I have been waking up at 3:15 am every day for the last five days, and each time my eyes open, I see her. I lie on my back and stare at the ceiling in the dark. I feel her glare, following me as I toss and turn. There is barking and growling outside my window, I think they are dogs but I could be wrong. She does not move but stares at me. She looks exactly the same as she did that day back in 2002. It has been over 17 years since she died but I can still hear her singing on our way to the river like it was yesterday. I have told Mama about how she has beenvisitingme, wearing the same clothes as that day, staring at me the same way she did as she took her last breath on that day, but I do not tell her the last part. Mama tells me it is because I miss her and she recalls how close and inseparable we were, but I remember it differently.
I get up, put my bedside slippers, a gift from Aunt Saru. I turn on my bedside lamp and I see her standing in front of me. I no longer freeze in terror when I see her. We have become acquainted again, we do not talk but our silence speaks volumes. I check the clock on my wall, 3:17 am, 3 more minutes until she leaves. I look at my phone but I do not take it. The first time she visited me, I tried to use my phone to call but before I could dial, I could not move and words would not escape my mouth. It happened again the following day when I tried to use it as a torch, I guess this is her way of telling me she needs my undivided attention. She was like that, self-centred and commanded attention in every room she walked into. I shuffle to the door and pat my way in the dark to turn on the light as I head to the kitchen.
It is too late for wine and too early for coffee so I put the kettle on and open the cupboard for a teabag. There is no barking or growling. I take milk out of the refrigerator and open the bottle. I pour the last of the milk in my mug, hot water, a dash of honey then I put the teabag. The hairs at the back of my neck stand and that is how I know she has joined me in the kitchen. She always takes longer to make her way downstairs. I think she will be giving herself a tour, taking a glimpse of what her life mighthave been like if she were still alive. I drag my feet to my kitchen bin and throw away the teabag. I sit on the kitchen chair and she sits opposite me. Her pale grey skin makes her look ghostly, but again, she is. I smile at her but she vehemently stares back at me, she does not smile or flinch, just a straight line that is neither a smile or a frown. That was how her lips looked too on the day she died.
My cousin Rukudzo and I were born a few months apart, and our mothers always bought us matching clothes. People used to think we were twins even though they would say she was prettier and lighter than I was. She had big upturned eyes, a carefully carved wide nose, full lips and smooth skin. I, on the other hand, did not possess these qualities. Even though my mother told me I was beautiful the way I was, I was always theother.Every school holiday, my parents, my older sister Sarudzai, named after Rukudzo’s mother, and I would head down to Chivhu, Njanja where we would spend the holiday. There, we would meet Aunt Saru, Uncle Taku, Rukudzo and her little brother Kupakwashe. Gogo and Sekuru always enjoyed having us over, but I never enjoyed it. My grandparents always marvelled at how Rukudzo was already able to cook a big pot of sadza, enough for 8 people at the age of 10. She would wash our grandparents’ clothes at the river and was able to balance a 7.5-litre clay pot on her head. No one would pay attention to how I had come first in my class or how I was reading at Grade 7 level even though I was in Grade 5. No one even acknowledged I was almost as tall as Sarudzai, who was 4 years older than me.
It was the last Sunday of the holiday. I remember it distinctively because we had come from church and Gogo had instructed Sarudzai to kill a chicken for dinner. The last Sunday was the only time my grandmother would have a chicken killed for food. She kept them for selling and to pay debts when push came to shove. Sekuru had given me his pair of trousers, shirt and socks which he had worn for church and had asked me to wash them for him before we left.
” I would love it if you washed these for me muzukuru.”, he said as his adam’s apple bobbed up and down his wrinkled throat. ” You are a big girl now and I know you will manage these.”, he said handing me the clothes. I loved how he saw me and acknowledged me. He could have asked Sarudzai or Rukudzo, but he asked me and that made me happy. I took the metal bucket which had accumulated a little rust, a small piece of Elangeni soap and made my way to the river which was not far from the house. I walked past Sarudzai and Kupa who were chasing the chicken around the yard to no avail. I remember laughing at Kupa who was running towards the kitchen when the chicken ended up chasing him.
” Wait!”, I heard Rukudzo shout behind me. I ignored her and increased my pace. ” I know you can hear me. Wait!.”, she continued. I stopped in my track and waited for her to catch up. I had wanted to go alone so I could make Sekuru proud and show everyone that I could also wash as good as Rukudzo, if not better. She caught up and stood next to me catching her breath. The red pendant on her necklace had moved to the back, she repositioned it and grinned at me.
” Ko why did you ignore me? Did you not hear me calling you?”
” No.”, I lied.
” Oh, inga. Maybe there is something wrong with your hearing because I was shouting loud enough for the village to hear.”
” Well, maybe it wasn’t as loud as you thought.”
” Anyway, where are you going? You know we are not allowed to go down to the river without an adult accompanying us.”, she remarked, sizing me up and down. I was an inch taller than she and I knew it gnarled her that I was better than her at something.
