The House of Discarded Dreams
It was difficult to avoid the temptation to look, but she resisted. The crabs asked her for a reason, and Vimbai knew enough fairy tales where a violation of explicit prohibition spelled an immediate and cruel disaster—all her sources agreed on that, European and African both. She just had to make do, and simply imagine the solemn crabs grabbing her ropes, clustering on them, their weak legs digging into the wavy sand studded with shells, and pulling, pulling with all their might. Or perhaps they could secretly swim, and no one ever knew about that—perhaps this is why they told her not to look. She imagined them, floating in the thickness of water, suspended like trilobites in amber, graceful as falling leaves.
She thought bitterly that those who featured in those cautionary fairytales had no graduate schools to apply to—if Vimbai could document such an interesting behavior as swimming, her application would be a snap. Then it occurred to her that the ability to talk was even stranger.
This collision of worldviews—one that allowed for talking horseshoe crabs and one that hinged on graduate school applications—made her breath catch in her throat, bowled her over, brought her to her knees, and she clutched her head in her hands. Ever since she had moved into the house in the dunes (which was now not quite the same house in the ocean), her mind, quite unbeknownst to her, had labored at keeping these two worldviews coexisting but never quite encountering each other. Now, accidentally, the two were brought together by the crabs, and Vimbai rocked back and forth on her knees, her head between her sweaty palms, and struggled to gather her thoughts. What am I doing here, she said to herself. Stupid Felix with his black hole coif and his pet desiccated head, stupid Peb, stupid half-foxes that weren’t even all that cute. Stupid Vimbai for playing along with this nonsense rather than packing up and going back home; her mother would’ve been so happy. She wouldn’t even bug Vimbai about staying out late.
Not that Vimbai had much of a social life, but she occasionally stayed late at her study group, and sometimes they went out for a pizza. No matter how sophisticated and urbane, Vimbai’s mother had a real hang-up about Vimbai staying out after dark.
She had understood it better in Harare, where her grandmother explained to her that decent girls did not stay out late.
“Why not?” Vimbai had said, in a voice that made her mother frown dangerously. She did not approve of Vimbai mouthing off to her elders.
“Because you know what happens with young men and women after dark,” grandmother said.
Vimbai laughed. “What? Sex? It happens during the day too, you know. People might stay out late not having sex, or have sex at 9 a.m.”
“That’s enough out of you,” her mother interrupted, and dragged Vimbai out of grandmother’s house by her arm, to go meet the family of her aunt twice removed.
Now she understood what clinging to habit, to tradition, because sometimes tradition was the only thing that kept one sane.
The house started moving again the very next night. They couldn’t feel it at first, since for a change they all gathered together downstairs to watch the TV tuned to some foggy ghost channel—it showed nothing but snow-covered mountains and two women talking to each other on their cell phones; Vimbai found the women strange, since, despite the split screen, they appeared to be in the same room. Vimbai shifted in her chair and shot Maya a restless look. Maya smiled lazily back and whistled at the half-possums at her feet.
“Not hunting tonight?” Vimbai asked.
Maya shook her head. “Tired. And what’s the matter with you? You hardly ever went . . . well, anywhere!”
“The house has mutated,” Vimbai parried. “How do you know it’s not dangerous?”
“I don’t.” Maya shrugged and stared at the TV screen again. “It probably is. But it is certainly more interesting than this.”
“Yeah,” Felix agreed from the couch, where he lay framed by the ghostly shapes of Vimbai’s grandmother and the Psychic Energy Baby. “The TV here sucks. I wish the phone worked instead.”
“It’s the middle of nowhere,” Vimbai said as mildly as she could. “But don’t worry, the crabs said they will get us back to New Jersey.”
“About time,” Maya said. “Are we moving yet?”
Vimbai looked out of the window, and at first she thought that the house remained as it was—there was nothing but water and star-studded sky wherever she looked. But soon she noticed a small wave rising where the porch met the water. She rushed over to the window on the opposite side of the room, and had to clear away a thin, disconcerting layer of fresh meat that had grown over the windowpane just recently. She saw a luminescent wake, and cheered. “We are moving,” she said to the questioning gazes of her roommates and ghosts.
