12 December 2009

The Nameless Voice by Fungai Machirori

Sarudzai squatted and felt between her legs for what she hoped she had not imagined. Ordinarily, she was not prone to hallucinating, yet she understood what tricks an anxious mind could play on a person of a nervous disposition such as her own.

But she wasn’t willing to believe that the moistness squelching into her underwear, as she walked along, had been such a figment of her imagination.

And so she had stopped - expectant and fearful - at the public toilet. There, she entered one of the cubicles reeking with the stench of human excrement and hastily ploughed two fingers into her underwear. As she drew them back, she observed the red sticky mess of blood spread between her quivering fingers.

“Thank you God,” she sighed out heavily.

And suddenly, as if time were impatient to make its presence known again, Sarudzai remembered where she was.

The cackling of the fruit and vegetable vendors flooded through the high opened window above her head as the sight and smell of streams of urine about her feet began to make her feel nauseous.

With her clean hand, she quickly rummaged through her handbag for the roll of tissue she always carried with her. When she found it, she dotted her fingers onto a piece she had deftly torn off, and proceeded to wrap several more layers of the coarse paper around her hand to make a thick makeshift pad to place in her underwear.

She tried to flush the used tissue down the toilet, but nothing would come out of its tank except an irritable gurgle, and a solitary dribble of water, much like how her father’s spells of a chesty cough reached their climax.

Fortunately, there was a steadier stream of water from the tap – enough just to wash away the scarlet remnants of blood still on her fingers.

Mounted just above the tap was a hazy mirror with a diagonal crack from the top right corner all the way down to the bottom left. As distorted as she knew her reflected face would appear, she still took a moment to look into it.

Is this who you have become, Sarudzai?

It was a voice inside herself speaking – at once her own voice, and yet also, that of a foreign entity interrogating her.

She blinked hard and then re-opened her eyes to stare at the mess of pimples that gave the skin on her forehead and cheeks its uneven texture. Two, one on her left cheek and another just above her right eyebrow, were visibly pregnant with pus.

The only kind of pregnancy she could tolerate.

As another whiff of the stench from the toilets blew its way to Sarudzai, she remembered once more that this was not the place for intimate questioning of one’s soul.

Quickly, she patted her wet hands against her jeans and began to walk back towards the sunlit exit, back into the world of anonymous people going about their way.

She didn’t notice much today. In fact, she hadn’t been aware of the many things happening around her for the last month-and-a-half.

With a growing heaviness and vacant gloss to her eyes, she had forced her body to function mechanically, like the worn pistons of a car engine.

She would have preferred to lay in her bed, semi-conscious, with the lavender curtains of her bedroom drawn tight so as not to let in any light. She would also have preferred that her mother and father disappear without trace, along with the anxiety and guilt that churned a sour heat throughout her stomach.

“Final year can’t be easy, mwan’angu[1],” her mother would sometimes remember to empathise, almost as mechanically as many of Sarudzai’s statements had become. Too occupied with her own distresses, Sarudzai knew that her mother’s were not sincere words, but rather, phrases offered to create some semblance of normality within a home quickly disintegrating.

Somehow, Sarudzai had managed to force her body to function; forced her mouth to grind and swallow tasteless food; forced her voice to speak when it was required of her; forced her hand to write down notes during bland lectures; forced her nerve to harden in preparation for any eventuality.

And so, for the last month, she had not noticed the purple hue of jacarandas light up the rejuvenated skyline on the way between the crowded taxi rank and her home. Also, she hadn’t noticed the re-painted shop front of the popular superette that she and many of her friends had often stopped at to buy snacks and drinks in the past.

Once a fading avocado-green colour, the words ‘Misheck’s Delights’ were now inscribed onto the window in royal blue paint. Inside, the shelves gleamed with the kaleidoscope colours of a variety of groceries – from detergent, soups, crisps, biscuits and juices - all imported from South Africa. A thick knot of customers rummaged along the narrow aisles as a row of four till operators showed their backs to the front of the shop. The nimble movements of their fingers, quickly counting through notes of American money, showed that business was booming once more for Misheck who, as rumour had it, had been on the verge of selling his shop space after initially failing to secure a licence from the Reserve Bank to sell goods in US dollars.

