THE MAN ON THE BOAT
By George G. Karanja
Friday, October 28, 2011.
He was six decades old, the waves of time that had worn the youth off his face still lapping him, eroding his manly strength, sunset after sunset. He stood five feet tall, slightly plump, his gait upright and solid. Every time he rose up, the hinges of his rusted knees, cracked as dry twigs, making him sing the dirge of old age. The fur on his head was a dishevelled sisal mat sprinkled with grey frizzy shoots. His chocolate face was taut as a bow string; his palms dry like the bark of a wattle tree parched by the ruthless tropical summer sun. His lips, although habitually licked by his marijuana stained tongue, were chapped.
Ciano had small reddish eyes and below them were growing pouches of despair and dying hope. His dark brown cheeks were pimpled, pockmarked by a skin malady that had plagued his family when he was a boy.
He was a lonely man who lived in a lonely wooden house with his lonely dog on the fringes of Naivasha town in the Rift Valley. Alive to their solitary abode, the dog and its master stuck together. The tide of mating season never swayed the black mongrel from its master. It never abandoned him.
“Cursed is the person who did this to you” Ciano often comforted his castrated dog, patting its head in remorse.
The dog would raise its muzzle, its face more in peace and discipline than in hatred or yearning. It never recalled the sins done it by wayward boys. Yet Ciano always did.
The youth flowing in its veins often reminded Ciano of his boyhood days, when he was strong, and in good vigour like sheaves of millet gathered in good season. He loved the dog like an only child, and had vowed many a times and oft that, if he ever regained his former social status, he would reward the dog for its undying friendship. But his luck of ever getting back his social status was running muddy, his dream of perfect old age, fizzling out into emptiness. This kind of life was unbidden, and he could not wait to confide, but to who? He longed to tell someone his woes, the barbs pricking his heart but only his dog was attentive to him. No wonder when the feelings of solitude and regrets stormed him and were barely bridled, he talked to himself and to his dog.
He often gestured to himself, his thoughts trapped in the turbulent cave deep in his mind. People often secretly laughed at him. Rumours said that he was mad, bewitched for seducing a dead wizard’s wife.
Ciano never dressed to impress. His pension was a drizzle in a hot desert, a burning coal dropped in a vast sea. He could no longer manage the life he had had before his retirement. The pair of spangled trousers he wore was patched at the knees, and his crumpled jacket was like a garment that had been saved from the devouring mouth of a mineral starved heifer. His leather shoes were worn to the quick, the big toe of each foot peeping out in riot. As he followed the marshy path that led to Lake Naivasha, the dewy blades of grass hurt them, making him uncomfortable, yet he walked on.
He touched his ash smudged hair and realized how deep the evening dew had settled on his head. He noticed with amazement as he had many times before how a day could close its eyes, swiftly and quietly. Some times such happenings seemed surreal to him, like scenes in a dream. At his age he knew how fast time could move, yet he barely believed. He rarely believed that he was now old, even though the younger fishermen constantly called him mzee. He wondered why they thought he was an old man, yet he never walked with a stoop or trembled as he walked. Was he afraid of the dangers on the lake? Or where the moon and the stars growing dark in his life and he was not aware? Maybe it was because of his old clothes.
“I am not old,” he disclaimed, his hands rioting unknowingly, “even though I wear old clothes.” And he recalled that his clothes wear a token of remembrance of better days spent on the wrong lanes of life, and that he was now a faint shadow of himself.
Walking wearily, as a grass hopper drags itself along in a cold morning; he peered forlornly at the shimmering lake before him.
“Not late,” he said to himself, glancing at this ancient wristwatch.
It was half past six and the sun had already sunk behind the hills, leaving on its pre – dusk trail a trace of dark grey colour that smudged the orange washed western horizon. A distance not far away from the lake, and acacia stood, silhouetted against the shimmering waters, seemingly lonely and paranoid like the man approaching the pier. The evening breeze blew, and the tree flipped, its thorny branches waving at the herd of hippos grazing near the shore.
Ciano gave them a wide berth and headed towards the jetty.
He stood on the wooden pier and looked at the evening colours reflected on the waters below him. He gazed at the small waves, flowing to the tune of the eventide wind, seemingly harmless and beautiful to behold. He lifted his eyes off the tiny waves and gazed at the waters beyond him, at the hills beyond the lake. He let his mind drift back to the past, and he bore nostalgically into his yester years when life was a beautiful and serene, like a cloud of dew in the heat of midmorning summer day. He recalled growing up in a flower farm on the shores of Lake Naivasha, when time never rioted, but flowed in ripples, soothing his youth as a groom serenades his bride. He reminisced inwardly on the happy moments of those days, now gone with the whiffs of seasons that never came back, but remained frozen in his mind.
