Bongani Sibanda

The Treachery of Memory

He woke up in a mansion, his throat sore, a letter under his pillow.

Dear K.,

The surgery was a success, thank you very much. The director will have his peace and, as per the contract, you'll have this marvelous house and receive your monthly stipend. Congratulations. Liking your new home already? That's to be expected. Please note that it'll be some weeks before your throat heals completely. Pain tablets are in the middle drawer in the chest of drawers by the window.

Thank you again,

The Association

Once he had repeated the letter numerous times—folding it carefully and tossing it on the bed after each round, and after some anxious coughs, mumbles and caresses of the stitched neck, picking it up again for another helping—K pocketed the damn thing, stood up, pondering his predicament, forcing himself to stay calm while suppressing a fear that was only matched by shock and confusion. The gist, as he understood (the letter was long and detailed) was that he, K. Ncube, through his music, had been disturbing the director of a certain association's peace, an important somebody who functioned better in his sleep, and (as crazy as it is), the association had purchased his voice for the mansion and an undisclosed monthly stipend. K. had signed a contract, and the surgery to cut off his voice had been performed. Successfully. That's why he had awakened in this house, his throat stitched and painful. It wasn't a dream.

K. paced the length of the bedroom, feeling like a caged bull. Perhaps someone was pulling his leg. It had to be that. How was something like this possible? He looked around, and searched his pockets for his cell phone. There was nothing. They took my phone, he thought, sitting in the bed. Besides the throat, there was also a dull pain in the right side of his head. He was also feeling weak and drowsy, like he could just collapse and die.

As far as he remembered, K had only signed a contract once in his life, and that was several years ago. It was a recording deal with BS music label. There is no way he could have signed away his voice then—the contract was simple and straightforward, without any fine print, and he had gone through it in one sitting. There had been attempts, sure enough, to sign him by government affiliated companies. Lucrative collaboration deals floating in six figures that he knew were a mere attempt at muzzling him. But K. had been steadfast in his rejections. This... what was happening to him, now, was pure fraud. Madness.

He started pacing again, and stood by the window, resting his right elbow on the chest of drawers, which shone an elegant bright yellow, standing half his height. What could he do now? Leave the house? And go where? To the police station? What would he say? It'd have been better if everything were still intact in his head. But his memory was now acting up. His grasp of reality was gradually mutating and slipping through his fingers.

But as he paced around, K determined to fight whatever this was with all his might. He was a practical and sensible man, and understood what waking up in this dratted house, with his voice gone and his immediate memory wiped out, meant. He'd stepped on some toes. Yes. That would be the most probable explanation. He'd unwittingly disturbed a powerful man's business. Threatened their source of bread. Rendered their powerful position precarious. And now he was being dealt with. And unless he folded his cuffs and fought with the little strength left in him, K. was ruined.

He sat briefly in the bed and chewed the matter over. There were elements of the case he'd to swiftly ascertain in order to gain some power. Firstly, he had to have a clear estimation of his tormentor's influence. It'd help him formulate a credible defense strategy. Secondly, he had to know exactly how this had happened. He had to understand the technicalities involved, the dirty little details. Besides being illegal and unheard of, the operation itself was bizarre. He ticked that off. The science involved, despite the evidence of the stitched neck, was definitely not the natural one. Some kind of voodoo had undoubtedly been employed. But of course, powerful and wealthy people, as could afford him a town house like this, didn't believe in voodoo. That, at least, K. knew. They relegated it to the superstitious peoples of the villages, like K. and his family. It followed, therefore, that his situation was a mysterious mishmash of the real and the unreal, the natural and the supernatural. That put K. in a decidedly tough position. He'd to simultaneously do and undo certain things to extricate himself.

But patience and caution were important, that, at least, he knew. You were bound to lose the little advantage you might have had by being rush. Getting all the facts straight, even though quiet paradoxically, those facts were certainly never going to help you, was not just a luxury but a necessity. This called into question therefore what had to be K.'s immediate course of action. Should he run? Stay put? Scream?

Presently he had the mind to go down and check if the main door wasn't locked. But as he was heading for the stairs, his progress was arrested by a sharp pain in his forehead, and he knelt down, holding his head in his hands.

He wanted to scream. But no sound came out of his mouth.

K. had been inclined to taking life lightly, crossing bridges when he came to them—but now he felt as though that had been a mistake. A situation like this could never have occurred without warnings, he knew. There must have been signs, which he clearly had been too self-involved to notice. It might have been a matter of paying his rent on time, without waiting until the landlord complained. It might have been a matter of going to church all Sundays, or simply marrying that Tshuma girl who accused him of shattering her dreams. But all that was beside the point now. The worst had happened.

He threw himself in bed, lay uncovered, his mind a whirlpool of thoughts, his body a sack of cement.

