Story Pitch

News. Views. Reviews.

Short Story: Love Across Merging Timelines

Representative image of a girl sitting by a river. (Photo: Pixabay)

Love across merging timelines: Short Story

Love across merging timelines: Short Story
Kukongola was uneasy and had difficulty breathing through the bursts of clouds swirling around her.  She was fully drenched from head to toe, her bustier fashioned out of scutes was torn and barely covered her modesty. Her skirt was thankfully saved from the torment of heavy, pouring rain. She was giddy from splashing violently in the twirling water and then suddenly she felt someone pushing her against the wall. Finally, she collapsed.

Kukongola woke up next to the edge of a dam she had never seen or heard of before. It was massive, she felt jittery and began to crawl away from the edge. She realised she had no power in her legs. Tears started to flow. She buried her head in the sand and felt resigned to her fate.  She knew she was far away from home.  She longed for the comfort of her hearth.  This longing churned up high emotions and she, senselessly, screamed. Her screams reverberated through every crevice and fissure of the dam.

The earth it seemed had started to move, Kukongola felt movement underneath her petite frame. She raised her head to find a big serpent emerging out of the sand where she had buried her head. She fell back and sensed being caressed all over by the serpent’s tail. Was she hallucinating?  Was this the doing of her river God? The serpent engulfed her body. She started to levitate. Sacred to the bones, she upped the tempo of her screams. In a flash of a second, she again found herself in deep waters.

Mphatso had seen her from the river edge. He had first heard her screams and had come running to the riverside. He was surprised that anyone would dare to fall from such a height. He knew the dam had claimed many lives over the years. There were legends of a serpent God residing near the dam. 

Mphatso called out to his friends sitting in a clearing not far from the riverside.  All four of them had come for fishing. They were preparing to set up a camp when Mphatso mentioned hearing loud screams. They tried to listen but could not hear anything. Mphatso was surprised, he could clearly hear the distressed voice. All his friends mocked him for hallucinating. He kept quiet and continued to set up his tent. But the voice was getting louder and desperate. Paying heed to his instincts, he told his friends that he was going to the riverside. His friends told him to call out for them if anything happens.

Mphatso was already in the water by the time his friends had arrived. He was swimming towards the Mdierekezi (devil) waterfalls near the dam. It was supposedly the most dangerous section of the dam. They were horrified, to say the least. Mphatso was furiously swimming. He had seen the girl rise up in the air and then jump into the water; he found it incredulous.  He stood transfixed for a split second and then he felt the cold water on his face. Did someone push him into the water?

Kukongola was petrified. She was surrounded by four men.  All of them were wearing strange clothes. They were Anthu Akuda (black people) just like her. That gave her some solace, yet their clothes were different. She had never before seen men wear such clothes.  She tried to get up but dizziness caught her. She slumped back to bed and stared. She could make out what they were speaking while hovering over her. She tried to answer.  Her words were stuck at the back of her throat. She mumbled and again tried to get up, to no avail. 

Mphatso kept swimming towards the falls. Just when he was about to dive to look for the girl, he saw her floating towards him. He was taken aback. He felt water swirling around them. The girl had clung to him. He could feel her soft skin against him.

Kukongola woke up to loud noises and a small fire outside the tent she had been sleeping in, she got out of the bed and stood up. She felt better. She was warm enough to venture outside. She saw the same four men sitting around the fire laughing and singing. She knew the songs. She had composed one of those songs, nobody had heard that song yet.  The song was about a girl who falls in love with a muzungu (white man). It spoke about her love and how she went to search for him when he disappeared. It told of her pain and suffering. She was surprised that these men knew the song.

Mphatso signalled her to sit near him. She went and sat next to him. She joined them in singing her song. Mphatso was moved by the pain in her voice. It sounded as if she had lived the song. This particular song was a century old. It was passed down the generations and was his most favourite song. This song was known as Nyimbo of Chikondi (song of love). His grandmother, his mother often told him stories of the girl who wrote that song. They had told him that the girl loved a muzungu who had left her; she went in search of him but never found him. She committed suicide near the Mdierekezi (devil) falls. It was the same spot where Mphatso had rescued the woman sitting next to him.

Kukongola seemed strikingly beautiful under the fading moonlight. She was wearing a man’s shirt. It was too long on her small body. Mphatso was completely smitten. he wanted to know every little detail about this woman.  Kukongola was tired. After the song ended, she went back to the tent and slept.

The next morning, Kukongola found herself sitting in a strange thing. It was moving fast. She had seen horses, cows and buffaloes, yet this thing was making her shiver and struggle for breath. There was no other man except the one who had saved her in this thing. He was doing something to make this thing move. She could no longer bear to open her eyes and went back to sleep. 

