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13 December 2007updated 27 Sep 2015 2:57am

Short story: Jonah’s Light Bulb

Jonah is still hungry after eating. He is always still hungry.

By Tracy Chevalier

Jonah is still hungry after eating. He is always still hungry. But when his mother hands him two bananas he knows not to eat them now … A short story by Tracy Chevalier

The birds wake Jonah, as they have done every day of his life. The white glow that fills the sky signals to the birds to caw and call. When he hears them, Jonah opens his eyes and looks around. He is sharing a bed with his two brothers in a room at the back of a three-room hut. Jonah has large black eyes, the surrounding white tinted with yellow. His gaze is so persistent and unwavering that as he lies in bed he appears to be staring at everything, consequential and otherwise: the rusting iron roof, a spider dangling from a thread, the frayed hem of his brother Elijah’s shorts.

It’s time to get up, says Elijah, who lies next to him with his eyes closed. Get up.

Jonah doesn’t move. The first one up has to go for water so that his mother and sisters can cook and wash. He blinks, and his eyelids click.

You’re awake, says Elijah. I can hear you. Get up. I’m going to kick you out of bed.

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Before Elijah can kick him, their mother comes to the doorway of their room, Jonah’s baby sister resting in one arm. The baby has reached down to attach herself to a breast and suck at the long nipple that has already fed many others.

Jonah, water, she says, seeing his open eyes.

Jonah sits up on the mattress stained with the sweat and pee and blood of his family. He slides off the bed, avoiding the kick Elijah aims at him once their mother has turned away. He has slept in the clothes he wears during the day: an orange T-shirt of his father’s that comes down to his knees and is ripped at the shoulder, and a pair of shorts made from a brother’s old school trousers. He steps through the room where his mother has slept with the baby and his two older sisters. His father is not there – he is a soldier and does not come home often. He has only seen his new daughter once.

Jonah goes outside, where his mother is crouched by the dead fire, clearing away ash with one hand while the other cups the sucking baby. Jonah disappears behind the bougainvillea bush to pee. Then he picks up a plastic water container, tucks it under his arm, and heads up the path that leads through banana trees to the road.

When he passes Celeste’s house, no one is outside. They do not get up as early as Jonah’s mother. Perhaps by the time Jonah returns with the water, someone will be awake.

At the road Jonah joins a string of children walking with empty containers to the well at the edge of the village. On the other side of the road children are walking back with full containers balanced on their heads, neck muscles tense, eyes fixed on a spot in the middle distance. Jonah has only recently learned to carry water on his head. His brothers taught him, using rocks in the container rather than water. He is especially careful when he is walking back from the well along the road – this is an important job and he would be ashamed to drop the container in front of others.

It is still cool – the sun has not yet pulled above the surrounding hills. Jonah shivers. Working his free arm out of the T-shirt sleeve, he presses it against his body. His toes dig into the packed red earth, searching for warmth. In a few hours it will be so hot that he will be looking for shady patches to step in to keep his feet from burning.

On his way back from the well, Jonah sees Celeste’s brother Dieudonné building a fire in the cooking shelter next to their house. I have to work today, he calls to Jonah. Can you stay with Celeste?

I will come after I eat, Jonah says. He always says this – his mother has told him to. She does not want Dieudonné giving Jonah food when he has so little himself.

Jonah hurries back with the water. His brothers and sisters are up now. Elijah and Ezekiel have put on their khaki-coloured school uniforms and are sitting near the fire, watching their mother stir the pot of thin porridge she makes from manioc flour each morning. Grace is bringing out red cups and a green basin for washing. Immaculée is sitting with the baby in her lap. Both girls wear ragged blue and white checked dresses.

Jonah squats next to Elijah. I’m staying with Celeste today, he says to his mother. She looks up from the pot and fixes her eyes on him, all the while stirring. She looks as if she is going to say something, but stops herself. She picks up the pot and pours a bit of porridge into each cup, then nods. Go on, she says. Each child takes a cup and drinks.

Jonah is still hungry after he finishes eating. He is always still hungry. When his mother hands him two bananas, though, he knows not to eat them now – he and Celeste will have them later, when they need them.

Immaculée will bring you something at noon, his mother says. Jonah nods and starts up the path again, leaving his sisters to clean up while his brothers gather wood for the fire before they go to school. Jonah is not yet old enough to attend school. He hopes his mother will send him one day, but she will have to find the money to pay for his uniform and books.

When he gets to Celeste’s house, she and her brother are eating. Celeste is several years older than Jonah, though she is not much bigger than him. She cannot hear; she cannot speak. Sometimes she has fits. A year ago she had a fit and fell in the fire, scarring one side of her face.