When he awoke, a shaft of sunlight was slanting in through the casement window above the chest of drawers. It was hot. The headache had subsided. He felt empty in his stomach. Yet he was still doubtful about the prudence of eating what he found in this mysterious house. He took to inspecting instead, and started by the bathroom, which was a short hallway to his left. Everything, from door handle to bathtub, was new and clean. If anybody had occupied the house before him, K. thought, they never touched anything. A sitting room, complete with chic cream-white sofas, adjoined the master bedroom. The sofas sat around a glass coffee table, aimed at an enormous smart TV. It was hard to be unimpressed. K.'s heart was gradually going wild (even as he kept warning it). His anger was declining. His practical, worldly nature was steadfastly overpowering him.

He switched the TV on and off. He sat on one sofa and moved to the next. He opened and closed the drawers. He stood admiring the sateen cotton covers decorating the bed. He opened and shut the curtains. He stared at the chandelier hanging down the ceiling. And then he went down the stairs. There was a kitchen down, and a dining room adjoining it.

K sat in the dining room table and reread the letter. What is all this? He wondered to himself aloud.

Unable to withstand the pang of hunger in his stomach, he stood up and opened the fridge. He was still bent over it, admiring fruits and juices (K. had been a fan of good food since he was a boy), when a knock came at the door, and he scampered to open it.

Two men shuffled in immediately. K. didn't know them. They were dressed in identical grey uniforms with many folds and pockets, buckles and buttons, belted high above their waits. One was significantly taller than the other, bespectacled, but was pitifully thin, and had lengthy arms that fell loosely from his shoulders, giving him the spectacular form of a gigantic, costumed puppet. The other was short and stocky, and had thin slits for eyes, which hid deep in their sockets, as if they had been threatened with ultraviolet rays. They had button sticks in their hands and handcuffs attached below their belts.

Who were these people? K. wondered, losing his appetite instantly. Both men had haggard faces. Although their uniforms appeared new, their hands, emerging beneath the sleeves, were gnarled and veined. Lumbermen, he would have thought of them, if it weren't for their uniforms, which reminded him of colonial era police officers as depicted in old schoolbooks. K.'s day was deteriorating from worse to worst.

Thank you for letting us in, said the taller one, turning around to face K. My name is Butho.

And I'm Albert, echoed his stocky companion.

K. stood holding the door, his curiosity matched only by fear.

Mr. K., continued the taller man. We assume that the deal went well, and you are happy with your house?

Well, replied the one who identified himself as Albert, rubbing his forehead with the hand that carried the button stick. That is to be expected, Butho. In my experience only a few have claimed dissatisfaction.

It follows, therefore, Mr. K., said Butho, that the only thing left is for you to receive your monthly paycheck.

The amount promised you in the contract, Mr. K., added Albert almost instantly.

We're human rights lawyers, the two men said simultaneously, bowing their heads, their button sticks held under their armpits.

K contemplated this, facing the two men. As far as he knew, the country he lived in was a democracy, with an intact and perfectly liberal constitution. Who then had the nerve to perform an illegal surgery on him? Ending him and his career so cruelly? Then sending two jokers to tease him afterwards? It was confusing for K.

The two men were now speaking to him. K. listened. It was a loud and confused talk. Although there was some weird sickness to everything they were saying, K. was keen to understand what Butho meant when he reiterated that he wanted to ensure K.'s occupation of the mansion was unchallenged and his monthly stipend paid without disruptions.

Now that you've sold your voice and can't sing anymore, you'll need this money Mr. K., the taller man concluded.

The most important thing, said the other, is telling the truth about what happened to you.

How you begged the association, cut in Butho, to buy your voice.

So you'll have to write a report, explaining in detail all that went down in the three months of negotiations, said Albert.

Most importantly though, Mr. K., said Butho, how initially the association had denied your request on the grounds of the novelty of the process.

So their plan is to manipulate me, K. thought, angrily. They want to turn things around so it appears I brought this on myself.

Momentarily lost in thoughts, K. half-heard Albert offer to narrate him a story, and before he could object in his new language, the other had already started. It was about a writer who, after selling his hands to the association and given the house and a very rich stipend, refused to tell the truth about how he had asked for it, and lost everything.

He died two months after being cast out by the association, added Butho.

K. looked at the men, rage boiling up inside him. Human rights lawyers? Nxa. With their uniform and button sticks, jailors would have been closer to the truth. But he was nonetheless fascinated. He focused his eyes on their haggard, tired faces, on their glazed, yellow eyes.

But the two men did not stand to be observed. After some more stories about lawyers who begged the association to take their voices, they turned away from him, shuffled to the dining room, chattering admiringly. While the taller one had a shrill voice, that seemed to fit with his statue, the shorter one growled in a baritone that sounded like an automatic disagreement.

