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Vol. 1, No. 3

Ropa Rimwe
by George Makana Clark

    In the fifth month of the drought, Mr. Gordon, my father, emerged from his study to inspect the grounds. Such visits were rare when the garden still pulsed with life. He tugged at a tendril of rose that climbed the veranda and it gave way with a dry rustle.
    "Christ," he said, examining his hand where a thorn had pricked him. From where I lay on my doss, I could see into the oval of blood on his fingertip. In its wetness I read his secret relief that the pulsing brilliance of Timothy's garden had finally ceased. The spot of blood disappeared as my father wrapped his thin lips around the injured finger and sucked his essence back into himself. Mr. Gordon looked out over the gnarled roots of trees and shrubs that clawed the dust in death. There was a beauty in that place, even then. My father was a businessman above all else and could find no reason to employ a gardener to tend lifeless grounds, and he discharged Timothy without notice. My father removed the damaged finger from his mouth long enough to mutter his regret. "Can't be helped, sorry." The saliva-thinned blood filled his fingerprint, but I could read no sorrow in it.
    "Yes, baas," Timothy said softly to his feet when my father dismissed him. Like his father before him, Timothy lived under a feudatory arrangement with the owner of the house. In return for keeping the grounds, the humpbacked Shona was allowed a shed in which to sleep, a small kraal for goats, and a plat of ground to grow rukweza grain for brewing beer. The land on which our house stood once served as Timothy's ancestral homestead until his grandfather lost it through the magic of His Majesty's courts. Timothy had no other place to go and, since his shed was hidden from our house, he remained on the grounds after his dismissal. Timothy reasoned that only a nggarara would deny him occupancy of land not in use.
    Each morning Timothy returned from the river with a clay pot suspended from each side of a yoke that rested across his hump, stepping carefully to avoid slopping the water that would keep his rukweza crop alive. Normally it would fall upon his wife to fetch water, but Timothy had not seen the woman since he left for the war more than twenty years ago.
    Rukweza is a difficult crop and requires many workers to thresh the small grain from the chaff. Timothy recruited help by providing spirits distilled from the rotted deadfall of his loquat trees. A dozen Shona crowded into his little shack, threshing and drinking and singing. As the moon rose above the naked branches of the flame trees and the millet filled the baskets and the spirits disappeared, the normally puritanical Shona began to flush and make obscene references to each other's sexual organs, and their laughter sounded like the troat of wild animals. Mahulda indulged in neither the spirits nor the conversation, but continued to work steadily at her threshing. Apart from this gathering I seldom heard Shona men swear, and never in front of women. Even Adam, the sacristan, joined in, declaring Timothy's penis to be the ugliest in the village and claiming its location to be somewhat above the gardener's navel. I looked to see how Mahulda received this information and saw her chuckling softly in her corner.
    As with everything important to Timothy, brewing involved ceremony. "Now the Shona drink Fanta and Coca-Cola," he told me, "and bits of their spirit leave them in great belches." After the threshing, Timothy filled a basket with rukweza millet and prayed over it to Sojini. To say he prayed is misleading, but that is the closest the White Fathers could come to defining the Shona notion of kupira, in which ancestral spirits are addressed with a sort of easy familiarity absent in church worship. The Shona's relationship with their ancestors is one of mutual benefit: the ancestors watch over the living, and the living attend the dead to keep them from becoming forgotten and lonely.
    Timothy spread the millet in the depression of a large flat rock and soaked it in river water overnight. The next morning he spread the sodden millet over a flat rock and covered it with leaves until, two days later, it sprouted and became chimera. On the fourth day he removed the leaves, dried the chimera, and ground it into meal. For two days Timothy chopped wood and stoked the fire, bringing the enormous pot to a boil, adding meal, bringing the sweet beer to a boil again, and finally straining it into smaller pots until only the masese remained at the bottom to be thrown away. On the seventh day, Timothy rested and watched his creation cool.
    He grumbled to himself as he covered the pots with plates to keep debris from falling into the beer while it fermented. Like cooking and water fetching, Timothy considered brewing a woman's duty. For six days, while the beer stood, the Shona came to Timothy's shed to dust and oil and tune drums of all sorts, and to stamp sorghum for porridge, and to roast Neville's nanny.
