The daughter of the basket weaver

baobobs_in_heavenAnother story my grandmother told that has stayed with me for a long time is the story of the Daughter.

As Ambuya sat there in the usual spot in the hut, I imagined that this daughter was a girl who bore nothing profound in her appearance. That there were girls more beautiful than her in the Village. That the only unique quality she had was the sullen clarity that I could only liken to the aloofness of a giraffe. Ambuya also spoke of the father of the Daughter. Her voice would swoon and dive as she relayed this liquid tale:

She was the daughter of the Basket Weaver. Her father was a joyous man, he sat in his compound daily, surrounded by reeds of all sorts. He knew reeds well. His basketry was known throughout the plateau. People came from other villages to have him make baskets, and mats for them. He always had visitors because of his love for conversation. This meant his two wives were always busy preparing beer and food. She pauses and the tale forms behind her eyes as though from memory.

He would sit with visitors and listen as they spoke. Strange tales had made him wiser. Through weaving he understood the intricacy of life. In the pots of water which he dipped his reeds to weave, he had watched the years accumulate on his reflection. Each year left a new crease as it passed by. He could have sat with the elders at the gatherings in the Village, but he chose to sit on his goat-skin mat and smoke his pipe. We sat quietly waiting for this tale to sprout tender roots in our minds. There were six or seven of us, young and sleepy. Jeremiah was sitting next to me.

His daughter was young. She was his favorite. The Daughters story became a well known memory of the Village. She had been sent to go and get water from the river by her mother. The sun was going down, when she arrived. The lake was very still and dark, it almost seemed one could walk on it. She left the clay pots by the banks and waded into the lake.

Then it called her out farther. She knew that sometimes impish spirits call you out to your demise so she did not go. She also knew that if she drowned, no one was allowed to cry for her, because then the Water Spirit would not return her. The Daughters thoughts took her back to all the things her father had told her all about the Village, this place that had been his home. The Village in all its beauty and grandeur along with its disfigurement and malformations. They guarded their ugliness with insidious ferocity and only proclaimed the winsome face.

A jolt by the water snapped her out of her senses. She was in the middle of the lake and was unsure how she got there. The still water of the lake had carried her there. Her heart beat at her chest as she looked at the shore of the lake. It was far off, longing for her return. The sun was much closer to the horizon. She thought of her father. Drowning was not as she had imagined it would be. The surface of the lake was as red as the clay used to cover the skin of brides on their wedding day. The world had never been more quiet. The lake had been waiting for her. So she was taken. We sigh at the loss of the girl. The flames of the fire in the hut writhe a little slower and the younger children stare in disbelief at the death that happened so early in the tale. Grandmother continues,

She did not disappear, she only died. Her screams and fears were numbed as she sank deeper. You cannot take your fears with you when you are taken by the water. There is no use for them in that world. It was not the njuzus the Water Spirits will that those who drowned came to her, it was just the way things had always been since the Breath had walked over the water. So the Water Spirit welcomed her.

The light of dusk negotiated its transition with the harbingers of night. The end of the day and that of her life had come to an agreement to meet over these waters on this day and hold hands for a while. Her lungs began to burn. Liquid orange flames burst forth from her lips. As she cried her tears were black and thick. They hung, oddly in the water. She felt her veins and ears begin to throb. Her heart swelled and pounded monstrously. Then there was pain like none she had ever known. She thought her veins were being ripped out of her arms and legs and her heart was coming up through her throat. With her eyes screwed shut she heard the sound of snapping, then felt immense warmth. The Daughter knew that she had died.

The Water Spirit she spoke to the Daughter.

You did not disappear, she said without sound, you only died.

The water undressed her. It did this so kindly it made her smile. Bangles and amulets followed. But her waist beads remained. You are still a daughter, said the Spirit again without sound.

These were to be her last words for the many years the Daughter spent with her. As the Spirit turned and moved away, the Daughter noticed that she too, among the many amulets and talismans around her waist, wore the customary beads of a daughter. This gave the Daughter comfort. She liberated the rest of her anxiety and followed the Spirit into the dark water.

This was not the end of the tale, but it was time to surrender our restlessness to the night. So we shuffled out into the compound heading for our various rooms. Jeremiah and I left our footprints in the dust as we walked quietly.

Baobabs in Heaven is Zimbabwean author Tawanda Chabikwas first novel. The Zimbabwean is publishing a series of excerpts from this fine work, with the compliments of the author, who is based in the US. The novel follows a man of three Africas: rural, urban and mythological, and has been acclaimed by critics as a very brave book.

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