Writer,Sandra Shippy, Sandra Johnson, short stories, radio plays, DIVERSITY website
Ajaka stood on the veranda that ran along the length of the house. He carefully loosened his collar the merest sliver to allow his body to breathe in the warm, moist evening heat. The dry, dusty clicking of the night feeders framed the background of his thoughts. His eyes swept the small clearing in front of him, a distance of some ten feet before the jungle began to encroach.
It was backbreaking work to keep it away from this last bastion of civilisation, but as a minor government official, it was necessary, so the houseboy, Lata, laboured mightily to maintain it. He, Ajaka, occasionally helped out at the weekend, but only occasionally mind, as befitted his standing. One side of the house lay at the end of the government maintained dirt road so there the work was not as intensive.
He sat down in the large cane chair and eyed the solitary glass of whiskey on the small round wicker table sourly. He permitted himself two short measure drinks every night, one directly after dinner and the other, half an hour before retiring. He was a man of habit and routine, neither of which could he bear to have disrupted with any equanimity.
‘It was a fallacy’ he thought ‘that Indians could not hold their liquor. A fallacy put about in the days of the Raj.’
He pursed his lips and a slight ‘phtaah’ of dismissal escaped them. Nevertheless, in case there should be even the slightest modicum of truth in it, two drinks were all he allowed himself. He could conceive of no worse fate than that of the loss of control and dignity; he could bear even the loss of his beloved wife Marmoura with greater aplomb than that of ‘face’. Besides, the whiskey was expensive and he could not, in his present position, afford to purchase more than one bottle a week.
He smiled to himself as he heard the birdlike sounds of Marmoura singing behind him as she cleared the supper things away.
‘Like a dove my Marmoura, like a cooing dove’ the thought fled peacefully through his brain soothing the pains of the day away along with the whiskey.
His eyes closed momentarily in blissful contemplation of his life.
He had Marmoura, his job and his home. His position was still a fairly lowly one here in this backwater, (more that of lackey than official if he were to be honest) but he chose to ignore that. Keeping track of the movements of local villagers in and out of town, watching for signs of smuggling, poaching or general wrongdoing was, after all, of significance. Promotion could come any day now. Would come any day if his industriousness had anything to do with it and then he and Marmoura could move to town, have two servants instead of one – and a surly one at that. Life would be good.
He could see Lata, his broad back muscles rippling; the colour of dark cocoa as he wielded the machete that sliced and beat back the undergrowth. The thought of Lata, young, strong and somehow….. demanding, slithered its way though his mind, breaking its contented rhythm, causing him physically to move restlessly, first one limb and then another.
He could never understand why it took so long for one so fit to cut so little. And the looks, the looks he gave. They drove Ajaka to the edge of fury those looks did. Insolent, disdainful and – worst of all – somehow knowing. And he, he Ajaka could say nothing – nothing. For what was there to say? Lata never disobeyed, never uttered a word of refusal or argument. But he, Ajaka, he knew dumb insolence when he saw it.
‘Dumb insolence’ he breathed aloud, the flat of his hand drumming a small, insistent tattoo on the edge of the little wicker table. He drew in a deep breath. He must remain calm. It would never do to allow a mere houseboy to ruffle the mind of an educated man such as himself. A man in charge. A man on his way up in the world while Lata would surely remain what he was. A humble village boy.
He smiled complacently, his eye lighting on the faint shadow of the track that ran off to the left of his house, wending its way through the jungle to the village. Twilight obscured it even more than normal, the foliage shoulder height on either side, its width sufficient only to accommodate one person. Two meeting face to face would necessitate one or the other pressing themselves flat against the all-encompassing jungle while the other passed. The thought of ticks or worse, slowly creeping from leaf to leaf to the innocent, unsuspecting flesh of the person giving way, caused him to shudder.
His mind made the swift transition from one possible danger to another. He must get word to the villagers about the tiger he mused, although it was not yet pressing.
