by Amanda Nazombe

Karen is a cruel woman. Unfortunately, she is also my wife.

The embrace of the breeze that had snuck up on me as I slept, failed to keep watch, becoming drowsy, it turned chilly and I awoke. Without opening my eyes, I felt around for my wife to find her side of the bed empty. It could only mean one thing, she hadn’t come to bed. I chuckled inside releasing that even in, my sleep; I was making space for a woman who had fallen asleep in the study.

The room was devoid of any scents and smells. I reluctantly, partially opened my eyes and saw her blurry figure by the door, fully dressed. This was new. I had either been in a very deep sleep or she had learned the art of stealth overnight and managed not to wake me up prematurely as she grunted and complained, loudly, to herself as she got dressed.

“Morning,” I mumbled.

Karen didn’t reply. I cleared my throat, stretched and opened my eyes completely. I realized it wasn’t her but the clothes she had laid out the night before. She always hung them by the door so that should she change her mind about what she was wearing as she walked out, she could decide which outfit was better and change again if need be.

Yawning, I got out of bed, grateful for the thick carpet on the bedroom floor. I stopped at the bathroom door, regretting my choice of the flame patterned glass tiles of the bathroom floor. They taunted me with the knowledge that they were icy, just a flame with no heat, like the winter sun.

Karen had already drawn out water for me in the bathtub, but the water looked flat, without steam or bubbles. I barely put half my foot in before I jerked it out with goose bumps rippling all over my body. The water felt refrigerated. She was very capable of cooling my water and adding ice blocks in my bath water if she was angry about something and wanted to start a fight so she could air things out. She would design a fault if only to give her a starting point. But this couldn’t be one of those moments; it was too early in the morning.

Draining the tub, I took a hot shower instead. When I reappeared in the bathroom, the bed wasn’t made. Karen always made the bed while I showered and dressed. It was routine, I knew no other way. Frowning slightly, I left the room and went down the corridor to look for her.

Cautiously entering her study, I peered in to find her papers and pens spread all over the floor in a disastrous mess she called “my mind’s wanderings.” Her rotating chair had sticky notes stuck behind it and her walls were partially covered with papers with paragraphs or a single word, a telephone number or a bad drawing she insisted was art; and pictures of me and her. The only place without notes pinned to it was the board I had had installed for her to help with organization. She claimed she never used it because she was saving it for the “really important things.” So far, nothing had been important enough for her to stick on her wall except for the words I had stringed together to form sentences that I had then chopped and centered to form; what to the untrained, gullible, eye could be called a poem. But it had made her laugh and cry and say yes to my proposal which is all I wanted, so in the end, all had gone rather well.

I stepped back from the study without actually stepping in. I slid my unmade tie to my neck and walked to the living room. Considering the proximity of this room to the kitchen, I began to feel apprehensive about breakfast as I couldn’t smell anything frying, cooking, roasting or boiling.

Karen was…gifted when it came to the kitchen. I was always assured that whatever came out would amaze me. But this did not always mean that what came out was edible.

There were times she would create and re-create dishes, adding her own personal tangy flair that never failed to cause my taste buds to shiver with excitement. Then there were the times when it seemed the creative cookery genius in her had died the most terrible death and her cooking was a reflection of her inconsolable sorrow.

On the latter days, breakfast was synonymous to cereal, and for me, cereal was a joke at the expense of the elite. I’m sure that some poor but clever person invented cereal when they had only a handful of grain and some forcefully squeezed goat milk. They called it something fancy like “cornflakes” and told the rich some historic nonsense about ancient rulers and lords who had cereal for breakfast. The inventor probably linked the whole shenanigan to an increase of intelligence and beauty, which would translate to more money.

Tsk, cereal was not breakfast.

“Adona!” I affectionately called her, thinking about how it made her obey me. Adona, the magic word that melted this wonderful woman, making her listen to a man’s desperate plea in his genuine desire to be with her. To love, protect and trust her for all times.

“I’m about to leave for work…” I left the breakfast bit unmentioned and unasked to test what mood she was in. Getting no reply, I walked into the kitchen.

Karen was a cruel woman. Unfortunately, she was also my wife.

The kitchen was lemon scented clean, polished and sparkling marble. There was no plate or pot out of place. How could there be when the one who ordered the cutlery around was dead?

Her study, I opened every morning and made the same observations. She had never stalled me to remind me I did this every day. She left her study unlocked so I would always look for her. The bathwater I had run for her last night as I did on that day, I still do now while waiting for her to arrive. She stole that memory from me and made me believe she had run the water, taking credit for what I had done.  Her clothes by the door I have never taken down, in case she wants to wear them tomorrow when she returns from a late night meeting.

Karen, my beautiful wife. The woman staring cheekily into my face at my obvious embarrassment in our wedding photograph. She had grabbed me and kissed me to oblivion in front of relatives, friends and some uninvited guests. The photographer managed to capture the end of her mischievous laugh that had settled into a cheeky smug smile and my mortified expression.

I loved her then, I love her now. But each morning, when I step into the kitchen, I tell myself “no more.” I will no longer live to your redundant routine, I’ll start my own. But after work, I settle into waiting for you to return. You called to say you were on your way.  I know you’d have already eaten so I ran your bath, sit in bed, and wait for you, in the morning I search for you.

