All seven of us slept in the same room. I shared a bunk with my younger sisters; my brothers each had his own mattress on the floor. The only thing somewhat blocking our view to our parents’ bed was a large basil tree pot, dragged in from the backyard every Friday afternoon and driven out again the following morning.
“We are poor,” my mother used to say to our neighbors, “but we have dignity. We ain’t animals.”
When Friday came, me and my sisters would argue our shifts. I usually took the last one since I was the oldest: eleven already. The instant one of us heard something, she should wake the other two up. In our minds, it would be like going to a drive-in cinema minus the car, finding out at last what went on on the other side of the basil pot tree.
Every afternoon, we laid out our plans, and every morning we woke up accusing the other two of falling asleep. All of us swore that nothing out of the ordinary had happened. Our father had started snoring the minute his head touched the pillow and mother’s sleep was only interrupted by her night talk: she usually addressed Mrs. Jones at the grocery store, asking her for more cheese.
And yet, on Sunday morning after church, mother complained to her older sister, aunt Sarah—the unmarried aunt Sarah—about our father not letting her sleep with his needs, and that she is so tired, thank God she had her parts sewn up.
Something had to be done. My sisters usually didn’t wake up even if you pinched them, so on a Friday, I decided to stay up all night on my own. I would find out what mother was hiding from us and then blackmail my sisters to tell them; they would do the chores for a whole month.
My father was ploughing up all day to grow wheat. Once home, he barely ate, and ordered my brothers to help him with his boots. His breathing became rhythmical even before falling on the bed. Mother ordered the boys to bring in the basil tree pot, nevertheless. But she couldn’t sleep. All day at home on her own, she had a lot to say.
She started about Sarah. She was addressing our father who, even when awake, didn’t pay any attention to her complaints; he was not the listening type. I looked around to see if anyone else was not sleeping—my brothers were snoring louder than my father, and my sisters were curled up, their thumbs in their mouths.
“She’s turned thirty-eight,” mother was saying, with her clipped voice. “What’s she waiting for? The prince? I’ve been tellin’ her, Mrs. Jones’ brother is a good man. Yes, he ain’t young. But you can’t have everything, can you?” I tried hard to keep my eyes open, my mother’s voice rocking me to sleep.
“When will she have children?” my mother went on. “God didn’t give us a life just to sit around and look out the window, did He?” Mother paused her rambling. She sighed. I thought that was it and closed my eyes. But before sleep took its course, her voice, different this time, startled me.
“No, leave me, I’m dead tired.”
I turned discreetly to look. My father’s head was under the pillow as always, my mother dancing behind the basil tree.
“I know you wanna. Ain’t you tired?” And then, “Don’t make no noise. You’ll wake the children.” And mother started breathing deeply, as if she was in a very pleasant dream, calling out my father’s name between her cries, her voice sweet and fragile. And suddenly she stopped.
In the morning, I woke up more confused than ever. What had my father done to my mother? I followed him with my eyes to see if he’d betray his thoughts, but he only asked for more bread. And told mother to buy him new boots, ‘cause “these won’t make the week.” When he left for the fields, mother turned to me and said, “Take that basil tree out. It’s done its purpose.”