And so they were. Vimbai tracked their progress by the rotation of the alien stars overhead, waiting for the familiar clangy shape of the Big Dipper to swim into her view. As the house traversed the waters, Vimbai found herself in little need of sleep, and she stayed up until morning, looking from one window or another, and feeling like a mariner and the discoverer of the world.
Her grandmother sat next to Vimbai, silent, but Vimbai knew that the vadzimu did not share her fascination with explorers and pioneers, discoverers and seafarers. They were trouble, they only brought bitterness with them, and they took away and even when they gave back it was not the same. They spoiled everything they touched.
Vimbai’s grandmother was not nearly as politically aware as Vimbai’s mother, or even Vimbai herself—she had seemed preoccupied with her vegetable garden and her family, and politics and history were dwarfed by these concerns, existing only as distant and vague hurts, a persistent feeling that things were worse than they could’ve been, and the blame was easy to find. Grandmother grew up in Rhodesia, and she never went to school because the black people were not allowed to. The occasionally heard claims that the English brought education to Zimbabwe sounded hollow to Vimbai because of her.
“Grandmother,” Vimbai said, and tore her gaze from the darkened window. “How did you find us? Why did you come with me instead of staying with mom?”
The ghost’s eyes clouded for a moment, by memory or regret. “Past speaks to the future,” she said. “The present is already crumbling.”
Vimbai’s heart fluttered in her throat as she pictured her mother—her parents, both of them, still young and beautiful—getting older and smaller and more fragile, birdlike, and finally shrinking away to nothing, falling apart like a handful of ash. She shook her head, no, it cannot be like that.
“And you called me,” grandmother said. “Your mother never did, but you called to me, through your anger, through your contempt.”
“I never . . . ” Vimbai started.
Peb floated up to the window and peered along with Vimbai for a short while; then it went to the vadzimu and nestled on her back, like an ugly festooned hump. When Vimbai looked at him and all his absorbed phantom limbs, she thought of the exotic fish that decorated themselves with fins and outgrowths until they resembled a piece of coral or an algal bed.
“Maybe I’ll do better with you than I did with your mother,” grandmother said.
“You didn’t do badly with her,” Vimbai said. Really, she didn’t—it was not her fault, she did as she was taught, she meant as well as the parents all over the world do.
“She left home.”
Vimbai smiled at that. She could not leave home, at least not now—the home was spacious but surrounded by a flat watery expanse that offered little in escape possibilities. Even with the horseshoe crabs in her command, Vimbai would not dare to dream of escaping. Then again, she did not really want to. “I won’t leave. Your other daughters did not leave. Why aren’t you home, with their children?”
“They have the whole clan. You have no one. No ancestor spirits to protect and guide you, to connect you to the creator.”
“I appreciate that,” Vimbai said. “And mom would too . . . if she knew, I mean.”
Grandmother nodded, consoled or just playing along. “What are you thinking about, varoora?”
Vimbai looked around to make sure that neither Felix nor Maya was within earshot. When she was content that there was no chance of being overheard, she moved her head close to the ghost’s. “Love,” she said. “Being in love, I mean.”
Boys—or, she supposed, in her age bracket they should be properly called young men or guys—were a minor puzzlement in Vimbai’s life, and one more point of tension between her and her mother. Vimbai’s mother was downright schizophrenic when it came to Vimbai’s dating life—she warned her away from staying out late and spending too much time gawping at men, and yet she worried that Vimbai didn’t.
Vimbai remembered going to the prom—just two years ago—and she remembered the dress she wore—a bright yellow silk sheath, golden even, the perfect color of the noon sun. She still kept it, in vain hopes for some occasion to wear it again. She did not remember the boy who took her to the prom. She remembered her parents being happy that she came home early but then whispering in the kitchen.