When I was little, my brother and I loved to visit an old man on the mountain, kilometers away from our village. He lived on his own. In a hut, which admittedly, I was obsessed with: old man had built it with twigs between bamboos and embroidered it with eternal soul— so immortal it never gone for a Burton. A skill that was rather incongruous to how the Rwandan villagers built their huts; so impeccable that from a distance, it seemed to be plastered together in harmony with his personality. Old man had a gentle demeanour, and he must have borrowed it from the mountain orchids and begonias flowers which surrounded his hut. But it was exactly like these flowers that were growing here and there, amid the impenetrable foliage of the trees, that the old man’s feeble mind was one with the ambiance for his habit of digressing - always talking this and that but still managed to tell a beautiful story.
An admirable man. But not according to the villagers. They accused him of witchcraft and it must have been for his uncanny of a character; old man wore an attire that belonged to no cultural group in our village. Our parents often warned us against him but we knew he’d never harm us. So we decided we would visit him secretly.
On one particular Friday. I asked why he chose to alienate himself on the mountains. He said laughing:
‘You’re likely to incur harm living among people than mountain animals.’
I wished to brazen it out that he was lying but that wasn’t a way to speak with elders. I resorted respectfully:
‘Surely animals are more dangerous.’
‘Animals venerate the chosen ones, I’m a chosen one,’ he said esoterically. It didn’t make sense. Then he continued bitterly. ‘I stay away from the villagers because if they decide against you, you never find peace.’
I sensed that the old man had suffered an incident that was more upsetting than a sheer aspersion of being called a witch. But he refused to tell us further than that ‘villagers are bad people.’ And though he could speak Kinyarwanda, one could tell from how he struggled with his tongue when he spoke, that he wasn’t one of us; one mystery out of the unpredictable many. Nobody even knew his name, merely because nobody asked – including us. That Friday we asked him, but he joked with a doom-saying that we call him ‘the dying poet.’ We dreaded at the thought of him dying so we didn’t find it funny. We called him grandfather instead.
I asked for a lesson from him, to which he tried to divert:
‘Help me weed out my garden,’ he said. Tottering to his garden behind the hut. We followed him.
‘Of course grandfather but you have to tell us a story with a lesson,’ I said.
‘The story we understand,’ seconded my brother at a drop of a hat as we all squatted and began to weed out his garden.
‘All the stories have a lesson,’ said the old man. ‘We weeding out a garden, that’s also a lesson. Everything have a lesson.’
'But grandfather, we need lessons to be better men one day. Please!'
‘We’ll see,’ he said as he stood up and braved on the scalding herb-drink he had long held and puckered his face. ‘We’ll see.’
After weeding out his garden. Old man said we must come the next day prepared for a lesson and ended his sentence: ‘that’s if you’ll find me here tomorrow.’ To which we simply ignored and left him sitting before his hut. And as I glanced back before his hut disappeared behind the foliage of the trees, old man waved us goodbye which he never did and I ignored it again for the quirks of old age.
On that Saturday. We went to his hut and sat before him as we usually did and he began the story. Of course he couldn’t remember the whole details of that story for his eyes kept clutching at nothing, trying to tell the story as it happened; I suspected that it wasn’t just a story. It was a recount from his walks but from the conjecture of his feeble mind — a tale he told and a tale we loved. He told us that the story was about a young woman. Enchanted already, we yelled from the top of our lungs for the name of a young woman but he refused to tell and explained that, ‘the story about love need names for people to remember because that’s a life everyone deserve to live. But a loveless tale need a faceless character.’ But we knew nothing of love. We were little and our facial expressions reiterated that much! That, we knew nothing of love. Old man heeded that and assured us that we would understand one day.
He continued with the story, that the young woman was as beautiful as she was lonesome. Fought against the difficulties of life on her own, and needed a young man to marry but no family in the village would allow their son to marry the daughter of the family that was burnt and damned of witchcraft. If a young man did as little as looked her way, he was believed to be under spell and thus prayed for. But the young woman, like everyone else, needed to be loved. So daydreaming had become a way she knew how to be loved. Eventually, she lost the grip of what was real where love was concerned, and not that she ever was a recipient of any; only on her daydreaming could she love and be loved, only there could she trust her heart.
