Zebras, by Cullent Bryant

Curse me for giving into passion.

The first time that I made love to someone, I was eighteen. I found myself pregnant. Not that I regret this. Valentine, my little girl, is my reason for living. My dreams of attending a business college in Lukasa scattered, however, so I found a job at the reception desk of the Royal Gardens Hotel. I should have listened to the words of Pastor Chikolwa: “Save yourself for your husband and give him the precious gift of virginity.” But I was so foolish with that young boy from our village.

A couple of years later, I met Elisha. “I’ve come to fix your office machines.” He leaned, grinning, over my desk; asked where our photocopier was located.

“Over there.” I pointed to a closed door. I tried to be aloof; felt the blood rushing to my cheeks. I turned away. He seemed self confident, even cocky.

That night we watched the Maasai, dressed in their red shawls and beads, entertain the tourists with their jumping dance. “My grandfather was Maasai.” His pride was palpable. “The higher we jump, the sexier we are. Don’t you think?”   We were drinking coffee after the performance.

Why did I fall so wildly in love? Was it his tall, lanky body that wound around mine like a vine? His brimming optimism about his new business? Or that I hadn’t had a lover for so long and I was hungry? With the money both of us made, we could just afford a two-room apartment. We lived together for six months before we talked about getting married. When Elisha groaned, “flesh on flesh,” I gave in to desire a second time and let him leave the condom under his pillow. The moon hung behind the whistling thorn trees like a shy girl and then revealed herself in a stream of white light that shone through our window onto the bed. The leaves of acaia and mango trees rustled and danced for joy. Elisha wants to have a baby with me. I’ll never forget it.

The Maasai respect the lion. In the old days, a young warrior faced the animal alone as proof of his courage and skill. Proudly, he dipped the mane in ochre and gave the tail to his mother to bead. I didn’t know when I loved Elisha so, that the lions’ penis is barbed and hurts the female when he withdraws.

The night we went to see the play, Surviving in the Wilderness, I knew there was something wrong. Usually he sat close; put his arm around me. He kept crossing and uncrossing his legs. The theatre was crowded; everybody was laughing but Elisha. The story involves a worker who is retrenched. Without employment he can’t pay his bills, so he consults a witch doctor, who asks the man for his wife’s heart. Of course, the man doesn’t co-operate.

“Didn’t you enjoy the play?” We were walking home in the rain.

“Was it so funny to you?” He let go of my hand.

“C’mon. They were making fun of the witch doctor.”

“Maybe I need one.”

“What for?”

“He might ask me to extract your heart. I wouldn’t do that.” He took my hand and seemed to cheer up.

The cold wind continued to blow between us like the breezes during the rainy season. Had he changed his mind about getting married? There was so much red tape. Had I pushed him too much about getting the license, an insurance policy for Valentine and the baby I wanted? Could he have a new girlfriend? He did what every woman fears. When we argued, he stayed out late; visited bars; slept on the chesterfield.

I began snooping through his things; opened his mail; listened to telephone calls; even sniffed his laundry for the smell of a lover. One day, when I wasn’t looking, I found it carelessly among his papers on the desk. Did he want me to find out? There, among the postcards from a friend and a few unopened bills, was a letter from an insurance company. We respectfully wish to inform you that you are a high risk candidate and your application for life insurance has been rejected. You are advised to consult your doctor. My stomach turned. A calm voice inside of me said, “Maybe he has a heart condition.” That would be such a relief, even if he died of it. Another voice screamed, “He’s HIV positive and now so are you.”

My insides rumbled as I read the letter again; discovered something more terrible. It was dated a year ago, before we even met. Elisha had never disclosed his secret. “Let it be cancer, O God,” I prayed.

I wasn’t sure what to do. How could I confront him when I had no business going through his papers? Then it occurred to me to play innocent. So when he came home for dinner, and his mouth was stuffed with nshima and bream fish, I said, “I applied for that life insurance policy. Remember?”

“You worry too much about the future.”

“What does it mean if you get a letter from the company saying that your application has been unsuccessful?”

“It probably means that they looked at your medical files and that you’re HIV positive.” He said it like, “It might rain tomorrow.”

The next week, the postman delivered the dreaded letter from my insurance company. When I opened it and began reading, I discovered it was worded exactly the same way as Elisha’s. We regret to inform you… This time I flew to his office. For the first time I admitted to myself that his new business was housed in a shack, planks of rotting wood thrown together.

The door banged behind me and Elisha looked up from his desk with a frown.

“Look at this letter.” I held back my tears.

“Do as it says.” He shrugged his shoulders. “Make an appointment with the doctor.”

“But what does it mean? Do you know?”

“Don’t panic. We’ll go to the doctor together. Just make an appointment.”

That Sunday, hoping to compose myself, I drove with Valentine to my mother’s village and attended the church of my childhood. Before we arrived, we came upon a herd of zebras grazing on the grass. I pulled over so that Valentine could look, and we climbed out of the car.

“See the pretty zebras,” I said. She pointed at them and chortled with delight.   Two of them were grooming each other. They are the most beautiful of animals. Their stripes are a camouflage that breaks up the outline of the body. In the twilight, if a lion or hyena stalks them, the black and white markings distort the distance and the predator becomes confused. If one of them is wounded, the others will circle around to protect the injured one from attack.

On the way back to the car, I picked her up. Her legs straddled around my waist. I covered her with kisses. “Mummy loves you. Do you know how much?”

How many more kisses will I be able to give her? She pushed me away, but still I crushed her to my breast. She strained against me. I let her down and she ran to the car and crawled in to the back seat. Before I put the key in the ignition, I adjusted the mirror so that she couldn’t see the tears on my face.

