May 9, 2017

Fiction by Sam Raiti Mtamba: "The Bleeding Rose"

Zimbabwean poet and prose writer of Malawian extraction (b. Harare,Zimbabwe, 1959). Published in Australia, The US, Germany, Ireland,Ghana, Malawi and South Africa among other places in the English-speaking world. Studied at the University of Malawi,Chancellor College. Briefly at Dalhousie in Nova Scotia for Graduate Studies. New Leftist by inclination. Interested in Poststructuralist Theories and Children’s Literature. Taught in Zimbabwean high schools and the Zimbabwe Open University (ZOU). Now an independent researcher.



Pixabay



THE BLEEDING ROSE


“DON’T YOU WANT some lunch today, Temba?” Tisankhe enquired, her arms on her ample haunches.
She was a sturdily-built woman whose well-rounded legs stuck to the ground with the forcefulness of mahogany stems. Her dark smooth face was composed but there was something forceful and defiantly assertive in her bright penetrating eyes. Her soft voice sounded tortured, almost tired, though.
Temba looked up, got up from his squatting position, smiled cheerily at his wife and started to cover the easel with a black polythene sheet.
The room reeked of paint.  A musty atmosphere of brown compactness, dampness and even dirt hang over the place. The inevitable black polythene sheets covered a medley of finished and unfinished paintings. The small window at the far end of the room did not seem to be of any apparent use except to harbour the extra cobwebs and dust that could not fit on the dirt and dust-smudged ceiling that might have been a faultless white once.
“I will be right there in a minute, Tee,” Temba announced quietly.
He was a small man possessed of brisk movements. However, he never seemed to do or say anything with needless haste.
“I have been waiting for you all this time,” she said. “I thought you knew when to stop. It’s not sadza but something I put together just in case you were hungry and now-”
“Sorry honey,” Temba interjected. “When you are working at things like these you can’t afford to hurry or leave loose ends as you know. Otherwise, you put in either too much or too little and, by God, you cannot have the guts to look at your own work again. But you know all that Tee...”
He spoke slowly enunciating every word and syllable in that usual, characteristically self-important way that never ceased to irritate her. Tisankhe always claimed that he seemed to imagine that his work was more important than anything else on earth. She always said that he behaved as if the whole world was a classroom and since he was a schoolmaster, every person a pupil ready for his lectures.
He closed the decaying door and slipped the key into his pocket. The hum of the town came to him like the rhythm of the world to a man rising accompanied by air bubbles from the fathomless depths of the sea, a deep comma. Fast music blared and thudded on rooftops from all directions. The shrilly voices of the children in the streets mingled with the loud muezzin-like calls of the vendors. Just a few paces from the clumsy garden of sickly rape and deflated cabbages, two drunken men staggered to the delight of the dirty half-naked and noisy urchins in the ochre dusty street. Women greeted each other from across the street exchanging salacious news unreservedly.
He ate his food-curried rice and chicken slices with fried brinjals-with great gusto. He seldom looked up from his plate. However, he could feel her eyes boring into him like X-rays from the head all the way into his body. These days he could never face her easily. He could never look her straight in the face and into those big limpid eyes that seemed to be accusing him silently, yes accusing him ever since the death of their only child, their daughter Tanyaradzwa. However, even when he did feel guilty he did not know exactly why he should feel guilty at all. What puzzled him the most was that while in the past they used to share all their travails of anguish in equal or varying amounts, this time, Tisa seemed to leave everything to him even to the extent of hurling herself emotionally at him as if he were responsible for the death of their little girl.
“Temba,” said Tisa suddenly breaking the silence.
Her voice rose above the sound of the spoons and the forks. Temba lifted his head to face her but not necessarily look into her eyes.
“Mhh-h?” he said. “What is it?”
His spoon hang midway between the plate and his quizzical mouth.
“What are you working on now?” she asked insouciantly.
