“The smell of smoke.” The one nearest the door was saying. We both lay on a mat on the floor. A third man was cooking our midday meal in a suffocating corner of the room.
I said, “Does not reach my nose.”
“Blocked noses!” to me. To the third man he was saying, “And you?”
“Me what –”
“Cigarette smell –does it come to you?”
The one who was cooking said, his mind crucified in a distant dark place, “No –it does not.”
“And yet it comes so thick and clear.”
“I’m cooking,” he was saying gruffly. “The smell of what I cook is a hindrance.”
The smell reached me. I said, “I now catch it.”
“Indeed! Don’t you?” the second man was saying with relief.
I nodded, then added with venomous whisper, “You must look who it is –it can only be the fool.”
He rose, reached the door, and we heard “House must remain vacant today.”
The one who was cooking clicked wrathfully. His right hand which gripped the ladle halted. “I will one day murder with my bare hands. –Not even the death of a tenant reduces the greedy punctuality of care-takers in the slums of this city!”
We two angrily joined the one at the door, confronted the smoker almost simultaneously: “Not today: tomorrow. You must give us time.”
“No,” he was saying, “today. –A new tenant comes in today.”
The third man said, angrily, “We are not begging: we are telling. –You can evict us.”
The care-taker was leaning on the concrete wall, visibly shaken by the sight of the three of us in a lawless depth of the slum. A dry, gaping mouth. The cigarette stick between two fingers decomposed with a coiling smoke.
Our unbending threats forced him to give in at last with sacks of anger and hurrying away, spitting. “I give you tomorrow only –tomorrow is last…”
Above our heads in the heart of the sun wind was a nuisance. Under a burning slum heat the roof creaked with brown rust like a pestering ghost; pressed in the cracked walls were ripe abdomen, clean wings and hairy feet of a thumb-size cockroach; the crumbling dark corners web-festoons –racks for the dead with hollow bellies and bound wings, and owners buying time on eight feet and a dangerous pair of turquoise gleams; and a rat’s tail constantly bothering the floor with swift, mocking crossings as if contesting ownership with us. Outside was laughter of children. And nude sewage smell, garbage universe, old clothes dangling on lines, the hen and her chick, lone goat, and the dog bending on an old bone with the belligerent sound of canines…
* * *
After the meal I was saying to the third one, “He finished his journey –your brother.”
“He did not take three days after we arrived home,” he was telling us.
The second one was saying, “These clothes remind me of him.”
One of us said, “Especially the blue one.”
I said, “I remember him most with that mirror on the chair.”
“He once found me holding it, looking myself in it. Then he had said, courageously: ‘I stopped using that mirror. When I held it last in my hands I saw a round, black face.’’
“Did he say that?”
The second one said, “Judging by that photograph, the disease had reduced him to bones.”
It showed him jolly, bulging with health.
“Me,” one of us was saying, “I remember best his voice talking long into the night till we were all asleep.”
“–And his footsteps pacing the dark floor as he hurries to pass urine out in the yard,” the third one said.
“I remember best the look of his face suspended, frozen somewhere abruptly by the striking lightning of death –a frozen absence.” I said.
Each of us seemed rapt in memories of him…
“It is strange,” I said again. “The flesh and bones which used to fill that coat on the wall is now no more.”
The third one said, “No more. –It is now under the earth.”
The second one was saying, “Even there under the earth he is a tattered thing now. –Don’t they say bodies burst after three days?”
I was saying, “I dread the idea of death. –Our three bodies here will disappear from the face of the Earth.”
We were laughing at the cruelty of it.
The third one was saying, “It sounds bad. –It is good the soul is eternal. It lives forever.”
“But is that true?”
“I do not know,” the third one was saying. “It is what they say.”
I was saying, “I doubt it myself.”
The second one was saying, “It is the only way man can hide his face from the horror and terror of that thought.”
The third one asked, “But what thought?”
“The thought of dying.”
“What I dread most,” I was saying, “is that in dying, the whole universe becomes your sworn enemy. It denies forever the very truth that you ever lived. You begin to exist only in people’s minds –which is hopeless.”
* * *
The night of the next day some of us walked to the sewage stream and plucked pink wreaths of the bougainvillea flower. These we hung onto the red grills of the door, and threw a few over the creaking roof. Neighbours and friends who knew him sat in the house with us through the night; marijuana smell and the tin lamp burning, the black soot rising. When dawn came we cleaned the floor with water. Then we packed his wooden bed, blue chairs, clothes and all luggage into the hired van; and coldly left behind us the open door before the care-taker would arrive, smoking…
© NDAGO ABENEA ODHIAMBO 2009
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