Magnata

Photograph by Ladan Osman

The man who brought a miracle to the small town in northern Mozambique was both remarkable and ordinary. As an albino, he wasn’t an unfamiliar sight although other things indicated he was different; he walked with a certain comfort in his skin that wasn’t of the surroundings; assured, confident. He had a birthmark on his neck which looked like a stem growing from his movements. His nails were painted black, his hands elegant, the fingers long, tapered. His tongue sported a silver ring at the tip, a pink, pierced entity darting out readily to abandon his mouth. On the afternoon Terry Midas arrived, it was scorching.

He stood waiting at the pick up point near the market, a black God-painted alabaster holding his light travel bag. His batik shirt had sweat patches, tan trousers stuck to his clammy thighs uncomfortably. The dust covered leather sandals he wore felt heavy having walked a few miles in the bush to get to this point. He’d done so with trepidation, fear scattering wildfire into his veins as it spread through his limbs. He knew the stories of albinos being persecuted, hunted for the value of their body parts, kidnapped, killed, and sold. During the walk, in his mind’s eye, he’d seen flashes of cutlasses raised up, bones on the necks of men whispering in the voices of ancestors. The cries of medicine men splintered in his ears. He’d seen blood in the sky and the trees shedding pale skin. He’d arrived at the market gratefully, spat out from the torturous bush out of breath. Ten years away and nothing had prepared him for the intensity of being back, the heat, the dusty roads, the shanty houses made quaint by the distance of separation, the slick black bodies rhapsodic in their freedom. He hadn’t been primed for the warmth, small bursts of joy, the fear, the feeling of familiarity, the feeling of being foreign, a mouth full of echoes slipping teasingly out of reach. Sweating profusely, he stood, walked to a shaded corner of the shop he’d decided to wait at, thinking of albinos that had appeared to him through night traffic; hundreds of them, each holding angles of light doubling as rabbit holes. It came to him then, the memory of that night years ago. The thick, suffocating heat, sluggish grasshoppers chorusing, mosquitoes hovering around the one, stubby, shrinking candle in their shack as if drawn to a possible death. Mama Carlos sat snoozing gently by the door to protect him in a ritual that saw her bloodshot eyes close reluctantly, eventually succumbing to the demands of the body, her large bosom rising steadily up and down. The small picture of Christ pinned on the wall above the green mosquito net which swooped down, tiny winged fireflies with far too much gumption zigzagging above their heads. And Christ’s robes singed from the blue candle flame that thought it could fly, bending wilfully in the heat. His eyes temporarily blinded by tiny bloodshot figures taking residence there.

Terry on the bed tossing and turning, the sound of water in the empty petrol can on the floor by his pillow of bunched cloths. Then three men kicked down their door. He saw the glint of blades at Mama Carlos’s throat, heard rough, urgent orders being issued. Mama Carlos screaming so loudly their response was a backhand slap to her face. Terry shrank back against the wall, powerless, pale and trembling. Necklaces of small bones on the men’s necks jangled, their faces partially obscured by handkerchiefs tied over their mouths. The smell of day’s sweat from their bodies mingled with fear in the room was potent. They dragged him to the rusted, white truck outside, dumped him in the back then piled in laughing, the truck screeching away. Exhaust pipe smoke curling around the edges of an abduction. They sped off, the truck eventually wound its way around the bush. It was at this point Terry leapt out, running for his life. He ran so fast blindly, an alabaster boy slipped from the world’s pocket into the night’s cruel playground. He ignored the scratches of wild plants on his legs, the stinging on his arms. The men had left the truck, whistling crudely, clicking their fingers to catch him again. A path snaked through the bush, appearing from nowhere, glimmering. Rising, rushing, similar to the noise made in their petrol can at home. He ran through the path. He never remembered how he got all the way back to the village. He’d cried in relief at the people gathered holding kerosene lamps, babbling at them frantically, half out of his mind and skin. And everything being in the wrong place; their shack uprooted from Mama Carlos’s injuries, the girl who’d given him a green banana earlier in the day balancing a basket of bones instead on her head, clicking her fingers, Christ’s photo tearing through the route of the truck, his face covered with a soiled handkerchief, Mama Carlos screaming into the petrol can, the candle flame growing into a blue tongued carcass in the bush. And the lines of the night reduced into the shape of a howl beneath tires crunching on stones.

