Any moment can change your life in ways you would never have anticipated. For me, it was the time I went to the rivermen. I’d gone to rid myself of my “illness,” that hefty sack of burdens that was about to sink me to the depth of despair forever. The visit to the river had done more than that and perhaps nothing at all. It’s a struggle for me even now to decide which it had done.
I didn’t wait too long in the queue before it was my turn. Two men led me into the water, their white trousers rolled up at the bottom. They delivered me to a shirtless man in his forties with a soft belly, and when I was within his reach, he extended his large hands and took my head into his calloused palms, engulfing it, fingertips digging deep into my temples. I feared my head would be squeezed into a pulp any minute, my brain matter splattered across the water’s surface culminating in a sordid headline: Rivermen cleanse the head off a woman. I guess the whole cleansing business doesn’t include a moment for customers to question their life choices because my face is pushed towards the water before I can say anything and I am staring into my large mocha brown eyes, my lips pulled into a muddy brown thin line across my cheeks, pieces of my face swaying gently on the water skin. The sudden rush of blood to my head relaxes my mouth, “Wait!”
I didn’t want to lose myself to the water, swallowed whole and hidden in its riverbed for eternity, a feast for underwater creatures. But above me calfskin drums crack open to the rhythm of palms beating against their membrane. I surrender my screams to the wind, a shriek piercing the sky, my hopes and desires bundled—freedom to live on my own terms delivered from the shackles of my “illness.” One more push and my head smashes the water skin as I plunge into a new life, my eyes ajar. His hands don’t relax, only tightening their grip and keeping my head down until my lungs are emptied of any reserve of air. I slap the water’s skin in protest, in a bid to escape his grip, but my hands are dragged down as if I’ve been swaddled by a water blanket. Slowly my power leaks into the river, head light as a balloon bobbing up and down to the motion of waves.
I’m fished out just as I’m about to pass out and in that split second a zillion golden lights burst before my eyes as they rush towards me. I blink and they are gone just as quickly as they appeared. A gust of cold air shakes me awake and stings my eyes; my nose is jam-packed with remnants of the river and water fills my ears.
A naked chest dusted with curls bends over me dripping with water. The oil he’s probably slathered on this morning glistens like a river skin under a mid-day sun. Next to him are two sets of bare feet, white trousers rolled up at the bottom and dripping water onto the reed mat. I cough up water and Mother appears above me, her brow furrowed, black liner-rimmed eyes wide.
She looks across to the riverman bent above me. “Is she healed?”
He snorts. “No demon can survive the cleansing power of this river.”
A smile cracks the worry from her lips, and she nods too eagerly; it gives me a slight headache. One of the standing rivermen holds my other arm to help me up as the one who was bending over me dusts off soil particles from his trousers.
“Such a shame having a gorgeous girl possessed,” he says as I rise to my feet.
I turn my gaze to him in time to catch his white teeth gleaming against his plump lips, his eyes running the length of my body. I shiver. He makes me want to sprint back home and hide under duvets where I’m untouchable, unseeable by his eyes. I tsk loudly instead, scrunching my lips in disgust. He sheepishly moves away from me to stand next to Mother and the other two rivermen who are now discussing payment.
Father approaches me with a blanket, and I let him wrap it around me. He hesitates for a second before patting my shoulder. I release a tiny sigh when my body relaxes, assuaging my fears that after this afternoon’s revelation I wouldn’t be able to stand him.
“Let’s get back to the car,” he says.
A few more people waiting to be cleansed sit on the rocks overlooking the river in clusters, some of them stealing glances at me. I suppose they expect to find an angelic halo hovering over my head. The sky is powdered amber with blushes of pink, the sun burning orange flames as it sinks into the horizon.
Father waits a few paces from the car as I change into dry clothes with Mother’s help. She’s even brought a flask of tea to help chase away the cold. She’d planned this trip all along. On the way home, Father watches me through the rear-view mirror, but he doesn’t ask if I’m okay.
