Bureau of Meteorology
The blind man sold storms
from the back of a taxicab.
The taxicab was stolen,
the rain had swollen it yellow
like a grub belly.
Thunderclouds split his fingers
with bruises; little bones
poked through the skin.
Cold ash scorched
the frank blackness
of a dozen fog-heaps.
He was selling them
at a car-boot sale
in the school playground,
we fingered them
and counted the loose threads.
They were not a fashionable length,
and hung shapeless
on wire coat-hangers.
Our mothers might have worn them
to dinner parties. Almost new,
he said, they still hold their tears.
There’s no more like them.
Rub them on your mouth,
it’s like drinking the Adriatic.
The Diamond Sutra: Yesterday’s Songs
Homer sings the gods
Girl.” He strings his lyre
if he’s got
the notion, molds calliopes
bread then throws them
to the wine-soaked
there is a man from berlin in my closet
my mind rears up
can an elephant speak three languages?
The man is silent.
THERE IS A MAN FROM BERLIN
gawk from their living rooms.
dreams illustrated with candy red syrup.
I had a burrito.
the body is over 60 percent water.
heavier than air
I call the police.
they take him away.
I go back
to my routine.
It was strange. Well, maybe just unexpected. I slowly made my way into the car-jammed parking lot at 2:33 pm the Friday after Thanksgiving, hating myself for choosing to do a story on shopping malls, or America, depending on how you look at it. I was hoping to catch a fight with crazy ladies to prove to the world that this is not cool, but I didn’t.
October 25, 2008.
I. The urbanization of an un-urban (therefore un-cool) generation.
I walk past the hanging outfits, or pieces of such. You know, the collared shirts, the pants with the holes, the sweater that appears to be incredibly short for the length of the sleeves, the want-to-be-bowling-shoes. I walk past, but not without touching that incredibly soft-looking shirt.
I end up at the bookshelf located in the back of the store. It is stocked with books that urban folk would think are cool look cool reading. Sprawled on the floor is a teenage couple, she with Andy Warhol pink hair and he with Barbie blonde. The two laugh and whisper and laugh some more as they turn the pages. Being incredibly curious, I stand behind them pretending to look at the books on the shelf instead of the one in their hands. At the time I thought I was discreet but looking back, I can see I wasn’t. The couple closed the book and walked away holding hands. But before they did, they placed the Handjob Handbook back on the shelf.
While waiting on line to buy Chuck Klosterman’s Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto I overhear a mother argue over the purpose of the item she was buying for her pre-teenage son.
“But it lights up!” the boy says.
Thank God it lights up, otherwise the bowling pin would have been a silly purchase.
Beck is playing as I walk out of Urban Outfitters.
What are you going to do
When those walls are falling down
Falling Down on you.
Compilation of research October 2008- December 2008.
II. The writings on the wall.
The following are statements, rhetorical questions, random words, etc. written on fitting room walls. Note: the responses are also by anonymous wall writers.
I’m sorry mom. I’m sorry we can’t all be size 2 like you. I’m sorry I weigh 130 lbs instead of 125. I’m sorry you think I look fat in everything I wear. I’m fuckin sorry.
You’re not alone
After you have exhausted what there is in business, politics, conviviality, and so on – have found that none of these finally satisfy, or permanently wear – what remains? Nature remains – Walt Whitman
You’re a hipster
C’est commence maintenant
You don’t speak French well, obviously
Christina was here 6.13.08
No one cares
Or Girl without life
November 11, 2008.
III. Of dogs and bears.
I first heard the squeaks of the mice. Then I was able to distinguish the chirps of the birds, the…whatever noise it is guinea pigs make, the barks of dogs, etc. Under normal circumstances, I would purposefully try to deafen myself to the sounds of the caged animals, but for the purpose of this story, I didn’t and entered the Pet Center.
I counted 44 – 44 blue, white and yellow parakeets jumping up and down in all directions in one cage. In another cage, a more subdued atmosphere prevailed as two baby mice fed from their mother as their roommate ran on a wheel. A sign read: MOM AND CHILDREN NOT FOR SALE. THANK YOU. And then there were the cages behind a wall of glass. The whole wall was filled of such cages occupied by dogs, but I could not get myself away from occupant 143817. He was alone. His body jerked up and down as though he had a bad case of the hiccups. 143817 is a Basset Hound: born on July 14, 2008.
“Where is the Basset Hound from?” I asked the fat, young woman with greasy hair.
She pulled out a beat-up black binder and began flipping through the pages of Pedigree Certificates.
“It’s from Missouri,” she finally said.
“I noticed there is a sign that I should buy him because he is 50 percent off. How much is he?”
“One thousand and thirty dollars.”
I guess she didn’t have anything else to say because she closed the binder and began putting it away. So I left.
And entered Build-a-Bear. “Fuck,” I thought, “there are more choices in clothes for stuffed animals than for real people.”
You can choose everything from the profession of your bear to its skin color to the shape and size of its heart. The bear, the bunny, and the moose dressed in winter hats and mittens have the luxury of going ice skating, ice fishing or skiing, depending on which accessory the soon-to-be-mother-or-father-of-a-new-bear chooses.
“During Christmas the line goes out the door,” said an employee of Build-a-Bear.
“Giving homes to animals is a good thing, especially around the holidays,” I said.
November 28, 2008.
IV. Piecing together Black Friday.
While driving home, Stealers Wheel came on the radio.
Trying to make some sense of it all,
But I can see that it makes no sense at all,
Is it cool to go to sleep on the floor,
Cause I don’t think that I can take anymore
I don’t know if I was physically exhausted from the day, too concentrated on singing along to the song, or too occupied by recalling the scene from Reservoir Dogs, but I could not piece together a larger picture of my day. All I have are notes.
