Our Auntee Maria by Monica Arac de Nyeko
Our Auntee Maria always visited us on Saturdays. Whenever she arrived, she stood at the gate her petite and graceful self glowing like a lantern upon the day. Auntee Maria waved her khaki paper bag with the dark brown toffees at me. Auntee Maria always wore high heels, a green dress, and a big black leather belt, which sliced her stomach into two. She carried a silver purse. She stuck a rose brooch between her breasts. Her lipstick was the colour of our garden soil.
Every time, as soon as I saw Auntee Maria at the gate, I sprung off the veranda. I wafted towards her like a leaf, a scent. I was light in the air. I was swift. In my head were the warm and sticky images of melting toffees in my mouth later. I ran through our manicured compound. I sailed past the guava, avocado, jack fruit, candlenut, and jacaranda trees. I raced past the large flower garden in the front-yard. The garden stood right in the middle of the compound. Rose stems sat in mounds of red earth. Our flower garden was filled with red roses. They were pruned. They were as large and as neat as baskets.
Auntee Maria stood at the gate. She stood right in the middle of the asphalt walkway which led from the gate to the veranda. She waved the khaki at me. In her green dress, Auntee Maria looked like part of our compound. She looked like she was part of the cypress fence. The cypress fence, which kept our house hidden and separated from the next houses, was old and very high. It was probably as old as the house. It was as old as the line of jacaranda lining the street, as old as Upper Kololo itself. The cypress fence started from the gate. It ran past the trees in the compound. It disappeared behind the house only to emerge soon after. Steadily, it extended towards the gate. It enclosed our house inside its large embrace.
Standing before Auntee Maria now, in my dress and bare feet I reached out to her. She was smiling. She did not speak immediately. She never did. Instead she raised her hand up. Auntee Maria extended the khaki bag away from my grasp. She encouraged me to reach for it. From where I stood, it looked like the khaki was touching the sky. It looked like it was hanging on a blue cloud across the sky. I jumped to reach her hands, to touch the sky. With each jump, I told myself that the clouds were high, but they were like fruit - reachable. I clutched Auntee Maria’s green dress. I dug my nails into the silk. Auntee Maria urged me to try harder with her laugh. I continued my jumping. Ten maybe twelve jumps later I stopped. I stood before Auntee Maria. A pant had crept up on me. My chest heaved up and down. I wanted to open my mouth for air.
‘Ituk. You have no food in those legs? Eh?’ She said. Auntee Maria placed her hands on my shoulders. She looked into my eyes.
‘Ituk eh?’ she said again. Auntee Maria always called me Ituk. It was my praise name. A name bestowed upon me because I was my mother’s only daughter. I was her only child. Beloved. Always and only me.
‘You could not get the bag from my hand? You failed to jump even?’ Auntee Maria said.
‘It is too high.’ I said.
‘Okay. Next Saturday you will be taller. You will reach it. Here.’
Auntee Maria handed me the khaki. We walked together towards the main door. Auntee Maria’s high heels remained steady on the asphalt and then on the grass. I on the other hand bounced up and down. The springs in my feet were restless. My feet were excited.
At the door, I let Auntee Maria go in. I did not get into the house with her. I never did. I had to stay behind on the veranda, to eat my toffees, play on the grass without plucking Ma’s roses and pretend not to be interested in adult things.
As soon as Auntee Maria went inside, I sat on the veranda. I ate my toffees. I sat back on my stool. I tried to make shapes with thread. I played dool alone. I remained restless. I was not settled. I wanted to know what they were saying inside there. I wanted to hear adult things.
I left everything I was doing on the veranda. I hid below the window of the veranda. I peeped into the house. There in the house, Ma hugged Auntee Maria. Soon after Ma sat her down. This is what they always did. Greet each other and sit down. Sometimes they sat at the dinning room table. Other times they went into the sitting room. This time, they went into sitting room. I followed them with my eyes. I stayed at the veranda. Throughout the evening I listened to their laughter. Ma and Auntee Maria fetched memories from their school days. They talked about school. When they tired, they became solemn. They started to talk about life and marriage in a strange adult manner. They said life had turned out like a snake: slippery and venomous. They said the same should be said of marriage. When they were young they had speculated about its colour. They knew now what colour it was. It was magenta: pleasant sometimes and intolerable at others. But it was mostly grey, plain and nothing.
