The silence of the night is broken only by the sound of his father’s voice inside his head. Run! Run, son! Be a man! He falls to the ground, exhausted, and shuts his eyes. His breathing is frenzied: mouth open wide, nostrils flaring; he is inhaling and exhaling almost at the same time. The air fills his lungs with a refreshing coolness. The soft caress of the night breeze is better than his mother’s embrace. He wants to lie here forever, in the middle of the deserted road, not close to home.
Surrounded by strange, glaring faces, his mother is crying in front of their small apartment, in this part of town where houses are as dirty as public toilets and gutters stink like open graves.
“Let us set out and look for him. Please, help me find my child.”
“Madam, madam, but how can you send a ten year old out at this time of the night to buy milk?”
“No, no, I meant for him to call all you neighbours. His sister swallowed some peroxide by accident.”
“You told him to get help, to get milk.”
“Yes, I…didn’t think he would…think I wanted him to go out like this.”
“But wait madam, did your daughter just swallow the peroxide or, I mean, who gave it to her?”
His mother is silent.
“I thought it was some cough syrup we brought along. We haven’t finished unpacking and sorting out our things. The light was poor.”
“So you gave your own child peroxide.”
“She is all right now, sleeping.”
The crowd murmur around her. What an irresponsible woman! Heartless! Ah, but everyone must not be a mother! She is crazy, no doubt. They speak with such abandon, as though she is there in spirit only.
“Help me, please. He may be lost.”
They continue to gossip, about places they’ve never been. In America, this woman would be sent to a mental clinic. In China, she would be put to death. In Ghana, she would pay a fine.
The woman wipes the tears off her face and pushes through the crowd, into the black, unfriendly night to find her child.
The boy opens his eyes, stares at ash-coloured clouds drifting across the solitary moon to the other side of the sky. He imagines the many mansions somewhere beyond the clouds: a place of rest and laughter, he’s been told. A place of no return. A cruel place.
Get up, boy! Don’t be lazy! Men are strong!
He stands, feet hurting from too much running on the hard tar. He must find some open shop, get milk for his little sister. It’s what his father expects from him. It’s what would make his father proud. He begins to walk, slowly, every step a challenge. A fierce gust of wind speeds past; he embraces himself. His singlet and shorts, soaked with sweat, cling to his small frame.
He thinks he hears footsteps, voices in the wind. He looks back, sees nothing. He is afraid. He has heard stories of bad things happening to people at night.
His voice echoes far into the darkness, as if there is only him left in the whole world. He turns to run, stumbles, arms beat frantically in the air, but there is nothing to hold on to. He falls, knees and elbows grazing the rough tar.
He sits up, feels his bruises, knows there is blood. His chest is suddenly very tight, compressed. Tears well up in his eyes.
No, boy, you mustn’t! Men don’t cry!