Today, when he had called at the local office in Nadaz to spend time in chat and rich, syrup like coffee served in tiny cups, its dark liquid slipping like a soothing balm down his throat, Matiz had told him about the tiger. A man-eating tiger.
It had been sighted a week ago some thirty kilometres from this area. A small child had been lost from one village; a woman washing clothes by the river from another. Their bodies, or what was left of them, had been found by anxious relatives. Matiz told him all this as they talked, his plump body dark with sweat around the waistband where his trousers met his shirt.
‘Barely met’ thought Ajaka disdainfully. He had been sure the zip would break at any moment and had averted his eyes from the sight, smiling politely as Matiz elaborated and embellished (as was his way to puff himself up with more importance) the momentous news.
Matiz was somewhat lower in position than Ajaka and, normally, Ajaka welcomed the opportunity to bask in the glow of Matiz’s deference and respect but today, the hot air stirred like a fretful child, the coffee failed to satisfy and a curious sensation akin to that of foreboding had seized Ajaka and his senses had drifted beyond the confines of the small, dirt-floored office.
He had slammed with a jolt into a stark picture of wet, stained clothing; drifting and ebbing, pulled by the current of a stream. He had closed his eyes and shook his head to rid it of the pool of thick, viscous blood and torn flesh that floated with it. A man, even an intelligent man, could be cursed with too much imagination.
He was a sensitive man after all, one who did not like inflicting pain unless of course, it was in the line of duty or honour, and he had recoiled from the images that had flowed at the contemplation of the tiger’s ripping and tearing.
It had been some years since a man-eater had entered the Province and, by all accounts, it was heading this way on a slow, leisurely progression.
‘No doubt meal by meal’ he thought acidly.
He would have to warn the village.
A brief rustle caused his head to turn sharply to the right. Had there been movement? Was there movement? There, there where the fading light of evening merged with the darkness of the bushes? He stood, straining his eyes and squinting. He could see nothing. Perhaps he should invest in a pair of spectacles after all. But Marmoura had once said she did not like men who wore spectacles; that you could not see who a man really was with those glinting lenses masking his face.
The thought of his wife, her beautiful, young, soft body moving to meet his, quickened his blood. She would be finished with the debris of supper by now. He would go to her.
He turned and his breath whistled sharply inwards through the gap in his upper two front teeth as he felt a twinge of rheumatism in his left leg. He stood still for a moment until the shock of pain receded.
Later that night, as he lay awake beside the sleeping Marmoura, her breath falling gently like lily petals on his shoulder, he thought she had not been as welcoming of his embrace as she usually was; not as excitedly responsive, her young muscles driving away the years from his own.
He brushed impatiently at a fold of the mosquito netting which had fallen on his face and, as he lay there in the sticky night air, watching the rise and fall of Marmoura’s breast, the play of light and shadow across her right nipple, he told himself that he was wrong.
It was merely consideration for the pain of his hip that had made her movements less vigorous, her limbs more slack. The fact that he had not told her of his pain did not bother him unduly. She knew that, in general, he suffered from the ache of pain in his bones and joints and now, after six months of marriage, she was turning into a considerate wife. That was all. A caring, considerate wife.
The day dawned hot and bright, no different from the last, the harsh sunlight hurting his eyes as he kissed Marmoura goodbye. She turned her head slightly and his kiss fell on her cheek. He would have remonstrated laughingly with her but he saw, on the periphery of his vision, Lata standing by the perimeter of the clearing ready to begin his duties, and he knew this had been only maidenly modesty on her part.
He smoothed and squeezed the side of her rump that Lata could not see approvingly. She blushed, the red staining her olive colour in a delightful way that made him want to lick down in the cleft between her breasts where the colour began. But, he told himself sternly, he had to report to head office, make his superiors aware of his presence, build his career so that the two of them could have a good, prosperous life together.
He spoke sharply to Lata as he left, designating the day’s tasks with even more efficiency and superiority then he usually displayed, all for the benefit of Marmoura’s admiring eyes.
As he began the long walk up the dusty road to Sajat he ruminated that, with promotion, he would not longer have to do this; could maybe even purchase a fine automobile – at least an old one. This idea consoled him during the five- mile trudge while the sun burned fiercely on his head and the sweat dropped heavily onto his nose, leaving his hair lank and wet.
He never once removed his linen jacket even though it, and the white cotton shirt beneath, set his skin on fire, and the tie remained firmly clenched around his throat like the hand of a strangler. It would never do to appear as a common villager. The image of Lata, naked to the waist in the early morning sun, rose unbidden within his mind’s eye and shimmered there like a mirage, keeping his determination high.
When he returned in the late afternoon, his step was slow and heavy.
He had been kept waiting a long time until he could make his report. No refreshment had been offered until after this was done and, as a consequence, his voice had cracked and croaked like an old bullfrog. He thought he had noticed the odd smirk or smile at this from the other occupants of the office, but he was surely mistaken as iced tea and pleasant chatter had been forthcoming afterwards.
They were really two nice young men he thought, although a little sloppy in their dress. He clicked his tongue in disapproval at the memory of their lack of ties. Not only a lack of ties, but one, and in the other instance, two shirt buttons had been undone. But even today it seemed that Westerners could afford to be more casual in their approach to things, whilst he must at all costs, maintain an appearance of sobriety and ability.
Whilst he was musing on these facts he had come, all unknowing, to the clearing in which his house stood. He entered it and, as he did so, a sudden movement to his right brought his own to an abrupt halt.
The vast green parted and a scream died unborn in his throat.
The gold and black ripple of steeled flesh, the cold fire that burned in the dark eye turned upon him; the teeth that shone and smiled so hugely white transfixed him as it passed. He felt a small trickle of urine run down his left leg and he could hear his breath come in little whoops and gulps, almost like a plea. The tiger was no more than two feet from him when it turned its great head in his direction until he met the full, fierce gaze of its liquid, glowing orbs.
Fear made him cold and he felt that his body would melt in the heat. He could feel the muscles in his buttocks clenching and unclenching involuntarily. Numbness seized him so that his body fragmented in a whirlwind of terror. He could not tell if the tiger regarded him with either interest or disinterest, but he fell on his knees, his hands clasped together in front of him and mumbled incoherently, eyes downcast, his breath sending little puffs of dirt into his mouth.
‘Not me, not me. Not me. O please not me, not me.’
He felt the hot breath of the tiger on his face like the kiss of the noonday sun, rank and aromatic with pungent juices and old kills. He squeezed his eyes tight shut, then tighter still, bending even lower until his forehead touched the harsh, gritty soil. The ground vibrated with the tread of the tiger’s massive paws and he shut himself away in a daze of hysteria pulling the door closed behind him, all the while chanting his litany ‘not me, not me’ until time ceased.
How long he remained there he did not know. When he had summoned that last raw edge of his nerve, he opened his eyes, peering fearfully through his fingers, conscious of the now cooling wet of his left trouser leg. With a sense of shock as palpable as the thump of a fist in his chest, he saw the tiger beginning to make its way down the small track from the clearing to the village.
As he rose unsteadily to his feet, it stopped and turned to look at him. Its mouth opened in a silent roar, teeth glinting and shining as of a shaft of swords and it regarded him with a slow, steady almost human look. He felt that it spoke to him but could not translate this feeling into words. Then, dismissing him as Ajaka might a fly, the tiger continued on its way.
His limbs shaking uncontrollably, even the very flesh on his face jouncing and trembling, he made his way to the house, wincing as the rheumatism he had ignored in his desperate scrabble to the earth, now protested those movements.
The screen door gave under his strengthless hand and he poured a glass of water from the jug kept in the icebox.
When his parched mouth was moist again, he called for Marmoura, anxious to tell her of his encounter, to impress her with his wisdom in dealing with the tiger and watch the light of admiration enter her beautiful eyes. But there was no answer. He passed from the kitchen into the tiny living area, its sparse furnishings showing him instantly that she was not here either, not even on the large red cushions on the rush mat, her favourite resting place.
