It was red. A bright, shiny, crimson red. The rays of the high afternoon sun bounced off the silver handlebars and made the short spokes bling. It stood alone, boasting of how much fun he’d have on it; how fast it could make his short legs go and how his father would need over a thousand pounds for it to be his. And in turn, Zakaria squinted in the sun and flashed a smile just as bright as he saw his father, tall with his white turban piled high on his head, counting out the notes that he had spent months saving for his son’s bicycle. The salesman stood in front of his father, nodding with each count of the 20 pound notes.
“One thousand, two hundred,” Karim said at last, handing the fat bundle of crumpled notes into the salesman’s hands.
“It’s all yours, my friend,” the salesman said, revealing a large gap in his top incisors as he chuckled. “Congratulations.”
“It is you I congratulate,” Karim said, playfully hitting his companions shoulder as they walked towards Zakaria’s new bicycle. “Your new bike, my son.”
I must be dreaming, young Zakaria thought, I’ve wanted this for so long, I must be dreaming.
The images shuddered in front of his eyes and he heard his sister shouting as she shook him.
“Zak! Zak!”He squeezed his eyes shut, the handlebars of his bike still glistened in the sun.
“Wake up, Zak, wake up!”
He felt cold slaps across his cheeks. Left. Right. Left.
“Zak, wake up! Papa’s dead!”
Dead was a shrilly arrow that pierced through one ear, sliced the image of his father and shot through the other ear. His eyes flew open – wide open. His body became stiff, and his head bounced on his thin pillow as his sister shook his shoulders, tears streaming down her puffy cheeks.
There was no register, no click of recognition, no ping of understanding. That word had never been in his bank of vocabulary when it came to people he knew. Dead was not in the line of names in his lineage of men of knowledge – he was Zakaria Karim Nasr, dead had no place there. Dead could not be said before the name of the man who taught him how to read, taught him that their Sudanese hibiscus was like no other, with its orange-red hue that was much more easily sweetened than its counterpart in China. Dead could not be attributed to the man who called people from their state of mini-death for them to arise, wash and stand before their Creator.
“Get up!” Halima swiped at his tumbling thoughts, her cold hands were no longer slapping his face or shaking his shoulders because he was more awake than he’d ever been in his eleven years of life. He pushed himself up slowly, sliding slightly on the jacquard-patterned woven plastic floor mat that he slept on. He noticed light streaming in through the small wood-framed window in their room.
It’s morning, he thought.
Since his 8th birthday his mornings began before the sun greeted the land, when men still tugged at their rough wool blankets to keep out the night’s crisp air that drifted from the sands of the desert, when light droplets of water fell on his face from Halima’s slender fingers, when a thick melody floated from the minaret of the village’s mosque, calling the faithful to success.
Young Zakaria stood, looking around the room he’d shared with his older sister for as long as he could remember, every familiar detail skewed and unfocused. The flat cushions that lay beneath the short table along the furthest wall bore fingerprints of where their father told them of the mistakes in their homework; the wooden chest with the broken lock that held the few clothes they had to place on their backs; their satchels with a pencil and two exercise books that their father taught them to be proud of, saying that true knowledge was the wealth man should strive to attain.
Halima stood beside her little brother, white tracks snaked from the bottom of her large eyes and disappeared below her jaw where the river of salty tears had once been. Zakaria could not look into her eyes. He was afraid they would confirm the treacherous words her tongue uttered to whip him out of slumber.
Today, was the day when dreams were to come true, where his father would count 20 pound notes and hand it to the salesman an hour’s walk away. There was meant to be a smile on their faces, as his father held his hand, swinging it as he rolled the 9 times table off his tongue, Zakaria repeating each calculation until they reached the bicycle shop. Today was meant to be the day that he sprang out of bed when he heard his father calling the masses to the morning prayer, excitement itching at his hands and feet, making him unable to sit still. Today was meant to be the day that the red bicycle would be his, and he’d name it Farah for it was sure to make him the happiest boy alive.
He didn’t dare look into Halima’s eyes – fear of his dream devolving into a nightmare gripped at him, and he stared at the light that intruded the room.
“Come,” she whispered, “Nana’s waiting for us.”
The pair, yesterday only motherless and now true orphans, walked side-by-side, fingers weaved together with hearts twice broken, to face a morning that, though bright like any other morning in Sudan, was amongst their darkest.
© LaYinka Sanni, August 2011
This story won 1st prize place in the IWA IF Short Story Contest 2011.