A smile, a faint smile, suddenly started playing on her lips. He wondered then in a flash of guarded optimism, whether she was now suddenly getting interested in his painting as in the past. Was she now ready to plunge back into the world from which she had withdrawn for so long in order to do a diploma in Computer Studies, the so-called ICT? He could not find his voice at once, and when he did find it, that bearing of self-importance, which she hated, came upon him. She looked amused and distressed at the same time.
“I can’t explain, honey,” he said gesticulating. “They are all abstract ideas, shapes and shades which I need to put into the whole thing. I cannot put them all into a coherent verbal explanation. In the first place, maybe I myself do not know what the whole thing is yet. When all those abstract ideas, impressions and, oh, observations are put together to work at yielding one or two or three or even more integral or disjointed meanings, that is when I can tell you. Even then, I do not need to tell you anything. You will see the whole thing for yourself as you always do and your own impressions and reactions will be the truer meaning than my explanation or any other person’s. In things like these, you cannot understand or be satisfied with any independent and detached summary from anyone, least of all me. Unless you experience it, taste it with your own senses, feelings and emotions, you stand to be deceived or get excretions of other people’s judgements. Can’t you see?”
He ended up explaining stridently this time, surprising himself.
Tisa looked unconvinced. She let his right hand wander over her bare neckline to touch the sleeves of her floral dress without showing any kind of emotion.
“I want a straightforward answer, Temba, not a lecture on Art Appreciation,” she said. “Is it a landscape, abstract or a person, I mean a portrait?”
“Portrait,” he said.
He waited for her next question, which he was sure, was going to be about the subject of the portrait but she did not continue. Her questions were becoming so damagingly banal and insulting of late. Was it because he never seemed to paint to sell or to get famous? Or was it because he was so closed, so hermetic in his manner when he talked about his paintings? That his dungeon of a studio was like a shrine, a secret and sacred temple of an obscure cult? That he always carried the key to this shrine and that he seemed to guard it jealously?
“I wonder why you bother to paint anymore,” she declared dismissively. “And especially the things that you paint these days—it seems it is only you who can understand them. Not even I seem to feature in your art, Temba.”
She finished with a shadow of a smile. A strange reproachful smile.
“But Tee,” he said somewhat disturbed, “it is not true that I am the only one who understands what I paint. All I am saying is that I do not have to lend you my eyes, ears, and feelings to respond to a given work of art. I can only produce it and leave every person to make out what they can out of it. The depth of their understanding or appreciation will depend on the strength of their judgement and ability to enjoy the painting. It is true, of course, that I do not sell but I am busy making my collection. I am a slow worker. I am not prolific, but remember the city council has booked us for an exhibition end of this year at the Town Hall.”
His face glowed with defiant pride as he said this. Even then, he felt that he had not made his point clear. How meaning was corroded by lots of irrelevancies and traps in the sounds, associations and structure of words which ill-intentioned people and some people who should know better used to trap him with! He thought that Tisa was being unfairly mean and insensitive.
How could he explain to Tisa the beauty and power of creating? The feverish pain of it? The trance-like rupture and ecstasy? It was like taking a slice of the world, of nature, of others and then slowly spreading it on canvas and breathing one’s own life and meaning into it. Then one gave the slice back to the world, to nature, to the others and they accepted it and coloured their mundane lives with it. The slice of nature, the world that passed through his fingers after being filtered by his mind no longer belonged to the world but to him. It was new. It was original. He gave it his life. He breathed into it.
How could he explain the pain and the beauty of creating without sounding self-indulgent and mawkish?
