The Palapye White Birch

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by Tlotlo Tsamaase

Tlotlo Tsamaase is a Motswana writer of fiction, poetry, and articles on architecture. Her work has appeared in Terraform, An Alphabet of Embers, The Fog Horn, and at Strange Horizons. Her poem “I Will Be Your Grave” is a Rhysling Award nominee.

~~~

We didn’t have an attic or a basement; we had a forest where we stored and gathered those who fell from the star-filled skies. They had bright brown eyes; thick, coarse hair, and fragile skin that seemed it would tear or break when impure fingers grazed it. They scarred the earth with the bottoms of their feet, leaving cracks and soot marks impressed into the earth.

Unblemished. Gold-skinned. Dark-skinned. Dust was burned into their veins in streaks of gold, yellow, and pink like a summery, sunset flavor. That soot-marked area remained autumn.

Cross-legged and wide-armed, I’d sit in the blackened scar and scatter the leaves above my head, watching the winter twist the white birches—that wept Marlboro-ruby sap—into crippled forms. When the snow-cold winter reached this darkened earth it died into the wind, or changed course, futilely blowing yellow-tinged leaves in an up-swirl of anger.

The glistening sap drip-dropped and drowned into the thick soil which I’d gather and salt my shoulders with, the brown in harmony with my skin. “Tlhongana namm satan,” I’d whisper. Under the dreamy sunlight, a shadow eclipsed the rays of sun that fell onto my closed eyes. He had lips, a nose, ears, and winter blue eyes with specks of ocean green; a perfectly symmetrical face. That memory sits vacant in my mind, lapping my last breath—

a thunderous sound tears open my eyes to a room full of students I used to know. Where am I?

June 5th of something something. When the sky cries, I join it in the forest. It’s almost time for rain; I must leave.

“School isn’t over,” a boy says aloud. “Damn it, Zahra, you can’t keep doing this.” I think I know him. I think I kissed him. He’s buried somewhere inside me.

“Nothing is truly over, is it?” I answer back, to myself rather than to him who isn’t listening. I slip off the seat then, walk alongside the army of trees that keep Serowe and Palapye apart, and make my way to the grave behind our house.

~~~

I dream that Palapye sits on the southeast corner of Botswana, fading off to reach the Indian Ocean. In our backyard, a hole in the earth is filled with fresh rain—always. A huge stone juts out, jarred and aged by weather. My nails broke the day I tattooed your name—silasthomas—onto it. I have nothing but a broken hand and a stream of ink-blood to write how you killed me. The white birch branches that are my bones creep in and out of my skin. I bleed onto the stone, silasthomas, wordlessly writing out our past.

