Chido Muchemwa is a Zimbabwean writer currently living in Canada. Her work has appeared in the Bacopa Literary Review, Humber Literary Review, Tincture Journal, and Apogee. She has been shortlisted twice for the Short Story Day Africa Prize and placed 2nd in the Humber Literary Review’s 2020 Emerging Writers Fiction Contest.
Today began like any other day for me, with a trip to Paradise Cemetery. The dew was still heavy on the grass as I walked down First Street. Along the way, children headed to school called out my name. “Good morning, Wiki,” they said. “Where did you sleep last night?” They scattered when I glared at them. Not only did they have audacity to call a grown man of thirty-eight by his first name, but they also shortened my name despite my insistence that I go by Wickington. I huffed my way through Marondera, shoulders hunched, and fists clenched with a look daring anyone to try me.
I strode through the rusted black gate of the cemetery and past the empty car park until I was standing where the rows of graves began. Today, I was in search of the sanctuary that only Paradise could provide. To my right were the oldest graves enclosed by an iron fence. To my left was the children’s section, a sorry sight of half-sized graves spaced closely together. And in front of me were rows and rows of graves. As always, my eyes wandered down the gentle slope to the thicket of smoking gum trees at the bottom of the cemetery. This should have been the moment when my breath slowed, when my muscles relaxed and the noise of the town receded into the background. Instead, the harder I tried to relax, the tighter I clenched my teeth until it felt like my head might burst. One thought ran through my mind: “Nothing? How can this be nothing?” Not even the cemetery could calm me, not after what happened here yesterday. For yesterday, cousin Tanaka had come to visit.
Two weeks that woman had been in Zimbabwe on a visit from Canada. Two weeks! As the de facto head of family, being the only relative remaining in Zimbabwe, I should have been the first person she visited. Who else is there to see? But she waited two weeks. And when she came, her faced was screwed up the entire time as if something smelled, even as I led her to her sister’s grave. Then she had grimaced when l suggested doing the rest of the tour. She had looked at me like I was crazy as I explained that I had accompanied so many of my diaspora relatives on their pilgrimage to Paradise that I had developed a set tour. She had silently followed me through the tour, but I felt the judgment. And as we had looked down at the polished black marble gravestone of my brother Webster, she shared her vision for our family’s future.
“Wiki,” she said, “I think from now on we will be burying people in Harare.”
What I had wanted to say was “Never, Tanaka. This is home.” But I had said nothing. Tanaka is younger than me, but as my brother Webster used to say, she has the cash power. And you don’t argue with the person holding the purse. I did not even remind her that I go by Wickington, not “Wiki.”
I just looked away, towards the trees at the bottom of cemetery, as she said, “There’s nothing left here.” Nothing. How could our fathers’ last resting place be nothing? I could not understand. So today, I decided I would run through my tour from top to bottom to soothe my nerves. Whatever Tanaka said, there was value here.
As always, I started with the most recent graves. Starting here always gave my visitors a chance to get their tears over and done with over the graves of those who died since their last visit. From there, I made the quick transition back to the oldest graves enclosed by iron fence. The ornate gates at the entrance to this section must have been quite a sight before the rust began to devour them. I always like to bring my relatives here after the sadness of the recent graves. Somehow these thirty, forty-year-old graves feel more historical than personal and people always perk up. The headstones in this section lack the relative uniformity of the newer graves. It's a mix of old, broken headstones crumbling with age, large concrete tombstones that look like a cold bed, shiny new granite gravestones and the odd grave with only the cemetery-issued metal name plate bearing witness to its occupant. The family has three graves in there: Baba’s, Tanaka’s father, and our grandfather. Not so long ago, only white people could enter Paradise. Maybe that’s why they had thought that such a small area, barely a fifth of the cemetery’s current size, could ever be enough. I still remember how proud my Baba was when he could afford to bury Sekuru in Paradise. Before that, when Baba was a young man, black farm workers like him would have been buried in small farm cemeteries or the municipal cemetery, kwaMeki. These graves are a testament to how hard Baba and his brother worked to earn enough from a farm worker’s wages to buy plots in paradise. And Tanaka said this is nothing?
As I started to pull out weeds around the stone slab on Baba’s grave, a high cheery voice said, “Good morning, Wiki.” I looked up to see Mai Fari’s round face hovering over the Durawall just beyond the fence, her malignant eyes staring down at me as if I was a fly.
