Wake up reptile! I slapped the guard’s head. “Thieves are stealing the garden chairs.”
The awakened guard snatched up his stick and blew his whistle many times until spit was flying from his mouth. I confiscated his whistle. The compound was still asleep and I did not want their dreams disturbed.
“Not here stupid.” I yanked him up by his shirt collar and pushed him onto the lake path. “The terrible thing is this way!”
I knew about the theft because Mistress Gail had called to me with her Green Death voice. It was a voice of fear; named after a snake we called Green Death. But there was no snake today. Instead, I found Mistress Gail on the veranda that overlooks Lake Tanganyika and she was pointing to shore. Three men toted her garden chairs on their shoulders and they were running for the lake waters. They moved fast, as if the Green Death himself chased them.
By the time the befuddled guard and I reached the shore, there was little hope. The thieves had surprised us. They were cheeky and struck just before the sun changes place with the moon. The morning gods had breathed a mist onto the lake and a dhow hid in their blessing. The thieves had piled the chairs into the furtive dhow and sailed away, ushered by western winds. Fishermen, hunched at their nets, gaped at the passing vessel. I saw one of the thieves raise his middle finger to the paralysed audience. None thought to chase the insolent dhow.
Pursuit eluded me for I did not know how to swim. Instead, I summoned the guard and headed back for the house. On my way, I saw a small sun on legs walking quickly towards the shore. It was Mistress Gail. The morning sun had found the gold that lived in her hair. Alarmed, I waved her away, and the guard shouted, but it was no use.
Forbidden by compound security from walking the great white shore of the lake without an escort, Mistress Gail behaved otherwise. They said the shore hid many dangers that might consume a foreigner in the way a crocodile drags prey to the depths of a watery grave. For example, rabid monkeys (said to have been misunderstood vultures in a former life) were prevalent, and worse, vagrants called the Red-Eyed Maggots dwelt in the wild green bush near the lake--and they might snatch Mistress Gail. I noted the sly smoke snaking from their morning fires in the bush, signalling that hidden eyes observed the strange proceedings. But Mistress Gail did not give a bugger about boundaries. The world, she said, paid too much attention to boundaries and that was why it was in such a bloody mess!
In months past, Mistress Gail had contributed greatly to the fatigue of the compound guards while presenting her torments to the lake, much as a devotee places offerings before an altar. The receptive freedom within the giant ear of the lake cheerfully absorbed the vomit of her grief and confession, her wrath found even in the pebbles she flung into its waters. On this morning though, the lake had mocked her trust and betrayed their tryst of serenity.
Mistress Gail allowed the dark lake waters to inspect her toes while her eyes followed the fading dhow. I prodded her shoulder. She smacked my hand, as if a mosquito was about to stab her. Mistress Gail appeared to be trapped in a remote trance and nothing could deter her scrutiny of the lake. Fear had begun to retard my instincts. Alerting my mistress demanded drastic measures.
I examined my options.
Carrying Mistress Gail would make easy cargo, even at a run, but she might shriek and thus alert the variety of predators. A decision came to me. Bending to the waters, I relieved the sweat from my legs. Then cupping my hands, I scooped large dollops of water and showered Mistress Gail.
“Petal!” She looked up. “Where the bloody hell have you been?” Ignoring the guard I shoved at her feet, she lifted her hands to the lake, blinking as if sand had caught her eyes.” Those fucking vandals.” Seldom does Mistress Gail swear. She teaches the servants that profanity in any language shows a poor vocabulary.
“Mistress Gail," I said, "the security people will be waiting at the house.” We had pressed the red panic button in the house, for emergencies only.
“Why the fuck aren’t they down here? So much for bloody response time. We could have had our throats slit by now.”
”We are too far away. They don’t know about the chairs, but we must hurry home and tell them.” The fresh corpse of a fish eagle lay nearby, waiting to be claimed. Shaped like a scythe, its black beak cut into the sand. Soon, the misunderstood vultures would scream down from the trees to bite or to play. The Red-Eyed Maggots would emerge and compete with the ants in their hunt for scraps left over from the activities of the night.
Keeping close to the waters edge, I set off, urging Mistress Gail into a fast walk. I preferred to run, but that would show fear. The damp sand copied our footprints, pulling at my legs, but I could not heed their need to rest. An additional obstacle arose to interrupt our urgent progress to the distant house.
