25 January 2009

The Matchstick Man by Christopher Mlalazi

His feet a blur that even seemed not to touch the tar, the Matchstick man flew along the street. Behind him chased a police car, siren baying, and its roof light flashing red murder. On either side of the street, like daring spooks, other red flashing lights chased other Matchstick men on jerky shop window reflections.

Cutting across a corner, he slipped on a banana peel, tumbled down, and skidded forward on his stomach, the tar shredding his dungarees in a loud abrasive screech.

The street suddenly writhed into a turn - he shot straight on out of it and into Independence Square.

A gold statue of Her Excellency, astride a rearing black granite bull, was mounted in the middle of a stretch of dry grass, right in his path. Behind it smiled the country's palace, built of pink marble, and its door guarded by two lions in diamond studded leather neck collars. The lions were both licking their lips - they had just devoured a little boy dressed in an opposition party t-shirt who had dared pass by the door. Around them were scattered tufts of human hair, dentures, toe nails, and the head of a penis. The latter, blitzed by furious bottle green flies, was flipping around like the freshly cut off tail of a lizard.

The Matchstick man slammed into the plinth, head first. There was a loud cracking sound, like a gunshot, and his head burst into sizzling red flame. The granite bull bellowed in alarm, it leapt from the plinth, over the flames, and thundered towards the door of the Palace, clods of soil raining behind it from its hooves. The alert lions already had the door open. Gold and granite disappeared into it, and the two lions slammed the door shut from inside.

Fanned before a ferocious wind, flames raced hungrily across the dry grass following the scars of the bull's spoor, smoke and ash swirling thickly above them.

They beat the fire with acid statements in the state media - the radio, TV, and newspapers. They tear gassed it, set police dogs on it, truncheoned it, shot at it, and, finally, the two lions subdued it at the Palace door. They put it in a strait jacket, raked its face with their sharp claws, drawing blood, then carted it away still struggling to nobody knew where except an unnamed grave deep in the sacred forest behind the Palace in which was rumoured resided the maimed spirits of silencing.

'There is no cure!' The media bansheed. Her Excellency appeared on the lofty steeple of the Palace, on her forehead jutting a pair of tiny horns, singing the 'No Cure' anthem in a deep male voice. Drums beat across the orange sky, horns trumpeted, and feet stamped. The blue sun closed its ears with its fingers, its face a grimace. Then, displeased, it strode west over the border of the horizon, and darkness prematurely opened its terrible mouth over the capital.


One unsuspecting afternoon, the Matchstick man re-appeared in the streets again, wearing a red t-shirt emblazoned in white in front; 'Will Anything Ever Change?' In his hand he carried an aluminium briefcase. His head was a black char, from which his eyes burned with a cold defiant fire. A faint sulphurous smell emanated from him. Borne on a powerful current not felt on the ground, vote campaign leaflets raced overhead on light wings like the scattered thoughts of the hungry.

The Matchstick man opened his mouth in dismay at the sight that met his eyes. He only had two front teeth, which were on his lower jaw. Obese rats, clad in long leather jackets, felt hats, and dark sunglasses, strutted about the streets, double barrelled shotguns balanced over their shoulders. Infants with emaciated faces peeped with dead eyes from the broken windows of buildings. Dogs bayed in the rubbish strewn alleys, and the sun, arms akimbo, the corners of its eyes moist, squinted at the Matchstick man from the sky with hope in its heart.

The Matchstick clicked his briefcase open, took out a sheaf of papers from inside, and then closed it again. Then, frowning heavily, he glared at the statue of Her Excellency. In her smouldering eyes was reflected the double images of a stooped old man about to cast a vote into a transparent ballot box emblazoned 'Uhuru' in rainbow colours on one side. A cock in militia uniform held a machine pistol to the back of the old man's head. The old man cast his vote, and then also jumped into the slit after it. The cock grinned, and, with a magician's flourish, sealed the slit with masking tape. It fluffed its feathers, cocked its head and crowed lustfully. Then it lugged the ballot box on its shoulder, and the double images strutted away deeper into the eyes of the statue and then vanished.

The Matchstick man rifled through his papers, his brow furrowed in intense thought. The two lions manning the door of the palace were pumping dumb bells, sweat coursing down their swollen muscles. The sun coughed, and a momentary blue heat wave scorched the earth. The matchstick man wiped sweat off his brow, and then he approached the statue, a defiant look on his thin wood face. A starved looking red locust was looking into a hand mirror on the plinth, sharpening its teeth with a whetstone.

