Story By Stephen Mupoto.
A silky cloud lumbered somberly across the skies. I stood quietly in the shadows of my pain as the giant clock on the wall chimed. I craned my neck to face the wheezing sound of an exhausted kettle that sweated from the simmering water that had reached plus a hundred degrees Celsius. My grandmother lay with her back to the torn wooden sofa, the only valuable we had left after selling everything that we had inorder to settle court bills. I walked to the kitchen and switched off the gas knob before pouring the simmering liquid in a coffee mug. My granny loved coffee. She stifled as I handed her the coffee mug and she smiled in gratitude. The wrinkles on her skin flattened as she grinned. Her eyes were a blurry sandy brown coin with a few white grains that almost blocked her sight.
I sat beside her and looked as she slowly sipped the sweet coffee. She looked into the distant horizon and squinted her eyes. I could see she was drifting in thought to some distant place she alone could fathom. After what seemed an eternity, she cleared her throat and spat a mound of phlegm into her palms and rubbed them together.
"Tariro!" She started. I looked deeply into her eyes as they gyrated deep in their bony sockets. Her once rubicon skin had shrivelled like poorly tanned leather. She reached for a tiny black box and pressed a button before it yanked open.
"Yes gogo." I said as I drew closer to her. Her voice was beginning to occasionally trail off in the middle of a conversation. She has reached her twilight and had lived long enough to have seen everything life could offer. In our little crib, where we shared the final laps of our existence with an army of brute rodents that had destroyed most of our valuables, we sat and just watched as the day wore by.
"Take this piece of linen. It is the last of my treasures." She said and a flare appeared in her eyes. It was a spark that she dorned in her ageing eyes each time she retreated into her shell and coil herself in her thoughts. I looked at the piece of linen she called the last of her treasure and quietly frowned. This was the worst piece of linen I had ever seen. It was a multi coloured old garment which had dark seams and floral edges.
"Why do you keep this old relic gogo?" I asked, trying to figure out why she was so attached to the garment.
"That is the alimony your grandfather send to me when he disappeared into foreign lands a long time ago before you were born. He crossed some crocodile infested rivers and married another woman. I was scorned and betrayed and this is the token of our seperation. It is not just a relic but an emblem of my pain." She said and gulped the last contents in her mug. I could see a wave of melancholy creep into her eyes.
"Gogo, stop crying. I know it is painful. Is that why you gave me the name Tariro in the hope that grandfather would someday return?" I asked and wiped her tears with the back of my hands.
"Unfold it.' She instructed. I quickly unfolded the garment and a stained piece of paper fell onto my lap.
"What is this gogo?" She smiled and placed the mug on the rugged floor which reminded me of my mother. This was the very house her body lay in state before she was buried. In the periscope of my mind I could see her body lying on the rugged floor, her blood from the stab wound sinking into the cracks before forming a dirty clot. This was the very place she had mourned her daughter's untimely departure from the realm of the living.
"That is the missive that is a harbinger of my pain. You see the brown marks it adorns...yes those on the edges. Those are stains of my tears. I cried every day. Every cloudy morning or cold night heralded my pain. Nature consoled me at a time I had willed to die. That missive is written in your grandfather's handwriting and sealed with stains of my tears." She said as she bottled up her tears.
"Gogo, this is now water under the bridge. We have been happy throughout the seasons. We were like a pair of butterflies, always dancing in the rain. Life has taught us to be strong and remain united." I said.
"No my granddaughter. We have never been happy. We simply adjusted to our agonies and accepted the status quo. We lived a life of endurance and not happiness. Read through the letter and you will understand what I mean. My life is a candle flame that is blowing in the wind. When I finally transcend to the realm beyond, that linen will be your footing. It is a treasure you will always turn to in times of distress." She remonstrated.
"I do not understand gogo. What do you mean by that? Is this a magical relic?" I asked.
"Wait for the time. Time will tell." She said and blinked lazily. I quickly unfolded the missive and started reading. It was a novelty of grueling and heart wrenching words. At one point I stopped, tears casacading from my eyes. There was one part that captured my eyes more than any passage I had read previously and it read:
...the misfortunes of my family are a curse from your womb. The children you brought to thos world are a jinx that has eclipsed any prospects of happiness and progress. I do not bave much to say to you, but to tell you that this little box contains an alimony. It contains my shame and nakedness... The part read. I found myself shedding unbridled tears.