She has been Jonah’s friend for as long as he can remember. He squats next to her now and watches her slowly drink her manioc porridge. Dieudonné is finished long before her and waits impatiently, poking twigs into the fire and drawing lines in the ground with his big toe. He is much bigger than his sister – almost a man – and healthy, with shiny black skin and white teeth. Celeste’s skin is lighter, and pocked with pimples. Her teeth are yellow and crooked, and a few are missing. As brother and sister they do not look alike, except when they are angry – then their necks stiffen and their jaws set in the same way.

Perhaps one resembles their mother and one their father. Jonah doesn’t know – the parents have been dead for longer than he has been alive. Their father died in the war, their mother in childbirth, along with the baby.

Celeste still has not finished her porridge. She takes a sip, then sets the cup down and looks around, smoothing her dirty white skirt over her knees and adjusting the neck of her T-shirt. Jonah knows she is taking her time with her food so that she will have a few more minutes of freedom.

Dieudonné works in the fields, and it is easier to work in the early morning before the sun gets too hot. Hurry up, Celeste, he says, even though she can’t hear him. He slaps her arm and gestures towards the hut. Finish now. I have to go.

Celeste pulls her arm away and turns from her brother. She continues eating, a little faster now. She reminds Jonah of a dog protecting the scrap of food it has managed to scavenge.

Dieudonné pulls her arm. Celeste jerks it away again and makes a growling noise in her throat, the prelude to a guttural scream Jonah hates. Though she cannot talk, she is able to communicate with certain sounds.

Before she can launch into the scream that will announce how much she hates the day ahead, Jonah pulls a marble from his pocket. He found it the day before, embedded in the red clay path leading up to the road. Look, he says, and holds it up in front of Celeste’s eyes. It is light green, with a leaf of darker green swirled through it. Celeste grabs for it, but Jonah is quicker and snatches his hand away. Come inside and see it, he says, standing up and moving backwards towards the door of the hut. He holds the marble out as an enticement, like a tidbit to a dog. Celeste unfolds her skinny legs from under her and gets up, her anger already dissipated.

Jonah steps backwards into the hut, though he hates to move from the cool, fresh morning air to the dark, stale heat of the hut, hot even before the sun has properly risen. He would rather not be in here; nor would Celeste. But there is no choice, after what happened.

When Celeste has followed Jonah inside, Dieudonné goes up to the door. See you later, he says. Close the shutters if anyone comes. Then he shuts the door, and Jonah hears the key turn in the lock. Celeste cannot hear it but she knows what her brother has done. A low whine escapes from her.

Here, Jonah says, and thrusts the marble at her. Celeste takes it and pushes past him, moving from the dark front room to the lighter back room, where the shutters are partly open. She sits down on her bed and holds the marble up to her eye, gazing through it at the light from the window. Jonah sits next to her. Green, he says, though she can’t hear him. He wonders sometimes if it’s possible to teach Celeste to talk. One day he tried by repeating his name over and over to her so that she could see how his lips moved, and put her hand on his throat so she could feel it vibrate. She moved her lips, imitating him, but it came out sounding like a baby babbling.

Jonah looks out of the window at the eucalyptus trees in the distance, the sky behind them turning a brighter blue now as the sun rises. Pillowy clouds hang like laundry behind the trees. There is no breeze. It will be hot today. Jonah dreads the close, stifling heat of Celeste’s home on a hot day.

Celeste has had to be locked in the house since last year. One day she was left alone outside, and when Dieudonné came home early from the fields he found a man on top of her. The man ran off before Dieudonné could catch him. That day Jonah had been helping his mother sell lenga-lenga in the market. He stopped off on his way home to find Celeste whimpering in a corner of the cooking shelter while Dieudonné raged around the hut, kicking stools and slapping his hands against the doorway. There was blood on Celeste’s skirt. Jonah’s brothers later explained to him why the blood was there.

Since then Dieudonné has not left Celeste alone at the house. A cousin sometimes comes over and stays when Dieudonné is in the fields. Occasionally he has taken her to an old woman up the road. Once he took her with him, where she sat in the shade while he worked, but the other men didn’t like her being there. People say she brings bad luck and will ruin the crops.

If he has no other option, Dieudonné locks her in the house while he is out, putting Jonah in with her. The first time they were locked in together, they investigated every corner of the two rooms, jumped on the bed, and ate all of the bananas Dieudonné had been storing. The next time Dieudonné shut them in Celeste shrieked herself into a fit. She made so much noise that neighbours had to go and fetch her brother.

