Yes it was in her eyes, now great black pools, looking more inward than out. And her face, collapsed to skin and bone with the appearance of a baby owl. So transfigured by grief and more was our Nomsi, once smiling plump nurse to my children and me. And how rapid! Even last month she had sat in the sun outside the kia, legs tucked under, cooking sadza. But now inside, in the dark recess, she lay in bed, cold despite the heat, in her garish azure jacket from the OK Bazaars. There was a stench of decay.
“You know the time has come my baasie, I must go home.”
I nodded, I understood. African custom required burial with your ancestors, a problem for the urban diaspora. Men had been arrested on fenced white land, with nothing but a pocket of sacred soil for a city coffin. Her clawed hand grasped my wrist.
“Get me pundus from our tree in the bush, and some water from the bend in the stream, for my journey through the night. And my son, I know your heart, take me to Maasvingo, Great Zimbabwe, lapa pesru, to the top.”
Great Zimbabwe! Citadel of the ancient Monomatapa empire, site of King Soloman’s mines, gold trader to the world through Sofala, Milton’s Ophir. There Nomsi, lowly here, was of noble blood.
“But how will we get you to the top?”
“It will happen.”
Next morning we set off by car, Helen next to me, Nomsi and her daughter Alice in the back. It was late October, the hottest month before the summer rains. Please don’t blame me that I felt pleasure at the open road, our cicada dry bush, the wildlife, it lay easily with the sadness. At midday, we stopped to make a fire for lunch, nothing moved in the stunning heat, the buzz of crickets deafening. Nomsi sipped water but took no food. A hawk watched from a nearby branch.
At three o’clock we checked in to the Great Zimbabwe Ruins Hotel. Late afternoon we left the shade of the massive main walls to climb to the Acropolis, built into the hills above. It was so named in white settler mythology that such a structure must have been built by ancient Europeans. To support Nomsi was more than difficult in this terrain.
Some way up we came suddenly upon a very old man, seated in an alcove, almost camouflaged against the brown bush. He clapped humbly but his gaze was challenging as he addressed me, “Eh mzungu, mambo, ini endaba wena fica lapa lo kia ka lo baaba ktina?” (Heh, white man, great ruler, why do you visit the domain of our fore fathers?) The hilltop, he said, is the home of his ancestors and soon he would join them. As death approaches, old people can enter and leave the spirit world with increasing ease, until they step over permanently. White tourists trample the site without care and should approach with due reverence, particularly so late in the afternoon. I offered him a cigarette which I lit for him, and he gave us his blessing to proceed. He had paid no attention to the two black women, but now turned to Nomsi, expressionless, and touched her hand. Perhaps it was my emotional state, but I felt a shock as if everything had changed. After that she seemed to weigh nothing. “He is the gateman,” said Alice.
The defensive walls are built intricately into the contours of the hill, so attackers had to approach in single file. Emerging at the top into a natural amphitheatre we found ourselves back in the glow of the setting sun. The place was silent except for the occasional scrabble of dassies. On the plain below, the ruins were in darkness, and beyond, the great hill tops still lit in gold. I felt uneasy, out of my depth, perhaps a sense of trespass, of great antiquity.
“Now my children you must go, you must leave me here.”
What had I expected? Helen and I protested, argued, wept, until Alice said with absolute authority,
“We have no more time, say goodbye.”
We could eat no dinner. Alice retired early. So did Helen. I stepped outside for a walk.
The gate to the ruins was now locked against wild animals. I had an urge to climb over and melt into the bush, become one with it. That night I had a dream. Climbing the gate I ascended towards the Acropolis, heart thudding with fear. A seated leopard stared at me with glowing yellow eyes but made no move to attack. Arriving, I surveyed the ampitheatre from behind a rock, and there assembled was a great host in traditional costume facing an enthroned figure at the far end. An orange moon cast its glow and illuminated a sky streaked with white cloud, but the figures below were bathed in dull blue. They swayed slightly as if stirred by an undetectable breeze, and I realised that most, but not all, were spirits. Closer to me were guards in full regalia, holding spears at attention, baboons. Some other animals stood around the periphery. Then I saw Nomsi, now in traditional costume, radiant, near the great throne, and with joy I knew she sensed my presence. Now the great Nkos began to address the assembly. Although his lips moved I could hear nothing, but felt I would, if I could just tune in. His gaze, like a blinding blue light began to move from figure to figure, towards me, and I stood transfixed, in terror, knowing that if it met mine I would die of shock. At the last moment I woke, sweating.
The next morning we climbed to the Acropolis, early to avoid the tourists. There in bright sunlight lay Nomsi’s OK Bazaars coat, but she was gone.