“It’s Wickington,” I said through my teeth, but Mai Fari ignored me as always.
“You’re here early, Wiki. Kwakanaka?” I continued to pull out my weeds. “—Stay quiet. I know what’s wrong. You’ve upset another one of your friends’ wives, haven’t you?” She waited for a response, but I didn’t reply. I wasn’t going to give her the satisfaction.
Indeed, I was at the cemetery so early because I was avoiding Paradzai’s wife who I had heard asking her husband how much longer I would stay. I knew Paradzai wouldn’t ask me to leave. Paradzai lived in fear of what I might share about what we got up to before he was married. But I also knew that once the wives started complaining, it was best to escape the house before breakfast as people usually gave marching orders after breakfast. By the time I returned in the evening, some of her determination would have worn off which would give me two or three more days before she started again. If only that woman knew the stories I could tell.
Eventually Mai Fari accepted that she wasn’t going to get a response out of me. But before she retreated, she said, “At least Wiki, you know that the cemetery is one place no one will kick you out of.” As her head sank behind the wall, I heard her say “Ngochani,” under her breath. I kissed my teeth. Why was her house so close to the cemetery anyway? I rushed out of the old section before she could make another appearance.
I moved on to the most depressing section of the entire cemetery, the hundreds of graves that sprouted in the early 2000s. I still remember how it felt to come of age as the new millennium began. It felt significant, like a sign that the world belonged to me and all my friends. But all it seemed to bring was death. We lost so many in 2001. It felt like every week we were coming to Paradise to bury yet another AIDS victim. And each time we came, we found that two or three new rows of graves had sprung up in the interim. Today, I visited each of our eight departed to let them know that there is at least one person who still remembers. There was cousin Charles, under a pile of dirt with the remnants of broken plates and cups; we used to go fishing in the farm dam together. There was Sisi Vhero with the fat thighs. She should have known better than to spread them for soldiers. And there was Washington, the second of my three brothers. How tumultuous that relationship had been. It was Washington who had caught me kissing my best friend Michael behind a barn. After that, he had refused to speak to me for over a decade, not even after both our parents died and my teenage-self had to move into a single room in Dombotombo with Webster. But we had reunited in the end, when Washington had lain on his death bed and I nursed him. Under the spectre of death, Washington found forgiveness. Yet Tanaka will look down on Washington’s grave and say this is nothing?
Anyway, this section of the tours always depresses my guests. Inevitably, people start working out the ages of the family’s dead: 33, 29, 28, 27, 25, 25, 24, 23. Eight lives gone within a year of each other, so many, so young, so quickly. And today, I couldn’t help but feel a bit sorry for myself, as if death has cheated me too. These are the people who would have caught me when I fell four years ago. When my neighbours in Chitungwiza had discovered that the man I lived with was more than just a friend, they reported it to the police and that was the end of my teaching job. After a harrowing three-month stint in Chikurubi Prison, I had returned to Marondera with my tail between my legs, drifting from friend to friend because all my family is gone. Would things have been different if I wasn’t the only one left?
I had to really dig deep today to shake myself out of the cloud of despondency that inevitably descends at this point of the tour. This section really dampens the tone of the tour. I have tried many different things to lighten the mood. One time, I suggested to a niece that we sing a hymn, but I knew it was a terrible decision when the niece dissolved into tears as her voice quavered over the chorus of “Nguva Yakanakisa.” Another time, I tried adding another stop to the tour. I took my nephew Morris, visiting from Australia, to see Old Paradise where a dozen white soldiers are buried. They were Australians marching from the Mozambique coast down into South Africa to fight the Boer War, but they were struck down by disease. And now they lie beneath white crosses with blank name plates under the shade of Msasa trees totally forgotten except for the days when I visit them. I had thought that Morris of all people would understand these men’s plight, but instead, he asked me why I would bring him to such a depressing place. I wanted to ask him, “Don’t you worry you might end up like them? Don’t you wonder who will bury you out there in the wilderness where no one will remember which way to your grave?” Instead I shrugged and moved on the next section of the cemetery. You can’t argue with these diaspora people. They no longer understand the value of home. Just look at Tanaka. She asked me once why I don’t leave. You can’t get a visa with a criminal record, can you? And anyway, being the last one to leave would feel like abandoning this place.
