I nodded. I had already tried on the uniform eight times in two days, anxious to resume school. The green-and-white-checked shirt and olive-green shorts had become wrinkled. Now I reached into the carton and stroked a piece of the uniform that stuck out of the jumble.
"Why are you messing with this beautiful uniform?" Mama said. "Patience, boy. School is just around the corner." She dug to the bottom of the carton and buried the package. "Maisha likes your face," she whispered. "Please, Jigana, tell her you need more—shoes, PTA fee, prep fee. We must to save all Ex-mas rate to educate you, first son. Tell her she must stop buying those fuunny fuunny designer clothes, those clothes smelling of dead white people, and give us the money."
As she said this, she started to pound angrily on the trunk. The trunk was a big obstruction. It was the only piece of furniture we had with a solid and definite shape. Maisha had brought it home a year ago and always ordered us to leave the shack before she would open it. None of us knew what its secret contents were, except for a lingering perfume. It held for us both suspense and consolation, and these feelings grew each time Maisha came back with new things. Sometimes, when Maisha did not come back for a long time, our anxiety turned the trunk into an assurance of her return.
" Malaya! Prostitute! She doesn't come and I break the box tonight," Mama hissed, spitting on the combination lock and shaking the trunk until we could hear its contents knocking about. She always took her anger out on the trunk in Maisha's absence. I reached out to grab her hands.
"You pimp!" she growled. "You support the malaya."
"It's not her fault. It's musungu tourists."
"You better begin school before she runs away."
"I must to report you to her."
"I must to bury you and your motormouth in this box."
We struggled. Her long nails slashed my forehead, and blood trickled down. But she was still shaking the trunk. Turning around, I charged at her and bit her right thigh. I could not draw blood because I had lost my front milk teeth. She let go and reeled into the bodies of our sleeping family. Atieno let out one short, eerie scream, as if in a nightmare, then went back to sleep. Baba groaned and said he did not like his family members fighting during Ex-mas. "You bite my wife because of that whore?" he groaned. "The cane will discipline you in the morning. I must to personally ask your headmaster to get a big cane for you."
A welt had fruited up on Mama's thigh. She rolled up her dress and started massaging it, her lips moving in silent curses. Then, to punish me, she took the kabire she had poured for me and applied it to the swelling. She pushed the mouth of the bottle against it, expecting the fumes to ease the hurt.
When Mama had finished nursing herself, she returned the bottle to me. Since it was still potent kabire, I did not sniff it straight but put my lips around the mouth of the bottle and smoked slowly, as if it were an oversized joint of bhang, Indian hemp. First it felt as if I had no saliva in my mouth, and then the fumes began to numb my tongue. The heat climbed steadily into my throat, tickling my nostrils like an aborted sneeze. I cooled off a bit and blew away the vapor. Then I sucked at it again and swallowed. My eyes watered, my head began to spin, and I dropped the bottle.
When I looked up, Mama had poured some kabire for herself and was sniffing it. She and Baba hardly ever took kabire. " Kabire is for children only," Baba's late father used to admonish them whenever he caught them eyeing our glue. This Ex-mas we were not too desperate for food. In addition to the money that begging with Baby had brought us, Baba had managed to steal some wrapped gifts from a party given for machokosh families by an NGO whose organizers were so stingy that they served fruit juice like shots of hard liquor. He had dashed to another charity party and traded in the useless gifts—plastic cutlery, picture frames, paperweights, insecticide—for three cups of rice and zebra intestines, which a tourist hotel had donated. We'd had these for dinner on Ex-mas Eve.
"Happee, happee Ex-mas, tarling!" Mama toasted me after a while, rubbing my head.
"You too, Mama."
"Now, where are these daughters? Don't they want to do Exmas prayer?" She sniffed the bottle until her eyes receded, her face pinched like the face of a mad cow. "And the govament banned this sweet thing. Say thanks to the neighbors, boy. Where did they find this hunger killer?" Sometimes she released her lips from the bottle with a smacking sound. As the night thickened, her face began to swell, and she kept pouting and biting her lips to check the numbness. They turned red—they looked like Maisha's when she had on lipstick—and puffed up.
"Mama? So, what can we give the neighbors for Ex-mas?" I asked, remembering that we had not bought anything for our friends.
My question jerked her back. "Petrol... we will buy them a half liter of petrol," she said, and belched. Her breath smelled of carbide, then of sour wine. When she looked up again, our eyes met, and I lowered mine in embarrassment. In our machokosh culture, petrol was not as valuable as glue. Any self-respecting street kid should always have his own stock of kabire. "OK, son, next year... we get better things. I don't want police business this year—so don't start having ideas."
We heard two drunks stumbling toward our home. Mama hid the bottle. They stood outside announcing that they had come to wish us a merry Ex-mas. "My husband is not here!" Mama lied. I recognized the voices. It was Bwana Marcos Wako and his wife, Cecilia. Baba had owed them money for four years. They came whenever they smelled money, then Baba had to take off for a few days. When Baby was born, we pawned three-quarters of his clothing to defray the debts. A week before Ex-mas, the couple had raided us, confiscating Baba's work clothes in the name of debt servicing.
I quickly covered the trunk with rags and reached into my pocket, tightening my grip around the rusty penknife I carried about.
Mama and I stood by the door. Bwana Wako wore his trousers belted across his forehead; the legs, flailing behind him, were tied in knots and stuffed with ugali flour, which he must have gotten from a street party. Cecilia wore only her jacket and her rain boots.
"Ah, Mama Jigana-ni Ex-mas!" the husband said. "Forget the money. Happee Ex- mas!"
"We hear Jigana is going to school," the wife said.
"Who told you?" Mama said warily. "Me, I don't like rumors."
They turned to me. "Happee to resume school, boy?"
"Me am not going to school," I lied, to spare my tuition money.
" Kai, like mama like son!" the wife said. "You must to know you are the hope of your family."
"Mama Jigana, listen," the man said. "Maisha came to us last week. Good, responsible gal. She begged us to let bygone be bygone so Jigana can go to school. We say forget the money—our Ex-mas gift to your family."