I hadn’t attended the Holy Ghost Pentecostal Church for years. Occasionally, I go to the Anglican Cathedral with its sonorous hymns and organ. The building of my girlhood is made of left over lumber and looks like a large cabin one might see in an American Western. There are spaces between the slats for ventilation. When I met my mother there she greeted me with joy. “Muli shani?” she said, taking Valentine in her arms. She kissed her granddaughter’s chubby little cheeks. Suddenly it occurred to me that my mother might raise her, not me.

“Are you well? You look tired,” she said.

I couldn’t bring myself to say anything until I had seen the doctor and had the tests. “Bwino,” I smiled and held my tongue.

The music and singing began. The choir shook their rattles and blew their whistles. A mother led her little boy into the aisle clapping her hands and shaking her hips. The child followed behind, laughing and gyrating. Soon we were all dancing. God requires it of us. The minister walked to the pulpit; the elders closed the door in order to keep the Holy Spirit in the sanctuary.

“I call upon you, Oh mighty God, to give us the power to resist evil,” he began. Then all the men and women prayed raising their voices and begging for whatever they needed: “Help me find a job.” “Stop my husband from drinking.” “Cure my niece of malaria.” I prayed that God would perform a miracle and make me clean.

The next week, Elisha went with me to the doctor to find out the results of the test. We sat in the crowded waiting room; the insects buzzed; the minutes ticked by slowly. At last, the nurse led me to the examining room. The doctor looked over his spectacles and told me as kindly as he could that I was HIV positive.

“It’s not a death sentence. You may have another five years before you get sick. Who knows? By then we may have drugs.”

After that I couldn’t hear any thing more. Something about taking the test a second time to be sure. I joined Elisha in the waiting room. By this time I was shaking uncontrollably.

“I’m HIV positive,” I could feel his arm circle my waist as he led me outside and into the car.

“What did the doctor say?”

“Are you deaf? I’m HIV positive.”

Once I went to visit a friend in the hospital. Four people, carrying a sick man to the ward, on a pallet, rushed past me on the stairs. The elevators had broken down. One of the men tripped on a lose tile and nearly spilled the patient to the floor. The scene could have come straight out of the Bible when four friends carried a man on a similar bed to Jesus, and they let him down through the roof because the crowd was so thick.

Only in our hospital there are no miracles. At the nurse’s desk I saw two cardboard boxes filled with files. One of them had discharged in black print and the other was labeled expired. No fancy computers or filing cabinets, here. Through the window a clothes line dipped and swayed in the breeze with clean linens waiting to be soiled again by the next patient.

I cried on Elisha’s shoulder. Neither one of us spoke. When we got back to the apartment, I threw myself on the bed. He lay beside me and tried to hold me, but his arms felt heavy and suffocating. I couldn’t breathe. I pushed him away.

“I found the letter from the insurance agency. They sent it a year ago.” I hissed like a snake.

“I won’t leave you. I’ll take care of you,” he said.

“Take care of me?” I stared up through the mosquito netting, draped over one side of the bed; watched the fan go round and round. “You have it too.”

“I’m not sick.”

“You’ve given us both a death sentence.”

“We’re not sick. I’ll take care of you.” He got a cold cloth and put it on my forehead.

“Leave me alone,” I threw it off.

I wanted to leave him, then. But how could I? What will become of me and Valentine? I need him more than ever, now. Among the Maasai, when someone is near death or dead, the men carry the body outside the compound and put it under a tree for the hyenas. In the same way, he had lifted me into the jaws of death.

The next morning I went to work as usual. I smiled at the tourists who had just come back from their animal safari and were full of stories about creatures they had never seen before in their natural environment.

“What a beautiful country,” said a woman in a straw sun hat. “We came across some zebras drinking at a pool. What brave little beasts! To think they have to fend off lions. Do you carry the New York Times?”

“They’re real survivors.” I handed her the Gazette. The headlines read about a new orphanage that had just opened up in Lusaka.

After work, I wandered to the fountain at the foot of the circular driveway. A purple orchid swirled about helplessly in the water. It must have fallen in the rain that night and been swept into the spray by the wind. I sat down under the mulombwa tree and cried. When the wind is wild and storms break the branches of other trees, this one stands fast and will not be moved. So God is constant. I took out a pencil and chewed the rubber tip and calculated how much money I could save in the next five years, money that I could give to my mother for Valentine’s education. I stayed there and prayed to my grandmother for courage and to intercede for me. I gave thanks that I am still alive, that my mother is well, that little Valentine is safe and will be loved in the village that will some day be her home.

Then I went home and packed Elisha’s bags.


Cullene Bryant is a Rock and Roll grandmother of five.  Her two collections of short fiction, Llamas in the Snow and In the Dry Woods were published by The Books Collective in Edmonton, Alberta.  Her stories have appeared in numerous literary magazines, among them DescantThe Dalhousie Review and Room Magazine.  She is a graduate of The Writer’s Studio at Simon Fraser University, British Columbia.  When she grows up she hopes to win Canada’s Governor General’s Award.

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  1. So glad to see Sliver of Stone published my short story Zebras.

  2. Bruce & Sylvia says:

    We knew it was in you gal … good on ya!

  3. Thanks. I now have 6 credits toward my book of short fiction which may one day get published.

  4. Robin Jones says
    So glad to have met you at the FTD conference and to exchange our stories. I read you a poem. You have a lot of talent and I hope you keep writing. Stay in touch

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