Maya is standing on the pavement, watching coaches spit out passengers into the open arms of family and friends. She hopes first-timers are aware of Lusaka’s thirst for fresh blood. This city can sniff the dreams of starry-eyed youthful men and women the second they get off at Inter-city bus terminus. Maya shakes her head. Three more years till she turns thirty, but she’s already thinking in parables.

She glances at her watch again, takes another sip of her Manzi to ease the metallic taste coating her tongue, which is being exacerbated by the dust and exhaust fumes from all these revving buses. The taste is worse than the hunger pangs, but like Pastor says, These things are a sign that God is working on your prayer request. Indeed, her seven-day water fast has not been in vain; God is delivering her request—Taona—on a Juldan Motors bus. Except this time, Maya is certain there won’t be any hugging because of Taona’s unceremonious departure from Maya’s family home eight years ago.

“Sister, Livingstone bus alive!” The teenage boy who’d asked Maya if she was here to buy a ticket shouts in her direction. He hefts a big sack over his bony shoulder, swaying to the left before recovering his balance.

For the past twenty minutes, she has watched him hustle. He has carried bags and goods for people and fixed the faulty door for the lady in the yellow telephone booth behind her.

“It’s arrive, not alive, iwe chikala!” A tall man with a toothpick poking out the corner of his mouth corrects and playfully slaps the boy on the back.

Maya winces, but the boy laughs, unphased that the man just called him a male private part. He looks about sixteen or seventeen, the same age as her nephews, whose passion in life is playing video games in the comfort of padded recliners. Though Maya’s big brother, Limbikani, argues that his sons’ upbringing does not differ from theirs, she disagrees. They weren’t that spoiled. Despite having a garden boy who doubled as a washen boy, their late Mum made Maya and Limbikani wash their underwear, school uniforms, and socks by hand. And they kept their bedrooms tidy.

Maya tightens her grip around the strap of her leather handbag, clamps it in her armpit to secure it from pickpockets, and follows the swarm of people to the pink bus that’s just pulled in. While others crane their necks, scanning the faces peering out the tall bus windows, waving frantically when they spot their loved ones, Maya focuses on the large side mirror.

Please, God, give me strength. Please, God, give me strength. Her mantra for when she’s in the thrall of sweat-drenching nightmares that bedevil her despite her nightly routine of sprinkling holy water on her pillow and sheets and in every corner of the flat. Nightmares that started after Taona left.

Someone steps on her foot, leaving a dirty brown smudge on her white high-tops. What was she thinking wearing all white to a dusty place filled with people rushing around? She wasn’t thinking. Ninety percent of her wardrobe is white, even her BMW (which she’d opted not to drive in the Friday traffic), so is the interior of her flat, from the walls to the leather sofas to the picture frames.

“With white, there’s nowhere to hide, you are either clean or dirty,” Mum used to say whenever she caught Maya coveting bright dresses in the shops.

When the bus door opens, Taona is the first passenger out after the conductor. People get out of her way, parting like the Red Sea did for Moses. She glides toward Maya, her long neon-green braids illuminated against her brown skin.

“Mayamiko, why are you standing like a statue? Didn’t you see me waving and shouting? Nichani? Are you okay?” she asks.

Am I okay? Maya searches her cousin’s face for traces of the bitterness that had darkened her slanted eyes the last time she saw her. Instead, a smile spreads across Taona’s face, transforming her into the happy, fifteen-year-old girl Maya and Mum picked up many years ago.

“Iye! Mayamiko, good to see you.” Taona pulls her in for a hug.

“Good to see you too,” Maya says, sniffing Taona’s musky perfume. Her eyes go heavenward to the cloudless blue sky. She takes this embrace as a sign all is well and the past is behind them.

When they pull apart, Taona looks over her shoulder and waves at a man watching them from the passenger side of the front seat.

“Who is that?” Maya asks, using the distraction to give Taona a quick look-over. Her cleavage peeks from a black bodysuit that disappears into gray skinny jeans. On her feet is a pair of platform cork sandals Maya wouldn’t expect on someone who endured a six-hour bus drive. Maya looks around them; men are ogling and women are giving Taona the side-eye. It’s hard to tell what’s attracting more attention, the green braids descending to her bottom or the way her clothes appear molded to her body.

