Where is Jane?

Someone is banging on the door. It shakes in protest, scattering the splinters of light that push through the cracks in the wood.

Who is it? shouts the voice in my head. But my mouth, as always, is as still as the musty air in the room I call home. I glare at the door, twice my height, and will it to stop. I fist my palms and hold my breath. Any louder and Bupe, my brother, will wake up. But it ignores me—wretched door, and quivers again, Nko. Nko. Nko!

I tiptoe closer, as quiet as the colonies of roaches rummaging through our green storage bins—mealie meal, sugar and rice—the last two of which we haven’t eaten in months.

It’s me! yells Linda from the other side of the door, her shrill voice bouncing off the uneven walls. To this, the voice in my head growls, a blazing ball of sound trapped between my gut and lips. I don’t want Bupe to stop snoring. If he does, he’ll whimper, then explode into a ceaseless wail until Bamayo returns to shove her breast into his mouth, and slap me with her free hand. My punishment for disrupting her work in Mr Phiri’s red BMW. Our one-roomed house, built into a fence, with leftover chunks of cement that were once building blocks for a real house, is just within her earshot. Shh, I say to my sleeping brother with my index pressed on my mouth. He stirs but dreams on.

I peel the door open, as one would a scab from a sore, gently, panono-panono, yet still it groans.

Do you want to play? asks Linda, tapping her feet, peering behind me. She knows the answer.

I can’t. I shake my head. I have to take care of my brother.

She smirks, spins, and shrieks, “Nichi chibulu!” As if being mute, makes me deaf too. The other children, waiting for her report a few meters away, snigger.

I’ll come later, the voice in my head lies, even though we both know that by the time Bamayo comes back, the other children will have retreated into their homes.

I sit on the smooth side of the block that plays veranda, leaving the door ajar, and plant my chin into my palms. I lean into the shade of the corrugated roofing sheets above and watch the game unfold.

Linda kneels next to another child who will play mother, while the others encircle them, forming a train with their arms.

I want to see my Jane, my Jane, my Jane,

I want to see my Jane, my Jane, Jane—Jane! starts the song.

Jane is here! I want to yell. Jane is me! But when I part my lips, the words won’t form.

Where is Jane?

Jane is at school! fibs the mother, hiding the Jane—Linda behind her narrow frame.

School, I think, staring past the children. Through the gaps between the soaring blocks of weeping-white flats, over the red automobile where Bamayo is still rocking Mr Phiri next to the fence, sits St Patricks Girls’ Primary School.

I’ll go one day, whispers the voice in my head, prompting my grin as I picture myself in the green checkered uniform.

I want to see my Jane, my Jane, my Jane,

I want to see my Jane, my Jane, Jane—Jane!

Where is Jane?

Jane has gone to the market! replies the mother.

Kabwata Market, my destination on the days Bamayo works overnight. With Bupe wrapped in a chitenge across my back, I sneak in through the rusty gate. The chain is never locked, just wrapped multiple times to give the illusion of security to the stall owners. The sounds of the night—Rhumba beats from The Twins Bar and wheels rumbling over the patchy tar of 9th Street, mask the clanging metal.

When the chains detangle, my nostrils are struck by the stench: ditches brewing urine and dirty rain water, wood singed into charcoal, burnt tufts of synthetic hair extensions. Once inside, I race past the tailoring shops, careen right, into the gift-shop aisle, and let the glimmering wrapping paper guide me towards the fruit-and-vegetable section. There, trusting vendors left their wares, covered in black plastic bags, sealed on four corners with rocks. My brother’s eyes flicker on and together we feast.

Carefully, I pull two cherry tomatoes from the corner of a neat pile. Out of a bucket, we choose the ripest guavas. A handful of raw groundnuts, and the fattest sweet potato for later, and we’re ready to slink back home and creep under the blanket where Bamayo will find us sleeping when she arrives with the rising sun the next morning.

The children continue to circle the crouching Jane, asking once more, Where is Jane?

Jane is washing the plates!

The ones waiting in a shomeka of murky water. A black fly zips over me, buzzing around the room before departing, empty-winged. I sigh and amble inside to lug the shomeka out and feed the water to the garden next to our outdoor toilet. Flaps of pumpkin leaves shading fist-sized gourds lap it up.

