(14): 12th March, 2024 set in São Tomé, São Tomé and Principe

Featured & Cover (14) 12th March 2024 set in São Tomé São Tomé and Principe

Eu não posso acreditar que a minha mae tivesse estado comigo para dois meses, Father reflects to himself as he chews on his calulu. Actually, it has been more like a month and a half, but Father has been busy with work at the hospital. There’s only one public hospital in the entire city of São Tomé, a little far from where he lives, and he oversees more than forty patients in the course of an hour. It’s only in the hours of the evening after he comes home that he has time to savour the taste of the fish his wife makes, sit by the television beside his mother, and chat with her, making her feel young again by sharing the stories of his childhood. How the hours pass, with Father telling long stories about the things he did with his brothers in the coastal town of Vila Malanza, such as how they would cheat each other at football or how they’d spend hours hiking around the crags alongside the ocean without telling any of the adults, just to feel the fresh saltiness of the breeze, the uninterrupted humid smell of the green groves.

A piece of spinach is stuck in between Father’s teeth. He tries to suck it out from the back of his throat, and when that doesn’t work he tries to push it out with his tongue. He pricks at it with his nails, but it refuses to come out. Father finishes his meal and attends to his hygiene in the mirror of the guest bathroom. The spinach is wedged in between his front two teeth like a flag.

As he is taking care of it, Father senses something.

Does my mother have something to say to me? 

14 February, 2024

« You know, it is a lot of work to deal with your mother. »

« I know already. »

« Artur, listen to me. It’s a lot of work. »

« I have to go to the hospital. You stay all day at home. What else can we do? »

« Artur, literally look at me. Don’t look at the phone. Look at your wife. »

Father was busy reading some text messages from the electric company, but he looked away, towards his wife, who had extended both of her arms towards him. They were full of red scratches and purple bruises.

« It is a lot of work to put your mother on the toilet. I am a frail woman. I am also almost seventy. Yesterday, I almost slipped on the water from the bath and could have hit my head. »

« We will get someone to help you at the house. »

« That is not all. Your mother scratches at me and hits me. Look at how she has marked me. It is like she is a kitten. »

« That is because she doesn’t remember who you are. She thinks you are a stranger, and she is defending herself. »

« Artur, this is all easy to say. You have to listen to me. It is a lot of work to be at home alone like this, dealing every day with your mother. »

« Deolinda, don’t worry. It will get better as you get used to it. »

Mother scoffed.

« That is easy for you to say given how little you are in the house. »

Father scoffed as well, almost mocking Mother’s response.

« I am hard at work, paying the bills for this family. »

« I know. » Mother said. She breathed in and out, measuredly, and folded her arms to herself. « And I appreciate your work.  »

Mother didn’t say anything else. She looked like she was observing the atmosphere of the room, then left it, to go back to her housework. Father was relieved to see the conversation was over, and he went back to reading the messages about the power shortages.

But a part of him knew that Mother wasn’t saying something that she really had to get off of her chest, and that part of his mind couldn’t stop wondering what it was.

12 March, 2024

It’s rare for Father to intuit these things. Unlike Mother, who seems to think every offhand sound in the background involves them, Father tends to not notice anything unless it occurs in his direct line of vision, or unless it involves his work. Father is still picking at the spinach between his teeth while looking at himself in the mirror. His skin has always been a light caramel, but he has noticed that he is getting dark freckles on his cheeks. His skin is also darkening in patches. He hopes that it isn’t cancer.

But the feeling doesn’t go away. Father has a strong sense that his mother has something important to say. The thought resounds in his head, though he doesn’t know for what reason. It’s not easy for him to talk to his mother. Each time they speak, there’s a stutter and a pause—and she usually ends up not saying a single thing. She swallows her words, her eyes go blank, and she returns to staring mindlessly at the wall.

Father doesn’t understand why it would be any different today.

7 March, 2024

Alda Alves squirmed in the wheelchair. It was seven in the evening, but it felt like it was seven in the morning, or seven in the evening from the day before. The same serial was playing on the television. The colours flashed in the background. The smell of frying fish filled the house.

Suddenly her body shook. There was no control to the shaking. It would not stop no matter what. It was because she wanted to move but she didn’t move. She wanted to stand but she wasn’t standing. She wanted to adjust her body in the wheelchair but the most she could do was vibrate to herself.

She clutched her earring. Why did she have an earring on? She did not put it in her ear. Her eyes were blinking and blinking and blinking. She wanted to try to take it off, but it was a struggle to get her arm to raise up to her ear, and so she gave up.

There was a book next to her. The Bible. The pages used to feel so warm against her fingers. She wanted to grab it but how. Her finger shook. The book is so big. How would she make her hand fit around it?

She rubbed the edges of the pages with her fingers and then slapped over the book. It fell onto the floor.

Deolinda rushed into the room.

« Mamãe, what are you doing? »

Her mother-in-law’s eyes shuddered like a window blind partially closed.

Deolinda picked up the Bible and put it back in its place on the table.

« Do you want me to read some of the stories from the book? »

At the moment at which she asked she got no response, so Deolinda returned to her work in the kitchen.

