This weekend, get caught up in "The Sack", Namwali Serpell's 2015 Caine Prize-winning story. Zoë Wicomb, head of the judging panel, that year called it, "formally innovative, stylistically stunning, haunting and enigmatic in its effects." Our #WriterWednesday has also mentioned that it forms part of her forthcoming novel. So consider it an advance preview of The Old Drift as well!
There’s a sack.
Hmm. A sack. Big?
Yes. Grey. Like old kwacha. Marks on the outside. No. Shadows.
That’s how I know it is moving.
Something is moving inside it?
The whole sack is moving. Down a dirt road with a ditch on the side, with grass and yellow flowers. There are trees above.
Is it dark?
Yes, but light is coming. It is morning. There are some small birds talking, moving. The sack is dragging on the ground. There is a man pulling it behind him.
Who is this man?
I can’t see his face. He is tallish. His shirt has stains on the back. No socks. Businessman shoes. His hands are wet.
Does he see you?
I don’t know. I’m tired now. Close the curtains.
J. left the bedroom and went to the kitchen. The wooden door was open but the metal security gate was closed. The sky looked bruised. The insects would be coming soon. They had already begun their electric clicking in the garden. He thought of the man in the bedroom, hating him in that tender way he had cultivated over the years.
J. washed the plates from lunch. He swept. A chicken outside made a popping sound. J. sucked his teeth and went to see what was wrong.
The isabi boy was standing outside the security gate. The boy held the bucket handle with both hands, the insides of his elbows splayed taut. His legs were streaked white and grey.
How do you expect me to know you are here if you are quiet? J. asked as he opened the gate. The boy shrugged, a smile dancing upwards and then receding into the settled indifference of his face. J. told the boy to take off his patapatas and reached for the bucket. Groaning with its weight, J. heaved the unwieldy thing into the sink. He could just make out the shape of the bream, flush against the inside of the bucket, its fi n protruding. J. felt the water shift as the fish turned uneasily.
A big one today, eh? J. turned and smiled.
The boy still stood by the door, his hands clasped in front of him. His legs were reflected in the parquet floor, making him seem taller.
Do you want something to eat?
The boy assented with a diagonal nod.
You should eat the fish you catch. It is the only way to survive, J. said.
I told him about the first dream but I did not tell him about the second. In the second dream, I am inside the sack. The cloth of it is pressing right down on my eyes. I turn one way, then the other. All I can see is grey cloth. There is no pain but I can feel the ground against my bones. I am curled up. I hear the sound of the sack, sweeping like a slow broom. I have been paying him long enough – paying down his debt – that he should treat me like a real bwana. He does his duties, yes. But he lacks deference. His politics would not admit this, but I have known this man since we were children. I know what the colour of my skin means to someone of our generation. His eyes have changed. I think he is going to kill me. I think that is what these dreams are telling me. Naila. I cannot remember your hands.
They lifted the bream out of the bucket together, the boy’s hands holding the tail, J.’s hands gripping the head. The fish swung in and out of the curve of its own body, its gills pumping with mechanical panic. They flipped it on to the wooden board. Its side was a jerking plane of silver, drops of water magnifying its precise scaling. The chicken outside made a serrated sound.
Iwe, hold it down! The boy placed his hands on either end of the body. J. slid a knife beneath the locking, unlocking gills. Blood eased over their hands. The fish bucked once, twice. Stopped.
I needed your help, J. smiled.
He deboned and gutted the fish. The boy wiped the chopping board, hypnotised by his own hand tracking thin loops of purple and yellow entrails across it. J. fried the fish in cooking oil with salt and onions and tomatoes. He served a piece of it to the boy, setting the plate on the fl oor. He set a portion of the fish aside for himself and took a plate with the rest of it to the man in the bedroom.
The room was dark but for an orange patch on the wall from the street lamp. Who is here? The isabi boy. J. put the plate on the side table and turned on the lamp.
The man began to cough, the phlegm in his chest rattling as he heaved and hacked. J. helped him sit up and rubbed his back until the fit ceased. When it was done, the man was tired.
Why is the fish boy still here? Did you not pay him?
I gave him supper.
As if I have food to spare, the man grunted. He took the plate on to his lap and began eating.
In the first dream, the sack is full and it is being dragged. In the second dream, I am inside it. What will the third dream reveal? You laugh. You say that dreams move forwards, not back. That I am imagining things. But that is why you chose me, Naila. Or at least that is what I fancied then. Now I am not so sure. Some days, I think you loved me for my hands. Other days, I think you threw stones to decide.
The plate on the kitchen floor was empty. The boy was gone. A tongue cleaned that plate, J. thought as he went to the doorway. The security gate was scaly with insects now, some so heavy their bodies chimed against the hollow metal bars. J. opened it and descended the short set of steps outside. He squatted to open the thatched door of the coop. He could hear the creaking, purring sound of the birds. Light from the house slivered the dark. J. inched along, his hipbone clicking as he went from one chicken to the next. They pivoted their heads and puffed their feathers. The last chicken sat upright on its nest but it wasn’t moving. J. heard a shudder and scanned the wall. The boy. Crouching in the corner, light-mottled.
