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PHILLIP ZHUWAO
the old-old man

Something was wrong with the sun, ill perhaps. No, not old. The spring sun had a grudge against him, he knew it. He didn't like these city limited houses where everything had a fence - fences around them, with their curses of fruit trees that stank of the white man's medicine and injections. What he really wanted was to lie there on the grass, their lawn. But his grandson's wife had to restrict him to these cruel garden chairs. Garden Chairs? If we had Garden Chairs in the old times we would have starved to death by just sitting on them in the mealie gardens doing nothing but reclining on our lazy backs.

It was difficult to believe that Baja the little snotty boy had grown to be this. The Big Man of the city. Since his return from the Queen's Country he had been like a cock with a beak on its vent. These days he only hears of Baja when he is on the phone raving and ranting about some foul part of some contract. Good Spirits! the words he uses and his small children sleeping and perhaps listening in the next room.

The old man tries to sit careful the city way as he sees the uniformed house girl bring him breakfast on a tray. Again Good Spirits, this grown up woman, a girl. The house girl puts the tray on the garden table and admonishes the old man: "Grandfather, you don't have to prod the lawn with your soles, you are uprooting and dislocating the roots, Master Baja said the ecosystem ..."

He is not listening but is looking at his breakfast, he knows he is not going to use the fork and knife and the terrible spoon. Oh, he smiles as he remembers how the first time he had drunk the whole teapotful of unsugared tea unaware he was supposed to sugar the blasted waters himself. Thank God the children are asleep for he doesn't like breakfasting with their questions: "Grandpop this Grandpop that, your snuff makes me sneeze and Grandpop why do you call mom madam or missus?"

The maid is gone and the old man pours all the sugar from the basin into the teapot. Aloud, he cackles when he tastes the sweet-sweet sticky tea (madam drank her tea sugarless and black, she was dieting yet she looked like a strand of wire).

Cramming the jam-jam bread into his mouth is beautiful but the disrespectful phone screams like a trapped witch. The house girl is in the bathroom singing to herself so she does not hear it, perhaps? Well it will stop on its own, I'm having my breakfast.

When he wakes up the sun has struck him bad. And the phone is ringing again and no one it seems is there to answer it. Like a crane the old man rises and hobbles to stop the shrilly demonic screams. "Hullo," he hisses in the phone and the voice of the caller is far away, it seems, drowning, and this is what vexes him about these talking-listening machines. So he inverts the phone realising this is a more comfortable way of holding it.
He can hear the caller loud and clear now.
    "Hello old man."
    "Who is it?"
    "Don't tell me you've been sleeping in the sun again."
    "I've been wooing your house girl."
    "Grandfather!"
"Men never age but dogs do." Oh, this man can't understand jokes with all his university digris.
    "Grandfather."
The voice tells him of the urgency in his grandson's voice. "Yes, my child."
"You've got to help me." Help him? Is this a joke. Help him, Mr Baja?
    "I don't understand, Baja." The old man is confused.
Baja's voice is dark and tight in the phone now. "They are coming to take me grandfather."
The old man asks: "Coming to take you?"
    "The Voices, the Branches, the Hills and the Drums."
    "WHAT!" The old man springs up like a bamboo spring, the phone heavy and suddenly sacred in his arthritic fingers. "What! tell me, where are you seeing and hearing all this?" He can feel his soaked flannel trousers, feel the scalding urine trickle slowly down his thin bony legs. Baja's two children are awake now and standing each on his side staring at him with huge asking eyes. Even in his head the old man can hear the valley voices, the swish of the branches in the cool rivery winds, the booming throbbing of distant nightly drums. The old man scoops the two children in his arms like a brooding hen. He seems to control Baja in the phone. "Baja," he commands. "You have to come home immediately, don't stop anywhere, her hand is now reminding you, telling you, powering over you, your education, your politics, the graves are turning from the hunger of drums, the branches will be your gallows my child, hurry!"
     "But I can't now, grandfather." Master Baja is now panic stricken.
    "CAN'T WHAT!" The old man shouts and the children tremble.
    "I can't stand up, I can't walk. I feel ill now. Please." Seems Master Baja is crying. "Oh My Father," the old man trembles as he lays the phone tenderly on its rest. On his throat is a purplish stone, layer upon layer of flake mysterious talismans. In the glass ashtray is his box of matches from which he fires a match and lights/burns one flake from the stone. A pungent incense fills the room and the children choke in unison.

On the sofa Baja's children lie sneezing from the old man's snuff which is covering their faces and hair like brown bacterial pores. Brown.

Tired. The old man feels like a 200 year old donkey. He sits vaguely on the sofa's arm looking at the pearly phone, waiting for it to explode the way those huge drums did in the hills, in the savannas, everywhere in the crack of the cicadas, in the dense deathly buzz of mosquitoes in the fishy green of the Zambezi, the Limpopo in search of the nucleus, that lost seed.

The dogs will howl as the darkness hurls shreds of burning printed paper burning headdresses wooden hand-carven stools, the cold nights will blister as the Lozi dancers will drop on the Barotseland floor - days gone, dreams gone will come together on the meeting horizons and when the exiled-exiled sons come home what will home be?

When the phone rings the old man knows Baja will be named Mukala, only then will his initiation, his doors be opened for home would have come to him.

As the phone rings the old man picks it up delicately, its voice tells him: "Grandfather, I've come home." The old man suddenly begins to feel peaceful and tired-tired. "No," he whispers in the phone, "home has at last come to you, you are them ... not you ..."

On the garden chair the old man's real age can be seen as he sits beautifully dead, his shrivelled arms folded under his chest leaning on the table. The cicadas start to crack.