Friday, June 6, 2014

Fiction Friday: "At His Table"

By Rebecca LuElla Miller

This short story first appeared in Fellowship: Link, a Canadian print publication.

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I am Omari Mbogo, though Bwana Harrison called me Omani. No—I wanted to shout—O-m-a-r-i, a fine name, one steeped in the history of my people, one I share with my father’s brother and someday hope to give to a son.

As yet, I have no son. My wife Mukami gave birth to two beautiful daughters before her sickness … before her death.

When she first became ill, I believed it was the fever and sat by her bedside as soon as I returned from work, feeding her broth and telling her the village rumors. Day after day she steadily grew worse until she became so thin I could hardly recognize her. Although I knew taking her to the government hospital meant she would never come home, I could not watch her die without trying everything. Bwana Harrison gave me permission to miss work, and I sent my daughters to Mukami’s parents.

At the hospital, Dr. Rajesh Patwa, a slender, light-skinned Indian, inspected Mukami with his instruments. When his assistant poked her arm with the needle to capture her blood in a tube, I turned away. For days I stayed by her side caring for her, but she grew weaker until she barely opened her eyes.

At the end of the week, Dr. Patwa returned, saying Mukami had AIDS and that I needed to be examined, too. His assistant removed my blood as she had Mukami’s.

Days later as I held water to Mukami’s lips and urged her to drink, Dr. Patwa made his way to my side. Pulling his spectacles from the top of his head and placing them on the tip of his nose, he set a thin folder on the end of the bed. After leafing through three or four pages, he withdrew one sheet, studied it, and cleared his throat. “I am so very sorry,” he said at last, “but you also have the HIV.”

That night my friend Bomani Mutala explained this meant I too was sick.

Such a notion did not seem possible since I felt well and had not lost weight like Mukami. In fact, since going to work in Bwana Harrison’s shamba—cutting the tall grass, working the soil, planting the maize, weeding and watering—I became stronger, healthier. I no longer went to bed hungry and never worried about having enough money to pay the landlord.

Bwana Harrison might not have known how to pronounce my name, but he was kindhearted. Since he was the first teacher I worked for, I did not realize at once that he was different from other wageni. That first day on the way home I stopped to tell Bomani what it was like to work for a foreigner. Bomani’s eyes bulged when I said that Bwana Harrison would not let me clear his field with fire, but when I told him what happened at midday, he declared me a liar.

“Bwana invited you into his house?” Bomani’s tone was full of doubt.

 “He did. He seated me at his table.”

 “Why would he do this?”

I shrugged.

 “What did you eat, his leavings?”

I chuckled, knowing how surprised Bomani would be. “They served me exactly what they ate—meat from a cow, potatoes, cabbage, bread.”

 “A feast! What was this, some special event? A birthday? A religious celebration. That’s it. He made you partake in a Christian ritual.”

I could not tell Bomani about Bwana and his family lowering their heads before the meal while he said words to their God. My friend would surely think I was corrupt. “No, he said I am to eat with them every day.”

“You must be lying. No rich, educated mgeni would invite the worker he hires for his planting to eat at his table. I can hardly imagine them feeding him on the porch or in the yard; maybe in the kitchen when the rains come, but invite him to his table? Absurd.”

Absurd or not, Bwana Harrison did just that. Each midday, one of his daughters would come to the door and call me to come and eat—pronouncing my name the same strange way Bwana Harrison did.

A month later as I worked, shirtless in the hot sun, to plant my own maize from the seed Bwana Harrison gave me, Bomani noticed my bones no longer showed under my skin, and conceded, “You must really eat at his table.”

“He gives me extra pay, too, for doing my work well.”

Bwana Harrison did more than feed me and give me money. When Mukami died, he joined my family at the grave. I hated to cry in front of him, but of course I did; and when I glanced in his eyes, I saw tears there, too.