I neatly folded the letter and looked at my grandmother. She had fallen into a deep slumber as I read the harbinger of dark tidings.
"Gogo!" I said as I shook her. There was no response. I felt fear creep into me. She lay there silently. In her state of slumber, she was peacefully adorning grace, the mound of pain that used to overshadow her countenance had disappeared. I was a child, naive and innocent but I knew the pith of my happiness had crumbled. The very source of my light was blown by the winds of time and lumbered secretly into the realm of the spirits. I took one last perfunctory glance at her and closed her eyes.
"Rest in peace gogo." I said as a cloud of grief struck me with the ferocious weight of a sledgehammer. The phalanx of my soul broke into a thousand shards. I stood up and walked to the other side of the room and took a neatly folded blanket which I placed over her body. The symbiotic cord that had kept us close had been seized by the unforgiving death. The last I saw of her was a weak smile when she spoke of the linen. I looked at it one more time and pondered on what my grandmother had said. From nowhere and out of instinct I let out a shrieking wail. Pain had finally found a place in my heart and I could bottle it no more. I slumped to the floor and sobbed. There was no one to console me except the dark creepy walls around me. This was the very place where my mother died and my granny followed suit from the same setting of place. This was surely a jinx.
The giant clock on the wall kept shrieking as the second hand paced around to complete another minute. This was a new dawn. Her death marked a new beginning in my solo traverse through the wilderness of life. I had to carve my own niche to survive away from the beautiful comfort of my grandmother's embrace and the shadow of her love. I walked out of the cramped house to break the sad news to our neighbour, maSibanda, an ageing widow who had been my grandmother's friend.
It was after the burial of my grandmother that more bizarre incidents started presenting themselves in my path. I had to rrad again my grandfather's letter to granny and I realised that it was a key to some treasure I had never dreamt of. I was sure not even my grandmother understood the letter and the meaning of the linen she called her alimony. There was part in the letter that read:-
...after all I had done, and considered you jinx, the phalanx of my heart falters not. Th3 boxed linen is the key to your happiness. Never discard it because on the tag of its collar lies amswers to the mystery of my life and why I never returned...
I quickly took the linen and checked on the collar. There was a tag with an inscription Havana 43. I grappled to understand what it meant in respect of what I had read. This was another mystery that had been thrown my way. There was only one way to find out. MaSibanda had known this family for far too long and could be privy to some important family secrets. I had also gathered that she and her late husband had been close to my family for over five decades. I left my crib and walked to maSibanda's place and found her sitted under the apple shade. This was her favourite spot where she spend long hours brooding.
We exchanged banalities when I arrived at her place and made myself comfortable beside her. We talked a lot about the recent events and laughed until I asked her the questions that were burning inside my heart.
"Havana 43," she said and looked deep into the bright sky.
"Yes gogo." I said and stared deep into her face. I could see her drift down memory lane to uncover the nexus between my grandfather's letter and the linen.
"A long time ago," she started. "Your grandfather left in the wee hours of the night. My late husband was with him. When my husband returned after close to ninety days, he had sad tidings that your grandfather had vanished but had left a letter which he had to hand deliver to your grandmother. May her soul rest in peace. After a while, a mysterious linen was send to your grandmother as alimony and no one ever heard from your grandfather again. Havana 43 remains a mystery and I have never heard of it. I think you have to enquire about it on the internet I heard you can find anything there." She said with such finality associated with closed doors.
When I left, I resolved to uncover the Havana 43 mystery. I started my hunt for answers and what I found out was shocking Havana 43 was a crypt where 43 foreigners were slaughtered and buried. Of the 43 was Clayton Mupambawashe who was my grandfather and there was a Havana 43 museum adjacent to the crypt. I wasted no time and drove to the museum where I found Mrs Kate Gathry who took me through various documents relating to the 43 bodies interred in the crypt. This is when I encountered the shock of my life. My grandfather had led a group of 43 pioneers and established a large mining consortium and a transport conglomerate. The consortium was also called Havana situated at Number 43 Edmund Street. This explained what was in the letter. The missive that was the harbinger of my grandmother's pain had become a key to my happiness. I realised she knew about it but waited for time to teach me humanity in order to handle life and coexist with the less fortunate among us.