Terry pulled a cigarette from his pocket, lit it and took a drag. Get a hold of yourself, he thought. Six years in New York followed by four in London working for one of the best architectural firms had cemented his desire to build houses that were unusual living experiences; a mountain lodge in Shanghai, homes in the arctic, communal buildings in Abu-Dhabi, Eco lodges in the untamed Madagascar forest. His experiences of extreme weather, ice, and heat confirmed just how tiny humans are, at the mercy of the elements, the unexpected. He knew those feelings of fear and anxiety. He’d run from them only to find it had taken root in him anyway. Once he’d dated a fire-eater from Guinea Bissau whose skin he imagined tasted of flammable liquids, whose pliable mouth parted pleasurably walking barefoot through compact tracks of fire in her garden. Their mutual dysfunction had worked for a while until one day he saw her in her bedroom doorway, head engulfed in flames holding a familiar petrol can, the bedroom transformed into a bush that couldn’t be contained, shooting rapidly towards the ceiling till he couldn’t breathe. There were small, lit creatures wailing, leaping from her fire head through the window to change guises in a distant, Mozambican night.

 

Terry took another pull from the cigarette. His desire to build had brought him home. This time for a smaller project; water fountains in the town and village.

The years had passed but he hadn’t forgotten that for Albinos like him, the simple, natural, instinctive act of seeking water could kill you.

Four years ago, Mama Carlos had died in her sleep of natural causes. The medicine men said her luck had run out. If albinos were hunted for the good fortune they were meant to bring, her one major contribution to the Midas family lineage, birthing an Albino son, had brought her nothing but heartache and devastation. Nobody knew who Terry’s father was. Marguerite Carlos was a stout, large bosomed woman of average looks. She possessed a bawdy rumble of laughter that got into your system, a certain mischief, a curiosity in her gaze beyond the simple woman she appeared to be. She was a street vendor who sold bean cakes; stewed handfuls of delicious, spicy rice wrapped in parcels of broad leaves, caramelised sweets the shape of umbrellas.

Thirty-one years ago, after an evening of selling on one of the main roads, she returned back to the village temporarily blind. The light in her eyes had shattered into something distant. She babbled to other villagers about an  immaculate conception, the virgin blood running down her thighs watered grateful patches of weathered ground. Her flowery white blouse was torn, a large bruise on her neck reddening. Her wares had been left on the road; the silver tray clattered to the ground having caught the reflection of a number of ventriloquist hands in a pale costume, her bean cakes split then crumbled. The umbrella sweets melted into stubs of colour, packets of rice unfolded; tiny offerings to vehicles flying past, an occasional hungry god, a wayward shadow. Marguerite fled the roadside, cicadas crying in her eardrums. The night receded into an unruly trinity of miracle, virgin blood and fractured light.

Marguerite’s sight returned when Terry was born.

He’d just fallen off an oilrig in the Atlantic Ocean when he knew she was dead. He’d felt a missile pass through his chest into the water. Slick like a seal caught in greasy spillage, he’d looked up at the endless stretches of sky. His head full of cloud blue silence. He could barely move. The weight of her death had cracked him. Four years of gifts made of smoke vanishing in his pockets. Four years of shimmering angles of water undulating in mirrors he passed. He’d had to come home.

 

He checked his watch. It was after 3.30pm, still no pick up. He sighed, feeling some tension leave his body. The area around him swam. A man whistled on his bicycle riding by, a bundle of gold coloured traditional cloth in the small basket compartment. Another man wearing a white vest sat by the entrance of the barbershop opposite, slicing a watermelon open with a cutlass, its damp, pink insides exposed. An emaciated dog ambled past leisurely, tongue dangling out as if poised to trace the shadows of passersby. It sat at the barbershop stoop by the cutlass on the floor. The man stroked its ears, glaring at Terry. Terry nodded in greeting just as another man in a New York Yankees hat passed on the dusty path holding two dead, plucked fowls tied together at the ankles with a piece of white string. Broken daylight trapped in their still eyes. The dog rose, laughter, music and the clink of bottles filtered through from the barbershop. One barber appeared at the netted window holding a clipper; he raised his other hand in greeting. People had begun to notice him but there was no recognition. He’d expected that after all this time. Streams of people wandered past. He was so lost in his reverie he barely noticed a cluster of Albino children had gathered, until one boy raised Terry’s wallet up in the air, a worn £5 note held in victory accompanying the boy’s dimpled smile. “Mr money maker! If you let me keep this proper British money, I will  give you your wallet back.”

Terry hadn’t felt the wallet being slipped from his pocket. The small gang of pickpockets watched his face expectantly. He saw himself reflected in their pale skin, their African features, searching eyes. Little versions of himself scurrying around in the heat up to god knew what. Something dissolved inside him.

