He Came to me Like a Humming Bird
Whenever I escaped from the village, I liked pretending to be an islander; wandering around raising white dust as I visited the almost empty markets and the yellow arcade by the Government Residence. I used to explore the fortress, the ruined palaces where entire colonies of refugees were living, and the ladies section of the Green Mosque. I criss-crossed the cluttered, shady alleyways that traversed from shore to shore, stepping over women and children, cooking pots, bundles of ragged laundry, and piles of scavenged firewood. When the tide was out, the beaches were teeming with waders gathering shellfish and crabs.
From the crenulated parapet, I could see the fringe of mangroves of our village. That ancient platform studded with rusty canons pointing out to sea was the only deserted part of the Stone City. The rest was crawling with islanders and refugees alike. Mothers carried babies strapped to their backs with cotton wraps; but other people also carried what was left of grown men and women strapped to their backs like giant babies. My Cousin Sergio said they were the remains of people who had stepped on landmines, but when I asked him what a landmine was, he shrugged and said,
“We don’t talk about that.’’
There never seemed to be enough reasons for me to keep sailing to Ilha. Sometimes I’d spoil things at home and then blame it on the rats just so Ma would have to replace whatever it was, or get it mended, and she’d ask me if I could bear to sail over again to buy a new one or get the old one repaired. That way (and once even burning my hand so I could go to the hospital) I managed to get away quite a lot.
The only problem was that I found Cousin Sergio annoying on the ferry crossings. He had always teased me a bit as part of the fun we had together, but after I became a woman, I stopped liking it. I felt rushes of anger whenever he pinched my arms or ogled my breasts. He kept inventing opportunites to touch me. He’d hold onto me as I got on and off the dhow; and he’d brush his hand against my head scarf - accidentally on purpose - every time he lowered the sail to punt our dhow to the beach. His touch made me feel queasy and I began to like the idea of marrying him less and less. But I didn’t actually decide not to until I met the stranger I was destined to marry: that is, until I met Evan Garcia.
The day I met him, I was on Ilha sitting under a banyan tree by the empty petrol pump by the new bridge to the mainland. It was where the taxis had arrived and departed before the War. And then it was where the convoys of trucks arrived from Out There. Because soldiers and bandits alike robbed and hi-jacked solitary cars and harassed the convoys, sometimes, no trucks arrived. Then I could only sit and imagine their arrival with nothing to distract me from my fantasy except for the black and white crows that scoured the beaches.
But sometimes a convoy did come in when I was there and then I liked to sit and watch the flow of passengers with all their bundles and sacks and animals and suitcases and bags because they seemed to have such an exciting life compared to mine.
There would be soldiers coming home on leave and refugees with sunken eyes and spindly legs. I imagined they came from all the places I had learned about at school: places such as Nampula and Monapo, Beira and Nacala, Pemba and Quelimane. They were always covered in dust from head to toe, but to my young eyes that dust was just powdered glamour. Although they were dark-and light-skinned, Indian, Macua, Chinese, and Akunha; the one thing they all had in common was their relief at having arrived safely. If any of them happened to greet me, then I felt almost as though I too had travelled from afar, or that I was on the brink of an adventure. Ma and Father didn’t know that I spent my time hanging around the old taxi stop. Instinctively, I knew that neither of them would approve, so I didn’t tell them.
Luckily, I was free to wander on my own on my visits to Ilha. Cousin Sergio, my betrothed, would have certainly accompanied me if he could have. But, thank God, he had to stay on board to look after the family ferry. On arrival, after securing the boat and leaving Cousins Sergio and Talady with a heap of instructions, Father and Uncle Felis always went straight into the Green Mosque. After that, they always went to the house of their friend, Senhor Abdul Kassan, to drink home-made gin, and pick over the latest events and scandals in the Province. Ma called those meetings ‘Parliamentary Sessions’ because Father and his cronies acted as though Ilha was still the country’s capital and as though they were the Government’s Ministers solving all the problems from the trades unions’ disputes to the shortages, Health and Education. One subject they never discussed was the War. Like mentioning Uncle Felis’ son who ran away, the subject was taboo.
Meanwhile, on arrival, I would hurry away to meander up and down the island’s three avenues, always gravitating towards the old taxi stop. So there I was sitting alone in a crowd, feeling bored and restless on that morning of October 1986, until, at eight forty-five, a new convoy pulled up in a cloud of dust.