Since you died, it has been clear to me; ghosts aren’t pale, transparent beings that haunt people out of a house. They are presence. Ghosts are footprints we refuse to stop walking in long after they have faded and we can no longer remember why we do what we do.

I slid down the kitchen wall and wept.

Now that reality had sunk in, my day could begin. There would be no driving myself anywhere today; I would call a taxi, as I had for six months. I know that Karen, having left me alone in this life to lead her own, was probably bored now and wanted me to join her in the afterlife. But if she could not bear to be with me for the duration of this life time and stilled her heart just as we were beginning to find a rhythm; how could I be sure she would be where I would be for an eternity?

I know to drive myself would probably end up with me driving off the winding mountain road. I would get to work by taxi, down to the old capital city that is Zomba town. But I would not allow her to drag me to my death.

I finally arrived at work and began to go through the motions, doing just enough to get through the day. I met clients, drew up contracts, consulted other colleagues, revising their work and above all, I avoided going to court; there were too many pieces of Karen there.

It could be the judge, a part of the jury, the accused, the defendant, a relative waiting for a verdict or a bored onlooker in search for entertainment- but a woman nonetheless. I have learned to despise the court room.

I see a room full of women and there I find her complexion on another woman, hear the beginning of her  laugh from someone else’s mouth, her pout I see sitting next to the woman who has her hands and they are days I have seen her body walk in the opposite direction from her legs.

She is everywhere and nowhere. I despair in seeing so much of her, but unable to piece her together I watch her go away to share the bits of her with other people that are not me. All of her I find in the same place- but it is shattered. I have found all of her; that is all of her except from her feet.

No matter where I’ve gone, I have never seen her slim, manicured feet anywhere, except on her younger sister. Mphatso has her feet.

And now she is being offered to me in replacement…consolation is the better word- of my stubborn Karen who would not yield to the medical help she was receiving but died without a fight a year, two months and three days after a perfect wedding.

My Karen who fascinated me when she nodded out of turn, when she completely missed the point in an argument and how she would smile sheepishly and laugh at herself when she finally got the sense of what I was saying. Now, I was being offered, Mphatso. The tall, voluptuous woman with her naturally kinky hair, her sun-darkened caramel complexion and her overly wide smile.

I will not allow myself to contemplate this further. I refuse to compare the two sisters, one that I chose and the other that is being offered to me. I need to love the woman I marry, but when I last talked to my father, there was no discussion of love. The topics discussed were those about security of inheritance, the continuation of the family line and how suspicious and disgraceful it is for a man to be rich without a wife or even an illegitimate child. To remain without a wife for longer would bring shame on the family.

“If it is love you want, love will grow” my father tells me. But he doesn’t understand. Karen ghosts around the house. She never gives me the liberty to think of another that could make her mark in my life; and with thoughts consumed of her, I indulge her, confirming that even from beyond the grave, she holds my affections and can bury them as deep as she likes or let them decay if it pleases her. If I am certain of anything, it is that she will not give them back to me to share with another.

Tonight, my family and Karen’s family are coming together to give Mphatso to me officially. I have refused time and before but my words have been as effective as trying to defeat the enemy with caresses in the heat of battle. I wait for tonight, to thank them for their thoughtfulness, but to tell them politely, to dispense with these archaic ideas.

I arrived late that night having rehearsed my speech. My mother greeted me with a “if you had a wife, you wouldn’t stay out so late. They are dangerous people my son, all who walk the night, you need a woman’s love to call you home to keep you protected.” I didn’t respond.

I ate some nsima, roasted chambo, beans and pumpkin leaves in groundnuts- my favourite dish. The fish even had a tangy flavour I had once been accustomed to. After heartily appreciating the dish, I was told by my grinning mother that it was Mphatso who prepared the meal.

Had Karen planned her accident, her death, and prepared Mphatso beforehand knowing that Mphatso would take her place and she wanted her sister to have a place to begin?

Mphatso was sitting on the floor, facing me with her feet crossed at the ankles. She was playing with the tassels of her blue blouse, averting her face completely. How unlike they were.

After some tactless stalling, the conversation soon directed itself to the reason they had come. I listened patiently and when they were done, I replied, “Father, we have talked before and my stand is the same. I do not want Mphatso as a wife as no human being can replace the other.”

“We are not asking you to replace her” my father responded, “We are saying you need a woman to take care of the house- not a maid” my father added when he saw my facial expression. He forged on, “we need the family name to go on, not to die out. Who will remember us, if there is no one to call me grandfather? The world has families of its own, who will bother with us? For a little while we will be mentioned. Our foolishness will be discussed as the family that left no inheritance, no pillar to be remembered, not even a baby. Then, even that talk will cease. What will become of us then?  Take this girl my son; you will get along well because she was from the same household as your Karen.”

I responded with silence. A refusal. At this, the women excused themselves to sort out sleeping arrangements. The rest of the male entourage remained behind echoing and paraphrasing my father. I refused until exhaustion saw us to bed.

I walked into my bedroom to find Mphatso curled in my bed. The room smelled lightly of coco butter.

I slipped into bed.

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