The Last Sunny Day in November

by Gaynor Jones

They arrive. 

Rita steps down from the ramshackle truck to appreciative glances. Her sweat-licked legs peel out from frayed denim; flares cut into rough shorts with a knife when the heat hit her at the airport. The two boys hang back, used to being ignored. The only evidence they are hers is the slight roll of a stretch-marked stomach that peeks through her halter top as she lifts a backpack. This backpack contains their world now. Rita has sold everything else. 

At first, Rita is quite the woman in camp. Beautiful, hard working, righteous. But as the weeks pass and the promises dim, her new life becomes as mundane as the old one. In the field she begins singing the old-time slavery songs of her ancestors while she works. It’s as if she realises what she has done by coming here. 

When overtired, as she so often is, Rita talks about her past. She shoos her boys away as if they haven’t already heard it, haven’t already lived it. Rita says that she has brought her boys here, if not for a better life, then at least a better afterlife. In the yard, returning from yet another of the camp’s practice runs, she attempts ruffling their hair, puffed up by the heat, but her hand only hovers. Instead, she wipes away the remnants of purple liquid from the corners of their flat mouths, and then sends them off to play elsewhere. Despite the prayers, the lessons, the work, despite all she had hoped for in coming here, she still does not know how to be a mother. 

Towards the end of their stay, Rita’s curves have become jagged edges. After gorging in the first weeks, when consistent food (even this tasteless mush) was still a novelty, she now eats only tiny amounts. Instead, she shovels spoonfuls onto her boy’s plates. It’s a small change that does not go unnoticed by them. Still, their eyes are swollen and dull, too young for the strains she has put them under. They linger often outside her cabin, scuffed shoes kicking at the dirt while she entertains. 

But when Jim himself sends for her, as he does more and more, the boys step up. They take on Rita’s chores, tilling fields or hammering nails, while remembering times of fast food, graffitied parks and weekends with their father. 

One night, limping back from a rendezvous, she holds them close and talks of escape. They weep a little, cling tight to their mother in relief, allow the idea of a plan. But in the next weeks when the rumours start about guns in the jungle, and a box in the ground, they bury their hopes. 

On the last sunny day in November, Rita wears her cream cape-collared dress; Sunday best. She holds her boys by the hand, at last, as they walk together to join the main event. 

Later, when choppy helicopters soar overhead, the collar of her dress flaps around her face in the wind like trapped doves refusing to be tamed. Her boys are next to her, both smart in shirts and ties, despite the sweltering heat. She lays an arm across each of them in what should be a perfect tableau of motherhood. But she has given up on that. Given up on everything. The cameras span fields of fallen figures, piles and piles of them. But the lenses cannot zoom close enough to see the faces on the ground. Rita’s eyes have rolled back in her head. Spittle froths on her son’s lips. And none of them, despite what Jim Jones promised, look to be at peace.

Gaynor Jones is a writer and very tired mother from Manchester, U.K. She likes to write about bodies, weird stuff and, occasionally, otters.
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