” Sekuru said I was big enough to go by myself and wash his clothes.”, I said standing up taller, rubbing my stature in her face.
” Kunyepa,sekuru would never say that. You are lying. I will go and ask him.”, she said threatening to run back home and ask.
” Go ask him.”, I replied as I walked to the river with the bucket under my arm. I did not hear any footsteps fading or approaching me, so I knew she was standing digesting my words.
I was hoping she would go back home and leave me alone but a moment later, I heard her walking behind me, singing to herself. She had the most beautiful voice I had ever heard, but I would never tell her that. Her head would grow too big and she would tell it to everyone who would listen. I ignored her and quickened my steps, but she picked my pace, she was so close I could feel her breath when she sang. As I made my way to theruvarewhere we washed our clothes, Rukudzo snatched the bucket out of my hands. I tried to chase her but she was too quick for me and theruvarewas slippery.
” Give me back my bucket Rukudzo!”, I shouted as tears itched my eyes. ” Come back and give it back, now!”
” Oh don’t be a cry baby. I am actually saving you. I don’t want you to embarrass yourselfapa.”, she retorted taking out the clothes from the bucket.
” Rukudzo give it back or I will beat you up.”. I had never fought a day in my life, except playing the slap game with Sarudzai which I never won at but that day I was willing to defend my honour.
” Eheeeeeeede, you beat me?”, she cackled and clapped her hands 3 times. She narrowed her eyes and looked at me as I stood a short distance from her. ” Try me. Let us see if you will be able to talk when I finish with you.”, she said taking off her shoes and tucking her yellow dress into her knickers. I was taller but not stronger, and seeing how I was never going to overpower her, I used the resources around me.
” Come and beat me.”, I said holding a huge rock in my hand. If push came to shove, I was prepared.
” Zigwara, you are such a coward. We both know I am better than you. Even your own sister said it too. You can’t even defend yourself but need something else to defend you.”, she retorted.
” You are lying, Sarudzai would never say that.”
” Oh really, so how do I know you don’t know how to was your own knickers yet? Huh, how would I know that?”, she said laughing louder than her cackle. That set me off, Sarudzai knew I was having a hard time washing my whites and she knew I was getting better. I ran towards Rukudzo not paying attention to the slippery rock and stood in front of her. Her toes were touching my shoes and I could feel her warm breath enveloping my nose.
” What?”, she said pushing me hard with her finger but I did not budge.
” Give me the bucket.”, I said standing my ground. I could feel my eyes itching but I was not going to let her use my tears against me.
” Take it, but rest assured you will have to go past me.”, she said blocking me from the bucket. I leaned forward to grab the bucket and before I could grab the handle, a sharp pain spread on my cheek. I retreated my hand and held my cheek as Rukudzo pushed me and slapped my head. The tinnitus that followed confused me I could not make sense of what was happening. By the time I came to my senses, Rukudzo had started washing Sekuru’s clothes. I stood up and walked towards her, she had her back at me and was humming to herself. The nerve of her turning her back and not being afraid of what I could have done to her annoyed me. Did she not think I was threatening enough?
” Rukudzo.”, I said poking her shoulder. Seeing that I had been defeated, trying to fight her would end with me limping home so I opted for a civil approach. She stood up and as she was turning to face me, she slipped and fell into the river. She was on the shallow end and she tried to grab on to the rocks which were too slippery. She called out my name and I rushed to the river bank. She grappled with the strong currents that were threatening to sweep her away. I held out my hand and when she was about to get a hold of it, I hesitated and pulled my hand back. She screamed my name and called for help as the water overpowered her. I stared at her as she wrestled with it. I waited for her to fight the water the same way she wanted to fight me. She had told me last holiday that she could swim, so I left her to her own devices.
She stared at me, the same stare she gives me when her visit. She gave in to the current and was swept away before I could reach out to grab her hand. I ran to the house, shouting and screaming for help. It had just dawned on me what had happened, Rukudzo could not swim. Uncle Taku and my father ran towards me as I shouted for help. They came running towards me but I could not speak but only managed to point in the direction of the river. They ran towards the river and seeing how I kept looking to the east where the river flowed, Sekuru ran in that direction. By the time they found her, she was already dead and her stomach was bloated, full of water. When they brought her home, Sekuru could not let me and Kupa near her, but I saw a glimpse of her face. Her blank stare pierced through my eyes and I have lived with that image for over 17 years. Even after we moved to London, I could still see her face when I closed my eyes but it had begun to fade with every new face I saw every day. I guess her visiting me every day at 3:15 am, is a way of not wanting me to forget her.
I sip on my tea and stare at the clock. 3:21 am. She is gone. I rinse my cup and carefully place it on the rack. I survey the kitchen to see if she is still around but I am reassured of her absents by the flat hairs at the back of my neck. I make my way upstairs and get into my bed. I coil up, make myself comfortable and close my eyes, certain that tomorrow at 3:15 am, Rukudzo will pay me another visit.