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the kianda

Christopher Walker

Past the Fortress of São Miguel, round the bend of the Ilha do Cabo, at the very end of the peninsula, that is where you would find Viriato. He would set off every morning, long before the sun rose over the east of Angola, on his long walk to the rocky promontory. Over his shoulder was slung his fishing gear, a long metal pole tied together in the middle with green string that had washed up on the shore one day, and a line he had crafted from a bundle of cast-off pieces of nylon and elastic that he had found discarded in the alleys around the shopping district. When he caught a fish, a rare event these days, he would reel it in by hand. His hands were lined with old scars, each one telling the tale of a fish that had resisted.
          Viriato needed to fish. He needed the sustenance, as he would always eat what he had caught, making soup with the bones for the days when he could scrounge together nothing else. He refused to beg, though when his neighbours offered him their two-day-old bread, he would smile charmingly as he took it from them. On the third day, the bread would provide him with a simple breakfast, and on the fourth the crust would find its way onto the bait hook, and he would pray to merciful God that there was a fish out there that didn’t mind how stale it was.
          But Viriato needed to fish for another reason. He needed something to fill his days, especially now that he was an old man in a society that needed nothing from its old men. And he needed something to take his eyes off Luanda. Staring out at the sea until it swallowed the sun helped him to forget the changes that his city had seen, the changes that he tried to ignore as he walked with bowed head to and from the peninsula.
          “This isn’t my city any longer,” he would mutter to himself as he crossed the road towards the bay. The horns of the traffic blared. He was not supposed to cross just there, and the drivers that swerved to avoid his skeletal form shouted obscenities to remind him of the fact. “Nobody minded where you crossed the road before,” he said, thinking back to his childhood.
          It was with his childhood in mind that he had started paying attention to Anselmo.
          Anselmo had started fishing a stone’s throw away from Viriato. His rod was as battered as the old man’s, and his line was so short that it barely reached the water. Most days Anselmo would return home empty-handed, but Viriato never saw him look downcast. He watched, first out of the corner of his eye, and then, knowing that nobody paid attention to the stares of old men in this country, he would sit on one of the rocks and forget about his fishing for a while, just to see what Anselmo was doing.
          Every day for weeks it had been the same. Anselmo would pack away his things long before the first of the stars began twinkling in the sky, and then he would make his way carefully from stone to stone towards a beachy outcrop where a number of young Luandans were to be found relaxing after work. They came there most days, around four in the afternoon, with a small picnic, sandwiches usually, and bottles of drink. Viriato would furrow his brown in annoyance when the discarded crusts of their sandwiches were thrown into the water. The girls laughed as the boys competed to see who could throw the crust furthest.
          “A silly waste, if you ask me,” Viriato mumbled.
          Anselmo never joined this group, but he always made a point of climbing down the rock face to pass as close to them as possible. And whenever he did, a young woman, separate from the others, would watch him go past without making it look like she was watching him, but Viriato could tell and he knew that Anselmo could as well.
          “Go up and speak to her, you fool,” Viriato whispered, but Anselmo never did.
          That night Viriato took the long way back to his small apartment in the old musseque. In the back alleys around the shopping district he rummaged through the trash, looking for something that would suit his purpose. He wanted a reason to talk to Anselmo. The boy interested him, as if there was something in him that reminded Viriato about his youth. Physically they had nothing in common. Viriato had much Portuguese blood running through him, and his skin was pale in contrast to most of the Angolans he saw. Anselmo had skin the colour of coffee, perhaps with just a dash of milk added for good measure, and he was much taller. His muscles were lean and taut – Viriato wondered how he got so much protein in his diet if he never caught any fish. He was not stoop-shouldered like the old man, but maybe you needed to live through a civil war to turn out that way. No, there was nothing that tied the two physically, but there was something about Anselmo’s manner that reminded Viriato of himself. Anselmo had the eyes of a poet, that must have been it, thought Viriato. The old man smiled at the realization.
          Having found what he was looking for, Viriato returned home. The elevator in his building wasn’t working. His knees groaned and he walked with one hand on his hip, but eventually Viriato made it to his floor. He unlocked the front door, feeling for the lock with his fingertips. The lights in the hallway flickered briefly and then went back to sleep. He let himself in and padlocked the door shut on the inside.
          “Honey, I’m home,” he announced in a soft voice. He mopped his brow, and took the plastic thread he’d found through to the kitchen. Then he unwrapped the two small fish he had caught. He’d already gutted them and thrown the innards back into the water – the neighbours had complained before about the foul smell, and he didn’t want to risk eviction. The apartment was his, no rent to pay or mortgage to cover, but in modern Angola he knew that didn’t count for much, and a complaint whispered in the right ear could have you slung out on the street easily enough.
          Viriato felt excited – too excited to eat, in fact, so after staring at the fish for a minute he wrapped it up in fresh newspaper and put it in the cold box in the corner of the kitchen. Then he set to work on the plastic thread. It was arduous work, and he caught his fingers with pinpricks so many times that he thought he might even draw blood, but he never did.
          The next morning, Viriato left the apartment with a yawn. He hadn’t slept well. The memory of the past had haunted him that night, as it often did when something reminded him of those turbulent times. Today the sight of the city, with its tall skyscrapers lining the waterfront, upset Viriato more than usual, but when his eyes rested on the shimmering water of the Atlantic, his spirits revived.
          He placed the bundle of line he had spent the night tying together at a spot close to where Anselmo usually established himself, and then the old man returned to his own place where the stones had been rubbed smooth after so many years. He ran out the line through his fingertips, only then realising he had nothing to use as bait, and cast the line out into the sea anyway. Perhaps today would be a lucky day, but if it wasn’t, he still had the fish waiting at home. Secure in the knowledge that he would not go hungry, Viriato settled in for a pleasant morning of contemplating the sea.
          Soon Anselmo arrived, looking downcast as if from some fresh disappointment. He was about to throw his own short line into the water when he noticed the neatly-arranged bundle on the rocks a few paces away. He looked from side to side, as if expecting another fisherman to be there ready to claim it as their own, but there was nobody apart from the old man. Anselmo picked up the bundle and stared at it in amazement. He looped one end through the end of his rod and cast the line out, with an insect tied to the end as bait. Within minutes Viriato heard Anselmo whooping for joy: he had landed his first fish.
          Like any enthusiastic young man, Anselmo wanted to share his magnificent achievement with somebody. Since there was nobody else around except for Viriato, the young man clambered across the rocks to show off his catch.
          “Look at this!” he said, holding up the fish for the old man to inspect. It wriggled in his grasp, yearning for freedom.
          “Don’t drop it,” Viriato said, putting down his own rod so he could help get the fish into a bag that Anselmo was holding open. “Well done, though. That’s a meaty one, you’ll be eating this for days.”
          “Thanks!” Anselmo said, beaming with delight. “Mother will be so pleased. But I couldn’t have caught anything without this new line. I found it just now on the rocks. Where could it have come from?”
          “Must have been washed up from the sea,” Viriato said. “You get a lot of that around here.”
          “Maybe,” said Anselmo, but he looked unconvinced. “But so tidily? This was practically gift-wrapped. It must have been… but no. That’s just an old story.”
          “No, go on, you can say it. I’m an old man, I’ve heard all the old stories.”
          “Well, my grandmother used to tell me tales of the kianda, the mermaid in the waters out there,” he said, pointing out to sea. “They were just stories, I supposed at the time, but what if there was something true about them?”
          “The sea has provided me with a way of staying alive,” Viriato said softly. “Nothing much would surprise me. Be pleased. If there is a kianda, she has certainly taken a liking to you. Thank her.”
          “Thank her? How?”
          “By enjoying her gift to you,” Viriato said.
          Anselmo smiled and thanked the old man for his advice. He moved back towards his old spot to resume his fishing, but stopped halfway. He looked back at Viriato, who had turned back to face the sea. Anselmo called over to him.
          “Maybe I’ll fish here for a bit, if you don’t mind too much,” he called over. “It’d be nice to have some company.”
          “Sure,” Viriato said. He liked the young man. He really did remind him of his younger self – so eager for attention, so disconsolate when there was nobody to talk to.
          Anselmo did more talking than fishing that day. He caught two more fish, one of which he presented to Viriato, who had had an unproductive day. He told Viriato all about the true love of his life, the girl he saw every day on the sandy beach. Her name was Anna.
          “Anselmo and Anna,” Viriato said. “Very euphonic.”
          “Well, it’s not really Anselmo and Anna yet, not if I never build up the courage to go and speak to her. I just don’t know how to do it,” Anselmo said.
          “You don’t need courage, my boy,” Viriato said. “I never needed the courage to go up and introduce myself to my wife, Lisa. What you really need is a pretext.”
          “A pretext, huh? You mean, like an excuse to go and speak to her? And that’s all?” Anselmo was surprised.
          “That’s all. And you have that pretext now,” Viriato said as he nodded towards the bag of fish that Anselmo was holding. “You hadn’t caught any fish until today, so now you have something to show this Anna girl.”
          “How did you know I hadn’t caught any fish before?” Anselmo asked.
          “I’m a lifelong fisherman, I can tell these things,” Viriato said, annoyed at having given himself away. But Anselmo was grinning, his eyes sparkling. Anna and her friends were already down there, playing around on the sand, and Anselmo wasn’t thinking about the old man anymore.
          They said their farewells and Anselmo hopped eagerly from rock to rock, his bag of fish and his rod gripped firmly in one hand as he used the other for support on his climb down.
          Viriato looked on as the young man walked up close to the group. Anselmo proudly lifted his catch aloft, and Anna, he could see, was clutching her hands together in delight. Viriato’s eyes were not sharp enough to see clearly what she looked like. He had Anselmo’s description to go on, and he tried to imagine her come to life in his mind, but all he saw was his wife Lisa. Tears welled in his eyes, and even though it was still early he decided to call it quits for the day.
          The city was still a raucous, rumbling place this early in the afternoon. Viriato didn’t like it, but now he was curious. This was Anselmo’s city, and if he was to understand the young man, he had to understand something of Luanda. Since Viriato first moved to the Angolan capital it had suffered through a civil war, the colonists had been replaced by those loyal to the new government, and the population had exploded. Half a million people had called Luanda home when Viriato had bought his apartment. Now that number was closer to seven million. It was a city of young people all trying to make their way. The waterfront area, Luanda’s corniche with its palm trees and thin wedge of beachfront, was busy with young people walking hand in hand, or out for a jog despite the heat, and Viriato tried in vain to remember what it had once been like. He left the Marginal, as it was called, and walked through the old city with his head held high, taking in the sights as he made his way home.
          It was dark in the kitchen when he set about making his supper. The bulb had blown and Viriato didn’t have the money for a replacement. He found some candles and lit them, placing them on the old wooden table. He cut the fish up with care, cursing himself when his hand slipped and he caught his fingertip with the dull blade of the knife. He sucked his finger but there was no blood, and soon he’d quite forgotten about the accident.
          When he went to bed he felt his heart pounding.
          “You rush around too much these days,” Lisa whispered to him in bed. “You need to take it easy. Don’t spend so much time down there fishing. The walk’s getting too long for you. It’s doing you no good at all. You’ll be joining me before it’s time at this rate.”
          Viriato closed his eyes and reached out a hand for Lisa’s. His hand open by his side, he fell into a dreamless sleep.
          Over the next week Anselmo and Viriato grew closer. They started fishing side-by-side, and shared their catch. Viriato always made sure that Anselmo took the largest fish home with him, to share with his mother and sisters. The old man saw how happy Anselmo was by the attention he was getting from Anna, who now seemed to wait for him eagerly when he came down from his perch to show off his day’s catch. But Anselmo’s meekness was still his undoing.
          “What could she see in a guy like me?” Anselmo complained one morning.
          “Women are always mysterious like that,” Viriato replied, thinking of his Lisa. “It is not our job to wonder at it, but to let things take their course. If Anna has set her eyes on you, all you have to do is say the words and she will be yours.”
          “You make it sound so simple,” said Anselmo. He was quiet for much of the day, and seemed in no mood to celebrate a full bag of fish when their work was done. Viriato watched him leave, his head sunk. It was true, the old man thought, there is much good in this young man but what can he offer to Anna to show her the depth of his affection?
          That night he lay in bed thinking aloud. Lisa spoke through the darkness to him.
          “Remember how you wooed me,” she said.
          “Ha!” Viriato laughed at the memory. “Poor Anselmo can hardly shower his love with gifts!”
          “You didn’t exactly shower me with gifts either, as I recall,” she said. “You had a good eye for what suited me best, though. You say this Anna girl looks like me, is that right?”
          “In my mind’s eye, yes,” he said. “But all beautiful girls remind me of you.”
          “Then perhaps Anna would like my old shawl?”
          Viriato sat up with a start.
          “I couldn’t possibly!” he said. “Besides, I have no idea where it is.”
          “Oh, sweetheart, you know precisely where it is. And I have no use for it any longer. The cold cannot touch me when I wear your love.”
          “I’ll think about it,” Viriato said, placated. “I’ll look for it in the morning.”
          “If you say so,” Lisa whispered. “You do like to put things off. But I won’t forget. It’s like a promise, you know. When you find it, wrap it up in some brown paper, tied with a string.”
          “That’s how it was when I gave it to you,” Viriato said, his eyes closing.
          When Anselmo arrived at the rocky outcrop where Viriato was waiting for him the next morning, he was clutching a brown parcel tightly against his chest.
          “Look what I found!” Anselmo said.
          “Another present from the kianda?”
          “It must be! But look – it isn’t even wet. How is that possible?”
          “With the kianda, anything is possible,” Viriato said, trying not to pay too much attention to his friend. He didn’t want to reveal the true source of the gift by accident. Anselmo had his pride, just as Viriato did. If Viriato had handed anything to Anselmo with the instruction to pass it on to his love, Anselmo would have refused no matter what entreaties the old man used. But a gift from the kianda, that was another matter entirely.
Anselmo toyed with the string that bound the parcel.
          “Why don’t you open it?” Viriato said.
          “I don’t need to,” Anselmo said, smiling beatifically. “You see, I know how these kiandas work. I’ve talked to my grandmother a lot recently about them, now that I can be sure they exist. She says that the kianda delights in bringing men and women together in the world, so that they can have children who come to the sea to pay their respects. The more children there are, the more respected the kianda becomes.”
          “But that parcel might contain anything. It could just be waste paper tied all together.”
          “That doesn’t matter,” Anselmo said with a shrug. “I’ll tell Anna that the gift comes not from me, but from the kianda. I’m sure she’ll understand. She knows all about these things, just like my grandmother.”
          “Oh she does, does she?”
          Anselmo was proud of his Anna, though she wasn’t yet quite his. In his heart, the two were tied together, they shared a destiny. Anselmo was beginning to see, he told Viriato, that the kianda was working her magic. This latest gift was all the proof he needed, and soon he would have the confidence to tell Anna all about his plans for the future.
          “Slowly, my boy, slowly,” Viriato warned him.
          “But why? If the kianda is bringing us together, who are we to interfere?”
          Viriato watched on later as Anselmo rushed to be by Anna’s side. He handed her the parcel, and the old man could imagine what he might have been saying as she unwrapped it to reveal a beautiful cotton shawl in blue the colour of the summer sky. He’d said the same to Lisa, surely, and just as Lisa had hugged the shawl close to her, now Anna did. And there it was – the first kiss.
          “History has a way of repeating itself,” Viriato said, though he felt a creeping melancholy as he turned back to his fishing. He didn’t notice that Anna was wearing the shawl now, nor that Anselmo had taken her hand and the two were leaving the beach together.
          “I hope you’re enjoying your role,” Lisa said that night when Viriato was cooking his supper. “You make a fine kianda, that’s for sure.”
          “You’re making fun of me,” he replied.
          “No, no, not at all. I’m glad that you took that shawl out of the cupboard before the moths ate it all up. What a waste that would have been. Now, what do you think your kianda will produce next? Do you think she might bring about their marriage?”
          “Don’t get ahead of yourself,” Viriato said into the darkness. “Young people these days need more time than we did in our day. They want to enjoy their youth, not rush through it.”
          “I know,” Lisa said. Viriato could almost feel her wrap her arms around him; he could almost smell her perfume, imported from Lisbon.
          “Maybe they’ll move away from the capital when they’re married,” Viriato said. “I hear they’re opening that new city up to everyone. I’ve seen the pictures. Kilamba looks like the ideal place to raise a family. Big modern apartments, paved roads, electricity that works every single day of the week…”
          “That’s a long way from the beach, though,” Lisa mused.
          “Yes, but that young man wouldn’t want to be a fisherman forever.”
          Lisa fell silent. The night had seeped into the apartment everywhere, through the broken corner of the window pane in the bedroom, under the door to the hallway, and now all was cast into pitch blackness. With a sigh, Viriato moved to the bedroom and lay down, fully dressed, on his side of the bed.
          “What are you doing, my darling?” asked Lisa.
          “I just need to close my eyes for a while,” Viriato replied.
          “But there’s so much to do. A kianda’s work is never done, as you know. Now, why don’t you sort through that box you’ve been keeping under the bed, the one with all my old belongings in?”
          “Tomorrow, tomorrow,” murmured Viriato. His breathing was labored. His chest rose and fell and he gasped. “Lisa, I’m sorry I couldn’t give you a better life. I’m sorry I didn’t take you back to Portugal with me when the fighting began. If I had, you would never…”
          He couldn’t finish the sentence. Tears rolled down his cheeks.
          “Shh, my love,” whispered Lisa, lying next to him.
          The next morning a grey fog rolled into the bay, washing past the trees on the corniche and up into the old city centre. The people of Luanda gazed out in wonder at the rare sight. Anselmo and Anna climbed carefully from rock to rock, the surface slick and treacherous.
          “Hold onto my hand,” Anselmo said, reaching down to help Anna across a gap between two large stones.
          “Are you sure he’ll be out here in this?” Anna asked.
          “Absolutely. I’ve never known him to miss a day of fishing. Come along, it’s not far now.”
          But Viriato wasn’t there, and Anselmo stood looking perplexedly out at the sea.
          “I guess you were right,” he said to Anna after a while. “The weather must have put him off. Oh well, we’ll just come back tomorrow.”
          “Wait,” Anna said, clasping Anselmo’s arm. “What’s that, just over there?”
          She was pointing at a small bundle tied together with string, resting at the bottom of some rocks. The waves of the sea were lapping close to it, wetting it with their spray. Anselmo lay down flat on his stomach and with his outstretched arms was just able to reach it.
          “Here, sweetheart. It’s for you.”
          Anna smiled, and kissed Anselmo on the cheek.
          “Another present from our kianda?”
          Anselmo put his arm around Anna and looked once more out at the sea. For an instant, he thought he saw something on the horizon, a figure emerging from the water, but in the haze it was impossible to tell what it might be. Anna leant against her lover, nestling her chin on his shoulder.
          “Shall we make our way back into the city?”
          “It’s still early. Let’s stay here a few minutes. I want to remember this place as it is today.”
          They sat together on the smooth rock where for years Viriato had sat, fishing rod in hand. Anselmo breathed in the sea air, smiled, and silently gave thanks to the kianda

About the AUTHOR

Christopher Walker is a teacher and writer living in the south of Poland. His work has appeared in a number of journals and anthologies, and he has also self-published several novels, the most recent of which is the young adult novel, Try the Best You Can. Christopher is passionate about travel and literature, and is always on the lookout for places where the two collide.
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