From Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret. Translation by Stephen Henighan. Published by Biblioasis in 2014. In 2012, the Guardian named Ondjaki one of its Top Five African Writers. Ondjaki was born in Luanda, Angola.
We made drawings in the dirt across from Granma Agnette’s house, then fled from the water trucks that came late in the afternoon to settle the dust.
It was a big square with a gas station in the middle that was on a traffic circle so that trucks and cars could loop around it and pretend that they were in a big city.
The Comrade Gas Jockey was able to sleep away most of his working hours because the pump never had any gasoline. He only woke up when he heard the voice of crazy Sea Foam.
“Those stars that fall all of a sudden have names: they’re fouling stars and that ain’t the weed talking, I know what I says with all these teeth in my mouth...”
On the other side of the gas station was the gigantic construction site of the Mausoleum, a place they were building to hold the body of Comrade President Agostinho Neto, which had spent all these years embalmed by some Soviet experts in the art of keeping a person with an appearance fit to be seen.
Behind the construction site, on the other side of our square where the dust never settled, lay that beautiful thing that taught me about blue every day: the big sea, better known as the ocean.
“You all talk about falling stars, but I know all the dictionaries of the Angolan and Cuban languages. Fouling stars are phenomena of the skies of the dark universe, the cosmic dust and so on... You dipsticks who never went to university schools!”
We, the children, laughed in outbursts so thick we could almost see them sketched in the air. We were struck silent by terror and magic at the words of the comrade lunatic.
“Get this, kids, there are two skies: the blue sky that belongs to our eyes and to the wings of planes and little birds. And then there’s a black sky that’s as big as a desert.”
We were almost not afraid of Sea Foam. He had never done anything bad to anyone.
“Fouling stars melted in the heat of the sun and that’s why they fall towards planet world. Our planet is the only one that has water where they can cool down again. They’re fouling stars, and one day, after cooling off, I swear, those stars are going to want to return home...”
He shrugged his threads and went off with a nervous laugh that could have been a sob, walking ever faster, raising the dust with his bare feet, going forward as if he were about to enter the sea.
“We’re still going to see those stars rise up from the earth to way up there, in the skies that sleep far away dressed in bright brightnesses...”
On our dusty veranda, Granma Catarina, Granma Agnette’s sister, would slowly appear dressed in the black of her old mourning garb, with her white hair like downy cotton.
“Still in mourning, Dona Catarina?” asked the neighbour, Dona Libânia.
“As long as the war in our country continues, sister, all the dead are my children.”
Granma Nhéte watered the plants, the bushes and the trees with the thin trickle of water that appeared on Tuesdays and Thursdays. She watered the guava tree and the fig tree, the cherimoya tree, the palm tree and the mango tree. Afterwards she soaked the steps and watered the flowerpots.
“Children! Everybody inside. It’s snack time.”
Snack time was complicated for us: we had to go and wash our armpits, hands and faces before sitting at the table. We ate half a slice of bread, half a banana and a glass of water.
“Anybody who wants to can make ngonguenha, but only use a little sugar. It’s almost finished.”
Sometimes on the way over we grabbed guavas or mangoes that the bats had forgotten to pillage. A little after five o’clock the Soviets’ water truck would come by to settle the dust in the street and on the sidewalk.
One of the cousins had the job of listening out for noise. The Comrade Gas Jockey would wake up when the Soviet driver hooked up the water truck on the construction site of the Mausoleum. This was the signal. Crazy Sea Foam would appear at his front gate with a tiny whip that he would bob in the wind around his legs.
“Granma Catarina, is it true that Sea Foam has an alligator hidden in the doghouse in his yard?”
“Maybe,” Granma laughed.
“Does an alligator fit in a doghouse?”
“If it’s really small.”
Some of us were frightened by this tale, others laughed nervously as we ate in a hurry to get out into the street again. Granma Agnette wasn’t home. She had gone to a last-minute funeral.
