by Ivor W. Hartmann
I came to South Africa to survive, fleeing from the stone-cold house my country Zimbabwe had become. I sit here now and watch the traffic go by. I re-read this torn and tattered book of near-prophecy a fellow countryman, Dambudzo Marechera, wrote. It’s the only book I own, now, and all that’s legible of the cover title is the word, Hunger. Once I had bookshelves stuffed with the promise of good reading until my dying days. Once I had a real job, car, and house. Once I was good-looking and stood tall with a gleam of distant horizons waiting to be plundered in my eyes. Once, I thought I was a man, now I know I am a mouse.
Yes, I am a mouse, whose only kingdom is this rotted board balanced on bricks that proffers my cheap wares to those who walk past. My sceptre is this book and my throne the graffiti-scrawled concrete wall I lean against. There are others along my road, we have similar kingdoms but they have hair clippers, pay phones, and pirate DVDs, they are men. I have only cheap sweets, cigarettes, condoms, and this tired book I read. The book alone seems to ostracise me from their hollers during the day. What kind of man reads they say with dark looks my way, and I say back with my pink little eyes, I am no man, can you not see, I am a mouse amongst men.
“How much?” asks a youth in a green tracksuit with sparkling-clean, white high-tops. Before I can muster a voice, he takes out a cigarette from an open box and lights it with a match. He knows the answer, all the walkers do. Perhaps he wants to bargain? I know his kind; they hold court two blocks away at a small rundown shopping centre, drugs is their kingdom and the courtesans are many.
“Two rand,” I finally coax out of my hoarse voice box. I can see he is judging whether to pay at all, he puffs up his cheeks and shoots out smoke like an arrow. He takes another deep drag before digging into his pocket and flipping a two rand coin into the air; he is gone before it lands, loping down the street to the shops, his kingdom. The coin bounces off the cardboard, scattering my pyramid of sweets, and lands between my shoes in the dust.
This is the way of things when you are a mouse, a coin in the dirt between these battered, ripped and torn things on my feet that can barely be called shoes. See how my big toe sticks out from the left one, its cracked dirty nail like a warning sign, screaming: Stay back ladies and gentlemen; this one is poor, and who knows what diseases call his body and mind a home. See him grabbling on the ground for one small coin, stay back, stay back, poverty is catchy! I laugh aloud, at and despite myself, which draws a few looks from walkers. I have to calm my laugh down. No point in being marked insane as well as poor, then no one will buy anything from me; because insanity is more infectious than poverty, everyone knows that.
Time, time, time, that is all I have now. It stretches so endlessly before me I think death is perhaps the better option. I am alone in this great world, the sole bearer of all my ancestors—and that load is heavy beyond belief. Gone are all those who once shared the burden, to hunger, to cholera, to empty vitriolic that only feeds grain when elections are due. Like Bertrand Russell once said, ‘If one man offers you democracy and another offers you a bag of grain, at what stage of starvation will you prefer the grain to the vote?’ Well, my family and I took the grain, every time—even before we were starving—and now here I am, alone.
Yet, I endure time—each long day and nightmare-fuelled night—I exist. Perhaps I am just a coward trying to find the bravery to end time. Still, there are moments when time stops without death, I had one this morning.
As I left my tenement and walked down the slick-wet road, from the east came the sun, its lances pierced me through the steaming layers of mist and jewelled tree branches. I was struck-still, glued to the road by the overall splendour winking at me through a billion rain drops struggling fervently against gravity’s clutch and a slight wet breeze. The Japanese call it mono no aware, the sense of the temporal about to rush back in at any moment shattering this time-fragile exquisiteness. It made me want to hurl insults at the sky and get down on my knees to worship.
“How much?” she asks pointing at the pile of toffees with a manicured finger that speaks of clean office toil. Still caught in the memory of the mono no aware I almost say she can have them all, take it all, take my kingdom and walk away just to see the bounce in your step at the kindness of strangers. Because she is radiant, one of the good ones I can see, her face moonbeam-honest and clothes well kept. I need to answer her before those honey eyes change and I watch myself placed in a box called Beware!
“Fifty cents,” I manage to rip out from my dried-saliva stuck lips.
She looks away, thank the gods, before her eyes may change, and begins digging in her purse. I study every line and curve of her face and they whisper to me; of a small room she can call her own, with night class diplomas behind plastic frames, her grandmothers quilt upon a single bed, a small TV and one chair draped with her next day’s outfit ready to wear, rural family and relatives, and of the big city girl who dreams of working her way to the top. I want to embrace her heart and proclaim her to all that may hear: here’s a real human, not me I am just a mouse.