His voice was calm, measured. “I’m waiting for Gonzalez to pick me up, you know him?” He was even more aware of his accent, New York via London. How odd he must have appeared to them. The group fell upon each other laughing, an unplanned chorus of joy.

“Ah Mr you don’t know anything!” The thief said, dimples deepening.

“Gonzalez starts drinking from 1 o clock! You will be waiting here till next week. We take you where you want to go. Come.” Cheekily, the boy handed only the wallet back. Before Terry knew it, they’d surrounded him. Another boy grabbed his travel bag. A third boy offered him a half eaten chocolate bar. He accepted, popping it into his mouth as that boy steered him forward. He followed them, his gut instinct taking over. The only girl in the group twirled a stick expertly like a baton in her right hand. Terry’s white handkerchief fashioned into a headband on her braided hair which brushed her shoulders. She shot ahead of them as though used to disrupting the order of things.

“Mr what did you bring for me from abroad?” She cooed.

They referred to each other by nickname. One by one, who was who cemented in Terry’s brain. Molanko the duke of hazards was the trickster who’d pilfered his wallet. Kwashoko Joe with the protruding stomach had given him the piece of chocolate. He was the group’s go to man for sweets and other edible spoils, Upright Moses was the one with the stammer. And the girl, Whitney Houston had been ironically nicknamed because she loved to sing, badly, warbling tunes that would have given a cat wailing in Hades a run for its money, unwittingly making songs unrecognisable. They talked non-stop. They knew which routes to get where, who to speak to about any transactions, who’d fallen out with whom, who was new in the village. They talked affectionately about Bathsheba Tavares, the schoolteacher living in his mother’s house. Terry realised these eleven-year-old street hustlers could be his eyes and ears on the ground. He thought back to his pit stop at the handful of shops, the man with the cutlass’s unwelcoming gaze lingering on his skin as if assessing it’s worth. A knot of fear formed in his stomach as the children walked him through the outskirts of the village. He thought of that dog drinking from his redemption in a watery night, the man on the bicycle unable to climb off, the fowls in the basket compartment instead, dressed in the bright, native material raising their stilted gazes to trap items that would reveal themselves as sly weapons. The sound of the cutlass striking was silent as the watermelon split again, white string from the fowls’ ankles tugging a miniature, damp scene from the watermelon’s pink innards. Terry struggled to identify the scene. He raised his head to watch the ruins of himself gleaming on the rusted aluminium rooftops of homes they passed.

The children left him at the door promising to find him the next day. He watched them leaving, becoming smaller in the distance, their peals of laughter swallowed up by an evening mirage. They were prepubescent bodies in street costumes he knew wouldn’t prepare them for the devastations to come. His stomach rumbled. His eyes took in the house: a small, ramshackle yellow bungalow. It overlooked a street lined with similar homes, a drooping plant sat on the cracked window seal. The netted wooden door was open. He stepped inside, half expecting Mama Carlos to be snoozing gently or filling those broad leaves with the alchemy of ingredients, a comforting ritual he remembered from childhood. Instead he walked through the short hallway area into a rustic living room. A fan whirred steadily on a side table; beside it laid a weathered copy of Anais Nin’s Delta of Venus. In the middle stood an old green sofa covered with a warm coloured patterned throw. On the opposite side was another table with miniature red clay figures bearing eerily human-like expressions surrounding an atlas that had pins stuck in various countries. One black and white photograph of a young Miriam Makeba hung on the wall. A sharp pain flooded his chest. Signs of living that weren’t his mother’s. The sound of a drill interrupted the fan’s quiet symphony. He followed it, past three other rooms, a bathroom and toilet, through the kitchen area and out back to a workshop space where a woman was drilling holes into a block of wood. She uncurled rather than stood, drill in hand, shaved head, skin so dark and rich to be the opposite of his. A slash of cheekbones, wide, slanting mouth, native, tribal tattoos crawled up her left arm. Roughly 5 foot 4, she wore faded blue dungarees over a Steve Biko t-shirt. She switched the drill off, lifted the goggles from her face to reveal amused, slanted eyes. “You came home.” She said, as if conversations needn’t start with introductions. “After paying you rent for this long, I wondered when you’d come to check on your tenant. Your mother never stopped talking about you.” Her throat constricted as though she’d caught something fleeting in there. A trickle of sweat ran down her neck. He resented her empathy. He resented the way she looked at him like she knew him. What he was thinking was were it possible, he wanted to bury his dick into her gleaming head and drink from her collarbone. He wondered how his moment of grief had been intercepted by desire, by his body’s betrayal.

