The verandah steps were too steep for a safe passage. I sat with elbows propped on the armrests of my wheelchair. I was grateful that the drizzle had abated. From the foot of the raised verandah, I could hear the gentle throb of an African drum, counterpointed by the chook-chook of rattles and the sombre singing of female voices inside. Hatina musha panyika, this earth is not our permanent home, they sang.
Father entered alone through the front door. A moment after he had vanished into the house the women broke into screams, wailing with a renewed feeling of bereavement. He returned, some minutes later, with a thickset woman in a maid’s uniform. I recognized her as the Bhebhes’ housekeeper. She bent her knee slightly and held her arm at the elbow in deference, as we shook hands. She led us round the back where, she assured us, the kitchen entrance had a single shallow step.
Beneath the steel cover of the carport, there was a log fire ablaze and two young women, both wrapped at the waist with java cloths, one of them a dark-skinned buxom lass of about 20 and the other of a slighter frame, slightly younger-looking, stirring sadza in a sooty three-legged pot. Flames rose against its black sides like a yellow-red glove, igniting mental images of witches and cats around a hearth and gnarled occult fingers tossing into the sooty cauldron an eye of a newt and the wing of a bat. It was a most inappropriate choice of cookware, I thought, for the burial of one whose life had been lost to sorcery.
The brows of the two girls were speckled with perspiration and the upper incisors of the bigger girl were resolutely sunk into her lower lip, as she laboured to stir her stick in the hissing sadza. A gentle breeze caught their colourful wrap-over cloths, blowing them against their ankles. A bag of mealie-meal, with the pull-string hanging from its open rim, stood near the crackling fire. A bovine head, a young bull, by the length of its horns, sat in a large steel bowl, with a glazed look over its unblinking eyes. Its sandpapery, grey tongue dangled from between its clamped jaw. Another bowl held the fingers of tripe, with intestines wound tightly; a girl of about thirteen hovered over the bowl, wielding a small tree branch, swishing at the buzzing flies. Four, five, six heads of cabbage, the standard relish for every Zhimindi funeral meal, peeped from open supermarket plastic bags.
A man dressed rather like he could have stepped out of a pub – scotch wool paperboy cap, leather jacket, bristly salt and peppered chin, paunch overhanging the belt of his blue jeans, worn with incongruous white-toed black formal shoes – approached the girls.
“Nyama yevarume iripi?” (Where is the men’s meat?)
The bigger of the two cooks, running the back of her wrist over her sweat-sheened forehead, pulled her cooking stick out of the sadza and balanced it over the rim of the cauldron, compelling her cohort to pause stirring. The moment the stirring stopped the sadza hissed like air from a punctured tyre – pfffff. She bent her knees, in that awkward sideways manner a tightly wrapped java cloth sometimes imposes, and picked up a bowl, heavy with bull testicles still in their furry scrotum.
Genuflecting courteously, she handed him the dish. He nodded.“Right. We’ll skin the meat and grill it with the boys after the burial.”
According to Zhimindi custom, only the men can eat animal testicles.
We proceeded past the fire to the kitchen door where the housekeeper, with palms clasped, respectfully stood aside and allowed Father to lead the way. She went behind me and took hold of the push-handles of my wheelchair before easing me over the single step. We entered a small vestibule which held a table on which there was a telephone with a rotary dial. Ahead of us was a half-open door which, I surmised, led to the living room.
Through the open door, I saw two women, wreathed in black shawls and head wraps, leaning into each other’s chests, ear-to-ear, weeping, shoulders shuddering. Another’s face was crinkled with grief, wailing as she shook her head. Father’s entrance had the effect of making the womenfolk, in their doeks and java wrap-around cloths, mourn louder and hold the backs of their heads in apparent grief. From the vestibule, the drumbeat was louder, the chook-chook of rattles much crisper and the singing of women even more sorrowful. The housekeeper let go off the push handles of my chair and I propelled myself towards the partially open door which I nudged with the front of my shoe.
As the front castors of my wheelchair led the way into the living room, around which elderly men sat on sofas and plastic rental chairs pushed against the walls, with hats on knees and, in front of them, women seated on the floor, several eyes swivelled inside sockets towards the door and then came… silence.