They made themselves tea, and drank it babbling about how beautiful K.'s place was. K. watched them, feeling like a stranger in a house he had been told was his. They occasionally threw remarks at him. Best tea, you could find anyway. Exceptional house you have here.

And once they were done, they stood up at once, washed their tea-cups, and then went over to K., who was still standing by the door, lost in thoughts.

So we'll give you a piece of paper Mr. K, and you'll write about how you begged the association to buy your voice, and that report will be made public through us, your lawyers, said Albert.

After an awkward pause, as if they expected him to respond, Butho fished into his coat pocket and retrieved a piece of paper. He fished into another, and retrieved a pen. He handed these to K., telling him he would have to write his report at night, alone, and they would collect it in the morning.

We value your independence, they said.

But as they were about to leave, K. raised his hands desperately (mumbling a please, stop) and motioned for them to wait while he composed a quick response. They understood and stopped. Even though his gesture was incorrect, as he knew nothing about sign language, something he had never bothered with, they understood any way. They were patient with him. They were lawyers after all.

Excuse me, Gentleman, he wrote in the piece of paper that was provided. I am an honorable man, gravely wronged by the organization you represent. (he was terribly angry, trying hard to restrain himself) It is true you represent this stupid organization or association, not me, no? Why, you owe me no loyalty. And everything you've said since you got here, despite being carefully dressed up, confirms that. But all that is beside the point. What I want you to know is that I am going to expose you. You and your damned association. I've done you no wrong, that I know. Yet you decided to hurt me, needlessly. And to ease your guilty consciences, which I find strange you have, you want to bribe me. Bribe me with a house, for ruining my life, and rendering me a walking ghost. You could have killed me, which would have been a better fate than this, but you didn't. Because you are cowards. You know I'm a well-known singer. And people will ask questions. So you chose to perform an illegal surgery on me, then came garbed in colonial era police uniform to intimidate me. Fake lawyers. You want me to lie and tell the world I begged for this. You're out of your minds, evil people. I will not be intimidated. The world will know the truth. And you'll pay. Be warned.

He handed them the letter, and turned at once for the door, meaning to get out and run. But the two gentlemen, who had identified themselves as human rights lawyers, who were dressed in... they pounced on him, held him by his shirt and back collar.

Patience, Mr. K, said Albert.

We're human rights lawyers, here to help you, said Butho.

They locked the door. And cuffed him. Then they read what K. had written, Butho in his heart, Albert aloud. They looked at each other, once they were done, then at K. He couldn't read their expressions. Pity, anger, a mix.

We were hoping you'd be reasonable, said Butho.

It's a pity you are making things hard for yourself, said Albert.

Now you have just lost yourself a full month's stipend, said Butho.

But you still have the option to take back what you said and fix things, Albert added.

Why do you have to make things hard for yourself, Mr. K? Butho asked courteously.

He fished again into one of his many pockets, brought out another double pager, and handed it to K. We'll come tomorrow, he said.

Do the right thing. Think about the nice life you'll have.

They uncuffed him, locked the door, and left him standing in the kitchen. He stood for a long time, thinking hard. He was divided and sorrowful, wishing the entire matter was a dream. He wanted to call his mother in the village, but he had no cell phone. He wanted to leave the house and run. He wondered why he hadn't left in the morning when he had had the chance.

That first night, K. made himself a light supper and ate sitting in the couch, his legs stretched over the coffee table. It was bread and scrambled eggs and tea with milk. Bread and eggs had always been his favorite meal since he was a boy. There was a full month's grocery packed in the cupboard and fridge. It was an enormous cupboard fitted into the wall. K had never seen a cupboard of its size before except in pictures. The silver, two doors fridge was fitted into it. And so was the large four-plate stove. Inside the fridge were mostly his favorites: tastic rice, canned beef, sirloins, ice cream... and much more. He didn't know how they knew his favorites. As he feasted, he thought of how comfortable such a life was. He watched some television while eating. He took some painkillers despite himself. He didn't know how he was feeling. He was conflicted. Good food had always lit his heart. But nothing could now.

After hard thinking, after scribbling and scratching, after tearing the paper and gathering the pieces and tearing them up again, after standing up and sitting down and standing up and sitting down again, after fisting the wall until his knuckles bled, taking the stairs up and down, up and down again, after thinking about his poor parents in the village, and after weeping in his own gentlemanly fashion, K. decided not to write anything. If they were going to starve him to death for that, if they were going to confiscate everything, if they were going to... so be it. But he was not going to lie. Not after what the so-called association had done to him.

When the two men who had identified themselves as human rights lawyers arrived the next morning, they were disappointed.

You looked like a reasonable person, they said.

K. did not respond. He had decided not to.

They collected every food item in the house, telling him it was for his best.

