The Soldier Lodger
By Emmanuel Sigauke, Zimbabwe/USA
(Published in issue 18).
I returned home and found Mukoma fighting with the back-room lodger, a soldier married to a prostitute. Mukoma’s wife, Maiguru, and Sisi, the maid, stood near the front door, watching. I quickly checked to see if Mukoma was not being hurt, and when I saw that he had pinned the soldier’s head on the floor and was hammering his spine with fists, I smiled and proceeded to my room.
I changed out of my work clothes into a comfortable T-shirt and some sweat pants. I heard a thud from the living room, but I resisted the urge look. Soon, Mukoma would be done with the soldier and I would find out what had caused the fight.
I arranged the clothes in my wardrobe and, once done, I looked around and noticed that my bookshelf needed alphabetizing. I had just finished fixing Achebe to Dangarembga, and was moving on to Faulkner, when I heard a loud groan from Mukoma, then another thud. I opened the door and found Maiguru and Sisi dancing. I soon realized that they were actually jumping in terror, shouting at the two men to stop, but the fighters slammed into each other like bulls. Sisi held her stomach and burst into tears and Maiguru, flailing her arms, shouted, “Stop it, people! Stop it, people!” I folded my arms across my chest and watched the dancers and the fighters. I was quite satisfied with the way Mukoma was throwing punches, thinking, come on big brother, we have done this for decades. The soldier wasn’t performing badly either, but I knew he would not last.
Madubeko, the other male lodger, who was actually my friend, emerged from his room and stood by me. He too crossed his arms and watched. No one ever saw the need to help Mukoma in moments like this, let alone try to stop him. The man knew how to take care of himself, and hated it when anyone tried to intervene.
They wrestled and rolled on the floor; they seemed to be taking their time. The soldier shouted obscenities like “Spineless man; useless son of a bitch,” which infuriated Mukoma further. Maiguru and Sisi continued their dance, punctuating each landed blow with a crescendo in their wailing. Madubeko and I stood, he chewing his lips and I jerking my head in response to the flight of fists.
The soldier broke free and punched Mukoma in the face. Mukoma stumbled backwards, but regained his balance, yet before he could raise a fist, the soldier released a kick that disappeared between Mukoma’s legs. Maiguru covered her face and twisted like she was dodging a blow to the head. Mukoma let out a brief laugh…no…a groan, doubling over and holding his crotch. Oh no!
I drew closer to the fighters, my hands forming into fists, but I was not one to join a fight in the middle, so I stepped back to a respectful distance. Mukoma nodded at me, repositioned himself, his body shaking with anger.
“Any moment now”, I whispered to Madubeko.
“He’s ready to cause damage,” Madubeko responded.
The soldier somersaulted and pushed Mukoma to the floor; then he pinned him down and started bashing his face with a half-open fist, using his knuckles to dig into the flesh. I had never seen this type of palm-knuckle fist, but it seemed to work. Mukoma struggled to free himself, but the soldier applied more of his army tactics. I realized then that he might become the first person to beat the big man, so I leaned forward to get a better view, preparing myself to intervene when needed.
Madubeko jumped forward and beckoned me. I ignored him. I just wanted to see what else the soldier was going to do, what techniques I could learn. Madubeko grabbed the soldier's shoulder, but he was donkey-kicked in the shin; the soldier couldn’t afford to turn and face him. He concentrated on Mukoma, head-butting him twice. I could see Mukoma's face swelling.
“Do something, Babamunini!” shrieked Maiguru. She even drew closer to me, wringing her hands.
“Please, this is too much and you’re just standing there!” said Sisi.
I pretended not to have heard both of them.
“Babamunini!” Maiguru shouted.
I titled my head towards her. She looked like she would burst into tears at any time.
“Wait just a minute, ladies,” I said.
Maiguru gave me another scalding look. I ignored her. If she knew Mukoma well, she wouldn’t worry herself.
Madubeko stood by my side again, laughing. No, I wasn’t going to go down in history as having laughed at Mukoma being beaten by the soldier, but I could see why Madubeko was laughing: the way the soldier seemed to be winning, releasing blows that reached Mukoma’s face without resistance. As far as I was concerned, Mukoma was letting the soldier beat him on purpose, maybe to let him exhaust himself first before he taught him a lesson.
Maiguru started shaking with anger. Our eyes met and she said, “What's wrong with you?”
“Who?” I said. “ Me?”
“I cook sadza for you every day but this is how you repay me?” She paused to catch her breath. “Isn’t that your brother being abused there?"
Abused? I looked at the two men and saw no abuse. Even Mukoma turned and looked at his wife as if to tell her not to meddle in his business. He then turned back to the soldier, heaved up and toppled the soldier. The soldier fell on the floor with a thud. He tried to get up, but I was there within a second, pinning him down, and before I realized it, I was down, seeing first the roof, then the fury of the soldier and Mukoma as they both descended on me. They kicked me out of the way and I wriggled to safety. That’s exactly what I had been trying to avoid.
