In the Middle of the Night

by Milena Nigam
In the early morning, Antoine pulls his family’s foam mattress through the open doorframe of their hut, the ribboned trail in the dirt following behind him like the shadow of a topi carcass wrestled and tested between the novice jaws of a lion cub. His pajama bottoms stick to his inner thighs, and he shakes his left leg while he drags the mattress to the well, trying to loosen the grip between wet cotton and skin. The ground beneath his bare feet is cracked and liver red.

His father appears in the doorframe of their hut, shading his face with his hands and squinting to find his son. His mouth opens arrogantly to flash a lightning grin, electric and dangerous.

“Listen to me, world!” he cries, watching his son stumble as he walks backward fighting the large mattress. “There walks my son.” He shakes his head, his teeth white sparks against skin so black it shines silver. “My only son. And he brings me shame, oh world, day after day after day.” The father pauses then laughs thinly, stretching his neck up long and lean and running his hand along his throat. “Day after day? No, night after night. Because,” and he leans down and thumbs the hard earth around the entrance of their hut, digging out pebbles. “Because, because, because…. Because my son, he-is-a-bed-pisser! Bed pisser!” The father throws a pebble at his son with each syllable.

The boy ducks but the pebbles all fall short, bouncing on the mattress then nestling together in the bottom center. His father throws one final pebble in the opposite direction and disappears back into the darkened hut where Antoine’s four sisters and mother are dressing for the day.

Antoine draws up a bucket at the well and pours the cloudy water over the mattress to saturate the urine stain. He draws up a second bucket, peels off his pajama bottoms and swishes the thin cloth in the water, then slaps his thighs clean with wet palms. He lays the pajamas on the hard ground next to the mattress. By noon, they will smell sweet with pee and be bone dry under an African sun.

The children walk to school in their crisp blue uniforms, the three older sisters whispering hand-in-hand in front of Antoine and his younger sister, Marie-Claire. Only the oldest walks in high heels, putting her weight on her toes so the heels do not sink into the earth. The other children smack their plastic flip-flops against the ground with each step. Marie-Claire sings the school’s morning prayers to herself, and Antoine kicks along an avocado pit until a knotted dog with a pointy snout sweeps in and hides the pit in its mouth.

After school, Antoine and Marie-Claire help their mother sort rice for dinner. Antoine uses a finger to draw long rivulets through his pile, feeling for the irregularity of a tiny pebble hidden among the grains. The older girls chop tomatoes and okra and heat a pan of palm oil over the outdoor fire pit, and Antoine’s mother kicks away the chickens when they peck too close to her feet.

“Mama,” says one of the older girls, “Josiane and Assouma were chosen to sing a solo at Sunday’s mass. They told us their papa is so proud he has promised to buy them matching shoes before Sunday.”

Their mother clicks her tongue. The children know she is uninterested in new shoes for young girls, and singling out a few from the congregation to perform alone strikes her as unchristian. She raps sharply on Antoine’s knuckles with her finger.

“Have your last drink of water now, before your papa gets home. He wants your bladder empty when you go to bed tonight.”

After dinner, the children sit outside with their schoolbooks, the older sisters scratching math equations into the soil. Antoine helps Marie-Claire with a reading passage about American television. Their own village is without electricity and running water. Even the priest and their teacher wash outside with a bucket.

When the sun goes down it is time for bed, and Antoine’s father walks to his neighbor’s hut to discuss the day’s politics, a worn toothbrush chewed between his teeth. His mother sits in the doorway, silhouetted by the lopsided moon hanging outside, waiting for her husband to return from where the men have gathered. Her head is covered with the fuzz of a baby bird, and her limbs are lean and muscular. While she waits, she bites on her fingers and spits nail bits into the darkness.

Antoine’s sisters fall asleep quickly at the bottom of the mattress, touching heads like a bunch of bananas. The three older ones dangle their red-stained feet off the side of the bed, but Marie-Claire sleeps with her knees curled up to her stomach. When his father meets his mother in the doorway and she stands up silently to follow him to bed, Antoine closes his eyes. He feels the tipping of the mattress as his parents climb into the center, and the continued rolls like a boat on rocking water as they settle together, Antoine clenching his fists against his father’s rhythmic jerks that drown out his mother’s whispered protests.