Instead, I smile when she places a two-rand coin into my automatically outstretched palm; a smile that I hoped spoke all I wanted to say without seeming like a grinning mad-mouse. She smiles back! A hesitant, soft smile that just curls her lips and shows her dimples. I’ll take that smile and put it in my heart to take out when the sun is long gone. I will use it as a ward against the night terrors I know await. I will hold it aloft bright and burning as the sun this morning and watch the venomous faces of my ancestors melt away. Relief, from all their burning accusations. Relief, from them all who can only see the end of time through my eyes now.
She takes four toffees and slips them into her purse, a special treat I can see her eating later. Comfort food, a remembrance of home, when and where things were simple and mother’s smile was the only sun a child needed.
“Thank you old man,” she says before turning and walking away, and her hips sway their way away until I can see her no more.
Only then, the old man hits me in the stomach like a cockroach found cooked into my half-eaten dinner, a trailing tsunami after she rocked my world. I’m only thirty-seven you see, and it’s the first time I have ever been called old. This maze of streets has taken its pound of flesh, not with a sharp clean blade, but with the gnawing teeth of a mouse. The street has whittled me away into a grotesque parody of a man. I want to hate her, but how can I? She said what she saw in the nicest of ways and with respect. I want time to end and the thought rolls through my mind leaving gibbers of fear in its echoes.
A police car stops dead in front of my kingdom, its hazards lights blinking out a Morse code of treachery. The two policemen in the front seats don’t even look my way, they stare blankly ahead waiting patiently for their foot soldiers to do their jobs. Sure enough, one sitting in the back gets out and stands on the pavement. He yawns while stretching, showing me his strong clean teeth, before adjusting his cap. I know the drill; it’s like being trapped in the present knowing every future moment in detail. He saunters into my kingdom, his burly body swaying like a tree in a slow wind.
“Hey Pick and Pay, how’s business today?” he rumbles. I can see slight smiles on the other policemen. He also smiles but it doesn’t reach his eyes, they are cold and menacing; this is work after all.
“Not so good today…officer,” I say, trying to plug the dyke of inevitable next.
“Yar, Yar, that is today Pick and Pay. What about yesterday and the four weeks before?” he says and picks up a toffee, slowly unwrapping it before popping it in his mouth.
“Business is bad officer, worldwide recession I read the other day. People aren’t buying as much as they used to,” I say, still trying to change the course of events ahead.
“So can you show me your vending licence?” He gazes steadily at me, his teeth torturing the toffee. He has brought out the big guns to quell what he sees is my fake rebellion. My words, just words, he has heard too many times.
“I have nothing for you vulture!” The words roll out of my mouth as easy as a bulimic vomit and I am instantly terrified upon hearing myself.
His eyebrows shoot up a notch and deep within his dead eyes, a flame kindles. He leans closer his shadow dark over my kingdom. “Listen here, Pick and Pay, you pay up before the end of this week, or we are going to be knocking at your door some night. Because we know where your rat-hole is, and hate doing paperwork. You hear me, Pick and Pay?” He says all this in a quiet whisper that caresses my ears like a black mamba’s tongue.
I look down at my shoes, focusing on my cracked toenail until the shadow slides away and I hear the car door slam. The car pulls away, its engine revving a scream of abuse topped by the piecing blip of the siren flicked on and off quickly. They will be back tomorrow, it’s a certainty, and every day after until I pay them or one night they will knock at my door. It’s the way of the mouse before the owl to try and deny, squeaking in desperate defiance even as the owl’s shadow grows larger tracking every move it makes.
I have upset the order of things. The other vendors crane their heads to look at me; they can sense impending blood in the air like a storm on the way. They shake their heads and talk in low tones to each other. I have rocked the boat. There will be a price to pay and some of them might get caught in its way. None of us has a vending licence; it’s cheaper and easier to pay on the street; everyone is resigned to the arrangement, except me. I have cast a stone into their pond and awoken the Kraken that lies beneath its dark still waters. Even if somehow I can pay them tomorrow or the next day, they are still disturbed and their outrage will find a victim. I am the mouse that has flapped its lips and caused a tempest to brew.
“How much?” asks the schoolboy before me, his knees are dirty and hair mussed. He points to a pack of Rizla rolling papers with teeth-bitten fingernails.