“Good old days ….” He said audibly surprising himself with his own baritone voice.
Ciano shook his head as thoughts of his indulgence and the numerable women he had slept with crossed his mind. The beautiful places he had visited made him sigh for the past, and equally left him in regrets. He saw the events that had followed after his retirement, pitching him into fishing. He never liked fishing, and neither was he inured to it. Waiting for the fish to fall into his baits was one thing that frequently angered him. Yet this waiting gave him a chance to reminisce and fantasize on his past.
As he gazed at the lake, an old song that had worn off from his mind began to trickle from the past with echoes that disturbed him.
He gazes at the silvery sea,
And struggles to bide a wee;
To look back into the dark caves
From whence he began riding the waves.
He rows the creaking fisherman boat,
The winds assailing his old coat,
Into the waters he tosses the hook and the thread
Hoping to catch a trout and break the trend.
He pores over the horizon.
Searching for the sign of dawn
But grey clouds abounds, smudging the morning light,
And pushing the sun back into the night.
Besieged by the past, he shook his head in disbelieve. Anger and regret festered and whirled like gale in his mind. It was a stormy evening in his heart. And he hated himself for a thousandth time, knowing the cradle of his woes was decipherable.
**** ****** *****
A snorting hippo broke into his thoughts and jotted him back to the evening. He glanced at his watch and realized that he had visited his past for a third of an hour, standing on the pier as a zombie, spellbound by the song.
“Could it be possible that someone has bewitched me?” he asked himself in whispers, almost believing the rumours he had heard about himself.
He looked around and whistled to test his sanity, but the tune that came to his dry lips was that of the old song about a man on the boat. The lyrics came to his mind as quickly as a fleeing deer, gushing from the past like waters of a mighty river. The familiar chord they stroke in his mind and heart equally soothed him and hurt him. Yet, even as sentimental as he was, he did not let the song, though it reminded him of his failures, leave him choleric. He smiled as his past follies overshadowed the evening view over the lake. He listened keenly as the evening breeze blew, chilling the air and drifting the lyrics to the unfolding night.
He looks over there,
Beyond the mangroves of despair,
Where the graves of his dreams lay in rows,
Their souls pushing up the daisies of woes
He reminisces of times past,
When he rode life like howling gust
Sweeping off the strongest of trees
That sought to hinder his ways.
He whistled again to prove to himself that he was not a dead man brought back to life by witchcraft.
“A man is never perfect every day of his life.” He comforted himself, descending towards the boat “Everybody has a past; a history of strengths and frailties”.
Approaching footsteps on the mahogany platform stopped his self talk, and he turned to see the night guards sauntering towards him. The two men, batons in hands stood halfway on recognizing him.
“How are you doing, mzee?” One of them greeted him, grinning in the twilight.
“Fine,” Ciano replied half hearten, raising his right hand in salute. “But mzee is your father.” He added in a barely audible voice.
As abruptly as they had come the two guards left him alone wallowing in his own thoughts.
He caressed his boat, feeling its body, its curves and its mounds of continuous repair. They reminded him of the old days when he used to sow his wild oats He longed wistful for those days when he had a tremendous personality, the times when luck favoured him with the strength of a horse and the lust of a cock. When he never lacked imagination about women, from the nubile, to the middle aged. In those days, there were no wandering, the bitterness and the gall. The mountains and the hills were easy to climb as he was swifter than the eagle, and few things daunted him. Tonight, he was like gold that had lost its lustre.
“The blue skies are gone from my life.” He told himself, patting his boat affectionately.
It was old as himself, dingy but reliable to him. He loved it, though it constantly betrayed his hopes, especially when its engine failed under the weight of good catch, which came to him once in a blue moon.
He cast a steady look at his old nets, and realized that everything on his boat including the life jacket was old except the engine oil. Even the fishing line, which he rarely used and which looked new tonight, was an old gift form Mrs. Sally D Nelson, his deceased parents’ employer. Each time he touched the line, he remembered her willowy figure swallowed up to the neck by the long flowery dresses she loved to wear. At times, she was diffident, but mostly assertive. He counsel made him resume school after he had dropped out to work as a farm hand.
“This country needs educated minds to run it.” He recalled her trying to induce him to look into the future, but then he was just an unruly young ox on the threshold of puberty, and she was a mature lady of forty years. Years later, after he got his first job he completely saw her wisdom.
Tonight, as he levelled his eyes at the fishing rod, he wondered how the old lady had foreseen his life as a fisherman.
