The old man had been staring out into the lake for some time. His spindly legs had long gone stiff, even though his walking stick had the bigger responsibility for his meagre weight.
A female duck thrashed about in the water, entangled in floating weeds. He knew it was female because he could tell male and female ducks apart. He just knew; he didn’t have to explain it to anyone.
To the west, the sun descended closer to the surface of the lake, turning into a sparkling, living kaleidoscope. He was standing on a little crag above the water. The waves beat rhythmically at the base of the crag, marking time with his heart.
The lake was the same, and yet it was different. He had seen it almost from the day his eyes opened to the world. He had swum in it, rowed in it, felt its cold spray on his face, battled danger on its treacherous surface, and confirmed almost all his friends in it. A million times.
But now it was more than twenty years since he had gone more than a few metres into it. The nostalgia was overwhelming. It brought a tight smile to his thin lips, made his eyes light up with the rays of the setting sun.
His thoughts went back to his wife and the smile faded from his face. This day wasn’t for smiling. He knew he wouldn’t find her when he went back. The memories came to him in a dazzling flood, almost sweeping him off his feet. Those first days, when he was a nimble young man. When there were still village dances under the moonlight, and there was no need for anything but a loincloth to look respectable.
It was the eyes that first got him. They caught him up in a whirlwind, made his heart sing itself out of his chest. And in all these past years of living with her, they never ceased to do that to him. He had reserved looking into her eyes for only those moments when he knew he could handle the paralysing ecstasy that came with doing so.
Now those eyes were looking at the portal into eternity.
A boat was drawing close to the shore. Young men, barely twenty, their wet naked arms glistening, rowed with the intent that only comes when one sees the shore, the end of one’s labours.
The old man sighed wistfully. The days had gone by like the blink of an eye. Youth doesn’t last, he mused with another dry smile. In its days, it seems to go on forever, a stretched promise of eternal vitality. Then, just as soon as it came, it’s on its way out, an ephemeral wisp of smoke making way for the more enduring phases of man’s earthly existence, the drudgery of age.
For the longest time he could now remember, her face had been wrinkled and oily, a leathery canvas atop her skull. But he also remembered the times when it was smooth like the backside of a baby, when it made men fight just to be seen by her.
He had cast his lot with the least hope of winning. For him, even the smallest notice from her would have been enough. But she went all the way. To this day, he hadn’t understood what she saw in him, just as he hadn’t failed to notice the coy twinkle in her eyes whenever he dared look into them.
He would never see that twinkle again. His recollections suddenly started coming faster. His breath couldn’t keep up. He felt himself panting. He felt his palms sweating. He felt his heart race. The trembling in his limbs became noticeable even to him. The sadness was rolling in.
He remembered the ululations of the women piercing the cold morning sky when he saw his first son for the first time. She had slapped him for the first time the previous evening, when he fumbled clumsily as the pains of labour wracked her tender body.
The fruit of the slap was the crying little wrinkled thing he held in his trembling hands that morning, as ululations and birdsong mingled in the background. Interesting, he mused, that we should come into the world with wrinkled skin and leave with wrinkled skin. As if nothing changes while we live.
He must be there with his siblings now, gathered around the bed of their mother, he thought. They had come in the previous day, when they heard the doctor’s verdict from the sunny aunt who had been taking care of her since she fell.
It was a bee. She had climbed onto the bed to swat it, then been carried away with the exhilaration of chasing it around. While his youth had ebbed, hers had never really climaxed. It ever bubbled beneath her steadily greying head, ready to burst forth at the most unexpected moments. The bee had gone beyond the bed. She had followed it. And broken more bones than she had.
The boat with the young men hit the shore with a grinding sound.
They must be looking for him now. His children. They would check behind the house, where he used to sit with her under the elderly euphorbia tree, talking of their grandchildren and discussing the news they heard on the old, dusty transistor radio with the broken aerial.
They would then check the maize farm, where he usually pulled striga from the ground with his calloused hands. He believed that was the best way to defeat the pesky weed. Then maybe they would go to the neighbour’s, where the kids used to listen to his stories of the old times.
After not finding him there, maybe it would occur to them to search for him at the shore. They would find him eventually and lead him home, but they would be too late.
He knew it.
Why was she being stolen from him? Ever since their last son had fled the nest, he had known that this day would come. But why did it have to come anyway? A large tear broke free of his scanty eyelashes and slowly rolled down his creased left cheek, clotting in the breeze.
The young men slung heavy baskets onto their ample shoulders and set off into the gathering darkness. The duck broke free of the weeds and floated into the air. Above him, a large flock gulls flew in formation towards the setting sun. The calm swoosh of their wings brought a heaviness to his heart that he had never felt before. He felt it stop momentarily.
She was gone. He knew it.
He continued staring vacantly out into the lake, comforted only by the weak beating of his heart, as the voice of his eldest son wafted into his ears, calling out to him.
Feature image: The Life in Focus.
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