In the year that I learned to read blood, the rains failed to move across Africa, and drought struck Manicaland in Eastern Rhodesia.
The flame trees in our garden grew pallid, and brilliant blue panicles wilted and dropped from the jacaranda trees in slimy clots of yellow-gray. Timothy the gardener looked at the straw-colored blades that peppered the carpetgrass like the strands of white in his beard, and he came to the realization all men eventually face, that his life's work was nothing.
It was 1965, a time of growth and enterprise among the white men of our nation, and my father devoted his every moment and thought to his furniture store in Umtali. My mother had long since retired to the dark recesses of her bedroom, where she surrounded herself with portraits of Scottish ancestors and tried to forget she lived in Africa. I was left in the charge of our groundsman, Timothy, and our housekeeper, Mahulda Jane Braxton, a Capetown colored who treated me as though I were the son she had lost at birth. The Shona have a word for this arrangement, kurera, which means to bring up a child for pay.
Mahulda was not a young woman. Dr. N'gono once listened to her chest with his stethoscope and said she had a hole in her heart. Yet no one thought to hire another servant to help with the housekeeping, cooking, and child raising.
Every Thursday, Dr. N'gono visited Mahulda in her kitchen to prattle on about the adverse effects of a maize diet on the Shonas' eyesight, or to harrumph over an article in the Umtali Post of some failed rebel border crossing into Rhodesia, and to ask Mahulda to accompany him to the dance clubs in Umtali the following evening. Most Shona distrusted Dr. N'gono and his gory surgical rites, and they went instead to the Tribal Trust Land bordering Mozambique where there lived an old ngangga who healed with herb-based nostrums. During Dr. N'gono's visits, Timothy remained within earshot outside the kitchen door, throwing his weight behind each ax swing, riving logs into kindling. Timothy couldn't understand dancing without ceremony.
Dr. N'gono was blind to the distress these visits caused Mahulda. She seldom spoke of her life in Capetown, though it was plain she believed the loss of her baby was God's punishment for some past transgression, and so she set aside all relations with men. The nature of this offense was a source of speculation among the Shona women as they washed their clothes in the river.
During the cool mornings I helped Mahulda make a pot of peaberry coffee to revive her spirits, despite Dr. N'gono's warning that coffee strained the heart. It was my job to stand on a chair and turn the handle on the coffee grinder while she measured in the dark beans. With a small mortar and pestle she mashed dried coriander seed from Timothy's garden and added it to the peaberry to soften its acidic taste and to serve as a digestive. After the brewing, she stood before the kitchen window with saucer and cup and stared past her rippled reflection into the depths of the black liquid. If I climbed onto my chair beneath the grinder, I could see over her broad shoulders and through the pane of glass to where Timothy stared in at her from his moribund garden.
One morning, as I ground the coffee, I heard a soft cheeping from inside Mahulda. She unbuttoned the neck of her blouse and leaned forward to show me a pair of canary hatchlings Timothy had brought her. "He said the canaries are too much trouble and noise. He'd have to crush them with a rock if I didn't take them, as they're too young to set free." She smiled at the hatchlings nestled in the warmth of her cleavage and refastened the buttons on her blouse.
Our well could no longer support the stream of water that passed through the cherub's penis, and in the second month of the drought Timothy shut off the fountain. The child stared into the dry dish where his water once overflowed, and his stone flesh turned scurfy and cracked with dried algae like the sear and yellow skin of an old man. Timothy pruned the honeysuckle around the fountain and fed its dead leaves to Neville, my pet goat, while I played at breaking the ground with my toy hoe, raising clouds of dust from what had once been a rich, black vlei. "Here we'll plant Lady Bankshia roses for Mahulda's hair," I declared. "She grew them in Capetown."
Timothy looked up from his feet and his eyes brightened for a moment. "We could plant against the east wall of the house where they will receive shade from the afternoon sun." He looked about the ruined garden and his shoulders sagged. "Shee, shee. All our talking is dreaming, little man." He fixed his eyes upon his feet.
Timothy stooped beneath the hump on his back and he only raised his eyes long enough to look skyward at the gathering storm clouds that refused to break over his garden, or to glance over his shoulder to consult with Sojini, his ancestral spirit, a great-uncle who advised and looked over him. To look at the world from such perspectives, I think, must have isolated Timothy from the rest of us. The only time he looked forward was to peer over his hedge clippers into the kitchen window where Mahulda drank her peaberry coffee.
