[Trigger Warning: Implied sexual assault.]
By Peter Zowa -
I thought I knew what death looked like, its stinking breath reeking from its mouth, lungs heavy with anticipation, waiting for the moment I gave up. I saw death as I waited on the hospital bed. I saw it on my parents’ faces as they sat next to me. They too waited. They waited for good news from the doctor but I refused to give them that. You see, it’s not because I hated my parents or wished them any ill. They weren’t abusive or anything of that sort—they were normal parents. But I also realized where I came from. They were poor parents and they belonged to the congregation. With all the stories I’d read, about the streets in paradise that are made of gold, I couldn’t with any clarity ever decide to go back. Call me selfish if you may but tell me that after you’ve lived for as long as I have in what looks like a refugee camp. It isn’t. It is just another township in the city of Harare. It is the oldest township. Call me that after you know what it means to have the hunter waiting for you at home. The doctors, or is it nurses, are about are about to go on strike, I’m told. They will soon be chasing us out of the hospitals to die on the streets or in our decrepit homes. I wanted to die here, next to the cockroaches and rats that scurry after our insipid food. I couldn’t bear the thought of dying in front of my parents. I can’t say they don’t deserve it. Nobody does so it would be kind of redundant if I say it. I’m fully convinced I don’t want to live either. I have had enough of this life. I have been in this state for a while. I don’t even know what is wrong with me. The doctors do but asking them is too tedious. They like looking all important when someone asks them these sorts of questions—especially the young doctors. I flirt with death, the nurses flirt with doctors. Maybe they need a distraction. Maybe they are tired of cleaning after our shit and wiping the vomit off the chins of grown women. I’m pretty sure those women are tired of it too. I see their shame in their eyes. But that’s what happens here. We are all equal. There is no father, no child, and no mother. We are all patients—victims, or are we? All I know is that we all just wait.
During the cold dry months when the sky is barren, the trees lean from thirst reach out their fingers to the impotent sky like Oliver asking for more. The leaves that had dressed them dance on the floor that they carpet. It is a beautiful dance—a twirl with the wind almost as if to say there is freedom in death. As the months drag on they lose their glistering green for a dry crunchy green going on brown. We sat on this wasteland, our sect elder standing under the shadow of his impressive staff which he lifted up with the authority of Moses. He closed his eyes and inhaled deep the cold air, claiming communion with the divine—or was it Moses. I’m pretty sure it was somebody important like that. On occasion he would open his eyes wildly like the holy man he was and spit out vehement gibberish that everybody else but me seemed to understand. We sat transfixed. Our white garments dancing in the wind before any one of us knew how. They were pure, and so we too were pure. The elder said something about Elijah, and then Gabriel. I always get mixed up with the names and so I never seem to understand anything. The sun should be just past mid-point by now behind those same puffy clouds that remind me of our garments.
This is where my dreams always begin—at the very beginning, when I am still naïve or as some might say, innocent. I’ve been having this same dream for a while now. About those cold mornings that are so much like these lonely nights I spend in this hospital. I miss home but I don’t want to go back to it. How strange. I miss the smell of disinfectant in the morning right after everyone has taken a bath. My mother is very different, or at least she says she is. That is why I am in this hospital, away from the congregation and the prying eyes of the elder who hears from the spirit. Away from the gibberish and incessant demands for tea, private consultations with my mother—and sometimes with myself, tokens of any kinds and who knows what. A part of the elder is here with me my father says. Always. That’s why he brought the holy water in the plastic bottle, together with the strings and pebbles that will quicken my recovery. To strengthen me—those are his words. But now, my innocence has been unmasked by the sight of manly parts that dangle from mangled bodies, between the blood and entrails that hang from split abdomens carted and left at the mercy of God along the corridors. Between the road accident victims lying unattended whilst young nurses frolic their buttocks at their male counterparts. They too wear white. I wonder if that makes them pure as well. My parents ignore this absurdity, choosing rather to focus on their arguments that they conceal with a smile whenever they think I’m awake. Here, where there is no innocence. But maybe this is not where it began—my loss of innocence. Maybe it began a little earlier, when the hunter was looking for a bird to build him a home, but I shook because his home was just a cage.
Like any other Saturday morning, our knees touched the hard earth and our hands longed for the sky. We lifted our hearts to the sound of the elder’s prayers, our voices drenched with songs that carried for kilometres. We sang our hearts out. Then danced, and prayed and danced again. I watched from the corner of my eye as children made fun of us, children my age. Some played in the park close by whilst some pointed at us like an oddity as they walked on by. I envied them but not their sins. The elder said everyone who does not pray has a lot of sins and probably dark ominous clouds that follow them. The kind of clouds that usually bring frightening thunderstorms. Nonetheless, the children played on in their ignorance. I always watched my father as he danced. There was heart in his dance. I could feel his elation. I could hear the music of his heart. I sat with the women, secluded from the men. The nursing mothers also had a section of their own. The elder’s wives sat with the rest of the women and children. He had three, his last wife slightly older than myself. I always wondered about her. At first I used to think she was his daughter and so I wanted to play with her because well, her father was an important person in the congregation. Then my mother forbade me. Then she told me. It felt weird at first, because I didn’t know how to relate to her now. Do I treat her with the same reverence I treated my mother, as all mothers are to be treated like that or do I treat her like how I treat my friends as we were roughly the same age? Ultimately, I decided to steer clear of her.
