December in Dar es Salaam was a month that languidly surrendered itself to the heat that lashed out and flogged the townspeople. The pot-holed streets, unevenly frilled by concrete pavements, radiated a toasting heat felt even through the plastic kanda mbili sandals, officially registered as the crowd's entity, more out of necessity than taste. A bent railing, enacted partly so no cars should snuggle on to the strictly-pedestrian pavements, partly to save the now trickling torrent of pedestrians from the drunkenness of pot-hole drivers, shimmered with the enchanting quality of a heat-struck talisman. Even the crows, whose badly-tuned choir screamed a triumph victory at the drowning, dust-coated sun each evening, had abandoned the streets, seeking their own refuge under drainage pipes and dusty windows.
Walled in by caresses of the Indian Ocean, the Rift valley and a deep-sea smell that sprinkled eternal salt over the unknowing crowd, Dar es Salaam, Dar, as known to the people, was the axis of existence for a figure who was cross-legged and impeccably balanced on the edge of his four-poster mahogany bed. His few hairs had diminished over the past two years, and bright beads of sweat prominently glittered on his guru-forehead, reflecting the dying red embers of a tired city. Now and then, he let out a low gurgle that resounded under his wrinkled skin, pulled taut across his high cheekbones. Bare-chested and draped waist-down in a cloud of white cotton, his fists were clenched in a rebellious death-grip, a hunter's grip. His narrow eyes were focused in a stabbing concentration on a painting of a lion's predatory chase. A mahogany armoire protruded bluntly on his left, unnaturally balancing two photographs. The faces in the pictures had faded, but the outline of an African elephant was clearly visible on one. In the other stood three figures, smiling lopsidedly, with their faces cocked sideways in the same direction, an almost humorous pose had it not been for the bleak light. Occasionally, the man's eyes darted to the picture and the gold medal which dangled over it, dust-stricken and grime-swallowed. Through the meticulous analysis of unearthly strokes of ink, an outsider could just about decipher the Brailled letters that spelt out H-U-N-T-E-R-S A-S-S-O-C-I-A-T-I-O-N. Despite its filthy condition, the medal still reflected the bleeding beads of light that trickled in through the glass apartment window.
That evening, Mr. Laichand, the rent collector, strode over to apartment number twenty-nine. On such days, unease plagued Mr. Laichand. He walked quickly, eager to complete these evening walks. Most of the tenants in the building cooperated. A faded blue shirt and old khaki trousers constituted Mr. Laichand's grim apparel, professionally designed to evoke pity from the tenants. That is, everyone but number twenty- nine. Mr. Laichand could not help but let leak into his ears the overflowing gossip of the old man who occupied the quietest apartment in the building. Rumors held that he had had a wife and a daughter, both of whom were killed in an accident years ago on their safari to the Serengeti. Mr. Laichand pushed black-plastic-framed spectacles up his glistening nose and flipped through his account book to number twenty-nine. The last payment receipt was dated July. With a grunt and a frown, he wiped his sweat-sprinkled forehead with the back of his hand, and walked over to the white-washed, metal-grilled front door of house number twenty-nine.
In the dust-ridden apartment, the old man was vaguely aware of a rapping at the front door, and clenched his fists tighter. A tinge of anger tainted his nerves, but dissipated just as rapidly. An old, dry, grassy smell of flamingo-waste was filling his lungs, and the metallic rapping was transformed into the soft pecking of a wood pecker. In the halo of dust, the thick trumpet of an elephant drowned the musical chirping of a blue jay. The old man could hear his daughter's laughter as a baboon delicately peeled a banana, and the rigid veins in his neck eased. Once, inhumanly high-pitched shrieks knifed the calm and the old man's breathing sharpened, but a smile of relief broke on his face as he recognized the joyous shrieks of his daughter. A troop of lions, submerged in the yellow, high Savannah grasslands stopped growling. The breeze now changed direction and gently ruffled its fingers through the Serengeti. The old man's fists unclenched. The creases were smoothly ironed out of his knotted forehead, and with a low groan that sounded more ecstatic than peaceful, the old man closed his eyelids against the lazy approach of night.
Mr. Laichand stopped the rigorous knocking on the door as Meena approached the apartment. Too absorbed in the painstaking routine that threatened the metal door off its hinges, he had barely been aware that someone's four-year old had begun an almost inhuman shrieking. The squabbling of the newly-married couple that occupied twenty-six had stopped. The windows and doors, eagerly left ajar in hopes of catching some gossip, were shut with a firm tightness.
Meena approached Mr. Laichand, her red and yellow flower-patterned pallu draped around her neck. It lazily danced behind her in the wind created by her brisk walk. She wore a long red salwar khamiz that called for attention, as it did right now for Mr. Laichand. Despite his disheveled hair and reddened fist, he forced his face into a weak smile. She ignored it and put down the fluorescent green sports bag that carried the cleaning equipment. This was the last house on her list. Like Mr. Laichand, she harbored an uneasy feeling regarding number twenty-nine, but over the years, had learned to save herself the embarrassment of being the subject of gossip as she arrived at number twenty nine. She waited as Mr. Laichand's thin and stooped frame disappeared down the stairs and around the corner. With a grim look, she slid her hand into her leather purse and pulled out a key. Quietly unlocking the door, she let herself in. A musty, suffocating smell rose and she had to plug her nostrils to keep from throwing up. She would be immune to it after a while. Gingerly, she made her way towards the kitchen and from a dull wallet lying as though forgotten on the counter, pulled her weekly due. It was only fair, she told herself. She was saving both the landlord and the old man from being black-bagged into the garbage truck.
Nevertheless, in her attempt to rid the guilt that swam over her, she worked extra hard at this house. And God-knows the house solicited it. The glass window panes and carpet were spread with dust. It stuck to her fingers in the humid heat. As she floated from room to room, she unconsciously hummed a low tune. Once as she passed the old man's bed room, she stole a glance inside. For an instant, his half-smiling expression, bare chest, and delicately balanced posture gave her an impression that he was levitating, and she had to clutch the walls to keep from fainting.
She was almost finished with the windows when she heard a low, growling sound. It was instantly followed by a high-pitched shrieking that eerily sounded like a bird's death cry. The growls continued for a while and then stopped. Meena dismissed them as mere tricks of her mind. Nevertheless, her curiosity was aroused. She made a resolution to walk to the old man's room and give him her salaams. That way she would see for herself the new dog or parrot he had bought, and pacify her mind. The simplicity of the explanation immediately brought a smile to her face. She gingerly sidestepped the frayed carpet and walked into the old man's room.
It was the business man who occupied number twenty-seven who first noticed the cleaning lady had not yet emerged from number twenty-nine. Unlike the other tenants, he had left his windows open when the rapping began, and his eyes had been feasting when Meena, smiling smugly, had entered the apartment. The loud, animalistic groaning and crunching sounds that soon ensued from the apartment were so out-of-place that he dismissed them as fantastic growls of a science fiction film. That was at six o'clock.
At half-past, Meena, her bone marrow bleached by the blank yet enchantingly peaceful expression on the old man's face, staggered as her flesh was crunched by canine-like objects she couldn't quite place her hands on. A piercing sound sliced the room, as the intensity of a low growling steadily increased. Her last coherent thought as she collapsed before the absent old man was that the whirring of the ceiling fan eerily resembled the screeching of hungry Savannah vultures.