Tamsyn Mystkowski + Charlotte Herrold

What is so funny

Text by Charlotte Herrold

On Thursday nights, after Grey’s Anatomy, the girls retreat to Vivian’s room and prepare for the weekend ahead. Vivian sits at the desk she has outgrown, painting her nails—this week she is alternating red and pink for Valentine’s Day—while Sophie is cross-legged on the bed, braiding her hair into two long copper plaits, one tucked behind each ear. In the morning, she will uncoil them, but her hair will keep their memory, falling in soft, uniform waves over her shoulders and down her back. The evidence of all this is displayed at the breakfast table, where Karen serves eggs—scrambled and poached—before driving them both to school.

Each week is the same. Locked inside Vivian’s room, the girls laugh, make plans for parties and movie dates, describe outfits, drown everything out with pop-punk, so that Karen, standing on the other side, with her ear pressed against the door, can only make out the occasional word or giggle. “What is so funny?” she wonders. She suspects that they are up to something, but she doesn’t know what. And she doesn’t go in. She cultivates the illusion of respecting her daughters’ privacy so that they might trust her with their secrets. But they never do.

The door stays shut and Karen returns to the living room, where the TV is still on and magazines are spread out on the floor. Her husband, still in the armchair facing obstinately away from the television, is reading the newspaper. He narrows his small eyes, making them look even beadier, blacker, soulless. She is standing right in front of him and he doesn’t look up. “I hate you,” she thinks, surprising herself with just how viscerally she feels it, and wonders how it came to this: feeling utterly alone in a house of four.

She collects the magazines into a neat pile and sits on the couch, leafing through each book, trying to discern something of her daughters’ private world from the dog-eared pages and half-filled out quizzes. “Which animal represents your man’s personality?” Along the margin, four cartoonish illustrations: a snake, a pig, a frog, and a bull. They haven’t done this one. She was certain Vivian had a boyfriend, but perhaps not.

She glances above the glossy pages at her husband and tries to think of what animal he would be. Stout, chinless, his long pink toes, his grey hair—he is very clearly a pigeon, she thinks. She pictures him strutting around, puffing his chest with that inflated sense of himself. How good it makes her feel to undercut that pride, to remind him of the lowly, universally despised creature that he is. She lets out a tiny laugh and he is finally stirred: “Hmm?”

Karen nods at the TV and he goes back to his newspaper, completely oblivious that she is now picturing Andre, imagining him as his animal alter-ego. His thin legs and strong body, his gentle face, his timid eyes hiding behind those slight frames. “A deer!” she almost yells out loud. She can hardly control her laughter. How funny it all is, how hilarious that still after eighteen months of it, her husband doesn’t suspect a thing. Andre, of all people, their neighbour! Who her husband is so sure is gay! How very ironic indeed that he ridiculed him, said “what kind of a man wears pink?” And how irresistible she found Andre in that very shirt her husband mocked.

She can no longer contain her laughter, it is spilling out of her, tears streaming down her cheeks and great big bellows rising from the pit of her stomach. She is writhing on the couch among Vivian’s and Sophie’s magazines, doubled over at just how funny, how comically unexpected it was when she confided in her daughters and they said nothing, but locked themselves away in that little room, among the furniture they had outgrown, painting their nails and braiding each other’s hair. And week after week, they never let her in. How funny, when she, after all, was the one who taught them how to braid.

Mercy


Text by Charlotte Herrold

The rooster called Mercy from her bed, though she hadn’t been sleeping for at least two hours. She grabbed her jug and ran down the dusty footpath, her bare feet slapping the parched earth. The sun was edging above the horizon, casting a warm pink glow on the same dung huts she passed every day on her way to the river. “Jambooooo!” sang Adla from a shadowy doorway. Mercy waved, stretching her arm behind her as she passed and didn’t look back. She sailed gracefully down the hill, skipping over sharp shrubbery and fresh dung, ignoring what was dry and already trodden into the ground.

She was the first one there; no bathers this early, no mamas washing clothes or cookware. Though they would arrive soon enough, she thought. She thrust her jug into the water, working her weight against its buoyancy, and watched it spit large bubbles from its narrow mouth. Slowly it filled with the opaque brown liquid and she felt her forearms pulling away from her elbows as it got heavier and heavier. She twisted on the cap and hauled the jug back over the water’s edge, where she stood for a moment, watching the river meander lazily around rocky protrusions toward the sun.

She hoisted the jug on to her back, stumbling while she adjusted the leather head strap and reconciled her balance to the new weight. As she started back up the hill, she felt a cool drip hitting the back of her legs. She would have to make at least three more trips, she thought. Adla was coming down now with two smaller containers to be filled. Her brother Robert, not far behind, was lashing a cow, trying to steer it around the cacti fence that separated their lot from the main footpath. “He works today?” Mercy said. Adla giggled, still walking, dark spindly arms swinging, a yellowed plastic jug in each hand. He glared at them, his narrow eyes, tight jaw, so serious—the scholar, they called him.

Halfway up Mercy stopped to give her neck a rest. Sometimes she wondered if it wouldn’t snap like dead wood under the strain. The sun was beginning to recover its intensity, climbing higher in the morning sky; she was sweating through the back of her shirt. She unscrewed the cap and pressed her eye against the rim of the spout, peering in at the water that looked like milky tea, trying to perceive how much had leaked. Not too bad, she thought. Maybe only two more trips today.

Two trips and then she would accompany her mother to Mulot where they would sell their small tomatoes and onions among vendors pushing samosas, shoes, school uniforms, swords. Later, when it was less busy, her mother would tell Mercy to go to the hotel and charge her mobile phone, while she stayed at their post trying to win the attention of the market’s final few shoppers. Mercy would start off in the direction of the hotel but she would run farther—zigzagging around people and donkeys and Datsuns—to the edge of the market, where The Blues Pub was. She would order a Coke and hand the woman the mobile and the fifty shillings her mother gave her. Then sitting at one of the blue paint-flaked tables, next to toothless old men drinking Tuskers, she’d watch the little TV—tuned as usual to the American station—and hope that her favourite video would come on, the one with the light-skinned singer and the dancers in silver dresses.