The walls of Rupi’s bedroom shrank around her, eliminating the space she and Musa had shared countless nights before. She felt starved of fresh air as if she had swallowed an enormous dust cloud which she was failing to exhale. An involuntary scream saved her from suffocating. Her screams scared away the walls that slowly retreated to their original positions.
Her body was a sponge and her bedclothes stuck to her body. She sucked long drafts of fresh air into her lungs, rinsing them of the heavy dust cloud that had threatened to terminate her life. She was absolutely certain that she had not been dreaming, and was afraid to close her eyes again.
Rupi dared not extinguish the lamp that burnt weakly on top of an overturned bucket opposite the head of her bed. She spent the remainder of the night awake.
The following night she shifted to her spare bedroom, but the move could not deescalate her fear of the night. As the hours of the night dragged, she lost her struggle to stay awake till dawn.
The walls of the spare bedroom closed in around her, just as those of her bedroom had done the previous night. She felt as if she was trapped in an airless tunnel. Her eyes shot open, but she could not see anything. The room was darker than the grave. Her whole body was numb. She tried to move her hand to grope for a match, but it was heavier than a bar of lead.
She finally decided to share her bedroom with her daughter, Isabella, who was fourteen years old.
“What is wrong mama? Are you not feeling well?” Isabella was puzzled.
“I’m just having bad dreams,” Rupi said reluctantly.
That night the bedroom walls ominously stared at her as she crept into bed. Isabella occupied the other half of the bed. Having not slept well for the past two nights Rupi found herself drifting into a deep slumber. This time the walls kept their positions, but the bedroom roof descended soundlessly upon her, or was it her bed that had soared from the floor to meet the roof?
Rupi felt stifled as if she had been submerged in muddy water. Her lungs were ablaze. Her body was rigid. She could not extricate herself from the claws of death. Suddenly Isabella let out a piercing scream, and the roof and her bed separated.
“What’s wrong?” Rupi asked her daughter, gasping for breath.
“Nothing wrong momma. I was just asleep.”
“But you were screaming!” Rupi was confused.
“But I didn’t hear myself screaming. Maybe you were dreaming mother,” Isabella retorted.
She had not been dreaming, but it was pointless to argue. Something out of the ordinary was happening in her life. Life had never been the same since the death and burial of her father-in-law, who she had had an altercation with twenty-four hours before his death. What happened as the family transported his remains to his rural home was nothing one would dismiss as mere coincidence.
Rupi was not entirely to blame for what had transpired between her father-in-law and her, but she regretted her explosive temper. Mr. Cheutare had accused her of having nagged his son into crossing the Limpopo to search for greener pastures in South Africa. And now after the xenophobic attacks on Zimbabweans, Mozambicans, Zambians and other African nationals in Johannesburg, nothing had been heard of Musa.
She had visited her in-laws to inform them about her intention to sell a heifer as that was the custom. Mrs. Cheutare had gone to the gardens on the banks of Odzi River, but Cheutare, nevertheless invited Rupi into the sitting room. She sat on a sofa that directly faced his and exchanged greetings with the elder.
“You should not have pestered my son into going to South Africa,” he said to her, his voice full of resentment. “Now I have lost my one and only child.”
There was a sudden emptiness in Rupi’s stomach, and bile crept into her mouth, but she was able to answer politely, “He made an individual choice father.”
“Don’t lie to me,” he growled, banging at the table. “You have been a bad influence on my son’s life for a very long time.”
“Your son actually struck me in the face as I insistently discouraged him from crossing over,” Rupi defended herself.
“Shut up harlot,” Cheutare shouted at her. “If I were you, I would go down South to look for Musa.”
His words pierced the tender flesh of Rupi’s heart. Not knowing what had happened to Musa had stressed her beyond measure and now his father’s indelicate accusations made her feel worse. The desire to hit back ran over her. She spared not even half a moment to consider the possible ramifications.
“It never ceases to amaze me when you refer to Musa as ‘my son’ while the entire neighbourhood knows that he is not your son. When he comes back, and I am certain he will, go for DNA tests if you dispute my words.”