You must be wondering why I would put myself through the dangers of a river cleansing and I totally get it—I mean if not for the events of that early afternoon, I would never have found myself miles away from the city in that backwater wooded area.
But the day had lured me to that very moment from the time I’d opened my eyes. I’d woken up to the shattering of a water glass or coffee mug, and the whimpering of a wounded animal that could have only come from Father in retaliation to Mother’s barbed words or the shock of shattered glass. Father ought to be accustomed to Mother’s dramatic outbursts—she either drops a glass or rips fabric from an innocent curtain within her reach, but she hadn’t done either for months now.
I’d tiptoed to the corridor leading to the kitchen and waited with bated breath. I should stew in the fires of despair because I totally live to witness the drama that is my parents’ marriage, and this is what I’ve learnt: carnivores ought not to marry omnivores. Their instincts are galaxies apart and time and time again Father is grazing, oblivious to the dangers concealed in dry savannah grass, but today it seems Father has pounced first if ever a gazelle can pounce on a leopard.
His voice is steady as if he wasn’t just whimpering seconds before. “No way you’re taking her to the rivermen,” he says.
“She’s my daughter too!”
“The doctor says she’s better now.”
“If she is better now, why do we keep her locked away here then? Why don’t you take her out. See the family, huh?”
There is no reply for a stretch of silence; then flip-flops squish against the floor. Silence again.
“Fine. I’ll call my brother.”
“Tsk. Put it on loudspeaker.”
The ringing echoes before Uncle is speaking. Father tells him we want to visit this morning, him, me, and my mum.
Uncle’s breath hitches, then he exhales. “You caught us at a bad time. We’re all down with diarrhea.”
Father parrots out the whole customary “get better soon” message. After that, Uncle starts to talk about football, but the line disconnects.
“Imagine that. The entire family out with the runs just to avoid your daughter.” Mother echoes my sentiments as if she snatched the words right from under my thoughts.
“She’s still not going to the rivermen.”
The door slams.
A few minutes later, Mother announces we are to visit her sister, Auntie Bee. It all seems innocent and wholesale—an afternoon spent with family, but I begin to question Mother’s intention when we are standing on Auntie Bee’s front veranda.
Auntie Bee’s nose and mouth scrunch up as if she’s swallowed bitter grapefruit, her petite frame partially blocking the doorway. Above her head my eyes land on the green landscape watercolour I painted for her years ago sandwiched between a family portrait and a random close-up shot of three giraffes. A gentle breeze rustles the leaves of the nearby cluster of msasa trees, landing a cooling touch on my heated cheeks. Waves of nausea hit me, and I swallow the bile-tasting contents clawing their way up from the back of my throat. I hate this side effect from my new medication but at least it keeps my “illness” away by knocking me out at night.
I swallow sputum to restrain my stomach from regurgitating remnants of my breakfast oatmeal back up my throat. My mind rushes to our forest green jeep parked a few meters away where my mint sweets are stashed in the glove compartment. I point my shaved head towards the jeep in hopes that Father will understand and take me there.
We start moving back before Mother says, “stay where you are.”
Auntie Bee throws my mother dagger eyes, the battle raging across her rouged cheeks. She isn’t allowed to turn away family per our Shona custom but then there is the issue with my “illness.” Auntie Bee eventually holds out her door for us to enter. We shuffle past her, and Mother leads us to the dining room before Auntie can say a word.
The temperature hikes up as we enter, all eyes glued on me. I hesitate to take a seat until Auntie gets in and directs me to one. Father sits next to me and Mother pushes in next to her sister. The little girl across me widens her mouth in a toothy grin, despite the heat now sizzling in the air. The boy next to her who is about twelve directs her attention back to her plate. The twin boys next to my mother stare at me, mouths agape. They must be about seven now. The last I saw them they were still toddlers.
“Mama, can I leave the table now?” one of the twins asks.
