Everything always begins with a farewell. This story begins with an ending: the end of my adolescence. At the age of fifteen, traveling in a little boat, I left my village and my past behind. However, something told me that farther ahead I would reencounter the rancors of old. The dugout was taking me away from Nkokolani but bringing my dead nearer to me.
We had been heading upstream from Nkokolani for two days in the direction of Mandhlakazi, the place the Portuguese call Manjacaze. We were traveling with my brother Mwanatu in the bow, and my old father at the stern. Along with us were Sergeant Germano de Melo and his Italian friend Bianca Vanzini.
Our oars struck the water without respite. And they did so because of an urgent need: We were taking Germano de Melo to the only hospital in the whole of Gaza. The sergeant had seen his hands smashed to pieces in an accident for which I was responsible. I had fired at him to save Mwanatu, who was at the head of a mob preparing to attack the military outpost defended by the solitary Germano.
It was vital that we should reach Mandhlakazi, where there was the only doctor working in our whole nation, the missionary Georges Liengme. The Swiss Protestants had been careful in their choice of location for a hospital: next to the emperor Ngungunyane’s court and far from the Portuguese authorities.
Remorse weighed heavily upon me for the entire journey. The shot had smashed the Portuguese man’s hands and rendered them largely useless, the same hands that I had helped resuscitate so many times from the fits of delirium that had beset him. Those masculine fingers that I had dreamt of so often had all but disappeared.
For the whole journey, I sat with my feet submerged in the bloodstained water of the dugout’s bilge. It is said we can die from loss of blood. It is the opposite. We die by drowning in it.
* * *
Our craft advanced slowly and silently, sluggish as a crocodile. The waters of the Inharrime were so still that for a moment it seemed as if the river itself were floating, rather than the boat. The silvery wake our progress left behind meandered like a ribbon of water amid the lands of the VaChopi. I leaned over to glimpse the restless reflections above the sandy riverbed, tireless butterflies of light.
They are the water’s shadows, my father commented, resting the oar on his shoulders.
He rested his arms on this improvised beam. My brother Mwanatu plunged his hands into the water and, rolling his tongue around, he produced an odd mixture of sounds that I translated as follows:
My brother says this river is called the Nyadhimi. It was the Portuguese who changed its name.
My father, Katini Nsambe, smiled condescendingly. He had a different explanation. The Portuguese were, according to him, civilizing our language. And apart from this, one could not expect purity from those who baptized the waters with a name. For even we, the VaChopi, change our names during the course of our lives. It had happened with me when I changed from Layeluane to Imani. Not to mention my brother Mwanatu, over whom the sacred waters had been poured in order to cleanse him of his three previous names. He had been baptized three times: at birth, with his “bone name” linking him to his ancestors; with his “circumcision name,” when he had been subjected to the rites of initiation; and with his “white name,” conferred upon him when he went to school.
Then my father returned to the matter in hand: When it came to a stretch of flowing water, why did we find it so hard to accept the will of the Portuguese? As far as the River Inharrime was concerned, they had invented two names for it because two currents flowed together in one riverbed. They relieve each other in turn, depending on the light: It is one river during daytime and another at night. And they never flow together.
That’s how it has always been, each one in turn. Only now, because of the war, have the waters mingled.
* * *
At the spot where the Inharrime and Nhamuende meet, there is a small island covered with trees and rocks. We paused here. My father ordered us to get out of the boat. I didn’t wait for the dugout to reach the shore. I plunged into the tepid waters and let the river embrace me, its current carrying me forward. The words of my late mother, Chikazi Makwakwa, came back to me:
When I’m in the water, I’m a bird.
That is what they say of the dead when they are buried. But no one ever buries their voice. My mother’s words remained alive, even though, but a few months before, she had cast herself from a tree, using only her weight to kill herself. She hung swaying from a rope like some persistent nocturnal heart.
The island where we stopped was not only a resting place but also a refuge. All around us, the war was setting the world alight. Leaning on Bianca, his Italian friend, the Portuguese asked to be put in the shade. He was gently told that the sun had long set. He took a few steps forward and fell to his knees.
She’s the one who killed me, he screamed, pointing at me. It was her, that bitch.
He was advised to save his strength. The Italian woman gave him something to drink, and, cupping her hand with water, she cooled his face. To my surprise, Bianca came to my defense. She was adamant in her argument: the ill-fated bullet had not been fired by me, but by the blacks who attacked the garrison. The Portuguese remained unshaken in his accusation: I was the author of the crime, he was right in front of me. But Bianca answered unequivocally: It was true that I had fired the shot, but he was not the intended target. And she added: If it hadn’t been for that shot, the sergeant would no longer be in the land of the living, for he would have been brutally killed by the furious mob.
