Authors: Paula Leyden
For Tom, Amy, Christie, Kate,
Aisling and Maurice
friend Winifred didn’t put her hand up today. Not once. She hardly put her
up. I kept looking at her sideways, waiting. But nothing. When the bell rang, she slipped out of the classroom as if she had never been there. Like a shadow. I stayed sitting for a while, wondering. Maybe she was having a quiet day. Surely everyone has those? Or maybe she didn’t know any answers. No. Not likely.
I felt Madillo patting me on the head, my daily signal that it was time to pack my bag to go home. There is nothing shadow-like or silent about my twin sister, Madillo. I wonder how much Mum and Dad knew about armadillos when they named her after one. Not very much, I think, because apart from the odd grunt they are peaceful creatures.
“Hey, Bul-Boo, I’m not waiting more than twenty-three seconds for you today … and two of those have gone already. Now seven… You’re out of time. I’m leaving…”
She danced towards the door, holding her bag on her head.
I followed her. I don’t really like walking home on my own. If Madillo is with me then no one notices me, even though we look the same. She makes more noise than I do. This afternoon she decided to count the number of steps she took … in Japanese. In our bedroom, on the ceiling above her bed, she has stuck up a chart with the numbers from one to 999,999 in Japanese. When the light is out she shines her torch onto them and counts out loud. That way, she says, they grow in her head during the night – and it is working. But she thinks one million is unlucky, so she has not learnt how to say that.
Winifred and I have been sitting next to each other in class for two years now. Our teacher, Sister Leonisa, doesn’t like change, and all the time we’ve been in her class no one has ever moved seats. She kept a dead pot plant on the windowsill for a whole term once because she didn’t want to move it, so when you sit next to someone you know that will be it. I think if you died in your seat she probably wouldn’t move you. But I suppose your parents would when they heard.
Winifred is the same age as me, except I was born in the wet season and her birthday is in the dry season. She is short and neat and the tidiest (and cleverest) person in our class. On her side of the desk there is hardly anything to be seen, a fact that Sister always points out to me. As if I couldn’t see it for myself.
“Look, Bul-Boo,” she says, “can you see any pencil shavings on Winifred’s side of the desk? Any ugly bits of paper? Any pens leaking all over the place? Anything at all except the things that have to be there, the things that have no option?”
“No, Sister,” I always reply.
If I was Madillo, I might say, “Yes, Sister, because I see all … even that which isn’t there,” and see what she’d say to that. But I’m not, so I won’t. However, I do wonder why she keeps asking me when it clearly makes no difference. And Winifred doesn’t mind, even when I spill over onto her side. She tells me that at home there is no room to be messy. I’ve never thought about it like that, but it makes sense: if you’re messy in a small space then you can’t move.
I always think that Winifred doesn’t mind about anything: she never gets cross or mad like Madillo does. But maybe I’m wrong. She was minding about something today.
We normally walk halfway home with her, then we go left and she goes right – and it takes us ages because we always have so much to talk about. Winifred is almost as good at telling stories as Ifwafwa is, and sometimes (if we can stop Madillo counting) she tells us some on the way home. The only time we are ever in a hurry is when the rain comes. None of us mind the rain but we hate lightning. Today Winifred didn’t tell a story; she didn’t even laugh when Madillo fell down (as she does most days), she just carried on walking with her head down. I wondered if I’d said something to upset her but I didn’t want to ask, her face was so closed.
We took much longer than usual to get home after we had split from Winifred, because Madillo reached 362 steps and then made a mistake. Even though I told her where she had got to, she didn’t believe me and had to start again. When it comes to numbers, the only person she trusts is herself.
As it turned out, it was lucky she did go back because we met Ifwafwa, the Snake Man – and if we’d gone straight home we might have missed him. He promised to come by tomorrow, as he has a new story.
. Yes, that’s what they call me. The Puff Adder. Slow and heavy, but fast to strike. The little one, Bul-Boo, she told me about that name. It’s a nickname, she said, because you catch all the snakes and because your bicycle makes that noise,
. Then she asked me, “Why do you put those little bits of orange plastic on your wheel spokes, Mr Snake Man?” She’s full of respect, a serious child. She wants to know everything. I think that life will be kind to her.