“Fifty cents for one, five rand for a pack.” This boy is headed two blocks down to buy a small star of green herb. The dealers don’t sell papers and the stores won’t let him buy from them. He digs around in his schoolbag searching for change. He has a twenty-rand note peeking out from his school blazer pocket but that’s for the star. I don’t mind selling him the papers; my ancestors know I did the same at his age, better a star than a quart of cheap sherry in the long run. He finds a one-rand coin and slaps it onto my kingdom in victory. I peel two papers from the pack and hand them to him. He carefully slides them next to the twenty and tucks them both deeper into the pocket before setting off once more. There is a spring to his gait I envy, an air of illicit excitement that can only be felt by the young. A time when breaking the rules has less consequences and far more satisfaction.
I notice the sun has drawn an arc to lunchtime and my belly grumbles in agreement. I root around in the cardboard box at my side—wherein my portable kingdom will go come nightfall. I know I have half a coke and quarter of a bread-loaf left. The last of three planned lunches that disguises itself well in the snow drift of empty plastic bags. It’s a small victory finding them, echoes of that schoolboy’s pride. I wonder if that twenty was his lunch money—as I munch the stale bread and wash it down with the warm coke—and whether or not he was hungry or had cadged lunch from someone else. The bread hits my stomach and settles like lead.
I used to drink filter coffee, ten to fifteen cups a day that created a whirlwind in me. I ploughed through mountains of deskwork. I was known as the hardest worker; a man going places that didn’t ever have downwards as a destination. Five years out of high school and I was armed to the teeth with a folder of multiple diplomas and proficiency certificates. The only question of university for me was scholarships and grants I never got. Instead, long days in a Chicken Inn fast food joint and longer nights studying. I courted and finally joined a top advertising agency in Harare, and began to fight my way to the top. At twenty-three, I had those corporate ladder rungs firmly underfoot; shod in Italian handmade leather shoes that could blind at twenty paces in direct sunlight.
With a substantial salary for the first time in my life, next came the house, car, clothes, and nights out on the town; a lifestyle to which I quickly became accustomed. But of all these new ways I most revelled in lazy Saturday morning’s, browsing bookshops and being able to buy whatever caught my eye; brand new, my fingers the first to touch those crisp, clean printed pages. So did Patience, my wife to be.
I saw Patience first, immersed in Yvonne Vera’s Nehanda. I saw her again the next week doing the same thing with the same book, and the week after too. I realised she was probably unable to buy it and reading it in whole right there, in parts. I bought the book, and cloaked in my newfound confidence slipped it into her bag unnoticed with my phone number and name on the last page. She called two days later, her voice soft and sweet.
Our marriage day would mark the beginning of the end, and the richness of that golden time would fuel an opposite, sharpening its teeth to razors with the contrast. That even though in five short years thereafter I worked my way to a media directorship, the salary would soon not be worth the paper it was printed on. Less and less clients, empty offices, eventually unemployment, and the fearful sobs of my wife as our life dissolved around us, would mark the end of my first city life.
We would be moving, moving, moving, from house to flat to shack to back home with my aging parents in the bellowing silence of rural nights, and heat of days digging in fields for crops that would not feed us all. And my son, my boy, my future, my only child, would die for lack of medicine, lack of education, lack of hope, lack, lack, lack.
My wife’s eyes would turn to stone, hard and unforgiving, and drive me to the beer hall to dampen the fire that smouldered in my heart, slowly burning away all that I was and could have been. Those heavy fumes would waft to my tongue one night and loosen it too much, so I would shout the truth at the exact wrong time, and it would leave me with nothing, not even my sanity.
“Hey wise one, is your day good under this cement tree?” Its Chikonzi’s rasp, I smelt him approaching on the breeze. He’s what happens if I lose my kingdom; his hair grimy and twisted with dirty fingers into cancerous dog tails held in place with a blackened strip of cloth. Yet Chikonzi is the best of the beggars I know. He has a dignity about him as if he were a young Buddha tramping the streets as mendicant. I sense his dirt-ingrained wrinkles each tell a story. Yet, he will not even tell me his name. So I call him The Messenger, or in my mother tongue, Chikonzi.
I look around and realise that the sun is low, only a few more hours to go, and the day is good right now. It’s coming on the magic hour when the edges of all things are softened and yet cast into sharp contrasts with their shadows.
“The day is indeed good,” I say and really feel it. He stares at me and smiles seeing the truth. I pass him four toffees in payment, as he knows I know he knows the gift he has given me.
“Where will you go for winter this year?” I ask.