Jonah pats his pockets, where he has stowed the bananas. He is tempted to eat one, but doesn’t. To distract himself from his demand-ing stomach, he goes into the other room and switches on the radio. A Congolese band is playing a lively song. In the dim light of the front room, Jonah studies the walls, which are plastered with kung-fu cards Dieudonné has collected over the years. Oriental men wearing red or black or white robes and posing in martial arts positions are repeated hundreds of times around the room. Jonah imitates some of the positions, hands up to protect the face, feet kicking in a variety of ways.

The DJ comes on the radio and begins to talk. Jonah switches it off. He has to be careful with it – once he listened to the radio for the whole day, ran down the batteries and made Dieudonné angry. Now he only listens when there is music he likes.

Jonah goes back to Celeste’s room. She is lying on the bed now, still holding the marble up to her eye. Jonah lies down next to her. Celeste rolls the marble up and down the ridge of her nose, then holds it against the tip with one finger.

Let me try that, Jonah says, and grabs the marble. Celeste doesn’t try to get it back. Jonah and Celeste rarely fight. They have a whole day to share the marble. There is so much time to fill that they don’t need to fight over it.

Jonah knows the room almost as well as his own. It is papered with old newspapers and magazines, mostly too old and stained to be legible, if Jonah could read. The floor is made of packed dirt. The window has shutters painted chocolate brown years ago and now flaking in satisfying chunks that Jonah likes to pick off. There is no furniture apart from the bed and a chair with a broken back.

The only decoration in the room is a bare light bulb that hangs from a wire over Celeste’s bed. Jonah lies back and fixes his eyes on the bulb. Dieudonné put it up the day after Celeste got sick from being locked in the house all day. It is not screwed into a real light socket, but hangs from a wire wrapped around it. The other end of the wire is attached to a roof beam. When Jonah asked why he’d put it up, Dieu donné replied: For fun.

Celeste could not say anything about the light bulb, but once it was up she never had another fit in the house.

Jonah often lies on the bed and watches the light bulb. A few shops in the village have electricity, and he has stared at the lit bulbs, bright spots dancing in front of his eyes afterwards. He doesn’t know anyone who has electricity in their home, however. Some houses have it, but not where Jonah lives.

Sometimes he shuts his eyes, making the wish that when he opens them, the light bulb will be on, and he and Celeste will be able to see in the bright room even when it is dark outside.

Celeste has stopped playing with the marble and left it on the bed between them. Jonah picks it up and begins playing his favourite game: he tosses the marble up and tries to hit the light bulb – not too hard, for he doesn’t want to break it. Normally he plays this with a bit of wood, but the marble is much better – the tink of glass against glass is a satisfying sound.

Celeste watches him. He hits the bulb twice. After a while he lets her have the marble. She aims at the bulb but throws it at a slant so that it goes across the room and Jonah has to retrieve it. She tries a few more times but doesn’t hit the light bulb.

They stop, and lie still. Soon Jonah can tell from Celeste’s breathing that she’s asleep. He gets up and stands in the window, looking out at the bright day. He could climb out of the window, push the shutters closed, and go off into the fresh air, to his freedom.

Jonah picks at the peeling paint on the shutters. Then he shuts and bolts them, making the bedroom dark and hot and still. He lies down next to Celeste and sleeps.


* * *


Jonah, Jonah.

Jonah wakes to his name and a light knock on the shutters. He and Celeste have managed to sleep away the morning. The room is as hot as if a fire has been lit in it. Jonah pulls the bolt and opens the shutters. Immaculée stands outside the window, holding two bowls of haricot beans, rice and lenga-lenga. She hands them to Jonah, who sets them on the bed. He shakes Celeste’s shoulder to wake her. She sits up, blinking, then smells the food. She grunts and takes one of the bowls, and she and Jonah begin to eat with their fingers. Immaculée steps closer and leans against the windowsill, watching them.

When they have finished, Jonah hands the bowls back to Immaculée. She holds on to them but remains leaning against the sill. Celeste sits on the bed and picks up the green marble to look through it again. Immaculée and Jonah gaze out at the eucalyptus trees, and the clouds beyond, which have changed since the morning. Now they resemble horses galloping.

I have to go and look after the baby, Immaculée says at last. Mama wants to go to the market for more rice.

Bring the baby here, Jonah says. He does not want Immaculée to go. As long as she stays he feels normal, like he is just a boy standing at the window of a house, talking to his sister, instead of being locked inside.