I told her that the plastic is to warn the snakes that I’m coming and that they should pack their bags and say their goodbyes because they’ll be moving out. She liked that. She has a laugh that is so loud it is hard to believe it comes out of such a small child.
I put the plastic there because I like the sound it makes. It keeps me awake when I ride my bicycle. When the sun is hot and I’m travelling a long straight road, it is easy for me to fall asleep. Especially if I’m hungry for food. But not any more. The
makes me think about different things. When I think, I stay awake.
Today I thought about Nsanguni, the snake of all snakes. She is so long that if you stood at her head you could not see her tail. She is not a snake for catching.
Nsanguni is from the water. Her home is the river. It is always wise to keep your distance from her. It is the shadow she wants: your shadow. At night time you are safe because your shadow is missing, but when the sun shines and your shadow lies on the ground, helpless, Nsanguni takes it. Swallows it whole. As it travels down her long body, it takes you with it and you follow because you are nobody without your shadow. Then you are gone. Dead. Lost in her body.
One day, maybe, she’ll get tired and full and spit all the shadows out onto the riverbank. There will be much rejoicing when that day comes.
was late today. It was the first time she has been late, ever. We could be in the middle of the biggest thunderstorm and Winifred will arrive at school on time, with plastic bags tied carefully around her shoes so they don’t get muddy. Where her house is, there is a long muddy road she has to walk down before she reaches the tar road, but her shoes are always clean.
Today was a normal sunny day but she arrived at half past eight – half an hour late. She didn’t even say anything to Sister, she just crept in the same way she crept out yesterday. So quietly I am not even sure if Sister noticed. Maybe Winifred knew beforehand that we were going to get the Tapeworm Speech. She was lucky she missed it, especially first thing in the morning before anyone had even had time to digest their breakfast. I think Winifred would have been worried by it, too – even more than we were – because she seems to be getting thinner and thinner, and that’s one of the signs of having a tapeworm.
Sister was so excited at the thought of giving us this speech that she forgot to say morning prayers. She just stood up, clapped her hands and asked, “Who has heard about the tapeworm?” We all put our hands up then, because who hasn’t?
“Good. Now, who knows how to entice a tapeworm out of your body?”
She always uses words like “entice”. She once said to us that if there is an exciting word available, why choose a boring one. I suppose that makes sense.
No one answered this time.
“So I am going to tell you. Me, Sister Leonisa, a lion among nuns.”
I looked across the room at Madillo, who I just knew would be grinning all over her face. Any distraction from work or morning prayers is her favourite thing. With Sister Leonisa we often have distractions, but they aren’t always good, so I was feeling a bit nervous.
“When a tapeworm makes its entrance into your body, it is nothing more than a small egg. But quickly it transforms itself into a long, ribbony worm with an insatiable appetite. It eats all the time, without stopping. It is the glutton of the worm world.”
Sister drew a long, ribbony tapeworm on the board in a few quick strokes, then added the largest mouth I have ever seen. She even put teeth in it. Sharp, pointy teeth.
“Every time you put food into your mouth, all you are doing is feeding the worm. It sits there with its own mouth open, waiting for the food to arrive.”
Madillo had stopped smiling now and I could feel this long tapeworm inside me. I was sure it was listening to every word Sister was saying and just waiting for breaktime, when it could begin eating again.
“So how do we stop this monstrous creature from eating all our food?”
There was silence. Fred, our next-door neighbour (who I will tell you about) was bent over his desk, not even looking at Sister. He was clutching his stomach.
“I’ll tell you,” she said. “You starve it. Deprive it of food. Don’t give it anything, not a morsel, for three days. By that time it will be your slave. It will do anything for you. After the three days are up, pour a little milk into a saucer and go and sit somewhere comfortable. Open your mouth and hold the saucer in front of you like this.” She held the chalkboard rubber in front of her wide-open mouth.