You looked at the world and the world wore the magic hue of yellow ripen fruit and you painted serene still lives or landscapes but sometimes the world wore talons which clawed deep into your soul, your soul bled, the world was silent and, in pain, you blew into a saxophone whose plaintive wails sliced the air in fiery, bloody arcs. Instead of bleeding into yourself, into your own, you bled into the world, and maybe you were purged off all the pain and taint of worldly cares. You let out the bad blood in those blasts of breath into the horn. His painting was like that too and that was why he squirmed and recoiled instinctively before such energetic, tragic trumpeting. It always reminded him of the savage beauty of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. He could easily feel and imagine the pain of the originator of that sound. The thick red blood oozing in those jets of sound. Could Tisa not understand that? Could she not guess why he ended up painting those abstracts? He did abstracts when his emotions poured out riotously that the only hope he had of capturing them all into some comprehensible whole was to trap them in a form that was no form at all because it defied form, something that was complete but not quite complete but in a state that would still show its indeterminacy and flux?
“What’s the use of your exhibitions anymore, Temba?”Tisa said with a chuckle as she put away her plate on the table and biting into an apple. “We got little, so very little last time. All that labour and only a couple of foreigners, Australians, buying a few pieces! It seems you only paint those things that appeal to foreigners and not your own people. If your painting were truly African, your people would not shun it.”
He laughed mirthlessly before replying to her.
“But you can’t be so reductive, Tisa! How else do I popularize the new paintings then if I don’t hold exhibitions? How do people see them? I will never quit art for anything, Tisa. As for painting for my people I don’t know what you mean by that. I have never set out to paint exclusively for Africa but I don’t see how I would paint things that were completely alien to Africa as if I grew up outside Africa. Painting cannot be reduced to a programme. That would be too much of a burden on the creative impulse. I simply paint as the spirit moves me.There ought to be freedom in the creation of art.”
Her reply was just an amused searching stare. Was she teasing him? Why now? He did not find her manner funny at all but mortifying and sadistic in the extreme.
“I will never quit art for anything, Tisa,” he said quietly but with apparent bold firmness. “I have painted all my life and I think the best is yet to come by my standards. I can’t quit painting for anything, not even for computers, the highway to the future as you call them.”
What did she, Tisa of all people, really want him to do? He wondered. Make a lot of money overnight? Is that why people painted at all?
“Look,” he began grimly, “the fact that the last exhibition wasn’t a hit doesn’t mean the new one is going to suffer the same fate. After all, there are new clients and changing tastes. Of course, our people don’t seem to value art...”
“It seems you merely paint your private fantasies these days, that’s why they don’t value your work in particular,” Tisa offered boldly, smiling damagingly. “Your style is so narcissistic and hermetic. Don’t you ever fear to publicize your private life, your obsessions and neuroses? And then there’s your Art Club. Voluntary work in the ghetto while we starve. I don’t want to live here anymore. It’s high time we grew up. We are no longer kids to be chasing wild dreams.latterday beatniks in Africa and in Zimbabwe of all places? Dad is very worried about me all the time.You think those weed-smoking youths care a hoot about what you call Art?”
Jesus Christ! Temba hissed angrily under his breath. What is she talking about? Is she becoming another local philistine, Tisankhe his own wife, of all people? And her Dad…?
“I don’t see how any artist can openly and artlessly publicize himself or herself as you seem to imply,” he declared. “Where am I in my work? Once I am through with my work, it exists as itself independent of me. After all, people have come to accept, to some extent, that the artist has a right to give them his obsessions in well-calculated doses. That is why Eduard Munch is still respected today. You can say that of Salvador Dali or Malangatana Ngwenya and other painters as well. Art Club for ghetto youth is a way of exploring possibilities and applications for art in the community. Some kids take it seriously enough. Only time will tell if it will yield the desired results but for me personally I think it offers many interesting challenges and possibilities.”
“Which you and only you can understand as usual,” she retorted dismissively.
He pretended not to have heard her as he put his plate on the table. He observed suddenly that he had run out of cigarettes and strode out of the house while she collected the plates ready for the sink.
Walking through the crowded dusty road back to the house puffing at his cigarette breezily, he felt slightly embarrassed with himself for not stopping briefly to chat with acquaintances that he met in the street. They greeted him and expected him to stop and share a story or two but he walked on with swift strides homeward as if propelled by some strange inner force. The womenfolk greeted him as “teacher” after the fashion of their children and looked at him with amusement. It was clear that they fed off the stories and lore that their children told about him.