Every Sunday Timothy traveled by bus to Umtali where he purchased the tiny beans from a tuckshop at great expense to himself. He told Mahulda that he received the coffee as a gift from an admirer but he could not drink it, as it burned his heart. It was at his suggestion that Mahulda added coriander to the coffee to promote good digestion. "Coriander also promotes love," Timothy confided in me.
Shut away in her dim room, my mother's presence eclipsed any homey comforts the house might have provided, and Mahulda's kitchen was the only place where sunlight was allowed to enter and words were spoken above a whisper. I spent all the moments of my childhood in Mahulda's kitchen and Timothy's garden, except for the rare occasions when I was given an audience with my mother in her bower, or when I accompanied my father to his furniture store to watch him bark and kick at his Shona employees, though it was no longer fashionable for whites to do so. Once he chased away a boy of mixed race who came to the loading dock looking for work. "Goddamn munt," he said, looking sideways at me.
In the third month of the drought Timothy procured a jar of pregnant mare's urine from Adam, a Shona stable boy who also served as sacristan for the Anglican church. Timothy brought the urine to a boil in a saucepan on Mahulda's stove, over her vigorous protests. He added a cup of molasses, a cup of dish soap, and a beer, stirring each into the urine with a wooden spoon. "Most important," Timothy said, "we add the gardener's ropa," and he pricked his fingertip with a needle. He averted his eyes from the stove as his blood dripped into the pot. "A man never looks into a cooking pot, or his eyes will sink into his skull and his face take on the shape of a baboon's."
Steam rose from the saucepan and the kitchen became redolent with animal musk and prenatal secretions. The humpbacked gardener emptied the saucepan onto the roots of the flame trees, his favorites, and doused them with water drawn from the river several miles away. The well had fallen to an unhealthy level and my father forbade its use for gardening.
The following morning I stared, astonished, at the revived trees. Their scarlet flowers had reopened and appeared all the more vibrant amid the surrounding desolation. In my eyes this was grand witchery of the same proportions as the zombification chronicled in my comic books, or lightning, or popcorn making. "There is no magic in this world, little man," Timothy said, shaking his head at my amazement, "only things you cannot yet understand."
The clouds over Umtali swelled and purpled, "a painful sky" Mahulda called it, and she hugged her breasts as if they still ached, engorged with milk for her stillborn child. She squeezed a dropper filled with water and crushed butterfly into the gaping beaks of the hatchlings tucked inside her blouse.
Despite the swollen and darkening sky, there was no rain for the garden, and Timothy's cheeks sank and his skin became leathery. In the fourth month of the drought Timothy disappeared into the shed where he lived at the back of the garden. I stood in the goat yard and spied through the shed's single, paneless window to where he stood, shirtless, a network of old and fresh scars covering his back. Timothy whetted the knife he used to butcher the goats, then reached behind his head and drew it deeply across the hump on his back, releasing a flood of blood and serous fluid. His teeth shone wetly, gums exposed. I must have gasped, because Timothy looked sharply at the window.
"Ehe! Little man," he said, clearly embarrassed. "Do not be afraid." He had pulled on his shirt by the time he caught up with me in the garden. The cotton stuck to his hump, wet and dark. Timothy searched my eyes while he struggled to compose an explanation. "When I cut myself," he said at length, "the flowing shows I have spirit within me, that the fountain and I are the same." Here language failed him and his voice trailed off. Timothy's only book was The White Fathers' Shona to English Dictionary. The White Fathers deemed the inclusion of an English-to-Shona section unnecessary, and so Timothy's attempt to speak in metaphors across languages was doomed from the start.
After the neighbor's mare foaled amid a flood of amniotic fluid, the estrogen left her urine and Timothy's flame trees died. Mahulda ceased to take her peaberry coffee at the window facing the barren garden, and the acidic aroma, tempered with coriander, no longer floated out to Timothy as he busied himself beneath a lifeless canopy of brittle leaves.
Timothy forbade me to enter the garden after dark. But we had only recently weaned Neville from his nanny and the little goat was frantic and bleating, so for the first time in my life I disobeyed Timothy and slipped out to calm my pet.