“Ni bus driver,” Taona says, and laughs when the man beckons her over.

“Oh, you know each other?”

“He claims so. Wait here.” She ambles over to him.

Maya notices how Taona laughs with her entire body, not just her mouth, and sways her hair when talking to the driver, who appears to be pleading for something, his hands clasped as though in prayer. Eventually, Taona types into her phone and the man, presumably happy that she’s agreed to take his number, smiles, exposing his bright pink gums.

He reminds Maya of the man she met a month ago in Shoprite. He’d stopped replenishing the rice shelves and grinned at her as she dillydallied over which pasta to get. Although she didn’t recognize his face, he insisted they used to live on the same road as teens. To prove it, he asked after her family members by name: Dad, Mr. Zulu, the car dealer who changed cars like shoes, Mum, Mrs. Zulu, the stern midwife who responded to greetings with “Just go to the hospital” before someone explained their ailment or asked her to look at their rash; her brother, Limbikani, the handsome Casanova who, at nineteen, impregnated two girls from the next road. Embarrassed by this accurate summation of her family, Maya apologized for her inability to recall him, wished him a pleasant day, and wheeled her trolley away.

“I met your cousin Taona last month in Livingstone,” he called after her.

Maya had swiveled around so fast, narrowly missing a little girl with patchy hair. The girl’s mother sucked her teeth and gave her the evil eye. “Ndiwe ngomwa?”

Because there’s power in the tongue, Maya silently rebuked the woman for insinuating she was incapable of bearing children. Maya’s unborn children, and their children’s children, would never suffer from the spirit of barrenness.

“How did Taona look? Is she okay? Did you talk to her?” The questions tumbled out of her mouth.

The man frowned. “You two don’t talk?”

Maya lied that she had lost her previous phone and all her contacts along with it. To her relief, he pulled his phone from his breast pocket and gave her Taona’s number.

“Where is your luggage?” she says when Taona returns.

Taona pats her oversized pleather handbag. Maya is a little disappointed because this means Taona doesn’t intend to stay long. Not that they had planned on anything when they spoke on the phone. It surprised Maya that Taona had agreed to come at all.

“I need to pee,” Taona says, doing the wee dance, her breasts jiggling. Maya knows this isn’t for show. She remembers how Taona had the habit of running outside and urinating on the grass behind the house when someone was in the toilet. A habit that enraged Mum to the point of making Taona dig out the whole backyard by herself and, later, Mum had the garden boy gravel it.

As they approach the toilet entrance, Taona refuses the five kwacha Maya tries to give her to pay the lady from the council. Instead, Taona rummages in her bag for some coins, pays for herself, and dashes inside. Maya wanders off to the nearby wooden stalls crammed with soaps, clothes, stationary, drinks. Vendors call out, telling her to come closer, but she keeps looking over her shoulder so she doesn’t miss Taona. One man compliments her light brown skin and asks if she’s looking for something to maintain her color. She doesn’t tell him this complexion is a remnant of her (half-English) maternal great-grandfather. It fades with each generation; they get darker and their hair coarser. Those who are desperate secretly use lightening creams but deny it, claiming it’s the kalad in them. The only thing Mum insisted was worth clinging to was the Anderson name, which she made Limbikani and Maya use as a middle name. Mum would make Maya recover her exercise books if Maya wrote Mayamiko Zulu instead of Mayamiko Anderson Zulu. In primary school, her classmates would ask, “Why is your middle name a boy’s name?” and she’d say “It’s not really my middle name, it’s my mother’s surname.” And they’d tease her and call her faded kalad. Joke’s on them now. When Maya sits behind her polished mahogany desk with the aluminum name plate embossed with credit manager, she’s glad she listened to her mother. She discovered it takes more than qualifications to succeed in the corporate world. She peddled the Anderson name with confidence until people believed she was an asset.

Maya moves away from the creams and the memories they have evoked. She concludes Taona is probably snapping her bodysuit and writhing back into her jeans. She recognizes the boy from earlier, standing a stall away. Even from the back, she can tell it’s him. His shoulders jut from the sun-faded green Chipolopolo football jersey. He’s talking to the vulgar man with the toothpick in his mouth.

