Coloured Chalk (extract)
The candle slowly burnt by her reading table. Its soft dim hue shone onto the pink satin curtains that separated her bedroom compartment from the rest of the room reminding her of the Naivasha flamingoes. As a visiting professor in this leafy village, the village had been strictly warned about her importance and they in return had ensured that nothing went wrong. Two long benches with markings Ngoma Catholic church had been neatly placed further away from her bed. On one of them lay her suitcase – a now lame checked case whose third roller had gotten off as she alighted from the Ngoma bound bus.
She stood up slowly and folded the curtain to take in all her surroundings. Lying back on her bed, the smell of wet paint hung heavily in the air. Poking out of the ventilators were papyrus reeds, the celebratory one swung on Easter Sunday. Her door curtain was firmly to a string held together by two nails on either side. The lower metallic patch had been left exposed to show a cream remnant of peeling wall paint. The door curtain was green with patterns of a large bean outlining the whole. The window, a blue-white cloth with different fonts and a picture of a bespectacled face within the French words.
The room- a confetti of color seemed to have been prepared with great attention to detail that no speck reflected on the shiny glow of the cemented floor. The candle serenely burnt as she turned her position to rest her head in the palm of her raised arm, staring at the flickering light. The flame with its suspicious seductive yellow glow made the corners of her eyes water. It brought back only the stench of burning flesh. That’s what had greeted her upon returning from school anticipating a bowl of porridge. She was eight then. She had no idea how she had left home then but only keeps hearing echoes of her Uncle’s slow, deep ,comforting voice , ‘ You are too young to understand but Aunt Ann’s in Naivasha will become your home now.’
‘Move on, I did,’ she always responded to her inquisitive conscience. That is why she had come to these parts. Her childhood home had been in these areas. Although she couldn’t place where, she remembered that it had been next to a church, near which had been her school that even when she had been in class back then, the sight of smoke above her mother’s kitchen had brought a smile on her face.
Tomorrow she would start work. Her country needed her. She took the last of her day’s pills, blew her candle leaving an ashy smell loaming and for a moment, her mind was off flames as she slipped into the throes of unsettled sleep. Her dreams were meaty dreams. They had been meaty dreams since she was eight. Meat on a skewer, fried meat, she tossed …meat on a stove, burnt meat, she turned in her bed…, barbecue events, screaming meat, and boiling meat… she stuffed her pillow around her head.
The wind howled throughout the night shaking the branches and making a rattling knock at the door that startled her awake. In her long green skirt, a black vest and a green sweater, she walked for her class taking in a refreshing breath of green leaves with no storm of dust hitting her nostrils.
Coming from Naivasha where she had spent most of her childhood, she had forgotten the Murram paths in this village that had geckos rushing to hide under stones and cow dung littered that she had to fold her long skirt and jump past the mounds. Some had dried and lay absently dry like hard cake. She reached her class. A room was open with remnants of yesterdays mass very visible- a rosary lay on the floor, a five shilling coin and pieces of folded paper that must have been used to clean the board.
‘My name is Mona Lisa but you can call me Mona’ she slowly rehearsed her beginning words as she looking out of the window to undulating hills complete with well lain square patches of earth ,grass and people bending, working.
‘ko ko ko…’ there was a knock at the door. Turning away from the window, six eyes rested on her. ‘Come in’ She motioned with her hand for them to with her hand. One placed the box of chalk on the desk then came to her for a greeting hug – Left cheek, right cheek as the rest followed suit.
Since the fire, Mona had been walking through life in a daze, every time stopping to question her steps, her words, her decisions, wondering what her mother would have thought, asking if her father would approve of her decision. Here she was with six zealous eyes looking at her with interest like she had just dropped out of an opening. May be she had just popped out of some opening. She was last here when she was eight years old. She had been born in this village and the only unnice thing she remembered then was the icy look that her playmates’ father had given her as her uncle carried her to his car.
