A Gift From Heaven By Gertrude Mvula

Feb 13, 2024 | 2023 Competition, Main Prize, Short Story Competition | 0 comments

He came like a thief.  He left like a thief.

No one of us knew where he went to just like no one of us knew where he came from. He spoke with no one, he smiled with no one, he laughed with no one, he walked with no one.

He was not tall, and we could not call him a short man either. We called him Alone Man because he was a lone man, not an accompanied man. We didn’t know what time of the evening he came to sleep, or what time of the morning he left. What we knew was that, his door was one of the four doors which our landlord knocked on every month-end to say, “Rent, chitsiru iwe”

We were fools.  It was not for us to shout back at the landlord who kept on reassuring about the cracked walls of our rooms. “I will buy cement and I will repair the walls,” he would say, but our walls still feared the rains. We were fools.  Sometimes we paid our rent, and sometimes we said, “I will pay soon.”

We did not know what Alone Man said to our landlord. We did not even know if he said anything at all, because we did not know if his mouth could speak. When we said behind his back that he was full of himself, he did not look back at us, so that we wondered if he had a back which we could speak from, in the first place. We wondered if he cared about what was behind his back, what was said of him and what was gossiped about him. The women at our kiosk said he was of the working class. This, in any setting, would be a world-class compliment. If Alone Man was another man, he would say, “Thank you.” Alone Man did not say “Thank you,” because maybe he did not hear the women at the kiosk at all. Maybe he had lost his ears. Maybe he was even blind, let’s be honest.

When Alone Man left, we did not realize that he had left. Not that we would realize at all. He did not say goodbye to us. He did not say, “I am going, I will never come back.” We imagined his voice was silky, with the authority of a husband. We imagined he was our husband who came home with beef or pork. We imagined he slept with us and he was naked. His thing, maybe it was a long thing that could enter and could not come out (let our husbands not hear this). We laughed when he walked his cow-like walk which was led by his shining forehead.

“Alone Man is not just handsome, he is bald,” we laughed. This was no fantasy. It was true and we laughed some more. He did not look at us when we laughed. He did not ask us, “What do you want?” Of course, we would have told him our wish at once. “We want a man, a young man like you.” This was our song: we want a man. We had our husbands but they were lost husbands. They looked at us with “here-she-comes-again “looks.  We looked at them with “that-fool-of-a-man-should-be-dead” looks. In reality, we did not want our husbands to be dead. We loved them.  But we wanted them to be young. To have muscled bodies, to leave us with the fullest satisfaction or any amount of satisfaction for that matter. We suspected that Alone Man might have a body of muscles, but we were not very sure. He came when we were asleep, and left when we were asleep. His door was always locked. His windows were shut, curtained. Always. Ever. When we saw him somewhere in the market, which was not often, some of us said, “No, he is not the one,” and others said, “That mark on his scalp. He is the one.” We could greet him if we chose to. We did not choose to greet him because he himself did not choose to greet us. He never chose to greet us. Or anyone.

We searched for how he would be sick. Or how he would be dead. We did not want him dead at first. But because he was not sick, we wanted his death. Death would make us see him face to face, death would make him look at us as his friends, and not as his nothings. We could not be his nothings or his enemies.

“How can you be enemies with someone you don’t know? Someone who does not know you?” we asked ourselves.

His death did not come, however.

He only left. That was our assumption: that he left.

Alone Man must have left in the morning. Or must have left yesterday, or last week, or last month, or even last year. Our landlord looked at us like we were fools.

“What makes you think he is gone?” he asked us, “Did he tell you when he came?”

We were fools, we agreed. The landlord was a man with correct words, we concluded. The landlord was not concerned at all that his quietest and strangest tenant’s door was closed in a manner that said, “Something fishy is inside.” We decided, however, that, if our landlord was not concerned, there was nothing fishy inside, nothing fishy about anything. We were fools, we were tenants, our job was to sleep in the landlord’s houses and, especially, to pay rent.

We started to remember Alone Man as if we were widows who had just lost their husbands. We remembered him as if he was a man in a grave behind our house which was semi-detached and then semi-detached farther, to make four doors, of which one was a door for our own Alone Man. We remembered Alone Man as though he were our landlord’s mother who was buried in this grave because his son, our landlord, chose to have his mother close to him.

We remembered Alone Man as a good man because we did not know how else we could look at him and say, “This is him.” We even said, “Rest in peace.” But if he was to rest in peace, what colour of peace would fall on a man that did not have any?  A man of peace would go to the toilet; Alone Man did not go to our pit latrine which left you for dead if you did not close your nose properly. We did not know if he bathed or if he washed his clothes. We could not tell if he wore the same clothes because we did not remember his previous clothes when we were attempting to compare with what we saw now.

Our landlord said, “Leave him alone” and we left him alone. But when we had a smell that was unusual, we could not leave him alone. This smell was the smell of death. Alone Man was dead, about that we were sure. We peeped through the windows. There was nothing to see, only curtain tightly placed. We tried the door where the key was supposed to be. It was shut and it would not move. We called his name but it was not his name. We did not know his name. No one knew his name. We tried to bang on the door with our fists. It did not budge. And there was no voice inside.

“He is dead,” we said.