“People with money like to wear white-white. But she left without giving me anything for a drink when I’m the one who told her the bus is here. Kaso monga ni hule,” he complains in Nyanja.

Maya freezes momentarily. She swallows hard. To think she had pitied him for chasing money in his threadbare canvas shoes. Now to hear him compare her to a stingy prostitute. Then the boy turns around. They stare at each other for a few seconds. He puffs out his chest in an act of false bravado. Maya reaches into her purse, pulls out fifty kwacha, and holds it out to him. The boy’s mouth opens and closes, he lurches forward to take it as if afraid she might change her mind. Maya walks away without a backward glance as Taona emerges from the toilet.

They head to the exit where taxi drivers bombard them with their sales pitches. 

“Sisters, I’ll do you good price.”

“Comfortable seats, safe driving.”

“Latest music.”

Maya follows the second guy, the most sensible of the lot. But Taona pulls her back. “What kind of music?” she asks the third guy.

“Zed beats.”

Just like that, they find themselves in the back seat of a dented gray Corolla with speakers that make Maya feel like she’s having heart palpitations.

As the car reverses, the boy comes running to Maya’s half-opened window. “Sister, sorry,” he says. 

There’s a gap in the traffic, and the taxi driver takes it, joining the road before she responds to the apology.

It’s Taona’s turn to ask her, “Who is that?”

Maya shrugs. “I don’t know.”

All she knows is the boy doesn’t deserve her money the same way she doesn’t deserve Taona’s kindness. She failed Taona when she stood by and watched Mum shove Taona out of their house into the thundering rain. And many other times before that. But here they are sitting side by side.

Taona grabs Maya’s mineral water, takes a swig, and hands it back. Maya almost tells her to keep it but changes her mind. Taona can have whatever she wants.

▴ ▴ ▴

In March 2007, the day before Taona came to live with them, Maya’s parents had a fight. Not one of the petty fights where Mum complained about Dad coming home at 2 a.m. expecting her to warm his food when she was fatigued from delivering babies all day. And from her room, Maya would hear Dad hiccup his usual defense, “It’s from these same drinking sprees that I find customers to buy my cars.” Followed by the whirr of the microwave or the putter of Mum dragging her feet back to bed—depending on whether Dad called her Joanna or Amake Limbikani. It seemed Dad calling Mum by her name had the same effect on Maya. It made her smile into her pillow.

This fight roiled their family. Mum, Limbikani, and Maya had just sat down to eat their supper when Dad returned from another extended trip from the Nakonde border. Dad explained, as he rolled up his sleeves to wash his hands in the dish of lukewarm water, that his thirteen-day absence was because of some clearing issues with customs. They had detained his vehicles on the other side of the border. After he took his seat at the head of the table, he waited for Mum to put a lump of nshima and relish on his plate like she always did, but Mum spooned more beans onto her own plate and carried on eating. Dad helped himself to a small portion, a sign something was off because Dad was the type who ate so much so fast until beads of sweat trickled out his afro. Maya blinked thrice at Limbikani, their signal to warn each other if their parents were in a mood. But he missed it because on the TV was a beautiful newscaster reading the headlines.

Dad kept rolling a morsel of nshima in his palm, turning it into a little round ball, while Mum stabbed hers into the chicken gravy, into the beans, and into her mouth, chewing as though the food was rubbery.

“Can you imagine, these people called me when I was in Nakonde to say they’d had a family meeting? They put Taona on a bus to Lusaka. She arrives in the morning.”

These people was Dad’s way of distinguishing between his relatives in Lusaka and those in Chipata, where he was born and bred. These people are asking me to send fertilizer. These people want a little something for Christmas. They think I bathe in money?

“Taona is coming to live with us?” Maya smiled at Dad.

Although she and Limbikani were close, the eight-year age gap between them was too much. He was twenty-three and studying to get his degree in business administration, and Maya was in grade ten. Having someone the same sex and age around would be great! Besides, Taona was Maya’s favorite cousin on Dad’s side of the family. She spoke good English and showed Maya off to her friends when Dad took her and Limbikani down to visit.