He tears the paper off with his remaining teeth, his brow crinkles even more as he ruminates on my question while chewing with small lip smacks of satisfaction.
“Durban!” He finally lets loose between all four toffee’s stretching between his teeth. “Durban is the place to be in winter. At the sea I bathe once a day and may lick fresh salt from my arms!”
That’s the thing about Chikonzi; he has these well-hidden depths if you follow his words closely. There’s also the duffel bag he always carries like a hump on his back. I saw in there once expecting to see the normal detritus of life on the streets, instead, thousands upon thousands of papers of all sorts covered in the neatest, smallest handwriting I had ever seen. He had spotted me looking and the strangest expression came over his face, as though I had murdered his child in front of him. He ripped the drawstring tight, sealing the contents, and scarpered; wouldn’t come near me for months afterwards.
“Ah, it’s good to be dead my friend, the dead have no names, the dead are invisible,” Chikonzi chortles out mysteriously, and gives me a knowing wink before sauntering off; probably to the few hillside oases that are left where residential homes leave small gaps of freedom.
I watch him for a while as he proceeds up the street, and think in some ways I envy him. He has hit the very bottom and is somewhat happy there. Maybe, it’s because it can get no worse for him apart from actually dying; and that, as I have been pondering much, might be even better, something to look forward to…
The last light flickers and disappears as the sun sinks behind a line of threadbare fir trees. The day is nearly done and I have earned a net profit of thirty rand, a good day, not great, but good, enough to eat for another few days if I keep the meals small, and drink water only. I have to pay rent for my space in the eight-person room in two weeks. However, my nightmares have been too loud recently, and the others who share the room are getting fed up. Unless I can buy a few sachets of cane spirit to drink before bed, the only thing that ensures my nightmares don’t reach the surface. That’s going to dig into the meal money, but it’s either that or start looking for another room. Another nameless hole, filled with new strangers and dangers. Better the devils you know, I’ll buy the sachets on my way home.
“Condoms?” interrupts my slow packing, I look up and it’s a face I know that cuts me like seppuku. I look for recognition in his deep-set beady eyes below bushy eyebrows, but there is none.
“Condoms? Have you got any?” asks Funganayi, displaying on that square face and jutting chin only the usual mild queasiness most condom buyers seem to share. I remember that face vividly above me; the full moon had forever cast a silver memory of its leer as he pummelled me into blood-soaked earth. How I would like to say no, and then leap up and push him into the six o’clock traffic roaring past. This man, this monster, this animal in human form and I, have met before.
“Yes,” I calmly say, and reach under the table to a little bag. “How many?”
He gets a little smirk going before he says “five,” and plunks down a twenty-rand note weighted with a five-rand coin.
I palm five condoms from the bag, but pretend to be still searching. I need time to think. The last time I saw him, he was wearing a uniform decorated with my bloodstains. The week I was exiled, bereft of family, money, friends, or even a passport, to swim my way with only the clothes on my back into new lands, which would hold the promise of starting again, but not fulfil it.
His hand reaches across my kingdom, palm up, fingers cupped, and a familiar expectancy behind every motion. That same hand, which murdered what remained of my wife in front of me, its skin smooth as he always wore gloves when working, thin black moleskin gloves. This man who had done the bidding of his rulers, it seems aeons ago now. I can’t believe he is here and doesn’t recognise me; it makes it worse, as if I was indeed just another pig in a pen. The rage inside me burns white hot. I look behind him, there’s a big truck barrelling down the road towards us, this is it, the moment is now for both of us. I stand…this is it…and place the condoms in his hand.
Funganayi pockets the condoms and walks off, and although I can see myself storming forward scattering my kingdom to the four winds and hauling his surprised face into the truck’s path, he still walks off. I did not stand, I am sitting still, palm outstretched to the empty air.
Ivor W. Hartmann, Zimbabwean writer, editor, publisher, visual artist, and author of Mr. Goop (Vivlia, 2010). Nominated for the UMA Award (‘Earth Rise’, 2009), awarded The Golden Baobab Prize (‘Mr. Goop’, 2009), and finalist for the Yvonne Vera Award (‘A Mouse amongst Men’, 2011). His writing has appeared in African Writing Magazine, Wordsetc, Munyori Literary Journal, Something Wicked Anthology: Volume One, The Apex Book of World SF V2, and other publications. He runs the StoryTime micro-press, publisher of the African Roar annual anthology and AfroSF, and is on the advisory board of WINZ: Writers International Network Zimbabwe.