Sarudzai hadn’t noticed the jacarandas because she had stopped looking up as she walked, favouring instead to watch the movements of her feet as they tainted the ground with her steps. And she hadn’t noticed the new lease of life over Misheck’s enterprise because she had become so engrossed in her own world of chaos that she had excluded herself from some of the external world’s daily rituals of order and normality.

Yet still, with the burden of worry lifted from heart, she didn’t notice much today.

Perhaps this was due to the speed at which her heart still rapped against her chest and the relief taking on more and more words in her mind as she realised that she was not pregnant, that she would not bring shame to her mother and pave the way for similar acts of moral decadence for her younger sisters.

But perhaps, it was also the fact that even with this freeing certainty, nothing could mend the gaping hole in her soul.

Nothing could make the pain disappear.

The only thing Sarudzai now noticed on her daily blur of walks was when she reached the dingy entrance to her family’s block of flats. They lived in a quiet part of town in a brick-face row of apartments that each had three bedrooms, low ceilings and walls so slim that Sarudzai could listen to the neighbours’ conversations through the wall that separated her bedroom for theirs.

Once home, there was no privacy that she could escape into. She had always known that. And she had never minded it. Her sister, Tafadzwa was an outspoken 17-year-old who always had stories to share about celebrities’ lives, her difficult boyfriend and the clique of snobs in her class. Rumbidzai, the youngest child, was far less talkative but always ready to confide the worries swelling in her 13-year-old mind to Sarudzai.

She was the older sister that they looked up to, even if they never said it. Only her mother reminded her, especially in times when her father would awaken the whole house with an endless sequence of spluttering and coughing.

“Get him some water, Saru,” her mother would instruct her as she got her husband to sit up in their bed. Sarudzai would always be the first one at her parents door, while Tafadzwa and Rumbidzai, their faces burdened with the suddenness of fear-interrupted sleep, would peer worriedly along the corridor from their room.

“Be strong Saru,” her mother would further instruct her as she handed her the glass and pitcher of water. “Tafadzwa and Rumbi look up to you, remember. Don’t let them get panicked.”

Sarudzai had felt a deep resentment at her mother’s words. Why should she act normal when she realised that the situation was far from being that?

For almost a year, her father’s cough had roused the family from late-night sleep, like the howls of an evil phantom. The very first time, the spell lasted at least two hours with her father spitting out lurid mixtures of mucus and blood the colour of ruddy soil. Everyone, except her mother, was in anxious tears.

When Sarudzai suggested that they rush him to an emergency room, her mother agreed. But her father waved his hand in protest.

“No,” he said, hoarsely, in between more wheezing. “That will only kill me!”

Droplets of sweat had collected along his forehead and his breathing was hard, as though something within was trying to suffocate him.

Yet still, his protest had been resolute.

Benignly, Sarudzai’s mother had yielded, not once questioning that her husband might be delusional, and had told Sarudzai to get her sisters back to bed.

“Wipe those tears,” she had ordered. “Your sisters look up to you.”

And that was when the resentful feeling had first throbbed within her.

“She looks up to you too,” Robert had reasoned. “That’s why she needs to see you be strong. Without that, she will crumble.”

Robert always spoke his words with a certainty about them, never suggesting answers but making statements as inarguable facts.

Sarudzai felt instant relief at having confided in Robert. At first, she had kept quiet about her father’s coughing episodes. But after the fourth one, during which he had again refused to be seen by a doctor - and her mother told her to be strong because her sisters looked up to her - she had decided that she could no longer carry her burden in silence.

“Do you think…”

“No, Saru,” Robert said, intercepting her train of thought, “I know that’s why.”

She couldn’t tell him about her father’s belief that the persistent cough was in fact a curse put on him by a bitter former workmate, that his refusal to be seen by a doctor was born of his conviction that this workmate had hexed all of Harare’s doctors so that they would all give him poison instead of real medicine. She feared that that sort of information would chase Robert off, and instead kept it to herself.

Sarudzai longed to feel safe, to not have to hear her mother’s suppressed sobs through the thin walls almost every night as she stayed up to read her lecture notes and write her assignments.

She longed for her mother to stop believing her father’s imaginings and cease wasting money on visiting n’angas[2] and buying potions to protect him from the ‘evil wiles’ of his calculating former workmate.

Sarudzai longed for the madness and uncertainty to end.

