WHEN Ndingi looked into the water, the eyes that stared at him were not a reflection of his, neither was the face on which those eyes sat. It was a face every young male dreamer, except Ndingi, would desire to host in his dreams. The smile on the mesmeric face was brighter than any morning blossom any new day would bless the land with.
“Panashe,” Ndingi said from the depth of his chest. The reflection instantly vanished and within a moment Ndingi’s puzzled eyes stared back at him. Ndingi could not turn his face away from the water. A drop of sweat from his brow stirred the tranquil water. Two more drops of sweat from his petrified face plunged into the water till the reflection of his face disappeared.
Ndingi turned away from the pool and briskly walked back home, his heart kicking furiously at his ribs, his blood racing in his veins, his sweat pouring out of his body like rivulets of salted water, his chest burning as if he had swallowed a ball of blue flames.
“Why return without talking your bath?” Tanaka, his wife, asked, puzzled.
“Because I want to take my bath here,” Ndingi responded with a strange hostility in his voice.
“Are you all right?” Tanaka asked. “It seems something has scared you out of your senses.”
“No, no, I am all right,” Ndingi said, getting into the house.
He made a few more trips to Mushamhuru and Odzi rivers and still encountered the aquatic angel’s face on every visit. He stopped visiting the two rivers and bathing became one of his most dreadful nightmares.
Bathing at home proved not to be a complete solution to his problem because the still water in a water bowl brought back Panashe’s face more exquisitely than the running water of a river. He decided to take his baths long after sunset.
Panashe was Ndingi’s childhood bosom love. She had met her painful death in mysterious circumstances and the police had ruled out foul play. Forensic experts had proclaimed that she had merely slipped and plunged into the deep water and died of drowning. Her parents could not challenge the forensic report although they knew that their daughter was a good swimmer. She was lost forever anyway, and nothing could change that fact.
She had been intimate with Ndingi among the shrubs on the banks of Odzi or Mushamhuru River, among the bushes on the communal pasturelands and everywhere else. The result was her falling pregnant and divulging her secret to Ndingi.
Ndingi had begun to feel that he had already had too much of her to marry her. After all, there was Tanaka, the city girl, “destined by divine providence to fill the other half of his bed.”
When Panashe broke the news to Ndingi, the latter was apparently overjoyed by “this precious development”. He gathered her into his arms and held her long to himself as she wept her heart out on his shoulder.
“I will have to work overtime to raise the bride price,” Ndingi said. After making this promise, Ndingi had lain with Panashe a couple more times.
Ndingi had however allowed dire cruelty to possess his mind. He had hatched a plan to rid his life of Panashe. The plan had taken root in him and he had allowed it to flourish like a richly watered plant, its blossoms eclipsing the memories of the good times he had had with his childhood love.
Panashe was fond of a spot on the bank of Odzi River where the water did not flow fast, where shrubs grew luxuriantly. It was a secluded place, and very few women visited the place. She bathed and laundered her clothes at the spot at regular intervals. Ndingi decided to stalk her to her favourite place in order to execute his plans.
Armed with a piece of dynamite which he had stolen from his father who drilled boreholes, he had approached Pana’s favourite place stealthily, deftly weaving his way among the reeds until he was thirty metres away from her.
Concealed by the shrubs and reeds on the river bank, Ndingi had watched her laundering her clothes, rubbing the soap laced clothes on a rock, her head slightly tilted to her left and humming a tune.
He dug a small hole on the bank with his fingers, set the dynamite and retreated to safety, without ever making a sound. Then there was a deafening explosion that sent the rock on which Pana knelt vibrating. Her heart leapt into her mouth as she scrambled to her feet. The heel of her right foot landed on the piece of soap she had been rubbing on her laundry and she slipped and plunged into the river, too petrified to swim back to safety.
Pana’s corpse was discovered by night fishermen the same day and the tragedy was reported to the police. Ndingi’s tears flowed generously at the funeral. His friends comforted him profusely while he silently congratulated himself. His were not tears of sorrow, but contentment.
Now Tanaka was his wife, and hardly a year after taking her to the chapel, he was encountering Pana’s face in every source of water he visited. She would look unblinkingly into his eyes, seemingly inviting him to join the underwater world, where life was untroubled by the lust and jealousies of this terrestrial world.
To whom would Ndingi confess that he had murdered her to marry Tanaka? He cut down his visits to his rural home area, and even when his blue moon took him down there he would not visit the river.
Ndingi now fervently regretted the crime he had committed. His last intimate moments with Panashe troubled his conscience. His body began to dwindle in size and he started talking in his sleep. The decline in his physical well being gave Tanaka stressful moments.
“You need to see the doctor, ” Tanaka suggested one day.
“I will do as you say, but I do not feel where the pain is,” he said, ” but I am fully aware that I am not physically well.”
Then Tanaka was promoted and the couple relocated to a more affluent suburb. Their new house had a bathtub and no shower. Ndingi shunned the bathtub and started taking his baths at work, or simply didn’t bath until his armpits and loins stank. Each time he walked into the house, the smell of his body choked the whole place.
“I’m fed up with your foul smell Ndingi, and if your habit persists, we will go separate ways,” Tanaka threatened one day.
Ndingi did not answer. He felt depleted. He went straight to the spare bedroom to sleep. His wife was expecting. This made him think more agonisingly about the unborn baby he had murdered together with its mother.
The following day Ndingi forced himself to forget his fear of the water and visited the bathroom for a thorough bath.
He filled the bath with warm water and as he looked into the water, Panashe’s smile, like an aquatic moon, greeted him. Ndingi did not allow himself to be scared away from the water, but rocked the water with his hand and stepped into the tub. As his foot touched the bottom of the tub, an explosion rocked the house and he fell on his back into the water. Submerged in the water, he felt too frail to hoist himself out of the bathtub.
As death descended upon him, he saw Panashe approaching him, her white dress dazzling before him. She looked like a visitor from fairyland. He made an effort to extend his hand to touch her, but she turned away immediately. And then, he could not feel anything, no pain, no love, no grief, not even the fear of rivers and bathtubs.
Realising that Ndingi had overstayed in the bathroom, Tanaka came to check on her husband and the horror that struck her in the eye overwhelmed her. She could not move out of the bathroom; she just stood watching the disaster that had slapped her in the face as tears fell freely from her eyes. By asking him to take a bath, she had condemned him to his death.
His death should have been an accident; it was surely not suicide, but how could a grown-up man drown in a bathtub? She stood rooted on the bathroom floor, her mind swimming.
This is purely a work of fiction written by Nhamo Muchagumisa. He’s a poet and an acclaimed essayist.