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Ya Milango

M

asomakali sneaks to the gas station. In his pocket is a one-thousand shilingi bill, which should be spent on the old woman, but instead, he spends most of it on cigarettes. Safari cigarettes – king size filters – with the giraffe at the gallop.

Out the back of the station, he rips off the cellophane with some difficulty, pops the little paper seal, folds open the foil, and gets a stick between his fingers. It feels tinder dry, like the surrounding bush. Another reason to be careful. One puff. Chokes. Eyes streaming. He doesn’t feel quite as cool as the boys down at the weigh station. But that can only be a matter of time, right? The smoke transforms in flavours and scents; from something spicy and foreign, to something oily and acerbic.

Unable to finish the evil thing, he juts it out on a stone, licks fingers with saliva and smears out the end, still warm, and pops it in his handkerchief – the one that Doto demands – so as not to contaminate the box.

Then it’s a three mile walk down the dusty highway, with Doto’s groceries – all the delicious things you can get from a garage so far out in the bush. A grey-throated spurfowl hangs out of the sling basket, blood around its eye, claws like fists – road kill from a flat-wheeled mine truck – and a brace of sweet cassava root.

Along the way, the school bus rattles by. The girls wave, but as ever, he’s unsure if it’s mockery or commiseration. Just one kiss. He gawps at their round lips and long limbs. The yellow behind of the bus bounces seductively away, and then the dust cloud hits him like a drought.

When he pushes aside the screen door, Doto calls, “You ain’t seen that old door have you? Maso? You ain’t?”

“That’s right, I ain’t,” he calls back. ‘Course he hadn’t even looked.

“Well, you took an age. Thought you’d gotten your bony behind crushed like that fowl. Good boy. Get it to the meat safe. And come read me. Shoes off. And what’s that smell?” There is a note of suspicion.

“Nothing mama,” he drawls sarcastically.

“I ain’t your mama. Don’t go sayin’ that.”

The fowl, the smoke; Doto sees everything, like she’s looking down from the sky.

Maso’s legs are coated in dust. Behind him is a luxurious trail of footprints; he can even make out that scar on his left, big toe. If Doto was fitter, wasn’t dyin’, she’d be up scooping a handful of bush-herbs round his feet, stopping him from tracking all that muss round the place. But as she is dying, he can do whatever he likes right now. As long as he’s quiet about it.

He drops the heavy stone off the ewer, waves away a fly and pours.

Then along the passage, the boards pulling the corrugated iron this way and that; creeking and crunking. The heat of the overlapping plates grazes his right elbow and cheek.

There. Doto-the-old. Sprawled on the bed, like an old pair of bellows, stuffed with shit, spit and sticks. Is she eighty? A hundred-and-eighty? It has been twenty-nine days and about six hours, maybe.

He stares at her blank eyes, which are as cloudy as river water. A chink of sunlight has slipped between the weathered daub of the wall, in which the dust of her parched skin dances, drifting onto her shift, while her grasping fingers, clench and unclench – long-boned and light – knuckles and skin scaled like the leg of a bird.

“You betta’ be staying away from them young ladies, Maso,” she says.

Maso starts, and almost drops the bowl of water.

“Bring that here.”

Maso has to support the bowl with two arms under its base, so as to keep it from dropping. It’s heavy – made from ugly, thick clay – though its surface is as wide as her face. That’s why she likes it, so she can get ‘a full appreciation’, at midday, midnight; various hours in between.  ‘Come read me’ means ‘bring the mirror’. Maso tries to ignore the gaunt, wide-eared shadow that is his own, as it slops around in there. His boxy throat juts out, bobbing like the water. He is, after all, a gangly, boyish sixteen.

When Doto looks down at her reflection, hand to her pursed lips, fingers of her other hand turning and pushing through her silver hair – as arid as an African summer, fading to threadbare on the top of her rocky skull – he can see a certain moisture around her eyes.

“Oh, Maso. I gotta find that door.”

