For Philtatos, most beloved, best of men.
I have been dead for a week. The ceiling fan in my tiny childhood bedroom swirls monotonously above my little bed, its soft whirring putting me in a trance. Beside me, on one of the oak wood side tables, gifted by some long dead great aunt, lies a plate of food, left there by my mother. Flies buzz contentedly over it, sadza, a spoonful of fried cabbage and a piece of meat floating in an oily soup. The plate is still full, everything lies untouched. It has been like this for a week. Seven days of my steady deterioration. Every day my mother, sweat dripping down her ebony face, marches into the room and tries to persuade me to eat, and after losing this battle she leaves the plate of food next to me, in hopes that I will get up and finally eat. The skin is beginning to sag off my face from weight lost too quickly, like the flesh of roasted meat falling off the bone. Inside me somewhere, something is missing, something has been taken.
8 Days Before
We are sitting in our favourite spot, under the great swooping willow tree, its heavy branches drooping mournfully over us. The leaves, thin and needle-like, are a bright green, full of that burst of new life that can only be brought about by spring. Everything is in bloom, and the entire wood surrounding the dam is a shower of green leaves and brightly coloured wildflowers. The tree is right in front of the dam, pregnant with reeds, ducklings racing across it and the chirps of birds are the only sounds breaking the afternoon silence.
We lie on our favourite blanket, a giant purple monstrosity stolen from my mother’s blanket supplies, just a hairsbreadth apart. I can feel his breath tickling my face and resist the urge to shiver from the delicious pleasure I take in being here, in this precious moment, with him. It’s a strange spring, the September air is overbearingly hot and our sweat sits oppressively on our skin. His hand, slender but strong and warm travels all over the planes of my body; over the curve of my breasts under my light cotton shirt, over my collarbone and back to my breasts again. He continues this slow worship of my body, down, softly grazing my stomach, which is a bit pudgy, and I try to suck it in but he notices, and I stop. He travels over the plain of brown stretchmarks that lead to my thighs and stops, bringing that hand back to my face, cradling it between his hands, and I know that I am loved.
It doesn’t occur to me that I am young and that this love is simply a passing phase, a brief intermission before we both leave this great station for our separate destinations. The air is heavy with something other than the heat, like a child’s overfilled water balloon, just about to burst. We are at the dawn of something, but I don’t know what yet. Now he holds his Encyclopaedia of African Mammals over my head, telling me something about elephants, how they can die when their mate dies. They slowly deteriorate, refusing to eat or drink until they eventually die of thirst, starvation and exhaustion. I think that this is a morbid thing, but I understand it. So much of myself is tethered to him that I feel like I would die of grief if he ever left me.
We talk about the Great Exodus, how every week it seems some family member or friend is hurriedly packing bags and leaving the country. The newspapers say the same thing every day. “No Jobs for Zimbabwean Graduates.” “Economy in Shambles.” “Millions of Youths Unemployed.” Fear has gotten a hold of the place, there is some kind of disappearance every week and just a fortnight ago my older sister, Ipai, spent the night in Central for leading student protests at the university. It took a hefty bribe to get her out, and my mother nearly collapsed, lecturing her shrilly to never try that rubbish again, and finished ominously by saying “Ipaikunashe you will get us killed!” There is a desperate scramble to escape this madhouse we call our home and I know he too has joined this long queue of emigrants. The future here has become too bleak for him to stay.
“The visa’s ready. My uncle collected it. It’s on its way now,” he says, breaking the silence again. I know he tries to conceal it but his voice quivers with excitement. He was beginning to grow restless, trapped here in this imploding country. The constant power cuts every day from rampant electrical cable theft every night, waking up and going back to bed in the dark, the ridiculous price hikes, turning the faucet of the kitchen tap and discovering there’s been yet again even more water rationing. He is not built for this the way that I am. He is destined for the comfort that only the first world can provide. His parents have saved nearly every cent of their salaries and borrowed enough that I know they are swimming in debt, but all these sacrifices are worth that stamp in the green passport, that student visa that will buy him four years in the U.K, enough time to cement himself into a life abroad.
I can feel that familiar heat in my head and stinging in my eyes that signals that I am about to cry. The future frightens me but I try to smile, to celebrate with him. I don’t want to be selfish and make this moment about my sorrow rather than his joy.
“Mudiwa,” he says. “You know I will wait for you. You know I’m going to start making that life for us, and then I will come for you and I will marry you.” His hands, gentler and softer than mine, callous from scrubbing floors, grip mine intensely. He places his lips, plush and velvety on my temple, then whispers, “I love you.”
The sun shines brilliantly in the azure sky and filters through the canopy of the willow, shining down in glimmering gold fragments of light. Everything feels ethereal. This is love, sheltered away from the harshness of life. This is love in its infancy, before the jaws of the world begin to swallow it up.
7 Days Before
We have just made love, the passion-filled clumsy lovemaking of teenagers. We’ve only just gotten the rhythm of it. I admire him, the leanness of his muscles, his brown skin that glows like warm honey in the sunlight. He is smaller than the other boys and lacks their brutish masculinity, his is more elegant, a stag rather than a bear. There is almost a femininity to him, the long lashes that gently curl upwards, the hands, slender, hardly any bigger than mine. Soon he will be gone so I try to savour this, to drink him in like a thirsty woman who has been wandering a desert, drink him in until I am full enough to burst. The gentle curve of his hip, the smoothness of his cheek, the upturn of his full lips when I touch him here, here, here.