“So you can communicate with your relatives, but when I call, you have network problems? You think I’m a fool? Save such lies for your illiterate Nakonde prostitute,” Mum said, curling her lip.

Limbikani jerked his head back, realizing the atmosphere in the room demanded more attention than the TV.

“Ah, let’s talk about this in the bedroom, not in front of the children.”

“Which children? You’ve forgotten that your son here damaged two girls in the same month? Your grandsons are now four years old, but you never see them because you’re always in Nakonde. And Maya will learn soon enough that men nimbwa fye—”

In a flash, Dad jumped to his feet and slapped Mum so hard she howled like the same animal she implied him to be. Limbikani flew to Mum’s side and removed the nshima matted to her reddened cheek, evidence of Dad’s heavy-handed strike. Like a possessed person, Mum ripped herself from Limbikani’s arms and started bouncing around the room, hurling unpalatable truths about how she had made Dad the big man he had become, and had she not injected her money into his business, Dad would still be languishing in the streets. She said his relatives were worse than Shetani himself because her source had informed her the Nakonde prostitute had visited them with bales of winter clothes and blankets.

“Do you want a refund for helping me with capital? We can go to the bank first thing in the morning,” Dad said, crossing his arms. “We both know all this—” he gestured, “isn’t a result of you being a nurse or an Anderson. I have toiled for my business.”

His response shocked Maya. She was expecting him to call Mum by her name, to deny these accusations, to make everything better.

As if she was losing battery power, Mum slumped into the sofa behind her. Dad pointed his finger at her and went on about how unaccommodating Mum was toward his family, how she always picked up extra shifts when it was time for the trips to Chipata, and he had to go without her.

“These people are my blood! They are your children’s blood!” he bellowed.

Limbikani stood in the middle of the room, like a bouncer in his tight T-shirt, ready to use his bulging muscles if need be. When he tried to mediate, Dad told him to shut up. The more Dad spoke, the deeper Mum sank into the sofa, unresponsive, her white linen dress blending into the curtains behind her. Their parents’ marriage was unravelling before their eyes. It was too painful to watch. Maya gathered the plates and disappeared into the kitchen. Her tears dripped into the sink as she ran the hot water. Her first heartbreak of many to come.

When Dad announced he was going to the market for a few pints, no one answered. He popped his head in the kitchen to tell Maya she was to miss school the next day and accompany him to fetch Taona from Inter-city.

“Taona is a bright girl, but how do they expect her to behave when she spends so much time selling in the market with her grandmother? Surrounded by taverns? She will be better off here anyway, better opportunities,” he added. Maya knew those words were meant for Mum, an indirect appeal to take his late brother’s daughter in, or perhaps justification for agreeing without consulting her.

The next morning, Dad was too hungover to drive. “Joanna, please go and get Taona,” he groaned from the sofa where he’d spent the night.

Maya later learned it was easier for her mother to forgive her father than his family. According to Mum, Dad was under a spell. The Nakonde prostitute had used charms to turn him against her, whereas there was no excuse for his family’s behavior. They were conniving idiots, never to be trusted again. She wouldn’t put it past them to help this woman oust her from her rightful position as Dad’s legal wife. Mum said all this as she drove one of the new cars Dad had brought with him. Her hands trembled on the steering wheel, her puffy eyes widened as she voiced her fears and gave them life. Seeing her mother in such a broken state made Maya breathe in these fears. They became hers too. Dad must have been under a spell. What other explanation could there be? What would make an affectionate man attack his wife from nowhere?

When Taona got off the bus clutching her sack bag, bubbling with excitement at the prospect of seeing all the places Maya had described to her, Mum said, “Nimu Lusaka muno ka.” Insinuating this city would devour her.

▴ ▴ ▴

After a late night of talking over the TV and laughing till their stomachs and cheeks hurt, Maya wakes up to a room filled with the midday sun. She is only beginning to enjoy her leave now that Taona is here. She had requested three weeks off after she got Taona’s number, citing a family emergency. Maya had spent the first week in isolation, in deep prayer. Asking God to give her the courage to call Taona and to soften her cousin’s heart so she wouldn’t hang up on her. The second week was for fasting, ridding her body and mind of toxins and emotional baggage to prepare for Taona’s visit. And the third for making amends in person. Pastor had promised her it was a tried and tested way of breaking the chains binding her to the past.

