Rudolph Keith Dunn (Dominican Republic 1990-92) is a Spanish teacher at Starling International Learning and Childcare Center in Richmond. He also tutors children in creative writing. A former freelance journalist for various newspapers over the years, as well as an ESL instructor with Catholic Charities and a Reading and Writing Tutor with the Richmond Public School system.
This story, “A Mother’s Kept Promise” was published in the 2015 March edition of the Linden Avenue Literary Journal. It won the Virginia Writers Club Literary Competition in 2013.
A Mother’s Kept Promise
Rudolph Keith Dunn
Roaring flames devoured his mother’s flesh, and the small boy smiled. Achebe noticed the soft brown skin was now black and charred, the delicate nose, full lips, and piercing eyes had disappeared. The beautiful, elegant, form of Ashanti, the envy and pride of her village, was no more than a roasting dark mass of skin, muscle, and bone.
The pounding heat pushed Achebe back a few feet closer to his younger brother and sister. Tears stained the small faces of Carmara and Kanesha, as they witnessed their mother disappear before them.
Achebe strained as he picked up two heavy pieces of wood and threw them on the engulfing fire. “Step back,” he said with all the authority his nine-year-old voice could muster. He then picked up a kerosene can a few feet away and with all of his might launched it into the middle of the inferno. The flames flew high in the air and caused the children to turn away and cover their faces from the vicious, unforgiving, heat.
“I’m scared,” said Kanesha, in a soft, trembling voice, “Why are you burning up mama?” Camara was silent as he watched his six year old sister say what he thought, but was too frightened, shocked, and confused to utter. His voice seemed trapped, with no escape, deep in the tunnel of his throat.
Her pleading question could not reach Achebe as he stared at Ashanti’s form dismembering into smoky black pieces.
The memory of his mother’s bright sparkling eyes filled his thoughts, eyes so full of love and affection that greeted him each morning when he was awakened to do his chores and help care for Carmara and Kanesha. But those eyes were gone now, along with the beautiful mouth that lit up the village with its smile and laughter that poured out so many joyous and soothing songs for all to hear, that said they were loved and wanted even when scolding them.
Achebe watched as all of her disappeared into a pile of fiery nothingness. But as he listened to the crackling of the fire and tried his best to ignore its horrible smell, he knew that his mother had really begun to disappear, bit by bit, long ago.
He knew the small cough that grew worse over time, the once strong arms and legs that weakened, the attractive figure that transformed into only a slight shadow of itself, had all been signs to him that the sickness which had taken away his father only three years before, had now returned to steal his mother.
Achebe couldn’t recall a time before the sickness. It had invaded his village to take away aunts, uncles, cousins, neighbors, and friends. It caused villagers to flee and abandon loved ones and homes, to pretend they weren’t ill, until they could no longer rise up from their mats and death claimed them in their sleep.
So as the strong arms that pounded meal, hoed rows of okra, and carried clothes to wash by the river became weaker and weaker, the small arms of Achebe grew stronger and stronger.
For several weeks, he awakened his mother at dawn as she once awakened him. He wiped her eyes and mouth with a damp cloth, fed her the daily meal and put the tin cup of cool water to her lips when she was thirsty. When they became restless, he sent his siblings out of the hut to play so that Ashanti could rest, and he fanned her face and tried to make her laugh when the mid-day African sun became unbearable.
But this morning when he bent down to kiss his mother he discovered she couldn’t be awakened. The warm brown skin he loved to touch felt cold, the arms that once lovingly embraced him were stiff and hard, and the piercing eyes that looked upon him with such love and affection were frozen open with only a blank, lifeless stare.
Warm tears filled the corners of Achebe’s eyes. He placed his small head on the breast of his mother and embraced her fiercely. The early morning dawn was the sole, silent witness to his sorrow as Kanesha and Camara slept comfortably on the straw mat in the corner of the hut.
He thought of how his mother had wiped away his tears after his father’s death. She gently held his face in her hands, promising him she would never abandon them and would always be there to guide and protect them and remain by their side forever. And now, he felt she’d taken her promise with her on her journey to the ancestors.
A few minutes passed before Achebe raised his head and found the courage to stare into his mother’s eyes. It seemed the deeper he looked, the more he realized his mother would never lie to him.
She would always keep her promise. It was then the answer of what to do came to him.
Later that morning, while Camara and Kanesha wept over the body of their mother, Achebe was outside gathering brush and wood and anything he could find that would burn well. He then came inside the hut and brought out a can of kerosene oil they kept by the door and carried it over to the pile of objects and thoroughly soaked them.
He returned to instruct his brother and sister to grab Ashanti’s feet as he strained to lift up her shoulders. Despite the struggle, they were able to drag her to the pile and place her upon it. His siblings looked at him strangely after seeing the pile of brush, rags, and wood. He ignored them. He was the eldest, and knew there were simply some things they couldn’t yet understand.
He kissed his mother on the cheek for the last time and carefully poured kerosene over her body. After covering her with rags and brush, he struck a match and lit a piece of paper and tossed it onto the piling. He watched as the fire grew hotter and completely engulfed Ashanti’s twenty-four year old corpse.
For several hours he stoked the fire, smiling, feeling pleased at his accomplishment, ignoring the loud sobs of his brother and sister a few feet away.
The approaching evening had spread its shadow fingers across the darkening sky, and the red ball of the sun dropped below the tip of a group of distant trees by the time the charred black mass that had once been Ashanti had cooled, and Achebe’s thoughts had returned to the present.
“Carmara, go in the hut and get father’s axe, and Kanesha, go with him and bring me mother’s special basket.” Without saying a word, the children obeyed their older brother and walked slowly to the hut.
Achebe grabbed the axe and recalled how his father had taught him to always take long even strokes when cutting wood. Now, using the same technique, he cut his mother’s burnt remains into pieces being sure to thoroughly smash Ashanti’s skull and remaining bones.
He then took the beautiful green and black woven basket in his hands, recalling how his mother loved to trace her long, slim fingers along its triangular designs. Not since receiving it as a wedding present had she ever allowed anything to be put inside it, always believing it to be too special for keeping meal or corn.
“Do what I do,” he instructed his siblings. He kneeled down and placed his small fingers into the cooled ashes, slowly and reverently, putting scoop after scoop into the basket, until he and the children had filled it to the brim. He used his palm to smooth out the ashes on the top and then carefully placed on the lid, sealing the basket securely.
“We must go now.” His voice was gentle, yet firm, the way he imagined his father’s voice would be in this circumstance. “No one else is left in the village; the sickness has taken them all away.”
Neither the darkening sky, nor the screeching sound of the animals resting in the bush, or the thought of the evil illness that had come so swiftly to destroy his village and family bothered him now.
The soothing touch of the warm dirt below his small feet felt good as he walked along the road to Nkoli, a large village several kilometers away, where he once remembered hearing several villagers had fled.
He sensed the fear in the eyes of Camara and Kanesha as they walked closely behind him. He knew they were still very young, and he was almost ten, so there were simply some things they couldn’t understand.
Achebe smiled, hugging the basket tightly to him. He could now, once again, feel the same love, warmth, and safety from Ashanti that he’d always known. He had found a way for his mother to keep her promise to always be by their side and never leave them.
“A mother always keeps her promise,” he said softly, before singing one of Ashanti’s favorite songs.