We believed ourselves and we believed in ourselves too. Of course, this was not how to be limited to one corner. There were other
corners to explore. He is not dead, we hoped. Maybe he had gone somewhere. He would come back or he would not come back. That smell we had in our nose, it could be from anywhere. It could be from our pit latrine itself.  Perhaps there was something dead and it was dumped there. The smell could also be our own smell. We always bathed but who was to believe us when all we did, from dawn to dusk, was to ask where Alone Man was?

Our landlord said, “You shall not break the door.”

Alone Man was born in the year 1987 when Malawi was Africa’s superpower. He died in the year 2019 when Malawi was at war with the United States of America.

We laughed at our history, we also laughed at our lie. We did not know Alone Man to start with. We did not even know the history of Malawi. We lived in Malawi. We were born in Malawi. We would also die in Malawi. But we could not claim to know the history of Malawi.  Speaking of dying, we ourselves were dying people, attempting to cling to our breaths. We went to school, but we did not finish school because we were pregnant before finishing school. Our first husbands left us because we did not know how to speak English. Our second husbands left us because we did not know how to sleep on top of them. These—our husbands now—were our grandfathers. That was why we looked at Alone Man much more like our next husband than anything else. The problem was that he did not eat our food. If he ate, he was going to eat Mushunguti root along with the food and he was going to fall in love with us after each bite of the root and he was going to see us as beautiful women and he was going to look at us as his proper wives. He was even going to tell us where he was going before he even left, he was going to say goodbye to us, to say, “I will come back for you, baby.”

Now, though, we were not his babies. Now we were people that sat and looked at his door and asked ourselves, “What if he has hanged himself? Shall we not be responsible?” The police of Malawi were people that arrested you before they asked you questions. Of course, we had already prepared a quick defence in our heads: we did not kill him. He killed himself.

Then, the smell increased. At once, we knew that it was not our smell. We knew that it was not the stench from our pit latrine either. It was a smell like that of a dog dead.

“He is dead,” we said.

We celebrated that he was dead. We celebrated because, we remembered that he looked at us as fools. Now, God had answered our prayers. Alone Man himself had turned into a dead fool. But we were also sad because someone from the next door was dead. It was how we were built. We cried when someone died, even if we did not know that someone. Alone Man was not just someone, though. He was our own neighbour. Not well-known neighbour but still, our neighbour.

The ever-growing smell caused asthma for those of us who had assumed the consequences of asthma when we were young. We walked with our noses closed. We laughed with our noses closed.

Our landlord said, “Break the door but be careful.”

We broke the door and we were also careful. It was a small room. And it was the only room. There was no bed, there was no mattress, there were no clothes, there was no Alone Man, no dead body, no shreds of a dead body. But the smell persisted. It was a smell of someone dead. It was a smell of Alone Man dead.

We said, “He had his reasons to die.”

We did not know where to leave our condolences or where to say, “Our commiserations.” He did not have a wife, he did not have a girlfriend, and he did not have anyone. We decided that for his funeral, we were his wives. We cried until our hearts were burning. We threw ourselves in mud like we were pigs.

Later, our landlord said we should clean Alone Man’s house. We mopped the concrete floor with our eyes shut because we were scared of meeting his face. We undid his windows with our nostrils closed because we did not want to smell his blood. Then, it was clean, the house.

And someone came. A new tenant. When the new tenant discovered that there was a smell of Alone Man, he packed and left just the way Alone Man had left. The next tenant did not even spend a night.

Alone Man was a good man to us but he had his demerits. One of the disadvantages was that, he made us new tenants somewhere else a few months after he had left us. We were new tenants because this was our fifth month in our new house. We did not want to come here in the first place. We did not want to leave our landlord.  We loved our four doors including the door for Alone Man. We loved our semi-detached house. Our new house was not a semi- detached house; that was the first difference. The new house, was a house with three bedrooms, and rent was ten times more. That was the second difference. The third difference, which was even more painful was: the landlord was a girl who did not have a husband, a girl who smiled at our husbands.

Alone Man taught us many things through his closed mouth. He transformed us like a hurricane. We could not repeat who we were. We would start afresh if there was a second chance to go back to the four-door compound; if there was a second chance to live next door to Alone Man; if there was a second chance to be four-door tenants again. The biggest take-home theme was: we would speak our mind but we would not speak everything. That was what we called the lesson. He taught us a lesson. Alone Man.

Now we remembered Alone Man more. We remembered, each one of us by themselves. We were now scattered, by the way. We wished we were not scattered, though. We could have been there, at the four-door compound. We wished we were there, together, sleeping next door to Alone Man.  There, we spoke, there we gossiped. We gossiped, for instance, that Alone Man was the size of a thread. We gossiped that he walked like a snake, rising and falling and rising again. We gossiped that his hair carried HIV, so that when we saw him we clapped our hands and we laughed.

We also remembered how he came. We remembered that we did not know that he had come until we realized that there was a blue curtain covering his windows. Now the curtain was our curtain. We did not steal it, we plucked it from the windows and we packed it. It was his gift to us, from heaven to us. When we looked at the curtain, we also looked at him: that was the whole impression. We then rehearsed his death, a death without bones, a death without a dead body.

It could be that he hanged himself. It could be that he drank poison. It could also be that we killed him; this was not true, however, and we did not agree. Even when police officers pressed our breasts to tell the truth, we did not blink our eyes.

“We did not kill him,” we said. Then bail was granted to us.  But we were scheduled to go back to court in the next twenty-four hours.



Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *