July 16, 2015
The following morning, I got down to the household chores. I wanted to give my mother a rest, for she had been lying, ever since the early morning, at the entrance to the yard. At one point I lay down next to her, determined to share with her some of the burden of one who feels the weight of her soul. She took no notice of me at first. Then she mumbled between gritted teeth:
This village killed your sister. It killed me. Now it’s never going to kill anyone again.
Please, Mother. We’ve just buried one of our own.
We women have been buried for a long time now. Your father buried me; your grandmother, your great-grandmother, they were all entombed alive.
Hanifa Assulua was right: Without knowing it, maybe I had been buried. So ignorant was I in matters of love, that I had been consigned to the grave. Our village was a living cemetery, only visited by its own residents. I looked at the houses that stretched out along the valley. Discolored, gloomy houses, as if they regretted emerging from the ground. Poor Kulumani, which never wanted to be a village. Poor me, who never wanted to be anything. Time and again our mother had begged for us to go to the city.
I beseech you, husband, for the sake of all that is sacred: Let us go.
If you want to leave, then go.
We can leave someone to look after the graves.
It’s the other way around, woman: If we leave, the graves will stop looking after us.
I shook off such memories. What point was there now in dwelling on past bitterness? If we clung so much to the past, how was it that Silência, so recently departed, could cause us to shed tears?
Father complains that yesterday, Mother, you ignored the requirements of those in mourning. Is it true that you off ended the spirits?
Let me give you some advice, daughter: When you make love, do it in the river, in the water, as the fish do. For God’s sake, that isn’t the kind of talk one expects from a mother!
Well, I’m telling you: Making love in the water is much better than in bed.
How do you know?
I watch our neighbor.
The neighbor? She can’t, she’s an out-and-out widow.
Smiling mischievously, she confessed: She would hide along the riverbank, and peer at the neighbor bathing all by herself. Little by little, that woman’s hands would transform themselves into the hands of other creatures, and would strew her body with shivers that she’d never felt before.
Our neighbor taught me how to get my own back on men . . .
Did I understand what such a confession concealed? Our neighbor only made love to the dead. That’s what Hanifa was telling me. Generation upon generation of the deceased had paraded through our neighbor’s arms. People from afar, blue-blooded people, people who’d never been anything in life: All of them had their passions lit in her liquid bed. From all these lovers, each one chosen by her, the woman only reaped reward: There was no illness, no treachery, no risk of becoming pregnant. All that remained were memories, without ash or seed. Only far from the living could the women of Kulumani have their love reciprocated: That’s what my mother taught me.
Your father’s order is justified. From now on, you’re not leaving the house.
I wasn’t surprised that my father should want me to remain confined. What did puzzle me was the alacrity with which my mother supported her husband’s decision.
That’s exactly what’s going to happen, Mariamar: You’re going to stay here under lock and key.
Then, I began to think: Perhaps I shouldn’t be perplexed by her determination to keep me away from the new arrivals. My mother had not experienced love. The neighbor was the one who’d been blessed: In her rivery bed, she had loved and been loved. Conversely, Hanifa Assulua feared the road, travel, the city. It wasn’t my departure that worried her. It was the scorn that might be leveled at her when no one wanted to take her with them. Other mothers, elsewhere, would have wanted their daughters to flourish out there in the world. But my family had been contaminated by the pettiness that ruled over our village.
Those who came from outside, such as the imminent arrivals, would assume that the inhabitants of the village were good, honest folk. This was an equally honest mistake. The people of Kulumani are welcoming to those who are strangers and come from far-off places. But among themselves, envy and malice prevail. That’s why our grandfather always reminded us:
We don’t need enemies. To be beaten, all we need is ourselves.
The emptier one’s life, the more it is peopled by those who’ve already gone: the exiled, the insane, the dead. In Kulumani, we all idolize the dead, for in them we preserve the deepest roots of our dreams. The most senior of my dead relatives is Adjiru Kapitamoro. To be precise, he is my mother’s elder brother. In our region, we use the term “grandfather” to describe all our maternal uncles. In fact, Adjiru is the only grandfather I really knew. At home, we called him anakulu, “our eldest.” No one ever knew his age, and not even he had any idea of when he had been born.
