Our Auntee Maria by Monica Arac de Nyeko
Ma sat next to Auntee Maria, their shoulders almost touching. They had stopped slapping the floor and were weeping silently at the corner of the sitting room. A choir from church was singing funeral tunes from Ancient and Modern hymns. The coffin had not yet been brought home. It would arrive later Auntee Maria’s sister said. I turned away when she stared at me with eyes that accused me of looking at her. Why was I not looking down when older people spoke? Every good girl should look at the floor? I looked down and then to Ma’s direction. I wanted to tell her with my eyes that I wanted to go outside, that Auntee Maria’s sister was sucking all the air out of me like a hole. Ma was not looking in my direction. She was consoling Auntee Maria who occasionally turned to her when it occurred to her that her husband would not be returning home on his own two feet.
‘Schola. Schola. What will I do without my husband?’
‘I don’t know Maria. I don’t know.’
One hour later Auntee Maria seemed to have exhausted her tears. My folded legs were tired. I shifted the weight of my body from left to right hand more times than I could count.
‘Whose child are you?’ Auntee Maria’s sister said.
I gestured towards Ma with my head.
‘Ah. Is this you Ituk? You have grown. I saw you, when you were only a baby,’ she said.
I nodded not happy that she chose to ask now. She would have spared me several rebukes.
‘How old are you now?’
‘I will be seven next year,’ I said.
She smiled at me. She did not look at me like I should not be there anymore. Instead she started to wail as if my age reminded her of her own immortality.
‘Ai, ai, this death!’ She said.
Auntee’s Maria’s voice had turned completely hoarse. Her palms looked red and sore. The veins on her forehead were swollen and ripe as if they needed to be pricked with a needle. Unable to cry anymore, unable to even lift herself up without help, Auntee Maria with her usually extravagant demeanour was calm and contained. Her normally neat afro was bundled under her black headscarf with the spade shaped leaf prints. With tinted eyes and sore eyeballs she sat exhausted in the corner of the house leaning her back against the whitewashed wall. Auntee Maria crossed her legs and rested her palms on the rough surface of the mat standing her hands on each side of her body like eucalyptus branches. The heavy curtains had been taken out of every window, making the glass, the steel reinforcements and brass knobs look cold, bare and the people inside exposed. On days when things were like they should be, the curtains and sheers stood like watchmen, keeping light out and spreading darkness throughout her house like tidings. There were no tidings today. There was no mirth. There was no light.
‘Schola. Schola. What will I do without my husband?’
‘I don’t know Maria. I don’t know.’
I was eager to go outside. I was tried of not be able to do or say anything. Several times, I wanted to spring forward and hold the women from falling to the cement. I wanted to tell them to go a little slow on the hard surface. I wanted to tell them that the cement floor was really brutal and solid. Throwing themselves on it like that would bruise them badly. One of the women had sent for some Dettol antiseptic and cotton wool from the shop down the road. She knelt next to Auntee Maria and dressed a wound on her wrist. She passed the bottle around. When it reached me, I took some cotton and dipped it in the Dettol. I placed it on my wrist. That was for Auntee Maria. To tell her that I felt sad for her and that I knew her husband could have been a good husband if he had lived to be better.
Finally after I tired of signalling to Ma, I picked my way among the seated women and left. Outside, the day had slowed down. Everything was gloomy. I took a small walk to the backyard where women were lighting sigiris, peeling potatoes and cassava over large saucepans next to rotting furniture with hidden spiders, cockroaches and rats. I stood there, not looking at them, but at the people streaming into Auntee Maria’s home. From the backyard, I could see each mourner before they arrived. Mourners started wailing and lamenting as far back as the school gate. They left its dirt and broken pavements and cut left and upwards into the teacher’s quarters with hands clasped behind their heads, kikois and lesus tied on their stomachs. They cried and cursed death.
At the front-yard again, several more men from the National Theatre where Auntee Maria’s husband worked had just arrived. They came in a small van and hopped off it like toads. They headed to the tent. They sat on three legged curved stools in silence watching smoke waft around them. Some of them started poking at the wood and pushing the un-burnt ends deeper into the flames to keeps the fire gleaming. Others went to the backyard to see if the women needed any help with fetching water, buying firewood or things like that.
Even if I had not seen him when we arrived, I knew Daktar my father was there wearing his usual cardigan. He worked at the hospital. He knew. And he did. I saw him with his spectacles which had frames as black as electric wires. He sat inside the tent on a small stool and twisted his beard into braid-like twists and passed his hand in his hand many times. Daktar did not cry.
