Short African story :THE PERPLEXITIES OF HIS IMMINENT ARRIVAL by Gaylord Gitau
She would have died; she would have been buried by now. Boredom would have bested her in this relic of a bunker — only the antics and regaling of stories by Mshomba came to the rescue of her battered soul. Friday dawn, dark as bitumen, boring as a graveyard, was turning out to be a make or break for the bunker indwellers. But the agile, animating and save-the-scenario Mshomba moved fast and arrested the doing-the-same-thing-the-same-way-and-expecting-different-results play script.
It’s as though they were in the spine-chilling lobby of the next circle of hell. Mistake her not as a girl without foresight and passion to be the best of human rights lawyers. Think not in your stopping point that she was a religious fanatic or a visionless-winless-wannabe-lawyer. To have been found in this era of the arrogant was not her creation. No…no, please. But Mshomba, whom she had found steady-going and dependable unlike Zilizala, the unexpected occurrence, came at a time in her small life to relieve her kinsmen and women who were stashed like sardines and bound for heaven in this bunker. Her intolerance, anxious moments and bitterness to men’s opinions and beliefs were getting the best of her steels — hers was now restrained and an ironic contrast.
But for now let Mshomba, the master story narrator and thread-maker of tales spin a story, or rather design a comfort zone for twenty-five able-bodied men and women in this bunker of Uzalendo:
Uzalendo’s beauty does not come in name alone. It also emboldens and animates itself in its rich diversity. Driving or walking from the south on Barabarani Road, on your left, Lake Zinga reflects the image of the cliff on its far side; its surface glittering like sea diamonds in the bright sun.
The lake is served well by River Honokia. Its sparkling clear water flows down the slopes only to evolve into a mighty roar over the cliffs. Its waters plunge into the depths of the lake. The roar, a reminder that indeed water is life, echoes beyond the visible horizon. The plains, the cliffs, the faraway mountains, the meanders, bequeathed by the rivers, all show the richness and diversity of Uzalendo’s expanse of scenery. But a look in the east, best during the evening, reveals a skyline in a marriage of eternity with the sun. And the sun, for the umpteenth time, retreats in glowing amber, too weak to provide light.
What fascinates a visitor in Uzalendo are the green, rolling and spellbinding hills. A few kilometres past Lake Zinga and Macintosh Farm are the first of endless-looking expansive fields. Up and down, up and down, up and down the hills go, singled out from one another by small streams that feed River Honokia. Several herds of Molo lambs can be seen grazing on the dark-green, luxuriant grass.
And as the road meanders through the hills, it takes a sharp turn that runs into a bridge. Under the bridge, River Honokia roars furiously towards the cliffs and the lake. Just past the sturdy-steeled bridge is a signpost that reads, “Welcome to Uzalendo County!”
At the top of the hill, a breathtaking view awaits the visitor. Beautiful mabati and tiled roofs dot the hills — red, blue, brown, white and black against a backdrop of green trees and red fertile soil. Varicolored flowers and dome-shaped eucalyptus trees interlarded with well-trimmed bushes make the place feel like a park. Doves, eagles and sparrows add their musical tunes to the clean fresh air. Here, nights are clear and the fathomless skies are dotted with stars.
The story comes as a relief to her, an aspirin tablet that can only soothe the indomitable pain caused by a migraine. And so when the crackling of the pine logs in this bunker’s fireplace becomes thunderous; their lilac flames resembling the last illusions in one’s life, she, in an instant, forgets her forced and extended school holiday in this dark and smelly bunker where boredom ranks first in the menu.
Recreating the beautiful Mshomba’s well-articulated story of the beautiful natural world in her mind, she starts to savour the goodness of life. The different wild scents created by the rivers’ flora ventilate her mind. She realizes, without coaxing her mind that she needs to keep and relish happy moments. Otherwise, whining and whacking her brain is a deliberate and dangerous move into a pessimistic sense of inadequacy. But how for heaven’s sake did she find herself, her mother, step-father and other villagers of Uzalendo in this bunker?