A door gave on to the bedroom, the window of which was wide open, the thin muslin drapes billowing and rippling lightly in the warm evening breeze.
The white silk coverlet on the bed was creased and indented as if the drawing of sticks had traversed it backwards and forwards across its smooth, pliant surface. He approached curiously and placed his hand on the coverlet, palm down. Warmth seeped through his fingers. And a smell, a smell at once strange but familiar. He jerked his hand back as if stung by one of the many varied creatures capable of such an act.
He stood silent and rocking on his heels, his mind whirling and tumbling. He was home somewhat earlier than usual, the bed was warm and creased, the smell – the smell was that of Marmoura in her excitement. That he recognised. He sobbed. Deep in his chest he sobbed, barely audible if anyone had been listening. Her smell – and that of another. Not his. Not his.
Anger began to fill his mind with red. Red as the colour of Marmoura’s blushing; red as the drifting washing in the stream. Faint, faint as the murmur of flies, he heard sounds. Sounds penetrating his consciousness, unwillingly at first and then with a definition he could not deny. He lurched to the window and stared out.
There – there where the track began they stood. Entwined. Embracing, whispering, her head - the fading rays of the sun burnishing her hair a gleaming red – resting on his dark shoulder, his mouth kissing her neck whilst his hand ran possessively over her breast pausing at each of the two buds that stretched taut the thin material of her blue dress.
He wanted to kill them.
He opened his mouth to scream but no sound came. His chest felt his heart grow until he was sure it would burst. It seemed to him that it did burst. He could not breathe. He sank slowly to the floor feeling its wooden slats scrape his knees, convinced he was dying, only to realise he was still alive. It was merely his heart that was dead.
Anger dissipated like jacaranda blossoms in the wind as misery engulfed him. His wife; his beautiful Marmoura. He knew then he could never kill her. He could not bear an existence without her. He would forgive her. He would take her back. She was young after all. Like called to like. He could not deny it. Now he tried to find excuse after excuse for her behaviour. He remembered her many little kindnesses to him, her gentleness and, he was aware although it caused him pain, of what it must be like for her, her fresh youth stretched out under his aged body. No. He would do nothing to harm her.
But Lata must go. She must be made to realise that no future lay that way. She was his wife. He would provide for her – show her all he could give her that Lata could not and never would. Firmly resolved, he eased his body upright, clinging to the wall for support. He leant his back against it and breathed deeply until he was composed. Soon, soon she would be returning and he must be calm, be reasonable; be logical. She would understand. They would start again.
A cold fury against the despoiler possessed him. No doubt she had been led astray; seduced by his svelte muscular body. He would pay. He would be the one to pay. Stiffly, he turned to face the window, peering through the muslin to watch her return to the house.
She was not there. They were nowhere to be seen.
Had she walked some way along the track with Lata, back to his village, reluctant as lovers ever are to let go of the beloved hand a moment before she must?
Consternation stirred in his breast, a finger of fear lightly touching his brain. They walked the same track the tiger had taken only moments before – before his world had shattered completely.
He ran through the house and out onto the veranda, his speed belying his body’s age, not heeding the protestations of his hip or knee.
The shock of the scream that rent the air stunned him into immobility at the very end of the wooden walkway. He stood there like a statue, deep lines settling into his face ageing him instantly another ten years, carved there by a relentless fate.
Even before Lata burst into the clearing, even before he fell to his knees screaming his anguish, holding the torn ripped length of Marmoura’s blue dress; even before he saw the blood that ran from Lata’s arm opened neatly with a surgical precision from shoulder to wrist; even before all that – he knew.
Knew as certainly as he knew promotion would come, he would prosper, he would have a fine automobile, a house in town and be honoured amongst men; he knew that the light in the golden orbs was shining, the juices were flowing; he knew, he knew.
Knew that the kill was made. The bargain was honoured.