“Finish your food first,” Auntie replies.
The other twin keeps his eyes trained on me. “What if she hurts us?”
Auntie Bee keeps stabbing cubed carrots with her fork and crushing them with her molars while mother helps herself to the cottage pie. I am focused on my bowl of sour porridge which is stabilizing my stomach.
“But you said she’s crazy,” the other twin retorts.
Auntie contorts her mouth and eyes into a grotesque rendition of a tormented ghost before she shouts, “Get out!”
When the boys make no move to leave, she bangs her fist against the table rattling the plates and toppling two water glasses. “I said now!”
The two boys scurry out at the speed of cockroaches escaping an attack. Mother searches for Father’s gaze and gives a triumphant smirk. Suddenly the appetite I’d conjured vanishes.
Father’s head is bowed over his plate, and he is taking tiny mouthfuls of the cottage pie, his shoulders slumped over. Everything is fine, is what I wish to say to him, to rescue him from the clutches of guilt, but then I spot Auntie’s oldest, Peter, watching me. Pity, fresh and thick, is pasted all over his button nose and cheeks as if it were peanut butter on a thin slice of bread. It kills the uncomfortable smile manufacturing itself under my skin. There is something else brewing across his visage, something fainter but I recognize it anyway—the aura of a timid rabbit faced with a feral cat. A part of me denies the kaleidoscope of memories that rushes through my mind: me and him at the funfair, in their sitting room watching Barney and friends. I babysat him the most when he was a toddler because Auntie and Uncle were caught in the eye of their love storm, entangled always and unable to part and Auntie’s stepdaughter insisted she had studying sleepovers or all-night prayer sessions when she’d be out with her boyfriend.
When I meet Peter’s gaze, his mouth stretches into a crooked smile, and he hurriedly passes me the green beans. Remnants of something else dance in his doe eyes but he turns away from me before I guess what lies beyond them. I watch him hoist the toddler and walk out breaking little bits and pieces of my hopes as he disappears. I am not sure why his leaving causes my heart to palpitate; I mean it’s not like people haven’t been leaving me since I got ill. First it was my two “friends”; they couldn’t take the stress, you see. Then it was my older brother—he wouldn’t bring his children around to the house anymore, it wasn’t safe, and then later he was too busy until the back of his head began to fade even in my memories. At least he Facetimes Mother every month and asks her to pass his love to me. I don’t know whether he doesn’t know I like my love fresh and delivered direct, not some second-hand love passed down from one mouth to my ear. Father won’t talk to him.
Father nudges me. Eat, he mouths. I am vaguely aware of my hand picking up my spoon and taking a mouthful of the sour porridge, now flavoured like boiled water. Father starts a conversation about some company he believes will see massive growth in the upcoming year—perhaps Auntie could invest in their stocks?
“I could introduce you to my stockbroker.”
Auntie holds her fork in mid-air, her head tilted to the side.
“John could help her with that,” Mother says.
Auntie’s fork clangs against the table and she claps her hands. “Great! First you bring your sick daughter unannounced now you have the nerve to bring John into this.”
“Sorry, I didn’t think –” father begins.
“That’s the problem with you—you never think!”
Mother has a smirk on her face, her arms folded in front of her. She only moves when Auntie Bee grabs father’s plate.
“I was still eating,” Father says.
Auntie Bee keeps grabbing more plates, immune to Father’s plea. When she grabs mine, Father starts rumbling on about the impressive strides I’ve made with my treatment, but Auntie walks out in the middle of his explanation.
“No one cares,” Mother says before following Auntie Bee to the kitchen, a tray in tow.
My mind is scrambling to piece every detail together. Scraps of whispers between Mother and Father from three months ago filter in about Uncle John’s extra-marital affair which has seen him move out of the house, leaving Auntie to fend for herself and my cousins. The sound of plates crashing interrupts my thoughts.
“How could you?”
“What do you mean?”
“You know she’s sick and I’ve little children around the house.”