And she could only finally cry in Robert’s arms, even if she didn’t tell him the full extent of her pain.

It was when she reached such points of weakness that Robert’s body pressing against hers felt like the strength that she required. Through some language that only their bodies understood, Robert was able to waft waves of pleasure from himself into her, slowly at first until finally, her whole body crackled with electric passion as he infused himself within her.

Only Robert understood. Only he had been inside of her, replacing her pain with pure pleasure.

Sometimes, she thought her mother could tell. Sarudzai was always home late on weekends when Robert would invite her to the room he rented in a large house in one of the low-density suburbs. She thought her mother could smell the release of love on her clothes, or see the glow radiating from her soul from having had Robert inside of her.

But if she could, she never said anything.

Instead, after formal greetings, Sarudzai would slip on her apron and set to work on preparing the evening meal in complete silence.

Saturday suppers was always set for four people, as her father was never home early, instead keeping late hours at the beer hall with his drinking buddies. Her mother had tried to tell him that it was not good for him to continue to drink with his cough as bad as it was.

But he had told her off.

“Hey, I told you that this cough will only go away once the herbs have cured me,” he would shout with his finger pointed and his eyes bulging and gawking at his wife. “Besides, that is what this spirit wants. It wants me to stop living my life and die!”

Sarudzai wondered why her mother accepted any of her father’s rantings. The story behind his cough was absurd, too unbelievable even for her youngest sister, she was sure.

More likely, the spell over him was a virus that Sarudzai’s father was trying to keep away from his wife.

But still, he claimed that Mataire, the man he had worked with during his time as a mechanic for a big motor repairs warehouse, had cast a spell on him for reporting Mataire to a supervisor for taking cuts from customers for certain jobs which he went on to conduct privately.

For this, Mataire had lost his job and had disappeared with a threat.

“This is not the last of me,” he had apparently warned Sarudzai’s father.

Why the effects of a spell would only manifest themselves three years later was unfathomable to Sarudzai. And why her father hadn’t blamed his own dismissal, a year after Mataire’s, on the same spell was not comprehensible.

Surely that would have made more sense than blaming him for a wicked cough so many years later – a cough that sapped so much of the meagre salary her mother made as a secretary.

But by now, she knew well that her mother would accept anything her father told her as fact. As a child, Sarudzai remembered her father berating her mother for being ugly, a bad wife, a whore, and many other things that Sarudzai could now not remember.

Once, her father told her mother that she was incompetent for not bearing him any sons. All the while, her mother agreed with his statements with the same acceptance that a child displays when told he is bad or naughty.

For this, Sarudzai didn’t love her father.

And she loved her mother a little less for not leaving him, for accepting his witchcraft stories and other nonsense, and expecting Sarudzai to be strong enough to tolerate it all, just like her.

“You are working hard Saru,” her mother would always say, attributing her daughter’s weekend lateness to excessive studying. “God will reward us with a first class degree here.”

It was times when her mother said things like that that Sarudzai was sure she knew the truth; that she had not been engrossed in schoolwork, but had instead been under a man moaning, heaving, loving.

Maybe, Sarudzai thought to herself, her mother only said such things to make her feel so guilty that she would repent from her ways.

But Robert had become such an immoveable part of her being that even the guilt she felt at having forbidden sex with him was laced with unbridled joy.

Robert was the man Sarudzai intended to marry. She envisioned no traditional marriage ceremony though, as she couldn’t bear the thought of her father receiving the fruits of Robert’s family’s labour on her behalf. She would only allow for the ceremony if it ended with exchanges of token gifts of little value – like clothes or accessories – but not if it entailed the expansive payment of money or livestock as bride price.

In her mind, she pictured a grand church wedding. The theme colour would be lilac and Tafadzwa would be her maid of honour. Her favourite uncle, Kuda, would give her away as hopefully by then, her father would be too frail from his cough to attend. Better still, she imagined he might be dead.

The couple would honeymoon at the Victoria Falls or in Cape Town, if they had saved enough money, and spend all day long naked alongside each other, unlike now when they had to steal such intimate moments together.

A baby would follow one or two years later; a boy with a fancy western name like Damian or Connor, who would be born at a private clinic in South Africa.

Sarudzai had never shared these fantasies with Robert because of the real possibility that they might never materialise.

