The House of Discarded Dreams

Page 12


Among all the strange occurrences of the past weeks, the fact that the cold-blooded crabs were able to react with such speed and determination bothered Vimbai most of all. She wanted to pull away, to break the surface and to not have to see this, but her grandmother’s quiet attention held her, their eyes—Vimbai’s and vadzimu’s—riveted to the creatures. They varied in size, from the tiny ones as small as a quarter to the adults as big as a dinner plate, and yet all of them moved together, the living carpet of them swarming onto the surface of the sand, their mouth parts open in plea or hunger. As Vimbai pulled away, the wave of crabs heaved after her; as she moved closer to them, they retreated but never far away.
“Why are they doing it?” Vimbai whispered.
“It’s like that story I told you,” the vadzimu answered. “Weren’t you listening?” Her tone was impatient now, stern—just like she used to be in life, the kind of woman who would take her own daughter to be carved up by razorblades—but always for her own good.
Vimbai frowned. “What does the story have to do with horseshoe crabs?”
Grandmother heaved a sigh. “The tortoise,” she explained slowly, patiently, as one would to a dim a child, “did not want the moon. But the oceans followed him nonetheless, as they always follow the moon.”
“I dreamt about it,” Vimbai interjected. “Seas following the tortoise.”
“He did not want it, did not ask for it—and yet. He drank the moon, and the moon in his belly was bigger than he, and it commanded the ocean whether the tortoise liked it or not.”
Vimbai considered she might have drunk that was so compelling to the crabs, and gave up. It wasn’t her first beer in the house and it wasn’t the tears she cried in secret, letting them soak into her pillow, her hair, her eyelashes. But there was something inside of her that made her find the house and bring her dead grandmother along, something that made her want to study horseshoe crabs—and now, apparently gave her a power of command over them. They were not as cute as Maya’s half-foxes, but they were Vimbai’s—at least, they seemed to think so.
When she opened her mouth, the salt water flooded it, numbing her tongue and pounding her teeth with its frozen hammer. Her face did not feel a thing, and she wondered idly how was she able to hold her breath for so long. Nonetheless, she managed to ask, “What do you want with me?”
The crabs answered in a quiet rustling of their legs and mouth parts, in the sad stares of their tiny eyes, We want you to take care of us, and let us take care of you. And this is how Vimbai found herself in possession of a horseshoe crab army.
Vimbai remembered the time when she was little, before the horseshoe crabs and her anxiety about Africana Studies. Back then, she considered New Jersey prosaic and hardly the place where one could hope to grow up while having important experiences. She listened to her parents as they spoke after dinner; when they talked to each other they did it in Shona. Back then, Vimbai did not concern herself with questions why it was so, but now she understood—even though both were taught English from an early age, Shona was a way to set themselves apart, to reaffirm that they were of the same cloth as each other, set against the rest of their surroundings. Later, Vimbai thought it an unnecessary affectation, and forgot most of what little language she knew back then. She did not realize the need to set herself apart—in fact, her childhood was dominated by the opposite impulse, to be one of many.
Her color did not help matters—even though they lived just a few miles away from Atlantic City, their particular town was white; they were the only black family on the block. And no matter how much one tried, there were things that simply could not be hidden.
Afterwards, as an adolescent burdened with an unfair amount of social conscience, Vimbai went through a brief but histrionic stage of embracing her heritage—she reasoned that if one could not blend in, it was better to exaggerate the difference. It brought about a brief resurgence in her interest in Shona and African lit, as well as the love of ‘ethnic’ fashions. Out of these, the latter lasted the shortest—all it took was one eye roll from Vimbai’s mother to plant the seed of doubt. Nonetheless, it was during this time that Vimbai visited Harare and met her extended family on her maternal side.
Harare shocked her by its hasty urbanity—it felt like a city that was created too quickly, without giving a chance to people or the land to adjust to its presence. The tall skyscrapers that wouldn’t be out of place in Philadelphia or New York City jutted out of red soil, as if plopped down by some magic tornado. The houses pushed upward among trees; her mother said that they were called jacaranda trees, and that when they all bloomed, Harare was the most beautiful city on earth. They went to African Unity Square, and Vimbai gawped at the flower market that shone with so many colors—several of them not found on the spectrum, Vimbai was pretty sure.
