Come, sister: let us pretend we are just squeezed onto our mattress again.

Nicaali bobu, Nicaali cibotu.
If it were (always) this way, it would be beautiful.
Tonga song.


ome, sister: let us pretend we are just squeezed onto our mattress again. Snuggle with me under the patchwork duvet Granny made out of our baby rompers and imitate sleep. Here, carefully measure your whispers. Pretend for a minute you are just demanding a story from my mouth to invite your floating little dreams.

We are home, see. Mummy and Daddy’s laughter is trickling in from the sitting room. Crickets are shrieking in the brush next to our bedroom window. Slivers of light are stealing in from beneath the door leading to the corridor. Your breath is still nsima and kapenta from dinner because you haven’t perfected brushing the hidden crevices of your milk teeth. 

Just pretend with me for a minute, okay? Conjure up 1996, will you?

Just pretend with me for a minute, okay? Conjure up 1996, will you? That split second before November rain turned toxic.

This is just Once upon a time. Remember to cover your mouth at the funny bits, and restrain your spasms of giggles so Mummy won’t come in and scold.

Uncle Robby and I are together on the couch. We’re watching a cheetah close in on a kudu on Discovery when Daddy finally comes home from visiting you and Mummy today. For Daddy’s unusual past supper arrival, I blame the first angry torrent of the season. No doubt the roads are flooded and invisible, the traffic crawling.

I tear my eyes from the TV screen as soon as the kitchen door whines open and leap from my seat to meet him. My mouth is open, ready to ask my month-long When’s and How come’s––"When will Nchimunya be home?" "When will the measles be gone?" "How many injections will that take?" "How come the pesticides which barely scathed me are still fighting her?"

Every day, he reports that you are getting better, eating more of your peanut butter porridge, and asking if I have been bringing home your homework.

"Any day now," he tells me each time. "Umwaiche obe ninshi aisa ku ng’anda." This assurance, he always delivers along with that annoying thing where he sandwiches my head between his hands like that will make the words race through him and stamp them inside my ears where they cannot be erased. So of course I believe him, you will return home. I will teach you the butterfly whenever I Wanna Be Down comes on the radio next.

But Daddy comes in looking like a tall wrung-out wrinkle, his proud afro now a defeated mop atop his head. A small breath catches in my throat.

I can’t believe I miss your footsteps trailing me everywhere but the toilet. If you tell anyone, I will pull your mouth, you hear? And if you run crying to Mummy in your usual fashion, I won’t show you how to operate the new TV remote. Daddy bought a new contraption in your absence, an aerial connected to the TV with a looping white chord. With it, images spring to life on the screen at sunrise instead of 17 hours!

But his eyes are shadows now, searching all the way through me at something frightening.

"Welcome home, Daddy," I mumble.

But his eyes are shadows now, searching all the way through me at something frightening.

He flounders into the sitting room and crumples in his chair.

Daddy isn’t minding that he is soaking the suede upholstering: that mucky water is pooling around his shoes: that Mummy would be kissing–her–teeth furious, and muttering under her breath if she were here.

He lets the yellow Shoprite plastic bag he returned with fall to the floor, and all of your favourite things––a bottle of Crush, packets of cheese and onion Simba crisps, those green apples Mummy gets us once a month, and soggy fritters wrapped in old newspapers swim out with the rainwater.


He’s supposed to say, "Yes, baby," and "Your little sister is getting stronger," and "The doctors say she will be discharged any day now," and "Okay, okay, enough questions, Mubanga. Your mother wants to know if you are behaving at school."

Instead, he trails the scattered contents on the living room floor, brings his hands to his face, and starts to cry.

That scrambles me for a beat, seeing Daddy shaking. Panic hiccups through me and I search the room stupidly for you. You would run into him, squeal, "Daddy, look what I did at school today," and pull out the quiet corners of his mouth until that cautious smile of his visits at the sight of your perfect score in another mathematics test.

Instead, I linger close to him. Wait.

