I saw my first airplane when I was eight. Stiff and angular, it growled across the sky, leaving behind it a trail of white shit. I found Mother cooking porridge and asked her what kind of bird that had been. She called it a plane and said it carried people from one place to another.
“Can’t the people walk?” I asked.
“Planes go places too far away to walk,” she said.
“Where do they go?” I wanted to know. “What do the people do when they get there?
“Mapenzi,” Mother said, “can’t you see I’m busy?”
Thus began my fascination with flight.
As I was walking home from school a few months later, Grandfather called me over. He measured my height against his walking stick and pretended to be impressed.
“Doing well with your studies?” he asked.
“Do you want to work in the yam fields when you grow up?” he asked.
“I want to ride in a plane,” I replied.
“Eh!” he laughed. “You have to be important to do that.”
“How do I become important?”
“Stay in school,” he said. “Listen to your Mr.”
But I struggled in school. I fidgeted and I squirmed. A million thoughts and ideas flew in and out of my mind, none of which had anything to do with Mr.’s plodding lessons. He often called me out during the day. “Sit still, Mapenzi!” he would say. “You’re disrupting class again.”
One day he reached into his desk and pulled out a bush yam, which he held in front of me. “Mapenzi,” he explained, “this used to be a student just like you. But the boy disobeyed his teacher, so God deserted him. Look at him now.” The room went silent. I searched Mr.’s face for some sign he was teasing. He balanced the yam on my head. “If it falls,” he said, “you’ll feel my ruler on each ear.”
The yam fell twice that day. I went home with red ears and a bruised ego.
Yet there were two things about school that I did like. I had recently discovered the World Atlas, which rested on a five-shelf cabinet that comprised our school library. I spent my lunch hours leafing through its plastic-coated pages. The world map captivated me most: candy-colored, cloud-shaped countries, nestled against the pale blue backdrop of our six connecting oceans. Mr. had inked a small black dot on the map, pinpointing the location of Chisongo.
“Chisongo’s that small?” I asked him.
He nodded. “Even smaller.”
“That includes the school and the students? The police station and the church and my village and my family, all that?”
I understood now the importance of airplanes. There were so many places to see that were too far to walk. I learned the names of the countries. Some were easier to remember than others: Chad, for example, and Mali. Some sounded elegant and exotic: Bolivia and my personal favorite, England.
The other thing I liked about school involved the walk home, which took me through Mazuba’s village. She would greet me in the road, lifting a fistful of peanuts or a dumpling from inside her skirt and placing them, still warm from her skin, in my hand. Mazuba would accompany me for a distance, encouraging my stories of places we would one day visit together. She knew about my difficulties in school, and I shared with her what Grandfather had said.
“I don’t know what to do,” I confided. “I am not a good student.”
“Why not ask God?” she suggested.
That Sunday at church I sat upright and still. When the priest asked us to bow our heads and pray, for once I had something to communicate. “Dear God,” I said, “Staying in school won’t help me fly. Is there something I can do instead?” I waited for an answer but heard nothing. When the choir began to sing I opened my eyes and found the priest looking my way. He shook his head as if to say ‘No’, before turning towards the singers.
I spent two more days that week with the yam on my head and multiple welts on my ears.
Mother said she liked to go down to the river and talk with our ancestors when she needed something. So I took the narrow path through the tall grass to the water and squatted on the sandy bank. What did it look like to ask ancestors for something? I picked up a rock and tossed it into the current. It disappeared with a blopp! “Good evening, Ancestors,” I said. “I was born to fly in a plane. I know this like I know a river is a river and the sky is the sky. Can you help me?” I left two dumplings on a small plate of leaves, hoping it would further my cause.
The next day in school I felt particularly restless. I recall someone behind me whispering “Uh, oh, Mapenzi,” then Mr. approaching my desk with the yam and his ruler. I pulled my shirt collar up to protect my ears, and suddenly mayhem broke out. The students around me began to scream. He is going to do something terrible, I said to myself, burrowing further into my clothes. I hid, awaiting a blow that never came. Desks rustled and footsteps shuffled. Someone pulled back my shirt. Above me the students hovered in a circle.
“Mapenzi has turned into a yam!” a boy yelled. Mr. pushed the students aside, took one look, and fainted. Eager boys stepped over him to get a better view. Three students left the classroom and returned with the headmistress.
“Children!” she cried. The students cleared a path to my chair. “This is Mapenzi?” she asked, picking me up. She turned me around, studied me from up close and far away. She sniffed my skin, then found the oldest boy in the class: “Have the secretary tend to your teacher,” she instructed, “and tell her I’ll be back.” She carried me over the red clay schoolyard, past the church, and across the five-block town to the police station.
“You are telling me this is a boy?” the police officer asked.
“He’ll be safest here,” the headmistress said.
“I have an empty cell,” he suggested.
“You’re going to lock him up like a criminal?”
“Headmistress,” he replied, “this is a jailhouse, not a hotel.”
My parents arrived shortly thereafter: Mother, crying, with my baby brother strapped to her back, my two sisters, older brother, and finally Father, who talked with the police officers outside the cell. Mother spit into her palm and attempted to tame the roots sprouting from my sides like wiry appendages.
“My poor Mapenzi,” she lamented. “Don’t worry, though, Father is talking with the officers about bringing you home with us today.”
I did not go home that day. The police chief explained to my wailing mother that had he been present when I arrived, he would never have let them book me. But since I was now officially incarcerated, procedures had to be followed.
Lying on my back in the jail cell, a sense of wellbeing overtook me. Perhaps because I had no way to move, I no longer felt the need to be in motion. No one told me what to do in there. No one punished me for what I seemed unable to do.
Word of my condition spread quickly, and a line began to form outside the jail. One officer wondered aloud why they didn’t charge admission, and so they did. To the “Northern Provincial Jail” sign outside, they added “See Yam Boy — Price 3 Kwacha.” Soon the station also accepted homebrew and cigarettes from would-be gawkers with no cash. I began counting days in faces rather than hours.
Mazuba visited, bringing sunshine into my cell. She waited silently next to my chair, as though expecting a travel story, and it broke my heart that I couldn’t deliver one. When an officer rapped on the bars and called out, “Time’s up,” she set a fistful of peanuts on the chair beside me. For a moment I could almost feel her warmth radiating off of the shells. But then the guard swept them absentmindedly into his pocket as he bellowed his okay for the next customer.
The priest came by. He examined me and asked for the head of police. “What kind of circus are you running here?” he asked. The chief fingered the keys on his belt loop and said nothing.
The congregation built a special receptacle for me inside the church. Mother cradled me in a towel, with the priest beside her as we walked from the police station. A parade of believers followed, praising the Lord for the sign He had given.
The priest soon began expressing concern about the expenses involved in housing a tuber, so entrance fees were reinstated. People arrived from farther and farther afield. They prayed over me, they touched me (an extra fee), they asked for my blessing. Mother visited one day in a new green flowered dress. She hung a map of Zambia on the wall next to me, marking with toothpicks the hometowns of our visitors.
The church expanded to include a café and then a bookshop. Chisongo’s first hotel went up, and then people with light skin and fine, silky hair began to arrive. The Chinese quickly paved a road from our small town to the capital in the south. Mother hung a map of the world next to the one of our country.
Words could not express my delight when the priest hired Mazuba to collect Yam Boy tickets during the day and to sweep the floors after closing. She stayed longer when she could. Together we would listen to the vibrating tymbals of the cicadas and breathe in the fragrances of curbside dinner preparations. One evening when rain had left the air wet and heavy, she sat down on the font pew. “Remember those stories you used to tell me,” she asked, “about all the places we’d fly together?” She sloped onto her side, yawning. “It seems so silly now, but I used to really believe that one day they’d come true.” She closed her lids and slipped gently into sleep. I could not take my eyes off of her curled form, off the delicate flaring of her nostrils with each inhalation. How was it possible feel so utterly miserable in the presence of someone I loved so deeply?
My body began to transform anew. Dark blotches established themselves on my skin. A crack developed in my side, with a crusty edge that flaked off to reveal more discolored tissue below.
At Mother’s request, Grandfather came by to evaluate my condition. He ran a thickly calloused finger along the fissure. “Yam rot,” he confirmed.
Mother twined her fingers. “Can he be saved?”
“My dear Child,” Grandfather put a hand on her shoulder and looked at her fixedly, “I’ve been growing tubers all of my life. Whatever this might have been before, it is now a yam. It has no intelligence, no consciousness, it can’t think or feel.
Mother began to cry.
“You can prolong its life,” he added, “but only if you are willing to treat a yam like a yam.”
Back home I traveled, in the fist of my grandfather. He toted me to the outskirts of our village, repeatedly turning around and telling Mother to scram.
I willed myself to jump and run as he pulled out his knife. He wasted no time lacerating my skin, cutting a deep gash around the fissure and scooping out the damaged tissue. Oh the pain! If only I still had teeth I would have given Grandfather a taste of his own medicine that day. He snipped away the remaining areas of discoloration, then rubbed my weeping, tender flesh with wood ash. He corralled the infected scraps with his foot into a pile and set it alight with a match.
I cured for four days with the harvest’s damaged tubers, sweating and steaming under rice grass and jute bags. I drifted in and out of sleep as my wounds healed and a new, thin protective outer layer of skin formed.
My family constructed a simple, open-air hut with an elevated grass mat to maximize ventilation. I detected a hint of pride as Grandfather installed me, renewed from curing, in my new home.
Mother eyed me approvingly. “So he’s all healthy now?” she asked.
“If you want it to last forever,” Grandfather groused, “take it to Solwezi and have it canned.”
Mother began to cry.
Mother continued to come by, but she no longer sang or brought news of my family. Folds of skin began to develop beneath her eyes.
My hearing and vision started to dull, and my base softened. Mother packed healing herbs around me in hopes of preserving what she could of my fading health. Grandfather confirmed the worst. “It will not be long now,” he said.
Late one afternoon as the church was preparing to close for the day, a visitor from afar stepped into the room. She introduced herself as Ashley. She had flown from Europe after a friend had forwarded her a newspaper clipping about me. Ashley’s cameraman lifted me out of my receptacle with great care and snapped pictures from various angles.
“My church in England wants you to come visit,” she said. “You’re famous.”
For days after Ashley’s visit, Mother informed anyone who would listen that I was not going anywhere. “He can’t travel,” she said. “He’s dying.”
The priest dipped his head with understanding. “A mother’s primary concern is always what’s best for her children,” he said.
Our priest often disarmed congregants by ascribing good intentions to them. As Mother’s mouth softened and her shoulders relaxed, I had a hopeful sense of where he might be taking her.
“And yet,” he said, “Mapenzi’s time on earth is soon ending, whether he stays or goes. Perhaps we ought to ask ourselves what he would want in the short time he has remaining.”
I was small enough to qualify as a lap child, so the English church paid for Mazuba to accompany me. In her handbag she carried instructions for the packing and transportation of my remains back home to Chisongo.
I wove in and out of consciousness as we taxied over the tarmac to the runway and then slowed to a stop. The deep voooorrrrrr-ing of the engines rattled my insides.
Mazuba held me up to the Plexiglas as the aircraft rolled forward, crawling at first, then picking up speed. The fields and trees shot by, eventually blurring into a solid wall of green. The pilot nudged the plane’s nose into the air, and we were off.
The magic of flying — the pressure of my body against Mazuba’s hand as we gained altitude; the losing and regaining of the horizon as the plane turned once, then a second time; the peculiar sensation of being rooted on solid ground while floating on the air coalesced with the pride of having achieved my goal.
Below us the square roofs of the city gave way to kilometers of forest speckled with occasional clusters of thatched and metal huts. I imagined one of those groupings to be Chisongo, with the students waving from the red clay courtyard; Mother, Father and my brothers and sisters shielding their eyes from the light to catch a glimpse of me, traveling somewhere too far away to walk. I sent my heartfelt thanks to Mr. and to all of the other human and spiritual advocates, for the roles they played in getting me here. We passed into a layer of clouds, then up into the bright sunshine with a sky as blue as the six connecting oceans of my schoolroom atlas.
Laura Fine-Morrison has worked in a variety of organizations, largely in a human resources capacity. She has moonlighted as a freelance journalist and business writer. During college, she was awarded a three-month research fellowship to study community banking among market women in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire. She has also volunteered as a French-English interpreter in Mali, raised funds for fistula clinics in Tanzania, started a small business venture with an Ethiopian leather goods manufacturer, and rooted for Ghana in the South African quarterfinals of the 2010 FIFA World Cup. She lives in Seattle with her husband and daughter. This is her first published short story and she is damned pleased about it!