The two men charged at each other again. They exchanged chunks of fists like gifts. Mukoma threw a fist that sent the soldier reeling backwards, but the soldier shook his head, growled and charged. By the time he reached Mukoma, his arms were outstretched and for a moment I thought he was going to hug him. Mukoma kicked him in the stomach and he reeled backwards. I jumped out of the way, but Madubeko pushed me back in harm’s way and said, “Do something. Beat the soldier!”
“You beat the soldier!” I said.
But the fighters decided to take the matter to my room. A Mukoma kick that missed the soldier landed on my door, forcing it open. Mukoma stumbled forward with the impact of his own kick, and this gave the soldier the chance to push him forward into the room. The soldier followed and closed the door behind him. Locked it from inside.
We all crowded at the door, listening; then Maiguru started knocking and calling Mukoma’s name, who after a while groaned and shouted, “Go away!” This was followed by sounds of falling and breaking things. My wardrobe, my bookshelf, something was falling in there. I tried to say something to Maiguru but she waved me away and said, “Don’t even.” Madubeko shook his head and, looking at Maiguru in empathy, said, “This is too much, I know.”
“Leave Now!” Maiguru said, pointing to the other door. Madubeko bowed and entered his room quietly. He stuck his head out and, pointing at my room, said, “Things don’t sound good in there.”
I knocked on my door, now determined to go in and help demolish the soldier, but before I could turn the door handle, the door flung open and Mukoma, wiping his hands on his pants, appeared in the entrance. He face was swollen, but I saw that his eyes, which now looked at me, burned with anger.
“That was some fight,” I said. “Is he still in there?”
“Out of my sight!” he shouted and pushed me out the way. He entered the master bedroom and slammed the doors shut. Maiguru and Sisi stood looking at the closed door silently.
I entered my room, but I didn’t see the soldier. I looked under the bed, behind the wardrobe, and when I was about to check inside the wardrobe, I turned to the window and noticed that the window was open, the breeze outside caressing the curtains and making them dance.
I checked the damage in the room. Except for the books strewn on the floor and my bed out of position, everything looked amazingly normal. Now, that’s what I call clean fighting, I thought as I walked back into the living room. I wanted to find out what had caused the fight.
Maiguru had already followed Mukoma into the bedroom. Sisi stood alone where she had been, looking at the roof as if in supplication.
“What happened?” I asked, moving closer to her.
“Don’t even think about it, coward,” she said, looking away. She then entered the kitchen and closed the door. I wanted to follow her there, but looking at the time, I knew she was going to start cooking and would not be able to tell me anything. In the master bedroom, Mukoma and Maiguru were arguing.
I could just make out fragments of what they were saying: “….who cares about what he….eviction…no doubt you matter….”
I gave up on listening. What had happened here? A fight smack in the middle of the day, between two men I had thought had not reason to fight, one a lodger—and a soldier—the other a landlord—and a civilian. Well, “landlord” in quotation marks, but I didn’t want to conclude that the soldier’s attitude to our presence here, or our claimed status as landlords at the property of a woman who had become Mukoma’s wife long after the soldier had begun to rent from her was the cause of the fight. I didn’t want to think that there had been something between the soldier and Maiguru….
I sat down on the sofa and tried to listen but they were barely audible now. I was about to tiptoe to the door when it swung open, and Mukoma, now in different clothes, emerged. I looked down, to avoid his eyes; then I heard him say, “When I come back I don’t want to see you here, understand?” I looked up to see if he was talking to Maiguru. But he was looking—and pointing—at me. "Go away, somewhere far, and learn to be a useful man who knows the importance family in fights.”
I opened my mouth, but before the words came out, he shot out of the house and slammed the door behind him. Maiguru rushed to the door, opened it, made as if she was about to follow, but turned around and slammed the door shut too, and entered the bedroom without looking at me. For the first time I started to worry that there was really a big problem in this family.
I stood up, felt for my wallet, but before I made up my mind about what I wanted to do, I sat down again as if the sofa was a magnet, and I started thinking. Soon, Mukoma would arrive at the beer hall and join his friends. They would wonder what had happened and he would tell them about how he had disciplined the soldier, how he had then argued with his wife and how he told his younger brother to vanish by the time of his return…
Emmanuel Sigauke writes from Sacramento, California, where he teaches English at Cosumnes River College. He is the founding editor of Munyori Literary Journal and is co-editor of African Roar, an annual publish of contemporary African short fiction. He is active in the Sacramento literary scene, where he hosts poetry readings and facilitates workshops in regional conferences. His poetry and short fiction has appeared in anthologies worldwide.