Vamba Sherif

BOUND TO SECRECY

     On an oppressive day in the dry season, a man stepped off
a bus and crossed the main street of the border town of
Wologizi. He approached a young man who was bending over
a cistern filled with water. The young man had been gazing
for quite some time at his own reflection, and the face that
greeted him in the clear water wore a beatific smile. Although
the stranger walked with a limp, over the years he had learned
to conceal his handicap cleverly by strutting, so that the young
man who heard his footsteps and turned fully to face him
assumed he was arrogant. In fact, the young man was less
fascinated by his suitcase or tailored, three-piece suit than by
his manner of walking. It was the assertive gait of a man well
aware of the effect his appearance had on people.
     The stranger sat down on a bench under a heavily
foliaged tree not far from the young man, and he heaved a
deep sigh that betrayed his contentment. Wologizi fulfilled
his expectations, for as he gazed across the dusty street, he
could see several old men: two of them were stretched out in
hammocks, and the others were lying on mats, whiling
away the stifling hours in the shade of a breadfruit tree.
The scene fascinated him – the border town was asleep, in
the thrall of the heat. While travelling to the town, the
stranger had toyed with the idea of yielding, like those old
men did, to the lethargic spell of the heat without a care in
the world. And as if to confirm that thought, a gentle breeze
started from his right, from the direction of the young man,
and drifted peacefully towards him. He closed his eyes to
savour it to the full.
     "Come here," he called to the young man.
     The stranger watched him cover the short distance
between them, his gestures languid, his gait remarkably
feline, but not until the young man stood before him did he
notice the fear in his eyes.
     "Can you show me the way to the mansion?"
     This was how the house was called in that part of the
country – the mansion – and the stranger knew this. The
young man raised a slender hand and pointed to a house in
the far distance. The hand, the stranger noticed, was pocked
with burn marks, which did not appear to be ritualistic, but
he stood up, choosing to ignore them. Beyond an ochre hill
through which the main road had been carved, the stranger
could see the mansion perched proudly on another hilltop.
     "Who lives there?" he asked.
     The young man did not answer.
     "Tell me who lives there?" he insisted.
     Although the identity of the occupant of the mansion was
common knowledge, the young man remained silent.
     "Come, sit beside me. Tell me."
     The stranger's tone was reassuring, even appealing, but
the young man continued staring at the ground. Perhaps,
the stranger thought, the young man's reluctance was due
to his timidity.
     "Why are you so silent?"
     It was at this point that he reached out to pat the young
man on the shoulder, a gesture he regretted immediately,
for it triggered a reaction that baffled him. The young man
recoiled, broke into a run, and never looked back until he
had disappeared behind a curtain of dust.
The incident still disturbed the stranger even after he
had traded the pleasant shade for the terrible heat, and
when he turned to the old men he saw that they had not
stirred from their positions.
     The road he took to the mansion was punctuated by dust swathed
houses, from which an occasional voice could be
heard, subdued to an almost sensual whisper by the heat.
On reaching the town centre proper, he saw a Lebanese
man, one of many who traded in that country, standing
before his shop and munching a loaf of bread with the
avarice of a child. On his right, he saw several youngsters
gathered around a poster, in front of a cinema, discussing
the film – its heroes and heroines and the murderous tactics
of its villains. It reminded him of his own childhood. The
stranger passed a petrol station where some men were
playing checkers beneath its rusty roof. Incited by a handful
of spectators, the two main players were slandering and
insulting each other, cursing and swearing in the most
exaggerated tones, as if locked in a duel of death. The first
threatened to defeat the second, warning that he would
forfeit his wife and property to the winner and never play
checkers again. The stranger ignored them, but could still
feel their eyes boring a hole in his back, even after he had
rounded a bend. On turning around, certain he would face
one of them, he saw nothing but a cloud of dust rapidly
heading his way.
     Soon, he arrived at a junction with divergent paths
which went on to enclose quarters of thatched huts, and
mud and brick houses. Instead of taking the road to the
mansion, he opted for the main one that led up a mountain
and down a valley. He wanted to see the river that formed
the border between his country and the other, and how the
border was guarded. However, the ascent was difficult, the
heat unbearable, and soon he was sweating profusely. The
stranger loathed the smell of his own sweat, which was
acrid now despite the fragrance that he wore, and more
than once he had to stop to dab his face with a
handkerchief.
     It took him nearly an hour to reach the river which lay at
the foot of the mountain. Long before he could see it he
could hear it gurgling softly, as though it was whispering a
secret. Contrary to his expectation, there was no building
on either side of the river to indicate where one boundary
ended and the other began, no custom officers, in fact no
sign of life at all but an occasional call of a lone bird or an
animal. Even the river was carelessly bridged. Some logs
had been thrown across it, which were now old and worn
out. Beside the bridge, tied to the trunk of one giant tree
and extended across the river to another, were strings of
woven ropes, a phenomenon known in that part of the
country as a monkey-bridge, a bridge used only during the
rainy season when the river burst its banks and covered the
main bridge. What manner of a border town was this
without clear-cut borders?
     The stranger turned back and headed for the mansion.
