul I’ve never heard before. Something I can’t answer. Listen. I love parebul.

Hope glows on the Mother’s thin face again.

Ma knows all the parebul in the world. She riddles me and my brother when we sit outside, all the time. Parebul, parebul, black wind, something about to fall from the sky, says the Boy of Seven.

The landlord made of smoke and stories laughs. He folds his arms. Rain, he says.

Easy! But my mother will win you. I know.

Then mother, what do you have for me?

She thinks, shifting her weight. Parebul, parebul, a lady sits, tears dripping from her eyes.

He says, A lit candle, wax melting.

She says, Parebul, parebul, a red star falls, bruising.

He says, An apple.

She says, Parebul, parebul, I throw away the bride, the bride follows me in the breeze.

He hesitates, marble eyes squinting.

She smiles. Home. Home. Home. She likes the apartments here. She’ll love settling in a place like this. Serene. Hidden but not too isolated . . . you hear the traffic if you listen hard enough. The Boy of Seven also says he likes it here, simple but with all you need inside. The Baby Boy doesn’t know the difference between his dreaming and waking yet.

Got it. Who’s the bride, eh? Ash. Ashes.

Her smile fades. Parebul, parebul . . .

And it goes on and on, into midnight, forever.

Every parebul she flips into the air, he brings down, clips the wings and gives a name. Her hope drains away, a crumbling of the light. She’s ashamed of catching her son’s downcast eyes. What happens when a son loses belief in his own mother? But my mother will win you. But the Mother fails. No home. Back to Bombay Market. One more night.

Come back when you get something new for me.

Wait . . . the rain . . . keep us in for the—

Like smoke will always do, the landlord disappears without a trace.

They’re alone, out of the compound, the Homeless Mother and Her Two Kids.

The nearby cemetery whines.

Heart thumps. Birds chirp. Butterflies fall dead.

The Mother watches the thrumming rain. She must trudge through with her sons, unbidden baptism. The Boy of Seven begins to hum.

Running, crossing, weeping, rain rain rain.

Please, God, don’t let my children get sick, God. A mother never prays for herself in a storm.

• • • •

At Bombay Market, rivers falling through the roof, thunder, lightning, the Mother fails to wake from her tangerine fever dreams. Ma, she hears a voice in the infinity of her mind. Ma, wake up, you’re trembling so bad like a flame. Ma. Ma.

Is this dying?

Ma!

Dreams herself as a child and in the hands of her father. At Masongbo Village, mist-smeraed by the highway. Her father’s running, playful and strong. He lifts her. He teaches her the importance of flight. Her mother paces beside them. They’re all laughing. Then they all fall down, dead, all three of them. Ebola, ashes. Then she’s alive. They left her in this world. The betrayal that’s the death of a parent. An uncle gives her a blue-and-white book and a pencil, and points her to the road she must follow to go to school. But she loses her way, drifting, wandering. When she does reach the school, she sleeps through classes and cries all day for her dead mother and dead father. Her uncle tells her, in the end, by the lemon groves, he can’t pay for her anymore. His lips move like vulture wings. She must stay home and work the farms.

Ma! Baby Boy is crying. Baby Boy wants you here. I can’t carry him anymore. He’s so heavy. I know the weight of the ones we love shouldn’t matter. A child shouldn’t be so versed in the weight of things, the weight of homelessness, the weight of a brother, the weight of watching a mother die.

Is this dying?

Die and leave the young ones where? She has seen how the orphans in Bombay Market dissipate. No one stays real for long here. Sex workers. Drug addicts. Clustered people. Even ghosts only pass through, afraid. The streets are strange, always been, always will be, but behind your fences, your walls, your gates, your ornate or simple doors, you go blind to the idea. You forget. Birds and insects make homes on the bodies of the homeless, in their hair, beneath their skin. Beggars and orphans wake up invisible some mornings because no one has seen them in a while. Foday & Linda, burst into indigo cornflowers on a roadside, break into petals, because of forgotten love. Maybe ghosts can’t haunt shell-pink worlds built on smoke and tales. Maybe—

Ma! You’re making no sense. Wake up. I need you.

Dreams herself as a teenager on a mud-brick bus heading for Freetown. She’s cramped so close to her cousin Amina, they almost become the same person. Freetown City where dreams come true. They’ll start small. Sell at Abacha Street. Become big business women. Then they’ll rule the world. Then Amina’s telling her she’s pregnant for a man who doesn’t exist, a man who only lives in dreams. She wants to abort, but she has no money for the hospital, so she shoves the ends of a wire between her thighs. For a long time after her cousin’s death, she couldn’t tell where her dead body ended and her living one began. Freetown’s hard to navigate alone, on your own. She undulates without a tether. One odd job to the next. Cleaning houses. Hawking in the streets. The years pass, blades pulled across the eye. Then a man comes. He sees her selling plantain chips at Aberdeen Road. He befriends her. He gives her money to start a business of her own, something not so much under the sun. They make a home together. She no longer needs to squat at friends’ houses. He screams into the vastness of the earth that he loves her with all the blood flowing in his raw heart until his voice explodes into fire and blood. Where are the red flags in the wind? Then she’s pounding rɛs-pap for her sons and the evening star’s a bleeding thing filling up all her crevices. A certain type of truth’s reborn at the mingling of our histories and dreams.

