Natsai would never have admitted she was a hoarder. But since recently downsizing to a smaller flat, she realised she had a lot of excess baggage in her life. Brand new kitchen utensils and even clothes were still in their original packages, unused. Books were her greatest weakness. Some had never been read, and she couldn't remember what had driven her to purchase or collect some of the genres; for example, she had never been a great science fiction reader. Some, Natsai recalled, had been passed down by her much older sister Chipo who, in her restlessness and constantly being on the move, discarded possessions in her wake.
With limited space in her new flat, Natsai had cast sentimentality aside and decided to donate Chipo's old castoffs to a children's home, which had recently appealed for second-hand books for an upcoming fundraising jumble sale. As she sifted through a pile, a small, coloured photograph flew out of the back flap of one of the hard copies.
Natsai turned it over, trying to make sense of the connection between the faces and the writing on the back in black ink. Cross-legged on the floor, she examined the photograph more intently. Although yellowing, the words "The love of my life XXX" appeared to relate to a young woman holding a sleeping baby wrapped in a fluffy white blanket. The woman had a corkscrew coil hairstyle like Bob Marley in his younger days. She was smiling with her head tilted while proudly holding up the baby slightly to the camera. Compared to the baby, she had a broad, attractive nose complimenting a rich brown skin tone, unlike her baby's paler complexion. Natsai concluded that it was a mother and child, and her fleeting yet strong resemblance suggested someone Natsai thought she knew.
Turning the photograph over yet again, Natsai thought there was a resemblance with her mother in her youth. But the baby was too young to identify, and if it was Chipo, her older sister, Natsai felt sure she had never seen the photograph before.
As she took a break during her unpacking, she called Chipo, who was also her confidante.
"Hie, were you expecting another call? The speed you answered…."
"Oh, hello, little sister. How are you settling into your new apartment? Yes, I was expecting someone else. Is everything ok? How's the unpacking going?"
"Ok, so far. Not sure I will fit everything into this matchbox! It looked bigger when it was empty! That's exactly why I'm calling you. Since I no longer have space, I'm getting rid of the old books you gave me. A small photograph fell out of one of them, and I'm assuming it must be yours. It's of a baby in the arms of someone who looks like Mum. Perhaps even…"
"I'm not sure which photograph you are talking about. So come over, and we can catch up," Chipo interjected.
When Natsai arrived, Chipo was sitting in her sun lounge with a small gin and tonic. After pecking Chipo on the cheek, Natsai sat down looking concerned, "I thought you had given up alcohol! Have you relapsed already? It can't have been more than one month?"
Chipo brushed the comments aside while looking pensive with wrinkles furrowing her brow as her bloodshot eyes flitted across Natsai's face. There was also a vague smell of cigarette smoke but no ashtray in sight.
"Is this the photograph? Yes, I remember now. That is me when I had just started working."
"Who is the baby?"
"It's a long story," said Chipo.
"That's what you usually say when you don't want to share, Sis! If you don't feel comfortable talking about whatever it is, you don't have to. I was just surprised to see it among your books."
"As I said, it's a long story. To be honest, Natsai, I'm not in a good place right now and would rather not open up old wounds. Let's talk about you. How's your new job? Mum says you've hit the ground running. Good for you!"
Natsai took the cue and shared her first week's experiences as a junior editor at a local newspaper. She had been thrown into the deep end, with her first assignment on newly arrived refugees in her community. The photograph was not mentioned again.
A few weeks later, Natsai called in at her parents' place after her first pay-check, which she celebrated by buying lilies for her mother. Natsai decided against buying anything yet for her father, who was usually hard to please. Over a cup of tea accompanied by her mother's victoria sandwich cake, she said,
"Mum, I had a strange conversation with Chipo recently. You know how she loves to talk. Anyway, she was rather cagey during my whole visit and fobbed me off with all sorts of topics, but not the one I wanted to hear about- this photograph I found among her old books. Do you know who these people are?"
"Let me put my glasses on."
"Chipo gave me her old books some time ago, and this fell out. I asked who was in the photograph since there's some family resemblance, but I couldn't get a straight answer from her."
The parents passed it between them, looking at each other in silence. Natsai sensed that she had touched a raw nerve as her father put his newspaper aside.
Natsai continued, "I guessed the woman is Chipo, and I was right. She looked much younger and happier than of late. But the baby, I have no idea. Babies at that age all look the same to me."
Father glanced at her mother and said gravely, "We've been putting it off for long enough. You might as well tell her."
"Darling," said Natsai's mother, "I think you need to sit down and whatever we are going to tell you, please remember we kept it from you because we love you and thought it was for the best. We kept missing opportunities to discuss this as you grew up, and in the end, we were just too terrified that things will fall apart."
"Mum, Baba, you are making me scared. Just say it out! I'm sure I am mature enough to take it."
"The baby is you. You were a few months old."
"And it's Chipo holding me in her arms?"
"My love, yes, it is your sister Chipo. She's…."
"I can see some resemblance with you. But why do I feel as if you haven't told me everything? Tell me, please!"
"Because it is a long story."
"If I hear that phrase again, I will scream! Someone tell me, is there some secret I'm the only one who doesn't know?"
"Natsai, Chipo is cradling you, as I mentioned before."
"Baba and I are your grandparents. Chipo is not your sister. She's your mother."