A man hunkered down on the carpet with a drum between his knees stopped beating his mournful monotone. His hands froze midair above the shiny, tightly stretched skin, with thick brown fur on its circular edge and a shiny bald spot at its centre. Next to him, sat two middle-aged women, the rattle shakers, in Evangelical Lutheran grey and purple, with their rattles silenced. Like flaming arrows from the bows of archers, their stares stabbed into me. It was the awkward silence that, since I began using the wheelchair, preceded all my entrances into rooms filled with strangers.
The room had the odour of humans kraaled into a small space for too long and the floor was thickly carpeted, which made movement a muscular feat, as I went around shaking the hands of the mourners. Sweaty hands, calloused palms, powerful fingers, painted nails. I went from person to person, stretching out my arm to shake their hands, muttering my condolences – “nematambudziko, nematambudziko” – with each handshake. The words sounded increasingly hollow. As hollow as the little drum that had earlier beat the sombre tune. After my fifth-sixth handshake, the drummer resumed his mournful tune but the women did not resume their song. I dithered at the drummer, not sure whether to skip him. I feared that if I offered my hand I would disrupt the tune that was so vital to the song. Before I made up my mind he seemed to decide for me. He thrust out his hand, instantly killing the throb of the drum. I muttered the same words of condolence – “nematambudziko.”
After I had muttered the increasingly empty condolences over forty times, the housekeeper who, during the handshaking, had hovered at the door, leaned down to my ear and informed me that Mr Bhebhe was in his study, helping the junior reverend in preparing the burial sermon and would welcome my call.
She led the way and, as I wheeled around, I saw in the periphery of my vision, previously mournful heads turning, doek-covered foreheads leaning into one another and pointing with curious eyes, no doubt in speculation about my condition. As my rear wheels exited the living room, the singing resumed. The little drum, accompanied by the rattles, regained its throbbing momentum.
As I followed behind, I surmised that the housekeeper who had been in the service of the Bhebhes for a lifetime remembered me from 7 years ago when Nyembezi, who was 5 years old then, returned home, bruised, teary-eyed and hatless in the baking October heat. I was watering the plants outside the gate, it must have been the time of Sixpence’s annual leave when Nyembezi ran past me in tears. Behind her was a swarm of school children, one of them, a lardy little gremlin, triumphantly waving Nyembezi’s hat while leading a chorus of chants:
“White girl! White Girl! Musope! Musope!”
As the chanting mob gained ground on her, she let go of her bookcase and pumped her little arms as she ran. Some forty metres up the road, she frantically tried the gate at the Bhebhe home but it would not open. As she rattled the padlocked latch, the swarm of children, metres behind her, chanted even louder. “White girl! White girl! Musope! Musope!”
My baby sister Angelica, also crying, walked behind the group, carrying Nyembezi’s pink bookcase, which she had earlier jettisoned in her flight from her tormentors. The chanting mob reached me. I turned the hose on them, before snapping a long slender branch off a munhondo shrub which whistled and swooshed down mostly on the fat kid who failed to outrun me, even with my diminished mobility. When I ended my pursuit, because the munhondo branch had snapped to an ineffectual stump, I stood with the chunky boy wailing at my feet, where he was curled up in a foetal position, with his chubby arms shielding his face, beneath a shower of angry saliva that fell on him as I spat out, “And let me ever catch you teasing her again!”
As the boy rose and bolted, screaming for his absent mother, I turned to see Angelica kneeling to pick up Nyembezi’s hat. Up the road, Nyembezi was still crying and pounding her little fist against the gate. When, eventually, the gate opened, a woman in a maid’s cap stuck her head out.
“What’s all the commotion?” she said, in a loud voice.
Without reply, Nyembezi stepped into the gateway. A moment later, she reappeared outside the gate and looked down the road where I stood, hosepipe in hand. She ran down the road and threw her arms around me, almost knocking over. She smelled medicinal, I assumed from her sunscreen. Still crying, she held onto me tightly for what seemed like a minute. Then she pulled away and ran back home, leaving wet spots on the front of my T-shirt.
