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Covered in Soot


Lynnet Ngulube




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How did I know?

You were pregnant. Do you remember? Your legs had swollen so badly you weren’t allowed to leave your bedroom. Daddy made all the children go to greet Ambuya, because she was coming from Harare to help you. I mean what fourteen-year-old wants to be at a train station at six o’clock on a Saturday morning? And it's not that I didn't like grandmother coming to visit. She always told the best stories about daddy when he was a boy.

It was funny then, thinking of him as young as I was or even as young as the twins, how impossible it was for us to believe he had ever been anything but daddy. Whenever I pictured him young, he always had that beard, with little corkscrews of white fighting through the black, and that gold watch he got from Old Mutual when he resigned after twenty years there.

Maybe he got cross with me for giving up the front seat to one of the twins, or because I fell asleep and he spent five minutes trying to wake me when we got there. He got grouchy in that silent, dangerous way he did, his left hand balled into a fist in his pocket. His knuckles stretched the tight polyester trousers like sharp mountains.

Once we got to the station, I followed as far behind them as I could, as if they were strangers. It smelled raw inside the station, like the caged animals at Chipangali game orphanage sitting in their own urine. It must have been right before they retired the coal trains, before the bright yellow diesel engines took over. Something about being in that part of Bulawayo so early in the morning made me feel like I was stuck in some European pre-colonial time warp. Everything was covered in soot. If you weren’t careful you could trip over the homeless people, their skin so black they blended into the walls and the floors.

But you should have seen the twins, how happy they were, out on a trip with daddy for a change you know? Hazvi was singing that stupid Smurfs theme song over and over and over. She wouldn’t stop. And Mudiwa was trying to perfect his Michael Jackson move, the one where he stops on his tiptoes. I think I worried as much as you did that he would break an ankle.

I stood a little way further up the platform, away from them. There were just three or four other people who seemed to be waiting for what the train would bring. They were bundled up against the frosty southern Zimbabwe chill, something I wished I had done as I felt my fingertips starting to go numb.

The train was late but I could hear it, toot-tooting as it got closer. Daddy shuffled from foot to foot. The kids ran circles around him their arms stretched out wide like little airplanes.

I was busy trying to appear petulant, knowing that daddy wouldn’t say anything about my insolence in front of the twins, and not in public anyway, so I didn’t see the man until he was right in front of me. He grabbed me and I didn’t realize right then exactly what had happened until he was walking away and my breasts started to hurt like a fire had just burst inside of them.

No, he wasn’t homeless I don’t think. He wasn't mad either. What does it matter? He was just a man. It’s not what he did. That’s not where I’m going with this. What I’m saying is, he grabbed my breasts, squeezed them, as a matter of fact, and he walked away, whistling, like he’d just had milk tea with the queen or something.

Just as my arms were coming up to cover my chest like this, I looked up to see if daddy had seen. I don’t know why I felt ashamed. He looked at me and then he looked away. He just looked down at his feet.

And you know what that man did? He walked right past daddy, right past him. I thought daddy was still cross with me for not wanting to come meet his mother. That man was turning the corner, just whistling along. Daddy didn’t knock his sharp knuckles into the stranger’s head, or punch the air out of his stomach so that it spewed from his mouth with specks of blood.

Daddy kept his hand in his pocket.

The train chugged to a screeching slow stop in front of me, casting plumes of black smoke and two uniformed conductors onto the platform.

I didn’t want to stand alone anymore. I walked up to where the twins were chasing each other. I could see he was irritated by them from the way he frowned but he didn't make them stop.

Instead, he looked at me and he said, “Why were you over there in the first place?”

He took his hands from his pockets and began worrying his left palm with his right thumb, as if it ached. I wasn’t sure what he was asking me, what he wanted me to say.

A cacophony of voices quickly surrounded us. The conductors yelled at passengers to mind the gap as they disembarked. You could hear luggage thudding on the platform, a crying baby, shuffling feet as the entire station woke up at once.

Daddy looked at me, with his eyes squinted as if I were a bright light attacking his face. For a moment, his upper lip pulled up and his twisted tooth glistened. My breath caught in my throat.

I said, “huh?” because I forgot my manners and I didn’t want to believe what daddy was saying.

But then he said,

“You should have stood with us.”

And that’s how I knew for certain that he had seen that man touch me and even though you’ve waited twenty-eight years to tell me this, I knew then that he wasn’t my father.



Lynnet Ngulube at Our Stories

Lynnet Ngulube grew up in southern Zimbabwe and is an alumni of the George Mason University MFA program in Fiction. She has been published in Rattapallax, Farafina Magazine, Apathy, and online at SNReview.org. She currently lives in Vienna, Virginia with her partner Mischa and their one year-old son.


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