She said it aloud, in her mind she thought, but her lips moved.
AN OBSERVATION ON THE PLACE THAT WAS RUINED
I have coffee there.
The table was far too busy laughing falsely to notice her running her words over and over again. She barely registered their laughs herself. She was writing a poem. She had to write a poem.
She used to be a poet. That’s what she used to call herself: Poet. Not pretentiously, not arrogantly, not in public. Subconsciously, in the corner of her mind where one names oneself and says, “This is who I am”. She hadn’t written since. She only drew the letter r and saw a broken cup and thought these thirteen words and grew thin (all food had ash in it) and grew weak (all thoughts had him in them) and did not smile. She had not written and it was ruining her.
Her name, to the world, is Beatrice.
She sat at the end of the dinner table, trying impossibly to ignore her family and attempting to be disengaged. She wished she was bored. No one ever writes of boredom, the richness of it, the heavy weight of it, the comfort—like a blanket—of having nothing to do and time to do it in, of flipping channels or dozing in a lecture hall or on school holidays. Boredom is the space in which inspiration is found. She missed those moments in childhood when time stretches into the distance ahead of you, when you cannot decide which game to play and you needn’t decide just yet. Words used to run to her then and she would run with them, catch them as one does butterflies and pin them to pages. Millions of butterflies would flit past her eyes in that endless moment just before she fell asleep, forming patterns and swirls, poetry, delirious boredom. Here she was instead, forced out of her boredom, forced to half-listen to awkward small talk, all of them but her unwilling to accept that they were bored of each other.
She ran through “An Observation” a few more times before she sighed and let it go. Those words were a bird with a broken wing: weak, dying and fighting. Those words dipped their ends in red: a pool of it, caused by, coloured by, iron. Those words were printed on a moth’s wings: brown, dry and lonely. The butterflies of before had yet to come back. Her butterflies. Black and white butterflies—words would come to rest on her mind, her tongue, on her fingertips.
The table was set beautifully: red table-runner, beaded place-mats, slender candles on wooden candlesticks sculpted in generic ‘African’ form to impress the mzungu. Thin smoke from candles. Wide steam from serving dishes. Oodles of food that they “ate everyday” specially bought and cooked to be ethnic enough to be different yet still palatable to his white tongue. Conversation that jumped in fits and starts as people gulped at a momentary change of topic, dying for something interesting, running towards it, celebrating it, only to find it as dry and fleeting as the last.
She could not find words in this. It was not true boredom: there was effort here, pauses filled with awareness, with a fear of silence, a desire to obliterate silence. It was exhausting. It would have been much simpler really if she could have said, “This is boring”, sat silently, and they joined her in the silence.
He, the mzungu, sat at the head of the table—of course—laughing loud American laughs. The delicious colonialist placing of a white man at the head of the table was lost on everyone but her. She didn’t mind him as such; he left her alone after the first few tepid conversations (in which he talked and she nodded deferentially). She later overheard him whisper to her sister, “She’s different”.
Her mother sat on his right hand—of course—and added story after story, eager to make him feel welcome, alternating between her warm we-have-guests voice and cold disappointed-in-you-voice. She kept the latter in Kiswahili, saved it for whenever he, her daughters, her maids or her husband displeased. “Kwani ulimwaga chumvi ndani ya sukuma au nini?” A tart comment to her sister hidden, for the mzungu’s sake, with a smile.
“Sorry Mom, I have to remind you again, David doesn’t speak Swahili.” Her sister’s thick, put-on posh accent was framed with the same smile. Anita (daughter) and Lucy (mother) smile wide at each other, each sharp white tooth cutting into the other’s skin. Anita: Her mother’s daughter.
“No, no, don’t worry. I am learning. Kwe…no…kwa…‘kwa-ni’? Means ‘what’, right?” Loud American laugh.
“Yes babe, she was just asking if I poured all the salt into the kale. Oh Mom, I just thought I’d give it a little flavour.”
Lucy’s sharp-toothed smile broke into a sharp-edged laugh. “Oh Anita, you. We don’t make it like this always you know, we are very health conscious here. “Me, I never use salt unless I absolutely have to,” she told the mzungu.
Beatrice tasted on her mind’s tongue the bland ugali of her youth, complemented by bland bitter greens and no meat. Her mother was using a truth she learnt just the other day, when she got satellite TV for the first time and found chefs to justify her bland cooking.
Not for the guest though. For him, steam wafted from beef stew and chicken masala.
Beatrice watched her mother and sister fight, the sort of fight that happens through the scraping of a knife across a plate, or a pause between words meant and words spoken. They were far too similar and despised each other for it, which is why they were so close, speaking almost every night on the phone before Anita moved in with the mzungu. Their banter continued, but Beatrice couldn’t catch their words and so chased her own.
She stared at the moth wriggling beside the plate. She tried to change its words. Had. No. Have. I have coffee there. Will have. Will. I had coffee there. Will. A future implied, a determination. A choice. She had coffee there, she will, she chooses.
It’s been a year. More than. After.
She went by around two weeks later with a press pass. Passed empty stores and holes in ceilings, walls. Walked through the café where she had had coffee. It was ashy and broken. It was too big to clean. It was too hard to clean. Of the many shards and shattered glass, of the broken lives and raided shelves, she focused on a sliver of a white cup sticking out from a pile of rubble. The letter r sat on the sliver, proud and comfortable, not worried that it was all alone, a sliver of a broken cup. She took a photo of it for her article knowing it would not make it to print, but she didn’t care what made it to print. She never wrote the article anyway. The words, her butterflies, were scared off during. She saw them fly away and hide beneath a table. She couldn’t chase after them. She had left them behind. She took another photo. She had to capture that r before it was brushed away. It was a beautiful r.
