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August Debut

Issue 2; October/November


Valerie Tagwira


Valerie Tagwira

Tagwira is a Zimbawean medical doctor working in London. Her well-received first novel, The Uncertainty of Hope was published in March 2007 by Weaver Press. Mainnini Grace's Promises is her first published short story.

 Mainini Grace’s Promises

Sarai’s mother had concluded that it was not the three successive funerals, but her own subsequent illness that finally did it.

Since her disclosure, things had gradually changed. In time, the subtle had become obvious. The extended family seemed to have conveniently forgotten about their existence. Prior to that, their visits had been increasingly shrouded by an aura of something parallel to embarrassment and detachment. Then they had become erratic, before ceasing altogether.

For Sarai, dropping out of school to become a carer for her mother was inevitable. She felt as if the family had washed their hands clean of all responsibility, before dumping it carelessly into her fifteen-year old lap.

Her vivacious and capable aunt, Mainini Grace was the only one who kept in touch. She sent money for groceries from Botswana and wrote encouraging letters, filled with promises that she would visit. She also promised that she would bring tablets for her ailing sister, as well as arrange for Sarai to go back to school.

Occasionally Mainini’s list included the gloves that Sarai had requested for her mother’s bed-baths, the bra that she wanted so much because girls of her age had started wearing breast support; and sanitary pads because there were no pads or cotton wool in the shops.

While the letters had become a beacon, the fruition of Mainini Grace’s promises became questionable, little by little. In the eleven months since the last funeral, she had not returned from Botswana. Despite this inconsistency, the letters continued. Sarai would read them avidly, over and over again; wishing for her aunt’s return, and wishing for her to be the one to share this experience with her.

In her replies to Mainini Grace, Sarai always expressed these sentiments, just stopping short of hinting that the money that she sent was never enough. Because of the shortages, grocery prices on the thriving black market were always exaggerated.


After the most recent letter, Sarai allowed herself to be filled with optimism. Previously, it had always been, ‘Soon, my dearest.’

But the imminence of Mainini’s arrival came to life with her assurance of arrival on Wednesday the 17th of July.

In the morning, Sarai woke up very early and tidied up the shack. She wrapped her hands with pieces of plastic and gave her mother a bed-bath, just as the nurse had taught her. The raw bed-sores did not seem as daunting as before, and her mother’s muted groans of discomfort when she rolled her over were not as heart-rending. She needed no encouragement to eat up her maize meal porridge that was tasteless from lack of sugar and peanut butter. On that day, spasms of pain did not contort her face as they normally did when she coughed. It was a day with a difference, and they spent it in happy anticipation of Mainini Grace’s arrival.

But by early evening, Sarai knew that the coach from Botswana had long passed Kwekwe, and was probably in Harare already. Mainini Grace had not come.

‘Do you think she will ever come?’ she asked her mother, disheartened.

The older woman’s brow creased, only for a moment, before she said slowly, ‘There must be a good reason. I know my sister. I am sure she will come soon.’

Sarai looked at her mother, astonished by this lack of anxiety. She did not appear to be disturbed by her young sister’s slipperiness, although she was supposed to have brought life-saving medication from Botswana. What good reason can there be for Mainini Grace to make these false promises when mother is so ill? Sarai felt equally deceived and confused.

She wondered why she had been foolish enough to expect anything different. Misery was predictable, while the opposite was simply out of reach. Her aunt was not coming. Though her own desire to go back to school was not as urgent as her mother’s need for medication, Sarai wondered, Will I ever sit in class again? At that moment, she felt fleeting resentment against Nhamo, a former classmate who she knew to have assumed her prior position at the top of her class.

Despite her apparent complacency, Sarai’s mother was generally more unwell than she had ever been. Nothing seemed to help relieve her cough. Not the bitter juice from boiled gum-tree leaves that had given her husband temporary relief. Not even the lemon tea and the Vick’s chest rub. She needed proper medication to ease the cough, but there was none. It was three months since the last bottle of cough mixture had run out.


Although she was in the throes of fatigue, Sarai knew that she could not sleep before her mother. To do so would have been callous. Impossible, in fact. Her place was right there, sitting next to her mother, who now lay huddled on a reed mat that was spread out on the floor. It was a place that she had no desire to surrender. Only Mainini Grace could have shared this place with her. Her heart ached with love, and with profound loneliness.

Once again, she mopped the older woman’s brow with a slow, gentle movement. A stubborn profusion of sweat globules seemed to erupt, no sooner than they had been soaked up by the piece of cloth. The older woman’s forehead continued to glisten in the dim light.

Sarai sat back in the silence, suddenly overcome by a yearning for happier times. But she failed to summon any such memories. She searched her mind, and discovered only a vacuum. Reality swooped back swiftly to fill the temporary emptiness.

Her eyes strayed to the soot marks staining the wall. She made a mental note to scrub down the wall first thing in the morning, or else risk suffering the landlady’s wrath. Mai Simba’s legendary rages were guaranteed to instil fear into any living soul, and for Sarai, eviction was a real and immediate threat.