Ma, they’re taking you away now. We’re all crying. Do dragon riders cry? Ma, is this dying? Jeremiah’s here. Don’t leave us . . . without a home.

• • • •

Is this heaven? the Mother asks the white room, the white sheets, the white blankets. Everything’s made of glaring-white, lemon-scented fog. Three faces peer down at her, smiling. The Boy of Seven, with a new haircut. The Baby Boy in the hands of oval-faced Jeremiah from church.

Welcome back, Sister, rasps Jeremiah. Typhoid and other infections and the rain hit you bad. But the Lord is in control. The doctors say you will be out by the weekend. Your smart son told the others to call me, saved your life.

It takes a while for everything to sink in.

She winces at her son’s strong embrace. Her bones tingle. Thank you.

The boys have been staying with me. They like it there. I have a spare room. My wife has agreed. You can stay with us until things clear up for you.

Tears to her eyes. Why didn’t she ever reach out to him? Thank you . . . She wishes to say more, but only thank-you spills from her mouth, like blossoms in moonlight.

And sometimes we search and search for home, but we only find it when it’s ready to find us. Headless landlords. Old toad landladies. Landlords made of smoke and tales. Landladies with lice in their beards. Landladies and landlords asking for payments in stranger currencies, gɛgɛ, aday, balans-bɔl, parebul, edging beyond the Leone. Houses on scarred lands. Houses hand in hand with the ocean. Houses on top of trees. Houses made of cloud and ghost-dream. The Mother will find home in that house at Wilkinson Road, after everything, the searching, on a hill dotted with neon flowers, bluebells scattered all around. And for a very long time, all Jeremiah will ask of her is that she prays with his family. Pay in sermons. She’ll pay. She’ll send the Boy of Seven back to school, Nick Palace. She’ll find a good job as a nanny. The Baby Boy will grow fat around the legs.

• • • •

The same month Jeremiah asks the Mother for something other than prayer for the first time, is the same month the man who screamed into the vastness of the earth that he loved her with all the blood flowing in his raw heart returns into her life.

April:

Please, please, I can’t. I can’t do this to your wife. My kids are outside. No. Your wife will be back at any time. She pushes him off, again.

He leans and pulls her closer. Embers fall from her body everywhere he touches her.

The smell of oranges in a burning field.

Jeremiah, please.

Smell of burning. He runs a hand along her naked thigh. You’re being ungrateful. God hates ungratefulness.

You’re like a brother to me. She’s just from the shower, sprinkled in dew. You’re scaring me.

His hands hover over her breasts. He licks his lips. His fingertips are made of glowing-hot spikes. His oval face shapeshifts into a ragged square thing. I will come back, he says, when you want me. I am not a bad man, Sister. But what landlord doesn’t ask for his pay, hmm?

But you said in sermons.

Silence.

Now I say you pay in sermon and flesh. He walks out of the room.

The Mother slumps into the chair by the window. Her breaths come rough, defeated, unbelieving. She’s lost in an earthquake of her body, when she spots a man with glasses looming on the brown back road outside. Dusk hits his glasses. Glare spills. He dons a golden suit. He mouths at her, Come back home, my love, this isn’t a home.

She gasps.

Then he’s gone, a shooting star across a clouded sky, and she’ll blame his appearance on imagination—that the fear of one monster can birth reveries of another.

May:

Jeremiah’s lips are the stem of a rose. I love you, he rasps and forces a kiss on the Mother’s lips. Blood trickles from their mouths, the genesis of pain.

Stop this! I’ll tell your wife. She punches him off, but he doesn’t move, embers falling.

You know you know you want me.

The mother begins to scream: a scream so loud it turns Jeremiah to ice, silver and thin, and melts him away for a while. But when the wife Aaliyah comes in the evening, the Mother chooses silence because she fears all the uncertainties her truth might bring.

She cuddles with her sons and cries the length of night. Why do these things keep happening to us? Hurt in her heart.

The Boy of Seven begins to hum.

June:

A dream heralds his second coming.

In his shiny, golden suit. Torrents of blood. He cups the crimson liquid in his hands, and says to the Mother, All my love for you, drink. Hermit crab, only the home we made can fit your body. Do not settle. Come back.

I don’t want to remember. I don’t want to—the Mother jolts awake with a grunt of blue agony.

And there he is, posing in a corner of the room, beside an old mirror.

How did you get in here—leave.

He paints the clearest picture of halcyon, in his golden hat and golden suit—over-pressed. It’s easy to steal keys off some men. Jeremiah is one. His voice echoes off the walls. He laughs, mellow.

What do you want?

Come back home. I miss you. I love you with all the blood flowing in my raw heart. I miss my sons.

It’s funny. Do you know how much I have been through with the boys because of you?

You were the one who decided to leave, run off into the night ten thousand years ago. Or is it months? Lost love and lost homes warp time.

You pushed me to leave. I couldn’t get rid of you.

Right. It’s lonely out there. Come back with me. He extends a bony, glinting hand.