Under the tap that hangs from the mouldy wall of our house, I scrub the plastic dishes with soil toremovethe oil and food stains, then place them on a patch of grass to dry.

Where is Jane?

Jane is taking care of the baby.

My job. Taking care of my brother—the baby. Change his nappies before they scald his backside. Wipe his nose, which is always runny. Pacify him when the hunger pains make him cranky, until Bamayo’s reappearance.

Where is Jane?

Jane is sick.

The thing I became, last week, after Bamayo brought a client home. She parted the curtains that split the room in two and flung herself on the mattress. Bupe and I faced the door and waited for the grunting to stop, but the man, darker than a moonless night, fatter than the mattress, wouldn’t finish. So, Bamayo, needing to feed Bupe, called me to help. Her client grinned at me, ripped my skirt off, aimed his snake, shoved it between my legs, and grunted until it oozed a thick liquid into me that burnt when it slithered down my legs, even after he had left.

I made Bamayo miss work the next day, and many days after that because of my inability to get upin the mornings, spewing urine and blood.

I want to see my Jane, my Jane, my Jane,

I want to see my Jane, my Jane, Jane—Jane!

Their faces are now twisted in sadness over Jane’saffliction.

Where is Jane?

Jane is in the Hospital.

A filthy word describing the place to which we arrived, Bamayo, Bupe, and me.

The word Hospital drips in my memory like blood from awound refusing to heal.

Hospital was the disgusting look on the nurse’s face when she touched me through her latex gloves.

It is the doctor quizzing my mother—what’s wrong—while keeping his eyes fixed on his clipboard.

You know children. My mother had shrugged.

Hmmp, replied the doctor, his eyes glued to the sheet.

She just started urinating on the bed, said Bamayo.

Defilement, muttered the nurse, scrunching her nose. Together with Hospital, the letters of DEFILEMENT crawled on my skin, like the maggots on our toilet floor, making me scratch.

No. Bamayo shook her head vigorously, not minding that her curly wig might fall and show the scruffy lines of mukule under which she hid her fro. I’m not married, she explained. It’s just my children and me. This one has been a sickler from birth, a truth she made me confirm by bulging her eyes.

Sickler, screamed the voice in my head.

Yes. I nodded, though my memory didn’t stretch that far.

The doctor lifted his gaze to stare at me. Jane, did someone hurt you? he asked.

Yes! screeched the voice in my head. No. I shook it.

The doctor weighed this, scribbled something, and proceeded to the next sick child.

I want to see my Jane, my Jane, my Jane,

I want to see my Jane, my Jane, Jane—Jane!

A mournful song this time—hunched backs and downcast eyes, mimicking women approaching the telltale army-green tent pitched outside a funeral house.

The climax of the game is fast approaching, and the children, braced for it, have edged farther from the centre, where the Jane is now lying in the dirt, eyes closed, and head limp on her arms as pillows. The mother is wringing her fingers, begging the skies for a miracle.

Now Bamayo hovers over me. Jane, she pleads, tears streaking her flawless skin. Buka! she screams—wake up!

I’m trying to hold her begging eyes, but find myself drawn instead into the blinding light of the ceiling. The scents of the ward are pungent all of a sudden. The windows swing, bringing in the sweet breeze of nature, trying to overpower the stench of what looms. Now, the sounds roar; singing crickets howl, scratching my eardrums raw. Bupe’s snore is a strange thunder on an August night such as this.

I tremble.

Finally, when my lids tire, press shut, comes peace in a familiar tune, now a slow, low, drone.

Where is Jane?

The question halts the noise, diffuses the smells, and in the blackness, I smile.

Jane is dead.

About the Author

Mubanga Kalimamukwento is an award-winning Zambian author. Her first novel, The Mourning Bird, was published by jacana Media after she won the Dinaane Debut Fiction Award. In 2019, she won the Kalemba Short Story Prize. The same year, she was also shortlisted for the Bristol Short Story and the SynCityNG Prizes. Mubanga’s work has appeared in various journals worldwide. She’s an alumna of the Hubert H. Humphrey (Fulbright) Fellowship and the Young African Leaders Initiative. Demons was first published by the Red Rock Reviews 43rd issue. To view more of her work click below.