Ahead on the shore was a group of villagers who had witnessed the happening. Some pointed at Mistress Gail. I did not like the look of them. They were poor and the poor are short on entertainment and therefore unpredictable. As our peculiar entourage passed, the villagers stepped back, for I was of a different tribe. Taller and stronger, the skin of my noble bone structure was closer to colour of night than theirs. The guard followed me like a nervous jackal.
The villagers were discussing the chairs in earnest, declaring that those who had sat on the chairs saw visions of diverse foreign lands that lay beyond edge of the lake. It was said that Mistress Gail used the chairs for mind enrichment workshops, whatever that meant, but clearly, they were instruments of deceit. Her teachings invited a restless spirit into the minds curious enough to believe her strange ideas. Perhaps the gods had decided that enough was enough and instructed the thieves to take the chairs. Too much knowledge would drive the people to seek these other lands and the ailing village would die.
I considered ignoring their judgment and walking on. Confronted by the unknown, the crowd was skittish and a sudden move from me would prompt them to scatter. But I knew their superstition was a spark better smothered, for by the time the news reached the village, the fable would behave like a fierce fire.
I chose to rescue the reputation of the chairs. Etched into their smooth wood as light as a visiting butterfly, were patterns and colours unknown to me. As if reading Braille, I would shut my eyes letting my fingertips patrol the arms of the chairs. I traced the leaps of large amethyst fish said to think and feel as humans do. I wanted to leap where these brave fish leapt. I followed the wings of swift birds whiter than the moon that raced with stars. I wanted to race the stars that these bold birds raced. I probed the carved panoply of extraordinary fruits said to harbour nectar for gods I did not know, promising sweetness my tongue did not know.
It was true that the chairs could take a mind elsewhere and question that which lived elsewhere. But they were not bad magic. Mistress Gail said an intuitive person should know the difference between good and bad karma and should run like a cheetah from bad karma. According to my perceptions, the chairs had good karma.
Guiding Mistress Gail behind me, I stopped and faced the crowd. Animal skins with happy colours, painted with potions of pigment from the blood of wounded trees, decorated their thin shoulders, but the colours did not warm their eyes, nor transform the darkness in their vacant stomachs.
They became still and waited for my words.
“The chairs have no magic.” I said. “The foreigner uses them to teach English to the servants and the children. That is all.” They turned away, preferring the decision from the gods. Disapproving gods would explain their current hardship. The crops in the lands yielded little. The clever fish in the lake hid from their nets. Sickness afflicted their animals. The cattle were off-colour, the rebellious chickens laid few eggs, and naughty pigs had dug up a human corpse and eaten it. Such gluttony must infuriate the ancestral spirits.
“Petal?” Mistress Gail tapped my arm. ”What are they jabbering about?”
”Nothing, Mistress Gail. They are sorry for your misfortune.”
Handing the guard his whistle I spoke in his language. “Get rid of them.” Deciding that swearing was necessary, I added, “Do it properly or may a fucking big rat bite off your testicles.”
The guard swung his stick without mercy and the villagers fled to their huts. Except for one. I had noticed him before in the village for he had only one ear. A pig had eaten the other. He side stepped the guard and spat at Mistress Gail calling her a white witch who brought trouble.
The hazardous venom missed its target. Avoiding a second strike, I snatched Mistress Gail’s hand and we ran for what seemed a very long time. Upon reaching the veranda steps leading to the house, I remembered the abandoned guard. Looking back at the shore, all I could see was his arm dipping and flicking sand as if digging a hole. I bellowed for him to cease bludgeoning the one-eared striker, but while ascending the steps, Mistress Gail intervened.
“Oh leave them. A good hiding won’t hurt that filthy creature.”
Blossom, the cook waited at the top of the stairs. Imposing as a buffalo, her stoic form was a comfort. Blossom thought herself to be a mute, unless she was sitting on the chairs when a word or two might explode from her mouth. Mistress Gail declared her silence normal. Clearly, Blossom was too disappointed in the world to offer opinion. Frost, the gardener had come from the village informing Blossom about the shore catastrophe. Hastily bound, her orange turban had begun to unravel, revealing clues to her state of mind.