‘Quest ce…’a voice awoke her
‘Ah, ovuga ngu what…’one corrected the other
‘Pardon, what is your name?’ in a strong French accent, he correctly asked.
‘Oh,’ she sighed, ‘Mona…Monalisa’
She looked around her, swaying her green skirts till she saw the box. It had been neatly placed near the desk by the entrance, its blue sides sealed. She walked to the box, tore it open to neat rows of colored chalk lined like a procession of ants.
Eyes are close family with the tongue that looking at the deep yellow piece created a bitter-like taste in her mouth forcing her to deeply swallow bits of saliva. It conjured memories of the cheap Malaria tablets that carried with it that deep yellow ugliness that made one dread ever falling sick again. She decided against using the yellow piece. Looking intently at the rows of chalk, she felt weird that all of her childhood seems to be neatly packed in these pieces of colored chalk-she thought! Looking at the box of color felt like Mona had chanced on her lost life. Her past which seemed to always start and end with the stench of burnt flesh seemed to cloud all her thoughts. For the spelling of her name, she had chosen an orange coloured piece of memory. She broke off the tip that usually squeaked on the board and wrote, ‘Confidence building in a Classroom’. A powdery mass of orange hung onto her fingertips tempting her to lick the memory of childhood delight reminiscent of the rare moments when her father flung into a celebratory mood would bring home small sachets of orange powder. Her mother would hand this small sachet of delight to any of them who finished the food first. It came in such a small pack that when folded thrice would fit into the palm of one’s hand. And after their meal, they would lie on the mat under the Fene tree and compete on who has made her tongue dirtiest with pleasant colour.Momentarily, they would pull out their tongues to survey the effect as they sparingly licked the orange delight. Her mother called it glucose but such packs of delight seem to have disappeared with her Mother.
‘Au revoir…’one of her students said on her way out.
‘No dear, try to say that in English by saying ‘Good bye ’’ Mona responded
Her eyes darted from door to chalk box to the light yellow piece of chalk that reminded her of the rumour about a war back then. Mona and her playmates had been told that enemy soldiers lurked in the green by the village well. That the moving algae on the water float could be harboring one of them beneath too. But they would go to the well anyway. This was because of the mango tree that existed at the end of our farm whose juicy mango yellow could tempt the most anorexic. The mango had a playful light ulterior that the greener the outer is, the juicier the mango would be. It belonged to the neighbors whose house was such a long distance from Mona’s house owing to the neighbour’s vast land. This mango tree was by the separate that tore her father’s land from the neighbor’s. During the mango season, a sole branch hung onto their side and this had become their branch. There was something about this branch that with every new season, it would bear its mangoes in evens. So during these times, Mona and her playmates would count them in their infancy to make sure that none was stolen. Sometimes 30 hung, sometimes 20. As they grew in size, the branch would bend lower and their excitement would soar. Then they didn’t need to let Tall Zuzu know where they were going all the time. One bite off this playful light yellow mango would make Mona and her friends run their tongues from the elbow right up to the wrist licking the juice.
There was something unreal about this branch that even the ripening would take place in twos. Many times, they were too zealous to wait for the ripening of the reachable ones. So when rumours of the war were rife, Tall Zuzu hinted that eating the ripe ones had a calming effect. From the strangeness of the tree, Mona and her playmates believed him.
So, they would calm themselves first everyday and head to the rectangular drinking trough of the cows. Their cows had a habit of taking a swim in the village well before relieving themselves in the well. So they would sometimes fetch pale green water for their father’s bath. It was fun for Mona and her friends harbored thoughts of them getting greener with frequent use. However, this pale green water infuriated their father who had this drinking trough made for the cows. So when they fetched the trough to its fill, we would laze away catching the little fishes that had changed home from the well to the drinking trough. Do cows eat these little fishes? They would ask as they went about fishing in the drinking trough for what to boil them for their play games.