Short Fiction by Kate Nkanza.
When the killers entered her house, Faith heard nothing. No one locked their doors in the village. Not even with the killers at large. The watchman, Chiya was the first one on the scene. He was feared by everyone who knew him. It was believed he had survived a lion attack. That was why her father had hired him to watch over the store, but he was no match for the killers, neither were her dogs.
Faith was shocked into wakefulness by the explosion. Fear sparking within, she sat up straight. Her room was dark. There was no time to think before the next explosion went off. It was much louder than the first one. She rushed out of her room which was at the other end of the house, separated by the gigantic lounge and dining room. Then she heard a high-pitched scream, and she was certain: the awful noise had come from her parent’s room. Her brother came rushing down the stairs to where she stood, rooted to the spot, and almost knocked her down.
‘What was that?’ Alec asked, coming to a sudden halt.
They stared at each other. Rattling sounds of footsteps jarred her from her frozen state. Outside, rain began to fall heavily, making shattering sounds as it hit the roof. The dogs began to bark. It was the first time she heard them barking that night.
‘I don’t know,’ Faith said. She heard voices, voices that did not belong to her parents. Their door was wide open. Lying on the bed in a pool of blood was her father. Her mother was on the floor, very still, so still that Faith thought she was dead until she saw her eyelids flicker.
‘Don’t come in here!’ Chiya shouted to them, but it was too late. Her legs felt numb, and she sat down hard on the floor. She felt hands lifting her. The workers and neighbours came rushing in. For a few minutes, she could not breathe. Alec wrapped her in his arms, and she closed her eyes tightly.
‘He’s not breathing,’ Chiya said.
A car pulled up. It was Dr Kennedy, her father’s friend. He stood in the doorway for a few seconds and then spoke. ‘Can everyone leave the room please?’ No one moved. Faith watched as he ran his hands through his thick brown hair. His eyes scanned the room and rested on her. ‘Where’s your grandfather?’ he asked.
Faith shook her head. She tried to speak, but no words came out. All she could think about was the blood, her father’s blood, and her mother lying on the floor. She had never seen so much blood in her life.
‘I’m so sorry about your dad,’ he said, his hands reaching out to pat her on the shoulder. She saw tears glistering in his eyes. Slowly, he lowered himself to the ground and placed his hand on her father’s still body.
‘I want everyone out of this room,’ he repeated, this time, more forcefully. One by one the people began to leave. ‘Who does he think he is ordering us around?’ she heard them mumbling.
Aunt Charity took her mother. She held her, to prevent her from falling. Her clothes were covered in his blood. Faith wanted to follow them, but her aunt’s eyes spoke volumes. She was squeezing them, focusing on Faith’s clothes disapprovingly.
‘Go and put on a wrap,’ she told Faith moving past her.
It had stopped raining. Faith had taken only a couple of steps before the wailing started. She couldn’t move her feet. Her knees wobbled violently, and something seemed to squeeze her throat shut. Slowly she walked to her room. Before long, the men and women were separated into two groups. Smoke drifted through the mango trees.
Her eyes lingered on the birthday cards on her dressing table; she touched the cross on the silver necklace around her neck. ‘You deserve something nice for your thirteenth birthday,’ her father had said to her just two days ago.
‘I don’t think she’s in there,’ she heard a voice say. Footsteps drifted away from the door, she closed her eyes and listened to the sounds of doors creaking, people singing. The wailing and singing continued through the night.
She was about to close her eyes when she heard the cockerel crowing and realised she had not checked on her Mother. Slowly, she opened her door and went outside. Her arms hung loosely at her sides. She watched the sky above the mango trees; the clouds drifted past. She saw her mother sitting under a cashew tree; her eyes cast to the ground. Faith didn’t take any steps towards her.
‘Give this to your mother, please. Try and coax her to eat,’ Mrs Chiya said placing a plate of millet porridge in her hands. She took it without saying a word. She dragged her feet towards her mother conscious of the eyes watching her every step. Her mother showed no sign of registering her presence or the hot food she was carrying. Her mother wore an expressionless look on her face. Faith sat close to her. She took her mother’s hands into hers, placing them on her lap. They felt cold, even though the heat was blistering. Someone had dressed her in a black dress, black scarf. Her mother hated black; Faith could only hold her hands and keep them warm. There was nothing to be done. Her vow of silence was so pronounced. She could smell it, feel it cut through her soul.
The cloud darkened, and it poured down heavily. The women rushed into the house; every inch of space in the living room was taken. The aroma of food filled the air. Three women sat on the porch removing chicken and duck feathers. For dinner, she guessed. The goats, as if knowingly, stayed away.