Blossom’s head lunged to the right, and she shuffled aside to reveal the presence of a visitor. Dressed in full regalia, Police Inspector Matata stepped forward, saluting Mistress Gail. His purple uniform, an optimistic testament to better days annoyed me. Inspector Matata never wore his uniform unless allotted the task of pacifying foreigners who for some reason respected uniforms. I knew his rhetoric would not retrieve the chairs.
“Inspector Matata!” said Mistress Gail. “At last competent help has arrived. Please sit down.” She gestured to where the chairs used to sit beneath an impervious Bungu tree overlooking the veranda. Now, there was only the Bungu tree and a forlorn table. She tidied her hair. ”Sorry Inspector Matata, as you can see I no longer possess garden chairs. But that is why you are here and not that bloody useless security company. To find the chairs!” Mistress Gail smiled and turned to me. “Petal, please fetch the dining room chairs. Blossom, tea will be in order. No, on second thoughts bring rum; I could do with a Jack Tar.”
Disapproving, I fetched the rosewood chairs. Mistress Gail’s husband, who was away most of the time in the lands building flushing toilets for medical clinics, cherished his rosewood chairs and they were not for outdoor use. More disturbing was that Mistress Gail never drank alcohol, let alone vile Jack Tar. This was one of many differences between Mistress Gail and other western compound women, who by siesta time had consumed copious amounts of rum unless it was tennis afternoon at the foreigner country club.
Holding out a chair for Mistress Gail I allowed Inspector Matata to seat himself. Blossom placed the drinks tray onto the table and the glasses shuddered, indicating her disapproval of alcohol at this early hour. Mistress Gail had not offered Inspector Matata a choice of beverage and Blossom shuffled off not caring to remind her.
Gathering discarded Bungu leaves littering the veranda, I watched Mistress Gail lean expectantly to Inspector Matata, who fortified by an urgent gulp of Jack Tar, was preparing to speak.
"Mistress Gail, I have come to inform you that we deeply regret the theft of your chairs.”
“But how do you know?” said Mistress Gail. “Oh of course, news travels fast.” She saluted. “Then I take it you have someone onto the chairs right away. Excellent! Thank you Inspector. Please," she refilled his glass, “shall we toast swift justice?”
Inspector Matata declined, but held onto his drink. “Mistress Gail, sadly we do not have the resources to hunt for your chairs. I have no policemen to deploy! We and the security company for that matter have joined forces in preparation for an important visit.”
“What visit?” Mistress Gail frowned at me. I was on my knees ferreting under the table for disobedient Bungu leaves.
“An important dignitary!” Inspector Matata sipped his drink swilling the rum as if it were brandy.
“Well?” Said Mistress Gail.
Inspector Matata smiled. “The Ambassador of Akuna is coming to stay. Here, in this very village Mistress Gail! His attention to our community could be highly beneficial. Is this not bloody wonderful? It is my pleasure to invite you to his reception. Security for such an entourage is vital. Certainly you will understand that at a time like this your chairs must wait.” He reached out his hand awaiting her congratulation.
Mistress Gail snubbed his celebratory gesture. “Inspector Matata, I don’t give a flying fuck who is coming to town. The law is the law. I want those thieves apprehended and I want my chairs.”
“Your reaction disappoints me. I thought such news would excite you.” Inspector Matata swayed and pulled his frayed gloves from the table.
Abandoning my Bungu leaf pantomime, I hovered. Sipping rum from the bottle, Mistress Gail was becoming excited in a dangerous way.
“Why would I be excited about some fucking third world dictator?”
Inspector Matata turned to leave and then paused.
“Mistress Gail, there is one other option regarding your chairs.” He flicked an ant from his glove. ”A certain amount of money might assist us in tracing your chairs. We do have non-policemen who may be interested in such work.”
“You mean ‘hoods’, don’t you Inspector Matata? Yes, you probably have an army of them. I will not endorse such sick corruption. Tell that partner of yours from the security company that he is not getting another cent from me.” Clutching the bottle of rum, she waved him off the property and staggered inside.
I watched Inspector Matata’s bicycle navigate an unsteady exit and contemplated visiting the village witch.