Many times Daktar my father came back from hospital smelling of medicines and disinfectant. He found them seated in the sitting room sofa still talking. Daktar greeted them. He did not stay with them. He just walked up to the bedroom upstairs and stayed there with his books, fountain pens and medical books.
‘He is such a gentle man. Such a good husband,’ Auntee Maria said. ‘You are so lucky Schola, so lucky.’
‘Yes,’ Ma said and rubbed Auntee Maria’s shoulder.
‘Don’t worry. Things will be good for you. Just hope and pray.’
‘I hope so Schola. I sincerely hope so,’ Auntee Maria said.
Later in the evening almost at nightfall, they said goodbye. Ma hugged Auntee Maria at the gate. She returned to the house. Ma called Daktar out of his room. She sat both of us at the dinning table. Ma made us eat all the food she made for us that night. It was strange this silence at the table. The way Daktar never said much. He kept his head down when he walked. He kept his head down when we had guests. He kept his head down when he walked upstairs to go to bed. When lights were out and night well ahead, I placed her my ear to the wall to listen to the sounds of their voices. There was silence. I rolled back and slept on my back. If sleep did not come quickly, I took my hands out of our blanket. I counted with my fingers the days left for her our Auntee Maria with her toffees, green dress, red earth lipstick and orange scented perfume to return again.
I was six in June of that year when like people would say, things changed. Auntee Maria arrived earlier than she normally did. She gave me the khaki bag quickly. Auntee Maria hurried inside the house. Ma was there waiting for her. They both sat at the dinning table. They started off in low voices. The voices gradually lost their humility. The hands too refused to stay still. Ma’s hands especially. She rose from the table. Ma pulled our Auntee Maria by the hand. It was not a small little pull. It was the kind of pull you use on someone you are about to slap. Ma led Auntee Maria into the kitchen. Ma stood her in the kitchen, her back leaning on the wall. Auntee Maria’s whole demeanour was ruffled by the sound of Ma’s voice. She looked at Ma with nervous eyes. Her hands were restless. Auntee Maria shifted her feet on the terrazzo floor, like she was standing on a fragile surface, as if she was trying to keep herself from falling off the edge and sinking.
I shifted from the window to the kitchen door sending only my face so I would not be seen. The itch on my body from playing on grass heightened with each expectation, each fear and every time Ma’s voice rose up.
‘Stand there Maria. Stand there and don’t answer me back. I am going to talk and you will listen,’ Ma said. She pointed her straight index finger at Auntee Maria. Her eyes did not bat. She did not smile. Her breasts were sprawled over her chest like gourds.
‘Maria. This has to stop. How many times have I told to just leave? How many?’
‘You do not understand. You do not understand.’
‘Of course I do. I do. Tell me what I do not understand?’
‘No Schola. No. You do not understand.’
Auntee Maria laughed. Then she started to cry.
‘You see what he has done to me. You see!’
‘No. No. Don’t let him do this to you. Eh. Eh. Look at me. Look at my eyes Maria. Don’t let that man beat down your spirit.’
‘I am not a whore. I am not a whore.’ Auntee Maria said.
‘Of course you are not a whore. He is the whore!’ Ma said. She held her hands out for Auntee Maria and let her fall into her chest. Auntee Maria rested her head on Ma’s chest. Later, when they said goodbye, they waved, they smiled.
‘I will see you again next Saturday.’
‘Next Saturday I will be here.’
That night at the dinning table, Ma and Daktar talked. The sentences were short. They did not look at each other. But once Daktar raised his head to look at Ma.
‘She is a beautiful woman. Maybe that is why.’
‘No,’ Ma said. ‘This has nothing to do with beauty.’
In the night I pressed my ear to the wall. I heard Daktar’s radio play a song. I heard Ma laugh once. But I did not go to bed with the sound of her voice. I went to bed with Auntee Maria’s voice and the sweet taste of the toffee.
© 2005-2009 Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas