Short Fiction ~ Rashmi Agrawal
First Prize, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 15
Mogambo is our code word.
Whenever my son, Ansh, digs his nose, my husband says Mogambo. If he bites his nails, we snap Mogambo. If Ansh says a bad word, we don’t tell him not to speak such language. We simply flick our code word.
Husband takes care to never yell the word. With all his love, he curbs his disgust and chimes in, his voice singsong. Not to scare the kid but to caution him. Hinting him to keep those fingers in his pockets, not to pick the booger, not roll the muck between his fingers, and definitely not play with it like a tiny pearl between those now-dirty pads of his fingers.
Mogambo has been our savior for one year now. Much earlier, when Ansh first pushed his little finger into one of his nostrils and scratched it badly, his nose bled. We explained to him, but our words spiraled down in vain.
Ansh was distracted. His eyes slipped at my scratched stomach; I realized it a little too late. So, I bent myself into an arched position, shoulders slouching, my tee-shirt now touching my pajamas, covering every inch of my belly.
After bruising the insides of his nose thrice in four months, he developed another new itch. Nail-biting. I was applying the second layer of concealer over the dark bags under my eyes when I noticed it. A red pinprick spot at the corner of his thumb. His cuticles were yet not disfigured, but the ends of his fingers were sore.
When he had first bitten them at the corners, we simply told him not to. But we had no choice when he chewed them off to expose the skin under his nails. Keeping eyes on Ansh became our duty, an obligation. Day in, day out. We vigilantly threw him sidelong glances at least a hundred times every day to make sure his fingers stayed where they should.
After a few months, we went for a day-long outing and stayed in a resort amid a lush vineyard abundant in red, green, and other grapes. Ansh loved the ambiance and picnicked thrice outside our tent-style room in a green corner. All his meals with nature. Husband and I remained inside the tent, its thick cloth-made door zipped tight.
Twice, Ansh had his picnics alone, eating sandwiches, doughnuts, or egg rolls from his picnic basket. The resort was safe and familiar. When I accompanied him during his last round, his eyes searched my face, scanned my arms, then stuck on my lips.
I tried to smile. He bit his nails again. I painfully pursed my chapped lips.
Later that night, we watched an old Hindi movie that had lots of kids. Ansh enjoyed it until the villain, Mogambo, turned up. His ember eyes, heavy voice, and cachinnation scared him. We never streamed that movie again. And Ansh forgot Mogambo with time.
Last year when he turned six, he somehow recalled Mogambo and asked about him. Husband explained: Mothers call Mogambo when kids don’t listen to parents, trouble others, and do pranks that they shouldn’t.
Ansh pointedly looked at my left arm. I stretched my sleeve down and then wrapped my arms around myself. He looked scared. So was I. And when his index finger slowly reached inside his nose, my husband whispered Mogambo for the first time. The code word worked.
With time, we’ve brought it into our routine, not to scare him but to remind him he is doing something he isn’t supposed to.
I murmur Mogambo when he dilly-dallies in muddy puddles, still wearing his white school uniform. He starts walking in a straight line, his fingers entwined around mine. He giggles.
Mogambo, I say when he picks out veggies—chunks of tomato, carrot, capsicum—from his food and throws them on the table. He notices the word if I stuff it in a rhyme and smiles with his eyes, aware of my trick. He catches the phrase if I fuse it in a lullaby. Yes, sometimes I sing to him as he has sleeping troubles.
I don’t like the word Mogambo when Husband says it. Whenever he needs to say our code word, Ansh has been scared. Ansh doesn’t like it either. If he had picked his nose or bitten his nails, he is scared, more for me than himself. He knows Mogambo is a villain.
Today, when Ansh enters our bedroom without a knock, Husband has to pull a sheet around himself.
Mogambo, Ansh shouts, his face turns red, and his eyes well up. His fists tighten at his sides, and tears roll down his cheeks. Husband was sure Ansh wouldn’t return from the playground this soon. He didn’t care to lock the door either.
Mogambo, Ansh yells again and comes closer. Husband’s belt falls while he dislodges himself from the bed and fumbles with the sheet wrapped around his waist. I wipe my tears, and he quickly exits the room, stumbling over the belt.
Mogambo, my son screams loudest ever in seven years. He caresses my cheeks and wipes off the tears on my blemished skin. His not-so-clean fingers move at the blue marks around my neck and then on my arms. It hurts a little. He hands me my robe and tissue from a drawer. I wipe the blood from one side of my mouth. He looks at my bruises one after another.
Mogambo, he mumbles while wrapping his arms around my neck.
Mogambo is not a villain anymore. It… he is my savior.
Mogambo is my safe word now.
Rashmi Agrawal lives in India and writes by a big window, enjoying the diverse seasons. Her words are available or forthcoming in Door is a Jar, Roi Fainéant Press, Alien Buddha, Inked in Gray, Dollar Store Magazine, Space City Underground, and others. Her short stories have found pages in various anthologies. She's working on her first novel, a psychological thriller. Nudge her @thrivingwordss.