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The Good News of Sophie Tembo


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These first pages are preceded by an introduction which establishes the setting with relevant history. Job one is to orient the reader, as well as well as introduce the protagonist, antagonist, immediate problem, etc. 

            A fumbo has a surface meaning and a hidden one, and it can be used to either avoid or create conflict. It is a puzzle, a metaphor, and the makeshift of an outspoken people during those accidental moments when discretion is suddenly required. It can be a riddle, an insult in disguise, an indirect accusation, and even something someone says without thinking.

            When should something so frequently silly as a fumbo be taken seriously?

            Only a few days ago, there was the mentioning, by Busiku, the catechist’s wife, of a goat squeezing through a neighbor’s garden fence.

             As is the intention of all fumbos, or at least all intended fumbos, it was only after they parted ways that Sophie Tembo began to grasp what it could mean — after a seemingly unrelated chat about their husbands.

            Only yesterday afternoon, another fumbo was uttered by Emma Tambwa, the village merchant’s second wife, during the village health lesson.

             As the only ongoing event for every woman in the village of Tumbako, the weekly lessons given by Kaya, the village health worker, were a sort of covert women’s forum. They studied each other’s faces more than the abstract illustrations that Kaya used for visual aids.

            A tall woman with a sharply upturned lip, shifty black eyes, and a little bulb on her nose, Emma Tambwa raised her hand, and her voice throbbed like a loose piece of rubber: “Do you do eye tests in case a child will need glasses?”

            Kaya shrugged. “I don’t know if I can get glasses, and, even so, I can’t tell you which ones,” he said. “Maybe I can get an eye chart that will tell me something. Is the child old enough to read letters?”

            “I just wondered,” Emma throbbed almost innocently. “Just in case the daughter is like the father.”

            The one person in Tumbako who wore glasses was Sophie’s husband Tolo, the village school director.

             Only a few hours ago, while she was sleeping, Sophie had a dream about her Grandma Sophie-Aya, for whom she was named.

             “Wake up,” Grandma Sophie-Aya said. Then she made the sign of the Uke.

             Grandma hadn’t spoken to Sophie from the dead before, and, after so many years and prayers, she never thought she would.

            Sophie opened her door and looked, in the growing light, at the village clinic, which was in the next compound. People were already over there, waiting for it to open. She couldn’t tell who they were, at least not yet. With the Sun still low on the horizon, their elongated shadows wagged between the fat mud-brick pillars of the veranda.

            “Are we going?” her daughter Maria asked behind her.

            “Yes. Hurry with the basin.”

            Maria stooped down.

            With plump red-brown hands and a new copper bracelet on her wrist, Sophie arranged a rolled-up piece of cloth on her daughter’s head. On top of the coiled cloth, she placed a plastic basin piled with laundry. Maria stood up, holding the basin on her head with slim fingers, alertly scanning her short, chubby, baby-faced mother. At ten years old, she was an adept apprentice, a strong girl, straight-backed in a blue cotton dress. If only she wasn’t so shy about everything.

            On top of the fuzzy cornrows arching front to back over her broad oval head, Sophie hoisted an empty plastic jerry can. The room around them was gray, but it was growing lighter, and almost everything could now be seen. From under the jerry can, she glanced at the picture on the wall, painted on a piece of canvas sack that was stretched over a frame: a mermaid with a snake wrapped around her tail. Her husband Tolo got it in Kitwanga, the market town. She didn’t like the mermaid’s hypnotic eyes, the pinpoints of white light in her pupils.

            Opening the door, Sophie and Maria stepped off the low, packed-earth foundation of their house into the sunlight, picking their way through the mud and goat shit they’d sweep later, after the ground dried. The morning mist was still on it. They reached the road and scrambled over the glistening ruts, turning their backs to the clinic.

            Sophie’s foot slid on a patch of clay, the empty container bucking on her head. Clutching the jerry can to her shoulder and the kanga around her hips, she danced to keep her balance, skidded to a stop, and gazed down at a red-grey clod of earth on the big toe in her sandal. She scooped up the chunk of clay and rolled it between her fingers.

            “Good?” Maria asked.

            “We’ll come back to it,” Sophie murmured, examining the soft red vein in the road bank. “We’re going somewhere.”

            “Where?”

             “Just hurry.”

            She took Maria’s hand, and they jogged down the firm side of the road. She moved like a chubby piston, and the girl struggled to keep up. The village of Tumbako unfolded alongside them. They jogged past clusters of thatch-roofed buildings: main house, wives’ huts, kitchen hut and latrine. Smoke was rising from kitchen huts where the morning tea was brewing. It was almost the end of the rainy season, and the air was cool, but the light beyond them was growing stronger. A skinny man crouching over a peeling enamel washbowl paused, a piece of green soap bobbing in the water. “What news?” he called.

             Sophie shook her head, and they kept moving.

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