The following day I waited at quitting time some distance from the school gate. I watched as the children filed out of the little pedestrian gate that Bright and I had walked through in our junior school years. I recognised two of the kids who had taunted Nyembezi the previous day. The startled looks on their faces suggested they had recognised me too. They scurried behind a hedge. Immediately after, Nyembezi emerged through the gate.
I spotted a boy whose blazer had the same braided prefect sleeves that I had worn in my final year at the school. I summoned him with a hooked finger. He ran over to me and tipped his hat as he approached. His face was rife with pimples.
“Good afternoon sir,” he began.
I did not return his greeting. The process of intimidation requires some degree of rudeness. I pointed out Nyembezi standing with a hand raised as though she was shielding her eyes from the sun.
“You see that girl over there?”
“You mean the Albino girl, sir?”
I scowled and the boy recoiled sensing my annoyance.
“No, I mean the girl carrying the pink bookcase. Is that what your parents taught you? To refer to people by offensive descriptions?”
“No, sir.” He said, shaking his head.
“Okay then,” I waved a finger over his acne covered forehead. “Pimply boy or boy in prefect’s blazer, which description do you prefer?”
He scratched his pustulent forehead and suddenly found something to gaze at between his feet.
He half looked up. “Prefect’s blazer, sir.”
“I’m glad we understand each other. Now…” I clicked my finger and the boy jerked his neck straight. I pointed to Nyembezi.
“That’s my little sister.”
“I’m sorry sir. I didn’t–.” I raised a hand demanding silence.
“You heard what happened to her yesterday?”
“Yes sir, I did. But I wasn’t part of–.”
My hand went up again. “If she ever comes home crying, whether out of being bullied or even from a bee sting, I will hold you responsible. Got it?”
The boy’s eyes bulged. He nodded twice. “Yes, sir. I’ll make sure she isn’t bothered.”
That evening, Nyembezi’s parents came to our home. They thanked my parents and congratulated them on “having raised such a wonderful young man.”
Reverend Bhebhe almost jerked my hand clean out of its socket as Mrs Bhebhe, with a dainty palm crushed against her heart, looked on.
When we entered the study, with its walls lined with neatly stacked ecclesiastical books, a thirtyish man, in purple Lutheran shirt, whose dog collar emphasized the narrowness of his neck, stood at the shoulder of Reverend Bhebhe, seated behind a desk with an open Bible before him. At one corner of the desk stood an easeled photograph, half turned towards Reverend Bhebhe. In it was the Reverend, his petite wife and a smiling Nyembezi, squinting, as she always did, with her grey-blue eyes asymmetrically focused.
The demeanour of the junior pastor, standing beside Reverend Bhebhe, was more manservant than clerical. His lanky frame was set into a butler’s dignified stoop. Only the Lutheran shirt and collar betrayed his pastoral position. His pronounced Adam’s apple, at the centre of his scrawny giraffe neck, was freakishly large, like he had swallowed Adam’s entire apple.
There is a Zhimindi proverb that goes “n’anga haizvirapi.” A healer cannot treat himself. Too grief-struck to preside over his daughter’s final service, the man who had probably read the last sermon – “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” – for many departed parishioners could not trust himself to speak at this funeral.
At the sound of the housekeeper clearing her throat, Reverend Bhebhe and his assistant looked up.
“Ah mwanangu!” Reverend Bhebhe said. “You have come to bid farewell to your little sister!”
He removed the steel-rimmed spectacles from the bridge of his nose, allowing them to dangle around his neck on a silver chain. His glasses left a depression on either side of his nose. He raised a solitary finger in the direction of the junior reverend, as though indicating that he needed a moment. The young clergyman politely mimed a “yes Reverend” and left the room, walking sideways to squeeze into the space between the door frame and my rear wheel. Bracing myself for an arm wrenching handshake, I wheeled forward and extended a hand across the desk to offer my condolences. He shook it feebly, like the obligatory handshake of a defeated boxer. His large hand felt limp, a dead fish inside my palm. It was a shadow of the bone-crunching handshake that had almost torn off my arm seven years earlier. His broad rounded shoulders sloped dejectedly. In his narrow eyes, where there was once a twinkle, the fire had been extinguished.