I went to the goat yard where we kept him tethered and saw Neville, glassy-eyed and slack in the jaws of a leopard. The kid's chest heaved but he made no struggle as she dragged him away from me. I was eight years old and without fear, the hero of every story told to me over a cooking pot, and so I seized my toy hoe and ran toward the leopard, yelling like Mwari, the god-king, singing and swinging the little garden tool as if it were a battle ax, calling out the beast's name, Mbada! Mbada! until she dropped Neville and turned her attention toward me.
The leopard braced for the charge, tail twitching, snarling, head low, outstretched forepaws, hindquarters arched. There is a moment, just before a leopard springs, when its eyes swell. Spear hunters push bones through the eye sockets of slain leopards as a safeguard against that glassy stare.
The impact knocked me from my feet and the air rushed from my lungs as I fell beneath the animal's weight. I smelled the rank flesh of earlier kills lodged in the claws that searched for my eyes, her breath still hot with Neville's blood. Her jaws closed around my shoulder to hold me in place and give her back claws purchase to rake my thighs.
I tell all this in a detached manner only to mirror my frame of mind as I lay limp in the jaws of the leopard and breathed the carrion reek that jetted from her nostrils. A weaker creature falls into shock when it finds itself helpless in a predator's embrace, and the rent flesh and blood and pain are no longer its own; nature is merciful after all.
I was only distantly aware of Timothy's hunched figure standing over us, and the blur of the woodcutting ax as he brought it down on my attacker. His other hand gripped a rake before his face to protect his eyes, for these are the leopard's choice target. The wounded creature snarled and sprang away, leaving me to lie and pule in my ruined body.
I managed to lift my head and turn it toward Neville. Through the blood that filled my eye sockets, I could see his life running from his jugular to form a puddle on the ground. The moon cast a dull sheen across the surface of the goat's blood, and I looked past the reflection to see a long procession of beasts that stretched back to the age of iron, each waiting its turn at the butcher block. Neville was my pet only until he gained sufficient flesh to warrant his slaughter, and whether the fatling nourished the leopard or our household made little difference. The dry soil sucked Neville's blood into the earth and the image disappeared, leaving only an inscrutable stain.
A gauzy light surrounded the periphery of my blood vision. My gaze followed the trail of inky spots left by the wounded leopard. In each drop of blood I could see the gash in her shoulder worsen until she could no longer hunt, her slow death from starvation, her relief as the hyenas finally closed in on her, and then only blackness as Timothy gathered me into his arms and carried me toward the house.
RASPBERRY LEAF TEA
In Shona lore a union of love produces beautiful offspring. I was an ugly enough child, even before the leopard mauled me. One of her dewclaws had slashed diagonally across my forehead, eyebrow, nose, and cheek. Although Mahulda applied a fresh astringent of sanicle when she changed my bandages, the carrion trapped in the dewclaw infected the wound and it healed badly. "It is unfortunate," Timothy told me. The hump on his back rose and fell with his shrug. "Such marks do not go away. One must learn to wear them." My mother ceased to have me brought to her dark bedroom during tea, and Mr. Gordon, my father, no longer forced me to accompany him to the furniture store in Umtali.
I felt very small inside my body as a result of the attack. The leopard's fangs had met in my shoulder and deep furrows ran down my thighs where her hindquarters had plowed my flesh. Miraculously, both my eyes were untouched, but though Mahulda rinsed them with boric acid, I could not rid my vision of a faint roseate tint.
Mahulda prepared raspberry leaf tea to ease the soreness in my shoulder and leg muscles. She sang into her blouse to her canaries and fed them millet while she steeped the raspberry leaves in scalding water and added grated bark from one of Timothy's dead cinnamon trees. The young birds' breasts showed orange now as they looked hungrily to her, their eyes black and empty. I took the raspberry leaf tea with milk from Neville's nanny, but no sugar as it made me restless.
"Aiwa! I swear by my great-uncle who died in 1896, it is a miracle you still live, little man," Timothy said to me each morning by way of a greeting. When I told Timothy of the things I read in Neville's lifeblood and in the blood trail of the leopard, he seemed to sink into his hump. "Now, now, there is real trouble for you. Even so, such things would be impossible without a diviner in your sib. It is a birth gift you must master."
The next morning he brought a trap splattered with gobbets of vlei rat, its blood filled with panic. Another morning I stared at the menstrual blood that soaked the rags of a fambi, a prostitute who lived in a house Timothy frequented, and from these stains I learned that, for Shona women, this was a new profession.