Between this and what he says next, I fill my mind with thoughts and shove out the vision of him disintegrating. I weigh the folded towels in the closet behind us against the bucket and mop in the kitchen. I consider Uncle Robby in the sitting room with Daddy and me. Uncle Robby can reach the shelves better without a stool, knows how much Mummy hates for the floors to lose their shine, and how she will scowl when you both return. But Uncle Robby is watching his fingernails with a fresh fascination, taking long breaths and freeing them like someone is forcing him. And Daddy? Well, I guess I shouldn’t have looked away. He’s grown tiny between my blinking. Something in his palms shielding his entire face from me, and the sniffles telling of mucous rivering from his nose into his mouth.

Finally, I reach for his shoulder, locate courage in my voice and ask a little too loud, "Why are you crying?"

When he looks up, little red snakes shoot from the black centre of his eyes. I hope he will fit into my arms, like I do in Mummy’s when the words can’t fit themselves between my tears.

"Sister," he eventually manages to whisper between sobs, everything else mangled behind his frantic Adam’s apple. "Sister. Sister. Sister."

"Okay." I’m patting him now. Firmly, the way Mummy does when my body will not shift into hers to receive comfort.

The boy he was once flashes before me––the taciturn child his siblings had nicknamed Chinaka for his soft voice and tender handling of everything his hands touched.

Daddy nods. The boy he was once flashes before me––the taciturn child his siblings had nicknamed Chinaka for his soft voice and tender handling of everything his hands touched. I am used to glimpsing this Daddy through black and white pictures framed in wood and hanging in his mother’s dining room, not here, not like this. I see now the meaning of Daddy’s Cry it out each time a tantrum consumes one of us. He cries it out, and he cries it out, and he cries it out until the only thing left is the shaking, all of his voice erased. And at the end of it, his body, too, grows a kind of quiet even with the sniffles. Like that, he collects himself––sniffles rising from a cotton shirt and blue jeans. He tracks more mud into his bedroom and slams the door behind him.

I turn to find Uncle Robby’s eyebrows furrowed, his mouth on the cusp of something.

"I think Daddy’s sister is dead," I tell him, nodding, satisfied with my conclusion.

"Oh baby," Uncle Robby says, forgetting his fingers and meeting my eyes.

"It’s true," I explain to Uncle Robby, assigning the death to the sister who’d cut Mummy up on the verandah with wide booming words when she thought we were too far into our game to listen. But a sister is a sister, I suppose. "That’s why he is crying." I would too.

Uncle Robby’s eyes film over as he closes the space between us with two massive steps. He wraps his arms around me and squeezes me into the hug Daddy needs. I let him hug me on account of those tears he’s about to cry. Daddy’s sister is Uncle Robby’s cousin, after all. I understand.

In the morning, when Mummy’s siblings arrive to pick me up in Grandpa’s canter, I am not surprised, even though it is Wednesday. I have been to one funeral with Mummy, and the women spent it hurling themselves to the sitting room floor when a new relative arrived or huddling with whispers around the pots and cooking sticks in the kitchen. Nobody remembered the children.

Of course, they need to take me to Granny’s farm while Mummy coaxes illness out of you at the hospital.

The fire surprises me first. New as it is in its flame, shooting up high enough that we can see it from the road, over the fence surrounding the farm. Power cuts, I reason with myself. ZESCO is constantly disrupting supply, especially around meal time and, ‘What time is it?’ I ask the truck of people ferrying me, not taking my eyes away from the flicker.

"13:15," somebody says.

I nod.

Beyond the gate, the leather sitting room chairs are arranged in a circle around the fire. Young men are pitching up an army green tent nearby.

Next to the flames, the house is a harrow of voices clambering over each other. The women’s waists are wrapped in chitenge, chitambalas covering nearly all their heads. I take in these markers of death and let someone help me out of the truck, noticing for the first time how quiet the ride had been, even when we stopped for chips and fuel in Chelstone.

