‘The Missing’

The following is an excerpt from the short story ‘The Missing’ by Isabella Matambanadzo, one of the 15 short stories in the anthology Writing Free, which was published in 2011 by Weaver Press.

Isabella Matambanadzo
Isabella Matambanadzo

The sound of metal rasping through rock filters into the murky end of my dream, nudging at scenes I cannot remember well. It’s a familiar dream. We are together, my grandmother and I.

Her bedroom provides the space. On her windowsill is a neatly drawn line of uneven jars, cloudy water filtering the late afternoon sun in a rainbow that inverts itself as I rock up and down on the soles of my feet. I stick out my tongue and see its pink reflection. Some of my friends at school have skin the same colour, though we never talk about it. The tip of my tongue swims through the rainbow, dissolving in the strips of yellow, blue, violet; swallowed by the green, orange and red. As the small waves of the water in the jar try to catch it, I pull it back sharply with a plop that sounds like a pebble falling into a stream.

So I think of my younger brother. I wonder where he is and if he made it through. The more I try not to think of these things, the more they snare on the edge of my mind. My brother is flicking stones into the puddles around my grandmother’s house, which formed after a storm, like tiny oceans protecting an island.

He’s a cheeky boy, my brother, and my grandmother will smack his bottom with a switch from a peach tree. Once because he broke one of her windows playing cricket with a length of driftwood. He was talking to himself, providing a running commentary on his game and batting rather high against the heavy green mangoes that hung low.

‘This is the very best cricket we have seen from Viv Richards,’ he said in his best West Indian accent, stepping into her special trees. ‘It looks as if he’s going to break all the world records.’ My brother paced out the length of the pitch reaching for the juiciest fruit. He did not see her turn the corner.

This bit is not in my dream. I promise you it’s real life. My brother howled and tried to punch her as he’d seen men do on television when we watched wrestling matches. But my grandmother just laughed and held him at a distance with her long arms. His yelping stopped almost as soon as he’d started, distracted by the multiple legs of a zongororo.

The water from my grandmother’s well is very hard, so it never quite dampens your thirst. I’m not allowed to play near the well. She has put a small fence around it just to make sure. She tells me that the river brings water to her well. We argue about this because I know the river does not have legs. She thinks I’m foolish, my grandmother, telling me that the river in which we swim brings water to her well. I know better.

In my dream, my grandmother’s glass jars are filled with leaves from her most beloved flowers. Half full if you put the plant in. Half empty if you pick it up. She does not grow plants from seeds, my grandmother.

The grown-ups call her Granny Green Fingers and are forever bringing her stalks to plant in her jars for them. As I go about the garden with her she will lean and snip at a bush here, or reach up and nip at a shrub there. She knows how to make a clean cut just at the groove, where leaves and branches will sprout. The tender shoots bud quickly, growing roots in spindly tentacles. When it comes to planting, she lets me do it because she says I also have green fingers. I think she is silly because my fingers are brown and become even more so with the mud, especially when I squish the roots into her evenly laid out flower-beds, as neat and tidy as her bedroom. It’s hard for me to do this planting business: the roots have lots of little hairs that want to go their own way when I want them to go down, down, down.

To the right of her wooden dresser is a collection of black and white photographs, an archive of her life. My favourite one has her standing at my grandfather’s shoulder, looking right into the camera. She’s wearing a two-piece suit inspired by the trends set by the wife of a far-away president. I giggle when my stubby fingers stain the glass, transforming the pattern on her suit into a mosaic. She’s a very serene woman, my grandmother, but I will only learn what that word means when I’m big.

Sekuru is more brutish, yet in a delicate way. Big people’s words, but I hear them: ‘Serene. Brutish,’ so I have made them mine now. I adore how they come out of my mouth with so much character. Sometimes, when my brother won’t play with me because I refuse to be his bowler, I just play with S. ‘Sssssserene. Brutisshhhhh’ my granite pebble chalks them into the sand. I never play with the B. It does not feel right.

He sits. There, my brutish, delicate Sekuru, in the place traced by my chubby forefinger. He’s starched stiff. Age has made his suit chocolate brown rather than the inky black it was in real life. He strikes a pose of the era in ramrod, upright fashion, his back away from the comfort of the wooden armchair, and he dangles his felt hat below his knee. It’s as if he is about to take off on a long journey. His eyes show this intent: he has said his bureaucratic farewells. In my dream, it must be the school holidays, because I’m not wearing my royal blue pinafore with the white lace trim and my feet can enjoy how the sun, a little exhausted from warming the concrete in my grandmother’s bedroom, ends the day.

And that is where the fogginess comes in. Where I start to see my grandmother walking alone down an aisle. But our church is not designed that way, with austere tradition and regiment, so I do not understand where she is. Still dreaming, she appears as a youngish bride, but one with a silver crown of hair twinkling between grey and black patches, betraying the need for a touch-up with dye. It is her only act of vanity, colouring her hair a very jet black once a month. That, and perhaps if you consider it carefully, her ever-so-fastidious nature.

The scraping of metal becomes a thud, as a forklift crunches earth and moves rubble aside. ‘Can you hear them?’ I ask my husband.

‘Mmmmm.’ He turns over, still holding my thumb with his hand. He’s always been like that, sleeping with his hand in mine. ‘Do you think we should get up?’ I ask. ‘Maybe later,’ he mumbles through an exaggerated snore designed to keep me quiet.

That’s his way. In the years we’ve been together I’ve found him a quiet man, who loves tranquility. It was not a quality that first attracted me to him. I misread it for a kind of forlorn dejectedness. The error was mine, but it cost us several years together, while I avoided being with him. But now I know, he is a calming, resolute person, whose feet make the slightest whisper as he walks about the house. I remember asking him once to sing, so that I would know when he was about to arrive.

He did not say no but he found another way to announce himself, by gently playing with the keys that always have their home in his pocket; or humming, just under his breath, a tune from his childhood. Those who knew him then say he used to strum songs on a home-made guitar.

He made the lead in a rag-tag boy band group growing up. It’s something I miss, the chime of his keys in his trouser pocket and his gentle baritone coming from somewhere light within him.

My thoughts have taken me far away. It is the silence that brings me back and the smell of very milky tea leaving a plastic thermos for an enamel cup. ‘How many do you think we’ll find today?’ asks a voice, between slurps.

‘I don’t know. I’ve stopped counting,’ another familiar voice replies.

‘But you kept count?’

‘Yes, when I thought we would find them. Now, I take it day by day.’

He rubs his stomach, which eases his worry a little. ‘Day by day,’ he says, getting up.

‘We’ll find them, Paidamoyo.’

His voice has changed with maturity and I do not recognise it. To me his name, Paidamoyo, is just a coincidence.

About the author:

Ms Isabella Matambanadzo is a Zimbabwean Feminist. Born on June 5th, 1973, she was raised with a deep awareness of her country’s struggles for liberation, emancipation and self-determination, which has influenced her life’s path.

Her love for the arts won her a prestigious and competitive Reuters Foundation scholarship to study Journalism, Literature and Theatre Studies at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa. Rhodes is ranked among Africa’s top 10 Universities, and is especially recognized for its focus on the liberal and creative arts. In addition to working on the campus newspaper, serving on the founding team of the Cue TV, the Grahamstown Arts Festival Television channel, and broadcasting on the campus radio station RMR, she supported herself by working as a waitress and reading audio books at a centre for the blind. She graduated with triple majors, Summa cum Laude, and achieved Dean’s List recognition and Academic Colours in 1999.

Isabella enjoys reading, writing, painting, gardening and making jewelry.

Post published in: Arts

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