Much later, when Vimbai was eighteen, she watched her mother cry when she read in the newspapers that the flower market was destroyed at Mugabe’s orders. She felt like crying too, but was too busy drawing a firm line between herself and Africana Studies and everything they entailed—even the flower markets in her mother’s home city. Now she understood the deep hurt of that destruction, the most basic betrayal of one’s childhood love. It was not just about the flowers; it was never just about anything. It was always about what one knew to be true about the world when one was a child, and the death of that knowledge.
Chapter 6
“We have to get back to New Jersey,” Maya said one morning, the ruddy fur carpet stretched by her feet across pale linoleum tiles. “We’re almost out of coffee, and the milk is going bad.”
Vimbai peered into Maya’s cup, the murky coffee in it studded with pellets of milk coagulated in an unpleasant fashion. “Ew.” The question of return had been on her mind, even though she tried not to think about her classes and her mother, insane with grief—the moment she did, her stomach felt sick.
“Exactly.” Maya made a face and took a cautious sip.
“I suppose I could ask my horseshoe crabs to tow us back,” Vimbai said.
Maya smiled. “So they are your horseshoe crabs now, huh? Do they have little harnesses?”
“No,” Vimbai answered and drank her coffee black. “But I guess we’ll need to give them something to grab on. They have to walk on the bottom—they are not great swimmers.”
“Why couldn’t you befriend dolphins?” Felix said.
Maya laughed, eyeing her half-foxes, half-possums tenderly. “Yeah. Mammals are smarter.”
Vimbai shrugged. “I don’t care. I like crabs. And they are the ones that can take us home, so be nice.”
“Are you sure that they can?” Felix said.
Vimbai wasn’t. “Pretty sure,” she said out loud.
After breakfast of dry pancakes (they were low on syrup too), Vimbai went to talk to the crabs. Her grandmother came along, quiet and helpful as usual. She helped Vimbai see and helped her talk, and the words that bubbled out of Vimbai’s mouth underwater were both of theirs. Moreover, Vimbai had noticed an increased frequency of dreams about Harare—especially the vegetable garden in her grandmother’s backyard—to the point where she suspected that the ghost’s memories were leaking in and coloring Vimbai’s own. Or maybe the proximity of the ancestral spirit reminded her. Oh, jacaranda trees in bloom, Vimbai sighed underwater. Oh, horseshoe crabs. Will you take us home, to the sand bars and beaches of New Jersey, where you come every spring to spawn and dance through the tides on your little segmented legs?
It’s not yet spring, they answered. It is cold and we will die if we leave the safety of our deep sleep.
Vimbai nodded, her hair floating in front of her face and crosshatching her vision like a mosquito net. Or a fisherman’s one—she shuddered when she remembered the quartered corpses of horseshoe crabs sold as bait in every bait shop. They were good to put in eel traps, they said. No wonder they didn’t want to go back without great necessity. “Do you know of anyone who can help us?” she said. “If we don’t get home, we will die.”
The crabs consulted among themselves, their whispers audible only to ghost ears. Finally, they said, Go back go back home. We will help you—just hang some ropes for us and don’t look into the water until you get back home. And promise, promise to protect us from death if we come with you.
“I’ll try,” Vimbai said. “But how can I protect you?”
The vadzimu pulled her out of the water. “It is simple business, sahwira,” she said. “Just don’t let them die.”
Vimbai had spent this morning braiding ropes that would be long enough to reach the bottom—she denuded the closet in her room of its vines, leathery and tough, and she twisted them together into long strands. She found supple branches in the young forest that had sprung where the attic door used to be, and she peeled off their bark. She teased apart the vascular bundles and twined them around the vines to give them enough strength to move the entire house.
She attached the ropes she made to the steel bolts in the porch, and hung them into the water.