A fucking coat check booth in the center of the mall and kids sitting on the floor resting against each other, like tired newsboys from a Jacob Riis photograph. And the sound of pop corn popping and the smell of butter and cinnamon pretzels and “It’s always Christmas in my heart” is playing as I notice myself in the glass of a store window behind which a man is spraying a woman’s hand with water as a woman talks loudly into her phone to a person who is probably holding the phone away from his/her ear because this woman’s voice is about two octaves too high for a cell phone conversation. A tree is planted in the floor. And moving through the food court is like playing Frogger except it’s real life and I was the frog, dodging and moving and witnessing a woman pushing a baby carriage with lots of bags hanging off both handles. She turns. No baby, only bags. I laugh and walk away, and a pretty girl hands me a scratch-and-win card for Steve Madden, “Everyone is a winner,” and I wish I needed a new pair of shoes, but re-think that wish as I walk past a packed Steve Madden, and then I go to the bathroom. A man pressures his ten-year-old daughter into going into the men’s room because the woman’s line is too long, and he doesn’t want to wait, but the girl wins, and the man waits and I do some more research for the writings on the wall section of this story and find a Bukowski quote about God creating poets but not much poetry, which makes me happy, not that God doesn’t create poetry, but that people read Bukowski. I’m getting tired. I wait in line for a coffee, and a woman, another loud cell phone talker, is complaining to the phone that she is going to be spending her entire break waiting on line for a burger and fries: “Its ridiculous. They only have two people working register on Black Friday.” Three people are working. ɐuıɹqɐs, the woman who took my order for a cup of coffee, is wearing her name tag upside down and figurines of American’s favorite icons come free with a kids meal.
Slip Slidin’ Away
(with apologies to Paul Simon & Kurt Vonnegut)
When I get up in the morning,
all I can think about
is getting through the day
and going to bed when it’s over.
When I go to bed in the evening,
all I can think about
is making it through the night
and getting up when it’s over.
So it goes.
One Stark Trumpet Peals
At eve, old melodies unwomb,
old ragings wake
stringy hair unbunned,
to supper on a loin.
As they feed,
and so they
or, better, crawl
toward the dawn,
for in the din
that eddies in each ear,
they can hear
one stark trumpet peal
and so they creep
toward the sun
one more time,
Women of Marange
Her wrinkles disappeared as she reached long to collect the plates. Spatters of apple butter ringed the jar on the white tablecloth. The apples at the market cost three million dollars each. Patience wondered how many apples were crushed to make the small jar, how much apple was in those spots sinking and expanding into the delicate weave.
Vic’s voice rumbled through the house, attacking her from the door of the kitchen and through the open window. Her heart pulsed up her throat toward her head, shaking her thoughts.
“Tawanda! Where the bloody hell are the tractor keys?” Through the kitchen window, she saw Tawanda walking across the yard to the open French windows of the living room, a grease-stained towel over his shoulder.
“Patience! Tawanda!” Even from the kitchen doorway, Patience saw Vic’s suntan darken with his anger.
“Now why the hell would they take the keys?” Vic roared at Patience, who began to answer, but his rant crushed her words. He turned toward his newly arrived niece. “Now, Julie, let me tell you about these people—no sense.” Patience shifted to her good leg. “Julie dear, you haven’t been here long, but in Zimbabwe you have the worst crime rate in the world.”
“I thought that was South Africa.”
“But we have the best thieves. They’ll steal that sandal off your foot while you’re sitting there. You must be careful, dear.” He smiled, leaning down to snatch at his niece’s foot, then glanced suspiciously at Patience. Her good leg had a sore on the big toe, so she shifted back to her bad knee. Tawanda appeared at the open window, which looked out on the jacaranda-filled yard. He seemed especially dark with the sun at his back and the white lace curtains framing him.
“Now, Tawanda,” lectured Vic, pacing the rug in front of Julie as if giving a lesson. “In a country like this, do you think someone who would steal a tractor wouldn’t know how to start it without the keys?”
Tawanda slowly shook his head, but Vic did not notice. He seemed to be addressing Julie. “I never take the keys out. What’s the point? If they are going to steal it, they will steal it with or without the keys. They make off with a lorry while the driver goes for a piss. See, Julie, they don’t reason like you and I. No sense.” He tapped his head. Patience stepped back into the kitchen but could hear him through the windows. She tried to focus on the scratchy music from Tawanda’s radio in his shack in the far corner of the yard and the prattle of the hungry chickens below the window. But the whole house absorbed Vic’s voice.
She began washing their breakfast dishes. Vic had demanded a big meal for Julie’s arrival, but most of it sat cold on their plates. In better times, Patience had had bread and tea before work. This morning she had eaten mealie porridge when she woke at four-thirty. She still had more than some people in Marange. Tawanda had told her that the woman by the river stole stalks of sugar cane to feed her baby. Patience hurried past that part of the river, where the crazy woman’s hut sat and the water grew murky. The walk was long from Patience’s hut on the outskirts of Marange to Vic’s house. She was hungry again. A whole piece of toast was left on Julie’s plate with enough beans and sausage and egg to soak through the thick slice. Turning the faucet on high, Patience put the bread in her mouth with two bites. She chewed fast, afraid Vic might find her. He told her to give the leftovers to his heavy-paunched hound, Livingston.
