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August Debut

Issue 2; October/November


Vamba Sherif


Vamba Sherif

Sherif was born in Liberia, his novels include The Land of the Fathers (1999), The Kingdom of Sebah (2003) and Bound to Secrecy (2007). Sherif speaks three African languages, English, Arabic and Dutch.



Her name was Bendu Sifeh. Most days of the week she went to the station and sat on one of the whitewashed benches facing boards that indicated the arrival and departure of buses. She always sat alone, her tense gaze dwelling upon the people who raced to and from the buses and trains. Sometimes, steeped deep in thought, she would panic but would pull her lips tight to control it. Or she would rush to a bus at the far end of the station to inquire from its driver. The information acquired would always vary, as would her reactions. Sometimes it would be about a change of bus route, or about the weather, and sometimes the driver would simply ignore her. When this happened, Bendu Sifeh would bite her finger nails with a cruelty that would frighten her afterward when she sat in the comfort of her home. There were moments when the drivers would be helpful, going out of their ways to answer all her questions, which pleased her tremendously.

She repeated the same ritual every day. First, she would unwrap her lunch of cheese sandwich and milk, and taking measured bites at the bread would collect the crumbs with the other hand. Then she would delve into the day’s papers. Every now and then she would lift her eyes to the boards and then back to the papers again. Night would meet her there, and she would take the last bus home.

Over the years, the station had transformed from a single train track and few bus-lines into a boisterous center: it now boasted a post office and bookstores, restaurants, snack bars, ice saloons, a hotel, parking lots, and a training institute for transport personnel.

It was there that she met him. He looked taller than she remembered, and he limped slightly but had succeeded in concealing his handicap cleverly by strutting. She took in his large hands, and those eyes he was wont to cast down, as though afraid of the world, while strolling with her along the pavement of their first home. As he approached her, a slight summer breeze rose, to which the tail of his long jacket fluttered. He held it with his right hand, a bit irritated.

Nothing escaped her, not his brown eyes with those generous lashes, or his well-groomed and matted hair. Not his trimmed mustache, nor his nose which looked broken, bent, the only visible change in him. ‘He’s as careful and meticulous as ever, even with his clothes,’ she thought. He wore a white shirt and trousers that emphasized the darkness of his skin, and he walked in long strides that attracted attention.

‘So, you’ve returned,’ she said.

‘Can I help you?’ he asked.

‘My son!’ she called out to him.

He seemed taken aback by this approach, was not sure he had heard her right, and on his face appeared a confused look.

‘How are you?’ she asked.

A shade of tenderness colored her voice. She reached out to touch him but he flinched, which shocked her.

’I’m fine,’ he finally answered, ‘but Madam!’

‘It’s me, your mother,’ she said.

‘You are mistaken,’ he said, ‘I am not…’

She fought the tears that jumped to her eyes and that stung her as much as the words he had uttered, and this must have touched him for he said: ‘You see, I did not expect this.’

‘I know, I know.’

‘So you understand that I am not what you take me to be.’

Bendu was silent. ‘But who could he be other than my son,’ Bendu wondered. Has the army changed him then? Changed him so much that he could barely recognize her? Has he seen something he should not have seen? Death perhaps? She chose to conceal her surprise. Experience had­ taught her to let beautiful moments live out themselves. ‘This is my moment,’ she assured herself, ‘and I’ll savor it like no other.’

‘What can I do for you?’ he asked.

‘I want to go home.’

‘Where is that?’

‘Here is the address,’ she said.

Bendu took out a notebook from her purse and wrote it down in a beautiful penmanship. On looking up, she saw an expression on his face akin to pain, as though he could not bear the situation. She thought: ‘Distance has estranged us. So I have to be careful.’

‘I’ll drive you there,’ he finally said.

‘Thank you.’

He led her out of the station, into the parking lot and guided her to the front seat of his car. They drove into the jammed traffic. Out of the corner of her eyes, she caught him observing her: her face which was endowed with a beauty she had not begun to appreciate until she saw the first gray in her hair, and her bluish-dark skin to which the years had been merciful. She heard him heave a sigh.