He untied the boat from a stilt holding the pier and sat down. He put on the engine, and throttled towards the middle of the lake. He looked at the sky and saw darkness sagging like nimbus clouds. It would not be an entirely cloudless night. The late evening star shone on the western hemisphere, brilliantly and confidently. If the clouds would not hide it, it would guide him throughout the night until the winds of dawn blew away the wee hours. Then, he would head back home and spend the day with his dog.
He prayed inwardly, wreathed by unmanly sadness, wishing this night would favour him. Quite often, his prayers budded into disappointments, and though his hopes were fading, he never stopped coming to the lake. Tonight, he planned to fish far away from the other nocturnal fishermen, where no one would disrupt him with cynical greetings. He was tired of such indignity. The rowdy cartels at the lake angered him, and the government’s threat to ban fishing on the lake brought him fear. But it was his health that disturbed him most. A diagnosis by a friendly doctor a fortnight ago had revealed a swelling prostate. As he thought of the outcome, blood surged in his veins. He knelt on the boat, smiling peevishly in the faint moonlight and urinated on the lake.
“Human life is a burning wick,” he observed pensively, “without oil it can burn no more.”
He recalled his father. The symptoms were the same. Since the old man passed away, he had hoped he would not follow his barbed footprints. He had watched him helplessly as he faded into a shadow. But now, as the first sign of his father’s strength, it was boundless that he would go through the same bonfire. Even his brother could follow the same bridle path.
“Hope can be deceiving. It has deceived me.” He lamented and cast the nets into the lake. “The curse was all along hiding in my blood.”
At midnight he checked the nets and found three fish. He put them in his fishing basket and cast the nets into the calm waters. At one in the morning he decided to use the fishing line.
“Where art thou, oh fish? Where doth yea breed and liveth? I will lay mine eyes unto the waters from whence thy liveth. I will fish thee and sell thee.” He laughed loudly, recalling a certain missionary who preached to them in high school, forty years back.
He tittered in the pre dawn light at his own loneliness and watched as time dragged on, the wee hours hundred of rigs long. The moon was high, a silvery slice of an orb. The night was like an experience in a burial cave, silent and eerily, the blustering wind chilling and forbidding. He shivered as his intestines trembled.
“A night of twenty four hours,” He murmured, licking his lips, eyes glued on the water for a sign of a Nile perch or tilapia. An urge to urinate caught him but disappeared as fast as it came. For a moment he was besieged by premonition and he waited for bad luck.
“Long night,” he sighed, and recalled that many a times when he came to the lake, the nights were too short and when he longed to rest on his creaking bed, it turned out too short to stretch out on. Even the blankets were too light to trap any warmth, and too narrow to cover him. No wonder he never slept enough, and sleep often hung from his eyelids like creepers on a dry branch.
Ciano knew that tonight was not the perfect time to recall memories, yet he wanted to bide his time and reflect on the odds that had befallen him. Each fishing nights he had wondered how fate could shape a man’s destiny. He could not fathom how it could leave him in solitude, yet he had lived in a world full of carefree people. Now, he was like a castaway in a far away island, where people lived far apart like the stars twinkling in the heavens above him. He lived in hell, longing for a drink of cold water and deeply yearning for freedom from fear of the future and bad omens that had him hostage. The wind blew, howling past him like a harbinger of doom. Premonition crept again into his heart, but still bad luck did not find his trail.
“It’s not yet time.” he smiled and lit a roll of marijuana, the doctor’s advice on his health, leaving him shrouded in guilt.
“It is my life.” He said to himself. “I will not be the first or the last byword.”
Through the smoke he caught the sight of silvery dead fish, floating on the lake. “Pesticide run offs,” he whispered “and the government is accusing us of overfishing. The flower farms are killing the lake. They are killing my livelihood”.
When he stared again at these dead fish, blown about by the wind, he realized with horror that, there were people who once fished here, and who died here, pushed to the limit of their lives by the lake’s sudden storms. Some were blessed, some were care worn and discouraged as him, but they were people fishing for better lives.
**** **** *****
The last time Ciano saw her was during the summer of the previous year. Despite her ripening years, revealed by the rising creases around her womanly eyes, she was still beautiful, her hair youthful and black. They did not talk but he did not miss the serenity in her eyes. Neither could he miss the freedom that shone in them.
Tonight as he fished alone, his dreams spilt like chaff on a threshing floor, he yearned for the touch of his former wife. He wished he could reverse the times and unbosom to her. He realized belatedly that Adah was the only woman who listened to her. She was an embossed symbol that could not fade in his laden heart.