J. turned back to the chicken and inched closer, reaching for it. The feathers were strung with light brittle spines. The bird fell limp in his hand. Then he saw them, hordes of them, spilling down the chicken’s body, rolling around its neck, massing from its beak. J. started back. The chicken caved in as a flood of ants washed over it. J. stood, hitting his head on the thatched roof. The chickens were yelping and flapping, feathers rising from the ground. The ants snipped at his skin. As he hunched his way out of the coop, a chicken beat its way past his ribs and loped across the yard, head at full piston. Methodically, J. brushed his body off. Then he reached back and pulled the shaking child from the shadows.
My chest is full of cracked glass. That is how it feels when I cough. But the glass never shatters – there is not even that relief of complete pain. I am sick, Naila. Working for me has only made him stronger. Why does he bother? I thought at first that it was the money. But now I think he has been waiting. I wonder at the dwindling of our cares. We began with the widest compass, a society of the people, we said. But somehow we narrowed until it was just us three. Jacob, Joseph, Naila. You replaced yourself with the baby you birthed. So there were still three. But then your family took our son away. And now there are only two. Every day this sickness bites into my body and soon there will be only one. In the dream that just woke me, I am on the ground. It is night. The man kneels at my side. The face is melted but his hairline has washed back with a froth of white hair and he has those same strong arms. His hands are wet. He is tugging the mouth of the sack up over my thighs. This must be when he puts my body into it. We are in the garden. I woke to the smell of smoke.
J. burned the coop. The four chickens left – one had disappeared in the night, snatched by a lucky dog – huddled in a makeshift corral. The fire smelled good; the dead chicken was practically fresh-cooked. From the kitchen doorway, J. watched the last of the smoke coiling up to join the clouds above. The sun took its time. His saliva was bitter and when he spat in the sink, he saw that it was grey. The boy was sleeping on a blanket on the kitchen fl oor. J. leaned against the counter, watching the boy’s chest catch and release. His skinny legs were clean now, greased with Vaseline. J. had hosed the ants off him and anointed the rash of bites. J. made a cup of tea – Five Roses, milk, no sugar – and balanced it on a tray.
The bedroom was ripe with the metallic smell of dried blood. A copper dawn lit the window: Kwacha! Ngwee . . .
The man looked up when J. entered the room. What was that fire?
I burned the chicken coop.
J. put the tray on the side table and began to leave the room. Do not walk away from me. The man spat.
J. wiped the spit from the floor with his sleeve. White ants, he said.
Bloody superstitions. The man sucked his teeth. Is that bloody fish boy still here? I don’t like people coming here. They f nd out who I am and ask for money.
He doesn’t know who you are. He’s too young. This boy has no family, J. said. We could use the help.
The man lifted his cup, his hand trembling. He sipped the hot tea and winced with pleasure. The boy goes. I can’t afford such things.
The light had gone from copper to white gold, the day spending itself freely. J. squatted on the stoop outside, shelling groundnuts to cook a dish of pumpkin leaves. Students in pale blue uniforms flirted in the dirt road. J. watched them with fond pity as he pressed the knuckle ofhis thumb to the belly of a shell. He hadn’t tasted chibwabwa ne’ntwilo in twenty years. Naila’s favourite. When he returned to the kitchen, he could hear voices in the living room. J. looked through the gap between the door and the frame. The man was leaning against the far wall, his pyjamas low on his hips. J.’s eyes narrowed: the man hadn’t left his bed in weeks. He was shouting at the boy, who stood with his back to J.
Isa kuno, the man said sternly. Come here! Are you deaf?
The boy moved hesitantly over to him and the man’s hand fell trembling on to the bony shoulder. He used the boy as a crutch, levering himself to the sofa. His breathing rasped, shaving bits of silence off the air. In the dull light of the living room, the boy’s skin was the colour of a tarnished coin.
There, the man pointed at a picture frame face down on the floor near the sofa. What is that?
J. opened the door. Leave him, he said.
The boy rushed to J.’s side.
He broke it, the man snarled, picking up the framed photograph.
He doesn’t know, J. said, looking down at the boy leaning against his leg.
I don’t want him here, the man panted.
I owe it to him, J. said.
The man gaped, a laugh catching in his throat. The only debt you owe is to me, old man.
J. pushed the boy ahead of him into the kitchen.
Read the rest of "The Sack", for free, here.
Namwali Serpell is a Zambian writer who teaches at UC, Berkeley. Her story “The Sack” won the 2015 Caine Prize for African writing. It first appeared in the Africa39 anthology, a 2014 Hay festival project to identify the best African writers under 40. She received a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award in 2011. Her first published story, “Muzungu,” was selected for the Best American Short Stories 2009, and shortlisted for the 2010 Caine Prize. Her first novel, The Old Drift, will be published by Penguin Random House in 2018. She tweets occasionally @snamwali.