Vic’s voice sounded louder as Thomas Mapfumo’s voice stopped singing from Tawanda’s radio and the chickens wandered to the far mango tree. Scrubbing harder, she tried to scrape away his words with the residue on his plate, but the windowpane shivered with his voice. She stared hard at the mugwenanguruwe tree. She didn’t know the English word, or if it had one. Murungu don’t eat the gwena berries, only Zimbabweans because it is a wild fruit. It was here before the murungu came with their own seeds and fruit. Every week, Vic ordered Tawanda to dig up the tree, but he never did. Sometimes the gwena were their only meal. The delicate yellow and purple flowers looked like little children to Patience. They were pure; she could always see them outside of the church window in Marange. But Vic wanted them gone.
”They really must go.” His voice rustled the white curtains. “Especially Patience.”
The heavy food seemed to push up her throat. Her heart pounded out the words. Gone. No work. No work here, no work in the village. Inflation made her pay almost worthless. The month before, she bought sugar and took millet to the grinding mill. The price on the flour-powdered wall had been crossed out several times. Ten million a bucket. The week before, she could only buy cooking oil and did not even have bulgur to grind.
“She’s just like the others, Julie. Mind your things around her. When she’s cleaning your room, make sure you’re around.”
“What’d she do?”
“Things have gone missing. Lots of things. Things only she would have access to. Remember my nice watch your mother bought me in New York? Gone this morning. She was here after dark, cleaning for you. I knew I shouldn’t have gone to bed before she left.”
Patience wanted to shout, “I am not stealing. You have a two-story house with not even an asbestos roof, but tiles. Tiles! Do you know how grass roofs leak? You lose things you have so many. You fill your bin with treasures that I sneak out when I empty your waste.”
But she didn’t yell this, only silently crept on callused feet into the bedroom. Vic always kept his gold watch by his alarm clock on his nightstand. Because she had to work late the night before to prepare the room for Julie, she had seen him. At ten-thirty, after dark, Vic had risen from bed. Sweeping the dirt away from the front yard, Patience watched Vic greet several other murungu, Americans. They disappeared inside. Patience continued to sweep the dusty ground with her grass broom, but moved toward the open window. Squatted for sweeping, she was low to the ground. She had heard them. The Americans needed Zimbabwean money. Vic needed usa. From around the corner of the house, Patience watched them leave with a bread crate of cash. The light on the veranda showed the red tint of the money—red. All ten million dollar bills. Vic glanced at his watch and slipped it into the pocket of his robe before creeping back to bed. She had seen him.
More thunder from the living room: “She’s a thief.” But Patience did not yell that she was not.
She had learned to conceal the creak in her knee by shuffling. His hunter-green robe draped over the leather chair in his room. Patience felt it when she walked in. A life in a pocket. A chicken. She could have eggs again. They were her favorite. More food than she could ever buy with her wages, the wages she was losing anyway. She would never go mad, dying of hunger, like the woman by the river. Cooking oil leaked from the pocket. Bread bulged from the pocket. Vic said she had it. Vic said she must go. It was already hers. She must leave.
Slowly she unwound the towel she used as a headscarf. She placed the watch flat on her shaven head as if it were a bucket of water and wrapped the worn-cream material around it. Patience could feel it ticking, pulsing on her head like a heart.
Pressure began to push against the stick and slow her soft swirling motion. This lotion cost her thirty million less than the bottles in the store, but still two weeks savings. Before inflation she could buy lotion even though she was poor. Clara had not felt the soothing touch of her own hand covered in lotion for years. Tonight would be different. She had spent her wages on the soap and candles to melt into lotion. She even bought the green instead of the brown soap. Clara liked watching the candle drip into the pot, falling apart to make something better. As the soap expanded into liquid, it radiated freshness around her hut. The heat hugged her, exciting her insides and relaxing her muscles.
She wished she had not shaved her head. When she lived in her mother’s hut, the women sat for hours braiding and styling. Once, her sister Silent bought fake hair to weave into her braids. Her mother chided her for the expense, demanding to know where she had found the money. But Silent never told. After they had washed the porridge pot, the girls began. They jerked Silent’s head in three directions as they combed. The pulling and braiding lasted until dark, when they stopped for the day. By dusk the next night, the boys were driving the cattle home, and she looked beautiful.
The beauty salon in Murwira now charged fifty million for a straightening treatment and styling. Clara had shaved her head when the price jumped to twenty million. They used to have beautiful coins in Zimbabwe decorated with fish and birds. Now only bills. Even several million dollars was worthless. Clara sometimes found a 10,000-dollar bill lying on the ground near the shops. No one picked them up, but she did. She stuffed them behind the old clock hanging on the wall of her hut. It hadn’t worked even when she was a little girl, but her mother had given it to her as a present when she left, part of her lobora. She hung it opposite the door of her hut. The clock was sturdy, its wood frame painted with birds and little white women in pink dresses.
Through the open door, Clara watched the sun begin to fall behind the rocks, which delicately balanced on top of one another, sometimes only touching with the smallest surface like fingertips. The top rocks looked as if they were about to roll down the others, but they were immobile like her clock. With the evening creeping in, a light breeze slipped over the rock mountains and wrapped the fragrant smoke around her. The red dust of her yard softened to the color earth ought to be, how the fields were before the droughts. Clara untied her faded blue scarf and unveiled her head slowly, as if someone were watching. She lightly ran her long fingers over her smooth head. Many of the village women had heads like mangos or bodies like young baobab trees and would not shave their heads. They let their hair grow nappy, catching dirt and bugs until it became a thorny bush. But Clara was too proud.