The wail of a siren, and a red fire engine slewed around the corner, tyres squealing, and raced towards him. The Matchstick man stood his ground. It skidded to a stop in front of him. The buildings on either side of Independence Square straightened their shoulders, and all became deathly silent. One could even have heard the footstep of an ant that stood with one foot poised in mid air at the side of the plinth had it decided to step forward. Its eyes, a look of dread in them, were fixed on the fire engine, its mouth half open.

'What do you want?” The Matchstick man shouted at the fire engine.

'I have come to put out your fire - orders from above!' the fire engine shouted back.

The ant, carefully, placed its foot down, then, crouched low, it slowly retreated backwards and disappeared into a crack on the side of the plinth. A grain of sand slammed into the opening of the crack from inside, sealing it.

'Where is the fire?' the Matchstick man asked, opening his arms at the fire engine. 'For I do not see it.'

'It's in your crazy head!' the fire engine's teeth were bared in a snarl.

'How can you put out a fire that is not yet born?' the Matchstick man asked. 'What kind of a fire engine are you?'

'Do you want to see?' The fire engine hissed and revved its engine.

Its siren started wailing, and it hunched its back, as if about to pounce, but its side door opened and six cockroaches jumped into the street from it, all carrying AK 47 rifles. They aimed them at the Matchstick man, standing in a neat row. The sun frowned, and its blue rays started wind milling slowly clockwise.

The Matchstick man squinted at the sun, his eyes brows arched, and shafts of blue light revolving across his face as if he was an extra terrestrial zebra still deciding on its colours. Then his eyes hardened, and he nodded his head, understanding the solar message. The blue rays detached from the head of the sun and floated south, hugging the flat belly of the sky like the tails of invincible kites.

'Reach for the sun!' the cockroaches all cried out at him in falsetto voices.

'Why?' the Matchstick man asked.

'Because of orders,' one of the cockroaches replied, sliding its rifle into automatic.

The others all did the same.

'But you are firemen,' the Matchstick voice was amazed. 'Your job is to fight fires, and not to kill innocent citizens. Are you sure you are not confused?'

'It is you who is confused,' the cockroach replied, its feet now dancing.

'We are itching for a fire-fight!' another cockroach.

'Why do you think I am confused?' the Matchstick man asked.

'Orders from above,' all the cockroaches chorused, all their feet also now in blurred dance.

The shot gun toting rats appeared from the entrance of SHEFS ONLY NICE SEX MASSAGE PARLOUR. The cockroaches screeched in terror, leapt into the fire engine, which raced away, tyres squealing, and disappeared into an alley.

The rats came up to the Matchstick man.

'Are you crazy?' One of them asked him, taking off its sunglasses. Its neck and wrists glittered with gold chains.

'Definitely not,' the Matchstick man replied.

'They could have killed you. Don't you know there is no cure for the incurable?' the rat said, eyeing him from under the brim of its felt hat.

'I have the formulae for everything incurable of this universe,' the Matchstick man said.

The rat smiled slyly at him. 'Good man,' it said, hitching up its trousers. Its belt was of crocodile skin, and its silver buckle was encrusted with jewels from all corners of the universe, with a gold butterfly as the centre piece. 'Very good, maybe, after all, there is a cure.'

'Yes it's there,' the Matchstick man said.

'You are very intelligent.' The rat gave him a gold-capped smile. 'Very very intelligent. You shall go far, that I can see.' The gold butterfly detached itself from the rats belt buckle and they watched it flutter up into the air. Then, in mid air, it changed into an eagle and surged powerfully towards the sun, quickly disappearing from sight. 'As far as that eagle,' the rat finished, pointing at the sun with its shotgun.

Then it looked at the Matchstick man from the corners of its eyes.

The other rats lowered the brims of their hats, grunted and nodded their heads as if in support of the Matchstick man, and also casting him oblique looks.

There was silence. In the sky, the sun took out a pair of binoculars, crouched down, and squinted through them at the group before the gold statue. The Matchstick man was looking at the spot on the rats belt buckle from where the butterfly had launched itself first into innocent life and then into a bird of prey. A tiny gold fly glowered back at him with eyes that pierced through his and out of the back of his head. The Matchstick man screwed his eyes shut from this laser stare, but his eyes felt not there, only holes where they had been. He opened his eye lids again, and discovered that he could see. His eyes were still there. He quickly averted his eyes from the belt buckle.