He held my hand longer than necessary, as though he had either forgotten to give back my arm or perhaps holding a familiar hand somehow strengthened him.
“Nematambudziko,” I said.
Finally, those words took on meaning.
“Thank you Strive,” he replied feebly. “We are God’s clay pots. He can smash us if he wishes.” He shrugged his beefy shoulders. “What can we do?”
I didn’t think it was a question to which he expected an answer.
“Mother sends her condolences. She says you and Mrs Bhebhe are in her prayers. Grandfather is unwell so she couldn’t leave him alone.”
It was not a wholly truthful statement. Mother did not travel because she didn’t think she could bear the proximity of her home, in which another woman now lived.
“She telephoned earlier. Thank you for conveying such kind words.”
Then came a sharp intake of breath before he emitted a weary sigh.
“It was my mother’s idea to name her Nyembezi. I know now that names are prophetic. Some of my parishioners have asked me, ‘Reverend, how come there aren’t any more miracles like there were in Biblical times? The feeding of the five thousand, Christ walking on water, the raising of the dead daughter of Jairus, with a simple Talitha cumi…’ But names are the modern-day miracles. Your brother Bright, such a shame.” He shook his head. “I pray for him daily. Is it not prophetic that he turned out to be an immensely gifted child after they named him Bright? Nyembezi…” he sighed. A moment later he continued. “Tears. I wish I had named her Joy.”
He bit his lower lip and quickly looked away.
“My wife is inconsolable.”
When he turned back to me there was a watery film in his eyes.
“She blames herself. Grief and guilt. Never an easy mix to deal with.”
“Why does she blame herself?” I asked.
“She believes it is her fault that our little girl was butchered.” He bit his lip. “Hung on a hook, like meat, and had her beautiful eyes poked out of her face.”
“Hung on a hook?”
“Yes, the autopsy report says she was hung on meat hooks”. He looked up to the ceiling and sniffed loudly, holding back tears. “They hung her on meat hooks.” He stabbed a finger into his collarbone to demonstrate.
My hand instinctively went to my shoulder as if it were my own clavicle beneath which the cold steel hooks had entered. Then he shut his eyes as if trying to build a dam against the river of tears or to disappear from his painful reality.
“The albinism is from my wife’s side of the family. ‘I killed my daughter,’ she cries. My wife has cried since the afternoon that Nyembezi went missing. She cried when the police arrived, with their caps in their hands, to tell us that they had found her in the maize field. She is still crying. If my eyes are dry it is because I am out of tears. I preach Heaven and eternal life every Sunday.”
He laid his hand on the open Bible and stroked it, as if seeking a crutch to lean on.
“I cannot continue to mourn when, every week, I tell the flock that death for a believer means Heaven. Fibroids took away my wife’s fertility years ago. That is why Nyembezi is an only child.”
I couldn’t help but register that, despite her death; Reverend Bhebhe spoke of his daughter in the present tense, as though she was still living.
“My wife and I have mourned for a child we love, cried for a womb that is sealed, we have cried for grandchildren we will never see. We have cried for a graduation ceremony at which my wife will not ululate from the front row and a wedding at which I will never give her away. The flock, the parishioners –”
He paused and bit his lower lip.
“The flock. Strange phrase, isn’t it?”
I did not think he expected a response. I sat in silence.
“A flock of birds? A flock of sheep? When birds in flight lose one of their own, they fly on, untroubled, not even checking for the bird that lies on the side of the road, with bits of it splattered on the car windscreen and its feathers floating gently down to earth. If only humans saw death through the eyes of a flock. It wouldn’t hurt at all. The parishioners look up to me and I must remain strong.”
Silence hung between us, only filled by the sombre song from the living room.
“Do the police have any leads?” I enquired pointlessly.
He shook his head with lips pursed before resting both elbows on the desk and placing the tips of his fingers to his temples. He had greyed a little since that visit to my parents’ house, seven years ago.