Though it’s not the door she wants. Not really. It’s what lies beyond: the God Woman.

For me or for you? he wonders. Best not say nothin’, or she’ll be off, again.

Doto says the gods here squabble like old men. She says that with flecks of spittle, when she gets towards the goat-end of the month.

Doto has different gods; that paddled and walked with her on that long journey from Madagascar. She kept them in her mother’s old Minkisi, the long-limbed, wooden figures sealed with mud and mirrors. She sees her gods in the shadows; in the green shadows that fall through banana leaves.

He cannot forget that.

But was this – this oldness – was this what she’d been expecting with the bargain she’d struck? It must have been the smell of the rain that did it: too many fresh ideas; a promise before the drought.

When he had asked her as to the nature of that conversation, she had said, “It wasn’t really a conversation. More, a decision. She just seemed to know.”

“What?”

“Who I am. How it works. How it all works.”

Maso had shrugged again, miserable.

Doto sighed. “I didn’t want to be like the banana tree no more. I didn’t want to grow old. I don’t want you to grow old. You know that.”

“And children?”

Doto had blown out between withered lips, a snaggle tooth whistling.

“They’ll have to wait.”

And so they would. She had been left as barren as a hot, tin roof.

Maso shakes his head, watching Doto’s reflection shimmer. The irony of her perpetual ‘youth’ is not lost on him. Oh no, not at all. Now she is always growing old, in body and spirit, with just a month to do it.

That had been the beginning of his disgust: the heart-smothering heat, thinking more in terms of her perpetually dying, rather than being particularly blessed. If anything, he now understands why the women and men of those first Malagasy tribes had chosen to be like the damned banana palm. Like everyone else.

He frowns at his wife, overwhelmed by that feeling of change, and that strange lunar rhythm their lives have become.

But still, amazingly, she won’t admit defeat.

When he tells her, he doesn’t want to join her no more, not in the dust, not in no stupid doorway to the other place – as he has already told her many times, before – Doto shakes her head, still defiant. “No one should want to die.” Her dry lips compress. “If I don’t want to, I don’t has to.” She throws those stick-like arms into a fold and stares angrily out through the slatted window, her mood matching the heat in the dusty room.

A bird tink, tinks along the pitched roof of corrugated iron. A faint stain of rust settles on her shift.

Outside, Maso pours the bowl onto the verdant squash growing in their pots. By all rights they should be dust, but it’s all that water he pours out here at the odd hours – every mirror surface fresh for her each time – that makes them grow like a sprawling suggestion of hope. Like maybe, the fresh water is going to show her something different, something she doesn’t already know, some different part of her. She’s obsessed with the changes in her stupid face.

When he’s back inside, bowing and scraping – water-scoured tracks across his dusty fingers, ribbed from the clay bowl like the wandering path of a snake – Doto says, “I only got a day. A day half. Now you go do the chores: the knotted cord on the door; the feed for the goat – none of the thorny stuff. Char that bird.”

The things the old woman cares about are all knotted up with age. The young girl cares for none of this. But she’ll still put him down: knows too much. Far too much. Though sometimes she can be fun. Might like him smoking. His brow knits. Probably not. Or at least, not for long.

Doto says, that there’s an old door out there on the veldt – caught between the iron hammer of the noon-day sun, and the cracked earth – that leaches moisture straight out into the air. And right where it has no right to be, a seedling, fat with life and light. Found it once. Never again. But she keeps looking, though. And gets Maso on the hunt (when he’s not begging off or deliberately going to school, just to spite her).

Of course he hides. She wants him to come with her. But he knows that calling down the powers means nothing is the same way twice. One curse is one thing, but if she gets fixed with a second, and he gets something along with her, whose to say that they won’t be even more miserable? Knowing his luck, he’d be a green beetle, and she’d be a long-beaked bird fixed to snapping him up, or she’d be a gape-toothed croc, and he a fish, and so on in grim cycles. Trapped forever.

A night and part of a day passes.