I asked for the stars, forgetting that darkness arrives first.

~~~

I’m senseless now; pain ate off my senses. The Sekgoma Memorial Hospital waits in line for my body. It used to be that sunny Sundays I’d push open Mama’s kitchen screen door, seconds later hearing it bang a loud gunshot noise behind me as I jumped the fence into silasthomas’ forest. That rusted fence had a loose barbed wire that always tore the church dresses Mama bought me. I’d slip and fall into the mud of fresh-stained tears from the midnight sky. Life was different here. It wasn’t an end. It wasn’t a beginning but a continuum of something unknown. I’d knock twice on the soot mark, and a dark hole—one of Earth’s throats—would swallow me without a gulp. Her walls were smooth, warm and woody.

But, TODAY, my knees bend forward, my bones break, and blood slips out from underneath my nails. Where are you silasthomas? My knock fails to awaken you. These Sundays are different from the rest. It seems one day you wake by sunlight, watch the sun sparkle in the sky and the next day you see an empty sky; God denied his job. They fell from the skies, those stars. A fire-crusted star stole my heart and left me for dead.

The tunnel throat led me to his home, once. When I arrive, he kisses my cheeks, his large hands scathed from mechanic work and gardening, scented with garlic, ginger, and mint leaves. He pulls me forward into his airy kitchen where the sunlight is buttery and his mum’s hugs are flowery perfumes. She hugs me like I’m her only wanted daughter. Her three year old hugs at my knees. I pick the child up and throw her over my shoulders. Then we’re spinning and spinning; giggling and giggling because laughter and happiness and love know a forever life. When they leave the house, TODAY, it is quiet with echoes of a piano symphony left by his little sister; his older sister out on an escapade.

His voice is the wallpaper on the wall. “What are you afraid of?”

In the weekend before last night’s shower, I wear the jersey his mum knitted for him. But the air is a toxic substance nibbling at his year-old scent. What will I eat then after? What will I breathe? I’m afraid of dying—not when, but how I die—from poverty. Mama won’t understand why I perch on the white-birch tree nightly… There’s a way the stars stare down at us that makes me lonely and not lonely. It’s the same stare silasthomas gave me—a feeling of living forever in the confines of happiness and love. Whose lips will I breathe life from, now onwards, silasthomas?

These men are boys. These girls are bitches. I’m sixteen forever.

He makes me cry but every tear that falls I collect in jar bottles meant for shells, beach sand, and ocean water. I become nostalgic, finger nails biting into the earth digging graves and holes into it. The soot mark let me in today…maybe I wept too much. Your house is empty. I shut my eyes, pull myself underwater into our small steel tub hoping the water will suffocate the memory from my brain. I don’t want to remember him, that version of you I used to know. I don’t want to live. But I don’t want to die not knowing that he might be alive somewhere, out there in the star-filled skies.

In his bedroom are voice and memory tapes. We cried once when we stood out in the rain and watched the stars blink a billion times. That’s how much you said you love me, silasthomas: infinity times more than the stars blink. And I believed you, blindly. Stupid. As raindrops pin-dropped on our arms and our faces like we were one body, you kissed my lips and turned our autumn tears into crystals—this crystal necklace sits around my neck like a noose—and swore to keep catching my tears. Where are you then, silasthomas?

Sunlight in under-earth, the earth quaked from his arrival. A stairwell knits itself into the thin air out of bark, leaves, and cow dung. Moonlight-starved nights, I sit on the fragile branch of birch trees—swinging, swinging—waiting for the crack like thunder breaking through the sky. I clamber down, my feet heavy, treading through the air of quicksand viscosity. A shadow flits in between the trees. Is it him? Can stars fall back into the night sky? No, unlikely. I feel sick; my stomach says no to food.

In the forest the trees move; a girl is among them. She is tall, a long stick brushing the frame tops of the door ways in your home. What does she want in your home? She has a square gap between her teeth. Her tongue twists continuously to fit into the gap. She does this often when she’s nervous because she won’t—refuses—to answer my questions about you. Her skin is dark leather with the smoothness and sheen of silk. Frail pants are tied to her waist by a thick belt. Knobby, wooden high-heels frame her feet. One, two, three…seven—seven fingers! Three are missing. She says to stop looking for you or risk my family’s life. A threat, girl who knows silasthomas? I may be puny-looking with small shoulders and feeble arms but you do not threaten me.

The pillow you breathed upon, that still has the strands of your defiantly curly hair, I squeeze into my face nightly to conjure your presence into my dreams so that breathing your scent feels like you lying beside me. The dreams come and they leave tears that wash away your scent.

The oxygen in me lacks a pureness your lungs let out. In your absence you suffocate me. I got drunk with a boy once, and went into a forest of sorts, blindly tripping over logs, caterpillars, and fallen leaves, the moon a lazy half-dozed eye in the sky. The boy stood frightened, and almost ran. I ran my fingers over his face and tried to mold how he looked into how you looked. His skin wasn’t clay and doughy enough, but his heart was.

I thought to meet your mum was like an interview with the mum and I’d bomb it. So I wore a white dress, long to my knees, to appear pure and chaste, but she’d baked coffee-stained brownies and we sat under the bright sunshine listening to UB40’s Breakfast in Bed while she allowed me a taste of sauvignon from the 1970s, said “Twas 21st century mailing system that jumps items and antiques into our time—mail time-traveling system?”

Then we talked about all sorts of travelers: material travelers and nature travelers. We laughed over yearning for time instead of nature or material. You turned the conversation technical and logical—typical you—which diluted any magic system. You asked what would power this time-travel system?

Love. Humans,” we said at the same time.

“Love is death in a way,” I added.

“One thing can’t be two things at once,” you said.

“But the sun will die. The moon will suffer a visual death. Become latent.” Were we still talking science? I didn’t think so.

“Why?”

“The sun won’t be so giving and generous with its light—”

“When it’s dead,” you finished for me. Then that look came into your eyes, the moment of darkness before constellations are born or wake up.

You deleted my days with the tips of your fingers as you played them through my hair and I laughed at the tickle, unaware of your deviousness. Your fingers—your skin—lacked the lining fingerprints had. You brushed away my kisses with a fear so startling that I realized if I kissed you there then I’d have you for always; the bones and teeth are shackles to our seared-together souls. When you stuck a needle into me, a thread running loose through it, I believed it to be a strand of the night pulled from your hair so that the freckles that stood still at the tip of your nose turned slightly, indiscernible, almost pointing to the shadow on my back where mixed-up breaths called upon something foreboding. That made your eyes squint and your brain tighten, as if on love economics to shed the extra soul.

Me.

Pain is human; it seeks love, nourishment, and self-sacrifice. Sometimes not of one’s volition. So you packed your bags, your family, your house, and took my soul with you as well. You painted your words with venom and spat at my heart sans goodbye. I used to think I couldn’t afford your love; then I realized we have to be the twigs and crackling leaves when nature is dead—what else feeds fire? When nature stops breathing, the cold, touching winter, my life ends at the page.

Three years ago when the millennium hit, I remember sitting on the branch of a very weak birch tree, and you held me tightly promised it’d never drop us because we were perched like birds—one with nature where even the wind seemed to be my breath, wheezing from my lungs if you listened. We watched the stars implode, and I watched the colors reflect on your strong-jawed face pale like the moon: purples, greens, yellows, oranges, reds—an endless stream of life bleeding into the sky-canvass. The thousand lights blinked in wonder. And as we blinked in wonder failing miserably to remember who was who, you said sadly, “Forgetting family,” and looked to the stars. And I knew all along, unaware, that the blank in the sky was where you slept and watched me.

Who was who; those three words drenched my brain with sticky nightmares whilst my heart was plump and juicy from three other words. My bone-locks kept it in place, but somehow your fingers turned into tiny blades and left me with many holes and gaps and my chest broken. The wind whistles in and out. Mama cries that I don’t eat.

Sometimes when I look at the star-filled skies, I wonder if they think we are stars too, staring back…hoping to touch the moon and be done with it.

