By Kennedy Kaula
This part of the river was my favorite. I liked the sight of fishermen and kids swimming. I hated the women who came with laundry. They made unnecessary noise. But they never came often, so they did not really worry me.
Mlela was the only physical feature our village had. It is believed that over a hundred years ago the most holy man in the village drowned in Mlela. Ever since the incident happened, the river turned into a home for various kinds of fish than any other river in the neighboring villages; apparently proving to be of economic value to us. In the rainy season, Mlela does grow muscles although no one has ever drowned in the river. There is a spirit of the holy man under that river working tirelessly for the goodness of the village.
Unlike the fishermen, the kids and the whole village, I found the river so generous in a special way. It offered me the best writing ideas than any place I have ever known. My usual spot was a T-carved stone that lay under a mango tree along the river. No story is told of the person who carved that stone nor do the villagers have an idea why it had to be the letter T. Most people were afraid of that stone so ever since I discovered it, I found the seat empty when I went for my writing. Here, I could write more than I could breathe.
This wonderful morning I headed for Mlela to seek writing ideas. There was a short story competition my brother called from town to tell me about. I told him I was only a poet hence short stories were not really my thing. He insisted on saying a writer is a writer so it was lame to give that excuse. I had to get into that competition. I wasn’t too sure but I promised to write a story and send it to him via the post office. He agreed he would type it and e-mail it as soon as it got to him.
I had read short stories before, in secondary school. I loved them then, but my interest was in performing arts. So in this battle between a poet and a persistent brother in town, Mlela had to intervene.
I was surprised when I saw a person warmly seated on my stone as I neared the spot. It was a lady. She appeared to have been enjoying the usual summer blessings from Mlela: the cool breeze, the twittering birds and the sighing trees. And I only thought by then everyone in the village knew that stone was my God’s given property. I didn’t work hard for it, I agree; it wasn’t my legal property, yes; but we had gotten used to each other. There were times when kids used to go and play on that stone but they all fled into Mlela when they saw me coming. That woman had to be a visitor, for even when she saw me standing next to her, not a single part of her body made a slightest move. She raised her head to look at me.
I was right. She was a stranger. From town actually. Her eyebrows were tweezed and were almost the shape of a hastily written horizontal S. She wore a loose long blue dress that was caught between the dilemma of obeying the gentle pressure from the breeze and trying to stick to her small body. Her light skin was like nothing I had seen in the village before. Mpenja’s daughter was light, yes, but if one got closer for a healthy look one would be disappointed to see stained skin on her face. This one knew the magic of light skinned girls well. She was pretty, and slightly above my age I guessed.
“Hi,” she repeated.
“Oh sorry, Hello. You are not from around here, right?"
“How do you know?” she asked in the midst of giggles.
“Well, because you have taken my seat and it seems you have no idea it is mine. Look, I am standing here.”
She seemed puzzled why a man would claim as his a stone that seemed so natural save for the shape. She moved her small body further to the tail of the T-stone, probably contented with the vigor in my words I was the one who carved it. I understood she meant for us to share the seat; town girls! Well, save for the two centimeters gap that separated town girl from village poet, I rested my body on the rest of the stone and we were both facing the Mlela.
“My name is Grace. So what do you come here for, Mr. Stone-owner?” she was pointing at the notebook in my left hand. “Study?”
The good thing about people who suggest answers to their own questions, my literature teacher once told the class, is that in doing so they grant you permission to lie to them. I debated on whether to tell town girl the truth or simply nod to her suggestion.
“No. Not study,” I turned my face to directly look at her.
“I come here to write. I am a writer. And they call me Siti. Village short for Steven.”
I loved the name Siti which did stretch to as far as Sitivini when most of the funny villagers called me.
“Oh nice. But why here, Siti?”
“Because, here, Mlela dictates and all I do is transfer into my notebook. You barely understand this, I know,” I smiled.
“Contrary, I do understand really. It’s like you leave your mind at home when you come because here, the Mlela thinks for you. It speaks to you through the whispering trees and the giggling children in its waters. With the hooks of those fishermen, Mlela catches your heart and you keep falling in love with it.”
“Wow! That is amazing.”
She had explained it better than I was ever going to put it. Was she a poet too? I would ask her at the end of our conversation, I promised myself.
“And what are you doing here, Grace?” she amazed me so I started to get curious.
“I came here to pass time. There is no power again in the village this morning. I like napping when there is no power, but I guess am now tired of it.”
I didn’t mention, but our village was slowly catching up with development. Four months back, the government brought electricity. Although most of the families spoke highly of how they would buy electrical appliances as soon as electricity set its feet in the village, very few individuals kept their word when it did. Those who bought Television sets had a predictable fate as they all ended up opening video shows that made quite solid profits to be honest. Films translated into Chichewa made noise as one passed by these video shows which were packed with men and children, and sometimes women. They were lucky. Most of us simply enjoyed the pleasure of tube bulbs lighting our houses at night.
Two months later, however, they had started taking back their electricity. We were left with only one thought; that maybe it was an indirect way of telling us we didn’t put it to its best use. Or why else would there be no lights on consecutive mornings, sometimes afternoons and even nights?
“Hey, can’t you write a poem about this?” town girl asked with the air of seriousness on her face.
“Am here to write a short story actually. There is a competition I want to participate in.”
“That’s even better then. You know what, they like stories that tackle serious current issues.”
She is really a writer of some sort, I thought. A serious writer maybe. Otherwise how could she know so much?
