MAIBA'S RIBBON

On his mattress, Mwanyisa draws a line round his left arm above the wrist with a green pen from the school house. He found the pen on the floor, under the lockers. Not that the lockers are any use now. The doors hang off broken hinges. The whole thing looks drunk. Like the old men who slouch against walls rubbing their toes in the dust as if they were going to draw something rude and call out ‘Come and see!’

Hondo is asleep on the next mattress. Mwanyisa can hear his breathing, even, and a ‘huh’ every so often and a scrabble as he turns over. It’s not easy for Hondo to turn over now. But at least he doesn’t shout out any more in his sleep, or swear at Mwanyisa, “Get the fuck over here and turn me over…” because his arms are healing. The skin is knitting where they cut off his hands.

It’s not so easy to draw a green line round the right arm. Mwanyisa is right handed. They told him that at the school. They said he had one strong hand and one weak hand, and the stronger always told the weaker what to do. “Like a big brother tells his little brother what to do, and the little brother follows…”

Mwanyisa asked whether it was better to be right handed or left handed, and the teacher laughed and said it didn't matter.

Last night, Mwanyisa tied string round his left arm, tied tight, pulling the knot strong with his teeth. And he lay there while his hand throbbed and ballooned, and he thought it might burst.

Hondo can still feel his hands. Mwanyisa knows this is true, because he’s seen Hondo going to unzip. Then banging his head against the wall. Or reaching for a cup, and his arm just swinging past in the air.

Hondo doesn’t snarl any more when Mwanyisa gets him dressed. Mwanyisa does, when the other boys in the camp snigger. They only do that once, and it’s usually the ones who are too young to feel it in their heads, but too old to stare.

Before the lockers were broken, Mwanyisa laughed from behind the schoolhouse. Before the tables were burned in the open, the last time he was a naughty little brother and ducked under Hondo’s fist and ran away. Hondo was being grown-up and important; the teacher had given him a badge, and he’d worn it all day when the school house was used for the elections. And then he was wearing the badge every day in school, and Mwanyisa said “You think you are President!” and Hondo swung with his fist.

Mwanyisa ran for ages, ducking behind the huts, giggling, hiding under the floor of the church building, watching the sun coming through the floorboards, playing with a ribbon he found down there. Still tied in a bow, a pink check ribbon. Maiba’s.

Mwanyisa untied it slowly, making plans to tell her he’d give it back if she gave him a real kiss, a grown up kiss like Hondo did with the girls.

And then he’d heard engines. Loud ones, trucks, not cars. and instead of excited shouts, there were cries. Screams. And he’d stayed under the church, and somehow, Maiba’s ribbon had found its way into Mwanyisa’s mouth.

Then, there were engines again, and then silence, and then slowly, sounds came back. One low moan. Then another. Then ululation, but it started low, and built up in waves until it sounded like the whole village was crying.

Mwanyisa holds his arms up. He spreads his fingers out and tries to imagine. But he can’t. He keeps hearing Mama’s voice outside the window - and yesterday, he thought he saw his father nailing a plank back on the church roof - but people who are taken away in the trucks never come back.

Once, he asked Mama why he and Hondo had such different names. Why he had to be called Mwanyisa, the one who accepts defeat, when his big brother had a man’s name, a warrior’s name, strong and brave. She laughed, and said it didn’t matter. Just like the teacher laughed when she said being right or left handed didn't matter.

But Mwanyisa knows that it does. And he curls on his side, away from Hondo, and stuffs Maiba's ribbon in his mouth.