Mistress Gail respected all beliefs but had difficulty understanding why our people had to wake their ancestral spirits every five minutes for advice. She said our ancestors had slaved on this earth and deserved to sleep in the afterlife. The living should call on the marriage between instinct and common sense for counsel. Choosing to employ this union, I adopted the strategy of business as usual.
The ensuing days asked much of me. I supervised the confused household, ensuring it was safe. Mistress Gail ordered me to send a runner with a note for her husband.
The note said, ‘Take me back to fucking civilization!’
I burned the missive. Mistress Gail’s husband worked in the lands too far for telephones. Building flushing toilets for the people was an important undertaking. Holding fast to my quest for knowledge, I needed time to hunt for the chairs. Mistress Gail refused to teach. Comforting disappointed pupils, I blamed illness as a temporary setback. Although everyone knew, the real reason was the absence of the chairs. Blossom repeatedly jabbed me with the book of, ‘The Little Red Hen,’ indicating her need for reading lessons.
“Patience, Blossom, patience!” I said. “I have much to think of.”
Fearing my aggressive threats, the compound guards were ever vigilant. On certain days, I imagined more snakes in the compound than usual and saw the bludgeoned one-eared man behind every tree. The one-eared man and the compound guard had vanished from the shore. Perhaps the Red-Eyed Maggots had claimed them. But still, the one-eared man roamed. I insisted that Frost the gardener mow the lawns in one day instead of two and made him climb the Bungu tree to look for Green Death snakes.
Usually, if Frost found a snake he was to call Mistress Gail and she would bring her snake book and identify the nature of its venom. Preserving the eco system was paramount, she said, therefore, harmless reptiles should go free. In her absence, Frost killed them anyway, for a snake was a snake even when it was a dead snake! In sympathy for Mistress Gail’s depression Frost allowed the harmless their liberty.
"Frost!" l clipped his ear and sliced an innocent Mole snake in two, “Don’t be a bloody idiot! Kill all threats. Do not even spare the Mistress Gail’s bloody beloved singing tree frogs. They too are poisonous!” But while listening to the new silence of the murdered tree frogs, still I heard nothing of the chairs.
Mistress Gail’s bond with Jack Tar began to dilute her relationship with reality. She snubbed the lake and remained inside the house often in the company of the fatuous foreign compound wives, groaning for civilization. I could not distract her. Mistress Gail no longer rode her bicycle to the village where she would comfort aids babies and the diseased infirm. Her bicycle stood in the shed serving as a refuge for rain spiders.
The village children mourned her teaching and presented her with a medley of English songs. Yellow mucous bubbled in their crusted nostrils retarding their voices but their spirit sang from their empty bloated stomachs. Lounging at the back door, Mistress Gail applauded their valiant effort then instructed Blossom to feed them. She then resumed her search for a fresh bottle of Jack Tar and not the books and crayons the children craved.
Mistress Gail soon found the Jack Tar, but Blossom confiscated the bottle, clamping it in her hard-as-wood fist. Blossom propelled Mistress Gail out into the backyard and pointed to her prize red chicken. The bird had taken up stubborn residence in the middle of a garlic patch. Mistress Gail slurred that she empathized with the bird for ignoring reality and disrupting its unusual perch would be an insult. Blossom handed her the bottle. In these strange times, an opinion was an opinion.
Time was spiteful. A week passed and my spies in the village were silent. Fascination with the antics and vast wealth of the flamboyant Ambassador Akuna had upstaged the village preoccupation with the chairs. Studying the crimson smudges of dawns and sunsets, I saw no wisdom written. Also, men were infiltrating Mistress Gail’s drunken soirees. The owner of a game farm, a dark haired foreigner, coveted Mistress Gail. Foreign client’s would visit and pay him big money to shoot his imprisoned lions, cheetahs and elephants. Mistress Gail had labelled him a murderous bastard yet under the spell of Jack Tar, she invited his attentions. Perhaps I should have despatched Mistress Gail’s notes to her husband, the man she called her Sweet Sir Galahad.
One late afternoon, sitting on the ground beneath the snakeless, frogless Bungu tree, I listened to my friend Kiki read from her favourite book, ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles.’ My concentration stuttered, as did Kiki’s elocution, without the reassuring chairs. Kiki was a prostitute and Mistress Gail advised she had rights to insist her clients wear condoms, for to lie with a man without one was to receive an injection of death. Since the arrival of Ambassador Akuna’s entourage, business was brisk. Kiki asked for more condoms.
“This is the last box,” I warned, “saving Mistress Gail is impossible and I cannot find the chairs. I am tired.”
Kiki shook her dreadlocks speckled with red beads; a style Mistress Gail called her statement against Aids. “Wait Petal!” She said, “I consulted the witch. She said the chairs are in a place where fools play.”
"That could be anywhere," I said.
“Yes,” conceded Kiki, “here is a fool now.”
Pestering the dusty compound road was the camouflage jeep belonging to the murderous bastard game farmer. He parked at the veranda entrance.
"Stay here Kiki." I went to greet the murderous bastard, but Mistress Gail swayed out to meet him. The dark man kissed her hand. His driver alighted from the vehicle. It was the one-eared man from the shore. I swallowed a bubble of vomit before it seeped through my mouth.
“Petal,” said Mistress Gail, “the gentleman is staying to dinner. Blossom has the menu. Find Frost and arrange for more Jack Tar.” She led the murderous bastard inside.
I shouted for Frost but no reply came. Kiki, ever curious, swaggered up to the visitor. “Stay here and watch him,” I whispered to Kiki, and then I faced the one-eared man.
“You look prosperous.” I said. The one-eared man was dressed as a westerner and he bore no scars from the shore beating. It appeared that his superstitious tradition was an easy sacrifice to prosperity.
“Yes." He said, “Now I work for a wealthy man. I am a tour guide.” His eyes had forgotten the shore incident. They assessed Kiki.
“Please excuse me.” I said, “I must hurry to the tavern for refreshments. My friend Kiki will keep you company.”
I fetched the rusty wheelbarrow from the shed now used to ferry frequent purchases of Jack Tar, and set off for the tavern on the other side of the hill devising new methods of torture for Frost. Behaving like a chameleon, Mistress Gail had betrayed me. Furthermore, she had debased herself, perhaps beyond redemption, by her moral defection to the persona of a typical compound wife. Had I summoned her husband sooner circumstances would not be as grim. My eager progress in the exciting world of enlightenment now flailed in darkness, like a bat struggling in light. Guiding the wheel of the barrow jauntily bumping its way down the rocky hill path, I resolved to send a note to Mistress Gail’s husband post haste.
Reaching the psychedelic sign of the Matata Tavern I saw revellers packed like cockroaches trapped in a drain. Squashed onto rough benches they sipped the potent brew of Chibuku beer and thumped the tables to the dense rhythm of drums. I elbowed my way through the mirth and sweat looking for irresponsible Frost. I spotted him and pulled him out by his crotch. Then I saw the chairs.
Cordoned off, they sat exalted in their simple beauty from the morass of patrons, like sporadic white teeth in a diseased mouth. Villagers queued, some of whom I recognised from the shore, waiting to surrender their meagre earnings for a turn to sit on the chairs. I surmised that, the mystic chairs, along with the help of a pottery jar filled with Chibuku beer, elevated their minds for a time, from a wilderness of hardship. Policing the queue like a sturdy warthog was the greedy face of the tavern owner Mrs Matata.
The sight of chairs cleared the heavy boulders of responsibility that squashed the fruits of inspiration in my mind. Tempted though I was, confronting the wife of police inspector Mr Matata was foolish. Informing Mistress Gail about the chairs courted the possibility of an ugly scene, for Jack Tar would speak, and not Mistress Gail. However, there were other ways to outwit fools and these I pondered.
“Frost," I said, releasing his shrunken crotch. “ Fill this barrow with Jack Tar and hurry home before darkness comes. Catch two Green Death snakes, put them in a sack and wait at the Bungu tree.”
Strengthened by the armour of a new strategy, my step was light in the orange dusk as I climbed the hill home. As instructed, Frost waited under the Bungu tree. He lifted a sack containing the Green Death snakes.
In the backyard, I found Kiki and the one-eared man preparing a night fire. Blossom’s red chicken glowed in the dark garlic patch and clucked with the shrill night crickets. Besotted by Kiki, the one-eared man greeted me. The guard in his eyes had exchanged places with the bold language of lust.
“I want to lie with Kiki," he declared.
“All men want to lie with Kiki,” I said steadying Kiki’s protesting dreadlocks, "but her price is very high. She seeks a man with the heart of a lion.”
