Ater e Bai My mother was a good woman, everyone told me so, everyone except my father...

Ater e Bai
Nyuol Lueth Tong

My mother was a good woman, everyone told me so, everyone except my father, he didn’t think so, no one thought he was a good man, my father, and I suspected that was the reason he thought my mother was a bad woman, I suspected that for a while, he had to hate or at least blame someone for his shortcomings, for his miserable lot, that is the way of things, the nature of widowhood, the rotten harvest of an infamous marriage, he was suspicious, hostile, vile, I remember, when I was still little, he said one evening that my mother was untrustworthy, Ater e Bai, he said, your mother can’t be trusted, I don’t think he cared much that I was five years old and knew nothing about trust, except maybe in the simplest sense, in the sense of familiarity, in the sense I trusted him

He was always beside himself, up and down, but all things considered he was good to me even though people blamed him for my homeless-like childhood and the general poverty that marked our homestead, he no longer found any joy or pride or worth in cultivating, in working or being useful for that matter, as he apparently did in the past, the farm that encircled our property was overrun with weed and turning into a forest of wild bush, the sleeping hut, the cooking hut and the cattle byre had not been repaired in years, and the shabbiness of things gave our house a deplorable look of abandonment, people called him careless and lazy and selfish, but he was no more so than the next man, he was good to me, I never missed a meal, no matter how drunk he was, he always brought me some food, in the cooking hut was a large basket that always contained something edible, nuts, dry mangoes, dry fish, there was always a calabash full of milk somewhere in our house, he wasn’t that bad, considering

But people said nasty things about him, I was about nine years old when I began to hear stories about him, the road to school passed through the marketplace and along the roadside, where tea ladies and grain winnowers conducted business in the shade of trees and where I stopped almost daily after school for a quick snack, there I often heard people say things about him, they rarely lowered their voices, such decent folks, or even acknowledged that I was there, as though it were the noblest thing to ridicule a man in front of his son, or disparage a member of the community so openly, it did not particularly bother me, all this bad faith, until the day a tea lady asked me if my father was terrible to me as he had been with my mother, although I was shy and generally afraid of adults, I asked her to explain what she meant, there were five men and two women under the cluster of sausage trees that was the coffee shop, they turned to me when I said I didn’t understand the question, the tea lady was visibly annoyed and sighed very audibly, well, she said, you never wonder why you don’t have a mother, I said no, I don’t wonder, because I have a mother and she is dead, after that exchange I stopped getting my snack of biscuits from that particular place though it was very popular, and on the rare occasion I was dragged there by schoolmates, people there, surprisingly, stopped talking about my father so openly in front of me, but their silent gossip was no less blatant or annoying, the tea lady, out of guilt or practical decency, tried to be kind to me, which I ignored, I hadn’t been terribly hurt by her words

In fact, I’d begun to wonder about my mother and what had happened between my parents, I knew I had relatives in the village, at least from my mother’s side, though I had never seen them because my father wanted us to have nothing to do with them, especially after my mother’s death, my mother’s people lived on the other side of the Kiir River, which divided the village into two separate communities, their side of the river belonged to the richest members of the village, including the chief, who was the head of my mother’s clan, our side comprised fishermen and small-time merchants, people who owned small farms and handful household cattle for milk and butter, though no richer or poorer than us, they considered themselves one degree of status above us, my father was the most recent settler in the village, and that was part of the fight with my mother’s people, he was a foreigner, a man without much in the way of reputation or nobility of blood or wealth to recommend him, a wandering cattle keeper, he was called, meaning that he was nothing more than a cattle rustler to my mother’s people, when my mother married him, defying the chief and the ruling class of the village, she was disowned, the condemnation was universal, an ox was drowned alive in the Kiir River to mark the separation of blood, and like my father my mother became a stranger, at her funeral villagers from both sides of the Kiir River came to pay their respects and say their goodbyes, except for her people, except for her own parents, and that I think is the greatest betrayal under the sun, they brought her into this wretched world, it’s their responsibility to see her depart from it, contrary to popular belief parents are deeply selfish but that kind of selfishness is beyond my comprehension, rumor had it my grandmother had wanted to come, but my grandfather had prohibited her, apparently over the years my grandmother had wanted to see me too, but there was no crossing the Kiir River with that purpose in mind without risking the wrath of the spirits, perhaps my father could take me to see my grandmother, I wondered sometimes, assuming the separation didn’t apply to him since he was no blood relation with my mother’s people, I was curious about old people in those days, what my grandparents looked like, I was sure my grandfather wore the face of devil, but my grandmother, she was probably nice, perhaps my father could take me to see her, I’d wonder, but how could I bring up the topic with him, he was sensitive about all things mother, he would be hurt, I feared, my curiosity and wondering about my mother would amount to nothing less than betrayal to him