Inside her hut, she pulled off her extra-large men’s shirt and undid the knot in her skirt, which had lost its elastic with its previous owner. Even though it gaped at her waist, she had to tug it over her wide hips. The clothes fell to the ground, taking with them all the dust and work of the day. The hut was silent except for the light sloshing of water as she pulled the pail close to the fire. She watched the water tremble as drops fell from her heavy rag. The water rolled down her back with beads of sweat. Rising from a squat, she pulled her shoulders back to stand completely erect. The cracked door hung open from rusty hinges. The shadows of the mango tree reached in for her. She rubbed the cool water down her chest and belly, feeling as soft and fresh as ripened fruit. A mango queen. Jasper had planted them before he left. But now they were all hers. The mangos: something to eat, something to sell.
She knew she had to eat before she left. The nights she did not, she began shaking after dark. But tonight, though tonight she did not even care about eating, tonight had to be perfect. She had to be strong and beautiful. The sadza was sticking to the pot since she forgot to stir it even though it sat next to the lotion. The round black pot, the heart of the room. The flames caressing it brightened as the mosquitoes began to hum. Again squatting, she forgot her stirring, tracing the lines of her firm thighs with her eyes. Was she even still hungry for food?
Her lotion cooled in the corner. The darkness sank around the flames. She brought the pot of lotion near the fire. Standing, she bent from the hips, straightening her legs, feeling the attractive curve behind her. Perhaps a naughty boy would be driving a stray cow home and see her silhouette by the fire. She curved her back and let her chest and backside reach out, sure the shape would pull everything to her. That was how she would move tonight.
Feeling the luxury of the cool dark, she lit the second of two candles she had bought for the lotion. She had never had candles, but tonight… In the glass covering the clock face, she could just make out her reflection. As she rubbed the lotion on her head, she began to think herself even more beautiful without hair. Her high cheekbones were better defined by her hunger, but that was the only place where it showed. The rest of her curved in pleasing roundness over her head and down her shoulders, plump around her chest and hips. Her eyes curved large like those of a leopard, her family totem. She felt its strength surge within her.
She should have run away when she learned Jasper’s totem. Her children could not be mice, and she knew it. Mouse totems were common, but when she looked at him, she knew it was too deep within him. He scurried and stored without her knowing. While he had been off in town, a woman came to her. The woman was skinny with long, straight fake hair. Theresa pronounced her own name quickly and began speaking in English even though her complexion was a deep honey. Under the makeup, Clara could see damaged skin from the lightening treatments. A girl from town. She claimed to be Jasper’s wife.
In Shona, Clara told her that she was mistaken. Clara was Jasper’s first and only wife. But she could feel mouse feet scurrying up her spine, mouse teeth biting in her stomach. Still she stood tall. Theresa pulled some children’s clothes from her fake-leather bag. The same clothes Clara thought that she had lost the week before, washing at the river. Theresa continued in English. She had brought the clothes because she knew Clara wouldn’t believe her story. Jasper had given her the clothes to sell at the market to buy a new purse.
In Shona, Clara told her that the clothes weren’t his. She had worked in the fields for three Sundays for the murungu who ran the orphanage. On the last day, they gave her those clothes. They were her children’s clothes. Theresa said that Jasper was paying her school fees. She was studying to be a teacher. Clara did not tell Theresa, but Jasper had not given her money in four months.
A whole season had faded away since Theresa had come. But tonight, Clara did not need Jasper’s money. She had saved for tonight.
Jasper still refused to give Clara money after she had confronted him about Theresa. He said that she has the fields of maize, she doesn’t need money. But ten years of drought had scorched the earth to sand and rock. This year, they had two months of flooding. The water came and took all the sand its absence had built but also took with it most of her maize. The heavens let everything fall at once, and then came more drought to kill what the water had left. The leaves on her maize crinkled into gold and flaked off to the dry ground. But she had the two mango trees. When mangos came, she walked twenty kilometers to the junction with a bucket on her head. In the shade she lounged, not ready to run to the cars like the other women. But certain men always bought from her because she was beautiful. Weston was one. She knew he would be there tonight.
The plain sadza seemed beneath her even though she had gone without relish for many months. Tonight she picked at it, noticing how it tasted drier since the rains had disappeared from Zimbabwe. She threw her scrubbing water into the pot, not caring about the remaining sadza. But she thought of her children, sitting at mai Mazveta’s house, probably hungry, and threw out the water. Maybe some sadza would be saved. She could not be like that horrible woman in the hut near the muddy part of the river. Clara put a rag over the pot of spoiled sadza and placed it by the wall. Without the pot, the flames jumped. She relit the candle. Her shadow grew with the fire, filling the hut. All hers. No man. No children. Still naked, she felt the cool air tickling her legs. Her whole body was so fresh and new, she almost didn’t recognize the worn, broken suitcase she pulled from under the bed. The lock had fallen off, so she had to lift it carefully from the bottom. Under a torn shirt and three shredded rags was her package wrapped in newspaper. She unfolded the paper as delicately as she had undressed. A pale blue jumper. Short for the village, just above the knees, but her mother had sewn it after a fashion from town. She had worn the summer-sky calico when she left her father’s hut for her husband’s. But now the hut was hers. She would not let him return.
She watched her eyes in the clock as she pushed the pearly buttons through their holes. The beer hall would already be full when she arrived. She could hear drums in the distance. Drinking songs. The men of Marange without jobs would have already finished several pints of sorghum beer, feeling as free as they believed they could be. The brown plastic bottle would look strange in her hand, but she knew the beer would be sweet and warm. They might laugh when she came. “No church tonight, eh, sister?” But she would pay twelve million for two liters of Chibuka, shake it, and drink with them until she felt like they did, laughing and dancing. And Weston would be there. He would buy her a drink like he bought her mangos.