~~~

Sitting on the birch branch, I’m waiting for the crack. To fall. To be paralyzed. To die would be a cherry on the top. The day school spits me out for lunch when good news hit me. Gossip is a loose plastic in the wind, its birth unknown; I hear from the mazenzuru— who hide their secrets under their wide, white dresses and in between their breasts—that the train, bus, combi, and taxi go and come in the Serowe bus rank.

“Sistah, this way, at cheap, cheap price.” Their voices fight against the station decibel currency but hush up when a BX comes throttling through, beady-eyed men staring out for victims and flesh to burn at government stake—burn the witches. Once gone, the dust clouding our hopes the women shout in toyi-toyi voices.

Sistah, cheap, cheap price,” they ululate again, but voices under-carpet. “The degree of the streets a hustle and bustle, see sistah be smart not intelligent,” a sing-song pride as one weaves a muzungu’s silk-desired hair onto a black girl’s dread thick hair. “You will be beautiful now, sistah, like our Christian names.”

A shabby conductor approaches me. “Where the taxis go and come is a soul exchange: dead lover? Dead husband? Someone you want, we can help—1 soul: 8 humans but for you 1:5, there no other deals like this—”

“I don’t know where I’m going to find 8 humans.” Is that my voice?

He clicks his fingers at a lenyora. “Eh, mfetu, Bots population stats, how many people are choking our air?”

“Two million counting.”

He waits. Then, “Quick, count faster, important client.”

Lenyora sighs. “Two million.”

“These people who think in their second-language pretend intelligence, mxm counting. Two million, Sistah, a lot of free humans, okay, okay I have low rates to do the job for you or 1:4 rate take it or leave it.”

It’d mean something if I painted my hands red. It’d mean I don’t stand this bullshit of fallacious, female disempowerment of love; men are immune to love because the disease of sex and ma14 eradicates it from their being. Because you silasthomas stole my soul, my heaven. Four humans for silasthomas’ soul by dawn when the traffic police are busy with traffic; terms and conditions failed to mention if dirty exchange would be declined because no right human would allow me to kill them in such a formal manner—what’s in it for them after all? Nada. We’ve migrated from nails and teeth to forks and knives but for fun sakes I’ll retreat to the former for this world is dirty, this world is cruel, and I’ll chew my fingers into sharp, clawed nails. Fear will barricade four humans into metal, portable prisons—remember, silasthomas, how you said you despised cars, being locked up in a metal cage with four doors and unbreakable windows, pieces of metal crap—a body is just the same, but with vulnerable shielding, no bullet proofing or air bags for life’s major accidents, like you.

I’d be intact if it weren’t for your arrival.

I don’t know who I hate to push into the express taxi but one day into the future I’ll receive a package, brown box red ribbon, angazi, I don’t care really because you will be in that box. And souls burn like alcohol where it’ll warm the cold nights you left me by; souls are immortal, yours will burn forever.

Behind mama’s grocery list—my little deathnote— I scribble seven names (because seven is biblical and good luck) from the 2012 telephone directory (the year you disappeared) that I randomly pick with eyes closed and a roaming finger. Fate will choose their death-date; I will find them. I swing-swing on the birch branch waiting for it to crack. For me to fall. To physically die. If it doesn’t crack then fate directs me to the soul exchange rank with the ten humans, I have to offer two as a tip to the conductors. I swing back and forth, counting each arc the branch makes:

one,

two, (birds caw)

three,

four (wind gathers)

five

six (treetops swish-swash, leaves gossip)

seven…

because you killed me silasthomas! But didn’t finish the job. Fine, then, I will kill you back.

“The Palapye White Birch” by Tlotlo Tsamaase originally appeared in The Fog Horn Magazine, May 2014.

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