AN EYE ON THE SKY

For days and then for weeks the sun had shone so fiercely that I had begun to wonder whether I had started receiving some of the wages of my sins on earth.

In a few short weeks, the sun had barbecued the iron sheets and baked the dusty streets. Even the animals, unable to take their fur off, bewailed their stuffy fate.

We, the humans, fared no better. Our hairless bodies had turned dark in the heat. Our lips cracked like muddy puddles sucked dry by the sun — bled with every smile. Our hair — that is, our weaves — stank with undiluted sweat. The lice, if any, had emigrated to lusher pastures. Under the cruel, yellow ball of fire, the hot earth scorched our bare feet. Our pots had white circles at their crusty bases — ghosts of when they had once contained life. Our hearts, as desolate as the cloudless blue dome above, searched for a futile promise from the sky.

Lying on the verandah, my body pulsing with heat, I thought how uncannily like a cruel lover the sun could be. How like him to perch high up above where you could long for but never touch him. How like him to show you his very worst, daring you to give up.

My sister measured a bottle top of mineral water from a bottle she had smuggled from her workplace. She tipped it down her bra and sighed.

“Have you heard from…you know…?” she asked.

“Not since January.”

“Have you tried calling?”

“Yeah,” I stared at my fully-charged phone, “but maybe he lost his phone…or maybe…maybe…”

“It will rain soon…” she changed the topic swiftly. Shading her eyes, she squinted at the blazing sun. It glared back at her.

Photo by Ibrahim Mushan on Unsplash

A month later, I lay on the same verandah, the heat from the cement floor radiating through the papyrus mat. My sister cooled my forehead with a towel she had dipped in ice-cold mineral water and plied me with sugarless drinks twice an hour.

I had swallowed the prescribed Chloroquine and P-Alaxin supplemented with mululuuza¹ for two weeks. I had prayed to the Trinity and to the less distinguished gods. None of these entreaties had lowered my burning fever. All my feverish prayers hadn’t produced a drop of rain.

Wrapped in invisible blankets of heat, I thought, not for the first time, that I was about to burst into flames.

Thinking of my silent phone, one hot tear raced from my eye into my right ear and dried up as fast. “If this heat doesn’t kill me,” I said mournfully, “I’m sure the fever will.”

“It will rain soon.” My sister promised as the fire in my head heated the damp towel up. “Finish that beetroot juice. Everything will be fine.”

A week later, the fever abated leaving me lethargic but mostly alive. I could swallow tiny amounts of food and force three gulps of tepid tea. During the days, I burst frequently into songs of lament pondering how horrible it was to grieve under the scorching sun — to feel two unquenchable kinds of thirst. During the nights, I tangled my sheets, trying but failing miserably to find a comfortable position to sleep in. My sister, tired of my kinship with my smartphone — of waking up to see my face bathed in the eerie glow of my rectangular screen — stopped keeping me company in my bedroom.

On one of the sweaty nights that followed my recovery, I lay in my thin nightdress wrestling with sleep as usual. Staring at the ridges on the iron sheets above, I tried to locate the phantom pains in my body knowing that I had skewered my heart for far too long but helpless to stop it.

Staring forlornly through the open window, I felt sweat pooling in the dorsal thoracic area of my back.

Enjala…enjala…Enjala eyagwa ewaffe ffembi ne baze wange²…” I sang into the airless night, caressing the back of my mobile phone.

The first drop of rain reverberated through the silent house. Sluggishly, I made for the door to dissuade my eyes from believing the rumor my ears had started.

Standing under the pinkish-grey night sky in the eucalyptus leaf strewn compound, the first delicious drop plopped down on my forearm. That drop was my first glimmer of hope after months of searching for a sign that happiness still had a home on earth. As I touched it, another hit the crown of my head. I had unplaited my weave because in the dry season, as many black women know, weaves smell like canned death making the well-ventilated box braids the preferable option.

Turning my face up to the night sky, I realized how like an ardent lover the first rains were, their invigorating waters filling up all those wells inside of me that I had once thought had dried up. How easily, so easily, they restored life into my arid heart, making me forget even the most recent memory of drought…

One by one, these drops, cold to the skin and warm to the soul, turned into a steady downpour drenching my polyester nightdress. For long moments I let the rain mingle with my braids knowing that I’d need shampoo to wash out the distasteful after-smell and knowing even better that I wouldn’t bother.

After the first ten minutes, I dashed into the house and roused the slumbering household. Together we carried seven basins and jerricans and filled them with icy water, remembering all too well how fearfully we had listened to the threat of a national drought on the radio in those bitterly dry months.

When I awoke the next morning, the entire household huddled in the doorway frowning at the pregnant sky. During the night, the rains had churned the dark soil and exposed a redder type of earth. The eucalyptus tree, angled towards the house, had lost a branch. Worse still, the branch had tangled up our electricity wires wrenching them from the electricity pole and causing a power outage. Namayanja, the bedraggled cat licked her muddy fur moodily.

Under the steely grey sky, we stared, disbelieving, at the chaos one downpour had wreaked on our compound. In that moment, I cursed how like a spurned lover undisciplined water was — mutilating the object of affection he once claimed to love. How after weeks of longing, love can darken and embitter a heart — like a black storm cloud.

How an excess of water, just like that of love can give life to the earth but also uproot all in its path. And how an excess of love, just like a lack of it, with time will bring out the worst in a person.

Running back to the bedroom to lodge my complaint with UMEME³, I found my phone screen aglow with a missed call. It was the call I had prayed for — a call I had kept my eyes on the cloudless, blue horizon for. With a rueful smile, I thought, “You are just like water. Aren’t you? Sometimes dirty, sometimes clean — on some days gushing, on others still. Too much of you is deadly. Too little makes me ill. You’re always changing. You’re never one thing.”

Dialing ten digits on my screen, I waited nervously as the phone rang.

“Hello,” I said when the call connected, “UMEME? This is Justin. I’m reporting a power outage in the industrial area…Have you been infor…Yes…Yes, I saw the rain.

TRANSLATION OF LUGANDA TERMS

  1. Mululuuza: A sour herb for treating malaria.
  2. Enjala…enjala…Enjala eyagwa ewaffe ffembi ne baze wange:The words loosely translate into — Famine! Famine! Since this famine befell our household, my husband and I have nothing kind to say. This is an extract from ‘Enjala’, a traditional folk song in Uganda. It tells the story of the tension and emotional strain hunger and poverty bring into a marriage especially in rural, households that carry out subsistence farming.
  3. Umeme: Umeme Limited is the largest energy distributor in Uganda, distributing 97 percent of all electricity used in the country.

This article was first published by the Kalahari Review. See link here https://kalaharireview.com/an-eye-on-the-sky-ddbfa46f9a95

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