The forgotten fire smoldered away. She watched the rest of her face go dark in the clock while her eyes burned. Her body had taken the warmth of the fire. Her heart beat strong. The drums from the beer hall seemed to throw sparks into the air. Clara ran her lotion-soft fingers over her smooth head down her nose to her smiling lips and stepped out into the night.
She sat under the munjii tree, eating nyii berries. Nomatter liked the dried ones the best, leaving the yellow tear-shaped ones for the wrinkled brown ones. Her frail arm tried to reach, but wouldn’t straighten like it used to. The dried nyii disappeared from the dirt around her, even the seeds. She chewed the whole thing. Ants tread over the crevices left by the fruit. The black bugs over the red earth around the yellow fruit. A stick was poking through her worn-cream skirt. She had ignored the discomfort, saving her energy to collect all the nyii. But now, she forced her arm behind her and pushed her shoulders against the tree trunk to lift herself. Her body fell back, stretching her soiled undergarments tight against her skin. The familiar, uncomfortable moistness always startled her. Sometimes warm, but mostly cold. She took the stick and tried to write her name in the dirt. N. O. M. But she forgot after that. In primary school, she used to write her name with chalk on the floor. She must have learned a letter a year. After three years, her father told her that he could not afford school fees.
Looking up from her husking, Margery called: “Child, are you not eating all of the fruit? You must eat and grow strong again.” The groundnuts from her field went in the plastic jars with Margery’s big lettering “PENUTBUTER.” In the shade of the hut, Margery sat legs in front like Nomatter, but back bent in work. Nomatter needed to be against a tree or a wall. The flies rested on the inner corners of her eyes; her arms were too tired to swat. She saw a nyii so brown and shriveled that it looked like a stone. Though she stretched, the big knot in the middle of her arm wouldn’t straighten. She used to think of it as her elbow when she had had enough muscle to bend it. She shifted her weight and fell toward the fruit. With the thump, the flies buzzed their outrage until she was settled again.
“Nomatter! What is wrong with you, child?” Margery huffed as she shelled the last groundnut in her lap and set aside the dark bowl. In the dirt, Nomatter lay chewing the nyii as Margery tried to lift her. “You smell like the rubbish pile at the market.” Nomatter didn’t mind the stench anymore, only the feel, as if she were sitting without her skirt on the bottom of the river. Muddy and gravely. The river where they washed the clothes seemed constantly to soak her. She was dirty laundry. “Child, I can’t keep changing you. There is no money for soap. Do you even know how much soap cost last week? Ten million. Just for the brown, not even the green. Ten million.”
Nomatter closed her eyes to picture the open-air market. People with the long bars of soap under their arms, scurrying past the refuse heap. When she had bought soap, she held it to her nose as she passed the heap. Flies buzzed over the rotting cabbages. Piles and piles of dying food. The once bright greens fading into invisible brown, disappearing but leaving a lingering stench. She, too, was shrinking and stinking into nothing, her shoulders caving into her ribs. Her head bent as if it would dive into the dirt, like her gogo before she was buried under the ancestral anthill.
She had helped her gogo wash clothes in the river. Nomatter liked running in the rushing water. The other children said she was fast. If she had gone to secondary school, she would have competed against children from other schools. They might have let her race even though she was not in school, but she married at thirteen. With firewood balanced on the palm leaf on her head, she had stopped by the field during athletics week. Nomatter’s toe burrowed a hole into the ground, wanting to run. The girls with whom she had sung about the leopard in school gathered at the line. Two girls crowded in each lane. The clumsy ones would twist their ankles when they slipped into the ditches a farmer had plowed in the dirt to mark the lanes. They held sticks to pass as batons, and Nomatter reached up to hold onto a stick atop her head. Her lean muscles tightened, and she almost jumped when the teacher said, “Go.”
When her sister was ten, Nomatter’s father said he had no more use for her. His younger daughter could cook now, and he made her stay home from school, refusing to pay the fees. He no longer led Nomatter into the hut in the late afternoon when the women took their buckets to the dam. He needed money, and only one man offered lobora for her. Three chickens. She would be the first wife. Her father said she was blessed. Her gogo would have said she was too young, but she had been buried during the hottest week of the last dry season. The dirt turned to dust as the men tried to dig a place for her on the family anthill.
Nomatter’s husband’s hut was on top of the doma where the baboons lived. Nomatter moved slowly, collecting firewood; she was afraid to take a wrong step and fall off the mountain. She had never been so close to the clouds. At first she thought her body was becoming lighter because she was in the sky, but she was only losing weight. Her husband’s maize refused to grow on the rocky slope. She could see the lines of her muscles as she climbed up and down the doma. It was a long hike to her husband’s church.
On Saturday afternoons, the drums groaned, and she wandered to the clearing. The preacher said the women should be thankful that their husbands let them go to church. Their husbands were drinking Chibuka at the beer hall, littering the plastic blue lids on the wooden steps. They came to the church meetings on Thursday nights only to gather together for the beer hall. Nomatter hated the dark heat of Thursday nights—the bodies jumping with the sparks of the fire. After the service, she knew she would climb the mountain alone with the moon.
She had felt it coming amidst the red of a Thursday night. Her heart pounded with the drumming and stomping. The men pulled her breath from her as they swirled around with their drums, the white garments red from the towering flames. Since she was with child, she could not dance with the other women and sat under the tree at the edge of the shadows. As the men beat harder, she grew hotter. Sweat burst from her brow as if she were harvesting groundnuts in summer. The child wanted to get out. She felt like a prison. The men’s skirts flared and twirled. They jumped, pushing their drums away from their bodies and twisting into the beat. Even the fire seemed to spin. She wanted to run, but her swollen belly held her down.