They locked the door again.

When he still lived with his parents in the countryside, K.'s family used to go days without food. Although he was no longer used to it, he knew he could survive three days. He watched some TV while he still had the energy, slept when he had none.

When the men who had identified themselves as human rights lawyers arrived after three days, they found him asleep. Weak. He still had not written anything.

They left him again. And it didn't help.

Then the human rights lawyers, who were carrying button sticks and handcuffs, dressed in tweed, colonial era police uniform with numerous buttons, buckles, folds and pockets (never changed) came and took the malnourished K. to a certain place, far away from the city. In the countryside.

This here will jog your memory, they told him. We just want you to remember what happened. How you convinced the director. The contract signing.

The two human rights lawyers, who had identified themselves as... who were dressed in... the... they shoved K. into a house, which was not a house, but a smelly brick cell, roofed with asbestos, measuring one by one meters. A dog's kennel. They gave K. an article to read.

Bhalagwe: Camp of depravity, it was titled.

Staff Reporter.

The article was dated 7 June 1984.

K. read.

Amid all the horrors of Matabeleland, one name stands out as being particularly synonymous with human depravity: Bhalagwe camp.

Where the hell am I? K. wrote down.

You'll find out soon, they told him.

That night, K. slept on the floor, squeezed against the wall, no space to stretch his legs. There were no blankets or toilet facilities. Throughout the night, he heard people crying, grenades exploding and by morning he had no idea whether it was real or just nightmares.

I thought Bhalagwe Camp was shut down, he kept thinking.

By morning, however, K.'s memory came. Just like that. As if it'd been away on an errand. Or he had borrowed it to someone. He now remembered his first meeting with the director, and several others that followed. He was astonished at the treachery of memory, which almost cost him his life. The director, a big beefy man who laughed and coughed and smiled a lot, had told him that his loud music was disturbing his sleep, affecting his directorial duties, as he functioned better in slumber. And how this resulted in the absence of rains for subsistence farmers in Matabeleland South, in the sporadic behavior of the sun, which had started rising at sunset and setting at sunrise, confusing punctual office workers on Number 7 Market Street, in the disruption of mail and sewage systems, resulting in piss and poop piling up in front of poor people's doors at Makokoba Township, in the erratic occurrence of leap-years, confusing birthday mothers who ended up throwing their kids' birthdays on wrong dates, in the shootings and lootings at Chiadzwa Diamond Mine all of which were wrongly blamed on Minister Ezekiel Mpofu, in the ghastly inflation that turned citizens of the republic into starving millionaires, in the arrival of Amashurugwi who hacked and killed their fathers and mothers and daughters to pass the time, in the daily petrol price hikes, the rising of sea levels, the regularity of wildfires, police brutality, electoral rigging, emigration, unemployment, political assassinations, mortgaging of the country's mineral wealth to the PRC, introduction of the RTGS, abductions, judiciary intimidation, sale of baby elephants to Asia, the costly invasion of Congo, the bribing of war veterans and the subsequent foreign currency drought, mounting external debt, declining GDP, relabeling of NGO food aid as government's, vote buying, unfair taxation of street vendors, ninety-five percent infant mortality, drying up of state coffers, non-payment of teachers, deployment of soldiers to residential areas shortly before elections, scandalous emergence of caterpillars at winter, the shocking pardoning of pedophiles and femicidairs to free up prison space for suspected traitors, the Second Coming turning out to be of Noah's floods instead of Jesus Christ, phenomenal presidential untruths, poisoning of the VP, and many more ills than could be mentioned in a day. And K. had understood. Peace and security trumped everything. He negotiated the sale of his voice.

The contract signing happened a week later. Even the exact signing moment was so clear K. was speechless. The director of the association, the ... he was dressed in a charming grey coat with many lapels, seated in a yellow chair in his small cluttered office. He offered K. orange juice. They had lunch at a small back street restaurant afterwards, the Director giggling endlessly.

In the prelude to his report, as he sat down in his luxurious house, K. wrote:

I love peace, I love the director, and I would like to help as best I could to achieve more peace. My only silence is not enough.

_ _

Bongani Sibanda (@bonganisiband14) is based in Johannesburg, South Africa. A Caine Prize alumnus, he has published stories in venues including Munyori Literary Journal, Kalahari Review, Tuck Magazine, and two of Weaver Press' annual literary collections. His debut collection, Grace and Other Stories, was published in 2016. In 2015 he was longlisted for the Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize. His story "Ngozi" was included in the Caine Prize anthology, Redemption Song and Other Stories. He has published two children's novels, Jimmy and the Giant Insects and Jonas's Adventures. At the time of publication of this story he is working on an afrofuturistic high school drama novel based on conspiracy theories around the emergence of Covid-19.

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