Now and then, he would ask for directions, and although she was shocked by this and by other things about him, she decided to be as patient with him as possible. She thought: ‘Maybe the war did something terrible with him, something I cannot imagine.’

They left the city and entered the suburbs, where she directed him to a street with well-tended gardens and solemn poplar trees. Bendu stepped out of the car and walked swiftly, her head held erect, leading him to a cottage-like house. They entered.

In the living room there were, besides some furniture, a flat-screen television, vases of flowers, a Persian mat, a stereo set and cases studded with an impressive collection of books. There was an imposing portrait of her on the wall, which her son had once painted. She watched him pause before it. Looking at his profile, she saw how much he favored her husband: the strong jaws, the sooty darkness around the region of his eyes visible only under the glare of light, and his lashes, which her husband had referred to many times as the most attractive aspect of his face.

He seemed uncomfortable. She saw him sweating, on edge. He looked at the things in the room as if he were seeing them for the first time. To give him time to be to himself, she left him to go to the kitchen where she filled the coffee machine with water. Alone, she remembered how she had begotten him. Bendu had faced her husband who had just returned from work with the announcement that she desired a child. It was a summer evening, and it had been a hot day. The air was humid and prickled her face. Taken aback by the bold move, her husband, a robust man with a sad look in his eyes – an expression that had attracted her to him in the first place – had kept silent. He had let her hold his hand and lead him to the bedroom. She let go off his hand and sat on the bed, watching him undress. Despite the fatigue in his eyes, he could not but show off: he moved about in front of her like a boxer in a ring, the muscles of his biceps bulged, his gaze fixed on her. It was theatrical and beautiful. And long afterwards, long after his death, she would replay that moment several times in her memory, never experiencing ever after that beauty and skill in any man, even when she found her greatest love in the silence of a white man. She had moved her eyes up and down his well-wrought body and had heaved a sigh. Resting on a bed cloth of satin, she’d closed her eyes, giving in to what was to come.

Bendu Sifeh returned to serve him coffee.

‘I cannot stay long,’ he said.

She thought he meant that he would return to the army again, that he was on leave. So, catching her breath, she said:

‘Tell me about the army?’ she said.

He mumbled something. She understood that he would rather not talk about the horrors of war, and so she nodded.

‘I’ll phone our neighbor and tell him you’ve returned.’

He stood up at this point, sweating and agitated, looking toward the door. Bendu Sifeh approached him, her eyes pleading, convinced now that whatever he had experienced in the army had driven a deep wedge between them and to bridge it she had to treat him with utmost care. She held him, tenderly, hesitantly, as if afraid he would slip through her fingers, and she directed him to the sofa.
She went to the phone and dialed a number. Shortly afterwards, the doorbell rang. A grey-haired but youthful looking white man entered. His face lit up with a smile on seeing Bendu.

‘Mrs. Sifeh,’ he called out eagerly.

‘Peter, my son is back.’

Peter jumped for joy on hearing this, but when he turned to Bendu’s son he gave a gasp.

‘But look at him!’ he said.

‘What do you mean?’

She sounded as if she would burst into tears, which Peter, the man who had loved her in silence for years, could not let happen.

‘What do you mean, Peter?’

The strange expression on Peter’s face was replaced by a wide grin, which he shared not only with Bendu but with the son.

‘I’m glad you are here, young man.’

Peter sat down on a sofa, facing Bendu, and every time he turned to the son a helpless look would cloud his face.

As night approached, a mild wind blew across the room, bringing the fragrance of flowers and trees. They had each had five cups of coffee, but Bendu offered them more. Seeing her son seated so close to her, she realized it was possible to forget all her sufferings.