“After all, without much fuss, how did they know the day of the Lord’s coming?” she asks herself. Misfortune, like the angel of death, has come knocking at the door of her fate. It has been a well-choreographed journey into futility, it so seems. She is now following, toe-to-toe, hand-in-hand in the footsteps of her mother. She fears, she turns, she mourns and Mshomba’s story melts away in this dark, smelly and emotionally-draining bunker. The reality, tough as bricks, dawns on her that she is now lugging — truth sounded out, hopping from one cycle of misfortune to another. She has coined it Saida’s-near-success-syndrome in reference to what has been prevailing in her mother’s life.
It all started when her mother, out of the demise of her husband, became a widow. But eager to fulfill her curtailed marital dreams, Saida married Mwashega, the religious fanatic. And like an attraction of like poles, Mwashega was now an inmate of Zilizala, the prophet. Salome, drawing from the wells of her past, weeps copious tears. The prophet, like an assassin, is now nipping Salome’s fledgling education in the heart.
Therefore Zilizala’s statements drip with bitterness, hate and a feeling of intense aversion in Salome’s soul. For her, to be a member of Zilizala’s church was akin to taking methanol that shrivels the liver, dims and finally switches off the power of sight. It was an act without a semblance of decorum, foresight and quiet thought. For destiny’s sake, why did Zilizala choose to announce this unsubstantiated fairy tale all in the name of faith and his second coming in her hour of need?
Salome, now in the third and last trimester of her O-level in Uzalendo High School and with the university in sight, has been everlastingly yearning to be out of Mwashega’s vice-like grip. But she is yet to creep out of the woodwork; she requires school fees that can only be paid by Mwashegha. But for now, Mwashega is bound for heaven through Uzalendo’s Bunker.
“The Lord has spoken! The end is near. Man’s transgressions, like a hornet, have stirred up the Lord’s anger. I can hear the voice of the Lord saying, ‘If the church repents the faithful will be saved!’” Prophet Zilizala was shouting himself hoarse on the decorated pulpit in his church on this Sunday.
Prophet Zilizala’s long, receding pitch dark hair brushed neatly on his blue and white tunic. Dark complexioned, about 6’11 tall, his size always lent his messages an unimpeachable charisma to the members of his church. His word was gospel truth, always bedecked and ensconced in a big smile. He always left his charges in stitches with a catalogue of jokes in his sermons: “Do not grow old and be as visionless as a bat; landing in heaven in spare parts. Always in bruises, with a pack of wolves dispensing first aid on your wounds is the worst of crimes. You are more than all the animals put together. Do not, out of a cyclical hierarchy; inadvertently join the dogs in scrambling for crumbs while you have a place at the top.” Zilizala’s eyes, like those of an eagle, would sparkle as he delivered thoroughly entertaining sermons.
But on this Sunday, prophet Zilizala, the master of the spoken word, wore a worried face. His blazing eyes became wet with tears. His black complexion turned darker, like used motor oil. He was sweating more than it is medically deemed fit; he kept on wiping his brow with his white handkerchief.
“Brothers and sisters listen to me and listen very well. Listen to the words that the Lord our God has spoken to us, his chosen ones.” Zilizala continued. “He is displeased with the rampant and unrepentant sin in this world! He has seen man rise against man, in the name of earning bread; all in reference to worldly possessions! He has seen the Holy Book corrupted by the evil for their selfish needs, and today I stand here before you to tell you that he is not pleased.” Zilizala preached on as he slowly paced the length of the small podium.
Salome turned to look at her step-sister, Greta, who was seated next to her. She was bored, to say the least. She was chewing gum nonchalantly while writing her endless text messages; chatting with her friends. She was the one person Salome liked most in their family. She was level-headed, she could think for herself. She had not, in an attempt to remain sober, given her brain to Prophet Zilizala to think for her, like the rest of Salome’s family.
She had class, mastered the English language like the art of brushing her teeth; with a vision of becoming a model after high school. Beautiful, tall and young, Greta’s quietness left friend and foe confounded. She loved wearing a cream cardigan and fedora jeans. The frizzy exuberance of her hair left many young men oozing with admiration. But she was serious with her studies. The bungles on her wrists would tinkle to the detriment of her dad Mwashega but she was not bothered. Salome loved Greta’s long eyelashes, her jet black hair that would be parted in the middle and tied, rope-like into ear-long pigtails. She was Salome’s blood sister, who loved fashion, at other times, her hair would be cropped into a neat bob to complement her chocolate face.