His childhood bed is small, and it groans under our weight when he squeezes in beside me, drunk from the pleasure of our lovemaking. We lie on top of the covers in silence, trying not to think about his impending departure tomorrow. We lie chest to chest, enveloped in each other’s embrace. His breathing is heavy and I can feel his heart thump quickly in his chest. Brushing away a coil of my hair from my forehead he says my name. But not as he usually does, as an adoration, a call to some foreign deity of love. His voice, which is gravelly but warm, sounds distant. He is saying my name in the way I have always feared he would one day say it.
Again, he says, “Pearl,” in that deadened clipped voice, and I close my eyes because I know what is coming. It is like I have wandered onto train tracks and to my awful surprise there is a train speeding fast at me and all I can do is close my eyes and await my death. It is over quickly even though I want to wail, gnash my teeth, and rip my hair out. I want to throw myself at his feet and beg. Please don’t do this to me. Don’t go, do not leave me here, stumbling about like a useless drunk without you. Why do you disgrace me? Restore my dignity, anoint me again with your lips. Exalt me, restore me to grace.
He looks at me with the detached kindness one reserves for strangers. He tries to make this gentle on me even though he is brutally severing away some part of myself that is intrinsically linked to him. The usual clichés fall from his lips: it is simply not possible that he should tie himself to some girl who will be thousands of miles away from him. I see it now that I am a sacrifice. I have been dragged to the altar like Iphigenia and now I am to be sacrificed for his ambition and his greed.
“My Pearl, you know if things were different, if I were staying or if you were coming with me that I would never have done this. You know this is beyond you and me.”
My voice is hoarse from crying. “But you said you would wait for me,” and I say with a viciousness that surprises even me, “you said you would marry me. You are a coward!”
“What am I supposed to do without you?” My voice has risen several levels, I am shrieking like a crazed woman and he regards me with fear.
Quietly, so quietly I almost drown out his voice with my wails, he says, “I hope you understand.” And then again, more persistently, hands clutching mine, “Please.” But how could I understand this? How can I understand losing him? Him, who I value more than any other. More than myself.
Back again, to the present.
There is a hard knock on my bedroom door and I immediately know it’s Ipai. Only she bangs on doors with such confidence, as though she has every right to be in anyone’s space. She doesn’t wait more than a second before the door swings open on its hinges, crashing into the wall behind it and eliciting an enraged and exasperated scream from my mother.
Ipai and I are such opposites that it is incredible that we are even sisters. Though all of the women in our family are lanky, Ipai makes no attempt to shrink herself with bad posture, so that she may be smaller than men. She is a large and imposing figure, with such a boisterous personality that she was nicknamed Mutambudzi by my grandfather, which means troublemaker. I am almost embarrassed to admit that I am somewhat frightened of her.
She settles herself on my bed noisily, and offers me a cookie from the packet in her hand. “You know I’m a selfish woman and usually would die before sharing with you. If you don’t take this cookie I’ll have no choice but to force you to eat it.” Obediently, I take it from her hand. The sudden proximity makes me feel very awkward. We have never been close.
“There will be others.”
My head is a pendulum, shaking back and forth, “None will be like him.”
“So, what are you saying? No son in law for Mama?”
“What I’m saying is I can’t love again. I’ll never know what it feels like again.” My scratchy voice breaks halfway through and I blink away my tears, staring resolutely away from her.
There is silence, and the old fan purrs contentedly above us. Ipai stares at me, she has such an unnerving penetrating gaze that I can feel her eyes boring into the side of my head. From the corner of my eye, I see she nods slowly as if she only now understands.
“Listen to me, you think love is only for boyfriends?” The question hangs in the afternoon humidity. “Maybe what you say is true. Maybe you will never love another man the way you loved him but there is so much other love. You love Mama, do you not? I love you, even though we barely talk. You will make friends, and you will love them. You will find a passion and you will love it. I can’t allow you to think everything has been taken from you, because it hasn’t.”
My mouth hangs open in dumb shock. Ipai has always been an aloof presence in my life, always detached, always belonging to some other place. She had never felt like a true sister to me. And now here she is, grasping my hands and offering the chance to start something new.
“How beautiful is it that we have so many different kinds of love? It’s a real pity the romantic kind has been made out to be the most important.” I realise now that I have never truly seen my sister. I too was aloof, so absorbed by Junior that I could never really focus on anything else. She has a proud face, high cheekbones over dark skin. She is smiling at me, warm and welcoming.
“Will you eat the cookie or not?” I realise quite suddenly that I am desperately hungry. I take a small bite out of it. The sugariness of it almost shocks me. “Praise God. Mama has been threatening to go to your Mr Englishman’s mother to beat her up for raising a bastard. Now maybe she won’t do it.”
Through the deep lake of my sorrow, I feel a giggle bubble out of me. I have always envied Ipai this gift, of filling a room with laughter.
“I hope you know Mama never forgave him for telling her her chicken was dry that time he came for lunch. To be quite honest I think she’s glad to see the back of him,” she says.
Mama bustles into the room, tying her wrapper around her waist. “Ipaikunashe why are you banging doors in my house?”
She stops short when she sees me with the cookie, half-eaten. “Pearl! Thank God. I thought I might have to call a doctor and you know how expensive that is.”
I find myself enveloped in her arms, and I’m filled with her scent of Avon perfume, and the lingering smells of the kitchen that just never leave her. A lightness has come over me as I realize that this is enough. This love that has been with me from birth, sheltered me, protected me, and it is enough. This is love that will never be taken away from me.