But in a few hours, Alda Alves reached for the pages again, trying her hardest to pick up the book.

12 March, 2024

Father leaves the bathroom and returns to the green living room, with its eggshell-blue paintings of the ocean on the walls. Theirs is one of the nicer houses in the city. They live in a two-storey cottage right by the ocean, alongside a small wooden port used by the fishermen in the early hours of the morning. The houses are painted yellow and red and pink and blue. Their house is one of the green ones—green outside, green inside, and particularly green when the sun sets and cascades its light across the living room.

Just on the other side of the hall, the matriarch of the family, Alda Alves, is sitting in her wheelchair. She is in a pink nightgown, and she’s resting her neck on the back of the wall. Father remembers how effortlessly his mother used to lug entire fire logs on the top of her head, and yet now she can no longer support her head with the strength of her own muscles. Drool is dribbling out of her mouth, forming a thin liquid thread down to her arm. Father finds the small blue towel they use to wipe away her sweat and cleans it off.

« And how was your day, mamãe? »  Father says, in the childishly excited tone he uses with his senile patients. « Como foi? » he repeats, two or three times.

His mother doesn’t make an effort to respond, which makes Father wonder if his earlier thoughts were founded on nothing. He sighs. As he said to himself earlier, he is not the intuitive one in his family, and he has long made peace with it. He wonders if he should watch the serial that Mother has put on, one of those random ones from Brasil where not a single character looks remotely African. Honestly, these are the things Mother would watch, not Alda Alves, who used to complain to Father that the things people consume in Africa should be made by Africans.

« Oi, Deolinda, » Father calls out. « Where have you put the remote? » Mother is too far away to hear Father, so he shouts louder. « And why is the program on this? » Something about him having to say it angers him. « You should be putting on things my mother will watch. This is not the time for you to enjoy your shows. »

Perhaps it is the tone he used, but Father suddenly hears a lamenting groan. He turns back to his mother. Suddenly her neck has stiffened out, and her head is straight. The expression on her face is one of fright.

« Oi, mamãe, calm down. Everything is good. Everything is good, I promise. Do you remember me? Do you remember who is talking? Who is this? Who is talking right now? »

Father puts on his excited face, trying to look how he looked when he was a little boy, raptured by everything in the world.

« A…ahh »

« Artur. »

« Ahhh…ahh »

« Artur. »

« Artur. »

« Exatamente. Very good, mamãe, ótimo… »

Normally, the conversation would end here. Father would try to make his mother say his name over and over again, and once she got the hang of it, he would ask her to say the names of his brothers, or his father. At that point his mother would get exhausted. Her eyes would lose their glisten, all concentration would be lost, and she’d return to staring at the nothingness on the other side of the wall.

Only now his mother’s eyes don’t break concentration. They suddenly look the way they looked all those decades ago, back when Alda Alves lived in the fishing settlement of Vila Malanza, full of life and urgency and hunger for more.

31 May, 1962

There was once a day when Alda Alves looked through her open window, at the clothes on the drying line as she was drying the dishes, and said to Artur, « Do you know why we live the way we do? »

Artur was busy eating ice cream, but he shook his head, not knowing what his mother was referring to.

Alda smiled. The sun’s light imprinted the shadows of the palm trees over her face.

« There is no reason for why we live the way we do. We are born where we are. We are from where we are from. But we have all of the power to be more than that. »

Alda put her hand up towards the sky. She clenched it to make the shape of a fist, and she put it right in the place of the ever-shining sun, blocking its light. Her hair coils were slicked against her face like angry serpents. Her pinkish-purple chapped lips cracked against the breeze as she spoke.

« That is the reason why God has put us on this Earth. To surpass the challenge of the life we have been given. To prove that we are far more than what we have been put on this earth for. »

12 March, 2024

« Eu estou sozinho » Alda Alves says.

I am lonely.

The suddenness of her confession shocks Father. He utters without thinking, « What? »

« Sozinho » Alda Alves says, and then she says, quite lucidly, with the most piercing sadness in her eyes, « I am alone. » She says it over and over again.

A tear falls from Father’s eye and traverses over his face. A hotness warms his cheeks.

« My mother, you don’t have to be lonely. My mother, I am here for you now. My mother, I will always be here for you. I know I lived so far away from you for a long time, and it was hard to keep in touch, but I did it all for my family and for us. I’ve always done everything for you even when I have not been around. So, don’t be lonely, my mother. I love you. »

Father holds his mother’s hand. He tries to clasp the top of it with his other, as if that will somehow help to convey the authenticity of his words. He hopes that his mother has heard him in this sudden moment of clarity. He wants to believe more than anything that this is a sign that his mother is still inside of this body, that her dementia is starting to wane, even if just in this moment, and that a part of her consciousness will grace his presence more often.

However, instead of acknowledging her son, Alda Alves utters again and again, « Sozinho, sozinho…soz…so… »

Her voice cracks, her tone changes, her facial expression loses tension.

Her eyes are vacant once more.

She stops staring with that sadness, and faces blankly at the empty green painted on the wall.

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