4thWrite Prize 2021: Gift Nyoni, The Ritual Seat of the King

Gift was designed in Britain and assembled in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. During his first eight years in the UK he lived underground as an undocumented asylum-seeker, seeking refuge in libraries and trying to write, something he aspires to do well. He now lives out in the open in London, and is working on his first novel. He’s interested in identity, trauma, memory, and notions of home.

The Ritual Seat of the King  
The Rhodesian civil war ends and hope abounds in the new Zimbabwe, but when David’s father returns to the family home it soon becomes apparent that the more things change, the more they stay the same, and the young boy’s fascination soon turns into revulsion. 

David tiptoes to his bedroom and crouches outside. His mother and the visitor are inside, speaking in hushed tones, and David has to hold his breath to hear them chassé across the floor. He knows what comes next. When the bed creaks, David places his ear against the door, but he’s pressed too hard and all he can hear is the sound of his blood coursing around his ear. He moves away in time to hear the bedsprings compress, and wonders on whose side of the bed the visitor is sitting. Some prefer David’s side near the window, others his mother’s, closest to the door. He decides to take a peek, rising slowly until one of his eyes is level with the keyhole, but it’s dark inside the room and he sees nothing but darkness at first, and then he blinks, sending millions of multi-coloured spots dancing in his field of vision. The door swings open before the spots settle, and the last thing David sees before his mother clobbers him on the head with a slipper is a blackened sole, seconds before it lands on his cheek, and then there’s pain, pain – she misses the third time – and shouts after him instead.

David’s panting from behind the kitchen table before he realises that he’s dropped the photograph. He checks his pockets, and notices then that his mother hasn’t followed him into the kitchen, isn’t saying anything at all. When he peers in the direction from which he fled he sees her, slipper in one hand, and his father’s photograph in the other. Past her, the visitor’s bare legs on David’s side of the bed, the man’s socks rolled up on the floor near dusty shoes.

‘Where did you get this?’ She isn’t even looking at David when she asks the question.

David doesn’t want to tell. His father’s photographs were everywhere once, until she untacked them from the wall the morning after they slept without anything to eat, leaving blisters on the wall where his father used to be. She packed all of his father’s belongings into a suitcase and hoisted it to the top of the wardrobe. Then the visitors started coming.

She doesn’t wait for David to answer. She drops the slipper, takes the photograph in both hands and rips it in half. She puts the two halves together and tears again, then she heads to the kitchen. David dashes to the kitchen door, torn between running out and saving himself and running to clasp his mother’s hands so she doesn’t tear the photograph again. She tosses the pieces into the sink, empties a pot of leftover porridge over them and then chucks the pot into the sink with an air of finality, walks back to the bedroom, and shuts the door.

David rushes to the sink, frantically separating the pieces and holding them under a running tap. The evening has turned the kitchen window into a mirror, and he catches his reflection and wonders for a moment what his father will look like when he returns, and whether he resembles his father at all. His mother shrieks in the bedroom. ‘Wait!’ she says between bouts of laughter, ‘wait!’

Soon the air will be filled with the drone of Rhodesian Allouette 3 helicopter gunships flying over the township on their nightly run to the frontlines, where the Patriotic Front is, where his father is. There’ll be more noises from the bedroom. The ground will shake as Rhodesian bombs boom in the distance, as the headboard bangs against the wall. There’ll be flashes of light streaking across the sky and balls of fire mushrooming into the night; the noises from the bedroom will grow louder and louder until they reach a crescendo, then there’ll be silence, in the bedroom and in the distance, filled only by the sound of running water splashing into the sink.

David has kept the cracked sepia photograph in his back pocket ever since he found it whilst foraging underneath his and his mother’s bed for treasure. Without it, he would have to experience his father as a character in his mother’s story book, a genie she only lets out when something rubs her either way. On bad day she’ll say: ‘Your father’s no fighter. What man runs off and leaves a woman pregnant with his child?’ On a good day she’ll say, ‘You’re such a handsome young man, just like your father.’ The photograph never wavers.

