A Short Story From Zimbabwe: "Eloquent Notes of Suicide" by Blessing Musariri
Wednesday, June 19, 2013
Hi everyone. I will be blogging for Blerdnation, that is, writing my own short essays on various topics, whilst posting and featuring other writers's (and artist's) works. My first post is a poignant short story from my home country, Zimbabwe, by the wonderful up and coming writer, Blessing Musariri. Blessing is currently putting the final touches on her first novel. She has published several poems and short stories in a number of anthologies and journals. I am grateful to have the opportunity to share her work. In the upcoming weeks I will be interviewing Blessing. So if the story provokes any intrigue that you'd like to share with the author, please pass along your questions to me and I will be sure to include them in my interview. Happy reading!
Eloquent Notes on a Suicide: Case of the Silent Girl
4 December 2005 – Chitungwiza General Hospital
Docket Number : CH2345-98
Deceased : Shoraya Mutema
Age : Sixteen years
Sex : Female
C.O.D : Drowning
T.O.D : Approx. 3 am.
Extenuating Circumstances: Analgesic overdose prior to drowning
Family : Father Trynos Mutema
Mother Bethsheba Mutema
Sister Anastacia Mutema
Investigating Officer : Inspector L. Chawabata
This last case left me deeply troubled. In thirty years on this nobly intentioned but often delinquent force I have seen a variety of misadventures and human frailty. I have been astounded, alarmed, amused, angry, highly entertained and yes, troubled, but never as profoundly as this. I am moved to keep my own record of proceedings and deliberations.
On the evening of ten May nineteen ninety-two, Shoraya Mutema accompanied her father, mother and sister to an evening church service. It was the seventh day of Advent, the second week of rains, which had come late and gave no assurance of remaining. The unspoken promise was of hard times to come.
Shoraya, always stood erect, and had received deportment badges at school year after year, not only for her tidy appearance, but for her collected demeanour. It was noted, with concern, by various of her teachers that, “Shoraya’s work is always tidy and well considered but she needs to improve her class participation.” No one at the school would ever be able to testify as to the sound of her voice, not even the choir master who I quote: “No punishment I meted out could ever get Shoraya to open her mouth and sing. She stood there and followed the words with her eyes but never sang. I noted my concern to the Head.” When asked, the Head said she had taken it up with the girl’s parents and they had simply said, “That’s just the way she is.”
I then asked the following questions: Does Shoraya suffer from a speech impediment? Was she born without speech? If not, did she speak as a child and if so, when did she stop and what caused this cessation?
There is no time in the police force to indulge in sedimentary curiosity over a cut and dried case but I took liberties with the time allotted to me for the completion of my duties. I took liberties with my own time often returning to the scene of the crime to further question those who would talk to me, those less troubled but more than curious. My own family is grown and gone and my wife knows I have no timetable. We have managed to grow old amiably together despite the occasional skirmish. It is lucky that we are two deliberate people more occupied with the lives of others than in the one we have shared for thirty-two years. We are two lines running smoothly together in the same direction, connected by the vertical adjuncts that compose our four children but never feeling the need ourselves, to connect. We are compatible in our shared acceptance of this fact.
From my notes: It’s a fairly old house in Mablereign. The yards are not so large that neighbours cannot be heard when they are sitting on their verandahs, or talking too loudly through open windows. The walls are not high and crime is an infrequent visitor. Bougainvillaea hedges are overbearing to their hosts and jacarandas dropped purple carpets inciting conjunctivitis; vintage cars are less for prestige than necessity. It’s that kind of place. A place where a girl like Shoraya could live her life undisturbed. In their Peugeot 405, the family came and went without remark except the one time, a neighbour confided, when they went to Kazaka – Shoraya’s father’s home, the time the neighbour’s stopped hearing Shoraya’s voice calling for her sister from the house, or for the ice-cream man to stop. She used to talk they told me, just as much as the younger one. She used to play and laugh.
“We used to ask her the time,” a young girl giggles. She wears the blue and white striped pinafore of their school uniform, “just to see if we could make her talk, but she’d just look at us and look away.” “Anna was always talking, in fact Anna is a chatterbox, which is why it’s so funny that Shoraya never said anything. We used to laugh and say that Anna had stolen Shoraya’s words, that she talked for both of them. But you know what’s really strange? I never once saw Anna talk to Shoraya. Waiting at the school gates to be picked up, if Shoraya saw their car first, no matter where Anna was, she would know it was time to go. No gesture, nothing. She would just know. And if Anna was the one who saw their car first, we’d just see Shoraya pick up her bag and walk to the gate before Anna could come and fetch her.” “She never smiled.”
It’s a school for children from middle-income families, run by a convent of sisters. The education here is good and the fees are reasonable. The children are very European in their speech and mannerisms but we are all to varying degrees, products of missionary education, the difference is in our upbringing and our perceived destinations. Mr Mutema is of the same missionary background as myself; boarding hostels with cold showers and stringent rules, a beans, sadza and cabbage diet, books and Bibles first, personal ambition inconceivable. We were one body united in the objective of pious study for the greater good of the spirit. You can see it in his bearing, the stiffness, the stoic acceptance of Divine Will, the adherence to Christian values that is imprinted on his conscience. Amai Mutema’s indoctrination was cut short. I see it in her tendency to beseech. She is not wholly invested in the omnipotence of the missionary God; before the frown appeared on her husband’s face, she spoke aloud to her ancestors to guide home the spirit of her child. She repented though and both returned to the distant horizon of bemused grief.
“Your children are not your children, they are the sons and daughters of life’s longing for itself. They come through you but are not from you, and though they are with you yet they belong not to you.” Indeed, not one of the prophets from the “good book” but wise words all the same. The Bible was more a tool of study for me, a rod with which to chastise those morally errant of us sadza and cabbage-eating hordes and yet, it lies in its own space in a drawer by my bedside, uncorrupted by any other belonging. It is the bastion of my being, the guardian of my trying soul and I read everything around it and leave it to infuse its wisdoms through divine osmosis. On the crossing over of the seventh into the eighth day of Advent, Shoraya Mutema locked herself in the family bathroom – an inauspicious space with missing tiles, a cracked toilet seat, and a perfectly preserved enamel bathtub – ran the water to a level sufficient to allow for eventual displacement caused by the weight of her body – her lack of class participation was no indication of a lack of intelligence – opened a brown bottle of generic painkiller, removed the cotton wool that kept the white tablets intact in their multitude and swallowed a handful one by one.
The neighbours are prone to gossip and this one wants to tell me a strange and mystical story about Kazaka. Her uncle’s daughter is married to a man who hails from those parts and she has told her a tale about a natural orchard of loquat trees in which a young girl went missing overnight. “If you ask the younger one, she will tell you, she was there, unless she doesn’t remember it. Perhaps she was too young then.” Anyhow, this young girl was picking loquats with her cousins and other village children when she wandered out of sight of her companions. When it was time to return home, the girl’s friends called out her name and she did not appear. They called out to no avail. In the end they recruited older relatives to join in the search and all night they thrashed around in the thicket, calling and calling.
An elderly aunt, unmoved by the proceedings, informed them all that it was not unheard of in this copse of trees, for a person to disappear only to return in time. She would be unharmed they were assured. “Things happen here,” she said, “everybody knows this. Pray all you want,” she told the father, whose rosary beads lay reassuringly around his neck, “but this place has its owners who know nothing of the stations of the crosses that you carry.” In the morning the girl returned, exhausted, voice hoarse, saying that she had been able to hear them calling her all night, that she had been calling back – how come they hadn’t heard her? The orchard wasn’t exceptionally large, a person could walk around it in less time than it took to plough one furrow of their largest field. How was it she could not find her way back out and how is it they could not find a way back to her. Everyone accepted then that indeed, things did happen, for which there was no immediate explanation.