The hut was cool, but she felt like fire. The child’s cries scorched her stomach. Maybe the child was fighting back the fire she had sensed at the church the night before. Her husband had left her in the hut to go to the beer hall. Even though the sun was high above, dripping through the thatched roof, the hut was dark. Sweat trickled down her forehead as she heaved. The child was fighting, clawing. Nomatter felt it reaching. Panting, she balanced herself on her bent elbows and looked between her wet thighs. A hand. A hand was reaching out.
Her husband found her curled like his baby sister on the mat. But her skirt clung to her legs, drenched, and a dark stain was growing around her. The prophet did not approve of doctors, so her husband sent for Gideon, a church leader, to bring holy water to wash Nomatter. Her gogo’s sister, Margery, heard that she was giving birth and climbed up the doma to her. Margery said they needed the doctor because Nomatter was so young, but Gideon said no. God will provide. He poured holy water over Nomatter while the prophet Saint John watched from his faded photograph on the wall.
Her throat grew dry like day-old cow droppings. By the second day, she was quiet, sweating beneath the holy water streaming down her forehead and between her shoulder blades. She watched her belly, every curve visible under her wet brown dress. She thought it moved. Nomatter knew it was a girl by the way she felt. Delight. That was her name. Her husband would want a biblical one, but she knew the child already. It was a girl and Delight. They were together in a way that she knew she could not be with a boy. Boys don’t hurt; Nomatter could feel the girl hurting inside her.
On the third day, her husband returned to the beer hall. Nomatter asked Margery to take the small hand and pull. She knew Delight would not come when men were around. Margery lifted Nomatter’s skirt, still moist in spots. Her belly bloomed large over the narrow hips—girl’s hips. Margery knew that the baby was sideways inside the child’s frame. She touched the small hand. It was cold. Even in the dark hut, she saw it was blue. With her withered arm around Nomatter’s swollen waist, the old woman helped her down the doma. Dead leaves made their feet slip on the rocks. Tiny fingers brushed against Nomatter’s legs with every step. In the sand, Nomatter saw drops of brownish liquid. They fell from inside her.
Margery left Nomatter by the side of the road as she ran to the orphanage. A murungu there had a pickup truck. Nomatter’s body was weak but heavy. She could not move to the shade of the mango tree, so she lay in the sun. September, the hottest month. She felt the brown liquid creep down her leg. She knew it was not from the heat because it was slower and thicker than her sweat, which streamed along the lines of her young muscles.
The pain was the same in the back of the truck. On the plastic mat, she felt the dirt road turn to gravel, then the paved highway. Margery thought they would just go to the clinic, but the murungu insisted on the hospital in Mutare. The paved road was the worst: so smooth so they moved so fast; then, crash, a pothole, and Delight stormed inside her. Another one. She held her breath in anticipation of the next until she passed out in the sun.
As they helped her out of the pickup truck, she saw brown drops fall on the white plastic mattress. They did not run in liquid streams, but just sat there in drops, trembling under the sputters of the dying engine. The hospital lift to the second floor maternity ward had not worked for two years. Nomatter paused for the pain after the first step. She brought her other bare foot to the step. Margery held her hand, but the old woman was too brittle to hold up the pregnant girl. After two flights, a sign on the wall greeted her. A nurse pointed to it, asking if she had brought food and toilet paper for her stay.
They lifted her onto a white metal bed with no mattress. Nomatter’s lower back pressed hard into the taut springs. She did not understand what the nurses were saying. Someone was sick. Let my Delight be well, she repeated to herself, biting her tongue to keep from screaming. Her husband would have told her to pray to God if he had been there. But God seemed even farther away than her husband. Nomatter looked down over her small breasts and swelling stomach between her dusty feet. The nurses shook their heads in their starched white uniforms. A voice whispered in her ear, old but strong, Margery. The nurse had told her that they did not have anesthetics or sutures to cut out the baby, but neither girl nor woman knew what that meant. I’m scared, Nomatter wanted to tell Margery, but everything went red.
The lights burnt bright behind her eyelids, red was pressing in on her from outside and bursting out from within. A child, even a girl child, cannot take pain like this, Nomatter thought, Delight must be giving it all to her. The fire from the church, from her husband, from her father, all burst inside of her. The nurse told Margery it was Nomatter’s uterus. Nomatter didn’t know what that meant, but she knew the baby was gone.
Nomatter was glad she had not told her husband about her father. He would have said that Delight’s death was God punishing her for sinning with her father. But she knew God would have punished her anyway. Not for the sin. Just to hurt her. Margery did not make her go back to her father, to her husband, to the church. She let her sit in the shade and eat shriveled nyii, while she harvested her small field of groundnuts. Nomatter weighed less than a child, but Margery could not lift her easily to change her. Even if she could, they had no money for soap to wash her garments. The nurses told Margery that Nomatter’s uterus was rotting. They did not understand. They only knew that brown mud continued to pour from Nomatter. She sat in it all day and lay on it all night. No screams scratched her throat, but she quietly groaned with a soft, sticky pain.
Nomatter pushed away more of the big yellow nyii to find another brown, shriveled one.
The Woman by the River
The mahewo sat between them. She had been too anxious to finish stirring, and chunks of ground maize mingled with the bubbles on the surface. The sun pushed through the holes in the thatched roof.
The swollen headed child lay across from her on the dusty ground. The cracks in the clay wall let the heat seep into the round room and hang with the stench of the stagnant river water.
