The House of Discarded Dreams
Oh, how she wailed. The sky shuddered and storm clouds split open at her hoarse, inhuman cries. Munashe cringed at his mother’s unarticulated, bare suffering, at her voice rising higher and higher, lunging for heaven. He looked at blood that came out of her mouth and curdled on the earthen floors and rank pallet, black and granular like coffee grounds. He listened to the sound of her fingernails biting into the floor, dragging across it with the jerky movement of the dying.
He sat by her, trying not to be annoyed at her eyes, white with fear, swiveling in her hollow-cheeked face. He made nice, and brushed her long hair out of her face, stroked her cheek with filial attention.
“Let me go,” she pleaded in staccato gasps.
He tried to make his voice soothing, reassuring, as if talking to a child. “Where would you go, mother? You’re too weak to walk, and no village would take you.”
“I can’t, mother. You should be grateful that I am staying here with you.”
He sighed. “You should’ve thought about that before you went and turned into a lioness.”
She gasped and cried some more, and he could not help but laugh. The woman was deluded enough to think that she was still human. She tried to convince him, thrusting her dark, withered arms into his face. “Look at me. I am not a lion, I am your mother.” As if he couldn’t see the hungry beast looking out of her eyes, the red glow of its pupils burning hotter than the embers of the cooking fire. He heard from old men that women went wild, turned into beasts, and there was only one way of turning them back into humans.
He took a charred piece of impala meat from the coals, and offered it to his mother. “Will you eat now?”
She cried. “It is too hot, too black. I can’t eat this.”
He nodded to himself. She wanted raw meat, of course, like any lion would. He tried to do good by her, taming her with cooked meat, but so far she hadn’t taken any. And her time was running short. AIDS was killing her, and if she went as a lion, her afterlife would be bleak—if she would even have an afterlife.
He ate alone, in the retreating light of the fire. The darkness reached for him, spreading its hungry fingers like a wrathful spirit, its bottomless mouth opened wide to swallow him whole. His mother made no other sound but her labored breath, and the faint scratching of her fingernails on the floor. Like a beast, she wanted to crawl away, to find a secluded place in the savannah grass, where she would expire alone, lamented by wind, buried by ants, kissed by red dust. Fortunately, she was too weak to do so. He waited for the scratching to stop before he went to sleep, curled on the earthen floor of the grass hut. Far away, hyenas gloated. They knew that a lion would be dead soon.
When Munashe woke up, his mother was dead, her eyes opened wide but blind, her pallet stained with sweat and blood. Munashe grunted his discontent, and hurried toward the doorway of the hut. There, he stopped and clamped his hands over his mouth to hold back a wail of terror that swelled in his chest. Instead of the yellow, undulating expanse of the savannah, punctuated by lopsided umbrellas of acacias, a solid green wall of forest surrounded him. There were no lions or hyenas, but only colobus monkeys chattering up in the trees.
The monkeys saw him, and wrinkled their faces, baring tiny, needle-sharp teeth that curved inward. “Munashe,” they sang in nasty childish voices, “Munashe, mother-killer.”
Their taunt, as direct as it was cruel, brought him out of the daze. “No,” he yelled back. “It was not my fault. AIDS killed her, not I.”
One of the bigger monkeys swung on the bough and leapt from branch to branch, until its face was level with Munashe’s. The monkey’s breath smelled stale, and its inward-curving teeth glistened like small yellow fishhooks. “Really?” it hissed. “Did you take her to the doctor, did you make sure that she ate well? Did you care for her in her comfortable home, or did you drag her away from people, from help?”
“I was trying to help. She turned into a lion—she wouldn’t eat anything but raw meat.”
The monkey’s eyes gleamed; its terrible mouth opened wide, and the monkey cackled, the sound of its laughter like scratching of dead leaves. The monkey leapt and landed on Munashe’s shoulders. Before he could toss off the unwelcome rider, the monkey’s hind legs and long tail wrapped around his neck, and the sharp claws of its hands dug into tender cartilage of Munashe’s ears. “Run now, donkey boy, mother-killer!”