Maya strolls through to the living room, still on a high from last night’s chat about the times she and Taona had stayed in their grandfather’s cramped three-bedroom house during the school holidays. Despite being crowded with extended family, they both agreed happiness was as simple as roasting maize and sweet potatoes over the fire while listening to Agogo’s moral stories.

She finds Taona sitting on the carpet with her legs stretched out in front of her, humming softly, twisting her hair into a fat, one-sided braid. Perhaps Taona doesn’t hear her come in because Maya is light on her feet. As Mum would say, “Seen, not heard.” Even her female colleagues marvel at how Maya moves noiselessly in high heels on the tiled floors.

Taona’s melancholy humming sucks the joy from Maya’s lungs. It’s as if Mum has climbed out of the studio portrait from Maya’s graduation to scream at Taona for frying an egg for breakfast or putting too much margarine on her bread. “No wonder margarine doesn’t last in this house anymore, that layer is as thick as the bread.” Or Mum yanking the tea towel out of Taona’s hand for dropping a spoon or, worse, breaking a plate. “You won’t rest until we are drinking out of plastic cups like you did in Chipata, will you?” Mum went on and on till Taona broke down and cried and sat at the back of the house under the bedroom window she shared with Maya.

When Taona realizes she isn’t alone, she gets up from the floor to get a glass of water and expresses disappointment over the lack of alcohol in the flat. Maya offers to drive her to the bottle shop, but Taona shakes her head and paces around in a black top and cycling shorts. Maya tries giving her money to buy the beers herself, but Taona takes a backward step as though she is being handed a bomb. Not long after, Taona disappears to the spare bedroom and comes back wearing the clothes she wore yesterday. “I’ll be back,” she mutters, and speeds off before Maya says a word. 

Shaken by Taona’s capricious behavior, Maya treads to the bedroom to confirm her fears. There is no proof Taona was ever here, not even a strand of her neon braids on the white pillowcase. She is gone.

Around midnight, Maya leaps out of bed when headlights form shadows on the walls. Through a slit in the curtains, she watches Taona exit a black sedan, hugging a six-pack to her chest. The bus driver she was flirting with at Inter-city steps out to kiss her on the lips and squeeze her bottom. He pulls some money out of his wallet and puts it in Taona’s bra.

Once Maya lets her in, Taona kicks off her shoes and sits at the dining table. She digs out crumpled-up banknotes from her bra, pockets, and handbag. Last night, when Maya noticed how in all Taona’s stories, she was all over the country, Maya had asked what she did for a living.

There was an awkward pause. “I’m a waitress.”

“How easy is it for you to get work when you travel so much?” Maya asked.

“I have friends everywhere. They help me out,” Taona said through a yawn and changed the subject. That’s what she had called the grown men who used to give her money at the taverns in Chipata. Friends who help her out.   

Maya joins Taona at the table and waits for her to finish counting her money.

“If you want to go back to school, I can pay your school fees.”

Taona twists the bottle top off a beer, guzzles the lager, and places the brown bottle on the glass table even when the coasters are within reach.

“What do you want in return?”

“What do you mean?”

Taona smirks. “No one gives away money for free. So, what do you want from me?”

“Eh! I’m just trying to help.” Maya pushes a coaster toward Taona. But she takes another sip and still doesn’t use it. The wet rings on the table irritate Maya, so she hurries off to the kitchen and returns with a spray bottle of citrus-scented glass cleaner.

“Why do you want to help me? Why now?” Taona says.

Maya stops spraying and wiping. She catches her reflection in the glass. Mum’s face stares back at her. Maya strokes the soft petals of the roses in the white ceramic vase. Her feet sink into the rug. Three months ago, she had stood in fresh dirt after laying the biggest wreath on Mum’s grave. She realized then, how during the funeral, people spoke about how clean Mum was, in her whites, and how immaculate their yard was. There weren’t many stories of how Mum had been a blessing to others.