She was actually making sense. I looked at Mlela. The river had chosen a unique way to speak to me that morning. On its other side, fishermen occasionally looked at us as they waited for their catch. And they did not have to wait so long. It was as if Mlela was their Jesus commanding them to cast their hooks into the deeper part of the river. They would then struggle to haul their hooks out of the water due to the size of the stuck fish. Those hooks were the heart of so many lives; they kept children in school and brought peace to families.
To our far left, kids swam. They tossed their naked bodies into the river carelessly knowing there was no harm in doing so. Town girl sat quiet. Her delicate dress had so much cloth that some of it driven by the breeze covered my laps. All these acts raised positivity in me. She picked that part of her dress from my laps and tucked it under her right thigh. This was all Mlela’s language. I would have been a fool not to understand it.
“I like the idea, Grace. I like it so much. But how do I put it in a story?”
“I don’t know.” She laughed before continuing, “ask Mlela.” She laughed again. “Well, maybe you will write it the way it is. You will tell them the history of Mlela and how it inspires your writing. You will describe your village and finally get to the power outages issue. Just be honest about it.”
I opened my notebook and took some notes. She seemed delighted to be part of something big in my life. I had questions to ask her – personal questions. I wanted to know how old she was, where she came from, and finally whether she liked me. But it was too soon to disappoint Mlela’s emissary. She had to finish what she came for first.
“And of course you will have to be creative about it, you are a poet you know. Add taste to it by introducing some fictitious turn of events.”
“You are right,” I said as I jotted down her last point.
The sun hit the river with the violence of the summer blaze. With all that heat I was certain the fish were boiling under Mlela. With all that ravening heat I wondered if the fishermen would still need to cook the fish once they got home. Under the mango tree the two of us enjoyed the shade. Town girl noticed a group of men to our right down the river. They were without doubt noble men. They dressed up neatly, one only wondered what they were doing by the river side.
“Look. Those men. That’s not a friendly talk they are having, is it?”
“I don’t think so.”
There were about nine men who were, in a way, arguing; talking with pointing fingers at each other. The fishermen noticed too and they hurried to the scene. I didn’t really want us to go so I kept on giving town girl guesses for what might have caused the argument. After sometime the men stopped arguing and were now walking towards us along the bank. The man who led their way carried what looked like a big sheet of paper. The fishermen followed.
The men were now standing a few meters from where we sat. We learnt from the fishermen that five of them including the one carrying the sheet of paper were from Taniya, our neighboring village. The other four were sent by our chief as delegates on the matter. The paper was unfolded and they all got closer around it. We could hear them clearly.
“See here. This is what I was saying. This is the initial map. Not the one your chief showed us the other day. Your part of the river ends there. The rest goes into our village.”
The man was pointing as boundary a certain big natural tree that stood there for ages. It had been a witness to so many of Mlela’s blessings. It was so respected that when one day Mdoko, the village troublemaker, was caught trying to cut it down he was summoned to the chief’s house where he rubbed off his sin with two goats. The tree healed eventually but the scars Mdoko caused still interrupt the smoothness of its skin.
We had heard that Taniya wasn’t really happy with the boundary between the two villages. The rumor that one day Taniya was going to come and claim part of Mlela grew wider ever since after the holy man drowned and the river flourished.
We never trusted Taniya’s ways of survival. We heard it partnered with a white man who wanted part of the river for something that wasn’t disclosed to us yet. That’s how their chief had betrayed their giant mountain a few years ago. Bull-dozers worked not only tirelessly but also mercilessly bringing the astounding heroic mass of rock down. Our chief would never do that. He had a feel for nature and believed it lamented every time it was destroyed. So he assured us that Taniya would not steal part of Mlela.
Seeing the seriousness on those men’s faces, I knew it wasn’t going to be a battle so easily won. What tampered with my nerves was that the mango tree together with that stone would belong to Taniya if they won the battle. Again, sharing the river with Taniya would anger the old spirit under those waters. Surely the old spirit would escape and legend would then be told in future of a village that once brandished endless godly blessings but ended so badly.
The men argued. Town girl watched with interest until the men, exhausted with all the talking and finger pointing that they kept repeating phrases, left the place.
“So, I didn’t take your seat after all.”
I forgave her delicate sarcasm.
“Our chief won’t let…”
“Oh hey Mr. Stone-owner!” she called out smiling as if she just made a greatest discovery. “Your story. You can include what just happened. Don’t you think it would make a nice story?”
Grace’s cellphone rang and she excused herself. I watched town girl chameleon her way along the river bank as she talked on the phone. Her dress swung. I watched her keenly until she disappeared behind trees where the river bent. Was Mlela taking its emissary back?
She had given me the best short story idea ever. I was going to write about power outages and Taniya’s threat on Mlela. Maybe this was Mlela trying to save itself; saving the Village. Maybe if I won the competition and people in town read the story they would help our chief.
I sat on my stone and kept looking her direction but town girl never came back. Perhaps I should have told her in the first place that I liked her. I tried to cheat my mind that I was still smelling her perfume, but Mlela sent a cold breeze that wiped the trickery away. I was determined to write the story. I looked at Mlela and begged for a story title. I paused for a few seconds and then broke into a laughter.
“Of course it will be titled Mlela,” I said to myself.
And after a few more seconds Mlela had given me the very first two sentences of my short story:
This part of the river was my favorite. I liked the sight of fishermen and kids swimming…