“What would such a man do?”
“He would be brave enough to steal the chairs at the Matata Tavern. They belong here, not there. You know the chairs I speak of.”
“I will do this for a night with Kiki.” Said the one-eared man. “When my master beds Mistress Gail, I will take the jeep and fetch the chairs.”
Policing such evil intentions was the pure white moon and I was grateful for her company.
Checking on Blossom in the kitchen, I found her preparing bread and butter pudding for the murdering bastard guest. Blossom stamped her foot, snorted and spat snot into the dish.
“Blossom!” I said, “You will never find work in a western hotel if you do such things.” I trailed her steps to the dining room. The murdering bastard’s lips played with Mistress Gail’s mouth and breasts. The lovers descended to the floor, their appetites excluded bread and butter pudding.
Running out to the backyard fire, I signalled to the one-eared man to take the jeep. He departed. l told Blossom to wait in the kitchen and press the panic button upon my signal. She frowned. “If you do this,” I said, “Then I will read ‘The Little Red Hen’ to you a thousand times!” Blossom nodded.
Kiki and I met Frost at the Bungu tree. A lantern guarded the sack holding the Green Death snakes.
“Petal,” whispered Kiki, “I cannot lie with the one-eared man even for the sake of the chairs! I have elevated my standards in this world.”
“We all have. Well most of us,” I answered, noting the light and loyalty die in Mistress Gail’s room. I hoped the murdering bastard was a slow lover. “Kiki,” I said, “as soon as the one-eared man brings the chairs, take him to my room. When I knock on the window scream for dear life.”
Providence was generous and it was not long before the returning jeep lights probed the compound. The one-eared man revealed his bounty and strutted off with Kiki. Assisted by the moon, Frost and I carried the precious chairs and placed them home beneath the Bungu tree.
“Now Frost, “I said, “take the Green Death sack; put it in the jeep, open the sack and then fly away like a bat.” Frost did as he was told and flitted like a bat into the darkness.
Leaping like an antelope, I knocked on my bedroom window and Kiki screamed like a wounded elephant. I ran to the kitchen and Blossom pounded the panic button as if it were doe. The lights in the house surged with an energy rivalling the moon. Mistress Gail staggered out shouting for me.
“Petal! Is it a Green Death snake? “She asked, covering her eyes in the light, her elevated arms exposing her mauled breasts.
“No Mistress Gail,” I watched the murdering bastard and the one-eared man flee in the jeep like hyena’s banished by feasting lions. I hoped that they would take the lake road to the Red-Eyed Maggots and the misunderstood vultures.
“Oh.” Mistress Gail did not ask the whereabouts of her lover. ”Turn off the lights then Petal. I will let the security company know it was a false alarm. Should they care to respond!”
Following my Mistress inside, my nostrils resisted a cloud of Jack Tar and Cuban cigars. Still firmly fastened to her waist was the victory of Mistress Gail’s sarong - evidence that the murdering bastard had only bitten his way as far as her navel.
I did my rounds. The servants fled to their beds. No doubt, they would twitch in their sleep. Straightening the rosewood dining chairs I shoved the damning evidence of Mistress Gail’s sullied lace bra into my pocket. Later I would burn it. Abandoning the garlic patch, Blossoms red chicken perched on the dining room table and pecked at the bread and butter pudding. Eat bird, I said, eat. Penning a note, I summoned Mistress Gail’s Sweet Sir Galahad home. A man who built flushing toilets, possessed the heart of two lions and therefore would be a match for Jack Tar. Then I could resume my education.
“Good night Petal,” My mistress called, “I am so very tired.”
Yes, you must be, I thought, watching the moon polish the chairs.
The insomniac birds living in the Bungu tree would also anoint them with bird #####, but Mistress Gail would enjoy an unusual morning surprise. After breakfast, when Blossom's herbal hangover potions and poultices had revived Mistress Gail, I would suggest she attempt reconciliation with the lake. Clearly, Mistress Gail had much to confess.
Phillipa Medley was born and bred in Zimbabwe and now resides in South Africa. Although occupied in the field of Mechanical Engineering, she has been experimenting with the craft of fiction since June, 2001. Her work has been published in other literary publications including Quick Fiction.