The child is painfully thin. Her ribs poke against the taut skin of her back as she draws on the dusty floor with a stick. She crouches on toothpick legs, supported by hardened feet which rarely see shoes. The bottoms of her filthy white shorts graze the dirt floor.
Absent-mindedly, she draws circles and lines; shapes of the world outside the hut as she sees them. The pointed stick reminds her of big brother, who had carved it and many others like it, with a dull knife. But that was before. She squeezes her dark eyes shut, brow furrowed, trying to summon his face. She remembers his wide, toothy smile; his laugh, his wiry black hair, and the way he helped with her homework, playfully giving her the wrong answers just to see if she would notice.
A gurgling noise interrupts her daydream. Baby brother dozes fitfully in the corner of the room, flies buzzing, relentless, around his soft, round head. The child rises and goes to him. She swats at the flies, and then tenderly places her hand on his dark curls. She begins to sing softly. It’s a song she has heard many times, although she doesn’t know the words. She tells herself that baby brother doesn’t care. He just likes the music.
Mama has gone for water, something the child and big brother used to do together, before. But now that big brother is gone, Mama says it’s not safe for the child to go alone. So only Mama goes. The child watches baby brother, and waits. She adjusts his t-shirt, which has ridden up his belly, too small for him now.
This gives the child an idea. She looks at her grubby hands and wipes them on her pink t-shirt as best she can. She goes to the back of the hut and finds her mother’s basket of fabrics, a dazzling array of colours and patterns. She knows that Mama doesn’t like her to touch them. She wants them kept clean, although even at this young age, the child knows this is not possible. There is simply dirty, and less dirty. The sand and dust settle in her hair, her ears, her eyelashes. It hardens between her toes and fingers, and nestles in the crooks of her elbows and behind her knees.
She digs through the basket until her fingers find what she somehow knew would be there: big brother’s royal blue soccer jersey, the red number 9 on the back. She pulls it out of the basket and buries her face in it. It smells of big brother’s last soccer game, of sweat and victory, briefly enjoyed. But that, too, was before.
She had thought to drape the jersey over baby brother’s bare tummy, in case he likes soccer, too – but now she knows she can’t. This is big brother’s shirt. Baby will have to get his own. She considers keeping it for herself, hiding it under her cot with the rest of her sticks, so she can pull it out and smell it anytime she wants. Then she thinks of Mama. She holds the jersey softly against her cheek for a moment. Then she buries it again, deep in the basket, so Mama doesn’t find it and start to cry.
The child rummages around some more in the basket. As baby begins to stir, she extracts a small pink and yellow blanket. Tiny daisies dot the edges. They used to be white, she knows. She shakes it out, a vain attempt to rid it of dust. She returns to baby brother, and in one practised movement, wraps him in the threadbare blanket and scoops him up from his cot.
The child sits carefully back on the dirt floor, legs spread wide. She leans baby brother against her torso, the blanket arranged beneath him. She tries to draw some more, but baby brother grabs at her stick. She moves it out of his reach. He squawks angrily and arches his back.
The child reaches for the misshapen cardboard box containing baby brother’s toys. She pulls it closer. The box, having lost much of its original sturdiness, threatens to tear at the corner as she drags it across the dirt floor. Baby reaches for a grubby rattle. He howls indignantly when the child intercepts it and rubs it on her t-shirt. She knows it is going to go directly into his mouth. Satisfied that she has at least made some improvement, the child hands the rattle to baby brother. He snatches it greedily. The child laughs and shakes her head good-naturedly as baby immediately begins to gnaw at it. Just this morning, Mama had shown her the two tiny white nubs, almost ready to poke though his thin pink gums.
Before long, baby brother grows tired of the rattle and pitches it across the small room. The child roots through the cardboard box for something else to hold his attention. Her hand closes on a small plastic aspirin bottle that Mama had once found in the market. She had brought it home, delighted to have found something safe for baby brother. It is lidless and empty, but of course, the child doesn’t understand or even wonder what had once been in it, and it doesn’t matter anyway. She rubs it on her shirt and hands it over. Baby brother bats it out of her hand and squeals. The child doesn’t have the energy to play this game. The sun is high in the sky and the heat is becoming oppressive.
The child feels the familiar emptiness in her stomach and the nausea as it churns. She knows this means baby brother will soon be hungry, too. She picks him up and returns him to his cot, with the rattle and empty aspirin bottle. He protests, but she ignores him as she crosses the floor to light the kerosene stove. She remembers to be careful, as Mama taught her. In a small tin pot, she mixes some paste-coloured gruel with water and heats it up. It takes a few tries to get the right consistency for baby brother, and she is worried about using too much water. It will be some time yet before Mama returns. Even though there is still some water left, she feels badly for using too much. If big brother had been here, it would have been perfect. She remembers how he used to make Mama laugh, dancing and singing and banging pots together in the corner of their hut that serves as the kitchen. But that was before.
The child finds a tiny spoon and puts the bowl on the rickety table. She retrieves baby brother from his cot. She sits him on her lap, not without some effort, as he is properly annoyed now. She puts her pinky finger into his mouth and lets him gum it. She can tell she won’t be able to do that much longer. He calms enough to begin eating. She stirs the gruel again and blows on it, lifting the spoon to her own lips first to test the temperature, just like Mama does. It doesn’t take long to feed baby brother – it’s such a small amount. But it’s enough to satisfy him for the moment. He leans his tiny head into the child’s shoulder and begins to suck his thumb, struggling to keep his eyes open. The child feels sleep beginning to overtake her as well, so she gingerly gets up and places baby back in his cot. She spreads out the daisy blanket on the floor beside his cot and lays down.
Before long, the child is dreaming. She sees big brother. She sees the raging river flowing past, white water parting as it hits his legs. He laughs and tries to splash her on shore. They’ve never been this far from home before, and the child is worried. They were supposed to get water from the well, as always, but big brother said he knew a better place. She shouts to him that they should fill their buckets and go home, but the water is too loud for him to hear her little girl voice. She waves her arms, but he is having too much fun and pays no attention. She cups her hands around her mouth to amplify her words, and walks gingerly forward, as close as she dares to the water. She slips and is suddenly in the river, being pulled by the current. Big brother reaches out his long arm and grabs her. He swoops her back up onto the shore. Then, just as he begins to climb out of the water to join her, his legs are taken out from under him by a large log, tossed by the rapids. She sees his dark head go under the churning white froth.
The child awakens with a start. She looks around for big brother, panicking. As she shakes herself from sleep, she remembers. That was before. She raises herself up on slender arms and peers into baby brother’s cot. His dark brown eyes stare solemnly up at her. She smiles sadly, as a lone tear carves a track down her face.
The afternoon passes slowly, in much the same way as the morning, in much the same way as all the other days. The air outside shimmers with the heat, so they remain in the hut. She finds a piece of soft, fleshy fruit and shares it with baby brother, mashing up tiny pieces for him to gum. They play peek-a-boo with the daisy blanket. She tries to draw on the floor of the hut with her stick, but he won’t allow it. She gives him a toy. He throws it. She makes faces. He laughs. She sings. He snoozes.
Eventually, a profound tiredness overcomes her. Her arms feel weak, her mouth, parched. The child knows this means the wait is almost over. She glances over at the makeshift front door, and sees the gleam of an orange sky between the cracks in the wood.
The child struggles to her feet, hefting baby onto her hip as she stands. She walks to the door and opens it gingerly, as it tends to fall off its hinges. She shields her eyes against the setting sun and makes out the approaching silhouette of Mama, a bucket of water in each hand. The tiny, barefoot child, baby brother in her arms, trudges down the rutted path to meet Mama.