    At the sunset of the last day of fermentation, a barrage of percussion electrified the air and shook the pictures of dour Scottish ancestors on the walls of my mother's bedroom and coaxed me away from the house, through the garden, toward the source of the booming drums, until I stood beside Timothy's shed, at the edge of the goat yard where men clapped and women trilled in intricate harmony and varied pitch and rhythm, first sharp and staccato, then sonorous and rolling. To call the bira a rain dance would conjure images of blood sacrifices and pagans prostrated before terrible gods. This ceremony was simply part of a larger dance that included the sky and the land and the spirit.
    Timothy raised a calabash of beer above his head to his ancestor Sojini and declared, "Everything is complete," and the drinking commenced. The night gathered around the fire and dancers toped uncounted calabashes of rukweza beer, the youngest drawing first because the surface was covered with drowned flies and cockroaches and dusty foam.
    Properly brewed rukweza beer is as strong as brandy. Soon the Shona opened themselves up to the mashave, ancestral spirits who commandeered their hosts' sweating flesh and made it dance and drink as they experienced once again the sensory world of the living. Adam, the sacristan, rose with a jerk and looked about with the eyes of someone long dead, and a woman began speaking in a guttural tongue, and others danced in powerful, jerking motions, like strong men who have not used their muscles for ages beyond reckoning. Their eyes shone lifelessly in the fire. Timothy's flailing dance was all the more odd for his hump, and for the old assegai he brandished. Perhaps the spear had belonged to his great-uncle Sojini, for the tip was tarnished and the wood gray with age. Others were seized by the spirits of animals and strutted birdlike, or leaped like monkeys, or paced like felines, or capered like eland. I searched the darkness beyond the fire for the silhouettes of leopards, baboons, storks, monkeys, and eland that are said to silently observe these rituals.
    I never discovered which of my parents ordered Timothy's arrest. Perhaps the drums stirred something in my father that he wished to remain still, or their booming intruded into the dark room that served as my mother's sanctuary, breaking the illusion that she still lived in Scotland.
    Ammunition clips rattled in equipment belts and strap fasteners tinked against rifles as the South African policemen moved into position. The fire was dying and the wood glowed on the ground, highlighting features that normally would fall in shadow, the underneath of the South Africans' chins and noses, the hollows of cheeks and eye sockets, turning the faces into negatives of what they looked like in daylight. Constable Teasdale followed, panting. "Stop at once!" he yelled, and I wasn't sure if he was addressing the dancing Shona or the policemen. The drums rolled over Constable Teasdale's voice and it went unheard, except by me from where I stood frozen on the periphery of the ceremony. One of the South African policemen discharged his rifle into the starless sky, silencing the feverish din of the bira.
    Timothy awoke from his trance and blinked at the policemen who had come to take him away from his ancestral home. The other dancers were allowed to disappear into the surrounding darkness. I heard the slide and click of oiled gunmetal as the South Africans locked back their bolts and thumbed the releases on their safety catches. One of the policemen spoke in clipped English, "Lie down on the ground and place your hands behind your head." Timothy seemed not to understand. He ran his hands over the throwing spear as if to reassure himself that he was back again in a world of solid matter.
    The leopard had taught me fear, but still I forced myself to stand before Timothy. Confusion crossed the faces of the policemen as they looked at me over their gun sights. "Please," Constable Teasdale pleaded, as he moved in front of the South Africans' picket, pushing their rifle barrels groundward.
    Timothy paused to glance over his shoulder at Sojini, listened a moment, then turned to me and sighed. His garden was dead and the bira ruined. "Here, little man," he said, "let me show you something." Timothy gave me a shove which propelled me facedown into the dirt, and he drew back the assegai, his weight on one heel. Perhaps it was Sojini who guided Timothy's spear straight and level through both cheeks of Constable Teasdale, severing his tongue, before it came to rest in the shoulder of a South African policeman. Timothy reeled back from the force of their return volley, which sounded in my ears like the magic maize he popped for me over the fire.
