After she had been buried, and the funeral over, and he had managed to evict all the relatives artfully ensconcing their way into permanent residency, he would sit in his wooden grandfather chair kept under the large mango tree in his compound, breathing in the tropical breeze and cooling off under the shade of the green thicket.
He would sit all day, silent. Sometimes he would daydream for hours, floating freely between patchy nostalgia and pitiful hallucination. Sometimes he would slide into a deep sleep and only be jolted awake by an unusual swoosh of air. Then his stomach would rumble for lunch and he would obediently go into the kitchen. But he would be back soon after lunch, a good deal before sunset, and resume his posture under the mango tree.
The neighbourhood children would return, heartily retailing anecdotes about school or most often, sharing mean jokes about their teachers and classmates.
They would notice him, but they would not greet him.
He wished to scold them for their lack of respect but he no longer had the strength or conviction. Sometimes, thoughts of how things had changed in the last few decades would float to his mind’s surface and spread themselves over its banks. But his body would soon wear out his mind and the two would walk hand in hand in resignation to the times. He would look up at the flower panicles. A tired wrinkly smile would plaster itself unto his face.
They were late.
At first, he thought the sun was setting earlier than usual. It was nearing the cold season after all. He tried to lift himself upright but paused halfway. The laughter and chatter were not as loud as always, but they were familiar. It was the school children. He sank back into his chair.
They had just laughed off a quick round of jokes and inadvertently toned down their voices to near silence as they approached his compound. Then they heard him call.
A hoarse version of the same sukuu nkwadaa they often heard older people call them. School children, he called out to them again. They stopped, momentarily unsure of what to do. He called them over as any old man would – in a tone of cordial invitation with a tinge of authority. They bashfully moved their human caterpillar towards him.
It was nothing after all. Just old people talk as usual. What were their names? Where did they attend school? What classes were they in? Who did they want to be in future? He mentioned that he had been trying to get their attention every time they walked past his compound, but they never seemed to hear him above their racket. They respectfully apologized. He accepted their apologies and made them promise to greet him tomorrow. Then he dragged his left hand behind his chair and pulled out a black polythene bag.
As was evident on the tree, the mango season had started. He was gifting them the first ripe fruit he had plucked himself. He joked that he was an expert tree climber. They giggled, shy at his grey humour. He counted them. Four boys and two girls. There was a mango for each. They thanked him profusely as they would their own grandfather. He nodded his approval. He would see them tomorrow. His regards should be extended to their parents, he added with a wobbly wave.
Two of the children managed to speak before they, like the others, foamed at the mouth and danced for the last time.
When the wailing brought the entire neighbourhood together, when everybody learned what the children had said and where they had last been and what they had last done, a furious whirlwind of bewildered men and women swept towards the old man’s house. They stopped short at his compound. Silence fell on their numbers. They only gaped, the venom drying in their throats.
A street lamp shone brightly on the mango tree. Two feet like ripe fruit dangled low from its branches. Some young men straggled to the tree to bring down the body. A single loud wail pierced the dusk and broke the silence. A torrent of ululations followed.