I had heard it coming for the past ten minutes. Even before the trucks began to rattle single file across the bridge, there were shouts and hurrahs from the beaches of both Jambezi and Ilha to herald their arrival. A new convoy meant new supplies of everything from Malawian sugar to penicillin, cigarettes, bread-flour, petrol, bicycle tyres, potatoes, nails, candles, fishing line, and even tins of things like sardines and tomato paste which our Cuban and Russian allies sold on the side.
There was a light breeze blowing across from the rocky beach towards the bridge but the sun was already scorching. A young gull was drifting on a current of air. I stopped to watch it, envying its ability to glide. The air was fragrant with jasmine from the garden of the little mosque on the rocks and frangipani from the cemetery behind me. The new convoy was relatively small. It was headed by a battered military lorry full of civilians. There were only seven trucks in all, each laden with goods and topped with dozens of passengers clinging to the tarpaulin ropes as thickly as flies on a plate of pudding.
All around me, women and girls converged to sell cups of water, donuts, coconut buns, bananas, guavas, little grilled fish on sticks, and quarter-litre gin bottles filled with gritty maheu. From all three roads that sliced up the island, people were running towards the incoming trucks. There were parents hoping to see their children, and children hoping to see their parents. The Indian shopkeepers and their assistants were running as though it was Sports Day at school to get to the goods that would be for sale before anyone else. And the black marketers, (who were both Indian and Macua) were running too; and because they were mostly younger and fitter, they reached the trucks before the shopkeepers; so there was a lot of pushing and shouting.
I was sitting on a big rock set back a little way from the road. It was opposite where the third truck in the convoy was churning up an extra cloud of dust. Watching it was better than any newsreel: as though by magic, the usually quiet island was a dissected termite hill. Passengers literally spilled off the trucks, jumping on top of each other, falling in a heap in their haste, and then running in every direction. Somewhere a child was crying. Car horns were blaring, and drivers and sellers were shouting their wares.
“Sugar! Sugar! Sugar!’’
“You want it, we’ve got it!’’
“First come first serve!’’
“Get your money out: cash only’’
In unison, three boys with unruly hair jumped off the side of the third truck beside me. They were dressed very smartly and had high-soled running shoes that they never sell on the central market because only Akunhas have such shoes. With amazing efficiency, they gathered together a pile of boxes which they divided up, loading them so high they could not see where they were walking and despite that, they trotted off into the crowd managing all the while not to fall over. Once they were out of sight, I concentrated on a chocolate blancmange mother and her skinny daughter.
The mother got stuck climbing down and yelled, wobbling, until she was helped off the ropes by a young man who seemed to be the conductor. She made a great to-do about unloading her two knobbly sacks which she handled as though they were as fragile as eggshells. Several Indian traders literally pulled her over to them, knocking her head-wrap askew in their haste. I wondered what she had brought in those bumpy sacks that could be of so much interest. Other passengers jumped and climbed down from all sides, blocking my view while kicking and elbowing each other and apologising all the while to no one and everyone.
And then, standing alone in the middle of the lumpy tarpaulin while all around below him a hundred fingers unpicked its ropes to release its load, I saw him. He had long smooth limbs and a shine on his skin as fine as the bowls of polished ebony that the itinerant sculptors make. And he was young, but, I reckoned, already eight or ten years older than me. His nose had been broken long since and mended crooked; and I wondered what misfortune had caused it. And he had gazelle-eyes with lashes so long they seemed hardly able to stay up above them, curling down and then rising again. His mouth was wide and his lips were full. I watched him gaze across the bound canvas tarpaulin as though searching for something he’d lost. Just watching him, every part of my body began to tingle. And just as suddenly, I ceased to feel restless because I knew that I’d found what I was looking for.
Like a humming bird, he darted downwards into a dip in the canvas so that he was momentarily gone from my sight. A tight knot formed in my chest, stealing my breath. I begged the Ancestors to intercede for me: I must not lose him.
They didn´t let me down: having found what he had been searching for, he surfaced above the edge of the load again, smiling happily and holding up the ten metical coin he must have dropped. He had long sensitive fingers with the flattened ends of a drummer. His face was high above the level of mine, his eyes shone; there was a small scar on the bridge of his nose. His teeth were like polished ivory with a gap on the right-hand side and one slightly crooked tooth beside it.
