A story

Illustration by Rolli
Illustration by Rolli

My boy Charlie. One big moon night, he’s born, Nashe the rascal quits me, an elephant breaks the door down. I fix the door straightaway, I fix Nashe after, but my Charlie . . . That takes more than hammering. That takes magic.

Three years, four, five. And still my Charlie, my beautiful boy, has no words. When he’s a babe, I say, “Ma. Ma,” squeezing him. He blinks his big eyes, cries. When he’s taller, I sit him at the table, say, “Speak, Charlie. Say something. Speak. Speak to me.” But he hops out the door with Nashe’s beat-up horn, climbs the cat thorn. So many hours he passes in that thorn, blowing and blowing.

Six is the age of schooling. For a boy like Charlie, there is no schooling. When I glimpse him in the cat thorn, I am crying, I am so perturbed. Distress—the profession of mothers.

So I hop out the hind door and dance to Javaguru’s. I drop three pula in the old man’s bowl. I drop Charlie in his ear. Javaguru twists his finger in his beard, listening.

I finish. Javaguru takes a breath of smoke. He says:

“Pick a baobab leaf. Pick three. Dry them. Rub them on an elephant’s trunk, his tusk, his eyelash. Wave them over your boy’s head and as you wave say again and again, Change.

That’s not too simple. But a desperate woman grows hands. She catches what she can.

Well, I command a boy to climb a baobab (I am not climbing any baobab) and bring me leaves. He does it quickly. I give him one pula. That’s simple.

Now, the elephant. That could be something, I think. I could wait my life. But—fate is intoxicated—I do not have long to wait.

It’s March, and the marula fruits are dropping. When the fruits are so ripe, they are full of wine. They are not sweet—unless you are an elephant. Well: an evening, in my wicker, I see an elephant come dancing down the road, a bull. Big as that that broke the door. He dances through the dooryard for the cat thorn, for the rotten fruits. He picks one up and swallows it. He picks more. He swallows more. He swallows all, the greedy bull. He stands a short time, then he is whiffling and reeling. He is blowing and proclaiming. Then he is lying down to sleep. Men and elephants, they are the same.

So I softly go fetch the leaves. I creep to the elephant and I brush them on his trunk. The big bull does not even stir. His tusk I try, his eyelash. I am meticulous. He does not stir.

Then I creep to Charlie’s room, for he is sleeping. I wave the leaves over him. I say softly, “Change. Change.”

My Charlie stirs. But he does not wake. “Change, change.” He is deep sleeping. I can only wait . . .

Morning, my boy comes to the kitchen. I am stirring hupfu. His hateful favorite.

“Good morning,” I say.

My Charlie blinks his big eyes.

“Charlie? ” I say.

Not a word.

He sits at the table. I fill his bowl of hupfu, and sit. I take his hand.

“Talk, Charlie.”

Those big eyes.

“Boy, say something.”

Not a word.

“Charlie? ”

There is just a tear on his cheek.

I reach for him—he jumps up—I catch him.

“Speak, Charlie,” I say, squeezing. “Speak, boy.”

He wrestles away. He hops out the door, up the cat thorn. Blows his horn.

So my heart falls down. My liver climbs.

I comb my hair. I blow out the hind door, on fire. I dance to Javaguru’s—but it is empty.

Then I am pacing in the dust, until I see, at the road-end, a horde of men. They are hefting a basket. Women with lilies, doing the dance of death.

“Who is it? ” I ask a boy.

“Javaguru,” he says.

Well, I am dazed. I wait on the procession.

It is Javaguru, in the basket. Covered in lilies. I pluck one from a dancing girl. And throw it in the basket.

Walking home, a depression falls on me, like a melon. Then I am at the table again, crying. My Charlie in the cat thorn, blowing his horn.

I sit up. I listen. I dry my cheek. I dance into the dooryard.

The bull elephant still sleeps, under the cat thorn. Charlie is above him, blowing.

I listen . . . and I am dizzy. I sit in my wicker. I listen . . .

Who can say? Am I listening better, now? Or is his playing changed? Charlie’s music . . . It is touching me here. Is it Javaguru’s magic? Who can say?

Well, the bull opens his eye. He bucks up, blows his horn. He and my Charlie. They blow together. Then the beast dances off.

I call Charlie. My boy. He hops down the cat thorn.

I squeeze him. And I say not a word.

Yes—he is Charlie Fingers, the great man, the musician. The most famous in Zimbabwe. And I am his mother.

My Charlie. The boy who would not speak. Who will not stop speaking, ever. Not ever.

Rolli (; @rolliwrites) is a writer and cartoonist from Regina. His most recent story collection, I Am Currently Working On a Novel, was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and short-listed for the High Plains Book Award. Rolli’s cartoons appear regularly in the Wall Street Journal, Reader’s Digest, Adbusters, and other popular outlets.