As he walked, milling with the boisterous Sunday crowds, he was fired by a great longing to finish his work. There was not much left. A few final changes. A few tints and shades. Mixing colours to arrive at one that would carry the grace of the poise that he was trying to give the picture. A bit of yellow, brown, and blue. That glow, that brightness in the face he had in his mind could only come by mingling weak and strong colours, a bit of strong and more of the weak. The picture would have the potential dynamite and the eyes of the beholder would set it alight, into life.
He felt into his pocket for the key but did not find it. Then he discovered to his dismay that he did not need it. The door to his shrine was already open. Anger and surprise welled up in him. Anger because he did not allow anyone to peep at his work before it was complete. He would see the ugliness from his point of view and correct it. The ugliness was for him as a craftsman, honing, chiselling, and whittling away. The beauty was the world’s. Surprise because no one had ever stolen into his shrine in his absence and without his knowledge and permission. Tisa seemed to understand or at any rate had never seemed to want to see his work in progress for she knew that he did not keep it away from her for clandestine reasons. At any rate that was the impression that she gave him. After all, when he finished he always showed her his latest work before showing it to anyone else. They always had a mini-celebration together even if the ceremonial champagne was not always available.
He sprinted. And there, standing in the middle of the shrine was Tisa smiling triumphantly. Before her was her handiwork over his work. The picture on the easel mutilated, destroyed, desecrated, bleeding. She was holding a knife. He looked at her and she continued to smile, seemingly sneering at him. And the picture was bleeding, bleeding profusely, a mutilated gigantic rose petal.
He could not say anything as he surveyed the gory sight. Murder most foul.
“So this is why you lock this place?” Tisa charged aggressively her teeth clenched. “In order to paint your mistresses! That bitch, Sandra, is that why she pretends to be my friend? She can model for the newspapers and magazines if she wants but not here! Not here, I say!”
She was literally screaming.
He had done many pencil and charcoal sketches of countless women and men. He had painstakingly done paintings of women and men of all types and from every conceivable place which Tisa and he had viewed and commented on together, and now what was so special or offensive about Sandra Makoni, an amateur model and secretary at an obscure ghetto school? Did she want and tolerate her only when she came to help her with her computer lessons? It was she, Tisa, who invited her to their home after all.
And now...?
He wanted to answer her. To explain to her. What did Sandra mean to him personally? She was not even posing for him...The Sandra that was on the canvas was not even the real Sandra... It was his own version of Sandra. His own Sandra. He wanted just to capture that haunted look in her face, just that aspect of her haunted beauty, the undiminishable essence at the core of it...That elusive aspect that people misunderstood about her, the vulnerability and desire for flight in many things that she attempted to do in the place in which she lived…Sandra the bird of the sea which was born to soar but could not because circumstances had trapped it, caged it by trying to tame it.That was his  interpretation of that woman’s predicament which was no predicament at all in the eyes of the rest of the people who saw her.
He was a musician singing another’s song. He was simply giving an interpretation of the song, giving it his own life and therefore practically his own song. An original from the original and not a variant of the same song but a different song altogether. A new song. How could she not see that, Tisa, of all people? Did she imagine beauty could be made do mundane by desire, banal desire and lust in his person? Temba felt something in him die. He felt the whole world die.
He tried to speak but felt himself tremble with a great passion, a passion to destroy. To destroy everything in sight.
Whom? Where? What?
He went down on his knees on the floor, groaning and grunting. Then he rose and began to pick up easel after easel, painting after painting, yes his own paintings and destroying them one by one with murderous savagery and energy in the same way that she had done it. Scared, she recoiled from him in terror, her eyeballs almost popping out of their sockets, unable to scream or shout.
© Sam Raiti Mtamba


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