Then he saw me and grinned. I wanted to climb inside his mouth and be swallowed by him. I smiled back, happy that he had found his coin, happy to be near him, happy to have found him. He sprang over the side and bounced off the ropes with the agility of a monkey. Landing at my feet, he bowed to me and said,
“Evan Garcia, born in Monapo, at your service’’
I lowered my eyes and bowed my head, and then I looked up and stared right under his curling lashes,
“Nina Ussene, born in Cabaceira Grande’’
“Nina Ussene, as you see, I’m a rich man. I have this ten-
metical coin, won’t you make a wish and share it with
He held out his hand to help me up from the stone. As I gripped his proffered fingers, I found the answer to the questions that had been troubling me all year since I came of age. What does it mean to be in love? What does it feel like? How can I get it? Where can I find it? Love was the touch of his fingers on my palm. Love was to be near him, to share not just his proffered coin, but for the two of us to share our lives.
The Golden Anchor would set sail at 2 p.m., she always did. Father was very strict about it. During the four hours and thirteen minutes that Evan and I shared on island, we managed to fit in an entire courtship. We strolled through Ilha as though in a trance. I was vaguely aware of people staring at us, but I didn’t care. I knew that when I got home, news of my walking with a stranger would have arrived before me on the gossip tom-tom; yet I did nothing to stop it.
Nothing mattered anymore except to stay with Evan Garcia, born in Monapo. To which end, I released myself from my engagement to Sergio, and distanced myself entirely from my family’s preparations for our wedding. Furthermore, I rejoiced that in the corner of Ma’s mud hut, beside my sleeping mat, the tartan suitcase with my trousseau was waiting so conveniently for me. Whatever new life awaited me would certainly be easier with my supplies.
Thus, while I wandered around Ilha entranced and in love, I was also plotting exactly how to elope together with my tartan suitcase. Actually sneaking away from our hut would be the easiest part, because girls didn’t elope from our village so no one would suspect me. Even if I dragged my trousseau down to the beach, Ma and my sisters would just be glad that I was finally taking a proper interest in it. No one would imagine that I’d be running away. With everything a girl could want, why would I want to leave?
And yet sleeping at home felt like lying under a heavy stone. Just being there made me feel crushed. I tried to explain this to Ma once, but she shushed me and made me a herbal tea that knocked me out completely. There was no room in our village for discontent; and thus, I felt, no place in it for me.
The siri siri plant creeps all over the mangrove’s floor and tiny pink flowers bloom between its fat stems. Every day, those flowers are drowned by the tide and yet they survive until one of us walks on them, bruising their pink petals to purple. Evan told me that I was as pretty as a siri siri flower. Soon after he said it, I thought: ‘my family are the fisherman’s feet treading on me and bruising my petals’.
Looking back, I think maybe I should have felt some remorse for the hurt and loss of face I was to cause to Sergio, my childhood sweetheart; and for the insult and loss of face to Uncle Felis and the rest of our family. But I blush to say that I felt none at all. What they would see as my jilting (and betraying) my cousin, and insulting our village; I saw differently. From spiralling down into a kind of madness, I had found an escape. Evan was the current of air upon which I could glide away. I toyed with the idea of declaring my change of heart, but I had to dismiss it: because my family could forgive many things, but no one in the village could forgive a suitor the almost unpardonable sin of hailing from beyond its boundaries.
Evan came from ‘Out There’, from Monapo, which is over one hundred kilometres away. His family was unknown to our family; his Ancestors were not buried within walking distance of our sacred baobab tree. So, just like talking about Uncle Felis’ son who ran away, and talking about the War: for me to marry Evan Garcia was also taboo.
Despite the indecent speed with which I began to plot my Cousin Sergio’s betrayal, shame was far from my thoughts. I was glad that the gods had smiled on me and allowed me to find this new man from among so many others. Meanwhile, the logistics of how to elope nagged and snagged but, as my Aunt Aziza used to say: the fruit of the baobab often falls far from the tree. Dozens of different plans sprung to mind but the only viable one seemed to be to leave my village that same night. I’d ‘borrow’ Father’s canoe and paddle away because there could never be a wedding in the village for me and Evan Garcia; and within minutes of his jumping off that truck, I couldn’t contemplate my life without him. Thinking about my father, I wondered what would upset him most: my leaving, or my letting him down? My leaving, or my taking his boat?