Short story by Stephen Mupoto
I stood transfixed to the spot as I watched the horror unfolding before my eyes. The raging inferno angrily bellowed as it towered above the grass thatch. I could hear the screams of the occupants as the roof collapsed inside followed by subdued groans and then silence. I could hear the crackling sounds of thatch poles and the smell of burned flesh and blood that boiled under the smoldering heat. I could not believe that my mother and two sisters had been consumed in the fire. I was not sure what had happened in my absence. I had deep suspicions that someone was surely behind this act of arson but I could not fathom who.
I took one giant step of brevity and walked towards the razed down rondavel. What remained were dark charred walls and a hoar of smoke that still engulfed the collapsed structure. This had been my crib for twenty five years. The only place I had called home and had provided me with a sense of identity regardless of the fact that it was dilapidated and had developed cracks all around its sad walls. It was built on a small piece of land that my father retained after a heated tiff with the village usurer. He had lost substantial land due to debt. He was a dipsomaniac who went about creating debts knowing that the family survived on a shoestring budget. Out of the miserly pittance my mother got from her menial jobs, she always ensured that there was food on the table and that we had something warm over our heads. On the contrary, my father would take the little she would have worked for and squander it all on a drinking spree. At times he would not return home until he had quaffed the last keg at the pub.
When I was young, I would helplessly watch as he clobbered my mother.
“You bear children as if they are some kind of grain that you would stock. Can’t you use contraceptives like any other women?” He would thunder, his fist raised in the air like a sledge hammer poised to descend on some granite.
“Pregnancy is equally your responsibility my husband. There is vasectomy why don’t you try it too? I am not prepared to have complications with my womb or my cervix in the future.” She would remonstrate as she huddled herself in one corner of the room for fear of being assaulted.
“You dare defy my commands woman! I regret ever marrying you. It was all accidental and had it not been for my parents’ pressure after I defiled you by the road side, I would have been free.” He would retort as fists flew and turn into thudding missiles on my mother’s fragile body. I would hear her snap under the enormity of the assault and buckle in total submission.
Her tears became an eyesore. They were what I used to see each day they had a scuffle over the cash he would have taken from the house to imbibe another frothy keg. He was a misogamist who had accidentally enshackled himself in an unholy union which he was compelled to keep due to fear of reprisals. Over the years, I watched my mother shrink into her shell, withdrawing into herself as each day was born and died. She became a valetudinarian with each passing day. The day she received the news of my father’s death, I could sense relief in her eyes. She was relieved of the burden of being at the receiving end and working for an ingrate kind of a husband who never appreciated her sacrifices and accumulated a lot of debts. She felt devastated at the same time because she had to carry a double cross to keep the turbines of our lives turning.
It was evident that the debts he had left behind were automatically transferred to her. I was also helpless to help her because my father’s excesses had pushed me outside the precinct. I had to become a vagrant, fishing out of people’s pockets. Over the years I became a medal worthy pick pocket and with what I got from my escapades I managed to give my mother and sister a decent life. I also paid off my father’s debts. My fortunes were watered by the tears of other people as I perfected the art of thievery. I had no problems with that because each had a trade he was qualified to undertake and my magnetic fingers were my reliable tools. I was also an artful dodger that I could evade the police with great ease.
Watching helplessly as my family was consumed in the conflagration made me angry. I could not bear the sight of their remains as they were taken to the crypt. Our journey together had come to an end leaving indelible wounds engraved in my heart. It was my task to find out what had happened to my family. There was a plausible explanation to the mystery that I was determined to find out.
After the burial of the last remnant of my family, I retreated into myself and became a recluse. Hanging around friends as I used to do became a thing of the past. I felt every person around me was a potential enemy and to keep myself from the wiles of beguiling man I had to be on my own and launch a clandestine enquiry into the mystery.
A few days after the tragedy, I made a bold resolve to step out into the world and hunt for my family’s killers. I had no idea where to start. I felt something nagging me to start from anywhere. I was sure my mother was going to guide me from her place of interment.