“Nyembezi spoke about you a lot you know – as much about you as she did your sister Angelica”.
He managed a feeble smile. I smiled back. Then he replaced his glasses on the bridge of his nose before wheeling around in his swivel chair. I heard the squeal of a metal cabinet opening and shutting. He swivelled back to face me before placing a brown file on the desk. On it, in capitals, was the name NYEMBEZI.
“Every milestone moment of my daughter’s short life documented…” he placed his large hand over the file, as though he could feel her pulse beneath the brown paper. “Birth certificate, immunisations, catechism, school reports, none of them lower than second place, and now the file closes with this–”.
He lifted a sheet of paper which appeared to be a Photostat copy, then slowly stretched his arm out, like his elbow hurt, and handed it to me.
“It’s the pathologist’s report?” I glanced up at him. He nodded and looked aside.
My eye ran over the scientific prose:
“Chloroform present in body tissue. Two identical puncture wounds below each clavicle,entering trapezius muscles and exiting above scapulae. Toxicology report shows trace amounts of iron oxide present in both puncture wounds, suggesting victim was suspended by two iron hooks. Wounds occurred pre-mortem. Arms and legs severed at glenohumeral and acetabulofemoral joints respectively. Incisions suggest cutting implement with serrated edge, e.g meat saw. Right clavicle has a stress fracture. Arms and legs severed post mortem. Eyes gouged out. Maggots present in eye sockets. Stomach contents are lettuce, bread, tomato. Consistent with contents of school bag found at scene. Based on size of larvae, body was dumped within approximately the last 72 hours. Hymen intact. No sign of vaginal or anal penetration. Cause of death was exsanguination.”
I re-read the autopsy report, seeking meaning, looking for logic in those cold, detached medical euphemisms – “puncture wounds… pre-mortem… hymen intact – and found none.
“Holes above each collarbone?” I asked, placing the sheet of paper back onto the table.
He pursed his lips, evidently suppressing emotion.
“The police think she was drugged and, while alive, hung on meat hooks…”. He paused, ran an index finger behind one spectacle lens, to wipe his eye.
“She was drained of blood while alive, but most likely unconscious, they assume to use the blood for muthi, along with her eyes and limbs. Police think the killer thought if he bled her out while she was alive, with her heart still pumping; it would be easier to drain the blood that way. Her body was discovered by a boy whose football had bounced off the road into the maize field. A pack of stray dogs was sniffing and yelping at her body from a distance.”
He removed his spectacles and wiped a hand over his face as if attempting to wash away the grief. Then he pinched the broad bridge of his nose, either to erase the grief or the twin indentations made by his glasses.
“Even hungry street dogs were too horrified to approach. No legs, no arms. In the eyes that held the most beautiful, prettiest smile, maggots squirmed and crawled.”
He shut his eyes as his voice trailed away on the final words of the sentence. His lower lip was caught between his teeth, as though biting down on the grief inside of him. Behind tightly shut eyelids, I sensed a battle raging between bravado and gravity. He unclamped his lip and it quivered. A heartbeat later, gravity triumphed over bravery. A tear squeezed through his eyelid and rolled down his cheek. He inhaled, and then his broad, sloping shoulders shook. A hand rose to his eye. His face twisted as jerking sobs seized him. I attempted to wheel around his desk to place a consoling palm on his shoulder. But there was no room to fit my wheelchair in the area between the wall and the desk.
He continued his speech between sobs.
“The undertaker has done a wonderful job. It would have been a closed casket funeral but he…” He paused. His Adam’s apple shuttled up and down, as though he had swallowed, then he continued. “The undertaker, after washing out the maggots and the grit, placed a metal ball in each eye hole before lowering the eyelids. To everyone who sees her at the body viewing, it will seem like she is sleeping peacefully.”
I watched him cry and I whispered, “I’m sorry.”
Sorry that those monsters slaughtered Nyembezi and hung her like she was a dead cow. Sorry I couldn’t fit my chair between that damn wall and his desk so as to comfort him. Sorry I wasn’t there to hose the kidnappers, chase them and beat them black and purple with a munhondo tree branch. I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Nyembezi.