The mahewo thickened as she stared at its milky bubbles clinging in clumps to the side of the bowl. The rim looked like the top of the hut’s wall, chipped and broken. She had dropped the bowl when the scorpion stung her. It crept past the child to strike her heel. The bowl chipped with each spin, spilling the sadza. A child cannot drink from a broken bowl.
The child slowly shut its eyelids. Blinks were strenuous. Flies fed on the crust in the corners of its eyes. She had abandoned swatting them away. Touching the child at all disgusted her. The dark circles sinking under its eyes pulled her in when she looked. She could get stuck. Just moving about her hut trying to avoid the child was like walking through the old gogo’s field after the rain, bare feet breaking tall grasses to keep them above the muck, then deep, wet mud. Stuck—the liquid earth clinging to her ankles, reaching up her legs to snatch at her skirt.
The mahewo filled the bowl, sat heavy in it. No food had touched the bowl for three weeks, and she did not brush away the cockroaches when they skittered over the peeling black glaze. She had seen the bowl full like this in a dream, but woke to find it empty, still upside-down on the stick next to the dead fire. But now she was awake and sniffed hard to find the weak scent of the mahewo in the heavy air. The water from the river made the mixture darker than mahewo should be. For weeks, she had given her baby girl everything and had only taken the river water, which ran through her and pulled all of her strength with it as it left her. She would close her eyes and put the tin cup to her cracked lips, trying to cloud her head with the taste of milk but the water ran light onto her tongue, dripped into her empty stomach. Her body violently refused it, forcing her to run to the bush to empty her body. But now real mahewo. She swatted a fly away from it. She feared the mahewo would turn thin and brown, back to plain river water, when it touched her lips. Her dry tongue ran over her bottom lip and then her top, feeling the blisters left by the sun. The mahewo was for the child. Could it truly be filling her bowl? After weeks without it? She should try it to be sure. Run her finger along the rim, collecting the floating bits of ground maize and the bubbles clinging to the side. The murungu could not be mad at her for that.
The child scared them. They said it looked like a mummy. They did not believe her when she said it had two years. She did not know the birthday, but it was when they let the cattle graze loose on the land, and for two years there had been no cattle. The murungu wrapped their white fingers around the child’s legs. Its thighs were smaller than its calves and wrinkled up to its genitalia. They gave her a small bag of mahewo. “For the vana,” they said so she could understand. The child. The holes under its cheekbones caved in deeper than the crescents under its eyes, sucking in its own face. She pulled back. Her stomach curved in and her spine curved out. The child had once filled her. Her husband was dying even then, dying unhappy when it was a girl. But she held the baby girl against her swollen breast. She tied her on her back and felt the little arms stick between the folds of her flesh. She was beginning to grow thin like her husband when they buried him under the anthill by the pawpaw tree.
The mahewo glowed golden. No harvest this year. She had continued to walk through the field hoping something would live, but her unripe maize hung lifeless on the stalks, browning, scorched by the sun like her lips. The thick mud of the river by her hut did nothing to help. The dried husks crackled when she tried to pick them early. Her maize did not fill half a bucket at the grinding mill. As the man ground her maize, the wasted flour that the machine coughed up clouded the stall. She opened her mouth and caught some on her tongue. Flour from millet, bulgur, maize whitened everything. It powdered the man’s eyelashes. He handed her the sack; the flour fit in one corner of the woven bag. It was so light that she did not balance it on her head for the walk home. Past the doma, over the dirt path, the child screamed, tied to her back, its chin rubbing against her ribs. She could only make one tin plate of sadza for herself and a tin cup of mahewo for the child. But that was three weeks ago.
The child’s pupils began to move. Only its eyes and the slight rise of its chest kept it from being a rotting heap, like the smaller lumps near the large refuse pile at the market. The ridges of its ribs pushed out as if they would break the skin then slowly pulled back. Wrinkles crept over its limbs, its skin sinking in around its thighs.
The mahewo was still in the silent room. Even the flies resting on the child’s eyes and the cockroaches in a line on the wall were quiet. The heat got into her head: she could not feel the dirt between her toes; she could not hear the children jumping over the river; she could not see the child across from her. But she could taste the mahewo. Her thin finger traced the crack on the bowl. The wet chunk was cool and soft.
The child’s feet curled; the thin legs were pulling them back. The crinkled body blended into the unswept floor, the cracking wall, all a brown blur around the golden maize.
The mahewo’s moist, grainy texture caressed her tongue. The taste filled her mouth like the late spring showers used to cover the groundnut fields. She was a girl again with chubby thighs and mango juice on her chin.
The child’s mud-dark pupils sank. The deep sockets swallowed the eyes, emptying the face.
The mahewo stuck to the sides of her mouth. The jagged edge of the bowl cut at her lips, but she only felt the thick liquid. It clung to her throat as she tried to suck it all down to her stomach. A girl again, she licked the bottom of the bowl. She scraped her tongue with her teeth to pull all the mahewo inside her. It couldn’t fill her. She let the empty bowl fall to the earth.
They shush each other in their sleep, their slow breaths create the only breeze, but the clay wall still feels cool. Only the smallest, Mazveta, lies awake, watching the mosquitoes swirling in the moonlight that creeps through the cracked door. The drums woke her again, singing from the other side of the village. Mazveta tries to trace the mosquitoes’ paths as they twist into the shape of the sounds. Big and round, short and angular. Darting. Their light buzz humming with the beat that trembles the night air. She will go tonight.
Her teacher told her that if she wants to be a teacher, she must learn all she can. So tonight, she will go find the drums, see them for herself. Softly, she tiptoes past her sister and mother, and Tafadzwa and Rhina. Mazveta pulls on her gingham dress over her torn nightshirt. Leaving the warm mass on the floor, she steps out into the night.