“Here in Luanda people die without giving proper notice. Such bad manners!” Granma Catarina would say.
Swirls of wind lifted the afternoon dust, and the leaves around the Mausoleum square danced in the air without wanting to go very far.
The Comrade Gas Jockey started to close up the gas station, Sea Foam was dancing as though the breeze were a wedding chorus, and many workers, dressed in blue coveralls and yellow construction helmets, were coming out the main gate of the Mausoleum. Men who walked hand-in-hand, laughing, doffing their helmets, drinking a few beers, rubbing their eyes because of the tears conjured up by the dust.
“It must be boring to work,” Pi said. “They’re all happy when it’s time to go home.”
His real name was Pinduca, and in the family he was called Pi. Sea Foam, who had studied mathematics in Cuba until he went crazy, told us that Pi was equal to 3.14. Even without understanding, we liked this name that sounded like numbers and had a decimal point.
The work on the Mausoleum was supposed to be almost finished. That tall, ashen part, made out of a cement so hard it would never fall, looked like a rocket and I figure that later they were planning to paint it with the colours of the Angolan flag, though that could have been one of Charlita’s lies.
“My dad has a bar where the workers come in for beer. And he hears the comrade workers talking.”
“But your dad’s bar is always out of beer!” 3.14 teased, and we took off to run through the dust butt.
The Soviet from the tanker truck honked his horn and spat out his words in the Soviet language, which was really weird and impossible to understand. The Comrade Gas Jockey changed his clothes and his shoes and stood there waiting for the truck to give the whole square a soaking. The workers disappeared and thousands of swallows began to arrive from every corner of the sky. The earth was damp with a beautiful smell that imitated that of real rain when it falls hard to irrigate the world.
The last person to leave the construction site—who wore a different helmet and closed the padlock on the front gate—was the Soviet Comrade Gudafterov, to whom we had given this name because of the way in which he said, almost as though he were speaking Soviet, “Gudafter-noon,” even when it was early in the morning or really late at night. We imitated him, then burst out laughing.
“Gudafter-noon, Comrade Gudafterov!”
“Gudafter-noon,” he replied in a serious voice.
“Comrade Gudafterov, is it true that the work on the Mausoleum’s almost finished?” 3.14 asked.
“Nyet!” he said, with the face of a bad guy.
On the other side of the square, the wind was drawing pictures on the sea. Charlita arrived, with her thick glasses.
“Do you see the sun the same as we do, Charlita?”
“And if you take off your glasses?”
“Then I don’t see anything. Just stains.”
“I’d still like to see those stains some days. They must be like watercolours.”
The enormous sun, which seemed so close by, was sinking, as though boiling, into the water of the sea. Maybe that’s why here in Luanda the water on the beaches is so warm. And it even seemed that the sun was giving the wind orders to calm down. The wind stopped whistling and all that remained on Bishop’s Beach was the wet earth and a silence in which almost nothing could be heard.
“Gran Nhéte is here?” Comrade Gudafterov asked.
“Nyet!” I replied.
“Then pleeze say I come back tomorrow.”
“Kaput yes,” 3.14 invented. “Go ahead, tupariovsky!”
These words came from Senhor Tuarles, who liked saying, “tupariov” for nothing and everything.
Comrade Gudafterov departed, walking with his feet turned in and moving very fast as though he were always late. His car, a Lada Niva of a hideous colour, was on the other side of the street. It took a moment for the engine to catch. Explosions came out of the tailpipe and then he pulled away.
Sea Foam was swirling his whip around. Granma Maria came to tell Charlita to come home. The Comrade Gas Jockey said goodbye and disappeared.
“See you tomorrowov, Comrade!” 3.14 said.
Far away, in the shadowed darkness, the Old Fisherman had just arrived. He got out of his dugout, slowly folded up his net, stowed his two anchors and waved to me.
“Watch out, Elder, the sea is full of salty waters!” Sea Foam shouted. “They’re the tears of those who just died.”