Long before he reached it, the house rose before him,
majestic and imposing, overlooking Wologizi with evident
pomposity. The three-story building was cut off on all sides,
from the valley at its rear and the town sprawled below it,
by walls of cement bricks topped with shards of bottles. The
first thing that caught his attention was the radio antenna
which towered over the house. Then he saw a warning
written boldly on the gate: BEWARE OF MY
PRESENCE. He reasoned that perhaps it refered to a
ferocious canine trained to pounce on intruders like him, so
he shouted to lure it out but got no response. On
approaching the legend, he noticed that unlike the rest of
the walls, it had been repainted recently. The gate was
open, and he entered with some reluctance. On his right
was a room housing the radio station, which he approached,
listening for any sign of movement. It had no door and its
windows were broken. The stranger entered and discovered
that the radio, which connected Wologizi with the outside
world, was out of order. All of a sudden he had a distinct
feeling that someone was spying on him, and he left the
radio station as if in a daze. Climbing the stairs up to the
first floor of the house, he emerged into a spacious living
room with a high ceiling, stained in the corners as a result
of leakages. Everything was covered with dust: the once
beautiful chairs and tables with the flag and seal of the
country carved with precision in them, the wooden
cupboards with an impressive display of Chinese porcelains
and vases, and the gilt-framed portraits of various
dignitaries, were all entangled in a mass of cobwebs. Even
the walls had not been spared. Spiders were perched in
many corners. The slabs of glass which made up the
windows were stained. The stuffy smell of decay lingered in
the air, dominant and pervasive and, for a while, the
stranger stood still, taking in that neglected splendour,
overwhelmed by it all.
     Outside, at the rear of the house, he searched for an
explanation for the condition of the mansion but was offered
none. There was a kitchen without utensils, and a well
beside which stood a bucket. Where he paused to gaze at
the mountain rising up before him was the beginning of a
forest which inclined towards a valley of impenetrable
thickets. The valley pitched steeply towards the mountain
which was just one of a long chain of colossal peaks that
enclosed Wologizi.
     Once again he felt a presence behind him, furtive but
persistent, as if he was being spied on. He turned around
only to face a tiny, emaciated old man in a homespun baggy
gown, his jaw moving determinedly as he chewed a kola
nut. The old man wore a tense look, as though wary of the
stranger. The sun was at its zenith now, beating down with
savage intensity on the two men, the air was still, trapped
momentarily in the oppressive silence of that deserted
place.
     "What a beautiful mansion you've got here," the stranger
said.
     To this unusual form of introduction, the old man
initially responded with silence but could not resist the
disarming smile of the stranger who moved towards him,
his hand stretched out in a greeting.
     "That's what everyone who comes to Wologizi says."
     The stranger's handshake was firm, and as it tightened
around his hand, the old man felt an unbearable pain but
chose to conceal it.
     "One cannot miss it," the man went on, his voice carrying
the same note of spontaneity and charm as at first. "When
I stepped off the bus I saw it in the distance and decided to
admire it from up close."
     Only then did he let go of the old man's hand, and he
quickly moved to the front of the compound where he stood
gazing with rapture at the mansion, as if he was seeing it
for the first time.
     "It looks so out of place here," he said finally.
     "The mansion was built a long time ago for the president
who has yet to visit us and occupy it. Until then we've
decided to keep it empty. Every once in a while we come up
here to dust it."
     The old man, as he said this, noted the stranger's every
reaction but, besides the warm smile on his face, he
betrayed no other emotion.
     "It's indeed a house befitting a president."
     The old man moved a few paces away from the stranger,
as if he was about to leave him, but suddenly turned to him.
     "You said you stepped off the bus here?"
     "I was just passing through."
     "Never been to this part of the country?"
     "It's my very first time here, old man."
     "Then you should have known that a bus comes this way
once every few days and sometimes once a week."
     "Once every few days?" the stranger asked.
     The old man nodded. The two were standing under an
acacia tree, facing the radio antenna to which the stranger's
eyes often turned, as if wondering about its relevance to
Wologizi. In silence both men pondered the exchange, each
lost in their own world, each weighing what to say next, and
then one of them spoke: "There is nothing I crave right now
in this unbearable heat more than a cold palm-wine."
     It was the stranger. This frankness brought a smile to
the old man's face, for it confirmed what he had been
thinking at that every moment, and he said:
     "Then you've come to the right place."
     Both men laughed. The sun was at their backs, fierce and
implacable, as they went down the hill. On the roadside, in
front of them, a snake lay basking in the sunlight, but on
noticing the two men it slithered into the grass, becoming
one with the bush. When silence fell in the wake of the
footsteps of the two men, the snake emerged from hiding
and glided languidly to the roadside. Wologizi was still in
the grasp of the heat, but in a few hours it would shed this
numbing influence and usher in the evening with a flurry of
activities.

 

 

 

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Vamba Sherif was born in Liberia and spent parts of his youth in Kuwait. He's written three novels. His last novel, Bound to Secrecy, has been published in the Netherlands, France, and Germany, where it was chosen as one of the best books of 2009. He lives in the Netherlands.

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