By Daniachew Worku
Mana’s life was tightly scheduled: during the day, he worked on the farm-cleaning ground, farming, cutting grass for the cattle, and sometimes even gathering fire-wood for the evening; and during the evening, he helped his mistress either with rubbing her body when she took her bath, or with massaging her with some kind of medicinal ointment to reduce, especially, the thickness of the neck, the hips and the legs or he simply listened to her various talks.
When Mana, about six years old, was first brought to the land-lady by one of her tenants, some thirteen years ago, he was entrusted, along with the lady’s own daughter, to the care of the servants. All the servants loved him. The female servants especially seemed very much concerned about his upbringing. They fed him, played with him and told him that they loved him very much. Some of them kissed him to the point of swallowing him whole. Others touched him very delicately in various parts of his body and made him shudder, gasp and utter a cry of pain; and still some others had the temerity to rape him. On the top of it all, each of them, every time they did it made him promise to keep it secret – never to utter a work about it to anybody, including his mistress whom he rarely saw.
He kept his promise. But as times went on he found it hard to even talk at all. He developed a fear that he might say the wrong things and that in doing so he might antagonize them to the point of bringing accusation upon himself for something he hadn’t done, ruining his favourable position with his mistress. But still he kept his promise and kept everything secret except, perhaps, one day when he dug the earth and shouted everything into it.
Those years, however, had been long past. Mana was now a grown up man who turned out to be, except for his black skin and upturned nose, strong and handsome. And the lady, though getting old, was, in the mean time, following the change closely, and in her attempts of keeping her subordinates tightly under her control, had already tangible plans for him.
In her time she had had her share of child reading. She had eleven children: two had died; one had run to some other province after having killed a servant in a quarrel…and nobody knew whether he was alive or dead; two had joined the army and never came to visit her except once or so every two or three years; one was studying in some government school; two of her daughters were safely married; and it was only the last one, mentioned earlier, who was living with her.
Her husband had died long ago, and it was in fact after his death that she started to gain weight at a terrific rate. She always liked to talk and her favorite subjects could be boiled down to four. They were: her project to open a drinking place, where she could dance as well, as it would improve the figure; her many children, and how good a mother she was; her husband, and how kindly and hardworking he was; and once in a while, her confessor, how understanding and encouraging he was and how he almost always took all the burden and prayer upon himself as long as she had a dollar or two for his service… And to hear her talk about these things every evening either directed to him or to others, had been fate of Mana.
He had patience and tolerance… He heard her with complete indifference showing no inclination to either agreement or disagreement.. But underneath such indifference he had slowly grown more and more bored and more and more withdrawn into himself.
The only place he had some peace was perhaps the farm where he proved himself hardworking and energetic. He brought in more crop of “tef”, wheat, and maize after every season of harvest. Fathers from the neighboring villages openly proposed their daughters to him either when they came together for a group work, as during harvest time or when they met him in the road. The dropped hints that he was always welcome in their houses; they invited him for meals and even went out of their ways to do him some other good service.
At the same time, the girls also had their parts to play. They purposely drove a goat, a sheep, or a calf to where he might be farming, weeding or resting for midday meal and came as if they were looking for it. He, however, didn’t seem to care for them or if he did, it was at least very hard to say since he very very rarely spoke. Even when the girls took up courage and asked him questions, he simply grunted, nodded or pointed at the thing if he happened to see it.
Though taciturn, however, the servants had occasions, to warm up from him certain things about his family. He had told them especially about his mother who never allowed him to talk, protesting that he had developed foul tongue and that he had learned only swear words and bad words, and telling him that he wasn’t as yet ready to talk to descent people. She seemed also to have told him that he was handsome and that people would be satisfied by simply looking at him… always adding, of course, … “but your soul, your voice is like your father’s .. it has a sour and biting edge to it.” She had even called out one day while he was trying to sing with his playmates .. ” No..no..no..no..no..n…my dear .. the beauty of the voice is not given to our house!” He was painfully cut short and never attempted to open his mouth again in songs either on that day or any other. He had told them that he still heard her voice ” No..no..no..no..no..n…” with the exception of “my dear” which was somehow swept away by some kind of wind before he heard it; or when he heard it, it was no more than congested words! He had told them too that during those days he had been so vexed with his mother for the outrageous exposure she had put him in front of his playmates that he had to voice his grievance by soiling his clothes with mud during the day, breading his plate during the evening, and by even burning his “mamma’.
He was a man now, nevertheless. There was no reason for him to want to suppress his voice every time he wanted to talk… But then how could he go about it… How could he forget his past. How could he convince himself that the truth lay in that voice?…the voice he feared?!.. If only he wouldn’t become entraped in his emotions; if only he wouldn’t hear his father’s hard voice shouting, complaining, and accusing people for the slightest wrongs done to him and to others— be it against a small boy or a helpless old man, as ling as he thought himself to be right; if only he wouldn’t hear the servants shaking their index finger and sharply reminding him.. ” mind you..not to any one.. not to any soul..or, it’s between you and me.. only..not to a soul ll never never to any one.. I repeat it again… never…” And the lady came to his rescue in time.
Mana was called to the lady’s room and was told that she had decided to give him her own daughter in marriage… As usual, he listened to her for some time with his arms crossed and his hand tucked under his armpits and when she had finished, he left her without so much as uttering a word. A month later, the marriage was celebrated, and Mana was made to settle at not a long distance from her compound. A year later, he was blessed with a son.