The truth is that he considered himself so everlasting that he claimed to have created the river that ran through our village.
I’m the one who made this river, the Lundi Lideia, he insisted haughtily.
The list of his fabulous fabrications was a long one: Apart from the river, Grandfather had also fashioned escarpments, chasms, and rain. All thanks to his powerful mintela, the mixtures and charms of the witch doctors. He, however, denied such a grandiose status:
I’m not a witch doctor, I’m just an old man.
In colonial times, his father, the revered Muarimi, had been appointed to the position of captain-major. He collected taxes and settled local disputes in favor of the colonists. This occupation made my great-grandfather the target for blame, envy, and lasting antipathy. But our family gained the name that it now bears proudly: We were the Kapitamoros. In a land without a flag, we hoisted this borrowed insignia as if it were our natural, time-honored right.
Contrary to family tradition, my grandfather Adjiru had embarked on a different pursuit: hunting. That is what he became, by vocation and calling: a hunter. My arm is my soul, he would say. He killed a man by accident as he hunted a leopard over Quionga way. In order to cleanse himself of this blood he would have to rub himself with the ash from burnt trees. He refused to take part in the ritual: For him, who considered himself Portuguese, such humiliation was unbearable. He was banned from hunting, and was limited to working as a tracker. He accepted this demotion with regal dignity. Until the day he died, he never lost his noble bearing. While his work meant that he stayed close to the ground, he continued to cast his shadow over the whole of Kulumani. And now, as the village trembled at the threat of lions, everyone nostalgically recalled his divine protection.
My father, Genito Serafi m Mpepe, could have been a hunter in his own right as well. But he preferred to remain a tracker, in a display of solidarity with his late mentor. If one had been demoted, the other had to be too. Genito’s only ambition, in the end, was to follow in the footsteps of the dethroned hunter. Even so, Grandfather’s standing proved impossible to equal. Adjiru had been more than a mweniekaya, the head of a family. His authority invariably extended to the entire neighborhood. Without pronouncements, his was a silent supremacy, that of someone who exercises power without need for words. As for me, Mariamar, I was a special person for him. Our “elder” reserved the most enigmatic of premonitions for me:
You, Mariamar, came from the river. And you will surprise everyone yet: One day you’ll go there where the river goes, he prophesied.
I’m a woman, and it could never be my destiny to travel. Yet Adjiru Kapitamoro was right. For only two days after Silência’s funeral, I’m traveling downstream in a skiff . I’m fleeing the custody imposed by my inveterate jailer, Genito Mpepe. To escape from Kulumani, there’s no road and no bush. My father’s on the road. In the bush, there are the killer lions. At each exit, an ambush awaits. The only way left to me is the river. This thread of water was baptized with the name Lideia, after the doves that visit us in the rainy season. It could perfectly well have remained an anonymous little river, but we feared that if it was left nameless, it might become extinguished forever. It was supposedly our grandfather, Adjiru Kapitamoro, who had given it its name. And we pretended we believed it.
So here we both go: the River Lideia with its bird’s name; and I, Mariamar, with my watery name. I travel against my fate, but with the flow of the river’s current. During this whole time, the skiff feigns obedience. It’s not my arms that propel it along but forces that I would rather remained unknown. November is the month when we pray for rain. And I pray for a land where I can lie down with the rain, weightless and freed from my body.
MIA COUTO, born in Beira, Mozambique, in 1955, is one of the most prominent writers in Portuguese-speaking Africa. After studying medicine and biology in Maputo, he worked as a journalist and headed the AIM news agency. Couto has been awarded several important literary prizes, including the Vergílio Ferreira Prize and the Latin Union Award for Romance Literatures, among others, and he is a finalist for the 2015 Man Booker International Prize. He lives in Maputo, where he works as a biologist.
Excerpted from CONFESSION OF THE LIONESS by Mia Couto, translated from the Portuguese by David Brookshaw, published in July 2015 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2012 by Editorial Caminho. Translation copyright © 2015 by David Brookshaw. All rights reserved.
Author photo credit: Pedro Soares