Our Auntee Maria by Monica Arac de Nyeko
The boy, their son, beloved, always and only him walked outside, slowly like he was being watched. He stood at the door for a while, unsure of where his feet were leading him. But then something happened to make him shift his footsteps forward. The boy heard the song playing in his head. The song was beautiful, loud and wonderful. The boy left the door. He rested his back solidly on the wall. He listened to the guitarist strum strings into the melody. He heard the song soloist whose voice was jagged with melancholy wail into the night and into his head. With every new verse, her voice weaved itself deeper into the melody. The tempo of her voice made sadness sip into his joints like poison. The boy felt gloom wrap itself around him like a cloud. He lifted himself off the wall. He walked into the darkness. He bent over their sidewalk. He pulled a brick out of the soil. He walked back to the house. He saw his father standing before his mother. The boy did not wait for his father to raise his hand upon his mother. With this brick in his hand, he raised his hand. Auntee Maria saw him. She wanted to tell him to remain where he was. The words did not come. When she saw her husband next, he was on the floor. Auntee Maria did not hurry to his side. She hurried to the bathroom, to get a towel to place it over his head, to stop the red, which was too much like Ma’s roses. The boy put the brick on the floor. He went to the sitting room, he spat out the chewing gum. The boy sat back in his chair. He picked his magazine up again. There was no music anymore.
Auntee Maria drove her husband to hospital in the back of their Volkswagen beetle. The man was in hospital for one week.
On the Saturday when Auntee Maria should have come home, she called instead. Ma was seated sipping a cup of hot tea late in the evening when the phone rang. I was seated next to her at the dinning table, reading a chapter from Housekeeping for Young Girls, before I could take my own cup of tea. The book had a pink hardcover. It was stolen or probably borrowed from the Kampala Public Library in 1958. Today, Ma wanted me to study the needlework page. Ma said if I learnt good housekeeping, maybe I would find a good husband, who did not beat his wife. I looked at the pages of my pink book. It said needlework was the cornerstone of housekeeping and every girl should learn it before anything else. The pages had pictures. They illustrated drawings of fabric and pictures of yarning, knitting and crochet needles.
I had taken off my red slippers and was swinging my legs underneath the dinning table. I had on a t-shirt and my maroon skirt which used to be my school uniform. Ma placed the mug back to her dinning table. She went to pick the phone. Ma raised her hand as if to calm Auntee Maria on the other side of the line.
‘Slowly, slowly,’ Ma said. ‘Sorry, he what?’
Ma held her stomach with both arms. Ma let the phone drop on her lap. She started to slap her thighs with both hands and then she broke into the most energetic jump.
‘Oh my God! Oh my God!’ Ma said.
I knew Ma did not like Auntee Maria’s husband much. But, after Auntee Maria’s son landed a brick on his father’s head, she said he did not deserve it. She said children should not treat their parents like that. Ma went to see him often in hospital. She was there when the doctor told Auntee Maria that they had managed to control the bleeding, but her husband’s life was as small as a grain of millet. That evening Ma was on the phone with Auntee Maria when she came back home. She told her he would be okay. Medicine had been proven wrong before.
‘You just trust in God. Only in him,’ Ma said.
Auntee Maria’s husband did not survive the night. That is what she had called to tell Ma.
Ma gathered her lesu in her right hand. She went into their bedroom upstairs after the phone call. I followed her upstairs. I stood at the door. I watched her take out all her headscarves from her suitcase. They were the headscarves she kept carefully hidden away. Each of them was a present from Auntee Maria or Daktar. Ma laid all of them on her bed. She bent over and picked out a single red scarf. She wrapped it on her head.
‘Let’s go Ituk,’ Ma said.
We left home. We walked out of Upper Kololo and descended down the hill. Occasionally Ma struggled to hold back the tears. I was not talking but several times Ma told me to shut up. Auntee Maria’s husband could not be dead.
To let her know I was there with her, that she was not walking the road alone, I said ‘yes Ma.’
‘Shut up. Shut up,’ she repeated hitting the tarmac. I followed closely behind, in my red slippers. My steps were too small. They drew me away from Ma. We passed the container shop where the milk woman sold milk, bread and Blue Band.
‘I saw him yesterday, only yesterday. He was not a dying man,’ Ma said.