Anastacia is fourteen years of age. Even now, subdued by the loss of her sibling, she rambles on. Shoraya talked to her – I must confess that all the evidence gathered up to that point indicated to me that Shoraya talked to no one. From what I heard all around me, I am left with the very firm impression that Shoraya somehow existed in this world, as part of it but seamlessly attuned to her own particular vibration; a smooth body of water gliding placidly along a river bed, no ripples appearing on the surface but moving along just the same, causing imperceptible changes in its environment as it goes along. Anastacia tells me Shoraya used to talk to her about munda weIdheni. “She said if Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, before their sin, had led the perfect life, then surely Heaven would be a no different place than that. Heaven is a perfect garden in which no one has picked the forbidden fruit and there is peace in the hearts of all who reside there. That’s where we go when we die.”
I ask her if Shoraya often talked about dying – at this point I have to accept the young girl’s claims that she and her sister held deep and meaningful conversations in the absence of all other ears. I am unwilling to believe that Anastacia also lives in a world entirely of her own creation. She appears perfectly normal, that is, if normal can ever be perfect; who judges and declares perfection? We as human beings are only capable of understanding the standards we set for ourselves and for each other and who is to say we are, any of us cognisant of exactitude? I digress.
At the Christian Centre, the counsellors tell me, with the aid of a leaflet, to reinforce our informal discussion that: a young person who is thinking about suicide might – talk about suicide or death in general; talk about “going away”; talk about feeling hopeless or feeling guilty and a host of other things, none of which even remotely seem to apply to Shoraya, but one has to establish certain things irrespective of one’s pre-drawn conclusions. No one noticed any change in Shoraya’s behaviour.
At mass, on the seventh day of Advent she was as immaculate as usual, in a pink floral smock blouse and a knee-length cotton skirt with a white lace frill along the hem. Her hair was tied down in tidy rows with black wool, she wore no earrings – her ears were not pierced – and on her feet she wore brown leather sandals that her father had bought on a recent trip to Johannesburg. “Did she seem more devout than usual? Deeper into prayer than normal?”
“Shoraya was a dutiful child. In church she knelt, rose and sat as always, she bowed her head and held her hands together as she always did. Shoraya wasn’t prone to sudden changes. Shoraya was as steady as air on a day without wind.” I am astounded that this steadiness did not seem to alarm anyone in Shoraya’s family, there is no one in this life who can appear so absent and still be considered present.
“That’s just the way she was,” her mother says. “But she wasn’t always like this. What happened to change her? What took away Shoraya’s voice?” Amai Mutema won’t speak of it. Holding onto her rosary she turns away to light the candle that is usually burning in the window when I visit the house. “There are many things we can’t control. We just have to trust in God. Only He knows.” God may know the answers but in the meantime I will search. I sense an abdication here, a refusal to be held accountable for the lives we have created for ourselves and continue to live long after it is proven to us that the formula has produced an unwanted result. I am not enamoured of this approach to life. There is enough we cannot change without giving up on the things in which we have been granted some authority. God knows, as the popular saying goes, my own children are nowhere near perfect – or what we have come to generally accept as perfect. My wife and I freely admit to their wilful indiscretions and credit their albeit, rather few collective achievements and I can say with some happy confidence that even if we didn’t always get it right, we never abdicated our positions, even accepting, as we can only accept what we have become comfortable believing, that our children are not our children, that they have been placed in our custody by an all-knowing God. I am inclined to ponder a spiritualist notion; I may be Catholic in belief but I am interdenominational in intellect: at some point in her destiny, Shoraya’s spirit came to a crossroads and the path she chose from then on, placed her in a waiting room, in which her physical presence merely became a vessel for transcendence to the next level. Yes, I am sometimes deep in this way. We are after all spiritual beings. If this is the case then there need not be any explanation that any of us is required to understand because these things are beyond our plain of existence. But even as I think this, I begin to wonder about more mortal causes. In many cases like this and particularly in my experience, a child becomes withdrawn when there is abuse in the family, but I am disinclined to believe this, for reasons I can no more put my finger on, than understand the person that was Shoraya Mutema.