The silence was broken by a hacking cough from a pile of leaves. The rats all swivelled around, their shotguns pointed in that direction. The leaves convulsed. A human foetus, dressed only in farmer shoes, and its body glistening with mucus, stood up from underneath them and staggered away up the street. An unpleasant odour drifted to them from its direction.

'Bloody state abortion doesn't want to die,' the rat said. It turned to the Matchstick man. 'So where is your formula, my friend?' Its voice was silky. 'Maybe we can assist you achieve your goal. Only AIDS has no cure – what's eating you anyway?'

The Matchstick man pointed at the statue with the sheaf of papers. Countless silver bees now buzzed around its head, some sitting on it, some on its shoulders, as if they were the scales of a prehistoric animal.

'I have decided to first present my petition to her, then I will go to the underworld and visit the people wherever they are hiding, because, as you can see, the streets are now empty, nobody dares walk them for fear of their lives. But life is a divine gift from the spirits that has to be lived to the full without – er, okay, let me read to you-'

The papers had disappeared from his hand, and so also his briefcase. He raised his eyes. The rats had disappeared too. He stood before the statue, his mouth wide open.

'Read,' sneered Her Excellency from her imperious perch on the bull. 'For one with only two teeth, I see you are a very astute young man.'

All the bees took off from the statue and buzzed into the sky, filling it with silver stars in broad daylight. Their shadows speckled the whole of Independence Square, making it seem as if tiny mirrors were scattered all over it.

The bull tittered. It feinted with its right hoof, the Matchstick man ducked, and it belted him with a granite left to the forehead. The air exploded into more shiny bees, and he was hurled back and landed butt first on a patch of molten tar in the street. The tar splashed upwards, and rained down on him again like inward folding petals, plastering him flat to the empty street with a single shiny blood red star sizzling in his mind.

The two lions at the Palace door snarled, threw their dumbbells down and leapt forward, muscles bunched. But they could not find the Matchstick man. Two eyes in the tar watched them disappear down the street, their noses casting for scent. When the lions were reduced to dots, the Matchstick man dragged himself up from his tar bed. He was now black all over. Needle thin infants quickly gathered around him, laughing noisily, and pointing fingers at him.

He walked away in the opposite direction to the lions. More needles poured from doorways, from the alleys, from manhole covers, and followed behind the Matchstick man.

'They have not silenced me!' the Matchstick man was raving at the air. 'They will never silence me!'

The air eyed him with ageless silence.

'This is only a temporary set back of the army of emancipation, but it shall regroup, the commander shall scream attack, and it shall open its bibles and read virtuousness and civil rights from it, and they shall wilt and crumble before the avalanche of the stones of their words. Hearken my people, there is a cure!'

'There is no cure!' The needles behind him chanted. Their foul breath buffeted the Matchstick man's back, but he walked on without glancing behind him.

The rats lined the tops of the skyscrapers, their arms around angelic faced women, and pointing at the Matchstick man and squeaking in laughter. The tall rat shredded the Matchstick man's petition and threw the papers into the wind. Then he threw the briefcase into the sky also, and all the rats took pot shots at it with their shotguns, hitting it again and again, until it was in small pieces. In the distance behind the briefcase, the sun was hard put ducking the zinging buckshot.

'There is a cure for all the man made ills of the world!' the Matchstick man raved, ignoring the pieces of briefcase and bits of paper raining all around him like wedding confetti.

The procession left the city behind them. It followed the road as it wound up the air towards the sky along a coiled sunbeam.

'There is no cure!' the needles chanted.

'There is a cure if you want it. My papers were stolen, but I have the formula in my head, and that they shall never erase. I am going up this blue celestial road to scrawl it across the sky in big sun-letters, so all those who bother to look up from the mire of their lives shall be saved.'

'Your ghonoreal prick!' Her Excellency screamed from the far distant spire of the palace that projected over the tops sky scrapers. Her back was stooped under the roof of the sky, making her breasts sag down, and her skirt ride high behind her, exposing the backs of veined thighs. In her hand she held her zip zapping truncheon. The sun touched Her Excellency's back.

'Excuse me kind mother - can I please pass?' It asked in a soft voice.

Her Excellency moved aside, still stooped. The sun walked past her after the disappearing Matchstick man. As it passed, Her Excellency's face tightened, and her eyes became a hyena's, cold and glittering. She bit her lower lip and touched the sun with the crackling truncheon on its back. A white bolt of lighting flashed from the sun and lashed across the sky, followed by an ear splitting crack. Darkness swallowed the sky as the sun's filament blew. The sun became a weakly shining moon, and it limped after the Matchstick man on an ethereal avenue.