    Blood from a small cut on an extremity, say a finger, is bright red and it reflects surrounding light. It's difficult to read too deeply into it. But aortic blood, lifeblood that is pumped out of the body directly from the heart, is a deep, unreflecting burgundy, and in its depths one can look back across millennia. I watched Timothy gasp as the arterial blood sprayed rhythmically from a hole in his neck. In the darkness that soaked through his shirt collar, I saw him standing at attention, back straight, in the khaki of the Southern Rhodesian African Rifles, before he was sent to North Africa for a shilling a day and no allowances for dependents, where a 40 mm shell from an Italian tank shattered his back and left him writhing on the Saharan sands of Abyssinia. Beneath that image was Timothy in his childhood, learning to stare at his feet while the sjambok bit into his father's back. I saw Sojini, Timothy's great-uncle and ancestral spirit, charge into a British picket during the Rebellion of 1896, armed only with a spear, perhaps the very one that passed through Constable Teasdale's face. I witnessed the mfecane, the time of troubles, when Shona dynasties crumbled before waves of invaders and Timothy's distant kin were left to knock out their front teeth to decrease their value to Arab slave traders. I watched the stone ruins of Great Zimbabwe spring up from the ground to their original magnificence, and there I followed Timothy's line to a Zanj slave who worked the furnace to extract gold from quartz. And still deeper into the ropa that Timothy's sluggish heart pumped from his neck, past the fire bringers, beyond the cave painters, image giving way to image, death to birth, fall to rise. By the time the fountain of blood ceased to flow from the severed carotid artery, I could clearly see my own ancestors and I no longer felt as though I were a mutorwa, a foreigner on this continent.
    Mahulda led me away from where Timothy lay dead in his blood, and took me into the house where she undressed me. As she ran my bath I examined the dried blood on my hands, impenetrable as black diamond. On its cracking surface I could read only the anguish Timothy felt for his dead garden, and the ache of his love for Mahulda Jane Braxton, and his sorrow that I would no longer have a father.


    Here is where Timothy's story ends abruptly, and for want of a better one, mine resumes. Since Mahulda was refused permission to bury Timothy in the cemetery behind the Anglican church, we interred him secretly in his garden with neither light nor ululation nor any mourners apart from Mahulda, myself, and Adam, who officiated. The sky finally broke, and driving rain turned Adam's Bible to pulp as he struggled to turn the pages, and water swamped Timothy's grave before we could fill it.
    The following morning, the Shona held a kurovaguva to beat Timothy's grave and distribute his belongings. His estate consisted of some caged bush monkeys, which Mahulda released, and a glass frame containing war medals bequeathed to me. I expect Sojini left his place at Timothy's shoulder for wherever forgotten ancestors congregate. I took to glancing over my own shoulder, half expecting to see Timothy there, until I grew old enough to learn that such things are not on foot with my reality.
    On the Thursday after we beat Timothy's grave, Mahulda Jane Braxton stared into a cup filled with the last of the peaberry coffee, and I watched it slip through her fingers and shatter on the floorboards as her heart stopped. When Dr. N'gono arrived minutes later and tore open her blouse, two canaries flew up from between her breasts and circled the kitchen before flying through the open door and into the rain. Dr. N'gono fell back from Mahulda's prone body, crossed himself, and ceased his efforts to revive her, and I became an orphan in my eighth year.
    I tried to close her drying eyes but they refused my touch, and I succeeded only in giving her a dreamy, heavy-lidded expression she never wore in life. There was no dark stain on the corpse for me to read, nor did I need it to know we were ropa rimwe, Timothy, Mahulda, and myself, of one blood.
    The canaries nested in the branches of a lifeless flame tree that towered like an ancient ruin over the tangle and creep of new growth. I visited the birds and their hatchlings for as long as I lived at that house, listening to their portamenti each morning as I collected wild coriander from the weedy garden and placed it beneath my tongue. The seed softened and grew pungent in my mouth. I opened Timothy's pruning shears and drew a blade lightly across the back of my index finger. In the blood that welled in my knuckle, I saw myself again cradled in Timothy's arms as he stood beside Mahulda in the river of my baptism, our reflections broken by the motion of the current, my scarred cheek, a tress of Mahulda's hair, a bit of plaid shirt that covered Timothy's broken back, an eye, fingers, the splinters scattered together across the surface of water as black as peaberry coffee in the gloaming, the coriander floating on my breath.

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