I remember one time when I was around six years old, I walked into an ant colony in the yard and suffered several bites and cried for a while and then started to scream I want mama, I want mama, my father rushed to me and picked me up but his face was contorted not with concern but rather with something like anger or disappointment, when I didn’t stop crying I want mama, I want mama, he placed me on the ground and started to cry I want mama, I want mama, too, and it became a kind of contest between us, who cried harder for his mother, until I grew tired and sleepy, there were no more tears in me to shed, but I saw that he couldn’t help himself, he kept crying I want mama, I want mama, all tears and sniffles like a baby, for a while longer, and later that night, beside me in our little crib, he cried softly in his sleep I want mama, I want mama, he was prone to crying, he cried too much, almost nightly, not always calling for his mother, but crying, just crying, one doesn’t get used to tears, much less the tears of one’s father, he was so miserable

He died in his sleep fifteen years ago, five years after I’d left the village, the word of his death reached me, through my uncle, two years ago, it’s very strange, it’s as though he died this morning, after all this while, in my mind he’s still alive, he’s very much alive, last night, for instance, I saw him drunk in the market, I heard him crack jokes under the big fig tree, embarrassing himself and everyone within an earshot with his dirty jokes, I watched him sobbing too with loneliness at night, in our desolate homestead, he can’t be dead, ghosts don’t drink or joke or weep, or perhaps this is his last dirty joke, I can’t imagine him dead, but my uncle, who is not really my uncle but my father’s drinking brother, is sure his friend is dead, he broke other news too two years ago, or rather there was other news that brought my uncle to Gudele where I’ve made my home for four years now, my father, my uncle told me, was more than the drunk bastard the world had judged him, apparently he had left me a sizable cattle camp, two hundred cows, give or take, that had multiplied over the years into a considerable wealth, apparently the elders of my mother’s clan wanted to take my inheritance for themselves as a recompense for the loss of their daughter, your father, my uncle said, made me the keeper of your cattle until you return home and take over, it’s time to go home, Ater e Bai, come home, son

I wanted to ask my uncle about my mother then, I don’t know why, I wanted to know if she had left me a handsome inheritance too, or was my father right after all: she was incapable of receiving or offering trust, my father, a drunk bastard, was he the inheritance she’d left me, I wanted to ask my uncle, but I thought better of it, it’s a bit late, I said instead, it’s too late for me to go home now, it’s too late for me to see the village as my home or my father’s homestead as my house, time and distance have carved a river between us, a border as permanent as the Kiir River itself, I like my side of the river, I told my uncle, I don’t think it’s that different, or even any better, but I like it anyway, I am used to it, I can suffer it enough, I don’t want to go anywhere, I don’t want to return anywhere or to anything, I like my side of the river, it’s too late, of course, I think about the other side of the river, I see my father drinking and joking and crying, day in and day out, that’s enough for me, and I don’t know my mother, as you know, I have no memory of her, and the things people tell me about her, good and bad, but mostly good, except for the things my father said, these rumors are not enough to give me the outline of her face much less the contours of her soul, I have no idea who she was as a person much less what she would’ve been to me as a mother or, for that matter, what she was as a wife to my father, that is the reason I can’t see her on the other side of the river or perhaps she has crossed the river or perhaps she has carved her own between us, I don’t know, I would think of her if I had a memory of her, but that would be it, this is my side of the river, I repeated to my uncle, and I like it here, there is nothing here, I understand, I have nothing here to make you respect my decision to stay here, there is nothing here to like, but I like it here, and I don’t mind if you don’t understand why I like it here, uncle, it’s that simple

We were silent for a long while before my uncle spoke, it’s easy to chop a dead tree, he said without malice, it can be done even with a blunt ax, I accepted the insult, my uncle was desperate to have me return home and release him from the burden my father had placed on him, the burden of my inheritance, it’s easy to chop a dead tree, that saying made me think about the village and the nights my father spent drinking with his drinking friends, it was, in fact, one of my father’s favorite sayings, he would shout it in the marketplace when people implored him with sneers and sighs to be mindful of others, he would chant, and not without charm or relish, that he was a dead man and that people should stop pestering him, there is no improving a dead man, he would say, I can’t be made better or worse, he would burst into laughter, and since he was beyond redemption, he was the freest person on earth, he was beyond judgment, he was a dead man, and the dead are blameless though harmless they are not, maybe that was the reason he always talked about my mother as though she were still alive, your mother’s a cheat, she is a faithless moon, you can’t count on her to be there when you look up in the dark, and once, drunk and cruel beyond feeling or reproach, he said that my mother was so undependable that the spirits deprived her of the greatest blessing, motherhood or being a mother, it was as though she had left him for someone else, as though she had abandoned me, a mere infant then, for another man or another child that she loved better than me, I suppose I felt her absence, too, though I can’t say I perceived her loss, not in the way he did anyway, he who had loved her with his whole world, however small it was, he whom she had loved against her whole world, but there is no filling the void of having no mother