Before long, the rain stopped, and there was a sudden freshness in the air as the wind swept through the village. Faith’s four dogs sat by her side. Automatically, she got up and went through the motions of feeding them and giving water to the chickens and ducks as they wandered around the yard. There was a huge fire outside, and she saw a few women busying themselves with chores while the men sat chatting and eating groundnuts.
She saw Alec staring into space. His lips were dry and his eyes sore. Faith wanted to go to him, but she couldn’t move her feet. They felt heavy. Her head felt heavy, too.
‘Look at them hypocrites,’ the postmaster’s wife said with a nod of her head directed toward her father’s relatives, who sat close to her Mother.
‘You would think they care about her. You just wait until they start fighting over his money. I can’t believe he’s gone. He was such a good man, a good doctor.’ She blew her nose and wiped her face with the back of her hand.
Mrs B looked at the postmaster’s wife and kept her mouth shut. Her face was pale; her gentle brown eyes were anxious. She held on to Faith’s hand.
More people arrived from nearby villages, wailing and screaming. Faith was unmoved. It didn’t bother her that all eyes were on her; she was numb to their opinions. She couldn’t understand why she had to cry her eyes out to prove she was hurting. She knew it was expected of her. She felt their eyes digging into her skin, puzzled by her tearless face. She felt cold and alone.
Cold! Yes, that was the word she could imagine them using to describe her to their friends and families.
She wished she could tell them how she felt about their presence, but it was not something expected from a child in her community. Her actions would have been regarded as discourteous and unappreciative. Funerals brought people together. Some went to meet up with friends and have a free meal while others wanted to see if anything had been left for them. Some went to take a register of who was bringing what and there were those who simply wanted to see who was weeping the loudest.
‘Is that child OK? Why is she not crying?’ Faith heard someone whisper.
‘There is nothing normal about that child; she’s just like her mother,’ her aunt answered clearly for everyone to hear. ‘That’s what happens when you marry a stranger. No good ever comes out of it. My brother would still be here had she tried to stop him from going after the killers.’ She kissed her teeth. Her hair was covered by a black scarf, her half-swollen face clearly showed she had taken another beating from her vicious husband, who did nothing but get stoned, eat and sleep, day in, day out.
‘Stranger, my foot, she married a local man and we all know what happened to her!’ Mrs Chiya said. The people closest to her looked around and laughed. Faith’s Mother was from Botswana but wasn’t a typical Motswana either. Her father was a white man. She had flawless chocolate skin and high cheekbones. Her hair was long, and she was almost as tall as her father. Some of the women did not like her much. They hated the fact that she was light skinned whereas they had to spend their hard-earned cash buying all sorts of creams in an attempt to make their complexions lighter. Faith always felt creepy when she saw them walking in the street. While their faces had a bright orange hue, their hands were as dark as charcoal.
The day seemed longer than normal to Faith. Her mother was in a world of her own. She was frightened of getting too close to her, afraid of waking her up from her nightmares. Plumes of smoke wafted through the air; huge pots were placed on the fire. Unable to stand the crowd, she went to her father’s study.
Looking out of the window, she saw the twins from next door playing. Now and again they would place their hands on their hips, their feet moving swiftly, and lightly touching the ground. Pause, and then wave their hands in the air, their palms slightly touching and then clap. They seemed caught up in their own world, a world which excluded everyone else. Their faces were full of contentment and their eyes smiling. They stopped when they saw her and waved. She waved back, recalling her childhood. She had always been happy, until that moment. She wondered how Alec was coping and left.
Once outside, she saw her grandfather sitting in the tent hugging his knees. He looked frail, and his eyes were filled with anguish. The pain of seeing her grandfather so fragile and old caused a violent beating in her heart. He looked her way and their eyes locked. He started crying uncontrollably and she felt hopeless.
‘Sit with me,’ he whispered. She moved closer, and he held her hands. For a moment, one single unbearable moment, Faith saw fear in his eyes. She had never seen him cry before, and the very sight made her spirits sink because she couldn’t help him, or undo the pain. She couldn’t even put saliva on her face, as she had witnessed so many people do at funerals.
‘They killed him, didn’t they?’ Mr B said. His name was Kapila, but everyone called him Mr B for British because he talked so much about his time in the British army during the Second World War. ‘I told his father not to let him come back here; people have always been jealous of him. I knew this would happen when the killings started, the challenge in his eyes was too strong.’