On the flat roof of the fortress, on top of the world, my new love and I wove between the canons on the empty parapet. We gazed out towards my home beach. He told me about his job at the cotton factory in Monapo, his drums, and his hut with a tangle of night-scented jasmine that covered one side of it. He’d wanted us to stick to the town square to protect my reputation, but I told him not to worry. I told myself that I’d go home and face the accusations that had surely preceded me; and I’d pretend to be penitent so that I could smuggle my suitcase out of our hut. And I had to get the Eide pocket money I’d been saving up for years and years. Half of it had gone to the Sorceress to help her cast her spells, but the other half was hidden in a piece of plastic bag under my mat. I’d get my things and be gone before anyone suspected me of such folly.
Evan didn’t want me to do it. (Kiss me, my love, and then let your lips graze over me). He wanted to come to our village and ask Father for my hand. Well, I explained to Evan how unwelcome he’d be in my home because my hand had already been given to the son of my father’s best friend. Sitting high up the wall of the fortress with the breeze in our faces, despite my best efforts, Evan tried to persuade me to wait until we could have the blessing of my parents ‘because’ he said, ‘an unblessed marriage is a great burden to carry through life’.
We stayed at loggerheads over it and then like two mules refusing to give way, we had our first argument just before we parted,
“Nina, dear Nina, it is wrong to run away. You don’t know me. Monapo is another world and I have only a tiny mud hut far from the town. You might not like it. You don’t know my family yet. You might not like them. We must wait. It is the only way.’’
“Evan, I will run away! And I do know Monapo: I went there long ago when my sister fell over the side of our boat and broke her arm. We went to Monapo for an X-ray and then we went up the hill to the town. So I have seen it and I like it.
I want to live in another world. I live in a huge mud hut that I hate; I will love your tiny hut because it is yours.
I’ll make it a fine home for us and our children. I’ll plant papaya trees and a mango tree and a coconut palm beside it. And I will bring seeds from home to make a vegetable garden with good things to eat. I will make your jasmine spread further to wrap us in its fragrance.
And I will not need to be near to a town because I will be near to you.’’
He shook his head and narrowed his huge, limpid eyes. He licked the corner of his lips (lick mine). Taking his fingers, I played with them, running my fingertips along the inside of his wrists as lightly as spiders. He gulped, swallowing back his words as I dived in again,
“I don’t know your family: but I will honour and respect them because they are your family. A girl must always leave home to marry. Of course I’d prefer a blessing; but I know that not having it is the price I will have to pay for marrying you.’’
“Nina, it is wrong to run away. You must stop it. Don’t you see? You are headstrong and wild and we must wait’’
“I’ve been waiting for you, Evan Garcia. I am headstrong and wild: that is who I am; and my heart tells me to do this. I will come to you at dawn. The roads are not safe, as you know, so I will borrow Father’s dug-out canoe and paddle across the water to Jambezi.’’
“No and no! I don’t want you to run such dangers. Nina, I don’t want it’’
He is stronger than me, but I am the more stubborn. I repeated over and over again that I would meet him on the beach by such and such a tree. He closed his eyes and turned away from me, but I went on,
“We cannot meet on Ilha because I have too much family here; and the bridge will be closed at night; and I am underage; and the soldiers will stop us in the morning.’’
Wonder widened Evan’s eyes while he listened to me with a mixture of anger, fear,, and desire. I had done my utmost to hypnotise him and caress him into submission, but he snatched his hands from mine and told me firmly,
“Nina Ussene, such a plan is madness. How can you paddle so far in the dark? How can you disobey your parents and incur their wrath and the wrath of your Ancestors?
It is not safe at Jambezi. You are safe from the War in your village, but there is no such safety in Monapo. We can only return with a convoy and there will be no convoy for days. That means we would have to sleep rough in the bush beyond Jambezi. What will we eat? How will we protect ourselves from the bandits who roam the beach? ’’
I tried to jump in again, but he had the talking stick and he held me back,
“Nina Ussene, stop it! You are a rich girl now. With me, you will be poor. You don’t know what you are saying! It must stop and I must prove my worth to your father. So we must wait.’’