She liked to think there was a 50-50 chance that she might win Robert over. But in reality, she knew she more likely held less than a quarter of a chance of tearing Robert’s affection from her best friend, Sandra.

Sandra had left for Britain two years before, with both Robert’s engagement ring on her ring finger and a feeling of apprehension about their future.

“What if he finds someone else while I am gone?” she asked Sarudzai in the honest way that she admitted all of her fears to her.

“Don’t be stupid,” Sarudzai remembered telling her. “That boy is crazy for you.”

The words brought a smile to Sandra’s face.

She steeled her resolve to go with the main reason being that she had to work to make as much money for their future as possible. Her aunt had found her a job in an old people’s home in Brighton and assured her that the money was far better for saving than the worthless Zimbabwe dollars that she was making as a general nurse at one of the government hospitals.

Robert had also urged her to go insisting that once he was done with his masters’ degree and able to look for a computer technology job abroad, he would follow. Alternatively, they had hoped that two years down the line, things in Zimbabwe would be much better and that Sandra would be able to return home.

To show his commitment to their relationship, Robert had used the few savings he had to buy Sandra a pure gold band that served as an engagement ring.

He would wait until they were reunited, as would she.

“Take care of Robert for me,” Sandra had asked of Sarudzai on the morning that she left, teary eyed and reluctant to leave the only world she knew.

“I will,” Sarudzai promised, hugging her friend close and letting her tears trickle down her cheeks and onto Sandra’s pink cotton shirt.

Sarudzai had never imagined, never wished to take care of Robert in the way that she now did.

In fact, for a very long time, she had drifted from her friendship with him, since Sandra, the cohesive factor between them, was no longer there.

An email and a text message here and there were their erratic form of communication.

Only when they met up at a braai, with Robert in the company of an attractive woman, did she realise that she had reneged on her promise to her friend to ‘take care of Robert’, words which really meant that she was supposed to monitor his activity for any irregularity.

Since Sandra had gone, Sarudzai has sent her reassuring reports that Robert was being a good boy, but had never verified these statements.

And now, before her was seeming evidence that Robert was acting on the contrary.

Upon noticing her, his first move was to take her aside and explain who the woman was. Before he had even spoken, the look of guilt on his face had warned her of the words that would proceed from his mouth.

“It’s been so long without her,” he explained. “I get lonely and I don’t know what to do.”

Sarudzai felt a righteous anger on behalf of a friend, and yet also an explicable pang of jealousy.

Why can’t you come to me instead?

The question swelled in her mind, but she didn’t give it voice.

Instead, she promised not to tell Sandra about the whole issue as long as he stopped the relationship.

Robert – his love for her best friend still evident even in the breathless way he said her name – promised to end the fling.

“Sandra deserves better than me,” he said. “But I love her so much.”

Another pang, this time of envy, stabbed at Sarudzai

“Let’s hang out on Saturday,” she heard her own voice speak up, sounding foreign and far too bold.

Later on, she reasoned that she had only offered her company in order to ensure that she could help keep Robert on the straight and narrow. But in the moment that she made the suggestion to him, she knew that she only did so to quell her own jealousy and tear Robert away from the mystery woman he had brought with him.

And that was how their own infidelity to Sandra began. Slowly at first, with hanging out and chatting about life. Until gradually, there were hugs, lingering touches, protracted glances and then at last, that invigorating kiss of their lips, throbbing with forbidden desire.

With an awkward feeling of guilt and satisfaction, Sarudzai had left Robert’s place. Yes she had betrayed her best friend’s trust, but at the same time, she had conquered Robert – a deeply handsome and charming young man any woman would be lucky to have look at her.

Soon after the incident, she found more and more untrue excuses to use to avoid Sandra. The internet was down hence her delay in responding to emails, and no, she never received her text messages.

With each lie, the rift in their communication widened.

The point was never to hurt Sandra, but to heal Sarudzai. At home, her life was careening out of control as her resentment towards her parents grew. Strength was the gospel her mother preached to her, and yet she had every reason to be weak, to hurt, to lay herself open and bare ready to receive an elixir to her pain.

To her, Robert was that remedy. As he pulsed inside of her, she felt light, released of her burdens; loved.

She knew that that love was already tainted by deception. And it did not need further harm caused by a baby forming as the forbidden fruit of a selfish love.