“What kind of African woman is called Bathsheba? I could have been anybody. You should be more careful. Don’t leave that door open.” He remarked, he’d never been good at small talk. He didn’t see a reason to start.

She uttered something in Portuguese, flicked the drill on. In his peripheral vision, the atlas split against the drill, leaving both of them to scramble for pieces of that world later. The twist drill came off, tumbling in his blood, scouring for a root buried so deeply it’d surely become part of his DNA.

She slipped the goggles back on. “You can have the bigger room.” She offered. “What kind of man misses his mother’s funeral?” She asked, mouth a flat line.

“I’ll take the bigger room. It’s my house after all.” He answered already turning his back, crossing back into the kitchen. The click of his sandals faded between them.

 

He knew the room had been Mama Carlos’s. The worn brown slippers under the dipping bed were roughly her size, a figurine of two angels praying rested at the edge of an old dresser. In the wardrobe, some of her clothes were folded at the bottom left corner. A few hangers hung on the wardrobe’s metallic rod, bare carcasses of her life.

He took his sandals off, the soft blue mat beneath his feet a welcome relief after the day’s heaviness. He unpacked slowly, the simple task rooting him. He’d packed lightly; a few t-shirts, shorts, a couple of trousers, a light felt hat he’d bought in Panama, a pair of dark blue Missoni sunglasses.

At thirteen, Terry became obsessed with an Albino man named Juan Cardoza who came to their village to see his cousin Benedito. Juan was tall and sophisticated; he wore pastel coloured linen suits and sunshades from abroad. He was casually cool about everything, never in a rush, bending the world to his pace instead. Terry had been convinced this man was his father. He was a similar age to Mama Carlos, went out of his way to buy items from her. He possessed a worldly air. Terry discreetly took to following him, to the local bar, at the market, to football games until Juan had reported him to Mama Carlos, worried his behaviour was unhealthy. Terri had burned with shame at the time. Juan returned to Maputo a few weeks later but Terry never forgot him or the possibilities he’d presented.

He took his shirt off, sat on the bed. His shoulders heaved as the sound  of Bathsheba’s drill reverberated in the silence. He cried quietly. He’d forgotten that being in Mozambique, being home could bring those sleeping memories hurtling to the surface, awake, ready to be fed. The wardrobe door flew open, creaking. He half expected other memories to limp out towards the angels’ figurine to reveal their secrets while the figurines listened patiently before falling off the edge. Soon, the delivery of fountain parts would arrive. He could get on with what he’d come home to do. Thank God.

He put the word out through barbers in the town that he was seeking labour to install fountains locally. He knew it was dangerous but he didn’t want to get outside contractors in which would have defeated the whole purpose. He believed in sourcing local talent, handing them a blueprint of being autonomous, watching the idea of potential assemble into curious, light filled shapes in their eyes. He’d trialled a similar project in a Soweto township several years back. A generous venture capitalist had provided the funding then. This was his money. His risk to take. More importantly, it was Mama Carlos’s home. The place where blue flamed carcasses fragmented into pieces taking refuge in kerosene lamps. Maybe it was the heat, the dusty earth he walked barefoot in outside the house but he felt his insides upended everyday. As if his organs were tied to strings that had unravelled, untethered, parts of him hovering in a darkness blind to external traffic. He woke up on a few occasions worried he’d find his lung shrinking in the bedroom doorway, his liver spinning into shreds at the edge of Bathsheba’s drill while her plump mouth opened, his heart frantically beating on the living room table, the clay figures rushing towards it as though it was a troubled sun.

Keep reading “Magnata,” from our Transitions issue, available on Okadabooks.

Irenosen Okojie

Irenosen Okojie is a writer and Arts Project Manager. Her debut novel Butterfly Fish won a Betty Trask award and was shortlisted for an Edinburgh International First Book Award. Her work has been featured in The Observer, The Guardian, BBC and Huffington Post amongst other publications. Her short stories have been published internationally. She was presented at the London Short Story Festival by Ben Okri as a dynamic writing talent to watch and was featured in the Evening Standard Magazine as one of London’s exciting new authors. Her short story collection Speak Gigantular, published by Jacaranda Books, was shortlisted for the Edgehill Short Story Prize, the Jhalak Prize, the Saboteur Awards and nominated for a Shirley Jackson Award.

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