In the end, Antoine is alone in his wakefulness to watch the empty doorway and the slanted streak of moonlight bleeding into their one-room home.

The longer he stays awake, the longer he can delay the dream of swimming in the brown river where the trading rafts bring their building materials, their canisters of gasoline, their plastic shoes. The dream in which thick, swirling water wraps around his feet, ankles, legs, and waist and carries him like a flying stick past his village, bobbing him up and down around the rafts. As he floats downriver, he passes his family and friends waving from the green bank. He waves back at them, searching the spectators for his mother and Marie-Claire. When he finds them, they point at the water, and he knows that it is draining away. Almost immediately, the traders’ rafts become scattered flotsam on the choking riverbed. As the last of the water slithers to a trickle, Antoine is left standing in inches of silky sediment. Warm urine flows down his leg, first into the mud while his father yells at him from the riverbank, and then into the mattress he shares with his family, his father slapping him awake in the ribs.

It is a dream that visits Antoine every night. Now, surrounded by the soft chorus of his family’s inhalations and exhalations, the boy thinks about striking the dream, shattering it with a stick. He imagines kicking it and stomping on it and leaving it shriveled and cowering under his feet, begging for his forgiveness.

In the dark space of the hut, Antoine can see the twinned corners of a frown on his father’s face and at the same time can feel the first tickles of his bladder. He waits, and the sack stretches and grows, dampening the resolve he just felt against his night wettings. Now he pictures the latrine, past the clothesline on the edge of the jungle where snakes curl up at night to stay warm. He gets out of bed slowly, unconvinced. At the doorway he picks up the stick that his sister had used for her math scratches, and he pokes it into the night air, clearing a path from imagined snakes under the star-ceilinged sky.

Outside the latrine, he pushes aside a piece of scrap metal that serves as a privacy screen. His stick finds no sleeping snakes, and so he toes away the plywood covering the waste hole. But Antoine stops short of relieving himself.

A silence, total and abrupt, has appeared like a hailstorm. It lifts Antoine’s breath from his lungs and hangs it in the air above his head. A wave of whispering leaves rolls through the jungle trees, and in its wake emerge eight black shadows. They move with hunger past the latrine to the hut, rods and sharp edges held above their heads in announcement, glinting in the moonlight.

Inside his head Antoine is screaming, but all around him there is only silence, as if the violence has been folded and crushed into itself like a vacuum. To Antoine, standing immobile with his feet planted on either side of the dug-out waste pit, the absence of sound is the cleaving of air as weapons are felled inside the hut. It is a hand covering a sister’s mouth while her bottom and legs are dragged over the ground into the wickedness of the jungle. It is a mother gripping the doorframe, clinging to a home that has offered her more harshness than comfort. It is a father, his lungs kicked inward and a sharp blade sliced through his skull, crumpling into a mound under the clothesline. And it is the soft running feet of a small gazelle, fragile and quickly broken by a steely trespasser whose hands are covered in blood and skin and hair that match Antoine’s.

One of the shadows stops at the well to drink greedily, faint gulping sounds spilling into the night like the wasted water running onto the ground at his feet.

As the figures disappear deep into the jungle, the screaming in Antoine’s head tapers off, and he sees for the first time a family of snakes curled up in the corner of the latrine. Their heads and tails are hidden under the layers of coiled, smooth skin. The boy jumps out, pulling up his pants and scraping his shoulder on the sharp metal screen. He runs through the night back to the hut, passing without recognition the uncoiled limbs of a lifeless father on open ground.

Two of his sisters are still in the bed, and blood soaks dark stains into the mattress. Antoine curls up next to them, his skin shivering like a lone snake until, finally, a shy sleep bewitches him. Soon, the boy is buoyed by the thick river, this time volcanic red in color. As it drains from the village, it takes with it the traders and children, the clergymen, the teachers, the parents and elders.

And Antoine is left standing in the silky mud.
Milena Nigam is an editor at Halfway Down the Stairs. For staff biographies, click here.

© 2014, Milena Nigam