One wintry morning I left my crib for the pub. I knew this was one place that was ripe with raw information. I got to the waterhole and found a blind spot to kill the time in. I had bought a few beers on my way in and decided to perch silently as a solo and wounded predator on the long cocktail stools. My eyes darted from one end of the bar to the other and there was nothing amusing, possibly because it was still morning. I decided to leave. On my way out I spotted a strikingly exquisite lady sitting behind the bar counter. She was the bartender. I walked towards the counter and leaned against it. She rose from where she set to attend to me as was the norm that customers should be attended to promptly. I looked at a tag that was on her breast pocket and it read FUNGAI GWARA.
"Hi!" I started the conversation by a terse banality.
"I am good. What would you have this morning? Chateau, Don John, Whisky or brand?" She asked.
"Just a chat with you will do." I said and forced a feeble smile.
"What about?" She asked and turned to serve another customer. I observed her carefully and knew I saw her somewhere the night our homestead was razed down by an inferno. Possibly this was my starting point.
"I think I know you from somewhere. I saw you the other night in a black Mercedes-Benz with two men. I am forgetting their names." I said and casted a deep glance at her.
"When was that and where? I think this is a case of mistaken identity. I am always at work on night shift and have no time to gallivant away from my workplace." She said.
"Probably you are right. You have a striking resemblance with the lady I saw the night in question." I said and pushed a crispy five dollar note on the counter. This was the only way I could have a prolonged conversation with her.
"Do you drink?" I continued. She was silent for a moment then nodded.
"Yes I do. Only cidars, and nothing strong." She said.
"Make them two then. How about lunch?" I offered.
"I am sorry I won't be available." She said as she handed me a cedar and my change.
"Keep the change and buy yourself airtime. I hope I will at least get your number in case you will be free sometime." I said and smiled mischievously.
"Thanks but I do not have a cellphone." She said. I observed she was very evasive.
"Very well then. I will give you mine. Please call me anytime when you are free. I am Steve by the way." I said as I rose from the stool to leave.
"It's good to meet you. I am Fungai. I will surely give you a call." She said and walked back to the small room behind the bar. I did not wait for her return. I left.
A lot started playing in my mind regarding my earlier conversation with Fungai Gwara. Her face was strikingly familiar and she denied having been off work on the day in question. I had to find out the veracity of her alibi and to do so I had to ask around. I was sure people around the place were conversant with her routine and could be able to tell me whether or not she was at work the night my family perished. I was sure she knew something because she was with two unknown men in a black Mercedes Benz and I believed they were the culprits. It was however difficult to fathom why they had killed my family. In as far as I was concerned, I had no tiff with anyone but my father could have had enemies who would want to annihilate his remnant. I also felt I was lucky to have survived and there was also a high possibility that whoever was behind the murder was likely to come after me.
My mind zeroed in to our close relatives who had scrambled to partition his estate amongst themselves. It was also possible that some of them could have a very strong motive for elimination to avoid any possible litigation. This sounded more plausible but unsubstantiated. It was mere conjecture at this point. The task ahead of me was insurmountable. I had to make sure that I left no stone unturned regardless of the hurdles in my way.
When I got home, my mind drifted again. I started seriously thinking about the lady I had seen and snap flashes kept rushing back like a blow back flood. The thought was a turbulent I could neither resist nor surf through. The conviction which I had, regardless of her alibi, was sufficient to urge me towards finding a conclusive answer to the mystery around the deaths of my family members. As days wore by, I managed to glean some interesting but shocking information. My father's half-brother was behind the deaths and the lady I suspected was hired to create a cover. My uncle received information from Fungai regarding hired marksman who had no feeling when it comes to execution and these were the men in the black Mercedes Benz. To think that someone I looked up to as a father would be this heartless was not easy to swallow. On further investigations I almost paralysed at what I found out. The night before my mother and sisters were burned inside the house, she and my sisters were gang raped and to conceal the rape, my uncle burnt them alive so that his wickedness would not be exposed. I felt wounds opening inside my heart and a bolt of anger rising like a tide inside me. I had to take the law into my hands because I had seen how skewed the criminal justice system had become. I feared he might be arrested and later released on bail and that would consequently expose me to his arsenal. I had to tread cautiously because once a lion tastes blood, it stops not until there is no more prey to stalk. I was still cheese dangling on lethal bait.