It went on for years and her heart in recluse was as estranged from reality as it was in pain. Until then one day, when the young woman passed beside a mountain. She suddenly heard a whistle and as she stopped, there was verse from the effusion of the heart. It was poetic, perhaps too poetic and too good to be true as the old man told. She couldn’t bear to listen. She walked away and thought it to be a prank from the village boys to humiliate her further: ‘a complete rubbish!’ said the old man telling how the young woman reacted before she went on, but the whistle persisted and the voice begged cordially. She stopped and the words said: ‘Young heart, the winter lily that bloomed. You remain scorched by the sun and the need of being endeared with Mosi’s song from up the hill. I could love you.’ it was a young man she had wished and impatiently waited for since she knew she needed love but only on her daydreams did she know love, only there could she trust her heart.
My brother asked the old man: ‘what happened to them?
Old man sighed.
‘She couldn’t believe anyone could love her. She went home to her lonesome life, never found love and the young man became angry at everyone and sold two of his father’s cows on the neighboring village and traveled south, far away from his family and never went back home.’
‘Was the parents of the young woman witches?’ asked my brother almost callously but fortunately the old man was patient with us.
‘No, her father was gifted as a seer and animal loved him. The same way animals love me.’
‘But grandfather, what’s the lesson in that story?’ I asked but he began to cough and we waited. I have to admit that my love or rather forbearance with the old man was sympathetic. He had a cough so terrible whenever he coughed, his fragile chest resounded with the twinge of my heart and I would lean forward and listen even harder to the words that made me.
‘Before you speak of love, learn patience and heal the whiplashes which life had bruised the heart of a woman you wish to marry. By that, you rescuing her from the ravaging warfare she has against herself and only then, could she know how to love.’
Old man had taught us a good lesson. There in gratitude, we stood and hugged him but it was saddening. His health was weak, not only could you feel his heart palpitations. You could count his ribs and see his heart beating from his chest. I offered that from thereon we should be the one to dig his root-herb but again, he declined; that he wouldn’t want to get us in trouble with our parents.
We asked for one more lesson and he promised to tell us the following day and contradictory enough, he said: ‘But tomorrow I might not be here.’
‘You said that yesterday but today we found you,’ said my brother incredulously.
‘If you plan to travel back to where you come from. Take us with you!’ I said but my brother disagreed at a drop of a hat and I was tacitly angry at his imprudent tendency to show insensitivity.
‘No sons, I’m not going anywhere but you shouldn’t assume you’ll find me here.’ I was confused, old man often confused us. He heeded that, and tried to explain but confused us further. ‘Didn’t you boys see the split moon last night?’
We shook our heads. I later learnt that the old man meant the circular halo (22◦ halo) – it’s when a moon has a white ring around it.
‘What kind of a moon is split?’ My brother asked.
‘Nothing evil but it brings everything evil,’ he said gravely and burped really bad as if to begin an incantation. And it was getting late so my brother and I went back home to beat our curfew and old man waved us goodbye again. He was acting strange and my brother wasn’t happy with his riddles. My brother was losing patience but I could only bear and forbear, it’s the least I could do.
The following day on Sunday. I bunked the church and secretly went to his hut on my own for another lesson, and found the door of his hut to have suffered a force. I didn’t find the old man inside. Instead, I found a letter addressed to us.
No man can astray from their destined path. Only I tried and my life became a ruin. Now as an old man, I learn that a man can grow from old to young if he wish to learn what he never did. Now I learn that you are wiser than I could ever be because you know how to love those rejected; I never did.
The dead poet.
I was devastated. I reassured myself that the old man wasn’t dead. I searched around the mountain — descended and ran through the grassy uplands on all sides of the outskirts hoping to spot him somewhere digging his root-herbs. There was no sign of him. I came back and waited for him and learnt dreadfully that behind his hut, was ashes still emitting smoke. It was the ashes of the old man and his real name was Mosi — the young man who was once bereft of love. Now as an adult, I have it that death is more forgiving at old age but not with Mosi. That was unjust. And as I thought long and hard about it; how Mosi foretold his own death, one could say he was a soothsayer but close, Mosi was a seer who had abandoned the practice because he didn’t wish to help villagers for they once bruised a woman he loved and cost him a chance of real love. And I think Mosi knew of his coming end because he knew of a myth; that at the night of the circular halo, the white ring around the moon symbolised a twine between earth and some sort of a purgatorial world. Therefore, whatever killing that occurred within the next three nights, God forgave. It was considered a sacred killing; an expiatory act to purify the village from evil and free the sinner from their sins. Mosi knew of that myth and knew that the villagers were coming for him because they thought he was a witch. Then they burnt him, our beloved storyteller.
By Tshepo S. Molebatsi
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