The marriage, however, at least from what the wife made it look, didn’t turn out to be a bed of roses. Certain things about him became to her more and more intolerable. She had been used to a lot of talking, discussing things out. But in her new home there was nothing like that; she found it to be exactly the reverse.. a place of silence. During a whole evening, even if she were talking on various topics that might interest him, he simply nodded and remained quiet and indifferent.
He would sit on the earthen floor at the fire place opposite her, from time to time blinking at the blaze and poking the fire with a piece of wood, and would go staring at her. Staring at her… once in a while, the silence was disturbed only by the cry of the baby, the scamper and squeak of rats or by some kind of clinking of earthen ware by the fire side. He would stare at her at the things. He would in fact go to the extent of placing her legs at the right places; and would allow him because it gave her the feeling that she was with somebody after all. At times, she would even purposely put her legs together for him and he would go on putting them apart… with a kind of a shrug and a kind of hard puffing sound from his nose. At other times, she would put out the flame carefully so that he wouldn’t look into her; and thus transfixing herself in the gloom, she would enjoy his irritation and his hurry at breaking more sticks for the fire and the way he went down on his knees before her knees to blow on the sticks to start the fire.
But then such times were always difficult for her. He never raised his head immediately: every glint was a light for him; every coming up and dying of flame, every sputter, a kind of hope; every cracking of a stick and the flight of embers to her thighs, a strong suppressed gush of abrupt and half-indrawn kind of broad smile of- Ahha..ahha..ha..ha..- And then when the stick caught fire, he would make some sort of snorting noise and begin staring with bulged and shining eyes into her and would jump on her, his mouth puckering in a little unheard cry… a little struggle would ensue but she would give in, fall back on the ground before him, sometimes sobbing and clasping him round his hips.
That had become almost like a kind of food for him.. a kind of food without which perhaps he thought he wouldn’t live. And for her it had become nothing more than an exhausting act. She knew she wouldn’t go on like that since it became more and more apparent that his only interest was mainly that…
She thought it wise to tell her mother and she did so. She told her about it again and again and always telling her about the different things he did to her emphasizing his brutality. Her mother, therefore, first and foremost decided to make him talk; for she thought that would release his pent up energy. She devised various ways but she had almost failed when one day on New Year’s eve.. when the family had some guests were gathered together for a feast, it dawned on her; perhaps encouraged and affected by the promising and joyful air in the room and the bright holiday atmosphere which permeated all around.. to beg her son-in-law in the name of all those present.. to start talking to people…. Before this of course the usual chatter was there.. she had talked about her husband.. about how good a mother she was… about her children.. and that she might even get a medal for having been God’s instrument for bringing into the world so many…and so.. quite suddenly and unexpectedly she rose from her seat and opened her mouth:
” In the name of all of those present.. in the name of the Virgin Mary, our mediatress.. in the name of all the Saints, and especially, in the name of Kullube Gabriel, the healer.. Abuye Tsadiku who can shatter mountains.. and in the name of Saint George who appears in times of need and trouble, I beseech you… take us into your confidence.. or at least talk to us.. say something …something… anything…but say something..” she paused and continued “…by those heroic bones of your fathers and grand-fathers…your mothers and grand-mothers…” she paused longer, but there was no stir, movement or sound from around her, it seemed all eyes were reveted on the young man-and the lady started again, this time rather pitifully ” at least give some consideration to .. a woman standing and begging you…”
Mana slowly cleared his throat and said almost inaudibly ” My voice sounds like the sound made by a stone dropped in a deep well.”
” Be as it may.. that wouldn’t worry us …” cried the lady feeling encouraged.
” It’s dry” he added.
” It wouldn’t so us any harm; don’t worry about that” she encouraged.
” It’s sour and biting!” he continued.
“Anything!.. Anything! Anything is better than such as your silence!” uttered the lady with a sort of feeling and perturbed spirit. “Anything.. any…”she was saying again when Mana began, still with a low tone…
” How.. how…” and staring at her.. ” How ..how big…I mean …” he continued looking at her hip.. ” how wide would be… that.. that.. that gate that had opened… for eleven … heads!! …I mean… I.. mean… yours!” he added quickly.
The lady immediately hunched up her shoulders, withdrew her contorted face into it, began to shake and shiver, darted her eyes from her daughters to guests.. and gave a sharp sound as if something pierced her heart and seared her soul, wimpling into her seat as words dropped from her lips “…hitting.. s.. our.. sou.. r.. so..ur..” and tears clogging her throat.
” Eleven children..” Mana started again.
” No..no..no..no..no..n…” uttered the lady, the sounds wafting away to a great distance every time she uttered them.
” …and different sizes of heads at that…” he continued.
” Help me..ffffffriends… help me.. ssssssour…no.nno..no..no..nnnnnnnnnnnno.. not the word.
” …and like my boy’s.. with such large shoulders…” he went on unmindful of what was going on..
” Sssut up! Sshut up.. shutupshutupshutupshutupshutup!!!” The lady shouted then, half rising from her seat, almost completely forgetting herself, and collapsing into her wicker chair again almost as immediately.
” He is talking, mother! Or isn’t it what you wanted? Isn’t it?” her daughter was saying bending over her mother.
” What I wanted —? —after all I have gone through?”
” After all you have gone through?!