“The Lord, in his infinite wisdom, in his unquestionable majesty, has provided a safe haven for us, not too far from here. There is an underground bunker that was built by a colonialist family that owned this land. Like a city of refuge, it would be their last resort in case the Mau Mau rebels decided to attack them.” Zilizala preached on. Everyone was leaning forward on their seats, with their minds on a seesaw voyage. They were, like seminarians, eager to hear how the Lord planned to save them from the impending apocalypse where God would destroy the ruling powers of evil.
“We will move into the bunker, as the Lord has categorically informed me — be forewarned; only those within its walls will be spared. Everyone else will die for their sins and the earth, like a ball of fire, will scorch and be cleansed once more!” Prophet Zilizala continued. “We will move in the bunker and wait for two weeks for the world to end. Then we will evolve and start again on a perfect earth. We will be the forefathers of a great race of humans dedicated to living according to the will of the Highest. All those who will move with us will register with Mwashegha at the end of this service. Now let us all stand for the closing prayers,” he concluded.
Leaving the church hall after the closing prayers, Salome was greeted with an astonishing sight. Mwashegha, her step-father was being mobbed by the congregation as they all wanted their names on the list of those chosen by the Lord for heaven. Two ushers were by his side trying to manage and contain the crowd. They failed spectacularly.
“No. I won’t.” Mzee Katunga countered. If, and that’s a big if, the Lord comes on that day then he will find me in the church, in his temple, praying to him, as he should find all of us.” Salome admired this old man for holding still for what he believed in. From Mzee Katunga’s noisy quarrel, Salome moved closer to Mwashega who stood alongside his master Prophet Zilizala like a Siamese twin. He would fumble for the right words, dart his gaze and gesture helplessly. Trying to explain Prophet Zilizala’s vision — or division — was as strange as it sounded.
Salome didn’t want to hear Zilizala anymore. The push and pull were beginning to unbalance her; they were tearing her soul apart. The hollowness that she felt was beyond a nightmare. She recalled the cycle of her mother Saida and tears welled up in her eyes. She was a beauty in her youth from the black and white photos of yore in her cherished album. Her red ochre skin marched her miniskirt with excessively white teeth married with a soft charcoal black hair that Salome always loved to make.
Her broad smile would mushroom into laughter like that of a model. But all that had become an inevitable phenomenon; it was a bygone era and here was a woman trying to survive in a marriage that was neither approved in heaven nor in her heart— was neither here nor there.
It was a man-made unity of purpose. Her three black skirts and two white blouses had seen days. They were a telltale sign of the challenges she had gone through in this life. The sunken brown cheeks were the final evidence of things having gone awry.
Salome feared for her mother’s health for she was becoming as thin as a beanpole; working in hired farms to sustain this organization of Africans as Salome fondly referred to her family. Salome’s mother’s emaciated frame was a cursor that she had made sacrifices for the family’s survival. And now Prophet Zilizala, like death that had robbed her of her biological father had come back again to upstage the form book of Salome’s operation-come-out-of-hell-on-her-way-to-greatness-laid-down strategy. But then Salome saw Karani waving at her from under the tree and she felt a bit more at peace. Although they only saw each other on school holidays, their love had grown stronger and stronger.
Karani, Salome’s boyfriend, had declared his love for her. It was love based on ambition tagged “my first-priority-is-school”. Salome would pursue her dream; become a lawyer of repute who would stand up for the downtrodden and the deprived.
Karani understood this and he even supported her fully. Karani, on his bargain, was working on his vision towards becoming a neurosurgeon like Ben Carson of the Finishing Hands acclaim. Therefore, his walking style was a calculated gait only for it to evolve into a psychedelic pose that marched his tall, black complexioned frame. As an offshoot of Mzee Katunga, Salome knew Karani would make an independent thinker unlike her step-father Mwashega who was, to say the least, like a reed that would be swayed by any wind of doctrine.
Salome walked over to Karani and hugged him tightly. It felt good like he was helping her carry a load that she was previously struggling with all alone. They would study together during school holidays; communicate through letters while in school. These students-cum-love-birds even had a little study maze they played where Salome would send him a list of questions which she was unable to tackle within a two-week period. He would solve them and send the solutions to her together with his list of questions that had baffled him.
Salome loved this young man in spectacles that gave him an academic aura. Every time she saw him, she remembered her late dad who loved reading and order. Karani always gave life a serious approach, unlike the hang-alongs who pursued the teenage girls of Salome’s village like gazelles, only to curtail some of their destinies with unwarranted pregnancies.
Karani was about to counter Prophet Zilizala’s imminent idea of relocating to the bunker to Salome when the youth service leader walked up to them under the shade. Salome and Karani cut their conversation short and sat down for the meeting. In this interruption by their youth leader, Salome saw him as the prophet’s extension in his reptilian cunningness. Prophet Zilizala had put a blade-like noose around her neck, fastened it tightly and was now stifling her life to death. It was time to prepare for her final examinations of high school; it was not the time to relocate to a bunker.
Karani would never marry a school dropout. Karani was set, Salome was now unsettled. She needed to be with Karani who would help her end the guilt trip that she had been engaged in. Moreover, Salome and the rest of the youth were already headed to heaven through the bunker; a youth meeting would therefore not sell. Trivial wonder, it ended as fast as it had started. Salome’s shock, which had transformed into disbelief and rage, was fast catching up with her.
“For heaven’s sake why is Mwashega not able to pluck the truth out, isolate it and guard it cunningly like Mzee Karani? Pray that you don’t end in such a situation.” Salome was spoiling for a fight, a fight to salvage her destiny and prove to Karani that she was ready to fight like a lawyer that she intended to be. Salome vowed that hers would be a fight of fights that would not only wipe the traumatic memories of her mother’s and her past life. She was also hell-bent on producing icy air on the prophet’s life, ice that would take days to thaw until he came back to his senses like the prodigal son, after his sojourn in a faraway country with the pigs. Time had come to show the prophet the resolve of a woman when the dictates went in the contrary.
By Wednesday, only twenty-five people had remained on the shortlist. There were Prophet Zilizala and his wife and Salome’s family of eight — four were Salome’s step-sisters. There were two other couples; one had no children — this one did not mind going to heaven from its many years of reproach from the stink of fruitlessness — while the other, Salome’s neighbor’s, had three children. There were three young women and two young men — from the youth department — and finally, there were three elderly people. In her attempt to dissuade her step-father Mwashega from articulating the mindset of Zilizala, Salome felt that these people were too few to move into the bunker so she made her appeal that evening as she had envisioned.
“Dad,” Salome called him as they ate supper. “Why are people refusing to go to the bunker?” She asked him. Mwashega always enjoyed talking about church business and he was all too eager to explain it to Salome. Salome’s mother, however, was suspicious.
She knew how Salome felt about the bunker. Salome had told her several times that she didn’t want to go into the bunker. “Remember your frosty relationship with your step-father and just let the whole saga marinate. There could be a way out.”Salome’s mother had intoned to her in camera.
But Salome’s mother was bent on saving her marriage. She, therefore, detested Salome raising hell in this marriage of survival. Salome’s mother gave her a weird wink that brought to a close this nocturnal and emotive debate. Saida just kept her fingers closed that sanity would prevail. She didn’t want Salome to raise any problems in their house.
It was Salome’s war of wits and nerves. These unexpected restrictions were driving her crazy. She thought of reading her parents the riot’s act, disappear into the unknown and never appear again, but she held her cool. “Was this an evolution or a revolution?” She didn’t know what was happening; she only wanted to go back to school. Her siblings were divided, some were disillusioned and bitter. To Salome, they were all wallowing in a miasma of deceit; to the rest, it was the unknown.