He rewound to the first day he saw her, a little lady, nubile and barely out of puberty. She changed his life much and induced his view on love. He recalled the promise he had made to follow her love everywhere, even to the stars and the blue skies beyond the horizon; to eternity. Yet, he disowned the vows.
Alone on the boat, the memory of her as green as fresh blades of grass, he felt the blustering loneliness of the lake at night engulf him like a heavy blanket thrown upon him. He saw that he was like a fish in a net struggling to free himself with thoughts he deemed consoling, but which ended in turbulence of heart and mind. He regretted for failing to protect and support his family. Ashamed, he wanted to hide far below the lake but the horn shaped moon was watching him, ready to attest his sins to God.
He thought of the two boys he had with Adah. Did they ever miss him? He wondered. Ten years without seeing them was a long time.
“They love her more than they could love me.” He shook his head in disbelieve. As in times past, he did not realize that the boys had hungered for his presence but he was never available.
“How can they disown me, my own blood? How can they?”
He thought of the inheritance he could give them. The land he had was small and the wooden house on it was falling apart, invaded by termites. The other properties he had been taken over by crafty people he barely even knew. When he went to Naivasha Town, he would see people riding on the wings of his former wealth. The shops, he once owned though proxies were now controlled by gigolos.
“My fate shall be their destiny.” he said as something jerked his fishing line. He pulled a fish out of the water and put it in the fishing basket.
He thought of his illegitimate children whom he knew. Few knew him. Sometimes he saw some of them walking on red carpets, while others competed for food with rats in the town’s garbage sites. There was also this son of him who had laid his hands on him at the onset of his woes soon after his wife divorced him. Voices in his head had urged him to return to the fold and seek Divine intervention. Months later, he realized that the pastor, his first extra marital son was only a thief and a rapist on the pulpit.
“A boy is not always his father.” he observed, his heart heavy with guilt. After this revelation, he resolved that religion could never solve his woes. “Religion is a wine.” He observed again recalling those days when he used to take alcohol.
In those days, he used to eat nice food, his favourite being richly seasoned stew of meat and vegetables escorted with two glasses of flavoured wine. Now his everyday dish was fried fish and boiled rice. And he had to sweat and sacrifice himself for it.
He left his boat at five in the morning and slowly, as sluggishly as the white thread of dawn inches on the horizon in winter, he walked, his footsteps short and controlled. He felt tired, sleepy and hapless. Four fish lay in his fishing basket, two for himself, two for his faithful friend. Any time soon, the dog would meet him as it always did.
Quite often, when he was late, it came up to the shore and sat on its haunches, panting and looking patiently at the lake. Walking homewards, and still wreathed by the spell of the lake, the old song howled unbidden from the vaults of memories. It echoed in his mind like the shrill cry of an owl in a lonely valley. The coldness it brought him, made his teeth clatter and like madness, its omens seized him and cast his soul into a cave in the past.
The wind blew into a tide,
Yipping as the waves rocked his ride,
He yelped, but the gods were afraid
To come and save him from this raid
A flutter from a frightened guinea fowl jerked his senses from the past. Before him, he saw a shadowy figure of a hippo grazing and snorting towards him. He stood suddenly as a ram dazed by the entrancing eyes of a python. Before he could regain from fear, the beast rushed forward and grabbed him by the waist with its mouth, bit him and trampled him on the ground.
Shocked to the marrow, Ciano’s eyes dilated at the oddity of the time ahead, a vague dawn. He thought of the flower farm he had grown up in, his dead parents, and his former wife, the woman he truly loved but who he painfully betrayed. He thought of her two sons and then his withered hopes and dreams. Belatedly, he saw that he had been a man on a boat assailed by unrelenting winds, and unfortunately allowing them to steer his boat on tidal waters and towards rocky shores.
As thoughts gushed into his mind, his heart grew mossy with fear and he murmured amid plaintive sighs, his hopes finally sapped as in the drought of summer. He struggled to listen to the world, but his ears were fortified against the emerging dawn chorus. A shrill morning trumpet sounded a distance away but he was already deaf to such songs. Gradually, as the stars receded to their homes in the heavens, his eyes turned as white as lily and an invincible whirlpool devoured him with ancient greed. Eyes desolate and afield, he sunk into a world of solid silence; a place of ended night dreams.
Moments later, a severely wounded dog arrived, its ears standing, limping and panting. Its tail was missing, and blood was gushing from a fresh wound on its neck. Whimpering, it licked shut its master’s eyes, yowled to the dawn skies above and fell by his side.
George G. Karanja is a Kenyan writer.