Taona saunters to the wall to stare at the wooden crucifix with the metallic Jesus as if seeing it for the first time. It’s hard to miss them, there’s one in every room. The ones in the bedrooms are slightly different. Jesus’s chin touches his chest, watching over whoever is sleeping in the beds underneath. “When did you become born-again?”

Maya wipes the table. “I can’t remember when exactly.”

“How come? Isn’t it like a second birthday?” Taona says.

This isn’t how Maya envisioned this. Taona used to follow her around. She was the one to start a conversation after a tense moment, forgiving to a fault. Maya fidgets with the damp cleaning cloth. This Taona, the grown version, is making her uncomfortable with her questions.

Taona shuffles to the graduation portrait. “You had to wait for your mother to die before you could help me? For two years you watched how she treated me. You could have spoken up for me. I took care of you when you came to Agogo’s house. I shared the little I had with you.”

The back of Maya’s neck burns. “But you knew Dad had another woman, and you didn’t tell me. You betrayed me too. When we picked you up from the station, Mum asked you if the other woman had come to Agogo’s house, and you said no. You lied to us.”

“So your mother punished me for it. What difference did it make? Uncle still left.”

“Taona, don’t insult my mother,” Maya snaps.

A wailing siren punctuates their exchange. Maya stomps across the room to ensure all the windows are closed. Also, she doesn’t want her neighbors knowing her business.

“Uncle told me he found out at your graduation that you dropped his surname,” Taona says.

“How do you—have you been—to his house?”

Taona nods. “He is your father, Mayamiko, forgive him—”

“He hasn’t asked for forgiveness.”

“Have you?”

“From him? Why should I? He’s the one who left us for that woman.”

“Yes, but you are the one who disowned him. How do you think he felt when they called your name and you went up there as an Anderson?”

After Mum found out about his affair, Dad saw no point in pretending the other woman didn’t exist. The longer he stayed away, the deeper Mum’s resentment grew. One day, Maya woke up to the choking smell of bleach. She sat up in bed and saw a distraught Taona scrubbing her mattress. In a pile by her feet were her balled-up bloody sheets. Maya pretended to get up for the toilet but went to tell Mum Taona had bled into the mattress.

“Aunty, I’m sorry, my period—” Taona explained when Mum came rushing into the room.

“Oh my God! What kind of filth is this? My mattress, my sheets.”

Maya watched the drama unfold from the corridor.

“This is too much blood to be a normal period. What have you done?”

“Nothing, Aunty. I swear—”

“Don’t argue with me, I know what I’m talking about. I’m a midwife.”

It didn’t matter that it was raining outside, Mum wanted Taona out of the house. Without Dad or Limbikani to intervene, it happened fast. “Go and live with your Uncle’s new wife. I won’t tolerate such rubbish in my house.”

Four days later, when Dad came home, Mum told him she had chased out Taona because she had an abortion in the bedroom. After searching for her for weeks, Dad left for good. “No one knows where she is. I hope she’s not dead,” were his parting words.

Maya blames herself for the way things turned out. By causing trouble for Taona, she had put the last nail in her parents’ marriage. It was the nightmares of Taona’s bloody corpse that had led her to Christ.

“You know Uncle will never apologize, that’s just the way he is,” Taona says and drains her beer. She puts the empty bottle next to a coaster. “Since we were little girls, you never said sorry to me. If we argued, you always gave me things after; a dress with a tear or a stain on it. Those shoes you said were too common.” She tucks her money into her bag and gathers her alcohol.

“I’m sorry,” Maya says. She tells herself Taona didn’t respond because the bedroom door closing behind her drowned out the apology.

Maya sits on the sofa, in her white nightdress, and waits to feel the freedom Pastor said she’d experience after she’d expelled those words from her chest.

Theresa Sylvester is a Zambian writer based in Western Australia. She is a 2023 Faber Writing Academy Scholarship recipient (Allen & Unwin Australia). In 2022, she won the Quarterly West Prose Contest and the Black Fox Writing Contest. Her stories appear in Black Warrior Review, midnight & indigo, and in Australia’s Rockingham Writers Centre anthology.