It was then that she decided to tell them about her early years in that new country. ‘When we arrived from Liberia and were confronted with all the newness here, your father made life bearable for me. A hardworking man, he would leave at dawn, work for ten hours, return home and head for school. During those first years, I spent the days exploring places and listening to the people in order to acquaint myself to their ways. It was how I mastered the language. I was in the prime of my pregnancy when your father died. It was so unexpected and the experience so shattering that it numbed me for days. I chose to conceal his death from his parents, who were against our marriage from the very onset. I did not want to believe he had abandoned me, and so I pretended whenever I left for study and then work that I would meet him at home. During that time especially you were always there for me, a source of strength. After my graduation I went on to work as an accountant at a large company. Meanwhile, your father’s parents wrote letters, sometimes twenty pages long, expecting to hear from their son. Often they would berate him for letting his wife do all the correspondence. I was accused of turning his mind against his family, because we happened to come from different regions. They had heard that my husband had built a house for each and every member of my family, that in fact he had arranged that two of my brothers be awarded scholarships to study at a university of their choice, anywhere in the world. This was the very thing against which they had warned him. They believed women had the tactical mind of influencing a man without him being aware of it. Their son was lost to them.

'I worked hard at trying to keep ends meet. You were everything to me and my world was complete with you, until you decided to join the army. I could not understand why you would want to join the army, to take part in something you hated so much. But I came to realize, when I stood on the ground of that station to bid you farewell, that there was perhaps in your artist’s nature a tendency to embrace danger or the unusual.

'I was told you were missing in action, had in fact not survived a mission somewhere in the world. But I believed otherwise. You were alive and would return to me one day. Most days I went to the station where we hugged for the last time, hoping to find you.’

Bendu Sifeh then went to the bar and poured three glasses of champagne from a bottle she had kept for this day. They drank. The evening wore off. The chandelier, hanging right above them, rendered the room a resplendent, dreamlike sheen. Now and then, she would turn to her son and see him fidget. ‘We’ve neglected him,’ she thought and exchanged a look with Peter who rose to his feet.

‘I shall be back tomorrow,’ he said and left

‘Your room is the same since you left it,’ Bendu Sifeh said.

Her son, avoiding her gaze, nodded.

‘I’ll go and dust it.’

She left and went upstairs to prepare the room her son had used for more than twenty years of his life. And it was as if she were reliving every moment of those years. She recalled his birth, how his wet hair had felt against her breasts, the touch of his jerky legs and hands, his hunger for her milk, for her attention, and then his first steps, his growth and performance at school, his fights and desperate struggles to become an artist. It surprised Bendu Sifeh, as she recalled those memories, how various and wealthy they were and how, despite all her suffering, she had lived a full life with her only son.


Afolabe Winterson was one of the thousands who populated the station every morning doing the same thing: boarding a comfortable bus, an express train, or a subway to spend hours working in a factory or in a company of repute. Yet he was different in many ways from those multitudes. His fascination with human faces, oval, elongated, flabby, mustachioed, wrinkled, tender, strong, weak, pale, white, black, brown, yellow, struck him out as perhaps unique. Most mornings, before his transport arrived, a line eleven that headed for the industrial section of the city, Afolabe would lean against one of the graffiti walls of the station and watch people stroll by. He would see the disappointed face of a woman who had missed her bus, or the elation of a man who knew he had arrived half an hour before his transport and could, therefore, relish a breakfast of sausage roll or a cup of coffee. He could not help but feel a rush of joy at comparing and contrasting the faces. The face of this one standing beside him, dressed in a suit, was bustling with joy. And that one, sipping tea in the station restaurant, had had a good night sleep, perhaps in the arms of a lover, or she had had a good meal or a pleasant conversation she’d never had in weeks. That young woman wearing a tense look was perhaps heading for a job interview upon which her whole future depended. A middle-aged man with a vacant stare kept mumbling something to himself. Afolabe would go on like this until the board indicated the arrival of his bus, and he could actually see it pulling to a halt, ready to take him to work.