David watches helplessly as the water peels away the already damaged emulsion, sending pieces of his father into the swirling waters. Before David can fish them out, the emulsion disappears down the drain. He turns off the tap and resolves to rub the pieces clean with his hands instead, but some of the pieces are now stuck together. When he prises them apart the emulsion cracks even further and his fingers skid along the paper, smearing the image. He gives up, spreads out the pieces as they are and tries to put the photograph back together again, to make sense of the jigsaw puzzle his mother’s made of his father. When he’s done, he wraps Sellotape around the photograph, and his father becomes half god, half demon; good and evil and something in-between; a ghastly creature.

The war drags on. When it dawns upon the Rhodesians that their position is lost they bomb not just the villages but the townships too, bombing anything that’s black and still moving. The mortars take up as many children from the streets as they do their fathers in the veldt. The streets are scattered with war-molested bodies of dead children.

David’s mother, determined that her son should remain of the flesh and not of the spirit, decrees that he’s to stay indoors from sun up to sun down until the war ends. But, because he has no siblings, and his friends aren’t allowed in the house, and because he’s never had to share his mother with anyone else, David constantly competes with the visitors for his mother’s attention. He hides behind doors and pounces upon her while she’s welcoming visitors in the living room. When he’s ignored he sulks. He sneaks up to the bedroom sometimes, but when he plants his ear on the door the strobe of light coming through the keyhole disappears from the wall in front of her bed as if blacked out by an eclipse. The visitors, who are few and far in-between because more men keep leaving to join the Struggle, have little patience for this kind of behaviour. So David’s mother devises a plan. She has a number of discarded children’s books and comics from the Du Toits, for whom she worked as a housekeeper before the war created distrust in white families of black housekeepers the whereabouts of whose husbands couldn’t be determined. She teaches David, whose education has been interrupted by the war and doesn’t read as well as he should for an eight-year-old, how to read properly, sitting with him in the kitchen every day from mid-morning to late afternoon, working through the ‘Learning the English Language’ series with him, making him practice pronunciation out loud; all the things she learnt as a pupil at the Scottish Presbyterian missionary school. When her visitors arrive, she gives David homework and disappears into the bedroom.

David develops a keen interest in reading and is soon reading through the stack of books and comics. At times he’s a bad-tempered toothless sailor with spinach-fuelled strength, rescuing his mother time and time again from the mad, bad and dangerous white pirates his father’s fighting, sometimes from the claws of her visitors. At other times he’s a Viking with magic potion enhanced fists, punching his way out of a township besieged by the Roman Legion. He fights all manner of wars while his friends are outside risking their mothers’ and the Rhodesian’s wrath by playing soccer in the street.

One of his mother’s regulars brings David a stack of DC and Marvel comics. David takes to them immediately and his world is instantly transformed, split into good and evil, heroes and villains. He imagines forces of evil lurking behind every corner, under the sofa, lying in wait in the tall grass outside. In response, he becomes Spiderman, he becomes Superman, dashing around the house in his underwear, with a bedsheet for a cape, which his mother wouldn’t tolerate were she not otherwise engaged. The comics and their cast endear his father and the Patriotic Front to him; he sees himself and his father as one and the same, both soldiers, fighting shoulder to shoulder against uncommon and powerful enemies.

The war ends. The Rhodesians lose and people spill out into the streets, tearing up Rhodesian passes, ululating and dancing, arms lifted. Yet David is concerned; if the single greatest villains of all time, the white Rhodesians, have been defeated, what does this mean? A place without villains? He can’t imagine it. No comic book has ever sketched it. He looks outside and sees, floating in the wind, the word ‘Zimbabwe’ written on the sails of a makeshift kite. He asks his mother what a Zimbabwe is.

‘Our country’s been born again,’ she tells him, ‘so we’ve renamed it.’ ‘But what does it mean?’ he asks.

‘It means the Ritual Seat of the King,’ she tells him.

His mind fills up with questions, like what will happen to the old country, Rhodesia? Will it pack up and leave, like a lonely old man with a suitcase disappearing down an empty street? Will it take with it its streets, roads, streetlights, and buildings? But his mother’s not free for him to probe further, having gone to their bedroom with a visitor who’s come to celebrate the news. David remains in the living room and thinks about Zimbabwe. He spells it out in his mind, pronounces it in three parts: Zi-mba-bwe. Place-without-villains.

Some months after the ceasefire he’s sitting in the living room with his mother celebrating his ninth birthday. In front of them, on the screen of their black and white TV set, a black man in a grey safari suit and large square spectacles steps onto a podium in an overcrowded soccer stadium and raises his fist. The people in the stands rise immediately and erupt into a thunderous roar. When the man lowers his arm, the stadium falls silent.

‘Who’s that man?’ David says.

‘Our new President,’ his mother says.

‘Did he fight in the war?’ ‘Yes.’

‘Did he fight with father?’

‘Shhh. I want to hear what he’s saying.’

‘Independence will bestow upon us a new personality,’ the President says, ‘a new future and perspective. We’re born again not as individuals but collectively as a people. As a viable nation of Zimbabweans. Our new nation requires of us to be a new man, with a new mind, heart and spirit and we’re called to be forever forward looking. It’s folly to seek to revive the wounds and grievances of the past, for they must now stand forgiven and forgotten. This to me is the human essence that must form the core of our political change.’

David wonders how many Learning the English Language books it takes to speak without once looking at the sheet of paper; to have the kind of power the President has over David’s mother; ever since he started speaking she’s been sat on the edge of the sofa. When the President finishes speaking and the floats come onto the stadium even David’s mesmerised into silence. The floats are followed by parades of soldiers, marching and performing salutes. Music blares from the shinning brass horns of the military band, clangs from their blinding cymbals which deflect sunlight like superheroes’ shields. When the soldiers reach the podium they stop, aim their guns at the sky and shoot once, twice, into the air. Then a white man – but not a white Rhodesian, David’s mother reassures him – a Prince, from a place called England, dressed in a brilliant white military uniform with red and gold decorations hanging from his shoulder, steps onto the podium and cuts a ribbon. Balloons are released, and as they rise, there’s more noise from the stands. The women on the floats start to dance, shaking their hips. David wants to know if his mother can see his father amongst the soldiers; he keeps tugging at the African-print wrapper she likes to wear around the house until it starts to loosen, exposing a slit of her thigh, but she can’t be moved that day.

When the Patriotic Front start returning home, David abandons his comics and spends his days standing at the gate, holding out his father’s photograph, trying to match the men’s hollowed out faces with the mottled face on the Sellotaped photograph. There’s an influx of men, and though they carry themselves as if their bodies are heavy sacks, everyone else is excited because the streets have never been so full of men. Each day David watches as his friends are reunited with their fathers, showing off their fathers’ strength by hanging off their arms or clinging to their thighs, even as their fathers struggle to walk. Each day David tells himself that his father’s coming too, but each day his father fails to show up. When the week ends, David sits down for dinner and stares at his food. He looks up at his mother, as if he’s divined something about his father’s fate from the way the greens are layered on top of each other; from the absence of meat. ‘What do you think something happened to him?’ he says.

‘Eat your food,’ she tells him.

The greens turn bitter in his mouth. His father won’t be coming home. He’s lying between bodies in a field somewhere, like those bodies the Rhodesians used to show on TV, laid out in village centres, in an effort to stop people from joining the Patriotic Front.

Then late one afternoon, David’s sat on the front steps of the house, attaching wings to a British Air Force Hawker Hunter he’s fashioned out of scrap wood and bits of copper wire, when a white Citroen pulls up at the gate. A soldier in bright new uniform jumps out at the driver’s side and rushes to open the passenger door. When the door clicks open a smouldering cigarette flies out of the car and lands on the second step leading to the gate. A black army boot follows it, polished to a high shine, and lands right on top of the cigarette, extinguishing it. The soldier salutes as a man steps out of the car.

David takes one look at the man and bolts into the house, leaving the British plane looking like it’s just been shot down by the Patriotic Front. Their house is so small David only has to put his foot through the front door to get to his mother, who’s bent over the tub in the bathroom handwashing their clothes. David bursts into the bathroom so quickly the door smacks his mother’s bottom. She straightens up in anger to find him panting out of excitement.

‘Have you lost your mind?’ she says.

‘There’s a man…’ David says, pointing behind him, ‘a soldier… at the gate…’ ‘Mana Khonapho,’ she says. Stay there.

She dries her hands on her African-print wrapper and tightens it, slips on her canvas shoes and bounds out of the bathroom. David hears her shut the front door behind her and doesn’t quite know what to do with himself. He has enough courage to follow his mother out of the bathroom but it runs out at the front door. He stands behind the door, poised and ready to flee, and sends his ears as emissaries. Hearing nothing, he pushes the door a little, and catches a glimpse of his mother’s heels lifted off the ground like she’s reaching for ripe fruit in the branches of a tall tree. He pushes the door wide open and finds her standing on her toes with her arms wrapped around the man’s neck, his mother taking slow deep breaths like the man is a body of air and she hasn’t breathed for years. She releases him only to cup his face in her hands. She’s about to throw her arms around him again when she senses David watching them. ‘Come,’ she says, turning and beckoning, ‘this is your father. Come and greet your father.’

Her wrapper has started to come loose and David wishes she would tighten it. ‘David,’ his mother says, a trace of irritation in her voice, ‘come.’

David steals glances at his father. Prior to this, the only fathers he’s been this close to are the Hardy Boys’ dad, detective Fenton, and Nancy Drew’s dad, Carson Drew, and Superman’s dad and the Hulk’s dad, and the last two aren’t even human, they’re mutants.

That evening, father and son sit quietly at the table while David’s mother prepares a special meal. The influx of men has been balanced by the sudden decrease in the township’s population of chickens as the birds are slaughtered to create celebratory feasts to welcome the men back home. David’s mother grills her chicken until its skin is crisp and golden brown, and when it’s ready, she brings it to the table, its skin so tight and taut it splits the moment she puts a knife to it. David holds out his plate as usual but she serves his father first, and then gives his father the drumstick, David’s favourite. David, who hadn’t envisaged that his father’s return would mean him losing his favourite piece of chicken, becomes grumpy and from then on turns everything into a competition. Whenever his father adds salt to his meat, David reaches for the saltshaker. David’s mother also notices that her husband isn’t interacting with his son at all, and things continues in this vein until a tension forms, tight and taut, between father and son.

When the plates are near empty David’s mother rises from the table and fills a small dish with water. David holds out his hands but she passes him and goes to his father first, who washes his hands and makes for the bedroom. As soon as she puts the dish on the table, David washes his hands and, without drying them, also makes for the bedroom. David’s at the bedroom door when his mother calls him back. He returns reluctantly, and pulls a face when his mother tasks him with clearing the table, washing the dirty plates and putting them away. When she finishes giving instructions, David’s mother disappears into the bedroom.

As soon as the bedroom door shuts, David opens the tap, leaves it running, so his mother won’t hear him, and tiptoes to the bedroom door. He crouches and presses his ear against the door but can’t hear anything other than water splashing onto spoons and forks in the kitchen sink. He rushes back to the kitchen and works fast, not so much washing the plates as letting the water peel off the salad cream and pick off the rice, but by the time he turns around, two folded blankets and a pillow have been placed outside the bedroom door.

He pushes them aside with his foot, kneels on all fours, and peers into the bedroom through the slit of light between the door and the floor. He sees the upturned underside of his father’s boot, with bits of crushed cigarette stuck between the grooves, and the uncut toenails on his mother’s bare foot, coming towards him. He shoots up just as she opens the door, but she only opens it just. He puts his hand on the door. Pushes it. The door gives way a few inches but his mother’s foot, on the other side, stops the door from opening any further. David peers inside, sees his mother’s African-print wrapper on the floor. She has on her special nightdress, which has been in the bottom drawer of the wardrobe since forever.

‘I want to sleep,’ David says.

‘Oh David,’ she says. ‘I thought you understood. Your father’s home now.’

But David doesn’t understand. He wants to get into the bedroom. More than anything in the world, he wants to get into the bedroom.

His mother’s patience wears thin. David’s father shuffles in the background. When the bed creaks, her patience snaps. ‘Is there something wrong with your ears?’ she says.

David wishes she would pick up her African-print wrapper and cover herself up. But before he can say anything she shuts the door. He hears voices. His fathers. Hers. An opening drawer. Then the bedroom door opens again and his mother thrusts a stack of his comics in his face. When he reaches for them she steps outside and picks up the blankets and pillow. ‘Come,’ she says, making her way to the living room. He drags his feet, sulking, and finds her making a bed for him on the long sofa in the living room.

‘Now go to sleep,’ she says, when she finishes making the bed.

But he can’t sleep. The township’s sounds keep filtering through the wall. There’s a party going on somewhere. Since the men started returning there’s always a party going on somewhere. Men coming from the beer hall walk past the house, shouting and whistling at women. Someone’s singing a Patriotic Front song. Every so often a car drives past slowly along the dust road, its tyres crunching the gravel and making it pop, its light flooding the room.

He’s awoken by the sound of arguing, which appears to have come from the bedroom. There’s some shuffling. The bedroom door opens. He hears footsteps. The living room door flies open. Someone rushes in and comes to where he is. David’s eyes are still adjusting to the darkness and he can’t see who it is, but he can hear breathing. Outside, a car approaches the house and lends him the light of its headlights, illuminating his mother’s waist. Before the car passes he sees his father appear after her wearing nothing but his underpants and army boots. No cape. His father reaches his mother just as the car passes. When the car passes, all that remains is their voices. ‘Don’t you dare touch him,’ she says.

‘Then tell me,’ he says, ‘how many?’

‘You’ve asked me that question already and I’ve answered it.’ ‘You’re lying to me.’

‘First, you leave without telling me,’ she says, ‘and then you disappear for nearly ten years. Not a word from you, for nearly ten years, and the first thing you want to talk about – ’

Another car approaches. David’s father peers over David’s mother’s shoulder and stares into David’s eyes. ‘Boy…’ he says.

David’s mother carefully, places an open palm on his chest. ‘Jonas…’

‘Boy look at me,’ he says.

David stares at his father, his mind blank with fear.

‘Jonas, come on,’ David’s mother says, ‘you’re home… this is your first night back home. Can’t we just celebrate that? Can’t we just enjoy this peace that we’re supposed – ’

‘Who’s been sitting on that chair?’ he says to David, pointing at the single sofa in the corner of the room. ‘My chair, over there, it’s worn out. Who’s been sitting on it?’

‘Please,’ David’s mother says.

The car passes. David’s father goes to the wall and flicks the switch. Light floods the room, blinding David for a moment. When he next opens his eyes, his father’s staring right at him. ‘I’m talking to you,’ he says.

David glances at the chair, at the seams at the centre which have started to come apart because the man who liked to bring him comics had such a big bottom.

‘I can see that someone’s been using it,’ David’s father says. ‘Tell me who it is.’

‘You know what?’ David’s mother says, retrieving her hand from his chest. ‘I was so grateful that you came back to us in one piece, but I was wrong. You didn’t lose an arm or a leg. You’re not walking on crutches. But you’ve lost something all the same. The great Jonas, who fled his family and hid behind the war. You got swallowed by a whale and it’s spat you out in pieces.’

‘Pieces?’ he says, ‘the war taught me to see what people really are, and I can see right through you, now tell me, which one of those cowards is this boy’s father?’

‘How many times must I say it?’ David mother says. ‘You’d disappeared by the time I found out I was pregnant. I tried to get word to you but of course, you didn’t want to be found…’

‘We’re going to do this all night if we have to,’ he says, ‘until one of you decides to tell me the truth of what’s been going on in this house. My house.’

‘You know what?’ David’s mother says, ‘I’m tired. I thought you coming home meant that I could finally rest but if that’s not going to happen then I’m going to have to get some sleep, because tomorrow is another day. I’m going to take David with me to the bedroom. You can stay here if you like. Or you can go back to wherever it is you were all this time, because to be honest, I stopped caring a long time ago. You think you were the only one fighting? I fought too, to keep this house, my house, together, to put food on the table when you were gone. I fought, and I sacrificed things you can’t even begin to imagine, but I won in the end, and I won on my own. I haven’t survived this war to be ruled over by you.’

He hits her, and she falls backwards, onto David, pushing the air out of David’s lungs and driving him so deep into the sofa the springs underneath the cushion press up into his spine. ‘Who do you think you are?’ he says.

Before David can properly digest the fact that his mother’s capable of falling, and has fallen, she gets up, arm raised, towards his father, but he hits her again and she falls sideways, to the floor, landing on her back, and stays there.

For a moment, there’s complete silence.

David stares at his mother, at the cracks around the edges of her heels which open up the soles of her feet like soil in the October heat when it’s desperate for rain, and he realises that he’s never seen the soles of her feet before. He lifts his gaze. Her nightdress has ridden up her thighs and he wants to cover her, but his father’s suddenly towering above him.

David knows that he’s supposed to do something. He feels his spider senses tingling and throbbing at the ends of his fingers. He knows that he’s supposed to summon all the powers of the earth and intergalactic space and harness them, firing them as optic blasts through his eyes or fingers and reducing his father to a cinder. But he’s unable to even look his father in the eyes. He stares, instead, at his father’s legs and notices the way that even his curls of hair grow with abandon on both legs but tiptoe around a horrendous scar that runs along the length of one of his father’s ankles.

Through the space between his father’s legs David sees his mother, lying still on the polished wooden tiles with her hands over her face, tears running over her fingers like rainwater running over a giant granite boulder. A fireball starts to build up inside him, spinning in rapid revolutions, gaining strength, and size, drawing in and knotting his intestines. An inner voice starts to whisper over and over again in a constant refrain the words: with great power comes great responsibility, with great power… until he can no longer stand it, until he rolls his wire fingers into fists and sits up, breathing heavily, but still unable to look his father in the eyes.

The man considers the boy for a moment before looking at the floor, at the comics stacked beside David’s sofa; at Superman, staring up with his fist raised and his cape flapping in the wind. With one flick of his boot, David’s father knocks over the comics. David imagines himself flying at his father, knocking him down with just one punch and rescuing his mother. But David’s father reaches down suddenly and puts his hands around David’s waist, sweeping him off his feet and loading him onto his shoulders, where he starts strumming David’s ribs as though David were a guitar. David tries to restrain his laughter but he can’t. He struggles to free himself but his own laughter robs him of strength. His father tickles him all over until David can no longer fight but laugh. When he’s laughed and laughed his father puts him down as suddenly as he lifted him and without a further word makes his way down the corridor towards the bedroom. Alone with his mother for the first time since his father’s return, David wants to approach his mother, but he doesn’t.

It’s the first time David’s fallen asleep with his father’s photograph in his back pocket. The first he’s slept without placing it between the pages of a comic book for safekeeping. He tosses and turns on the narrow sofa throughout the rest of the troubled night. As the sun rises, he shifts about trying to avoid the shafts of light streaming onto his face through gaps in the curtains, and that’s when he feels the hardened paper crumple against his bottom, but what was once like a second skin now irritates him, as if it were a pebble inside a shoe.

He pulls the photograph out of his pocket and looks at his father, but a strobe of light catches it and David sees through the man he once revered. He sits up, moving away from the light, and as the photograph comes into focus, something else within him comes into sharp focus and he takes the photograph in both hands and tears it – tries to tear it – but the layers of Sellotape he wrapped around his father’s image prevents him from destroying it. He tries again, until his palms are red and hot with blood that throbs at the end of his fingers, but all the King’s horses and all the King’s men and their strength in his hands can’t pull the photograph apart. He tosses it away. That’s when he sees his comics, strewn all over the carpet; Superman, knocked out at the far end of the sofa, the other comics crumpled up beside him. The sight of them pricks him, and he grabs the one closest to him, rips it into half, and reaches for another, and another, until he’s sitting in a graveyard of storylines. When he’s done he looks at his fingers, folds them into a fist, unfolds them. He senses that his super powers have left him, but for the first time, it occurs to him that maybe they never existed.

He turns on the TV, and as the images on the TV flash before his eyes, David watches them without paying attention. He sees the reruns of the Independence Day celebrations, the soldiers, the drum majorettes, the brass band with a trumpet so big it seems as if a clown, or court jester, would pop out of it at any moment. He sees footage of a concert which took place that evening, the Rasta Bob Marley leaping from one foot to the other in a haze of smoke, singing: Natty Dread it in-a Zimbabwe! Natty trash it in-a Zimbabwe!

When he pulls back the curtain and looks outside he can see him reflected in the window, a version of himself staring back at him. He looks through the window, looking into himself, and he sees that the streets are empty, deserted; there are no celebrations at this time, no kites with Zimbabwe written on them, no returning fathers. He focuses, looks past himself, until his eyes make out distant shapes. Deep inside the township, there’s the distant din of booming speakers, elated celebrants. His final thought, before he falls back asleep, is that in this new country, he feels very much alone.

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