‘Yes, he could never stand back and watch, even as a child. It’s hard when you cannot stand up for your own tribe, your own people. I told him just the other day; these are bad times, bad waters. I have seen so many souls drown just trying to do the right thing,’ one of the old men said. ‘He was the only doctor who understood us,’ he added tearfully.
‘Things have indeed changed. People have no respect for human life anymore. They can’t just go around shooting people because they’re believed to be practicing witchcraft. I was telling the doctor just the other day how proud I was that he was standing up for the voiceless,’ the postmaster said putting more wood on the fire. ‘I saw two strangers loitering around yesterday, I should have warned him,’ he added.
The others nodded in agreement. Her grandfather sat motionless.
Faith recalled what Mr B had said about the postmaster. ‘He talks like a person suffering from diarrhoea of the mouth and constipation of the brain. What kind of a man spends his day gossiping, when he should be working?’ In spite of the tragedy, Faith was able to smile.
She left them debating about what motivated the killers and went to sit next to Mrs B.
‘The poor woman must be going through hell. I hope her people will be here soon,’ the postmaster’s wife said.
‘Dimu,’ the others agreed.
‘Have you been to the kitchen!?’ She asked looking over her shoulder. Her voice was low but loud enough to be heard. ‘My daughter was saying there’s enough food to feed an army; they even have one of those big cupboards with ice.’
‘Cupboard!’ Mrs Chiya answered laughing. ‘It’s called a fridge, you silly girl. My employer has one at the Mission Centre. If I had a nice house, I would get myself one too. The water is always nice and cold. The meat is frozen and lasts longer. I hear they even have an inside toilet. Imagine not having to come outside in the middle of the night. How I wish I could have such a life,’ she sighed.
‘Dream on,’ the postmaster’s wife replied. ‘You live in a mud, thatched house. You need to trade in your husband for a rich one.’
‘Don’t tempt me,’ Mrs Chiya replied laughing.
People around them burst out laughing. Silence followed. Another group of her father’s relatives arrived, she watched in horror as they rolled on the ground.
A strong gust of wind swept through the village, the wrap that covered her Mother ‘s legs went flying in the air. Someone quickly grabbed it and covered her, placing it firmly under her legs.
‘I’m sorry,’ Mrs B said. She put her arm around her and pulled back the hair from her face. The clouds showed signs of rain as they got darker and lightning strikes made frightening sounds as the sparks thumped against the trees. Faith buried her face in Mrs B’s chest. She smelt like soaked fresh cassava.
Faith was grateful that Mrs B didn’t say anything, but simply held her. The others continued talking about the killers, about her father. She wished the shots had deafened her, so she didn’t have to listen to their gossip.
‘I don’t understand why they chose him,’ Faith said. ‘Why him?’ she asked softly, her voice choked with unshed tears. For a few minutes, she wondered why the dogs had not barked. The old people said the dogs were always the first to know if something bad was about to happen.
‘They have a sixth sense,’ her grandad always said.
Yet her dogs had not sensed anything. Could it be true that the killers had powerful medicine which made them invisible to the naked eye? How else would have gone past Chiya, a huge man with sharp eyes.
Mrs B was still rattled by the whole situation. She thought of the killers as monsters, with no remorse or conscience. No respect for life. She glanced at Faith. The girl she had come to love and admire. As feisty as Faith was, Mrs B realised that Faith’s life had been changed forever. The seed had been planted and she saw it in her eyes. Her spirit had been crushed, and there was nothing she or anyone else could do to reverse the changes.
‘I’m so sorry. No one knows what goes on in people’s heads.’ She reached out and soothed her back. ‘It’s hard to believe we have people with guns roaming around the neighborhood. It will pass. You may not see it now, but it will pass,’ she added, sighing heavily.
The women’s conversation turned from fridges and clothes to witchcraft.
‘I would thank you to remember where you are and not be so free with your views. Stop going on about witches and wizards. You will scare the child,’ Mrs B said looking sternly at them.
They turned to look at Faith and looked away, embarrassed.
Faith held on tightly to her flared dress, as the wind swept through the village. It was late November, and yet it was hot and windy; the rain from before had not made a difference. The sky was as clear as water, and the lightning and thunder had stopped. She washed her face with cold water from the clay calabash as the sun pierced her skin. Clasping her hands tightly together, she tried to shut her mind to the howling sounds around her.
Normally, the water from the calabash soothed her; it made her feel better inside, but right at that moment she felt as if she was carrying a big sack of maize on her back. She felt dead inside and wished she could close her eyes and delete the last two years from her life. She wanted to be back in Botswana. She wanted her dad to hug her and tell her she was the best daughter in the world. Unable to blank out the events from the previous night, she ran until the village was out of sight.