She kicks him mercilessly in her sleep. If she does dream about him, she must think he’s a dog.

Yeah, well, Doto dies as usual. He doesn’t find the door, despite half-heartedly scratching around in the dust with a sharp branch, and knocking on a few baobab trunks, and listening to the hollow knell of their water stores.

There is only a delicate waking; moving a spidery corpse limb off himself so it won’t break.

He drags Doto out of bed with his arms under her arm pits, trying not to inhale that old-lady smell of her; of stale sweat, strange fruity odours and cooking fire. Wraps her in the sheet, or she’ll give him hell, then drags her out, heels bouncing on the baked ground and under a tree. Shovel then. It’s midday. Nobody sane should be out here digging. But the old woman has got to be buried. The blade plinks off hard-packed ground, as unyielding as concrete. Sweat beads just thinking about it. Gotta be a fresh hole, though.

Digging and scratching. Scraping and moaning. Stupid damn hole. Stupid damn Doto. ‘Course if he’d just gone with her in the first place… “Shut up Doto,” he says. That bundle of windings and ripe limbs is probably thinking that stuff straight into his head.

At some depth, carefully calculated to be just deeper than hyena, just shallower than heat-stroke, he drops her in with a puff of dust and starts shovelling the aggregate back in.

Was a time he had tears in his eyes, and white lilies from the river, and had lots to tell her that he’d never said. Now it was all something to say tomorrow, and most of it no longer true. Couldn’t help it. But just ’cause you can’t see the moon during the day, don’t mean it’s not still up there.

That night he does the stuff that he doesn’t tell her about. Gets up, gets dressed. Pulls out that second-hand suit he bought from the station, that make him look like a diamond miner – admittedly from the 1970’s, with its wide lapels, but still – and unpacks that packet of cigarettes, ready for that image of the boys from the shacks, tapping out one cigarette like a finger (something he practices), and a dark-haired, dark-skinned beauty taking it between fingers and lips. Fire flares from a gold lighter, snaps shut, she leans back with a satisfied nod, and they get to talking. Normal. Just like that. Not tellin’ him to go get the water; go get the messages; go find the door. Goddamn, that old woman.

So a night passes, and it’s not one he’s proud of – even though it might have been fun at some points, it still felt like he was cheating on her.

And when dawn comes, he staggers back, neatens up his suit, throws away the cigarette box (three left, though still unable to tap out that solitary one) and pushes through the swing door.

Doto sits at the kitchen table. Beautiful. Gob-smackingly beautiful: dark hair tumbled down to her waist, black as cave-light, eyes like honeyed ivory. That old shift has gone. A new one, a gift from wherever, is a fine damask, white as milk, through which her firm curves are more than suggested.

“Hello,” she says.

“Ha,” he gasps, words caught in his throat.

Every time as the month bears on, he convinces himself that this isn’t worth waiting for, and every time, she proves him wrong.

It was this way. It was this way, before. On the first day.

Doto smiles a smile that sends him staggering to the table, to sit with broken legs, and she leans forward, face glowing, and he almost, instinctively, reaches out to take what’s in her hands, because she moves them forwards cupped and cupped over. Her eyes say, make a wish, and there is a chill in his heart as he looks down, and her thumbs pull aside, and he sees a handful of dust as white as bone, as dry as hot metal, and in its centre is a green shoot that has no right to be there – so green and verdant with life, that it’s hard to look at.

“I found it,” she murmurs.

Ya Milango. The door.

She might just as well have slapped him with the shovel.

 

April 29, 2011   6 Comments

The Old Woman Who Eats Kids

OldWomanPicture The Old Woman Who Eats Kids

I

started a myth today. I told my friend Elwood about the old house you can find if you walk up the hill and out of our town and keep walking for a few miles, where, on the right-hand side, along a line of trees, you’ll see an old house next to an overgrown orchard. If you walk there, you find a lake amongst the trees, with a sluice that is nothing but corroded machinery, and the house itself which has empty windows, and doors, and is full of tumbled plaster; and the orchard, where damsons grow, yellow and sweet, if you care to harvest them as summer turns to autumn.