The Matchstick man toiled towards the sky, now following a coiled purple moonbeam. His body was now a translucent shimmer in the darkness, and behind him the kids all carried yellow flaming torches above their heads.

'Mad man! Mad man! Mad man!' the needles were now chanting as they approached heaven.

The Matchstick Man was written by Christopher Mlalazi.

Copyright Christopher Mlalazi 2008.

(The Matchstick Man first appeared in Dancing With Life and other Short Stories published by ama'Books Publishers, Bulawayo, Zimbabwe.)

Christopher Mlalazi writes prose, poetry, drama (TV and stage), and also children's fiction.

In 2004 he received the HIGHLY RECOMMENDED citation in the Sable Lit Mag/Arvon (UK) Short Story Contest. In 2007 he was shortlisted for the HSBC PEN SOUTH AFRICA SHORT STORY CONTEST, and in 2008 he was awarded the OXFAM NOVIB/PEN FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION AWARD.

He has published short stories in Zimbabwe, Europe, as well as on the web, and was also published in the 2005 Cain Prize Anthology (Orbituray Tango),the 2006 Edinburgh Review, and the 2007 AFRICA PENS. In winter of 2009 he is publishing his debut short story in The Literary Review (USA).

Currently he is working on a novel he hopes to finish by mid 2009, if not earlier, and has a stage play under rehearsal.

On the 14th of Feb 2009, Christopher was awarded the NAMA in the Outstanding First Creative Published Work category for his debut book, a collection of short stories called Dancing with Life.


StoryTime said...

ST is most proud to present the esteemed Christopher Mlalazi.

The Matchstick Man by Christopher Mlalazi is like a Ben Okri story on crack. Birthed from the current Zimbabwean nightmare, it blasts its way into the mind with searing imagery and multi-layered symbolism. There to ravage the deepest corners, in a relentless surge that can't be stopped. And yet one is left with an indefinable sense of hope after the last word is read.

Masimba Musodza said...

i beg to differ, there is a lot of Marechera in this story, but more in tune to our time. I like how interpretations sometimes peep through the layers of imagery.
Her Excellency- is that Mugabe the dictator and Grace the crass blinging nouveau riche merged in to one? Brilliant

Emmanuel Sigauke said...

Thanks for sharing this story, Christopher. This, together with the title story of your collection, is a great introduction to what's in store for the reader.

Embracing elements of magical realism, allegory, and fantasy, the story is a gripping journey into the chaos of a disintegrating society. I liked the characters of the rats, and was shocked by the image of the human foetus, but overall, I appreciate the degree of narrative risk, or freedom in the story. I would have to read it again to piece together the symbolism and its contribution to the overall meaning of the story. For now, let me say, good job and welcome to StoryTime.

Christopher Mlalazi said...

Ivor, Masimba, Emmanuel,you have given me the extra energy to tackle the project I am working on right now. I wish you minds and hands that do not tire of thinking and writing...

Actually when I wrote this story, I just wanted to break away from conventional writing,of which I had been immersed in for a very long time,as a breather, and try to see what I would come up with. This is the result.

Ivor W. Hartmann said...

I was way impressed with this story Chris, and I am really looking forward to reading the whole book. I love stories which push the boundaries in new directions. This is also why I like the speculative fiction genre of which the intense magical realism of The Matchstick Man certainly falls into.

For me it was like being caught up in some amazing communal recurring dream/nightmare that perhaps plagues all Zimbabweans every night. With us all gathered every dream-time in Independence Square, there to helplessly watch the dream play out again and again. Passive and powerless to change anything, like dreams can be sometimes. But there is still a hope, still a way to work things out. If only I could move this finger, if only I could understand this dream. If only the past would release it's cold steel fist, and set me free.

In short this story really captured my imagination, and is a fantastic contribution to ST, and I can't wait for the next one.

mkha said...

this is major, mlalazi!!! its fantasy, its crazy, its a thriller, and yet it stays true to the core, tangible social politics it is representing--my grandmother would read this and not be lost : the work also testifies to the limitless possibilities of representing the Zim tune and thanks for demonstrating such inspiring freshness. your images and symbols are incredible, and i agree with mukoma Emmanuel on the human foetus, that was shocking, and for me, the point where you ripped it. unlike yo other work i've seen, this by far recalls to me marechera. nice. i now join the bench and wait for the collection ha ha. zim lit is rising baby, yebo yessss!

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