As she waited – days and weeks – for the relief of menstruation to begin its work within her womb, she considered the many repercussions of its failure to do so.

The shame of a mother deceived and a friend betrayed. The look of disappointment and distrust setting within her little sisters’ eyes. The thought of being as good a liar as her father. And even more painful, the thought of losing Robert’s affection.

She detested herself.

But still, something within her found a way to force her to continue on; to force her to make her mouth grind and swallow tasteless food; to force her voice to speak when it was required of her; to force her hand to write down notes during bland lectures; to force her nerve to harden in preparation for any eventuality.

Yet as she got the reassuring sign that nature had not in fact betrayed her, Sarudzai began to realise that this only marked the beginning of her preparation. There were many more hurts to be dealt with, many more questions to be answered, like the one the nameless voice had asked her in that toilet of filth and fear and false freedom.

Is this who you have become, Sarudzai?

[1] my child

[2] traditional healers

The Nameless Voice was written by Fungai Machirori.

Copyright Fungai Machirori 2009.

Fungai MachiroriWriting about myself.

What a deeply challenging task. When asked to go back in time and tell someone about me, I am never too sure where and when to begin. Should I start with my birth date – April 2, 1984 – or with the beginnings of my passion for writing – which emerged around the time I was 12? Should I tell you about all the frustrating challenges or just about the deeply fulfilling successes?

I am never too sure.

And so I make a calculated guess at what might be interesting for you to learn about me.

I distinctly remember how, as a young girl, I always seemed to have my head buried in a book. It was torture for my older sister as I always recited what I had read to her on our long morning walk to school. I little realised that that natural inclination towards books was grooming me towards creating my own worlds of poetry and prose.

Throughout school, I always did well in literature and won a few inter-schools prizes along the way. But at 19, out of school and trying to make sense of myself, I realised that the world of arching birches and gargling brooks bore no resemblance to my own lived existence. I realised that though my writing was eloquent, it was not true to me as a young Zimbabwean going through the political and financial turmoil that marked our nation’s entry into the new millennium.

So, I would say that my writing career truly began in 2003, when I let go of my false existence and embraced the contemplative, and at times morose and even comic, voice that I recognise as my own.

At 21, I was privileged to participate in the British Council ‘Crossing Borders’ project – a project which sought to link Zimbabwe’s creative writers with mentors from Britain. It was a great privilege for me to sit at the same table as Zimbabwe’s most acclaimed talents – who included Chris Mlalazi, Raisedon Baya, Masimba Biriwasha and Megan Allardice – and have my young voice be heard among theirs.

Simply put, my career has grown exponentially since then. In 2006, a short story I wrote placed second in the national Intwasa short story writing competition – a deeply exciting achievement for me. As a result, I had a short story published by amaBooks in the anthology ‘Long Time Coming: Short Writings from Zimbabwe’. My poetry has been published by the British Council, and I am currently working with three other Zimbabwean women to have an anthology of our poems published in 2010. Also, I am working on my first novel – which I hope to have published in 2010.

Besides being a creative writer, I am also a journalist and blogger with a special focus on HIV, AIDS and gender issues. Thus far, I have been recognised for an Africa-wide award for excellence in HIV and AIDS reporting by the African Network for Strategic Communication in Health and Development (AfriComNet). The prize, which I won as a wide-eyed 23-year-old has done a world of good for my confidence in my journalistic writing.

I am thankful to God, each day that I can see the potential in everything I happen upon to become a story, an article, a poem.

I know that I am on the right course with my life because each day is so full of ideas and alive with adventure.


Emmanuel Sigauke said...

Thanks for sharing this one, Fungai. Good beginning, that moment of fear and uncertainty...and how you made the ending a beginning as well; it's good in a short story to see that new possibilities have just been opened. I liked the Now-Past-Now structure, and I wanted to see more dramatization in some of the remembered scenes.

Myne Whitman said...

There was a lot of telling which made the reading drag for me but I love the underlying story and the imagery/style of writing..."It was when she reached such points of weakness that Robert’s body pressing against hers felt like the strength that she required. Through some language that only their bodies understood, Robert was able to waft waves of pleasure from himself into her, slowly at first until finally, her whole body crackled with electric passion as he infused himself within her. Only Robert understood. Only he had been inside of her, replacing her pain with pure pleasure."

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