It must be our great-grandmother, then. Yes. Isn’t she the oldest person on this branch of our family tree? Hasn’t she been failing to lift either of us into her arms for months now? Doesn’t she constantly remind us of the aches in her bones when we chuckle and try to sit on her lap anyway? Yes.

A hand takes mine and leads me to the kitchen door like I am a mulendo, meeting Granny’s yipping miniature pinschers for the first time, worrying they might fulfil the promise in their barks and leave tooth marks on my ankles. I am led up the stairs I ruined twice with new sneaker marks before they could dry, into the kitchen with baskets of bread on the white wall tiles, down the corridor where I watched you walk for the first time and into the last bedroom on the right.

Our great-grandmother surprises me next. She is perched on the edge of one bed, not dead. Maybe she has a sibling, someone as old as her, maybe older. Maybe this person lives in the village with other relatives whose names I know but cannot assign faces to. Maybe that is why her face is wearing the wrong shape, sagged down even deeper than I remember; why her feet won’t stop tapping, why the air in this room has stilted.

I stay still, recognizing the way she has pulled out a pet name reserved for comfort. I do not need comfort.

"Boola, Mami," our great-grandmother says, with her arms stretched out like the days she could lift me, wriggle me onto her back and carry me from the gate, through the windbreak of guava trees, all the way into the house.

I stay still, recognizing the way she has pulled out a pet name reserved for comfort. I do not need comfort.

"Isa, Mami." This fresh beckoning comes in Mummy’s voice from the pile of blankets on the bed across from our great-grandmother. Mummy. Surprise number three.

I forget myself. Say, "Mummy?" and rush to her.

Up close, Mummy’s face is swollen. But not in the usual places Daddy’s fists tend to give her new shades.

"Mummy," I say, resenting the coil starting at the pit of my stomach. "Where is Nchimunya?"

‘Oh baby,’ Mummy says, wearing the same wet look in her eyes as Uncle Robby’s.

I scan the room for you. An Ukwa bag is slumped near the foot of the bed. When I spot the mauve dress you’ve been begging Daddy to buy for you sitting in poly plastic at the top like a delicate organza prize, I almost hope you will pop out. I can almost hear the faint outline of your squealing, "Surprise!" as you show off your new dress with a twirl.

"Where is she?" I demand, not finding you on the bed with Mummy either. "Nchimunya, come out!" It’s not a fair hide-and-seek if I don’t count before you hide, right?

"Oh baby," Mummy coos again. "Your sister died last night."

Heat wreaths itself around my neck, strangling the "No," that struggles from my mouth. Everything slows. "It was my fault," I say to Mummy. How could I have been so careless, ehn? I have always known your fragility, how mukule tore up your scalp into pus-filled sores as if Mummy had braided it with wires and not wool. We always had to rush you out of the rain because of the way it blistered your legs. Even the teachers knew to not whip you with the rest of the pupils, no matter how booming the noise from your classroom was. Yet six years was all it had taken to ebb my caution. Forget the featheriness in your voice when Mummy brought you home in a bundle of shawls. Now I pushed you back when you christened me with a nickname that sounded too much like tatters, and pinched your legs under the covers when you kicked around in your sleep. It was me who had cooked those tainted vegetables someone had sold to Daddy. I should have let them yellow, boiled out the venom and green.

No. No. No.

This cannot be death. Death claims wrinkles. It claims deep voices and limps. Death comes for people whose first names we cannot say without prefixing them with Ba because they have seen days we never will. Death does not claim six–year–old little sisters I saw last week through a small window at the measles ward. Death relents because vaccines, because tightly wound nightly prayers, because good nutrition and a doctor’s stethoscope hanging from her neck.

But Death comes.