“Don’t be dramatic. It’s not like she eats children.”
More banging and crashing. “Do you intend to break my dinner plates?”
“She’s on good meds now. Nothing to worry about.”
“And my husband—why did you’ve to bring him up?”
“You call that two-timing excuse of a man your husband?”
“Tsk! Didn’t your husband cheat on you when Jessica first got ill?”
My head snaps so that I’m facing Father. He winces. My gaze searches his. He averts his eyes and keeps them glued on the maroon tablecloth, squashing any hope that Auntie was lying to get back at Mother.
I am processing my emotions when a high-pitched laugh scatters the silence. I think both Mother and Auntie Bee have forgotten her walls are porous. Me and Auntie’s stepdaughter discovered this as early as our teen years right after Aunt and Uncle’s marriage. Back then we were first woken up by the squeaking of their bed, and the wisps of moaning trickling into the room we shared each time I came over for the holidays.
Father shifts in his chair. “Come on, let’s go outside?”
“No. I’m fine where I am.”
It’s rare for Auntie Bee to unwrap her fake polite words. I’ve heard her console mother on the phone with sugared words, “She’ll get well soon. You’ll see.” During the five years of my “illness,” it’s been Auntie Bee’s solidarity echoed through Mother’s loudspeaker programmed phone that has comforted me, too.
“Quit parading your marriage as some sort of paragon of virtue.”
“Ha! As if I do. You’re just jealous of what I have.”
“Right. Does he even know you took your daughter to your crazy healer up in the mountains?”
My shoulders tense, and my gut muscles clench. When I look over at Father his eyebrows are lifted, and he bores his large coffee brown eyes into mine. His nostrils are flared, and the tip of his lip is raised, making his moustache bend.
“I think we should go outside,” I say.
I do my best to move as quickly as I can but not before Auntie Bee adds, “and those creepy, hairy root-like herbs swimming in dirt water. Did you get her to drink that?”
Outside the dining room Father grabs my arm. “What was that all about?”
I had gone with Mother to her mountain healer a few times behind Father’s back. Not a big deal. About a year ago, Mother was fading away as if she would dissolve at any time, her whole routine jam-packed with actions dedicated to me and my “illness.” It scared me to imagine I would drive her to an early grave. Going to her healers had seemed a small price to pay.
I snatch my arm from Father’s hold. “You are one to speak.”
I turn and continue walking towards the sitting room. Father cheated on Mother because of me, and it makes me angry. No, not angry but disappointed, or maybe it’s something I can’t yet pinpoint. Whatever it is I’m feeling, a huge part me is disappointed in myself for getting sick—maybe if I hadn’t fallen ill Father wouldn’t have…
When we enter the sitting room, the house is silent, as if it’s swallowing the noise from my five cousins and from the kitchen. I fall into an amber-coloured sofa while Father busies himself opening the curtains to let the light in. My “hallucinations,” as the doctor calls them, have never shown up in the light so I’m safe during the day and in well-lit rooms at night.
Father puts on a cooking show. My back eases into the soft padding of the sofa and fatigue washes through my body; my eyes begin to flutter. A heavy weight descends on my shoulders, and I flick my eyes open to see who it is. Father is on his sofa, but I spot dark fumes oozing from the corner nearest his sofa. I squeeze my eyes shut and count to ten. They don’t visit during the day; I chant to myself then open my eyes again. Father is laughing at something on the television. My shoulders weaken as a firm grip settles against them. The dark fumes snake their way from the top corner to the bottom and then I watch horrified as the shadow rebuilds itself on the golden-brown wood tiles. I open my mouth to scream for Father to help me. Everything is a blur thereafter. When I come to, I am wrapped in mother’s arms sobbing. My heart squeezes.
If they can find me in the light, then I’m doomed. “Take me to the river.”
“Are you able to stand?” Mother asks.