Cheutare did not know what DNA tests meant, but the rest of daughter-in-law’s words struck him where it hurt most. He wanted to strike her with his walking stick, but he felt too feeble to raise the stick. He rose flabbily from the sofa, turned his back on her and tittered into his bedroom.
Rupi suddenly realised that she had overreacted. She wanted to follow him into the bedroom to apologise, but she dreaded scandalising him further. Suddenly her anger shifted from Musa’s impetuous father to Musa himself. If he had listened to her, she would not be in this mess. Mr. and Mrs. Cheutare had lectured the entire neighbourhood on how Rupi had forced their only child into a honey trap.
Rupi sat, buried in the sofa, wondering what was going to happen to the man groaning in the next room. Finally, she decided to leave for her homestead, her benumbed brain matter unable to digest what had happened between her and her father-in-law.
Mrs Cheutare arrived home from Odzi River an hour after the bitter exchanges between her husband and Rupi. He was lying face downwards, his face buried in his pillow when his wife entered the bedroom.
“BaMusa,” she said softly, but he could not answer. She felt his pulse. He was alive, yes, but his life was in grave danger. She turned him over. He released a faint breath, and his chest collapsed. One thing was certain: she had to act quickly or she would be a widow in a few minutes.
A neighbour rushed Cheutare to hospital. The medical experts at the hospital proclaimed that Cheutare had suffered a severe stroke. He spent the night of his admission to hospital in the intensive care unit, only died the following morning.
The news of Cheutare’s death brought tears to Rupi’s eyes. Tears of grief? Guilt? Somehow, she felt she had murdered him. She had had the temerity to brutalise his male ego when he had ungraciously accused her of being a harlot and a bad influence in his son’s life. Now, would she be audacious enough to tell her mother-in-law about what had occurred between them on the day his condition drastically deteriorated?
Rupi had fainted in her mother in-law’s arms when she joined her at the hospital mortuary.
“I didn’t mean what I said to him,” she did not say.
She only said, “Oh mother,” and fell into convulsive sobs.
The family hired a large vehicle to transport Cheutare’s remains back home. They had covered a good forty kilometres from the city when a bushbuck suddenly crossed the road. The driver shockingly hit the brakes and the vehicle veered to the left of the road, ploughing into the wet bank of the tarmac road before landing in a ditch. All the passengers were thrown out of the truck and scattered like logs on the roadside. The coffin in which the deceased lay was flung open and the corpse flew out of the coffin as it landed on the ground. No one was, however, seriously injured.
As Rupi slowly regained her senses, she found herself lying in the coffin. It was impossible for her to digest the ghastly reality. She could not hop out of the coffin because all her muscles were stiff. She shouted three times for help, her eyes closed, unable to watch help’s delayed arrival.
Finally, a pair of strong hands extracted her from the coffin. She opened her eyes and stared into the eyes of her rescuer. She did not recognise him and a sense of relief flooded her muscles.
Since no one was seriously injured, the driver phoned his employer for a replacement vehicle that safely transported the corpse and the mourners to the deceased’s rural homestead.
After the burial of her father-in-law, Rupi never had a peaceful night’s rest. Claustrophobia became the order of the night every night. Either the walls of her bedroom would attack her, or the roof would come down, or was it her bed that rose to meet the roof?
Changing bedrooms had not helped matters.
After the death of Cheutare, Rupi began to strongly feel that Musa was alive somewhere. The stronger this feeling grew, the stronger her nocturnal challenges became.
Eventually, she decided to leave the house and go back to her parents, but she wondered what she would do with her livestock. She ultimately decided that livestock amounted to nothing as compared to her life which was at great risk. She and her daughter would silently leave the place and leave the rest in fate’s hands.
The day of departure came and Rupi impatiently waited for daylight. As she loaded her bags into the vehicle she had hired, a man walked slowly into her yard, looking as exhausted as one who had journeyed to a distant planet and back.
He was someone, not from long ago, but Rupi did not recognise him immediately. But when he spoke, there was no need for guessing.
“I am back. I survived the xenophobic attacks, but I lost everything, including my job.”
Rupi had no choice, but to cancel her journey. Musa had a long story to tell and she had a painful secret to keep.
She wondered how the walls and the roof of her house would behave now that Musa was back.