The woman just turned up at the house one morning. That was not unusual in itself. People turn up at other people’s houses without invitation or warning. All the time. It is even more usual in Dhulivadzimu, being so close to the border post. It was little wonder that the VhaVenda gods and ancestral spirits had chosen this dusty, barren gorge as their dwelling place. It is as if they had known that this is where all their benevolence and guidance would be most needed. Always.
There are always aunties, uncles, cousin-brothers, cousin-sisters or acquaintances from the same village back home in need of a place to rest the night, to take a shower and have a hot meal before they attempt the crossing in the morning. There are also always other cousin-brothers, friends of friends and former school mates in need of a place to rest after the crossing back into Zimbabwe before their long journeys back home. Friends, family and acquaintances do not require invitation and they don’t give advance notice of their arrival.
Noma had woken up well before the street came to life. That’s what she did every day, had been doing for several weeks. She hoped that this would be the morning she would at least be able to master whatever it is that she needed to master to catch up with some paperwork, maybe to just open the box and pick out a file, just one file and perhaps flick it open, just to the first page. Munashe had long stopped reminding her about deadlines. Now he only called to say hello from the girls and everyone at the office and call if you need anything and no, George doesn’t mind taking on more cases for a few more weeks. She could detect something in his voice – a bit more pronounced each week. Someone had once told her that the only thing worse than ‘not coping’ is for other people to know that you are not coping.
So, that morning when she had ‘pulled herself together’, she went to open the curtains and let some of the new dawn into her living room. There was no package or unusual object outside – just an orange-gold horizon, with the sun beginning to peep through, and a woman approaching from the street, clutching a handbag under her armpit. There had not been another object since the rag doll several days earlier, but she found herself checking the stoep every few hours. That was the reason she started to work more and more from home, she reasoned, to be sure there was nothing there.
The woman didn’t see the curtain move so Noma watched her for a few seconds. The outside light came on automatically whenever there was movement within five metres of the door. One of the ‘security features’ she had added to her brother’s house since moving in.
The woman walked like a beautiful person. Maybe she had been beautiful once. She took long strides, her shoulders straight and head poised upright although the floral summer dress she wore was so well-worn that the patterns had faded to just blotches of grey. Her shoes were dusty and torn at the front, so you could see all her toes peeking out. The handbag she hugged close to her body was however a Dori, the oval ‘Dori genuine leather’ label clearly visible just next to the clasp.
Her dark eyes had no expression in them but a red puffiness to the lids. She could have been any age, except she had deep lines on her brow, on her cheeks, around the mouth. The scars on her face could have been tribal markings if there was a pattern to them. Her whole look was that of someone who had been travelling through the night and for a very long time before that.
She paused when she got to the stoep, unsure.
Noma’s first instinct was to call someone. But who could she call? What would she say anyway? That there was a woman at the door? She could just be a weary traveller, someone’s aunt, looking for a place to rest awhile.
Noma didn’t get more time to decide what to do as the woman started knocking, hesitantly at first but more urgent with each knock. Her dress and shoes reassured Noma. Besides she didn’t look like she was going to leave anything on the stoep.
Slowly, ever so slowly, Noma opened the door.
“Ehe?” she was trying hard not to let the tremor in her body reach the voice. “Ehe?” was a lame greeting but she couldn’t think what else to say. She searched the woman’s eyes but there was nothing there.
“Some women lent me these,” the woman explained in a matter-of-fact tone. Noma must have been staring.
“Sorry, can I help you? Do you want to come in?” Noma said trying not to look at the woman’s face either. She didn’t ask why the women had given her the clothes as she was afraid of what the answer might be. Would she say someone had stripped her and sent her out onto the streets naked and that some women had seen her and given her some clothes to cover her nakedness? It was even more unsettling that Noma knew somehow that the woman had not walked out of her house naked and the said women had forced her to wear the clothes for decency and to stop her from falling foul of the law.
After a brief hesitation the woman answered, flashing a quick nervous smile, “Thank you. I am sorry to trouble you, but I didn’t know where else to go.” She quickly glanced down the road in both directions. Noma couldn’t stop herself doing the same.
“They said you would help,” it sounded like a question. “You know… at the centre,” she added.
Noma stepped aside and let her in. She made a pot of tea and settled down on the sofa across from her.
In a tone that might have been her appearance given a voice, the woman told her story. “So, I wanted you to have these papers, just in case … in case something can be done,” she concluded shrugging her shoulders and handing the bag over. Noma thought she saw a half-light in her eyes then, like the lambent red reflection you catch off a deer’s eyes on the highway in the dark. She was torn between needing to know what had actually happened and a self-preservation instinct ─ maybe this time, not knowing enough was best and maybe she had not pulled herself together enough to out-reason her instinct, so she let it go. But she looked troubled and confused so the woman added, ‘There is a whole lifetime ahead. Isn’t there?’
Noma watched the woman walk out, looking a little less peculiar without the handbag, and wondered whether she was headed for the border. Had the blotches been black or blue when the dress was new?
Noma sat on the sofa for a long time after the woman left. Outside, the sky was burning, and the street was pulsing. She could hear the distant drone of a car engine left running, a woman singing a lullaby and the unmistakable and not unfamiliar sounds of a domestic quarrel gone too far. A cat meowed somewhere close by; Hugh Masekela was singing about freedom and smashed hopes on the radio; and two, maybe three drunken discordant voices were crooning in accompaniment to him. There was a sudden explosion of laughter which sounded like it was coming from the next room.
The noises from the street always reassured her, until the light started to fade outside, making all the shapes ─ the houses, the cars in front of the houses, the trees, the shrubs and the hedges — grey and vague. Then she would start waiting for morning again.
Noma still has the handbag, locked away in a drawer in her bedroom. She’s still working from home. There was an earthenware pot on her stoep the other day. Her friends think that she should leave the country, go somewhere, anywhere and become part of the famed diaspora.
She oftentimes finds herself imagining what she would give as her reasons for seeking asylum if she took her friends’ advice. She would have to give a strong reason, evidence and all that. But all she had was, ‘I fear for my life because I have been finding things on my front stoep’.
‘What sort of things?’
‘Like… like a rag doll, a scarf, a…a…an earthenware pot and… and there was a wooden spoon one time’.
‘Why should some neighbour or a secret admirer leaving you nice presents on your door step make you think someone wants to kill you?’
At other times it went like this:
‘I fear for my life because… I mean, a woman was raped by some men, soldiers, police maybe and left some documents with me to look after’.
‘What are the documents and what do they say?
‘I don’t know. I haven’t read them’.
‘If the woman was raped by some men, as you say, why should someone want to kill you?
‘There are more women, and men and children, and I have other papers, with names and dates …’
People gossiped that, evidence and proof were not always enough to get an asylum claim approved. Believability.
She convinced herself that it was probably best to wait for the election. Surely, the madness would stop. Someone else would win and the madness would stop. Until then, all she could do was — check that the door was locked and go back to waiting for dawn knowing that the day ahead would be just the same.