Her dress was wet. She guessed it was from wet grass and leaves. No one had bothered to clear the pathway to the river in weeks. Her dad arranged all that, but he had been busy chasing the police to catch the killers. She closed her mind to the killers. She didn’t want to think about them. Hear about them. Instead, she thought about the promises her dad had made to her. Promises, she had to bury in her heart.
She found herself alone with her dogs. They were all staring at her as if she was crazy. They had barked and barked when the neighbours started coming to the house, but after a while, they gave up and followed her everywhere, including the toilet. She took turns to stroke each of them, with little Nora kissing her all over her face. She shook her head recalling what Mrs B had said last time she saw Nora kissing her.
‘That dog is beginning to think it’s human. Soon you will start fighting over lipstick and hair pins.’ Nora threw her little body at her, and Faith encircled her in her arms.
The peace she had felt when they moved to the village was shattered. She could not see the beauty; all she felt was pain, and she wished they had never moved to the village. When Faith’s parents decided to move to Zambia from Botswana, she had cried for days. Yet she couldn’t cry for her father. The tears refused to come. She did everything from thinking about the worst things she had the misfortune to witness, to living a life without her father, but nothing, no tears. On a long sigh, she walked back, taking a longer route to clear her mind. From the top of the hill, she could almost see the whole village.
The school yard and hospital stood strikingly on a large piece of land, separated from the locals. Most of the houses were built with mud and thatched with grass. They didn’t have running water in most villages. They shared communal taps and bathed in the river, despite the constant fear of crocodiles. Most of the houses had two rooms, one to store the few items they owned and the other for sleeping. Their house was the only double-storeyed house in Yambezi, and she was just beginning to fall in love with it.
The village was surrounded by mango and cashew trees. Trees so big, that sometimes Faith sat in the branches all day without anyone noticing, except when the mangos were ready. The leaves were green all year, apart from when they started flowering in May. She always got excited when she saw the first yellow flowers because she knew soon she would start eating mangos. They had different types of cashews too, yellow and red. Her cousins laughed at her when she insisted on eating the nuts instead of the fruits. In the village, no one touched the nuts. They were left for the birds.
The great River Zambezi stretched across, and she loved the way the waves moved along the shore, wetting her toes. Sometimes she walked around shoeless, her feet sinking deeper and deeper into the sand. It was almost dark when she made her way back to the village. The crying had stopped; the women were serving dinner from large pots.
‘Faith, come and eat something,’ Charity said, her eyes scanning her surroundings, momentary focusing on her husband.
‘I’m not hungry,’ Faith replied heading towards her bedroom. Food was the last thing on her mind. Where she and her family might end up occupied her thoughts. One thing she knew for sure was that they wouldn’t stay in the village. She hoped they wouldn’t leave before the killers were caught. She glanced at her parent’s room, wondering if her mother would ever recover if there was ever going to be light in their lives again.
The following morning, Faith sensed someone hovering by the door. She had deliberately stayed awake most of the night, shut in her room. No amount of knocking or screaming had moved her. She had endured enough of people wrapping their arms around her body to a point where she felt suffocated.
‘Faith, are you in there?’ Charity shouted, her voice echoing through the walls. Faith held her breath and closed her eyes tightly. She waited for sounds of footsteps moving away, but there was silence. Sighing heavily, she got off the bed and opened the door.
‘There you are,’ Charity said, making herself comfortable on the bed. ‘Why are you sitting in here by yourself?’ Her voice was choked with tears, and her eyes were red from crying. She sat with her legs crossed, her hands reaching out to Faith.
Faith stared at her aunt, motionless. She wished someone would shake her and tell her it was a joke, a very bad joke, one she would rather have been spared. She stood up and walked to the window, her back facing her aunt.
‘You can’t hide in here. You need to be around people,’ her aunt said.
‘I know. I just need space to think,’ Faith turned around to face her.
‘Can you try and get your mother to eat something? I have tried, but she won’t even look at me.’
‘OK,’ Faith said.
‘I’m sorry …. Charity began, but she was interrupted by loud screams from outside. She went out of the room. Faith followed right behind her.
‘They have caught one of them,’ someone was shouting, his words tumbling over one another. The Doctor, Doctor Kennedy got him trying to cross into Angola.’
‘Where has he taken him?’ Mr B interrupted. ‘I will kill him if it’s the last thing I do and no one should try and stop me,’ he added heading towards his house.
Faith felt the atmosphere change. She heard the chimes of the church bell striking midday. She wished she could get excited by the news of the killer, but it changed nothing for her. Her father was still dead.