I drew the house – it was similar to one I discovered next to my own home village – and I gave Elwood the picture.

He asked, “Who is the old woman in the window?”

I pretended to be surprised, and said, “Eh? What woman?”

Of course, he pointed, and we both looked together – both, it would seem to him, for the first time.

There is a definite old woman in the far window. She is a blue smear, but she is there.

Elwood is thrilled by this ghost in the picture, and shivers. “That’s amazing! That old woman just appeared in your picture! We should give it to a museum or call Ghost Busters or something.”

I downplay this, a little, saying that there is a curse attached to the old place, and maybe that applies to the picture. “You aren’t supposed to go there, and you’re not supposed to take photographs.”

“But your picture is drawn in crayons,” points out Elwood.

“Yes, but, the old woman is there, isn’t she – in the picture.”

This circular logic is self evident and Elwood agrees to keep the mysterious apparition quiet; just between us. We don’t want to annoy the old lady; make her curse us. That would be really, really bad, we decide.

The next day, Laura asks me about the picture. Her best friend, Clara, was talking to Rachel, who got it from Neil, that Elwood said I had a haunted picture.

I sigh dramatically, and say I cannot show her the picture on account of the curse.

“Curse?” she says, eyes wide, nervously – but excitedly – turning the ball in her hands.

I tell her what I say Elwood told me. “At first, I didn’t believe it either.”

“Oh,” she says, looking around nervously, head bobbing, as if the old lady will come to school right there and then and take her away.

I am intrigued by this idea, so I tell her this happened at another school with a similar picture of the house: that a kid who looked at it – just like her – got kidnapped by the old lady.

Laura is too scared now to look at the picture. Faced with my theatrical fumbling at my satchel to find it, she screams and runs away.

She comes back five minutes later.

“Who drew it?” she asks, her head touching mine, as she examines the picture I have reluctantly produced – having had it ready all morning, waiting impatiently for someone to ask.

“I don’t know. Some boy I think; from another school.”

“The one who disappeared? The one who got taken by the old woman?”

“Maybe. That’s probably right.” I shake my head and bite my lip. “It would make sense.”

There is a picture, which, if you look at it, an old woman will come and take you away. The fruit in her garden is children’s heads – those are in the picture too.

My yellow damsons look a little like heads, I guess. Because that is what Laura tells Clara.

Some bigger boys come to ask me about the picture in the afternoon break, saying they think I made it all up; that stupid, magic pictures with ghosts in them don’t really exist. But they are furtive and keen to look.

I realize these older boys won’t believe the story if they see the picture. It is not powerful enough.

I tell them that the picture has vanished. I mean that I lost it. This is greeted with derision. One of them wants to search my bag, another to punch my face in, so I offer to tell them the story instead; of the old woman, as it was told to me by another boy. Not me.

This is met with immediate interest. I tell them they can’t tell anyone. They have to promise. They solemnly swear this, crossing hearts and hoping to die.

There is a woman who lives in an old house, on the outside of town, who has a garden of children’s heads and whenever one is ripe, she plucks it and eats it. And that same day, a boy or girl will be taken from school – kidnapped – but not one of the younger kids; one of the older ones, if they are naughty or punch faces.

“Kids just like you have already vanished,” I say. “Nobody knows where. She’s a cannibal…”

A boy one year down from me left to go to another school, but some kids think it was the old woman.

There is no picture now; she doesn’t need a picture.

Five kids came up to me today and said, they heard this story which is totally true about this old woman who comes to schools and takes children away and has a garden with kid’s heads in it, and she eats them! “We even found her house!”

When a new girl – Trinny – starts the same afternoon, she confirms this, saying that it totally happened at her old school, and two kids have already gone missing. “All they found were wet footprints – from the lake.”

December 3, 2010   20 Comments