Two men and one woman

Even the headman had been here the day before with the newspaper of last week. Sitting on one of the stools he had talked more about how someone had sent the paper to him “from far away,” than the story itself. He appeared not ready to believe the story as written in the paper. But just before he left, he sighed and said, “This paper here and the story. You know, I am sure this can’t be true.” They had not answered because they had not estimated, in any way at all, that the two uninvited visitors of two weeks ago, a man and a woman, were newspaper people. “If it is happening at all, it must end,” the headman had said. He seemed embarrassed that he had said it himself of all people. It must end now? What did he mean? After all what was “it” that should end? The headman stood and left without saying good-bye. They saw him avoid the gate. Avoiding detection by the villagers? What was he afraid of? He bent at the three-quarter-wire strand and made easy his escape. Mari looked at the woman and smiled and said, “What do you think?” She only lifted the paper and looked at the long passage beneath a line of fine block letters. There were no photographs. And as the headman had said, “At least there are no names too. Names of people would have made things difficult.” Her name was Kubika and to think that the two of them, Mari and Sando, survived on her sometimes spoiled things for them in the eyes of the villagers. They were able-bodied men who could go elsewhere and establish themselves and stop being awkward with Kubika. Mari’s homestead was within walking distance and Sando could just pack and go away the way he had arrived. While Kubika was fiddling with the paper, Mari came in and Sando went out. Sando had to go out. He knew that Kubika would feel better talking about the matter in the paper with Mari when he was outside. Besides, he rarely came close to the house and had it not been the headman who had called him in to see the paper, he would not dare go in there. The house was Mari’s territory and Mari and Sando had made a silent but strong agreement about such a thing. Sando went out and sat in the shade of a big tree in the middle of the compound where they – Kubika, Sando, Mari and the two journalists – sat and talked about many things two weeks ago. First the newspaper people said that they were assessing the crops in the district. But why come here, to this little compound at the edge of the village for the crop assessment and not at Mundindi up there? Mundindi had acres and acres of tobacco. Then the two asked about the rivers Munyati and Hangwa and why they confluence just before entering the Zambezi down here? They thought they were privately testing the ground but Kubika, Mari and Sando pretended that they had not smelt a rat, answering some of the questions to the best of their knowledge. And the visitors finally wanted to know what the three were having here. “Two men and a woman” were the exact words one of them said. That is when Kubika stood up and implored them to go away if they were here to talk about things they had gathered through hearsay. But the two visitors looked unperturbed, like all city people. When Kubika stood up, scuttling the discussion, Mari stood up too in support of her. At least they must put an end to this. Nothing wrong was going on here. The newspaper people reluctantly gathered their papers and left. Once upon a time she had saved Sando from starvation. The drought had been severe. He said he was from the farms where he had worked all his life. The bundle of clothes and a workman’s suit he had on were the only possessions he had. Kubika had said that it was not safe for him to wander on and on at his age. He settled here in her compound and hastily built a hut and a shed. He was very tired, he said and it was time to eat of his hands. Soon he would go down to the river to bath and to set the best fish traps Kubika had ever seen. He said he descended from a line of great fishermen. His fish were tasty and he taught Kubika and Mari how to bake fish by a huge glowing fire. Fish could be stewed or baked and if one was in a hurry, fish could be roasted. Sando didn’t mean much though to anyone in the village except to Mari who thought that he must keep an eye on him. Not really young at all, one could see that, long back, Sando must have been extremely handsome. On a good day he combed his hair and did a straight shade across his head. In line with that neat shade and a raspy-rusty voice, he always struck one as something well imagined by God before creation. He picked and tossed fish over and over on red-hot coals and sucked his burnt thumb loudly. And Kubika would bring her mat to his shed and ask him some questions about his life. He must have lived rough but happily in the past, Kubika thought. Mari heard them chat and laugh deep into the night. He would sometimes rise and emerge, and from the doorsteps of the house, ask if they thought their banter should be a thing of the night-time time at all. Sando would kindly beg her to “go to Mari” and she would do that, rather obediently. The midnight cock would crow and the fisherman would sing a song to himself in his shed and briefly go to sleep. Later he would go down to his nets and traps at the river. Inspecting his traps, picking fish or just lazing on the rocks, Sando would wonder at what Mari meant by leaving his wife and children to stay at Kubika’s. He actually had imaginary conversations with Mari that always ended the same way. “How are you, Mari?” “Fine. I can’t be better”. “Is Kubika in?” “What do you want from her, Sando?” “I have fish, Mari. Good fresh fish for her.” “Give them to me for onward submission.” “I meant to hand them over myself.” “Here give them to me. Come on.” Why can’t I see her, Mari?” “Give, the fish!” “Well, are you her keeper, Mari?” “Sando, you know the truth.” “I don’t know anything.” “I don’t know anything either.” “Pass on the fish, Sando!” “I will.” “Thank you, Sando.” “And please say they’re from me.” But Kubika would emerge from the house and receive the fish on her own and whistled at how Hangwa still had such big fish. Sometimes, in the middle of the night, she would emerge and come to his shed to say “Hello.” He would rise from his nocturnal reverie and marvel at her silhouette especially her oval shaped torso and prominent bust. “Hello, I thought it was time for you to go down to the river.” “Thank you.” “I was only checking on you.” “Thank you” “You are surely going to your nets, down there?” “Yes.” “You will surely bring me a bream!” “I will do that. Is he in?” “Who?” “Him. Mari.” She would laugh, standing right there, a distance from his dying fire and his stomach would rumble for the odd let-us-see-who-amongst-us-will-get-to-that- hill-first game of his youth. He would rise, knowing that she was looking at his every move and put on his shorts, his work-suit and his sandals. He would get to her and say, “How do you like your fish next time?” “Any way. Every fish you prepare is new fish to me. You’ve the hands of an old woman!” Sando liked to watch the waves of river water at sunrise. Baby waves, youth waves, woman waves, men waves and Chief waves . . . The river gave Sando a lot of things. Sometime heaving a sack of fish he would walk into the homestead and find Kubika and Mari sitting on the house’s doorsteps, shelling nuts. Shelling nuts quietly like brother and sister who know how much it is to be together and keep some silence. Often Sondo wondered what those two talked about if they were to talk. She would call out to Sando, “The hunter! See him!” “Not me!” Sando would cry back. Modesty is at the centre of the heart of every fisherman worth the name. “Not me,” he would repeat, going to his shed. He would put down the sickening wet sack of fish, deciding immediately to take a deep nap so that whenever he rose, he would simply gut the fish, wash them, sort them out and get them ready for sale. l To be continued next week

April 2006
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