From the way he lowered his long lashes and stared at his feet, I knew that what he was saying was not what he really wanted. I found the chink between the two stances and rammed in my wedge,
“Evan Garcia, my husband-to be, I could paddle to Lungá if need be to be with you. I must disobey my parents because they are blind to what is in my heart.’’
What did I care about anything else? His touch could calm or excite me at just the right time. I believed that the Ancestors were guiding me in that joint venture. Although I will leave the sphere of their graves, their spirits will stay with me wherever I go. I had heard that indeed it was not safe in Jambezi: so we´d have to be careful. I'd take some food with me and I already had a sharp knife in my trousseau with which my new partner would protect us from bandits. As to whether there would be enough food: we wouldn´t feel hunger for many days because we would feast on each other.
We didn´t touch then but I drove my future husband wild with lust. I made him writhe as though in pain. And that was only fair because the ache inside me was so great that it was all I could do to stop myself from pulling him to me, inside me; and holding him there forever.
Once I had got him fit to burst, I explained how the very safety of my village was smothering me. Desire had tamped my voice to a hoarse whisper so he had to strain to hear me. He leaned forwards and I inhaled his breath. I wondered how it would feel to lick his eyelids. There were tiny white threads caught in his lashes, so he looked like a child who’d been playing under a kapok tree. And if he licked me, I wondered, what would his spit taste of?
A vein was throbbing in his temple drumming from him to me as I told him that although I might seem rich to him, everything inside me was fighting against what I had: so I was poor. But he kept telling me how poor he was, as though I was deaf and hadn´t heard him properly the first time. Then we both skirted around our mutual arousal, each trying to douse the flames with paltry leaves. Every time we looked back into each other’s eyes, we fanned a forest fire and flames leapt out and burnt us. I remembered how once, on purpose, I’d scalded my hand with boiling water so as to wangle another trip to Ilha. I remembered how much it had hurt.
As we argued, waves of heat rolled over us from the fires we had kindled and we scalded each other with words that hurt. (‘’Maybe you don’t love me’’. ‘’Maybe you don’t care.’’ ‘’If you are afraid....’’). Torn between desire, love and wanting to do what was right, Evan didn’t stand a chance. With nothing to lose, I kept scoring points, rattling off facts and figures to confuse him.
Below us and beyond, Cousin Sergio had raised the Golden Anchor’s mast. As I negotiated a narrow stairway past the old dungeons, I reminded my new fiancé that The Elders always said that the greatest wealth is our children.
“So, Evan Garcia, give me as many babies as you can. ’’
(Do it now, my love, and never stop). At one point, I pushed him against a greenish wall, lost in frenzy. He pulled me along towards the gate. The more he resisted me, the more I loved him. I knew that I had to convince him in the few minutes left before our boat set sail. So I trotted beside him, pleading,
“Trust me, my darling, as I trust you: I know what I am saying. With this War, even though no one speaks of it here, it seems that no one knows what will happen.
Out There, the fighting never seems to end and it could come any day to our village. I will run away from my family but I will not run away from life. Chance only knocks once on our door, Evan Garcia. It is knocking now on mine.’’
Evan was still not convinced when I bid farewell and left him
My grandfather used to say that sometimes what looks like the wrong thing is the right thing to do if your heart promises to you that it’s the truth. My heart has promised it as I promise now to you, Evan Garcia. So wait for me at dawn and I will come.’’
Without giving him time to reply, I ran to the beach, vaulted over the low wall and ran through the shallows to the Golden Anchor. As we set sail, Cousin Sergio was in an intuitive sulk. I chatted with him to camouflage my new love. During the entire voyage home, I talked to Sergio but my thoughts were all with Evan.
Evan Garcia and I had held hands but we had not kissed or touched each other in the places where lovers touch. I wished we had; why hadn’t we? I had known him for four hours and thirteen minutes only; and I did not know a single member of his family. Four hours: we could have made a baby in that time: we could have become each other’s blood family. I wished we had. Why hadn’t we?
If my family or any of my friends had known what I intended to do, they would have said that I was mad or possessed by a demon. They would have tied me to a tree to protect me because nobody in their right mind disobeyed or disrespected their family. Well, maybe I was mad, and even if I was possessed by a demon, it was a demon that gave me the gift of love: and what greater gift is there?