And in its wake, I will carousel the memories, search forever for your big-as-everything laugh even when it was littered with coughs and never find it. Last year, I found two newspaper articles––one in the Times of Zambia, the other in the Zambia Daily Mail confirming the memory. In those pages, you and I are two of 59 poisoning victims who were admitted to the University Teaching Hospital on Monday, October 7, 1996. The forecast had been good. All of us were expected to make a speedy recovery. Investigations would be made into the source of the vegetables. Updates to be provided at a later date. But that was 1996, Zambia had an election, and you know our beautiful country and its relationship to (not) remembering the painful. So, what was never written––how many children experienced vaccine failure in Zambia, how many died of AIDS-related complications in 1996, and you being the only casualty. Nobody remembers the children.

For now, though, just pretend this isn’t two decades later.


––Daddy never went to visit his parents that day.

––His mother hadn’t plucked the best vegetables from her garden then stuffed them into his arms to bring home.

––Daddy didn’t forget those lush collard greens on the seat of a minibus. No reason, then, in this iteration, for him to buy a replacement bundle of veggies from one of the hawkers at Soweto market.

––I never washed the contaminated batch, never chopped, then sizzled them in hot oil with caramelised onions.

––There were no howling ambulances. Our bodies did not become two-way taps for diarrhoea and vomit.

––We two never became the children that lingered in the hospital after the cocktail of Monocrotophos, Methamidophos, and Umet from a stolen batch of greens sold at Lusaka’s biggest market.

––Your system didn’t have to wrestle past HIV when it caught measles in the hospital on the tail end of an accidental poisoning. Hell, just pretend there is no AIDS here or custom coffins for little girls.

––In this timeline, I am not the fortunate sister. The one born two years before, in that delicate splice of time when our parents’ lovemaking is unaffected by the virus that multiplies and destroys.

––You wear that organza dress until your limbs outgrow it, and Mummy sends it to family in the village.

––Just imagine nothing is gouged from my core that November 12. We grow up together, our heights chasing each other. We argue about who stole whose dress before the school disco on Fridays. We giggle about first kisses and commiserate over shattered teenage hearts. We discover whiskey in Daddy’s alcohol collection but can’t stop coughing enough to find bliss in dragging on his Stuyvesants. We sneak out to dance in Chez Ntemba until it is empty, and the bartenders start to mop the floors despite all those Sundays at church, mirroring the pastor’s prayers and Mummy’s frenzied tongue. We settle into ourselves, collect degrees. You get to be my maid of honour. I get to be an auntie to your children.

––You are 32 going on 33. Mummy never learnt the taste of her greatest fear––of her youngest child’s light being snuffed out too soon, of you becoming a body inside St. Anne’s Funeral Home, of making a home inside a muted coffin, of the swollen earth marked with a metal plate etched with your name, birthday and yesterday.

––This is home, sister. I am weaving you a story out of the dust motes dancing above our bed, dragging out your yawns and snores.

––Our four-person jigsaw puzzle is complete here. We all live, not just me.

Dawn will bleed through the curtains any minute now, you’ll see. Tomorrow will come.

About the author

Mubanga is a Zambian storyteller with an MFA from Hamline University, where she received the Writer of Color Merit Scholarship and the Deborah Keenan Poetry Scholarship. She is the winner of the Dinaane Debut Fiction Award (2019), Kalemba Short Story Prize (2019), & the Tusculum Review Poetry Chapbook Contest (2022) selected by Carmen Giménez. Her first novel, The Mourning Bird, was listed among the top 15 debut books of 2019 by Brittle Paper. Her work has also appeared or is forthcoming in adda, Aster(ix), Overland, The Red Rock Review, Menelique, on Netflix, and elsewhere. Mubanga has been on shortlists for the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics (CAAP) Book Prize, Raz-Shumaker Book Prize, Commonwealth Short Story Prize, Bush Fellowship, Miles Morland Scholarship, Minnesota Author Project, Nobrow Short Story Prize, Bristol Short Story Prize, & the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative. Her work has received support from the Young African Leadership Initiative, the Hubert H. Humphrey (Fulbright) Fellowship, and the Hawkinson Scholarship for Peace and Justice. When she’s not writing, Mubanga serves as fiction editor for Doek! and a Mentor at the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop. She is the current Shenandoah BIPOC Editorial Fellow and this is her first essay.