The House of Discarded Dreams
“I was sleeping,” Felix said and glared defensively, his eyes staring in opposite directions, giving him a simultaneously angry and confused look.
“They said it was too cold to go to New Jersey,” Vimbai said. “Maybe they decided to become undead to get us there.”
“A hell of a sacrifice,” Felix said. “But . . . you were in there.”
“And yet your soul did not leave you.”
“I know,” Vimbai said. A thought skimmed at the edge of her consciousness, too fast to grasp properly. “Say, do you know anything about man-fish? Njuzu?”
“No,” Felix said. “What’s that?”
“It’s a Zimbabwean urban legend,” Vimbai answered. “It’s a fish who swallows the souls of the drowned, and then it itself becomes sort of human. Like it can talk and stuff.”
“You thinking it might work with crabs?”
“I don’t know,” Vimbai said. “Only my grandmother was talking about man-fish, and then I dreamed that I was one. And then Maya’s pets are afraid of fish.”
“And then there’s the house that attracts ghosts.”
“And your hair.”
They sat a while, puzzling, unable to tease any sense from the conglomeration of occurrences and half-baked ideas. That was the trouble with the supernatural, Vimbai thought—you didn’t know what laws ruled it, and what was a coincidence and what was a sign and what was weird and what wasn’t. It was like a whodunit, only the clues refused to be arranged into any sort of hierarchy or a straight narrative, and most of the time it wasn’t even clear if they indeed were clues; a jigsaw puzzle where all the pieces were blank.
Felix’s mind was apparently on the same track. “It’s like life,” he said. “I just don’t know what matters and what doesn’t and what I should pay attention to. But these crabs, they were just creepy.”
“They are victims,” Vimbai said, although she was not so sure about the undead variety. “They . . . they are killed and bled half to death, and thrown back in the ocean. And it’s not just about them—so many birds feed on their eggs, and without feeding they cannot migrate. They would die without the crabs—these crabs carry so much on their backs.”
Felix nodded. “Is this why you’re studying them?”
“Uh-huh,” Vimbai said. “And because they are so ancient . . . and we can kill something so ancient, so irreplaceable. It’s just wrong, you know?”
“I didn’t see it as a moral issue.”
“All conservation is a moral issue,” Vimbai said, and thought of her grandmother downstairs. “Be it animals or people or cultures. Some things are just . . . unique, and if you lose them, you can never get them back.”
Felix touched his hair, cautiously. “I think this thing is unique.”
“Probably,” Vimbai agreed. “God, I hope so.”
“You want to look inside again?”
Vimbai shrugged. “Maybe. Why don’t you take Balshazaar out and ask him if he saw any crabs or if he knows anything?”
Felix slumped. “I knew he would tell you,” he said. “I shouldn’t have taken him out, only you have to understand. What, you think it’s easy living with this thing?”
“I don’t know,” Vimbai said. “What is it like, and where did it come from?”
“It was a long time ago, sister,” Felix said. “I don’t even know what I remember and what I imagined. Does it matter?”
“I don’t know. Listen, if you want to talk, maybe we should go for a walk or something. You can show me around.”
“I haven’t seen much myself,” Felix answered. “But there is a place that’s sort of nice. I’ll wait for you outside.”
Vimbai waited for the door to close behind Felix, and got dressed. She really needed to get some laundry done, and she quickly gave up on finding matching socks. One white and one striped, it didn’t matter. Thankfully, t-shirts and shorts were abundant.
Felix led her down the hallway and into a closet that abruptly transitioned into a view of a desert, with a lake in the middle of it. The sand surrounding it was red and dry like Kalahari, apparently unaware of the abundance of clear, cold water in its midst. The sun was getting warm, and Felix offered Vimbai a handkerchief to cover her hair; she accepted with a muttered thanks.
A couple of lawn chairs reclined by the bank, surrounded by a sparse growth of dried up grasses and papier-mâché trees, tall enough to reach Vimbai’s knee.
“Maya doesn’t come here,” Felix said. “There’s fish in this lake.”
“Take a seat and you’ll see.”
Vimbai did, and Felix took the other chair. They sat in silence, watching the smooth surface of the lake, gray and reflective like mercury, until there was a loud splash and a fish came bounding out of the water and into the air. It somersaulted and entered the water. Vimbai did not need a second look to confirm what she knew from the moment Felix mentioned Maya—it was a catfish, and a large one at that.
As they watched, the catfish stuck its flat head out of the water and gave them a narrow-eyed, jaundiced look. “You have a tasty soul,” it said to Vimbai, and leered.
Back in her room, Vimbai could not calm down her heart. She was too disturbed to be really embarrassed about running away from a fish, and only a small measure of her discomfort resulted from her recent show of cowardice. Not that Felix cared—he seemed to have fears of his own, fears of undead things that somehow crawled into his hair and separated their bodies from their mortality. That was enough to make anyone nervous.
They sat on Vimbai’s bed, like scared children, and occasionally one or the other would steal a quick look at the door, as if the catfish would somehow follow them here. It was silly, of course, Vimbai told herself, just like it was silly of her to shower with her eyes open for weeks after seeing a horror flick. But some things were just not subject to rational reasoning, and recently that particular mode of relating to the world had been taking one hit after another.
“We have to talk to Balshazaar,” Felix said. “I have to know what he’d seen. Only I don’t think I should take him out again.”
“Why not?” Vimbai breathed a nervous laugh. “He’ll fit right in with the psychic energy baby and the undead crabs.”
Felix winced. “Don’t remind me,” he said, and stood up.
Vimbai watched him pace from door to the window, until he noticed the phantom limb he’d given Vimbai the same day Peb joined them.
He smiled. “You still have this thing.”
“What else would I do with it?”
“Give it to Peb.”
“I like it,” Vimbai said. “ And Peb has plenty already. It seems so . . . delicate.” The limb indeed resembled a work of art with its translucent veins and milky nerves twisting below the glassy skin like tree branches.
“Take it with you when you go talk to Balshazaar,” Felix said. “If you convince him to come out, maybe he can use it to get around.”
Vimbai raised her eyebrows. “Somehow you bypassed the point where I agreed to look back there. Besides, you just said that it wasn’t a good idea to take him out.”
“I don’t know.” Felix stopped pacing, his eyes simultaneously expressing great consternation in opposite directions. “Maybe you could look inside and see if there are still any crabs left there. I’m afraid . . . afraid to put my hand in there.”
“So you want me to risk my face.”
“You at least can see.”
“What if it takes my soul?”
“It didn’t before.”
Vimbai thought that after jumping blind into a cold ocean she really ought to know better. Instead she sighed and carefully eased her head inside Felix’s hair.
Balshazaar was there, floating vaguely as was his wont. “Hello again,” he said.
“Balshazaar,” Vimbai said. “Have you seen any horseshoe crabs around?”
“Sure did.” Balshazaar bobbed, his chin pointing to his left.
It took Vimbai’s eyes a moment to get used to the dusk in Felix’s hair, and she saw several small translucent crabs that clung together in a tight cluster. The souls or lives or whatever it was they shed like old carapaces and left behind, just so they could take Vimbai back home. Acute pity made her catch her breath and whisper, “I’m sorry” to the crabs. They remained motionless, devoid of any spark that would indicate that they could hear and understand her.
“Balshazaar,” Vimbai continued. “Would you help us? There are things happening we don’t quite understand, and since you had a chance to observe the happenings here, perhaps you could explain them to us. Figure out what’s going on.”
“What’s in it for me?”
“A leg,” Vimbai said. “A phantom leg, but it is nonetheless functional.”