One day, he decided to make an acquaintance with a bearer of one of those faces. She was an old woman, perhaps in her seventies, he thought. The first time he saw her she was sitting on a bench, reading the papers. The next day he saw her standing erect like a goddess, bold and graceful, looking at the station as though it were her realm and the people her subjects. Something about her, perhaps her preoccupation with herself, prevented him from approaching her. Since then he left work with the certainty that he would see the old woman. He often observed her from a prudent distance, not wanting to interrupt her, and he drew her over and over again, because with every drawing she revealed an aspect of herself to him: now nervous, then strong, or indifferent to her surroundings.

The day he decided to see her coincided with a visit he paid to his mother who lived outside of the city, in a village that was part of its affluent suburbs. On seeing him walking the graveled path toward her, his mother rushed and threw her arms about him, as though she had missed him terribly. But that was not true, because he saw her almost every week. Time had been generous to her black skin, but Afolabe also knew how often she pampered and cared for that skin.

She let him in the house, in that suburbs were whites lived mostly, a choice with which Afolabe had later had his qualms because his friends lived in apartments in places in the city derogatorily referred to as problematic boroughs.

She had brought him up alone after her husband had deserted her. She had been a young woman then, from an island in the Caribbean, but she had been determined to carve out a place for herself in Europe. Now she owned a company of her own, one of the few privileged blacks.

He could tell by the look in her eyes that she was nervous, that she had a secret she wanted to share with him. Afolabe suspected that she had found a lover, a possible rival to his love.

She sat on a chair at the dinning table, avoiding his gaze, and in doing so confirmed his suspicion. Who could this man be? Was love at all possible at her age? Afolabe wondered.

Then she spoke: ‘Your father is here,’ she said, as though it cost her all the energy to do so. ‘He wants to see you.’

‘Mother, you mean you invited him to this house?’

‘He was the one who invited himself.’

She reached out for his hand then, and although he had never refused her anything, he found it difficult to hold her hand now.

It was at this point that he heard soft footsteps coming from the other room, which his mother used as study. They sounded like a doomsday bell to Afolabe, reminding him of the last time he had seen his father. He was sixteen then. That year, a bald old man, stooped under the weight of years and bitter experience, stood ringing the doorbell of their first home. When he opened it, Afolabe could not place the jaundiced face that stared him. The old man shoved him aside and started for the kitchen to fetch a drink. Afolabe wanted to scream at him, but his stolid manner checked him.

‘Don’t just stand there gaping at me,’ he roared. ‘Have you no manners? Or is it because all your mother does nowadays is spends her time accumulating wealth and has no time for you?’

It dawned on him then that he was gaping at his father, the storyteller, whose craft had smothered every real ambition he ever had. The father looked wretched and reeked of the smell of a month’s garbage. He spoke in snatches and hisses as though in conflict with the world. In those few hours, he ordered Afolabe around, lorded it over him. Afolabe had hoped for a father, had even imagined him, whenever he and his friends talked about fathers at school as being perfect, as being the accumulation of all the things he admired: handsome, cultured, educated, smartly dressed like he had always wanted to dress when he became an adult. But his father was different and was not doing his best to conceal it. He hammered into Afolabe’s ears the responsibility of a son to the father and mother and to himself.

That evening his mother came home, looking strikingly beautiful, tall and slender and young, a sharp contrast to that emaciated man who claimed to be his father. Afolabe was horrified to see his mother flung her slender arms around him.

‘But why, mother?’ Afolabe cried.

His sudden outburst took the two by surprise, and his father sucked his teeth and ran toward him, perhaps intending to slap him or reprimand him, but his mother reached him first. She cupped his head in her hands and said simply: ‘Because he makes me laugh.’

But just after a week he disappeared from their lives. Later, his mother told him that he taught at a university in America.

Now he had appeared in their lives again.

‘Don’t you have anything to say to your old father?’

Afolabe stood up, intending to cover the distance between him and his father and to face him. But his mother stopped him.

‘This is supposed to be a reunion.’