The air is cold. What if someone steals her? Drums break through the still dark. The sandy path winds through the fields of dying maize. Overgrown grass tickles her from everywhere—farmers no longer weed their fields. A child, she is taller than the maize this year. Mai Mazveta told her that the corn used to grow as tall as the huts, but the drought made it short. Why, asked Mazveta. But no one could tell her. Her teacher said it was God’s will.
The beat of her bare feet slapping against the dry earth joins the drums. She sings of the leopard, but in a quite, reverent voice, for being alone in the dark makes her want to whisper. Something smooth grazes the tips of her toes, and Mazveta stops still. A snake. She prays it is not a cobra. But it rustles the grass and is gone. Her heart slows to the steady beat in the distance.
The dirt softens, and her feet sink, sticking to the ground with each step. The smell of the dying river hangs in the air. Mazveta swam in it before it turned to a muddy trickle. She hurries past the hut of the insane woman. The thatched roof is falling in and thick cracks stripe the clay walls of the hut. Mud flies about her ankles as she sloshes across the river.
Carefully, Mazveta steps over the ragged edge of the pavement onto the road. The moon illuminates the center white line. She follows it. She feels very small with the pavement all around her, but the drums are growing. Eyes from somewhere watch her. She searches the shadowy fringe of the bush for ghosts but then sees Buwe Rimwe, one rock, rising above the stunted corn. Tawanda told her that anyone who walks inside the large cave can be taken away by the spirits. Many people vanished because they were curious. She gasps, seeing a spirit in her path. Two eyes glare before her in the moonlight. Long wings extend, and the owl flies from its perch on the painted white line. She trembles as if she were a mouse, then rubs her arms to brush off the cold air.
The drums beat louder. Bits of light beckon her to the village center: the beerhall, the three grinding mills, the bottle shop. She begins to run as if at the big race, the one she will win next week to advance to compete against the fastest children in Zimbabwe. Her bare feet make quick taps on the pavement. She charges ahead, leaving the highway for the light. She throws her heaving body on the hood of the old truck rusting and dead in front of the beer hall. Her flushed cheek lies against the rough metal as her eyes follow the light up the three steps onto the open veranda of the shop. The whole building shakes with noise, not only the drums, but singing and laughter. The night lives with motion, women and men moving together; dark forms bright with dancing, the light in the beer hall makes their sweaty limbs shine. Men and women, so close together, shaking and stomping, and so together, they all look like one.
Mazveta leaves the rusty car, where the boys her age pretend to be men and soldiers. Her small feet don’t even creak on the wooden steps littered with plastic blue lids from the Chibuka. “Garai Machi-spak,” says the big, smiling man holding his Chibuka on the billboard over the market at the edge of Mutare. Stay happy. The beer hall is hot like the middle of the day.
“Oh! Little sister! What are you doing here? Does mai Mazveta know you are here?” Tawanda bends down to greet her. She shyly presses her cheek to her shoulder, only glancing at him from the corner of her leopard eye.
“I wanted to see the drums.”
“Ah. Come then. But shush. Do not tell mai Mazveta I saw you.” He takes her small hand in his large one. It scratches Mazveta’s soft fingers; his are rough from gardening for an Afrikaner in Mutare. He pulls his other hand from his pocket; in her hand, he drops five freshly fallen plump yellow nyii. “I know you like the new nyii.” Mazveta puts them all in her mouth at once, sucking the sweet fruit from the seeds.
Mazveta brushes against the sweat of arms and legs as Tawanda pulls her through the crowd. The floor shakes beneath her and is just as sticky as the people. The sorghum beer soaks into the humidity with the smell of hot bodies and something else that Mazveta does not recognize. She spits the seeds out on the floor. A TV hangs from a corner, flashing men gyrating in brilliant costumes. Empty bottles line the shelf on the wall behind the iron bars. Mazveta’s head tries to spin around to catch the whole room as she follows Tawanda out the backdoor.
The drums! The men holding the large drums to their chest jump and spin. Two men with guitars tap their feet. Everyone outside dances around the fire, which has chased away any lingering chill of the night. Mazveta watches the couples moving together.
“Clara!” Mazveta calls out, shaking off Tawanda’s hand. The music dances with her voice, keeping it in the air away from Clara’s ear. She runs to her and tugs at the short skirt of her jumper.
“What are you doing here, child?” Clara smiles. Her waist looks so thin without Tafadzwa tied to her back. Weston is handsome in his green security guard uniform and keeps his hand on the small of Clara’s back as she turns to Mazveta.
“What are you doing here, Mazveta?” Weston bends down, putting his hands on his knees.
“I wanted to see the drums.” They laugh together, sounding so happy that Mazveta no longer fears that Clara will tell her mother.
“Well, here they are.” Weston sweeps his arm across the scene, the smoke soaring up from the fire mixing with the cloudy sky.
“I didn’t know the night was alive.”
“Life never sleeps, child.” Weston’s smile widens. Reaching into his faded green jacket, he pulls out an apple. Mazveta has not seen one since she went to the market in Mutare the year before. It gleams in the firelight that gives it one sparkle on its upper curve. Just like the picture on the wall of her classroom. The picture is of a real classroom, unlike hers with empty window frames and concrete floors. In this classroom, a shining apple sits on the teacher’s desk.
“Now go before mai Mazveta misses you,” Clara playfully scolds, slapping her on the rear.
A real apple for her desk. Too good to eat. Cradling the fruit close to her flat chest, Mazveta begins her journey home.