Munashe twisted and struggled to get out of the monkey’s hurtful grip, but it only laughed and tightened the chokehold of its tail, and wrenched his ears until they bled. Exhausted and terrified, Munashe ran, as the monkey steered him by the ears, deeper into the forest.
It was dark and stuffy under the canopy of the tall trees, and thorny lianas snagged the sleeves of his shirt and his trouser legs, ripping them, digging into his skin until he bled. His lungs expanded and fell, but sucking in the humid air was like trying to breathe underwater. His vision darkened and he took a faltering half-step, stumbling on the ropy roots, falling, anticipating the touch of soft ferns that lined the forest floor. A sharp tug on his ear made him cry out and right himself, picking up his step.
“You don’t get to rest, mother-killer,” the monkey screeched in his ear.
He ran until the air turned purple and then black, and strange noises filled the air. Something hooted, something chuckled, something else whined in a plaintive, undulating voice. Before the darkness swallowed him, he saw a single bright light beckoning him from behind the trees. The monkey made no objections as he directed his torn feet toward the light.
He came across a grass hut nestled between two strangler figs. The light he saw came from a small lantern perched atop the flat roof.
The monkey gave him a quick, vicious smack on the back of his head, and Munashe bent low, and hurried through the blanket-covered doorway.
“I brought him as you asked,” the monkey said, and leapt off his shoulders, to take place next to a military-style woodstove that filled the hut with unbearable heat.
In the glow of the embers, he saw a low cot, and an old, fat woman that reclined upon it. Her bare breasts glistened, framing her swollen abdomen, from which a belly button protruded like an upturned thumb. Her bright eyes held Munashe’s for a moment. “Well, well,” she said. “Looks like Tendai did a good job.” She gave the monkey a fond glance, and it hopped and chittered.
“Who are you, lady?” Munashe’s cracked and swollen lips moved painfully.
“I am Tapiwa,” she said. “You will serve me until your debt is paid.”
Munashe was about to protest, to say that it wasn’t his fault, but only sighed. The salt of his sweat burned like fire on his cracked lips. He felt certain that no matter what he said, he was already judged and found responsible for his mother’s demise. His only hope of returning home was to listen and to obey; perhaps then they would let him go. “How may I serve you?” His gaze wandered involuntarily to her elephantine thighs circled by rims of fat, and to the dark, curly vegetation of her pubic hair.
Tapiwa noticed the direction of his glance, and shook with a booming laugh. “Ah, not that way, boy. I have bad bedsores, and I need someone to take care of them. Tendai and Robert are not strong enough.”
“I’ll do whatever you need me to, lady. But can I have a drink of water?”
Tapiwa nodded. “You may drink and you may rest. Tomorrow morning, you start.”
The morning brought feeble light and the smell of dead embers and sweat, as Munashe started on his task. It took him a few tries to roll Tapiwa’s bulk to her side. Waves traveled under her skin with every move, and his fingers slipped on her smooth, damp skin. Two monkeys—Tendai and his brother Robert—watched from the perch atop the woodstove.
Munashe puffed, but finally Tapiwa was stable on her left side, her left breast flopping to the floor. Munashe looked at her back and gagged—where her skin should have been, there was nothing but an open sore, running from her shoulders to her backside. A white mass shimmered and moved inside the wound, filling it, spilling to the pallet with every breath Tapiwa took. Maggots.
“What are you waiting for, boy?” Tapiwa said. “Clean them up.”
Munashe extended his shaking hand to the living carpet of vermin, and a few maggots popped under his touch. Still, he gathered a handful, looking for a place to throw them.
“On the floor, on the floor,” Tapiwa said, impatient.
Tendai and Robert left their roost, and gathered the maggots with their long fingers, stuffing them in their mouths.
“You want to help me?” Munashe said.
The monkeys chattered and laughed, and shook their heads, their jaws moving energetically.
And so it went—Munashe scooped out the maggots by the handful, and the monkeys ate them, showing no signs of getting sated. Munashe kept his eyes half-closed, and breathed through his mouth; his mind wandered far away, back to his home village, to the fields worked by women and children, to the smells of manure and upturned soil, to the proud cassava mounds, surrounded by yam and cowpeas.