‘Yes,’ I said.
‘Shut up Ituk. Shut up.’
We passed the residential houses of Prince Charles Drive with their lush and trimmed fences. Inside the compounds, the grass was carpeted with the bell shaped jacaranda petals and the crimson cylindrical spikes fallen off bottlebrush trees. On days when things were like they should be, children with heavy green back-bags played on the broken side walks with no care. They peeped into the gates and scattered away with laughter when the dogs backed them off. They enjoyed this and returned each time again and again, to steal guavas, mangoes and matugundas from trees they were forbidden to mount.
Thirty minutes after we started off, we arrived at the City High School gate. City High School surrounded itself with plant fences and trees. There were over grown whistling pines, oaks and eucalyptus. The school itself stood at the end of City High Road and extended from middle Kololo to lower Kololo. At the end of City High Road was a busy road which went deeper ahead into the hill and lowered down to join the highway. Across that road was a cemetery where ghosts laughed and danced in the night and played netball with live animals. People found dead snakes hanging on trees in the morning. Cars crashed frogs, squirrels and rats trying to cross the road to escape the carnage.
The guard at the gate pointed ahead. He directed us to the teacher’s quarters politely like we had never been there before. He spoke in Swahili, the sacks under his eyes heavy like he understood our loss.
‘Pole sana Mama.’
Ma gathered almost half of her lesu in her hands. She broke into a slow run as soon as she passed the school gate. Auntee Maria’s school was large. We passed the administration block which faced the A level block. The staffroom was also on the administration block and adored with lilies, daisies, dahlias, gaillardias, gazanias, iris, tagetes, flowering onions and grass growing in the front. On weekdays, the school gardeners dug, plucked and pruned in blue overalls and black gumboots.
I saw the teacher’s quarters from a distance. There was a plume of smoke rising up ahead from one of the houses. It was smoke from a funeral fire, lit for mourners to keep vigil through the night. He was really dead. He was really gone. Ma started running faster. I ran behind her struggling to keep up. She started to walk again when we got to the tarmac road leading directly into the houses. The single tarmac road divided several houses. On each side of the road, houses were lined one after another, even numbers on one side and odd numbers on the other side. There were short plant fences and flower gardens in their front yards. Some yards were green and busted with blooming roses. Others were plain, yellow and had broken fencing and old cars rotting away.
We entered Auntee Maria’s house number eight through the right turn. Ma hurried past the men seated in the tent outside. She rushed past the small brown clay flower pots which stood on her veranda. Auntee Maria’s compound was green. It was full of flowers of different shades and sizes and three frangipani trees whose white, pink and yellow flowers carpeted the yard. Their fragrance filled the air like a perfume. Ma started crawling from the door as soon as she passed the kitchen with its broken cupboards, stained sinks and the smell of cooked food. She made her way into the dinning room. There was hardly any furniture in the large sitting room. The chairs, tables and cupboards had been stored in the garage to allow mourners more room.
‘Maria tell me. Tell me oh,’ Ma said slapping her chest like they were drums. Auntee Maria had already lost her voice. She crawled to meet Ma midway through the sitting room. They started slapping the cement floors with their palms almost in unison. Their cotton lesus moved around the bodies with the momentum of each wail and gasp. The bodies shifted with each cry. They were asking God why he chose to take the man away. Why did he not take one of them instead? Why? Why? And he had looked forward to seeing his new play acted. Now he was dead. Why? Why was life so unfair like that?
‘Schola. Schola. What will I do without my husband?’ Auntee Maria said.
‘I don’t know Maria. I don’t know.’
They had laid several mats woven from dyed black, pink and green palm leaves in elaborate patterns on the floors at the corner of the sitting room. That is where a woman ushered me to when she saw me hesitate to sit down. The woman had large eyes like lamp posts and looked like a frog. She was Auntee Maria’s sister. She stared at me, an expression of rebuke and impatience in her eyes like I should know what to do in situations like this. Auntee Maria’s sister grabbed my maroon skirt and brought me to the floor. I sat down, folded my legs to the side and rested the weight of my body on my right hand. She did not say anything, but I knew she was urging me to be invisible. Couldn’t I see that there were hardly children of my age inside? I started to feel like I should I have stayed outside with the other younger girls.
© 2005-2009 Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas