December 20th 2017
A college student with a heavy backpack and a heavier heart wandered into the bar of my inn. In silence, he sat down at the very end of the bar and pulled out a newspaper. In lieu of reading it like a normal person, he began to fold it into an origami swan. I shrugged it off.
About three hours later, an army of paper swans had invaded my counter space and the guy was still going strong. Fold. Flip. Crease. Flatten. Repeat. Fold. Flip. Crease. Flatten. Repeat.
“Hey, kid, what’s the deal? Did you take every newspaper in Soweto?” I joked.
He didn’t reply. Instead, his face reddened and his eyes narrowed with concentration as he pushed to ignore it. I moved a little closer to him and noticed that his fingers were trembling with every movement. Then, I started to really see him
His clothes were in tatters. Hair an oily mess. He didn’t order anything since he walked in. Yet, he kept folding.
I slid him a glass of amarula.
“I didn’t order anything…” He began, sounding a bit tired.
“I know. It’s on the house.”
“Thanks.” he fiddled with the drink before taking a sip and folding more swans.
“Kid, what are you doing here?”
“Don’t call me kid, I’m twenty-two.”
“Congrats, I’m twenty-eight. You’re basically an infant compared to me.”
He snorted at my joke.
“Finally! He laughs!” I exclaimed.
The kid opened his mouth, like he was about to say something, then closed it and bowed his head. He kept his head bent and continued his swan making process. I glanced at the newspaper’s headline. Mysterious Fire at South West College. I checked the date. A week ago. I wonder…
“Were you a South West student?” I inquired.
The guy nodded.
“I’m guessing your dorm got destroyed in the fire.”
He took a large gulp of the amarula, draining it halfway.
“So, you’ve been out on the streets by yourself since then?”
I saw hesitation in his folding.
“Didn’t the college give you some kind of place to stay?”
“They did.” He mumbled. “A hotel room. I asked to split one with my girlfriend. She broke up with me.”
I slid him a second glass of amarula.
“What’s your name, stranger?
Imari glanced around the inn. “I never noticed how strange this place was last time.” He commented.
“Oh?” I asked. “How so?”
“It’s a fucking tree. We’re inside a tree. And it’s still alive.”
I chuckled. “Trees can survive while hollow. And this is called a baobab tree. There are a few other folks crazy enough to make bars inside of them, so it’s not just me.”
“But an inn?” He raised an eyebrow. “With three rooms and a bar?”
“Okay, so maybe it is just me.”
Inside the bar, the noise began to die down as patrons got up to leave. Imari glanced around nervously. He began to fold more swans.
“Well, Imari, since you don’t have a place to stay tonight and I happen to have an extra room tonight, I’ll give you it for the price of… three swans.”
He smirked and gave me four. “Keep the change.”
December 21st 2017
Drowsy and rubbing his eyes, Imari stumbled down the stairs and into the bar. “Morning Sleeping Beauty.” I sang. “Did you get a full night’s rest?”
“I think you know why.”
“Those love birds keep you up all night with their love making?”
“Why would you rent out a room to a pair of newlyweds in heat?”
“Because I need the money since someone is staying here for free.”
“Got anything to eat for breakfast?”
“Yes.” I slammed a liquor bottle on the counter. “Amarula.”
Imari raised a sly eyebrow at me.
“And mandazi. They’re cooking in the kitchen.” Under my breath, I added. “Amarula mandazi.”
“What was that?”
“Nothing, just the desperate calls of mandazi to be pulled from the fryer.” I trudged into the kitchen and smiled to myself. I’m not sure why, but I liked having Imari around.
Before I could reach the mandazi, I felt a sudden burning in my lungs and grabbed a washcloth by the sink and coughed into it. Removing the cloth from my lips, it had been stained red. It’s getting worse.
I patted my pockets for my meds. I stared at its grim contents. A pill a day. That’s what the doctor said. I swallowed one. I hate my life being bound by chemicals.
“Who wants mandazi?”
“ME!” A squeaky voice called from the counter.
I opened to the kitchen door to find Marigold and an incredibly frightened Imari. “Nala, I have no idea where this kid came from.”
“Oh, that’s easy, she comes up from the woodwork. Like a termite.” I explained. “And her name is Marigold.”
Marigold raised her eyebrows a few times at Imari. “But you can call me any time, handsome.”
I slapped the plate of mandazi in between them. “He’s too old for you, Marigold. Have a candy cane.”
“Wouldn’t it be better for her to have mandazi for breakfast instead?”
I glanced at the half empty bottle of amarula. “No.”
“Hey, this mandazi taste a little weird, is there anything--”
“No.” I answered a little too quickly.
Halfway through breakfast, the honeymoon couple found their way downstairs. “I slept great last night! Like a baby!” The woman commented.
“That’s great, baby!” The man kissed her on the cheek. Marigold gagged.
“Are you two going to have any breakfast?” I asked.
“Do you have any biscuits?”
“I have amarula mandazi?” I offered her a plate.
“I knew there was something in this!” Imari exclaimed as he picked up his bag to leave.
“Woah hey!” I exclaimed. “If they’re that bad, I can make you a batch with mampor instead! It’ll be a little fruitier, but I think I can make it work.”
“What? Oh, I’m not going because of that.”
“I only gave you enough swans for one night, remember? Besides, I’ve been gone for too long. I gotta do talk to Zuri.”
“Thanks. Though I think I might need something a little stronger.”
I held up a bottle of amarula and offered a half-smile.
I hope you come back soon.
Something my heart said, but my lips never did.
December 21st 2017 (again)
It was later that night that Imari did come back. Paper swans flooded his backpack. A trail of spilled ones littered the floor. “Nice to see you back around, sailor. You missed my mandazi, didn’t you?”
“How’d it go with your girlfriend?”
“You mean ex-girlfriend.”
My heart skipped a beat. “Is that so? Well, you’re always welcome to stay in the empty room. Business has been down lately. People like drinks more that tree rooms, but I’m doing fine.”
“Really?” Imari asked.
“Yeah, no problem.”
I felt a cough bubble up. I pounded my chest with a fist and chased down the blood with glass of heavy liquor. As I began to pour a second glass, my hands trembled and it dropped, shattering on the floor. “Tomba!” I cursed as I crouched to pick it up.
“Hey be careful!” Imari called out as he rushed around to help me.
As I reached for the jagged bottom of half of the glass, so did he. Our fingers over lapped for a brief second and I realized… that I was extremely touched starved.
Instantly, Imari backed up and blushed. “Um, sorry.” He muttered.
I felt warm blood rush to my cheeks. “It’s fine.” I spit out. “Totally fine.”
“Oh, you guys are blushing!” Marigold squealed. “Imari and Nala, cleaning inside a tree! B-L-U-S-H-I-N-G!”
“That’s not how it goes.” I calmly said as I dumped the glass in the trash. From the corner of my eye, I snuck a glance at Imari, only to see him looking at me again.
The blush came back.
Part of me was embarrassed. Part of me was high on the butterflies in my stomach. All of me didn’t care.
I stretched out my hand. Imari took it in his. My cheeks went crimson.
December 22nd 2017
A combination of guilt and newfound love twisted in my stomach. I popped another pill. I had to tell him.
I checked his room. Empty. Must be downstairs already.
As I sauntered down the stairs, I almost didn’t notice it in my gloom.
The entirety of my bar was decorated in paper swans. Some hung gracefully from the ceilings. Others were stung like popcorn on a wire and placed on the Christmas tree. A few were placed as table centerpieces.
“Wow, this is… amazing.” I breathed.
Imari popped out from behind the Christmas tree. “Yeah, well, I figure this many swans should be able to let me stay for a little bit longer.”
“How long are you planning on staying?” I asked.
“For as long as you’ll have me.”
“I’ll always shelter you.”
Imari smiled. Before I could say anything more, I started to cough again. A hard breath wrecked my throat and blood spewed out. Running to my side, Imari asked. “What’s wrong?”
I reached for my meds with shaking hands. Maybe if I take more it’ll help.
“I have lung cancer.”
December 31st 2018
The day before I died, I handed Imari my will. I didn’t have any children or family to leave the inn to. For so long, I considered just leaving it in Marigold’s seven year old hands. Since Imari had stayed and helped me take of the inn for the past year, I decided to leave it to him. This has been my last holiday season.
As part of my last wishes, I asked to be cremated and to have my ashes used as fertilizer for the baobab tree. I’ll become the very thing that gave me shelter since I first opened the inn eight years. I’ll always look over Imari and Marigold from my branches. I’ll finish my final promise.
“I’ll always shelter you.”