She constantly received reminders about how compassionate Mai Simba had been to take in the likes of her and her mother; and she had been warned several times about the hazards of fire in the shack. She now took care to make a great show of cooking outside the shack; before sneaking the fire indoors for her mother at night.

Just yesterday, the home-based care nurse had looked at the soot marks with obvious displeasure. ‘You had a fire in here?’ It had been an accusation. ‘How do you expect her cough to get better in this?’ she had demanded, gesticulating wildly in the cramped, airless shack.

Sarai had been immediately contrite, but she had wondered, What else can I do? Her disobedience came out of necessity, rather than wilful intent. July was cold, and starting to get windy. Her mother’s body was hot, but she often complained that the cold gnawed relentlessly into her bones, robbing her of what little comfort she could still have. Sarai understood her discomfort. It was winter, after all.


Why aren’t you here with us, Mainini Grace? Sarai stared blindly at the dying fire which mirrored the slow demise of hope. Her mind did not really register the red embers that lay glowing among grey, powdery ashes. She had an illusion of seeing through them into a vast, colourless place where she was held suspended at the edge of a precipice. She shook off the surreal vision with a shrug and stretched out her stiff, cold limbs.

The room was dimmer, now that the fire was almost out. Coldness was starting to creep in. She shivered. Just as they had used up the last of the firewood, they were also on the last precious candle whose lone flame looked as feeble as its source.

Mai Simba’s main house had electricity. When she was in a good mood, she often promised to connect an electric light-bulb to the shack, but it never happened. If only Mainini Grace had come, maybe she would have brought a few candles from Botswana, Sarai’s thoughts wandered again to her elusive aunt.

Her mother’s eyes seemed to be summoning her, pleading for something that was not hers to give. She dragged herself forwards to wipe her forehead again. The woman’s withered hand rose, trembled, and dropped abruptly.

Sarai strained her ears, at once reluctant and fearful of what she would hear. Instinctively, she knew the words before they were spoken.

‘Be strong, mwanangu. It will happen soon. I know it…..’ It was a wavering croak, barely a whisper.

‘Be strong. Be strong’.

The words seemed to hang suspended between them, and then they fell like the fading notes of an echo. A repetition was whispered through bouts of coughing. The voice was muffled by thick phlegm; but still, there was a certain clarity that seeped into Sarai’s awareness. The words seemed to reverberate like an endless, poignant song. They would haunt her forever. She was certain of it.

‘Find Mainini Grace. She will put you back into school. Don’t end up like me. Don’t end up like me’.

Please don’t say that Amai. Don’t say that. She willed her mother to stop and reached out to hold her hands, dismissing thoughts of Mainini Grace. She should have been there with them as promised, but it was simply inane to wish for her now.

The feverish hands quivered in her grasp. They were now claw-like and so wasted they could have been a child’s. Sarai remembered holding her young brother’s hands in the same manner and thinking then that they were like the feet of a tiny bird. Puny, and with sharp, pointed nails. She wished she had remembered to trim her mother’s nails earlier, if only to avoid these painful comparisons in recall.

Her young sister’s small hands had had a similar feel in her own hands. Little birds’ feet. The two little birds had flown, one after the other. But her father’s journey had been a slower, more agonising kind of torture. Almost like her mother’s.

Sarai steadied herself. Her voice was strong, but gentle when she spoke. ‘Do not worry. Do not worry Amai.’

In preceding years, she had perfected these very words. Do not worry Mary. Do not worry Tafara. Do not worry Baba. Over and over again, she’d repeated the words with tenderness; the pitch of her voice suitably attuned to encourage and to soothe. Always. And now it was, Do not worry Amai. She was the untouched; destined to be the survivor and the comforter.

However, despite her exterior calmness, a muddle of emotions tore at her. Fear and resentment at looming abandonment. Desire for her mother to live; to be well again so she would love and protect her as it should be. Uneasy relief that finally it would be over. Her mother would have a reprieve, and not before time……. Her heart thudded, and her thoughts withdrew to the day before yesterday.


It was only two days since they had discharged her mother from hospital. Only two days, but the bleak medical ward and its horribly caustic smells were already a distant memory. As if too embarrassed to show itself, a prescription lay concealed among numerous hospital cards in a tattered paper bag behind the door. There had been no medicines in the hospital pharmacy. It was the same last time, Sarai thought bitterly, making an effort to hold imminent tears of anger at bay.

‘You will have to look after her at home. Our out-reach nurses will support you. For now, we have done everything possible,’ the doctor had said sombrely, his voice firm and authoritative. His demeanour had been that of one who took pride in his work; one who believed his words had the power to miraculously restore Sarai’s confidence in a system that had failed her before. Several times.

They had been empty and meaningless words that were no doubt reserved for the near-to-dying. Sarai had been so angry that for one manic moment, she had seen herself grabbing the man’s neck and strangling him.

Clearly, her mother was no better than when she had been admitted into hospital a week before, if not a little worse. At the recollection, anger peaked swiftly again and collapsed. She now knew it to be a futile and exhausting emotion, and she needed her reserves.