Mphatso was back in Lusaka within two hours. He thought of taking the girl straight to the hospital but decided against it. He was a doctor himself and knew she was fine except she needed plenty of rest. He tried to make her talk but she refused. He bid goodbye to his friends and told them that he would be taking her to his home to recover, and then he would inform the authorities. Her family might be looking for her. He made her comfortable in his home. He bought her clothes. He tended to her injuries. In a matter of days, she had started to come out of her reverie. She seemed curious about everything. Once she screamed when she saw him switch on the television. Everything from the small gadgets to big appliances scared her. Even the food terrified her. 

Mphatso was sure that the girl knew his language. He had often heard her singing in Nyanja nonetheless she was too afraid to talk to him. Surprisingly, she never tried to go away. She was content in not moving. He sometimes found her sitting by the window, staring outside for hours. This routine of not talking or moving, simply staring and being terrified had initially annoyed Mphatso, though recently he began to feel calm about how she existed in his space. His mind told him to report her to the police but his heart refused to let her go. He often took her to the Manda hill and Arcades.  When they first went out to these places, she reacted violently and begged him to take her back.  Over the course of a few weeks, she seemed to enjoy her trips. They would sit outside the coffee shop watching people walk by. They had established a comfort level where they rarely spoke yet managed to communicate. 

It went on like this for a few months. Then Kukongola started to speak.

She, one day, called out to Mphatso and asked him to take her back to the place where he brought her from.  She mentioned that she was being summoned by her River God.  She started rambling about how she had gone to the spirits of the river and begged them to bring back her love. She had often been praying by the river after the disappearance of her love; during one of these visits, she had a vision. She saw God and Goddess of the underworld rising and beckoning her to their embrace.

The next thing she saw that Mphatso was dragging her out of the river. She rambled some more and told him about her village and how she had not seen the dam before but she knew the surroundings.  She told him about how the white men came on horses to her village and how the villagers were taken to work in their homes and farmlands. She told him about how she fell in love and then how she lost her love. She told him about the song she had written for her lost love, and that she had not told anyone else about it still Mphatso and his friends knew the song. She told him that the area where they had gone fishing was occupied by a white settler and it had a beautiful nyumba (home).  She said that the surroundings were familiar but the people and things had disappeared.

She was stunned to see a wall near the place where supposedly her river spirits resided. She knew she was near her home yet it did not seem so. Her whole being told her that she was someplace strange.; she had seen white men walk past her in the Manda Hill and they seemed one with black people surrounding them. She was confused. Where was she?

Mphatso was taken aback. He was completely shaken out of his wits. He had heard of the different legends from his grandparents. He never really paid heed to these legends owing to his upbringing in the city. She had told him about things that sounded as if she lived in a different era. Could this really be true? Had she come from the past? There was only one way to find out. She had asked him to take her back. Back to where he found her floating in the water. She said spirits awaited her return. They wanted to send her back to her home. These spirits, she said had seen her as a baby and loved her like their own child. They wanted her to go back to them, to help her find another love, to help her live a fulfilling life.

Was he dreaming? He had constantly gazed upon her through their interaction. She had been speaking fiercely as if dragged out of her trance, while he remained in quiet contemplation. He was witnessing what was out of bounds for any human logic.

Mphatso softly asked her name.  She replied, “Kukongola.”

They drove back in silence. Mphatso was terribly sad. He understood that this encounter would mark his heart forever. He knew that she had to go. He knew she belonged somewhere else. They existed in different timelines; what brought them together could not be explained.  

They stood quietly in the same place where he had heard her sing. She was looking towards the Mdierekezi falls. She knew her spirits wanted her back.  This man had been kind to her but it was time to go back to where she belonged. She bade him goodbye. She felt no emotion. She wanted to merge in the laps of her spirits. She took off her clothes and started to swim. He expected her to look back but she kept swimming. He wanted to shriek and drag her out of the water. He wanted her to stay. She kept on swimming till she reached near the falls and raised her hands up in the air.  A big, black whirl of cloud rose up from where she had stopped. It raised and surrounded her. He could hear the chants. The big, black cloud formed into the shape of a serpent before vanishing into the falls along with Kukongola. The whole thing lasted for just a few seconds. Mphatso stood there for an hour or so hoping to see her again.

It had become difficult for Mphatso to live in normal fashion again. He had become accustomed to her silent presence.  Something in him had changed. He spent hours listening to her song. He knew she had gone back to unravel her song and leave it as her legacy to lovers, present and future. He knew he had saved her once to send her back to life. Yet, he wondered why folklore talked about her committing suicide. Did she really end her life or was she transported to another age from where it was impossible to come back? These thoughts kept him occupied for another year. Then he slowly started getting back to life. Reluctantly, he even started visiting the coffee shops where she loved going and watching life go by.

One day, Mphatso ordered her favourite coffee and was waiting for it to arrive when he felt a soft whiff of air on his nape. He turned around to find her staring lovingly at him. He knew at that moment; she committed suicide to be with him. She went back to the falls; the river spirits had sent her to the future to be with her love.

(This short story is written by an Indian writer, Molly Kumar, based in Zambia. The story is inspired by extant folklore.)

Read | ‘Unpaused’ film review: A poignant anthology of Covid period