After that sad stop, I moved on to the final section of the tour. I always leave it until last because I like to sit with my brothers and chat a while. Wellington and Webster are buried near each other, and when I sit by either one, I can just about see Washington’s grave. Even when I don’t have time to visit the other graves, I make sure to visit these three every day and sweep the dust off the tops of their graves. Today I had time. I took out a cloth to wipe down Wellington’s grave, still wet with morning dew. Each of my brothers’ graves has a shiny black marble gravestone courtesy of Mukwasha, Tanaka’s white husband. Apparently, when she returned to Canada a few years ago with photographs of soil piled high over the graves of long-dead men, Mukwasha was scandalized and paid for the gravestones in record time. And when Tanaka’s sister died last year, he paid for everything, something that both confused and impressed me. The man could afford a funeral, but not a plane ticket? But that is what Tanaka said, and she has the cash power. So I kept my thoughts to myself.
After vigorously cleaning Wellington’s grave, I sat down. My eyes wandered over the cemetery thinking of all the stories Paradise could tell, and I talked to Webster. This was how this tour had begun, with me coming to visit Webster every day after he died to tell him how I was faring without him. Back then, it had sunk in slowly what sorrow came with being the last one left. But there was also responsibility, a responsibility that a Tanaka could never understand. Those who left Zimbabwe could never understand what it means to be the last one left.
As they always do, my eyes wandered toward the trees at the bottom of the cemetery. The day we buried Washington, I saw him standing by those trees watching us as we lowered his coffin. Then he turned away and entered the thicket. And when Wellington’s time came, Washington was waiting for him by the trees. The two of them embraced then entered the forest without a single look back. And when it was Webster’s turn, he ran into the arms of his waiting brothers and they laughed and jostled each other, knocking Webster’s signature newsboy cap askew. But as the elder two began to move into the thicket, Webster turned back to the cemetery, the smile disappearing as he adjusted his cap. He looked right at me. And he sighed as if he wasn’t ready to say goodbye, as if he didn’t want to go where he knew I could not follow.
And this place, this is the place that Tanaka wants to turn her back on? Looking at those trees today, her words kept running over and over again in my mind. “There is nothing left here.” The more I thought of them, the angrier I became. I felt the anger rising in me like a kettle building up steam until I boiled over and said out loud, “What am I then?”
And someone said, “What?”
My body clenched. My heart beat fast. A young man suddenly stood up from an elaborate gravestone. His long, slender body was drowning in an orange hoodie and he looked at me through bloodshot eyes.
He said, “Oh Wiki, it’s just you.” I clenched my fists and said nothing. But he must have noticed because he said, “Oh yes, you don’t like to be called Wiki. Isn’t that right, Wiki?” He grinned, the kind of grin high school bullies always had before they beat me.
I knew I had to be careful. Fari and his friends survived by robbing people and they got very upset when you did not have anything worth stealing. As if on cue, three men materialized from the graves behind Fari. I had to make sure not to talk myself into an unexpected grave. Fari knew that Tanaka had come to visit yesterday. He would assume that she gave me money. I tried to retreat, but I bumped into the solid form of yet another of Fari’s comrades. And in that moment, I knew, I absolutely knew that I was about to join my brothers. Even as I began to plead, I was imagining walking down to meet Washington, Wellington and Webster at the bottom of the hill and entering the thicket. And I wondered if anyone would bother to take my body away to the morgue when I was already in Paradise.
But then the stillness of the morning was broken by the sound of a funeral procession entering the cemetery, a Nyaradzo hearse leading the way. This must have been the first time that someone felt hope at the sight of an approaching hearse. Fari and his gang scattered, and I was on my knees. It was so strange to see people gathered at eight in the morning to bury their loved one. It seemed callous somehow, like they were burying the deceased as early as possible so that they could get on with their day. Like this place meant nothing. But even as I was still breathing hard, waiting for my heart to slow, I knew that tomorrow I would be back again in Paradise. I would respect the dead. I would guard their stories. And as long as I am here, there is no way this place could ever mean nothing.
“ Paradise is a real cemetery in Marondera and several of my mother’s brothers are buried there. I wanted to write a story for my Sekurus to let them know I still think about them. But then Wiki wandered in, and it grew into a story about isolation, grief, and what it means to be the only one left. ”