Of Fragile Vessels by Muti Phoya

MMuti (1)uti Phoya is guest faculty for Sara Lawrence College, a private liberal arts college in the United States of America. His short story Chameleons with Mega-pixel Skins was featured in A Memory This Size and other stories: The Caine Prize for African Writing 2013. He writes for Africa is a Country.




Once, this emptiness had the habit of striking me at the oddest of times. Yet its inconsistency was quite consistent in that it came and went. Just like that, it disappeared. Not anymore. Now it’s here to stay, shadowing me like a permanent invisible part of my being, my inner voice maybe. But even my inner voice does disappear on occasion. Not this emptiness. It’s as if it’s decided to do away with the pretensions. Resembling a spent river, it just hangs there without an ounce of willpower. Like the proverbial monkey, it has firmly attached itself to my back, its weight deadening my very existence.

Before, it would announce its emergence like a classical prelude, Debussy’s La fille aux cheveux de lin to be precise – simplistic and yet memorable, invoking images of places foreign and familiar at once. A false high, it would take me through the motions of the Malawian goat the elders opined about, happy when the butcher’s knife is near. Midway, it would morph into an Mbalax tune, an assault of talking drums, keyboards and synths, unmistakable in its approach, unrelenting in its pursuit to slam me against rock bottom. I would then assemble all the necessary artillery and erect the necessary cordon – loud music, shopping, TV shows. Emptiness would retreat to wherever it came from. With the passage of time, it got wise to the game. Or maybe I just got older and slower for whatever defense I erected, it passed through easily. This went on until it saw no need to reappear/disappear/reappear and I no need to erect pointless defenses. Now there is a sense of annoying permanence about it, like a bad habit that refuses to be kicked.

My stretched hand lands on an empty spot next to my bed. The man has quietly slipped out, into oblivion, dutifully following the unwritten code of one night stands – ask no names, tell each other no morning stories. Last night his repeated thrusts were but futile attempts at filling an abyss. Truth is I am spent, numb beyond feigning any semblance of interest. When he gave his final moan and slumped on me, life seemingly having fled him, my tears devotedly came. In that instant, it dawned on me, yet again – neti neti. With little effort I pushed him aside and he fell like a piece of dead wood, onto my side.

I push myself off the bed, into the bathroom. The toilet seat is up and inside floats a used rubber, its pointed face aiming for the cistern as if to burrow through once given that critical push. Alcohol engulfs the whole room as I urinate, sending my mind into some sort of a rush. “To those who fell along the way,” we toasted last night, all three of us, to my promotion. Unapologetically canny minded and cut-throat when the situation demands, we call ourselves The 3 Masterdivas. We danced until midnight when, legless, we leaned on obliging men as we stumbled to our cars.

I sit on the toilet for what seems like the longest time before I muster enough willpower and push myself into the shower, dragging the full weight of emptiness. I shower with much difficulty, barely feeling the water on my skin. I used to be a morning person. Oprah or some other equally ambitious woman, Iyanla Vanzant, when a ‘spiritual’ push was needed, would pump me up so much that I was literally running into the shower and, soon after, my corporate suits with their ubiquitous short skirts. Out of my BMW coupe, my movements were precise, one six-inch high heel after another, as if following an invisible perfect pattern. My gait was so cocksure the secrets of life were safely clutched under my armpits. There was only one way to go – up. First floor gave way to second. Then third and fourth. Skipped five and six to land into seven. Eighth was the last and life was great. I am now in Eight and life is not so great.

My walk-in wardrobe, once the locus of my being, a shrine to the tyrannical gods of materialism, is now emptiness’ own abode. Even the very idea of choosing clothing brings such misery. I am weighted by inertia as I try to move. I settle for my first pick, a grey suit. An open drawer reveals my underwear. I reach and grab one at random. I lift one leg while crutching on hanged clothes for support. I lose balance and fall sideways, crashing into the sidewall with a thud. The shriek comes deep down my very being, like a volcano. I let loose, I let it all out. The shriek is soon followed by tears, gushing with a ferocity that surprises me. I let them fall. Emptiness, located on the other side of the wardrobe, strikes a pose. I throw a shoe at it, surprised with this new discovery of reserve willpower.

I am in a traffic jam on my way to work when my phone rings. True Diva, says the caller Id.

“Congrats diva. You deserve it.” She shouts into the phone. I pull the phone away as my aching head does a double take. “You have worked hard for it and now the Lord is paying you.” Emptiness shifts. “Remember what the man of God said?”

‘A season of favours,’ was his mantra, whether at the pulpit or in my bed. “I know, right?” I answer, trying to convince myself.

“That’s right. And you better know it.” As one next in line, I know this prep talk is for her good. She might as well be talking into a mirror.

“Thanks girlfriend.”

“I am looking forward to lunch. I want to hear all the details.” She hangs up.

A season of favours, says the sticker on the bumper of the car in front. I shake my head and look outside the window, into a newspaper thrust into my view. Man of God stares at me, one eye swollen: “Season of favours as angry husband beats renowned prophet.”

The cars behind me start hooting incessantly just as the newspaper vendor shoves the paper through my window, a pleading look in his eyes. I grab the paper and throw it next to my seat. I throw him a large note just as traffic in front starts to ebb away. A rear view glance reveals a near miss as the man risks it all for that note. Mammon? Money worth more than its value?

I follow the car in front, automated. All around me objects take a third dimension, their hollowness almost palpable. Everything and everyone is an empty vessel, carrying ‘wants’ pretending to be ‘needs’. Wants that are screaming in quiet tantrums, persistent and penetrating: the fuel pump across the road, its numbers jumping excitedly as its attendant half fiddles with a cellular phone in the other hand; the new giant TV-like billboard calling worshippers to the freedom that awaits them at the new mall; and the giant face of the president exhorting the virtues that will come with the Digital TV migration, whatever that is. Along the pavement, a mother displays the plight of her indigent toddler while her outstretched hand seeks alms from the seemingly unimpressed pedestrians.

Outside my office, my new parking spot screams quietly, a dark space delimited by sinister yellow lines. Inside, the lift going up carries five of us, its hollowness wearing a visceral dimension. Six empty suits standing pretentiously at ease. At the sound of a gong, we exit and are soon swallowed into our cells.

Into my new screaming office, I am heading for my new screaming chair. Midway, emptiness pushes me to the ground where I land with a soft thud on the fluffy carpet. I try to move but I cannot. I try to fight but it is too strong and invisible. Burdened, I resign myself to the floor. The thought emerges again in my prefrontal cortex, its weight burying my head into the carpet – “neti neti.”  The tears freely fall, disappearing into the fluffiness of it all.

© Muti Phoya