I wondered about other things too. I wondered about the children who went to school. What did they do there all day? My father says that it is a waste of money. People go there to be taught to behave like white people, he says. I’ve never met any white people—not in person, so I don’t know how they behave. I’ve only seen one or two from a distance—like the time when we went into the town to buy new white fabric for our clothes. But I can see from those school going kids. How they laugh at me when I try to play with them and they start talking about things I don’t know, like the white man’s language they are taught at school. One time my friend, Adiwa, laughed at me when I told her I hadn’t understood a word of what she had said. I told her that she speaks through her nose like the cartoon characters she watches on her TV at home. She laughed and called me dull. In retaliation, I spit at her and told her of the dark clouds that probably followed her family like flies to shit. That was the last time she ever invited me to come and watch TV at her house. I only hoped that her mother wouldn’t tell my mother about the incident. She’d be livid and probably beat the daylights out of me before telling my father all about it, more for watching TV than for spitting at my friend. TV was an instrument of white people, just as much as school was. I knew this, but I don’t know why I had kept going back there to watch it.
It was there that I again found him, in my dreams—the hunter. I remember the hunter, even in this hospital, especially his eyes. I had tried ever so hard to forget but had failed dismally. I could never forget him. I could never forget his eyes, his brazen eyes that sang the song of the sunset, timeless, speaking as with the voice of a thousand lifetimes. His eyes speak the language no man can speak. A language long lost to mere men except for those few who still spoke the dialect of the ancients—those slurred yet vivacious ceremonies that called for blood. Those few who filled their mouths with the tang of bitter herbs and liquor and spray it on the faces of unsuspecting victims who clap their hands and chant praises amidst the bleating cries of young black goats tied up somewhere by their neck waiting for their impending doom. The only difference is that he is dressed in the purest of garments. Indeed, this is the hunter, and I am his prey.
His hands fiddle with what his eyes have already undressed. And soon enough it is all of him. It was in those dreams that I found my voice and told things I hadn’t told to anybody else. On days such as this when I longed for the embrace of death only to be disappointed by the nurses’ morning round. It is in these dreams that I seek out my salvation, lilies in beautiful gardens of green that I’ve never seen. I often wake up to my mother sitting beside me, my eyes telling the tale that my lips cannot. I see the same tale in my mother’s eyes. Maybe that is how she is different—because she understands the hunter and his ways. Because it is she who brought me to this hospital to have me escape from the hunter and hopefully relieve the burning throbbing between my thighs. Like I’ve already said I don’t know what is wrong with me—except the burning and throbbing sensation between my thighs.
I had been experiencing this burning sensation for a while. It tingles when it burns. It hurts too. I wanted to tell my mother about it but couldn’t. I was embarrassed. The elder cum hunter told me not to tell anyone after every time he came into me. He said my parents knew it was the will of the spirit. I was to be his next wife. This was the spirit’s will too. But before we were to marry he wanted to know if I was whole. At first, I hadn’t known what he had meant. But he showed me, in those private sessions where he consulted the spirit whilst I knelt on the floor, hands clasping at straws as they hung from my sides. My naked frame shivered from fear—but that was only on the first few times. After than I just became limp. The fear in my throat was replaced by something else too. It is difficult to describe. It felt like a fog in the dusk of July—cold, dark, empty and alone. Then came the brokenness and lastly the shame.
Our Saturdays were still the same. My father danced his heart out every congregation day, sweat pouring down his brow like favours from a god–or a spirit, or whatever it was that the elder said he was preaching. Now that I was to be married to the elder, I sat with the rest of his wives who sat motionless like headstones at a cemetery. I’d never noticed that before. Or maybe I had, a lot of times before but had chosen to ignore it, or had mistaken it for virtue—the one quality the elder’s wives were supposed to have. All those Saturdays and I could still pick my mother’s voice from the congregation , she too singing her lungs out, her Nubian skin baking under the sun’s glory. It was only after the elder had satisfied himself that I was “whole” that my hair was allowed to grow beyond the baldness I’d always known. Just a little bit. The sign of my womanhood. After that, I wasn’t allowed to play with my friends anymore.
My engagement to the elder was announced while he was in a trance, touched by forces of the spirit. Ululations followed, but not before the sadness in the eyes of the elder’s third wife. Maybe they’d never be enough. But then I saw relief in her eyes. It puzzled me.
The days that followed were of agony but I didn’t cry. My body withered away but I cared less. My spirit was dead anyway. Against better judgment, my mother took me to the hospital. I don’t understand my mother sometimes. This was the utmost sacrilege. If the elder ever found out…
The hunter came to visit me in the hospital, to claim his bird back to his home. I heard some of the nurses whispering amongst each other. They say the elder should be arrested. They say I’m just a child. Surely, they don’t know the will of the spirit. It must be the ominous clouds that hang over their heads. I long to be a child again, to frolic in the fields of green and to run barefoot on the streets of gold. I watched my mother as she left with one of the head nurses—the heaviness on her shoulders, her dress of the purest white masking the fog behind her own eyes. I hope to die here soon, in this hospital, before we are forced out by the strike to die in our decrepit homes or walk amongst the tombs in the hunter’s cage.
On a good day, Peter Zowa likes to think of himself as an avant-garde shining his light into a world of societal obscurity. But that's only on a good day. On a regular day, he's just a young Zimbabwean navigating through adulthood.
He writes about his experiences as an expat in some foreign land and the life around him in general. You can find him on Twitter @bigkahunapete.