My head must have nodded because Mother helps me up and we walk slowly outside. Father is already in the driver’s seat running the car. Auntie Bee doesn’t see us out and she doesn’t wave us goodbye like she’d normally done before the “illness.”
Mother sits with me in the backseat, cradling me in the crook of her arms. I watch as trees, houses, and pedestrians move past us, suspended in a bubble of our own. Like the world can’t see us and we are no longer in the world, and it makes me feel like a helium balloon floating towards the clouds. The sky is blue, and down Leopold Takawira Street jacaranda trees form a purple archway and the thickest canopy of blossoms. It’s as if we are cocooned in purple bliss. Multitudes of purple petals litter the side of the tarmac. As we continue our drive towards the central business district, we zoom past vendors with Pepsi carts and flamboyant umbrellas to protect themselves against October’s heat. An ice cream man in blue uniform peddles his cart towards another clad in red who is selling icicle pops to a cluster of school children. I curl up, my head resting against the window, and chew on a mint sweet and Father drives and drives. He drives past the last turn off we should take to go back home, past posters about all night prayers, past signal lights, past vendors selling at the robots and past stores crammed with mannequins in colourful outfits and the constant traffic of passers-by until I realize we are going somewhere I’ve never been.
“Are we going to the river?”
Father looks at me through the rear-view mirror. “Why? Do you want to go home, instead?”
The river will fix me, this is my hope but my heart sinks at the prospect of being dunked in some murky river.
“No. Drive on.”
Mother draws me further into her embrace until I smell the peach flavoured fabric softener she uses on her clothes, until the freshness of her hopes fills my nostrils.
Folds of sky unravel until we take a turn from the main road onto a thin sleeve of tarmac, its edges frayed. We stop after a large mnondo tree from where a long queue snakes its way on the dirt path, behind massive balancing rocks presumably leading to the river. Cicadas chirp a million calls to mate, and I wish the females would pitch up just to shut the mating crazed insects. I remain seated as Mother and Father make their way to the queue and after some time I must have dozed off. When they wake me up later, my back is covered in sweat but thankfully the queue has shrunk. I stand away from the person ahead of me who equally cowers away from me. I guess you wouldn’t want to exchange demons or strange illnesses in such a place although we are going to be plunged in the same water. When it’s my turn Father walks back to the car and Mother stands by the riverbank, watching me.
When we get home from the river, I take out the canvas and acrylic paints Father bought me two years back. Under my palm skin, blood rushes to my fingertips. I paint as if in a daze, only coming to once my canvas is populated by a group of rivermen, all in white trousers, bare chests gleaming in the moonlight and an empty river, the water flowing overtop them, covering the sky. Father takes a shine to the painting and takes it into his office. My first commissions come from his work associates and clients.
Each night, when I close my eyes to sleep the river washes over me submerging me whole underneath its layers, its arms wound around me. There I spy vibrant images floating about in the water. The next day, I paint them out of my system, the energy oozing out from the tips of my fingers.
My collection, Rivermen, is popular. I’ve been commissioned several times to paint rivermen-inspired pieces. The rivermen have permitted me to watch them work as inspiration for my paintings. Low and behold, Auntie Bee has asked me help Peter with his art. He now wants to be a painter, you see, and I’ve decided to be the bigger person. Auntie Bee sits in on our lessons, pretending to enjoy them. The temptation to scream or blubber incoherent gibberish itches at my throat but I hold it in for Mother’s sake more than anything. Her cheeks have plumped out and I’ve caught her laughing with Father on several occasions. I’m getting used to the sound of laughter bouncing around our house and the pitter-patter of my niece and nephew. My brother allows them to visit now.
It’s seeing them playing peekaboo with Father that did it for me, locked my secret deep inside my mouth. I’m not completely healed, and I take the doctors’ meds. Sometimes, the dark fumes grab hold of my feet and pull me towards them. I don’t fight them and neither do I scream. I shut my eyes and count to ten backwards and ninety-nine percent of the times it works. The other times, I scream in silence.