Imani saved you. You should thank her.
It would have been better if she had fired a second shot and hit the target properly.
At that point, his speech became muddled as the fever gripped his soul. Bianca helped him to lie down. She then signaled to me to take her place. I hesitated. I heard Germano’s almost lifeless plea:
Come here, Imani. Come here.
I complied, apprehensive, while Bianca moved away. The Portuguese man’s hoarse breathing silenced the noise of the river. From my bag I took out an old notebook, which I placed on the ground by way of a cushion. It had been a long time since the sergeant last used a proper pillow. It might have been his tatty old Bible, or sheets of paper torn from the notebook he used for writing. The truth was that he could only get to sleep with his head resting on paper.
On this occasion, however, he rejected the improvised cushion. He looked at me strangely, complaining that he did not want me near him. When I made to move away, he thumped his feet violently, as children do when they cannot get their way. Stay with me, he pleaded. Once again, I obeyed. And the man rested his head on my legs.
Motionless, almost without breathing, I let him contemplate me. I could sense his feverish eyes surveying my breasts, my neck, my lips. Until he stammered some words that were barely intelligible:
Kiss me, Imani. Kiss me, for I want to die. To die inside your mouth.
* * *
For years, it had been like that: At the height of the drought, my grandfather planted seeds, three at a time, in the parched, lifeless soil. Grandmother would try to make him see reason, as if reason had any place in an existence that was more arid than the desert. And her husband would reply:
It’s the rain I’m sowing.
As a skilled marimba player, my father never took to agricultural work. Now, on that tiny island where we were resting, his fingers did what they had always done: They tinkled the sand as if he saw a tuneful keyboard in everything. But it was a music that consisted solely of silence, some desperate message for anyone on the riverbank who might know how to listen to the ground.
But no one was listening to the earth anymore: Throughout the area, Portuguese soldiers and Ngungunyane’s troops were getting ready for the final confrontation. It was not the victory itself that motivated them, but what would follow. The magical disappearance of those who had once been enemies, and the righting of an error in the divine plan. My grandfather planted futile seeds. And with his fingers, my father lulled the slumber of those sleeping in the earth.
This was the sad irony of our time: While we desperately sought to save a white soldier, a slaughterhouse for thousands of human beings had been established only a few kilometers away. Caught in the middle of such senseless, bitter exchanges, we VaChopi were at our most vulnerable. Ngungunyane had vowed to exterminate our race as if we were animals that God regretted creating. We depended on the protection of the Portuguese, but their support was subject to temporary agreements drawn up between Portugal and the VaNguni.
Sergeant Germano de Melo was one of those creatures who had come from the other side of the world to protect me. As a little girl, I believed that the angels were white and blue-eyed. Their watery complexion was a sign that they were blind. As a recent arrival in Africa, Father Rudolfo was circumspect when answering my questions about heavenly creatures.
I’m not familiar with the angels around here. People assure me they have wings, but only those who have never seen them say that sort of thing …
Of one thing I was sure: My angel would be white and have blue eyes. Like this sergeant who, years later, would be propped on my lap. The cloth bandages around his arms were his torn wings. This was a messenger of the night. Only in the dark did he remember the message he was bearing. This divine missive now slept between his lips. I accepted his entreaty, and leaned over his mouth.
* * *
Now more awake and less peevish, Germano emerged from his drowsiness in order to whisper in my ear:
Tear out the pages of the notebook and scatter them around us. Let’s make a bed.
I slowly detached a few pages, and as I was preparing to scatter them on the ground, I hesitated and paused in what I was doing:
But where are you going to write your letters to your superiors?
I have no superiors. I’m the last soldier in an army that never existed.
It was all an invention, starting with the garrison at Nkokolani. Even my brother Mwanatu, with his fake uniform and dummy rifle, was a more genuine soldier than he.
I think they forgot about you, I suggested tentatively in order to comfort him.
I received orders to return to Lourenço Marques a long time ago.
So why didn’t you go?
I’m not in Africa because they forgot about me, Germano said. I’m here because I forgot about them.
I don’t understand.
I’m here because of you.
I was aware of footsteps in the grass. They were looking for me. Then I heard my father dispersing the others:
Imani is taking care of the Portuguese. Let’s leave them alone.
Their voices and laughter drew farther away, fading into the darkness.
Copyright © 2016 by Editorial Caminho