Short Story by Kondwani Kamiyala
I remember that particular Monday morning for it was at the month-end. I had just got my salary and had spent more than half of it settling bills, paying back debts and buying groceries at the weekend.
Each of the 20 teachers at Dzukani School has his own desk in the staffroom. Mine is at the far left of the room. Against the wall is my locker, where I keep my handies: a chalk box, notebooks, a coffee mug....
I loved my corner, for I could see everything that was going on in the staffroom with the least effort and without my presence being heavily felt.
That Monday morning, the Biology teacher, Mrs. Dithi, was chatting with Mrs. Chatha, the Geography teacher. Mrs Chatha was renowned among teachers and students for her tongue in cheek.
The two were talking about the engagement party they had been to on Sunday. One girl, who had been a student at the school some years back, was getting engaged to a reputable businessman.
"If you ask me, I found Millie's national wear disgusting and whoever plaited her hair needs some more lessons. Was there no way the braids could be kept in the doek?" Mrs. Dithi was presently saying.
"The problem was not her dress," Mrs. Chatha said in her high-pitch voice. "Her man was so gloomy I wondered what type of groom he will make."
The French madame, a dame who cared more about her looks than her character, exhaled noisily like an old witch. "For all that, would you be surprised that they raised only 20,000 kwacha when they spent 40,000 kwacha preparing for the event? What a loss!" she said.
I took the coffee mug from my drawer. A cup of coffee was all I needed to get on my feet.
As I walked towards the kitchen on the right hand side of the room, the phone on the desk near the entrance to the staffroom rung.
"It's got to be mine. The girl I met at the theatre festivals yesterday said she would call first thing in the morning. I am not taking any chances," a Chichewa teacher said, as he sped towards the ringing phone.
"Hello," he said cheerfully.
A brief moment passed, the _expression on his face changed from pleasure to disgust. I stood by the kitchen door, hoping it was not my call. I did not love to talk on that communal fixed line phone.
Joe Phiri, the Chichewa teacher, fixed his eyes on me.
"Yes, he is around," he said, and raised the receiver towards me, indicating it was my call.
I walked towards him, and took the receiver.
"Yes?" I grunted.
From the incessant hum, I could tell it was a long-distance call.
"Mr. Banda?" the man on the other end, whom I could not immediately place, said.
"Speaking," I said.
A few seconds passed, as if the man was recalling what he had rehearsed to tell me.
"I'm calling from your home village on behalf of your uncle," he started. "He says your aunt is critically ill. A drop of water separates her from death."
"My uncle ... auntie ... me?" I stuttered.
"Yes, your father's sister is very ill and she wished you came to hear her last words to you," the man said.
I lost grip of the mug I was holding in my left hand. It crushed to the floor.
The message was just as strange and blunt as the harbinger himself. In fact, messages of ailment and death must be passed on with the dignity they deserve for fear of buying coffins for the living.
The line went dead. Fellow teachers were raining their bewildered eyes on me. I replaced the receiver.
"What is it?" Mrs. Chatha, whom I called Mama, said.
"I ... er ... excuse me," I said, as I walked towards the headmaster's office.
The headmaster, an old, burly grey-haired disciplinarian allowed me to go off-duty for three days to visit my ailing aunt. In spite of his strict discipline on students and teachers alike, the fifty year-old man had a human heart.
"No matter how many degrees you may have, but if your behaviour is not exemplary, you are nothing," he used to say.
I decided to get aboard a night bus that would get me to my lakeside village in Mangochi. Night buses made journeys faster.
It was at 7:45PM that I as walking towards the bus station. I knew the last bus for Mangochi left the station at 8:00PM.
Traffic down the road was light and the kerb was deserted. It was getting dark fast.
Since that morning, questions had kept on flooding my mind: what was aunt suffering from? When I got to the village, what would be expected of me? Who was the man who called, and why did he forget the cultural obligation that messages of illness and death should be passed on with deference?
The bus station was just around the corner. When I turned the bend, and saw a bus coming my way. I hoped if it was for Mangochi, I should not miss it.
A placard on the windscreen indicated its destination: Mangochi. I jumped up, whistled and waved for the driver to stop. The bus halted a few metres from where I stood.
I ran towards the bus, opened the door and got in. The air in the bus was dank, and I felt a nauseating scent, as if some herbs were boiling somewhere within the bus.
The driver nodded at me. He even smiled, as if he knew me.
I walked down the aisle, to the chair in the third row on the left. I sat by the window.
My wrist watch indicated it was 8:00PM.
The driver revved the engine, and the air became even pungent, and dump. It made me feel sleepy. Soon I rolled into slumber.
Images began flooding my mind. First, I saw men, women and children running in all directions. Their hands were dripping blood, or some other scarlet liquid.