The closest I’ve ever come to experiencing maternal affection was through my foster mother, Yar lost her child at birth the very night I lost my mother, cattle keepers attended her in the cattle camp, two villages away, while the village midwife attended my mother who died moments before I entered the world, the midwife had to squeeze me out with her hands, the midwife told me when I was reluctantly back in the village several months ago that night was the darkest she had seen in her long life because there was no fire, the night I was born, the night I lost my mother and Yar her child, there had been no fire in the village for two days, it was as though the dog that stole the first spark of fire from the snake had returned it forever, she said, I didn’t know what she meant so she told me the story, apparently the dog clan was banished from their native land, it was exiled to the land of man because the first dog stole fire from the snake and shared it with humans, to punish not only the culprit but his clan and descendants, the animal clans decreed that the dog and his kind could never return to the land of animals without that fire, that is without first completely extinguishing it from humanity, the midwife told me for two days there had been no fire in the village, people saw a darkness so thick it was almost tangible, the world must have been like that at night before the moon and the stars were made, she told me that night diviners and pundits prayed at my family’s homestead and beseeched the spirits to be kind and lift the darkness with the brightness of hope that a new baby inspires, in the cattle camp cattle keepers also prayed for Yar to make it, her firstborn was reluctant to enter the world but nobody cared about him, because Yar was young and would have other occasions to produce more cows, the midwife told me all this, I could see she wanted me to be grateful and feel lucky to be alive, I was the answer the spirits had offered to everyone’s fervent prayers, you should have prayed harder for my mother, I wanted to tell the midwife then, I knew Yar wished everyone in the cattle camp had prayed for her little one too, if you could spend time with Yar and learn the language she speaks, I wanted to tell the midwife, you would know that she wished the prayers in the camp had been for her child instead of her, Yar never had another child and I respected her decision, I didn’t want another woman to replace my mother either, and my father didn’t want to remarry either, and that was one of the few things he and I agreed on, Yar and I were always in perfect agreement, we shared a lot and I suppose that was the reason we ended up together, she became my mother in the way of feeding and I her child in some sense, between Yar and me there was a world of mourning and understanding, in our silence and solitude we communicated and consoled each other

Then she got attacked by a hyena when I was about twelve, her right rear thigh was torn, a bleeding wound that soon got infected, she had only days to live, days in pain, she never slept, the pain was too much, she would cry until I went to the byre and applied fresh cow urine and plant potions for pain relief I concocted from common recipes, she would stop crying and biting herself for a while but her eyes would drip with tears, her suffering went on for three days and though my father knew what had to be done he was too drunk to do it, her fourth night she howled until dawn, in the later hours of the night she lost her voice but I could still hear her weeping in our sleeping hut where I hadn’t been able to sleep well since the attack, in the morning I loaded my father’s gun and shot her in the head outside the byre, and as I applied my useless potions to her thigh and the bullet wound in her head to ease her suffering even though it served no purpose, sitting in the pool of her still warm blood, my father standing over us with eyes wide open as though he were beholding a miracle, there was not a single tear dripping from her eyes, she was still and relaxed, in the embrace of the deep sleep, after a while we prayed and my father said some empty words over her body and we lay her to rest in the morning shade of the byre near my late mother, the subsequent days I was overwhelmed by sorrow and solitude but also by a shattering feeling of guilt, I had killed my mother


Nyuol Lueth Tong is an experimental writer of prose. Editor of There is a Country (McSweeney’s 2013), the first ever anthology of fiction from his native country of South Sudan, Tong studied philosophy and comparative literature at Duke University where he was a Reginaldo Howard Memorial Scholar and fiction (MFA) at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop where he was a Truman Capote Fellow and a Teaching-Writing Fellow. Hailed by Dave Eggers as one of the new “Bold Voices,” Tong’s writing has appeared in McSweeney’s, the Baffler, NPR, New Sudan, Gurtong among other publications.

Éphémère is a concept; two visions of the same sphere. Both are multidisciplinary Mauritian artists—designers and illustrators—influenced by nature and culture. They attempt to convey a part of their dream-like, somewhat playful world through their art and products. (Photo credits: Céliliphotographies)

One comment

  • What a powerful and compelling story! There is a deep wellspring of emotion and mystery here conveyed with such purity and restraint, it drew me in as though I were in a trance. Nyuol’s is indeed a bold and extraordinary voice.

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