Auntee Maria’s husband came home that night in a mahogany coffin. He wore a blue suit and the coffin smelt of drying vanish. The choir was still singing but most people were falling asleep, covered with blankets on the mats inside the house or outside on the papyrus mat in the tent. The minibus which brought him from the hospital belonged to the National Theatre too. It normally carried members of the theatre troupe to upcountry districts to perform. Auntee Maria’s husband stayed home for the night. Early the next morning he was taken to church for the funeral rite. Even if the Right Reverend protested, the mini bus ran over an egg so that no bad luck would befall the minibus.
In church, with coughing and sniffing mourners, Auntee Maria’s husband slept in his coffin in the front of the church. A smiling picture of him when he was a little younger rested on top of the coffin. We went to see him for the last time when the Right Reverend called us forward. Auntee Maria’s husband was as black as charcoal. The cotton wool stuffed inside his nose made him look like he was treating a nose bleed.
Auntee Maria collapsed onto the brown earth at the cemetery by the church when they were lowering his coffin into the ground. Daktar was standing next to Ma her head rested on his shoulder. When Auntee Maria fell down, he rushed forward and lifted her off the red earth. Together with Auntee Maria’s sister, who stood next to Auntee Maria, they led her to a tree shade in her green dress and bare feet. The choir sang and women broke into wails as his coffin disappeared further into the earth. Daktar stayed with Auntee Maria in the shade until she woke up. His kindness, his eagerness to hold her and tell her it would all be okay made me smile. It was unlike him. He preferred anonymity. He preferred to be invisible, hidden at the corner of a room looking at the day as if it would not be there the next day. I was so proud of him. So proud of the way he shrugged off his shyness and helped our Auntee Maria to her feet. He lifted her out of her sorrow so she leaned on him like a pillar. He was the master of the sea easing the billows rocking her ship, easing the fire burning her and threatening to turn her to dust.
‘I want to bury him. I want to bury him,’ Auntee Maria said.
‘Dust has already been returned to dust Maria,’ he said. His voice was soft and tender. Auntee Maria lifted both her hands into the air. She fell onto his shoulders with her full weight like a sack. Auntee Maria felt like she was falling off a tower, like she was not afraid, like she knew he would be there, with a blanket for her to fall on, she knew her feet would not even touch the soil.
‘What will I do without him? What? Tell me oh what?’
Daktar held Auntee Maria by her shoulders. He looked into her eyes. He took her head, rested it back to his shoulder. Ma hurried to the shade.
‘That is enough help. I will take it from here Daktar,’ she said and waved Daktar away.
The men were already scooping earth with spades and throwing it onto the coffin. Daktar did not move very far. He stood a little distance away, waiting for a chance, a moment when he would be needed, when he would lift her face up and see her tears and with his voice dry her sorrow. I came and stood next to him. I looked up to him, standing from where he looked like a pole and I could see his heart which was glowing like a lamp and it was large enough for me to touch, to tap like this, to sit on or jump upon.
Auntee Maria detangled herself from Ma. She got up slowly. She did not run. She walked slowly into a group of young boys seated under the church veranda. Auntee Maria grabbed her son from amidst them. He wore a black suit. He stumbled like he had not eaten in days, as if the policemen at the central station had pinched his cheeks and struck him across the face before allowing him to come bury his father. Auntee Maria slapped him twice on both cheeks. Someone rushed forward. They pulled her away from him. She was pointing. She was crying.
‘You killed him! You killed him!’ She said.
Auntee Maria collapsed again like a heap of potatoes. Daktar did not rush forward. He held the springs in his feet. He stayed rooted next to me and rubbed my head. ‘Your Auntee Maria will be okay,’ he said.
At home, after Ma’s eyes were not red anymore, she took off her slippers and slumped into the sofa.
‘What was that?’
‘What?’ Daktar said.
‘You know what people will say. You know very well what people say about things like that.’
‘Scholastica, it was a funeral. A funeral,‘ Daktar said.I knew they did not talk often. I knew that silence was a language they had mastered so well. Maybe this is why it felt strange to hear them talk their voices full of life and vigour. I was seated on the stairs that led upstairs to our bedrooms. I got up. I climbed up the dark stairs to my bedroom upstairs. I walked away from them, further away with every step. It felt like I was heading to somewhere greater, somewhere brighter, somewhere where there was no death, no raised voices, somewhere with a lot of toffee and orange scented perfume. Somewhere like heaven.
© 2005-2009 Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas