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Echoes of Fulladu: When trouble comes (Part 23)

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Nata settled onto the ground beneath the makeshift seat, finding solace on the smooth angel stone — a sacred relic whispered to have descended from the heavens during an intense rainstorm. This revered stone, usually reserved for the esteemed elders of the household, cradled her back as she leaned against it. From this vantage point, her eyes traced the landscape, stretching as far as the bantaba — a majestic tree, among other trees, with extensive branches providing ample shade. Here, weary men gathered to rest after toiling in the fields. Their appearance created a serene tableau beneath the broad canopy.

The compound, meticulously cleared of foliage and leaves, bore the tangible imprints of Nata’s daily diligence — a testament to her unwavering dedication to her household chores. The sweeping of the compound, while a crucial part of her myriad responsibilities, merely scratched the surface of her contributions. Beyond this chore, she willingly lent her hands to various tasks: cleaning dirty utensils, laundering clothes by the stream, cooking, pounding grains, and grinding condiments, often at the behest of both her mother and stepmother. Nata’s involvement in these multifaceted responsibilities was an integral part of their daily lives.

Their familial unit comprised Nata, her two younger siblings, her mother, stepmother, and father. Together, they lived in a region in Fulladu called Kamako, in the village of Kanjor. Nestled within the compound were three round mud houses, each crowned with thatched roofs that blended seamlessly with the landscape. The main hut, the largest one, belonging to her father, stood as the centerpiece of the homestead. Constructed with walls made of a meticulous blend of earth and straw, the smooth, ochre-coloured mud harmonised with the natural contours of the land, creating a visual symphony within their surroundings.

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The two smaller huts, dedicated to her mother and stepmother, echoed the organic elegance of the main dwelling. Their rounded forms, fashioned with the same earth-straw mixture, exuded a sense of unity with the earth. Thatch roofs, woven from dried grass and reeds, sheltered these homes, providing a protective shield against the elements. The thatch, not only practical but also aesthetic, allowed air to circulate within, ensuring a comfortable temperature inside.

Adjacent to each of the women’s huts stood a humble kitchen, an intimate space where culinary skills unfolded daily. These smaller structures, adorned with earthy hues that blended seamlessly with the landscape, reflected a visual unity that seemed to extend the dwelling into the embrace of the earth itself.

At the heart of the compound, where earth and tradition intermingled, Nata’s daily routine composed a rhythmic cadence, each task contributing to the flourishing harmony of their familial abode. Her calloused hands bore not only the weight of responsibilities but also the essence of familial unity and shared duties. Embracing these obligations, Nata seamlessly melded into the daily toil that defined their family’s existence. The rhythm of her efforts became the beating heart of their shared life. Each sweeping motion, condiment grinding, and grain pounding resonated with the essence of a young girl’s unwavering dedication to her family’s well-being.

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On this particular day, despite the allure of the sandy canvas beneath her, she found herself unusually distracted. Her small hands traced lines and molded the sand in a feeble attempt at play, but her attention wavered. The low-toned discourse between her stepmother, Neneh Dado, and their neighbour, Neneh Maita, unfolded like an illicit performance, audible to Nata’s small ears as she sat with her baby sister, Khadja Bobo.

The atmosphere hung heavy with malicious undertones, enticing Nata’s curiosity like an irresistible tide. Even the mango and orange trees surrounding the house appeared still – unmoving and attentive. She couldn’t resist the temptation to eavesdrop on the exchanges just beyond her immediate hearing.

Amid her surreptitious observations, Nata’s protective instincts kicked in. She tossed her hands to shoo away bothersome flies from Khadja Bobo’s face. The baby nestled beside her, blissfully licking her plump hands and emitting coos that hinted at an impending cry. Nata dreaded the wails that followed, loud and unyielding.

Frantically, her eyes scanned the surroundings, searching for Matou, the missing middle child. A pang of concern enveloped her as she realised Matou was nowhere to be found.

Omar, not Matou – a boy who had passed away at the age of two – was her younger sibling. Memories of Omar were faint, a vague recollection of a presence lost too soon. The somber atmosphere that enveloped their household after Omar’s passing lingered in Nata’s mind, accompanied by the deep well of grief that consumed her mother thereafter. Nights became a canvas of shared sorrow, with her mother weeping herself to sleep, haunted by the void left by Omar’s departure. The shared hay bedding in the hut they occupied together became a vessel for their combined mourning, as grief proved to be a contiguous companion.

Grief accompanied them to bed each night. Nata, young and lacking understanding, found herself mourning not just the brother she barely knew but also the transformation of her mother. Prior to Omar’s passing, their room was a space where folklore was spun every night – tales woven from everyday events that imparted lessons in morality, vice, and virtue. Since his departure, their shared hay bedding bore witness to the intertwining threads of sorrow, woven into the fabric of their familial experience. The memories of Omar were faint, but the echoes of his absence lingered, casting shadows that transcended time and memory.

At the tender age of barely ten, Nata held the position of the eldest child in the household, a role accompanied by responsibilities. Following her in the sibling lineup was Matou, a spirited four-year-old, and then the youngest addition, Khadja Bobo, a cherubic baby of just six months. Each child brought their unique personalities to the web of the Mbalo family.

As Nata anxiously pondered Matou’s whereabouts, the absence of her younger sister became palpable. Nata, with a wisdom beyond her years, recognized her own strength in consoling the baby during her cries. Yet, Matou had a natural affinity with infants, a gift that made her an innate soother in the household dynamics.

Matou’s absence cast a shadow that transcended the mere tangible, leaving an emptiness that echoed through the familiar corridors of the household. The seamless interplay of the three siblings, which once defined the home, now felt incomplete. Nata, yearning for the innate comfort that Matou effortlessly provided, grappled with the challenges of consoling the baby, should she begin to cry. In the ensuing silence, Matou’s absence resonated, underscoring her unique role as a source of solace within the familial embrace.

Sensing a shift in the exchange, Nata snapped her attention back to the subtle nuances of the two women’s conversation. She strained to catch the fragments that slipped through the veil of secrecy, her curiosity piqued by the undertones hinting at an impending storm. The discussion, akin to ominous clouds gathering on the horizon, circled around her mother, Borogie, who had departed moments earlier to gather firewood from the nearby forest for the evening meal.

“She walks like she owns the earth,” Neneh Maita’s voice, dripping with disdain, resonated through the air, setting the stage for the impending verbal tempest. Neneh Dado, fuelled by simmering resentment, retorted with venomous determination, “You don’t bother. I will teach her a lesson she won’t forget when she returns. Borogie is shameless and unbearable. I will bring her down from her high horse.” The words hung in the air, laden with malice, as Neneh Dado cast a vindictive glance at the oblivious Khadja Bobo.

As the tense discussion unfolded, Nata’s heart pounded with worry. The imminent storm of disdain and hostility posed a threat to her mother’s return, leaving Nata grappling with the impending tempest. The weight of concern pressed upon her—how could she warn her mother about the verbal daggers and sly schemes awaiting her?

Meanwhile, Khadja Bobo, blissfully unaware of the storm brewing around her, continued to lick her hands. Oblivious to the words that could alter the fabric of their family dynamics, she remained a beacon of innocence amidst the impending conflict as Nata grappled with the choice to confront the storm or shield her mother from its impact, while the evening sun cast long shadows, reflecting the palpable uncertainty hanging in the air.

“Please do not mention my name,” Neneh Maita pleaded furtively, her voice a mere whisper in the gathering storm.

“Don’t worry, I won’t. And thank you for telling me,” Neneh Dado responded tersely.

A subtle relief was evident in Neneh Maita’s demeanor as she started to walk away, the weight of her shared secret hanging in the air like unspoken tension.

As the echoes of Neneh Maita’s departing footsteps faded, a sense of urgency seized Nata’s attention. In the tranquility that followed, the landscape seemed to hold its breath, awaiting the impending arrival of Borogie. An intricate dance of thoughts began in Nata’s mind, a whirlwind of concern and anticipation.

Time became an elusive entity, and Nata’s mental gears shifted into overdrive. The dilemma unfolded before her like a rapidly turning kaleidoscope. Should she warn her mother about the clandestine conversation she had overheard? Would there be enough time to convey the brewing storm of discontent before Borogie reached the house?

As Borogie’s figure gradually emerged on the horizon, each step marked a moment slipping away, weighing heavily on Nata’s shoulders. The urgency intensified, burdening her with a choice that could reshape the impending confrontation. With every passing second, Nata’s heart raced in synchrony with the pressing need to convey the imminent tempest to her unsuspecting mother. The air hung heavy with a blend of uncertainty and anticipation, while Borogie remained oblivious to the brewing storm awaiting her return.

Approaching with firewood securely balanced on top of her head, Borogie wore the customary attire that spoke of tradition and age, the vivid fabric of her wrapper swaying gently with each step. Her topless upper body, bestowed upon her a sense of maternal dignity. Fueled by a sense of responsibility, Nata’s immediate instinct was to sprint towards her mother, determined to warn her about the brewing storm.

Suddenly, she sprung to her feet and began to run toward Borogie. However, the abruptness of her movements startled Khadja Bobo, triggering a cascade of earnest cries from the baby. The unexpected wails echoed through the air, adding a layer of chaos to the unfolding situation. Undeterred by the baby’s cries, Nata pressed on, determined to reach her mother before the storm could break loose. Without looking back at the distressed baby, Nata continued running, her focus fixed on the impending confrontation that loomed like a gathering tempest in the heart of their familial abode.

The clash of anticipation and concern continued to reverberate through the air as Borogie and Nata drew closer to the epicentre of the impending familial turmoil…

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