I shook my head and opened my eyes. I looked around at my fellow passengers, who were all dressed gloomy colours. Their faces were blank, as if they were in a trance, in some other world.
I took off the blue cardigan I was putting on, and hang it on the back of my seat. Without knowing it, I was back in dreamland.
The images were back. This time, four women were dancing chimbwinda, that initiation dance for girls who get pregnant outside the wedlock. In the middle of the dance was Tapiwa, a girl who had died after an unsafe abortion to get rid of the seed I had sown in her.
The elderly women sang obscene lyrics against Tapiwa and the man who was responsible for her 'sin'.
They danced in a circle around the stark-naked Tapiwa, whose waist was wrapped with dog intestines.
One of the women was my deceased mother. Sweat was glistening her heavily-tattooed body. She only had a cotton wrapper from her waist down.
She picked up a long knife from the ground and walked towards Tapiwa. She was ready to strike the younger woman.
"No-o-o-o-o!!" I screamed, only to hear my voice echo in the silent bus.
Beads of perspiration ran down my face, in rivulets. My heart was pounding hard, like women pounding maize in mortars using pestles. I convinced myself not to fall asleep again.
To keep myself busy, I looked out of the window. But I could see nothing, only pitch black and the bus seemed to be moving too fast for me to see anything at all.
I soon fell asleep again, making no efforts to resist the lure. This time, I saw myself seated on the golden beaches of the lake, with my dead father who was teaching me how to count.
"Penda, penda kuwiri, mwanangu, wan'siyira kansonjo.... You know these numbers as 1, 2, 3 and 4. You have forgotten to count in the ways of the village, as did your grandfather, my father. Why forget the maths of your ancestors for the maths of strangers. Blood runs deeper than sleeping waters my son. Njonjonjo, mbilingo, njoli, sasamela, khumi lagwa," father continued the count.
A voice woke me up from sleep. "Mangochi!" the voice announced.
I said a hasty yes, as I wiped my brow. I took my bag from under the seat, and started for the door, glad that the journey had come to an end.
I just had enough time to look at my watch, it registered 8:00PM, the time I had got on the bus.
As I alighted from the bus, hot air swept my face. I could hear, in the distance, little boys and girls singing. Their rhythmic hand-clapping, coupled with the beating of the talking drum, metals and melodious voices characterise summer nights in the lakeshore district. It is so hot during the nights, so much that being indoors is hard, what with the heat and mosquitoes....
I realised that I was the only passenger who had disembarked from the bus. I recognised also that I had forgotten my cardigan, but before I could turn around, the driver had already started the engine, and the bus vanished into the night.
I walked towards my uncle's compound, which was not far from the road. As I approached the compound, I could see a light burning from the kerosene lamp from within the house.
"Odi!" I said when I was at the entrance to the compound.
"Ehhhh! Kuno?" I heard my aunt's voice from the house.
I said yes and she came out. The moon shone on her face, and I could see it had aged a bit, but there was no sign of illness, let alone that she was next to death.
Her smile in the moonlight was just reassuring as I had always known it when I lived with her since my parents' death.
She helped me with the bag and walked towards the main house. I reluctantly followed, questions bogging my mind.
Although the light from the lamp was weak, I could still see the man at the table, puffing some cigarette. Those deeply-set, blood-shot eyes, flat forehead and a shining baldhead belonged to no other than my uncle.
"Welcome. We were just about to go to bed. But how have you come, we never heard your bus?" he said in his deep voice.
"I came by the last bus from Blantyre," I replied.
I had better questions to ask, as auntie had now gone into the kitchen to prepare me a meal. But something kept me aback. Children, my father had always said, should learn by observation, not bothering adults with questions.
It was late in the night that I was finally able to go to bed, which was a straw mat on the floor.
Tired and exhausted, it did not take me long to fall into the hands of Orpheus.
I woke up the next morning with a start. I could hear voices from the compound. I could not make out what they were discussing but when I heard uncle mention my name, my interest was aroused.
I walked out of the house into the compound only to see my uncle, aunt and a third man I could not immediately recognise.
In his left hand, the man was holding a blue cardigan, similar in make to the one I had forgotten on the bus the previous night.
"This is your uncle, my brother," uncle started. "He says he found this cardigan hanging in a tree near the graveyard. We thought it could be yours since non of the villagers can afford to buy something like this."
I took the cardigan and pulled it inside out. The address on the inside pocket was mine, and I recognised m handwriting.
"I did not know you had come last night, but now that you are here, come and see Thokozani, my daughter. She is now a grown-up girl who can make a good wife for you, a great son of our village, exiled in town," my other uncle said.
His voice sounded like the mysterious caller who informed me about my ailing aunt. And his smile, struck me as resembling that of the mysterious bus driver. I wonder.