‘You don’t belong here,’ Afolabe said.

His father broke into a hearty laughter.

‘Watch your words,’ the father warned.

The mother paused for a while, and then she slapped her hips with her hands, in a gesture of surrender.

‘Go on then, fight it out,’ she said.

‘A son has to know his place,’ the father said, working himself up into a rage. ‘It seems you’ve fed on nothing but hatred.’

It was at that moment that Afolabe turned to his mother and was shocked by the sudden transformation he saw on her face. She seemed to have aged ten years, her face wrinkled with worries. He did not want to hurt her, or to be the reason of her unhappiness. He realized then he could only handle the situation by escaping it, which he did that hot Saturday afternoon. They did not call after him, and he left with a feeling that the two had conspired against him. It must have determined his course of action that day: his decision to meet the old woman at the station.

On seeing Afolabe, the old woman sat up from the bench, her eyes lit up with a glint of recognition. She called him her son, and when he flinched to her touch he was taken aback by the terror he saw in her eyes which he thought was the fear of being contradicted by him.

It was more out of courtesy than curiosity that Afolabe decided to go home with her. Now, after the white man had left and the old woman had gone upstairs to dust the room she said was once his own, he was left alone with his thoughts. It occurred to him that his mother and this woman had something in common: both were single mothers deeply in love with their sons, both strengthened and broken by that love. And he thought: ‘Every action that I now take will have a profound effect on my life and the lives of two women.’


Bendu Sifeh did not see Afolabe in the living room on coming downstairs. Thinking he’d gone to the toilet, she waited. An hour passed. She sipped at her drink nervously. When her patience ran out, she went to the toilet but saw it was empty. She was struck then by the unpleasant thought that it might all have been a dream. The glass of drink fell from her hand and broke. On trying to gather the shards, it cut her hand and she began to bleed heavily. Still she went on until a scream escaped her, shattering the walls that held her life together.

Peter, who must have heard her, rushed in.

‘My son has vanished,’ she said.

It was the right moment to enfold her in his arms, Peter thought, this woman he had loved most of his adult life, but he was held back by the long history of friendship that stood in the way of expressing that love in deeds. ‘Come and sit,’ he finally said.

He gathered the shards. ‘Sit still, Mrs. Sifeh,’ he said, and he realized that these curt sentences somehow calmed him.

She allowed him to dress her wounds. He held her hands, surprised by their hardness, by the delicacy he found in her palms and in her slender fingers. ‘This is what people do when they are in love,’ Peter told himself. The intimacy emboldened him.

‘You need a bath,’ he said, trying to calm her.

But Bendu remained silent.

‘I’m going to run a warm bath for you.’

Peter worked with determination. A fountain of joy welled up in him at the realization that his love was manifesting itself at the most difficult period in her life. ‘This day will seal our love,’ he thought.

‘Your bath is ready,’ he said.

She did not move, which left him perplexed, deprived of ideas. And thus the hours ticked painfully away for Peter, with each second paralyzing his resolve to confront her silence, her indifference. Would his love ever be reciprocated, he wondered.

Around five in the morning, Bendu Sifeh stood up and went upstairs. She returned dressed in traditional, homespun clothes of her native country. She moved to the window, drew the curtains and stood before it. In slow movements, Bendu Sifeh raised her hands and pulled as though at an invisible string that held her son. Over and over again, with heaves and snatches, her legs spread apart, she pulled as if evoking his image. Too stunned to be able to move or think clearly, Peter watched the strange phenomenon unfolding before him. Bendu went on until sunrise. It was then that she stopped, turned with a forlorn smile to Peter, her mind made up never to search for her son again, never to love.


Yet a week thereafter, when the doorbell rang and she opened it and saw Afolabe, radiating apology in every gesture, and promising in silence never to abandon her again or hurt a heart that had shouldered so much, Bendu Sifeh flung herself in his arms. Afolabe led her out of that quiet suburb and into a whole new world of experience.

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