Vamba Sherif

BOUND TO SECRECY


Chapter 1

     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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