Ma was the thunder.
Mossy mountains stood at the sky’s loopy edge, visible from home. When she chanted, she pulled in air so that her chest swelled, the better to let the words explode. The force of her voice could cleave those boulders half and half, no trouble at all.
Ma said seven was too old for a girl to be pampered, that it was time to learn how to be.
She awoke before the roosters each morning and shook me out of slumber. She held a candle to her face, its orange glow slicing the dark. Shadows shivered.
Ma always looked tired.
She never was.
I washed myself in the backyard, cupping cold water from a leaky bucket and splashing it all over my face. My blue slippers protected me from the stones, although the slippers were small now, maybe too small, though Ma didn’t think so, and when they got wet, they slid off easily. I returned to our room slowly, listening to the slap-slap-slap of worn soles on damp ground.
I had two choices for tops— a red shirt or a blue shirt. I went for the red, because yesterday was blue, then put on my skirt, then met Ma outside, past the front doorway where a door could someday go.
A crooked X was marked in paint on the bare concrete wall. All the houses here wore the X. They clustered together on either side of a zig-zagging dirt path, the way flower petals do, or angry bees. Ma said the government had marked our homes for demolition a long time ago. Told us we couldn’t live here. We fought back and won. For now.
She said that was how we survived— by never giving up.
Two baskets sat outside, banana bunches for Ma, nylon-wrapped groundnuts for me. We lifted them and started walking. The roosters caught on to the rising light and filled the blue-black air with their sad-song wails: coo-coo-roo-coo.
We walked in silence. The days ran long, and Ma said we needed every bit of energy. Some mornings, we came across the same stray dog, a skinny thing with yellowish-brown fur, bone ridges pressed against its hairless patches. Its paws raked through road-side mounds of fallen frangipani leaves and discarded plastic bags, its eyes forever downturned. We were invisible.
It took us 4,202 steps to arrive today. The sun was a big angry ball in the sky. It baked my skin. Ma’s. She said sweat was good, a sign of hard work.
Big Road was never big at the start. Cars zipped by. Buses too, filled with gray faces, lumpy bags of yam, and market-bound goats on the way to become pepper soup. But an hour later, the vehicles didn’t zip so much as crawl. Drivers honked and swore. Windows rolled down.
Ma said the heat made them hungry. You saw it in their darting eyes and chapped lips. We weaved through the thin, smoky gaps, seeking targets.
“Banana and groundnut,” Ma chanted, her stomach full of air. “Banana and groundnut.”
Ma said we needed to move like music. Our legs could never shake. Head never low. She planted herself in front of their large, dusty windows. I stood beside her, my basket lifted to the clouds. Most times, they looked away, as if afraid, as if guilty.
But even then, she remained.
“Banana and groundnut.”
We moved on after thirty seconds. Big Road was full of empty bellies, men mopping liquid foreheads with crinkled napkins, women with overgrown children crying in the backseat. Sometimes, they called us. Beckoned with nods or snapping fingers or sssss, like a snake.
“How much?” they asked.
A banana bunch was two hundred naira. A groundnut bag was fifty naira. Sometimes, they counted out the notes in tens and twenties, licking their fingers between steps. I watched carefully, searching for trickery. Sometimes, they scoffed and rolled up their windows. Sometimes, they twisted their faces and asked for cheaper.
Ma said we never bargained. To take less than fair was to insult ourselves.
Big Road stayed big until the sun got sad and ran away. We never left before the sun. Sweat thickened on my flesh until it felt like new skin. My arms started to pinch and knot. My legs ached, blue slippers slap-stop-slapping on the scorched pavement. At least there was no rain today. I hated the way water pulled my clothes into my skin, my teeth rattling like rocks in the wind.
The sky was black-black when we returned home. Ma warmed a half-cob of corn over stove flames. I ate slowly, and she didn’t at all, said she would later. I watched her untuck neat cylinders of cash from beneath her waist wrapper and start counting. As if she needed to. Sixty-six tens, twelve twenties, four fifties, and a badly-torn hundred. Enough for three rice pouches at Kilishi Market, two if she got chicken, but September wasn’t a meat month.
We laid on our mats, pressing into the fabric’s scratchy purple, stretching bodies full of cracks. Ma faced away from me. I could never tell when she was asleep. Beyond her motionless body, through the doorway, slow-shifting clouds hid the sword-tipped mountains. The stars were small and dim, like fireflies that had flown too high and couldn’t find their way back down. Lost. Maybe a little afraid. I wondered if they liked the same rain I loathed, if the waters washed them into the earth and brought them home. I wondered if Ma preferred the sun or the rain.
In my dreams, she spun in the storm, laughing.
Vincent Anioke is a software engineer at Google. He was born and raised in Nigeria, but now lives in Canada. His short stories have appeared in Carve Magazine, Callaloo, and Literary Orphans, among others. He was also a fiction finalist in the 2020 Thomas Morton Prize for Literary Excellence. Find him on Twitter at @AniokeVincent.