Timothy made a doss for me on the veranda where I could lie during the day and stare into the still garden. Bush babies no longer licked nectar from blossoms, their faces dusted yellow with pollen, and the fruit bats had flown away to the river basin where the effects of the drought were less severe. Empty weavers' nests dangled from lifeless tree branches and flea beetles and cotton stainer bugs provided the only movement in that empty place. There was little for Timothy to do in the garden now, and he spent his time collecting new blood for me to read. "What do you see, little man?" he'd ask. Blood from a goat in heat, surging, demanding. Startled blood from a fatal highway accident. Blood from the dew feathers of a hornbill chick, frantic as it was pecked to death by its father. Timothy brought me the rhinoceros-hide whip that decorated the otherwise bare walls of his shed. In the long-dried stains at its tip, I read the daka, the grudge hatred, that welled inside Timothy's father as the previous owner of our house sjamboked him before his own son. Timothy nodded absently, lost in memory, while I recounted the bloodlore contained in the whip, and he quit bringing me these sanguine texts.
After the leopard attack, Mahulda became afraid that I might die in a state of sin, for my parents hadn't baptized me. Once I'd recovered sufficiently, she dressed me in a gown sewn from a bolt of white cotton-she'd bought the material long ago in Capetown to make such a garment for her own child-and Timothy carried me to the river where Adam, robed in his sacristan's vestment, waited in the gloaming.
There were only four present at the christening, including myself, the baptismal candidate. The low woodnotes of a roller served as a substitute for Gloria in Excelsis following our final response to Adam's versicles. A large gathering would invite arrest and detention in Constable Teasdale's jail.
Constable Teasdale had always treated the Shona with respect, and for the first twenty-three years of his tenure he carried no weapon. But small bands of guerrillas had begun to cross the Zambian border and infiltrate deep into Rhodesia. A contingent of armed policemen now accompanied the constable, a dozen red-faced Boers on loan from the South African government. Constable Teasdale's holstered pistol beat against his round bottom as he struggled to stay with the South Africans while they combed the district in search of suspicious activity, and he listened without understanding when they called out to one another in their harsh, guttural Afrikaans.
"Do you desire to be baptized?" Adam whispered. Adam was the only person in the church Mahulda could approach to serve as celebrant for a baptism in which a Capetown colored and a Shona gardener would be named my godparents in the absence of blood family. If we were caught, the teenager would be finished as sacristan.
"I do," I said. Water bugs skittered across the surface of the river and left delicate patterns with their wake.
"Will you be responsible for seeing that the child you present is brought up in the Christian faith and life?"
Timothy cradled me in his arms as the low river swirled around his waist. Because so many people believed in the Christian Gods and because there were only three of them, Timothy thought the Trinity would be stretched too thin to be of any real use to a man. Still, Mahulda Jane Braxton had asked him to do this, and he knew the importance of ceremony. "I will," he glanced over his shoulder at Sojini, "with God's help."
Sunset filtered through silhouettes of branches and leaves, throwing a stained-glass pattern of muted color over us. The current of my life would soon carry me away from the Anglican faith, and this cathedral of forest and river would be the only church I'd ever enter. Adam made a cross over my scarred face and murmured, "I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit," and we answered, "Amen."
Mahulda met Timothy's eyes. Perhaps, if they had met when they were young, I might have been born to them. With such parents, I began to think, I might not be so ugly after all. The roller's mournful notes fell from the trees.
Timothy immersed me in the river and the water loosened the sutures in my legs, opening the wounds so that my blood commingled with the river and I almost believed I was its source. I thought of Timothy drawing the butcher knife across the hump of his back to release his essence.
A crimson cloud spread across the christening gown over my legs, wavering beneath the river's surface, and in it I read through two generations of lies and secrets to see my Xhosa great-grandmother casting bones across her kitchen table to divine a future which already had taken place. Here was the source of my father's discomfort with me and with his place in the world. "Am I colored?" I asked, my Xhosa ancestry manifest in the darkening cloud.
"Whist," Mahulda said. She tried to wave away the question, but I could see the answer in Timothy's eyes as clearly as I could read it in the blood that seeped from my wounds. The river's gentle current lifted me slightly, and I floated in a reality that moments ago had felt like solid ground. Above us a rataplan of thunder sounded in a swollen sky that still stubbornly refused to yield its rain. Adam's eyes widened as my blood clouded the water around him. The young sacristan backed away onto the riverbank and disappeared into the forest, and so ended my initiation into Christendom.
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