When your gas cooker isn’t fancy, you use matches to light it. And because ours isn’t fancy, I use matches, it’s frustrating, always with the friction, always making mini fires and using up matchsticks. When I finish with the stick, I throw it into the bin. Today, I threw a still-burning stick into the bin, and now I’m watching the bin, hoping it goes up in flames.
Father is on the couch, it’s maroon and old, and he’s dug his heels into the bottom of the cushion so he doesn’t slide off. His heels are ashy, and he needs to scrub them, maybe it’s the hard water from the well that’s drying his skin, or maybe it’s the alcohol he’s been drinking lately. I lit the cooker because I’m warming the food for him, said he’d not sleep hungry when he has a wife who gave birth. Mum is in the other room packing up, she asked me to have my bag ready when she finished with hers, but I didn’t pack, it’s late and I know we won’t go anywhere, we never do, even when father is hard to live with.
There’s a lot of trash in the bin, avocado peels, spice containers, old newspapers from the butchers and used tea bags. The flame is alive, tiny but very alive, it moves along the length of the stick, devouring the wood, leaving a shapeless black form behind. The avocado skin isn’t dry enough to catch fire, and the newspapers seem too foggy to be set alight by only one matchstick. Something inside me wants the stick to keep burning, even when I know that would be disastrous if the fire was seen by the old man I call father, I look at the slow-burning stick and get lost in the amber flame.
He’s been hard to live with lately, father. He brought a woman home last week, she had purple lipstick, wore jeans too tight for someone without a flat stomach and she made the toilet stink when she used it. He was drunk and he was singing Congolese songs, his favourite genre when he drinks his cheap Ugandan beer. Mother was livid, she almost dropped her headscarf from all the angry movements her head was making as she threatened the other woman to leave. It took her a bleeding lip and bruised elbows to see us out, the neighbours didn’t even bother to come check, they knew how it would end if they intervened, and the fact that the landlord had increased the rent by ten percent meant one more issue to solve, nobody had time to come fight our battles.
The fire loses the battle to stay alive, stay burning. The tiny amber flame gives way to a red dot, caged in a black shell, a symbol of defiance, a refusal to die off. There’s a long, thin strand of smoke where the stick lies, it lick the ends of the black paper bag that keeps the trash in the bin. It’s not a lot of heat, and I’m disappointed, I want the fire to go off, like a thirsty man wants water to wet his parched throat. Like the flame burning will pacify me, like it will make it better, like a hot, red dot searing through plastic will take care of things.
I still have mosquitoe bite marks as a reminder of my auntie’s refusal to let us sleep at her place. How we wrapped up at the dark end of the corridor, where the bulb doesn’t work, and slept. A woman and a young girl walking out of the gate at such odd hours would have been suicidal, and so we slept, knowing our alarm clock was the embarrassment of neighbors having to pretend they hadn’t seen us coiled over in the common area. Today father didn’t bring a woman, but he brought the resentment he’s not been afraid to show over the last few weeks, and mother was too brave, too confrontational, too questioning, and now we might have to get more mosquitoe bite marks. I would give up all my science and math congress medals, if she let us at least sleep in a bed tonight.
The bin is pitch black. The flame and smoke died a long while ago. You’d have to ask me to know there was once a threat of fire, and that I wanted fire. It’s gone from me now, and there’s disappointment on my face. Mother is hunched over on the corridor, the light isn’t faulty and she looks older than she actually is, on the red cement floor, her bag is empty, she asks herself why father threw out all her clothes. She shakes involuntarily, like a person crying and ashamed of it, like she finally got to the end of her wits, like she doesn’t know what to do, like she is defeated. Father is asleep on the couch, his snores louder than the deafening scream mother will let out when she smells the burning food and notices her missing daughter. I leave the gas burning, lock the doors and the cold, fresh air, even with mosquitoes, never felt better than it does now.