Immaculée shrugs. I have a lot to do.

She leaves, picking her way among dry banana leaves and twigs and hot ground. Jonah watches her until the blue and white checks of her dress are gone.

This is the hardest part of the day, now that Immaculée has left and there is nothing to look forward to until Dieudonné’s return in the evening. Time moves very slowly now. The sun seems to be glued fast overhead. Jonah wishes Celeste could talk. It would make the hot, still afternoon hours go by more quickly.

He switches on the radio. Bob Marley is singing: Don’t worry about a thing/Every little thing is gonna be all right. Jonah wanders around the room, touching the wall in time to the music. He has no idea what the words mean, but he loves Bob Marley. After the song ends, a Congolese band plays, then a Kenyan band, then at last a Burundian band. There are few Burundian bands, and Jonah is always happy to hear one on the radio.

After the song finishes he turns off the radio and sits on Celeste’s bed again. Celeste makes a low whine. Jonah watches her to see what she means, for he is not always sure how to interpret her sounds. She looks out of the window and whines again.

Jonah reaches into his pocket and pulls out the bananas, handing one to Celeste. Usually he saves them for later, but it seems to help now, for she grunts and stops whining. They eat the bananas. Jonah lies back on the bed, tired from the heat. Celeste sits in the window and looks out, swatting at a fly that buzzes around her face. Jonah fixes his eyes on the light bulb, and then he is asleep.


* * *


He is dreaming that a dog is whining, then growling, and finally calling his name.

Jonah. Jonah.

Jonah wakes. He sits up and looks around. Celeste is still sitting in the window, staring out. She is moving her lips and using her throat at the same time and the sound that emerges is as close as it will ever get to being his name. Jonah comes over to the window. Celeste grips his arm and looks at him. Jonah, she says in her way, and looks out again. Jonah follows her eyes, past the banana trees, to the eucalyptus trees. The clouds behind them have disappeared.

A man is standing by one of the trees, his body partly hidden behind the trunk. He is wearing shorts but no shirt, and he is just standing there, staring at Celeste. Jonah has never seen him before.

He has sometimes wondered if it is necessary to lock Celeste inside when no adult can stay with her. Is she really in danger? he has thought. Now he knows. This is the man. Jonah has only ever pictured his back, imagining him on top of Celeste. He has never thought about his face. He stares at him. The man has angry eyes.

No one moves. Celeste is gripping Jonah’s arm so tightly he wants to cry out. He does not remove her hand, however. Jonah, Celeste continues to say softly. Jonah. Together they watch the man, who remains by the eucalyptus tree. Jonah wonders if they will be frozen like this until Dieudonné gets back. That won’t be so long now. The sun has at last come unstuck and is moving slowly down the sky.

Then the man steps behind the eucalyptus tree and is gone. Celeste and Jonah watch from the window for a long time but he does not reappear. Celeste gradually eases her grip on Jonah’s arm until at last she lets go. She leaves the window and sits down on the bed, making the low whine in her throat that is no longer Jonah’s name. Jonah wishes he still had the bananas to give to her. He leans out and pulls the shutters closed. When he bolts them, Celeste stops whining.

The room is dark now except for a thin strip of light where the shutters meet. Jonah does not like to close them unless he and Celeste are going to sleep, but they are safer now, though darker and hotter too. They lie down on the bed again, though Jonah is no longer tired, for he has slept much of the day, and the fear from seeing the man is still pinching him awake. He gazes up at the light bulb, seeing only a dim outline in the dark.

Celeste sniffs. When she sniffs again, Jonah knows she is crying, something she has never done in front of him. He reaches over and takes her hand, squeezes it tight, then laces his fingers through hers. She continues to sniff, and for a time the bed shakes with her quiet crying. Jonah holds on tight to her hand. After a while the bed stops shaking, and the sniffs stop, and she sleeps.

Jonah does not sleep. He keeps vigil, listening to Celeste’s breathing, and to the sounds outside. He listens for the man, for his sister Immaculée, for Dieudonné. No one comes, and Jonah feels as if there is no one left in the world except for him and Celeste in this dark, hot room, drifting through the silent day.

Jonah’s eyes must have closed for a moment, for when he opens them, the light bulb above him is lit. He stares at it. Look, Celeste, he says, even though she does not hear him. He blinks, and sees then that the light from the bulb is not the white electric light that burns patterns in his eyes, but a soft red glow from the sliver of sunset that has sliced its way between the shutters.

Jonah watches the bulb, Celeste still asleep beside him, until the red glow fades and he hears at last the turn of a key in the lock.


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