Portrait of Love in Five Acts

Featherlight fingers trace forgotten landmarks and discover new ones—musano-filled scars across his chest—silver slithers lining her belly—claws streaking kind, knowing eyes—tiny beads resting against the smooth dip of her waistline. Lips taste salt-lined cheeks while quivering hands peel back clothes and memories, exploring maps of lost lovers.

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Lweendo sat in the doorway of her mother’s hut watching the swallows flit across the graying sky, at first tentative and then frantic as the wind and moisture-laden charcoal clouds gathered. A small group of them led the way as if beckoned by a silent call, then a flurry of birds converged, their sharp wings growing tinier the farther away they flew until they were specks in the distance. Miniscule black arrows released into the heavens, heralding a storm.

She closed her eyes, willing her head still. Its thudding had been relentless, beginning after she had returned from her confinement, and continuing through the cycle of a whole mweshi; the restless shifting on her sleeping mat kept both her and her mother awake. Her dreams had also kept her awake: her brother, Beene, calling out to her, his voice smothered so that only his eyes relayed his terror. Lweendo could see him now, emerging from the darkness behind her eyelids. Night after night Beene beseeched her. Even when she stayed awake to keep him at bay, he still came.

A babble of laughter burst through her thoughts. She pried her eyes open, and there he was. Not Beene, but Chona. His wide smile cut white across shimmering brown skin, a fishing basket swung across his muscled back, and the lechwe hide he wore around his waist speckled gold. The hide looked new. He must be doing well.

Lweendo’s eyes flickered upward, meeting Chona’s as he lingered behind his group of rowdy friends. Her hand rose to finger her thick, half-plaited coils, and she wished she could look more becoming. A smile twinkled in her eye, tugging at her lip. She thought she saw him nod, and then he was gone, leaving only a lonely silence in his wake.

A torrent of rain cascaded down her mother’s tightly thatched roof and poured onto the parched red ground, huge droplets turning dust to mud. Wafts of wet earth assailed her nostrils. A wave washed over her, and the headache that had plagued her for days dissipated, but she could not shrug away the persistent niggle of her brother’s plea.

“Come,” her mother called, and Lweendo jumped, startled both by static skies and the sudden awakening. “Your father will not feed himself,” she said, handing her a bowl of fish to scale.

And the niggle wriggled away from her grasp.

▴ ▴ ▴


Chona drew in a long breath and held it. Exhaling three times as he called out her name, being sure to pronounce each syllable carefully: a series of chants, marching to the beat of the Ulanyika’s drums,

                                                            Lwe – en – do



This last Lweendo emerged in a splutter.

Unable to alternate between blowing puffs of smoke, calling out her name, and breathing, Chona’s body convulsed in a fit of coughs. Acrid smoke singed the walls of his chest.

He looked around furtively before taking another drag from the pipe. Wary of discovery, he was huddled in the dark, leaning against the cold clay wall of his newly constructed hut. Dots of light pierced through the night sky, their sparkling a pale imitation of the dazzling silver sheen of the full mweshi.

This time he was more cautious. Didn’t gulp the smoke down but, instead, drawing his lips into the shape of a flute, he inhaled wisps of it, feeling the bitter musano tingle on his tongue before it filled his lungs.




                                                            He exhaled.

It didn’t help. The cough began like a prickly scratch before erupting violently. Heaving, Chona remembered the medicine man’s warning to only do this once on each full mweshi until he was successful.

“You don’t want to end up with the woman always on top, no matter how much of a good idea it might seem right now,” the mung’anga had said, chuckling as he handed him the pouch of crushed leaves.

A shudder of excitement raked through him and revived the choking. He suffocated on the haze from his idle pipe, watching through welled-up eyes as his friend Mweene sauntered across from the clearing in the middle of the village where everyone else was dancing and drinking, and began to relieve himself.

“Hey, you’re missing all the action,” he called out when he spotted Chona.

“Coming,” Chona said, unable to manage more than a hiss without spluttering.

“What was that?” Mweene asked, slurring. “What’re you doing back here, anyway?”

It was too risky to try to speak, so instead, he pointed silently at the pipe, hoping Mweene would believe that it contained nothing more than tobacco.

The last trickle of Mweene’s urine splashed the ground, and Chona listened as he walked away, back toward the Ulanyika’s orchestra, which was definitely much louder than it had been at the start of the night. He emptied his now bullfrog-shaped cheeks of the smoke that had gathered within them, and tears streamed down his face.

Could she really be worth all this?” he thought, dangling the gift he had made for her between his thumb and forefinger.

▴ ▴ ▴


They met on the banks of the Kavuwu.

“He’s here,” Lweendo’s friend Mutinta murmured. The whisper skimmed her skin, wafting over the wispy hair on her neck––a light breeze eliciting an earth-shattering shudder that couldn’t be sated by Mutinta’s soft hands smothering her back in shiny mafura. She didn’t need to ask who “he” was. There was only one “he,” and knowing he was watching tautened her, the friction raising heat to her cheeks. Every movement a performance.

The girls always knew when the boys were watching them. They anticipated it and pointedly ignored the flutter of acacia leaves that disguised prying eyes peering eagerly through an army of gray and brown trunks. But “he” did not peer eagerly. Even when Mweene shoved his shoulder and gestured toward Lweendo, before leading the other boys in a chorus suggesting that he was a doe-eyed impala, he did not respond, and when his friends finally left, he slumped confidently into position, the solitude a perfect accompaniment to Lweendo’s one-woman show.

She had lingered too long after collecting water, “wandering through her mind,” as her mother would say––watching tiny birds dipping and sipping from fruit-scented purple agapanthus, butterflies cloaked in delicate tie-dye fluttering through proud emerald reeds, and outstretched eagles gliding over the slate stream, swooping low to catch fish. She’d been so immersed in the music of the forest that she’d tuned out the voices, and when she zoned back in, they were muffled, faded into the background as Mutinta and the others moved farther away from her and toward the village.

Lweendo heard the unmistakable echo of footsteps coming her way, and her heart skipped, a knot of fear growing in the pit of her belly. Her friend Beenzu had disappeared without a trace while collecting firewood during the last mweshi, and no one was foolish enough to be alone in the forest. Except her.

Silently admonishing herself for ignoring her mother’s warnings to stay alert, she bent to lift the brimming clay pot. Then she felt his fingers touch hers, and held her breath to still the shiver coursing through her, knowing who it was in an instant.

“Can I help you with that?”


She raised her eyes to look into his, her long lashes not enough to disguise the awareness. He shifted his fingers, and her body loosened. They lifted the pot together, her steadying herself to balance it on her head, focusing on that rather than the bristle of her goosebumps against his. Chona didn’t move even after the pot was in place. Instead, his eyes bore through her, his breath stroking her face, time pausing.

“Do you have nothing better to do than watch girls collect water?” Lweendo barked when she’d finally exhaled the scent of him, relieved to feel her pulse grow steady as the grin was wiped off his face.

“I wasn’t—”

“I hope you’re better at hunting animals,” she went on, twisting the dagger further into his already bruising ego.

Chona was one of the young men who had recently been initiated into the guild of fishermen. He was friends with her older brother Beene and the two of them had spent lots of time tormenting her when they played as children. The teasing had been good-natured, and she gave as good as she got, but something had shifted between them.

It had all begun at the dance, under the silver hue of the full mweshi, the first after her confinement––a celebration of her newly acquired womanhood. She had abandoned herself to the drums, swaying her hips to the rhythm, beaded skirt grazing her soft thighs. Chona couldn’t imagine them being anything but soft. He had been mesmerized by the way she lifted her hands to the melody, fingers flicking with each beat, her feet releasing tufts of dust with every tap, head tilted in laughter, eyelids impenetrably closed; an enigma. Even when they had played as children, it felt to him that she had a secret hidden behind the shadows in her dark eyes. A puzzle he couldn’t resist solving.

He followed behind her on the narrow path that led back toward the village, eyes trailing down from the clay pot on her head to appreciate the similarity between its shape and that of her body, despite how quickly she was walking away from him. Her impala-hide skirt swung violently against nut-brown legs.

“You shouldn’t be out here alone,” he said, clearing his throat of emotion.

“And I suppose you think it’s your place to control me?” she huffed.

He wouldn’t dream of controlling her, not like that anyway. Shrugging away the image his mind conjured up, he lifted his hand to her shoulder, instantly regretted it, and pulled away. Why couldn’t he just act normal?

She halted and turned to face him, her elbow jutting sharp as she kept hold of the pot so that he had to duck to prevent a stabbing.

“Your brother wouldn’t want you out here alone.”

Chona saw her eyes soften, but her tongue sliced through him. “Beene’s not here to tell me what to do,” she retorted.

“But I am.”

Something about him saying he was there seemed to appease her. She continued down the path at a much more leisurely pace, and when they paused to say hello to Ngoma, the drummer, as he walked past, Chona was grateful that she couldn’t see the grin plastered on his face.

Lweendo had partnered with lots of young men at the dance, but she hadn’t danced with him. His racing heart could not settle long enough for him to try. Instead, he had gone to her as she rested, offering her mboté and companionable silence. When she’d caught her breath and taken stock of their surroundings, she’d turned toward him, her face radiating with excitement so that the drums, drunks, and dancers all disappeared, and there was only her.

He recalled how full of possibility she’d looked, realizing then that he would do anything to keep her in that moment, not stuck in it, but revelling.

They had come to the end of the path. The sun was dipping orange across a purple sky, and if she didn’t go home soon, her mother would send out a search party.

“I’ve often wondered why your father named you Lweendo,” Chona said to delay her departure.

“Maybe I will travel the world.”

“Mozo ngu sungwe,” he whispered as she walked past him toward her mother’s compound, the stroke of her shoulder against his chest searing him.

▴ ▴ ▴


Chona couldn’t help but steal glances at his reflection in the glistening river. Sure, his scalp felt like it was being detached from his skull, and the scorching sunlight shot tiny sharp thorns where his hair should be, but beauty is pain, and he certainly looked beautiful today. The most majestic kudu in the savannah paled in comparison to him. He must remember to give the hairdresser a little extra for such stellar work, he thought, smiling to himself and then wincing at the pain the movement of his temples elicited.

He’d had his head shaven clean, leaving only an ochre, anthill-shaped afro towering at the centre of it, and he hoped he looked worthy of the great hunter he now was. Well, one hippo does not a great hunter make, but it was enough to warrant regard as an eligible bachelor, and that was exactly what he meant to convince Lweendo’s father he was.

He stole another glance at himself, but the image swirled apart like smoke on a windy day when a large splash disrupted his daydreaming. “Big man, we’re headed in the wrong direction,” his instructor said, and the other boys in the canoe sniggered. Chona straightened his ore and his face but was soon smiling again, thinking of the celebration tonight. She was bound to be there, and he could show her that hunting on water was just as worthwhile as hunting on solid ground.

Lweendo came from a long line of hunters, and he sometimes thought that was part of her allure. As a girl, she could not join the guild, but something about her exuded the same self-assurance that her father and brother had. Chona felt that she saw, not just with her eyes, but could track him with her whole being, read his insecurities and predict his every move. She made him feel known.

Of course, he had known her almost all her life. As her brother’s friend he’d spent plenty of time at her parents’ compound. Chona’s father had died when the canoe he was fishing in was capsized by a hippo, and Lweendo’s father, being his close friend, became a father figure to him. Never differentiating between Chona and Beene until each boy had to choose their path in life. They say, “choose a path”, but what they really mean is follow the path dictated by the blood flowing through your veins, so Beene became a hunter and Chona a fisherman. When Beene died in a hunting expedition, his mother received new oxen but lost a son and Lweendo lost the carefree lilt in her voice.

The Kavuwu stretched before Chona, snaking toward the horizon, seemingly still but always moving, like a duck whose frenzied feet propelled it forward without evidence, so his life progressed as each new mweshi sailed stealthily by. Tonight was his graduation from apprentice to master of his own canoe.

And tomorrow, he would officially ask for Lweendo’s hand in marriage.

▴ ▴ ▴


The feathery flutters against the lining of his belly had grown to the size of hawk flaps, and the only thing allowing Chona to ignore them was the sharp sting from the twine twisting around his tightly wound afro. The drum announcing his family’s arrival at Lweendo’s homestead paled in comparison to the one beating within him. His uncle encouraged him the only way he knew how––with relentless teasing—and the other men in the party seemed only interested in comparing whose mafura shone brightest against their rippling arms or who had the highest horn towering above their heads.

Azure skies shone bright with promise, the elephant ears lining the party’s pathway not yet rid of their night sweats.

All along the route, well-wishers called out their congratulations.

But as the group grew closer, the stares of strangers became tinged with concerned curiosity. The drummers, always quick to read the mood, softened. A cloud of foreboding hovered.

He heard her before he saw her––a bitter howl.

His uncle’s taunts turned to comfort, but all he saw were dark spots spooling over his eyes, his legs too weak to take the weight of him.

They had come at dawn, cattle raiders unable to resist the lure of a beautiful young woman who had risen too early to be protected by the watchful eyes of her own kinsmen. Chona buckled into a vortex of silence pierced only by Lweendo’s mother calling out to those who had taken her, rebuking them for leaving her childless.

Lweendo’s father had noticed a break in the fence to the cattle pen and alerted her mother. They had hoped at first that she had gone wandering, but when he found it, he knew. A solitary carved wooden bird dangling from string long enough to wind around her dainty ankles.

When her father gave it back to Chona, his grip pierced it through his palms. A tiny beak gouging out a Lweendo-shaped hole that he vowed to fill with restitution or, failing that, revenge.

Mozo ngu sungwe, a silent rhythm wringing through him. Not a declaration this time, but a promise––the heart wants what it wants.

Mwanabibi Sikamo is a Zambian storyteller and filmmaker exploring the real and imagined lives of Africans past and present. Her fiction is steeped in the tradition of African spirituality. Her magical realism and historical fiction appear in Omenana, Iskanchi Magazine, and Olongo Africa, among others. She is currently writing her first novel.