Her eyes remain fixed on his glasses, their nacreous edges. After all that you did to me?

What about what you did to me?

Stop—

Tell me my sins and I will tell you yours.

Stop—

Yes, I was manipulative. Yes, I cheated. Yes, I drank too much. Yes, I hit you. But does it justify m—

You almost killed our son!

It was an accident.

The only reason you are back is because this house no longer feels like home, safe. Even Bombay Market held me safer.

Go back, then? he lisps. Thing is, no home will ever fit, hermit crab. It is your fault the children are aching. You know they are aching, right? They will grow up into nothing-men.

I have done my best! Her voice boils in rage. All I did I did for them. And I rather return into the leprose hands of Bombay Market than go back home to you.

Right. You know where to return, where the lights point. This is all talk. He walks away, out the room, his golden shoes smacking the tiles. No home will ever fit, my love. I will always find you. Look at the condition of this place. My god.

• • • •

She only leaves behind a letter to Aaliyah, about the hidden monsters in the people we say we love.

Wilkinson Road and its neon bluebells evanesce.

In the poda-poda, the Boy of Eight asks where they’re going. Are we returning to Bombay Market? He shudders.

Not Bombay Market—

I don’t want to go back to Pa.

He will never harm us again.

Where’re we going, then? He plays with his brother’s ears.

To the landlord made of smoke and tales. I have been thinking of new parebul for him. We’re going to get our own home. Just us. And it will fit. There’s so much I still need to figure out, but one step at a time.

I love parebul. The landlord was very good. I think he is a god. I hope you win him this time.

Hope so too.

I believe in you, anyway.

That means a lot . . . Remember that day at my friend’s house when I beat you because you missed a thing from our past? I’m sorry. I’m sorry for every ache I’ve ever caused you.

I’m sorry for every ache the world has given to us, says the Boy of Eight. A child so versed in the weight of things . . .

• • • •

Compound in the innards of Kissy Road, behind the half-fallen fence of a cemetery: they meet the landlord on his hammock, reading fairytales, beneath the silver moon.

The Mother wastes no time. Parebul, parebul, birds make home in my hair, she shouts. I want the pink apartment.

The landlord smiles his smokey smile. Homeless and nameless. The answer is the homeless and the nameless.

Parebul, parebul, he has no words, but he’s heavy.

A baby boy who doesn’t know the difference between his dreaming and waking yet.

Parebul, parebul, lips of thorns, fingertips of spikes.

He wakes. He thinks. Smoke puffs from his body. He answers, A rapist.

The Mother and the landlord stand face to face. Through the translucence of his body, she spots the tall, gold-suit man in the dark distance, arms folded, smiling, waiting to take her away.

She says, Parebul, parebul, silence over war.

He says, A woman afraid of losing home.

Parebul, parebul, gold hat, gold suit, gold shoes on a brown back road.

A ghost.

Not again. Heart racing, hurting. The gold-suit man’s calling them home. The Mother didn’t envision it’d be this hard. Her voice croaks. Parebul, parebul, a boy of seven humming in the rain.

A strange way of saying you love your mother.

How much must you do for a home? How many places must you go? How many times must hope die inside of you? The Boy of Eight begins to hum, holding the Mother’s hand. Must she go back to that palace of hurt? The gold-suit man heads towards them, sequin in the light of the moon. Parebul, parebul, a lie becomes a wish becomes a mantra, one more night.

A strange way of saying you love yourself and someone else.

The Baby Boy is starting to understand the difference between his dreaming and waking, now, but to what world will he wake up? Caterpillar sleeping in its cocoon of limbo, butterflying itself into hell, or a shell-pink world? The Mother closes her eyes. No home will fit. Come back, hermit crab. She digs deep. She’ll not fail her children. She’ll not fail herself. Parebul, parebul, walking, crossing, moon-kissed streets, black top, blue jeans, unwashed.

A—I don’t know. The landlord’s eyes light up, kaleidoscope-fireworks. He shoves two fingers into his mouth, down his throat, gagging, and pulls out a spit-covered key. Shell-pink. Alicious Cole. Yours, forever. Listen. I believe our stories should give us homes. Tell me the answer. Walking, crossing, moon-kissed streets, black top, blue jeans, unwashed.

She says, in the moonlight, A mother and a murderer, fleeing the ghost of her husband. The Mother takes her key from the landlord. The Boy of Eight smiles. The Baby Boy wakes to a shell-pink world, none of the darkness of his dreams. He yawns, and smiles at his brother.

And the gold-suit man, the gold-suit man—what becomes of golden ghosts

when they no longer know

how to haunt us?

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Victor Forna

Victor Forna. A young Black man in glasses, wearing a pink shirt, standing in front of green leaves, nearly but not quite smiling.

Victor Forna is a Sierra Leonean writer based in his country’s capital, Freetown. His short fiction and poetry have been published or are forthcoming in homes such as Fantasy Magazine, PodCastle, Lightspeed Magazine, Strange Horizons, and elsewhere. He is an alumnus of the 2022 AKO Caine Prize Writing Workshop. You can find him on Twitter @vforna12.