Shoraya Mutema, as the seventh slipped into the eighth day of Advent, removed her clothes, placed them in the dirty clothes hamper and slipped into a bath of body temperature water. I cannot imagine that she would have wanted to punish herself with the gruelling adjustment required for settling into a cold bath. She strikes me as a sensible girl irrespective. In my mind I see her calmly sitting, waiting until the drowsiness gradually came over her, feeling nauseous from the tablets but ruthlessly controlling the urge to expel them – none of this struggle showing on her face. In my mind, she is serene as her eyes close and her slack body slides slowly under the water, until only the top of her head, lies dry and untouched – a fontanel to channel the spirit up and onwards. Shoraya Mutema seemed to have no regrets about leaving this world.
“Anastacia says she talked about Heaven and the Garden of Eden,” I tell her father. He is sitting, Bible in his lap, open at Psalms, he had been reading to his wife and daughter before I arrived: I know this psalm – “ ... I am worn out, Oh Lord; have pity on me! Give me strength; I am completely exhausted and my whole being is deeply troubled. How long, Oh Lord, will you wait to help me?” “Shoraya stopped speaking at the age of six. If Anastacia says they talked recently, she is mistaken. You must leave us alone now Inspector. Our daughter took her own life. There is no crime committed here other than that by her own hand. We must pray for her soul. Suicide is a mortal sin.”
“I would like to understand vaMutema, what it is that led such a quiet and unassuming girl to take her own life, surely you would like some answers.” He is right though, it is a clear cut case of suicide. What am I investigating at this point? “You are simply fascinated by the life Shoraya led. You want to understand her. You want her life to be about what you know. You think we did something to make her the way she is. Perhaps you have heard the rumour of the loquat orchard. You think that maybe she was bewitched or traumatised or a combination of the two.” When I look at Amai Mutema, I know that I am not alone in my assumptions but she is quick to conceal her momentary lapse. “You want Shoraya’s silence explained to your satisfaction – do you think that we never tried to understand it too? That we are so backward it did not trouble us? Some things just are the way they are and you must accept them.” I cannot accept this. The questions are like weeds in my garden of clear thoughts, they are hardy and persistent; popping up with every minute. Did Shoraya ever laugh? What did she enjoy doing? When she was at home where did she sit or lie down, what was her favourite place? Did she watch TV? Listen to the radio? Read? “Yes, she liked to read,” Anastacia tells me. “She liked to read the Bible and she liked to watch the news. When she wasn’t in the house, she liked to sit under the mango tree over there by the gate.” “Did she ever tell you what she was thinking about when she sat under the tree?” Anastacia is a neat child, as well presented as I imagine was Shoraya. Her hair is tied down to her head in neat rows wound through with black thread, she is wearing a floral blouse and a knee-length skirt with a lace ruffle along the hem, a pair of leather sandals that her father bought on a trip to Johannesburg and for a minute, I am very confused. I never met Shoraya but in this instant I imagine that she is standing in front of me. Have I become so obsessed that I am now seeing the dead girl in her sister? An idea I am trained to reject enters my mind and I decide to experiment. “Shoraya,” I say, “What do you want to tell me?”
5 December 2005 – Chitungwiza General Hospital
Bed Number : 2D
Deceased : Lovemore Chawabata
Age : Seventy-six years
Sex : Male
Occupation : Retired
C.O.D : Stroke
T.O.D : Approx. 3 am.
Extenuating Circumstances: Comatose on arrival. Never regained consciousness.
Next of kin : Maude Chawabata (wife)
Benhilda Muromba (daughter)
Aaron Chawabata (son)
Silas Chawabata (son)
Davison Chawabata (son)
Attending Physician Dr. Tapfuma Nesango.