Yesterday’s follow-up visit by the home-based care nurse had been no compensation. The woman had come empty-handed. Although she had counselled Sarai and told her what to expect near the end, denial had been so much easier to embrace. The reality was unbearable.

Making no attempt to disguise tactlessness, or simply lacking the skills to do so, the nurse had explained that there would be no need to call an ambulance; if she should be so lucky to have one coming out at all. The hospital no longer had anything to offer.



Neither had Mai Simba or the neighbours who had sometimes come to their aid. In the dead of night, Sarai knew that they only had each other. The wind howled eerily. The candle flame appeared to swirl and dance; merry and oblivious.

The nurse forgot to tell me about the pain I would feel. She forgot about me. She forgot about me……
In spite of her determination to be strong, Sarai found herself weeping silent, clandestine tears. She inclined her head, almost immediately resolute once more, thinking. Her mother should not see the tears that shimmered in her eyes and formed drops that rolled effortlessly down her cheeks.

With a quick duck of the head, she furtively wiped her face on the blanket. Its roughness scratched her cheeks, causing slight burning and stinging. Her mother appeared not to notice.

Though much quieter now, the insistent whisper continued, ‘Do not end up like me. Find Mainini Grace.’ Sunken eyes glowed unnaturally in the dim candle-light.

Sarai caressed her mother’s hands in hers, keen to reassure but no longer confident of her ability to do so. Her bemused thoughts raced, unwillingly returning to Mainini Grace. Why isn’t she here?

Silently, she nodded and squeezed the wizened hands grasped between hers, almost ready for acceptance. Hadn’t they been preparing for this eventuality together? They had been through enough to make them courageous. Words that her mother would never hear formed a lump in Sarai’s throat.

The older woman had closed her eyes. She now lay quiet, her breathing rapid and rather shallow. Her words kept ringing in Sarai’s head, distressing but at the same time strangely comforting because she knew that her mother wanted the best for her. She allowed herself to hope once again that Mainini Grace would come. Mainini was a strong, lively woman who had a way of taking charge and making things happen. Sarai knew that if anyone was capable of putting her back in school and giving her a bright future, that person was Mainini Grace. She would do everything possible to make sure her life did not reflect her mother’s. She owed it to her.


As Sarai sat, she heard from a distance, the hum of a car engine. The sound became louder as it approached the dwelling. Then there was a brief silence followed by the resonance of doors banging. A dog barked and a few distant yelps of solidarity ensued. She heard hushed voices, mingling with the thud of footsteps. Her mother stirred and tugged weakly at the blanket.

Sarai wondered if the landlord, Mai Simba’s husband, was back from one of his cross-border trips. He often arrived late at night. She pictured his children rushing out of the main house; falling over each other in their eagerness to welcome him back home. Jealousy surfaced. They had a father who was alive, when hers was not.

A soft knock on the door interrupted her musing. Her mother’s eyes flew open. ‘Who is it?’ she enquired in a breathless whisper.

Sarai shook her head, puzzled. Who could be calling so late? She hoped it wasn’t Mai Simba coming to spy for evidence that might suggest that they had broken yet another household rule. Reluctantly she stood up and dragged her feet towards the door. She pulled the handle.

The bizarre vision that she encountered was that of her mother standing at the doorstep. The right side of her body was concealed in shadow; the left side was harshly illuminated by the glare of an electric bulb shining from Mai Simba’s veranda.

Sarai stood frozen in shock as she took in the sunken eyes, the gaunt cheeks, and the emaciated form that was dwarfed by an oversized coat. At her mother’s feet were three suitcases. She shook her head, light-headed and confused by this peculiarity. She remembered weird stories of how dying people sometimes said goodbye to their loved ones in the form of apparitions.

‘Amai? How did you……..?’ Her voice trembled in query and died in her throat.

The woman held out her hands and stepped forward. ‘Please don’t tell me she is gone…….’ The voice was fearful. It was not her mother’s voice. It was familiar, but unexpected. Certainly not like this. Not coming from this spectre.

Sarai found herself shaking uncontrollably. In that moment, she understood everything, and her unanswered questions immediately found answers. Reality and reason merged, eliminating the need for an explanation.

And then came the realisation of what must surely have been fate’s calculated conspiracy against her. All her expectations crashed in that instant. She felt as if something had exploded in her head, and a strident buzz was triggered somewhere deep inside.

‘No-o!’ Screaming, she launched herself forcefully on the woman. She grabbed the scrawny neck and squeezed. They fell backwards in a writhing heap on Mai Simba’s cabbage patch. The woman struggled and gasped.


Sarai thought she heard her mother calling out to her, but she felt something stronger compelling her to focus on squeezing harder. The buzzing in her head grew louder, drowning out everything.

It was her anguished hysteria that severed the stillness of night; summoning Mai Simba and the neighbours. She felt hands pulling her from all directions, trying to break her hold on the woman who now lay on top of crushed cabbages, lifeless and with glazed eyes.

‘Why you too? Why you too, Mainini Grace?’ Sarai sobbed brokenly as they led her away to Mai Simba’s veranda.

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