Salome hated prophet Zilizala. She avoided the man like plague when he came to their home for final consultations. It was like the prophet had passed a sharp sword through a bleeding heart. It now didn’t matter to Salome whether they would land in a bunker, a mosque, a monastery, a temple or a shrine. She now, with a passion, hated the whole idea of religion. She felt a cold iciness course through the middle of her mind and she went straight to bed. From a faraway land, Salome could hear the prophet’s throaty laugh and she hated him all the more. From this scenario, Salome would break down sentences into illegible sounds and slowly filter them until sleep came. She could see Zilizala through the prism of her mind with his trademark black receding hair and thick-framed spectacles and she nearly passed out.
The Bunker and Relocation
On this Thursday, the earth road leading to the bunker meandered, like the mythical python, through thick bushes and tall trees out of Sokorofaiba village to the west. The rays of the morning orange sun penetrated the foliage in an almost magical way. The green foliage, looking more gullible in marriage with dewdrops glittered and shone in multicolored arcs. The birds, unaware of Zilizala’s entourage, sung happily while River Honokia bubbled merrily. The velvet monkeys, parched in their trees of choice chattered their daily greetings. Hedgehogs and mole rats, the avowed enemies of yore, could be seen scampering for safety and insects, unperturbed, were busy making their homes. In the tangles of the vegetation, hawk moths, sting bugs and leafhoppers could be seen eking out a living in this beautiful natural world. Salome had been here many times for the sheer beauty but this visit hit her hard.
The bunker itself was nestled near the top of this peculiarly steep hill. It was more of a forested ridge. Beyond the steep decline, one could see trotting impalas nibbling excitedly at the tender shoots but quietly listening to the whistling thorns. The shock of seeing so many human beings at once caused them to run for dear life under the watchful eyes of flitting butterflies.
It was a wonderful place for a park. Moreover, it would have a dual strategy for making it both an educational and recreational facility, but not a launching pad for heaven. It would make a perfect place for early morning joggers, daytime picnickers and late afternoon lovers and not a place for twenty-five able-bodied people to come and rest while waiting for God to come back. Concerts, lectures and wildlife walks would fit in here like building blocks.
The crowd that escorted Zilizala’s entourage numbered over one hundred. Their arrival at the bunker drove the crowd crazy. “Prophet Zilizala is a crazy man!” a man shouted. “No, he is the Lord’s spokesman on earth and we would better join him!” Another one was heard saying. The entourage entered the bunker and straight away went into the fetching of water from the river. The crowd kept at a distance. Maybe out of fear, may be out of confusion, they didn’t know. Karani was nowhere in sight. Salome hated to admit it to herself that she had looked for him but was now desperate, searching for anything that she could hold on to while she stayed in the bunker.
From a distance, Salome could hear monkeys gibbering, and from the east, she heard an owl hooting. She recalled the nearby eucalyptus and podo trees swaying lazily in the breeze that passed, whistling in different melodies. She imagined the trees and animals suspicion of the mission, probably wondering what twenty-five of these human beings were up to. But Salome was now an immortal wreck; a disturbed mortal being.
“What are all these meant to mean? My tuition has been stopped and the comfort of my room quashed in the name of his second coming. What of my suffering from claustrophobia – a fear of confinement in small places? Worse still being in a dark bunker! I feel like I am in a sinking boat in the middle of the ocean. No matter how much I can shout or scream, I am still going to sink in the sea of humiliation that is surely awaiting us at the end of this venture of the insane if the Lord fails to come back.” Salome bemoaned.
Prophet Zilizala, just like a museum curator was explaining the various features of the bunker as he gave his charges a tour of the ‘ark’. There was a fireplace with a chimney that stuck up a few feet above the ground. There were seats made of metal that had become rusty. There were four toilets – the long drop affair – and bathrooms that were dry, cracked and full of dust. There were four large bedrooms that could hold at least forty people comfortably.
Salome sobered, replaced her former smile with a bitter scowl until prophet Zilizala continued with his facilitation. Talk of the better of the two and you don’t want to train your eyes on Mwashega by all means. When Mwashega moved forward with a bold gait with purposeful paces in this bunker, Salome went crazy while chewing her lower lip. She remembered the altercation that she had had before and her mind just couldn’t come to terms with realness. Salome loved history and this lecture was very refreshing, to say the least.