One day I awoke with a cough that tore at my chest. I forced myself out of bed and into the field because I could not let Bwana Harrison down. At the midday meal, though, the coughs came again, and I left the table to sit outside until they quieted. Mama Harrison brought me a cup of tea, then packed my meal in a box and sent me home.

The next day I was too ill to leave my house. At noon Bwana came to me. I was embarrassed to have him see my one room with the mud walls and floor—certainly nothing like his fine, spacious five-room house with glass windows and a tin roof. He did not seem to notice how poor my home was but squatted on the dirt beside me.

He told me he was concerned, that I should go to the mission clinic, that they knew how to treat the HIV.

“They can cure me?” I kept any spark of hope from my voice.

“No, they can’t cure you. But there is medicine that can help with your cough and other medicine that might keep you from getting sick for a long, long time.”

I didn’t want to go to the mission clinic. What would I tell Bomani? No good Muslim had anything to do with the mission, and I was a good Muslim. I even kept Ramadan, though it was hard to fast when I knew I could have been eating Bwana Harrison’s dinners. I lost much weight that month.

As politely as I could, I told Bwana Harrison I could not go to the clinic. The following day I returned to the shamba but could do little more than lean on my jembe.

I held out for a week, but my cough was only getting worse until I could no longer even pretend to work.

When Bwana Harrison called at my door on Monday, I answered in a feeble voice. “Karibu.” He came in, glanced at me, and announced that he was taking me to the clinic. I agreed. He nearly carried me to his car because I was too weak to walk, too weak even to enjoy the ground blurring past me as we sped to the mission.

The people there put me on a clean bed, then a foreign doctor came, wrote my name on a paper, and inspected me much like Dr. Patwa had inspected Mukami. I cannot remember much about the next few days. Bwana Harrison told me they gave me medicine that quieted my cough, and I slept much of the time. Within a week I was feeling better, and the mission doctor told me I could go home. He also talked to me about the HIV, about the medicine I would need.

“Ed—Mr. Harrison—has agreed to fund your care, but you must take the medicine just as I tell you to.”

I said I understood, but I didn’t really. As Bwana Harrison drove me back to my house, I voiced my concern. “Even if I work for you the rest of my life, I cannot earn enough to repay you for this medicine.”

Bwana Harrison kept his eyes on the road. “I’m not asking you to, Omari.”

I blinked. It was the first time he said my name correctly. “Then why?”

“It has to do with what happened to me as a boy.”

He was about to tell me a story from his life—a high honor, perhaps as great as sharing his table. I shifted to face him.

“You know you could have corrected me when I mispronounced your name.”

I let a nervous laugh escape.

He stopped the car in front of my house. “When I was a boy, I thought there was someone I couldn’t approach, too. Someone so great, I couldn’t talk to him, couldn’t tell him what I needed. But then one day, I learned that he wanted me to be part of his family, to sit at his table.”

I made no move to leave his car. Who would Bwana Harrison have been afraid to approach?  Someone living in a great palace, perhaps, or an important government official. But why had he left his protection? “Did he change his mind?”

"Not at all. I'll always be part of his family. And you can be too."

“This is about your God.” 

He nodded. “I mess up, Omari—things like not getting your name right or . . . helping Mukami get the treatment she needed. God wants me to do things different. He wants to take care of you—by using me to do it. You think I could tell you more about him?”

What could it hurt to listen.

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A former English teacher and an aspiring epic fantasy author, Rebecca LuElla Miller has been working as a freelance writer and editor since 2004. She has covered high school sports for a Los Angeles area newspaper group, published articles and short stories in several print and online magazines, and placed in the top twenty-five in the 2006 Writer’s Digest Short, Short Story contest. Most recently she is the author of Power Elements of Story Structure. She currently blogs Monday through Friday at A Christian Worldview of Fiction.

Her editing credits include non-fiction and fiction alike, most notably four titles in the Dragons in Our Midst and Oracle of Fire series by Bryan Davis and two novellas in the Mission League series by Jill Williamson. You can learn more about her editing services and read her weekly writing tips at Rewrite, Reword, Rework.

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