“None of these fanatics can recall this; none would ooze with an ounce of past experiences of bunkers.”Salome billowed out of heaviness of heart. Its floor was lined with red bricks; the steel door into the bunker was a heavy mass of alloyed metal, it was set in the ground. The cinder blocks cascaded down as stairs into a spacious lounge — a lounge that opened to a dining area. The bunker enjoyed a fitted kitchen with a store. The walls, thick as shale, had been reinforced with anti-explosive metal bars.
“But what demonic spirit has entered Zilizala’s brain that he can no longer think straight? Did Zilizala and the fanatics not know that the earth would burn with a vengeance, the bunker included if the Lord came in his wrath to end man’s lease on earth from his compounded sins?”Salome saw it as a manipulation from hell on the prophet. Otherwise what other reason could it have been? Salome kept on asking herself. And with that, the Prophet locked the bunker and stashed the keys in his pockets
“A documentary I had watched at school became very vivid. The African rock python coiled around the leg of a wildebeest. In a flash it was all over the innocent animal, it caused it to give up the ghost. In another scene, I saw a rhinoceros viper moving stealthily with its fangs bared; with erect horns on the tip of the nose. I broke into perspiration and shock! What if these reptiles came looking for us in the bunker?” These and the pain of leaving her comfortable bed stalked Salome.
Zilizala, like a chameleon, darted his eyes wildly and he tried to run to the next room of the bunker on this Friday afternoon. His guards on either side of the door followed him, as did the prisoners, while Saida was being supported by Mshomba. Immediately the indwellers entered the common room, another bang much louder than the first went off and the women started screaming. Mwashegha dashed up the stairs to the trap door but a moment later –“What are you – AAARGH!” he appeared to be bouncing down the stairs. As he got up from the floor, a large group of men rushed into the bunker, the crowns on their caps glinting slightly in the light from several lanterns.
“You are all under arrest until we can determine who exactly is at fault here,” declared the man in front as he glared at Mwashegha. From behind the man, Greta stepped into the light. The policemen subdued Zilizala and co into peaceful citizens. The policemen looked neat as usual; their hair cut with beards shaved, their royal uniforms ironed till they looked like they had been starched. They were visible from the flickering lantern lamps.
“Greta!” Salome cried as she rushed towards her, hugging her tightly. “You made it!”
“I told you I was a fast runner, didn’t I?” Greta said smiling. “Mr. Fimbo was only too happy to help,” Greta said excitedly, pointing at the man who had declared all of them under arrest. Salome approached the man and tapped him on the shoulder.
“Yes?” he turned to face Salome.
“Please, sir,” Salome said, “my mother is very ill. Please take her to a hospital as soon as possible.”
“Where is she?” he asked scanning the crowd that was now being handcuffed and led away by the other policemen.
Salome pointed her out.
“Ok. But I will need the rest of you to come with me to the police station to sort this whole matter out.” he said. Salome thanked him and walked away, arm in arm with Greta.
As Salome climbed into the truck with the other twenty-four bunker indwellers, she couldn’t help but feel overjoyed. The smell of the forest was the sweetest scent ever and the birds chirping in this Friday afternoon soothed her body, mind and soul. They had been successful, thanks to Greta. Her mother was dry-eyed and could no longer summon tears but she was sure to get the treatment that she needed.
Salome and Greta created hearty hugs, broad grins and animated chats. Greta had slipped past her father and the prophet, both of whom had been busy trying to stop Salome from escaping. Salome had used herself as the decoy. She had been the bait and the plan had worked. After his arrest, a fear like none other he had experienced settled in Zilizala’s heart. It was evident from his looks when the truth invaded his mind like a bad odour.
He wanted to speak but his tongue proved too heavy for the words to roll on. Salome pitied Zilizala. She had never seen his face in this form: wrinkles, tired-looking lines, and blotchy sagging skin in his messiah-dependency-syndrome. He wore the sympathetic face of a concerned father surrounded by his minders as he whispered to Mshomba’s ears, nodding for every word spoken. He embodied a dream of heaven but remained earthly useless. Deeper scans at Zilizala made Salome feel like laughing at him in these tense moments; his coalition of Mwashega and Mshomba had come to a crashing thud like a house of cards.