“Rather riveting really”. She snapped back into the room. The r again, by the American. “The way numbers work has always fascinated me. I almost couldn’t help becoming an actuary. I’m just a math geek honestly!” Loud American laugh. She heard a snort in there, a snort she imagined became a snore in the night. Sis laughed too, icy, a laugh to prove that he was funny, that he was a good one. “An Acturial Scientist”, they would say at the wedding. “An Acturial Scientist all the way from America for our Angel Anita”. Seven years away and she came back with an Actuarial Scientist. Rather riveting really.
Beatrice’s father cringed at the laughter. He ate politely. He stared down at his plate, meticulously cut and portioned each bite, chewed methodically, swallowed at regular intervals. He always ate with some deliberation but today each bite served as distraction from the dinner, each bite had purpose. Poet saw it in the dead set of his clenched jaw, clenched even when he opened his mouth to eat. He was irritated by his darling wife’s insistence on using the fine cutlery they had received as wedding presents all those years ago, gifts which had not merited opening even once before. He was a thinker, years in a small flat, stringently and diligently saving for his house, working and scratching the left side of his head with his right hand, a tic repeated in thought. He worked in years not moments. Moments were fleeting, passed easily, but years sneak up on you. You can find yourself walled in by years, brick by brick. Then you’re stuck in place. Plan, he said, at the small desk in the corner of the two-bedroom flat. Plan, he said, at the large study filed with books and stature.
She scratched her left temple with her right hand. She, Beatrice, felt sad. She knew that she, with her half-dead smile and empty notebook, broke his heart a second time (after the first when her brother broke it) when she couldn’t move on. They planned. She, Poet, felt nothing: her plans were shot during, bled to death on the floor slowly, died instant deaths, were crushed by rubble, hid in corners, couldn’t hide, not even after they escaped. They failed.
He, with his plans and thoughts of years, was never bored or inspired. He, who thought himself brave, never thought to tell his wife that he hated her cooking.
“What do you think?” The American was asking her about…something. Everyone looked at her.
I’m sorry, she thought, but the words caught in her throat. She raised her right eyebrow and turned her head slightly to the left, quizzical. Her mother interrupted, protective. “She was lost in her own world, weren’t you sweetie? Such an artist, this one.”
An artist. Poet, artist. Painter. She of the Painter. Her brother. He died before it. He died before the words fluttered away, when they were children, when she would write letters and he would colour them. Finger paints. It was an accident. She doesn’t remember. She choked chlorine water too. A murky water, blue-green. Her brave father saved her, his daughter. His son broke his heart. Her butterflies remained, but turned black and white except one: chlorine blue.
Then they all left: blue, black and white. They left when their wingtips touched red. He would have liked that red. A painter’s red. It was deep and rust filled. It turned black quicker than she had expected. Perhaps because of the ash. Perhaps because of shadows. Perhaps the colour simply drained. It didn’t turn black. It turned brown. Moth brown. She choked salt water too. Her own. When he landed in front of her, eyes open, red. During.
“…artists. Could never be one myself—don’t have a single talent me!” Loud American laugh. “It must be amazing to get so absorbed in thought, inspirations. Must help you deal with.…” The last sentence slipped from his mouth without him knowing; the last words were caught by Anita’s sudden strong grip of his thigh.
She heard it. Poet felt the word leave her mouth. Beatrice heard herself say it. It was out loud. Beatrice/Poet watched a butterfly fly from between their lips, quivering, surprised by the light, by its existence. She said it again.
A long pause. She wondered how the conversation got here from (too) salted kale. She imagined a shift from the literal meaning of “sukuma wiki”—“push the week, imagine, it was so cheap then, it was survival”—to the cost of food, to economics, to politics, to art, to her, to the yet to be stated during. She imagined her father’s tight lips getting tighter as the conversation grew more serious and her mother’s loud voice getting brasher to cover her ignorance. Her sister would pretend to be uninterested, gently stroking the American’s thigh, feeling the rebellion coursing through her fingertips onto his khaki trousers, trousers bought special for the heat he imagined he would find in Africa. Poet was grateful for him. He brought it up.
“Well, with?” More confident. The butterfly landed on the tip of his nose. He replied, hesitant.
“He just meant with your work, that’s all. She is such a marvellous writer, so gifte—”
“I was.” She felt a breeze. Butterfly. Butterflies. Two. More appearing. Many wings fluttering. “I was…” A confession. Brutal. Cathartic. “…a writer. I haven’t written. Not one word. Not since.”
They stared at her, surprised. Her voice was strong.
“You know this.” Poet to Mother. Poet to table.
Subtext: Tell me you didn’t know. A year on. Dad, the moment you came to visit, to see why I couldn’t pay my rent, when you saw the tossed papers in the bin, scribbled with jagged lines, crowded r’s. When you threw them away and didn’t say a word. When I came home. Mom, a year on, more than, when you feed and clothe me like I am a baby those moments when a glass breaks or the sky is too cloudy or I overhear whispered shouts from your room. Or smell coffee. When you drink tea. Sis, when the American came and you laid out this dress, said we are having dinner. When you rush past me and pretend I am introverted, not broken. When we pretend I am good. When we pretend I am writing a novel. When you all talk so loud that no one notices I talk hardly ever. You know this. Tell me you don’t.
No one responded.
Poet, “Let him say it. With?”
“Sis, B…he doesn’t know.” “Let him say it. With?”
“Let him say it.” Silent.
A tableau was presented: a mother, eager to please, buries her worries beneath the table-runner; a sister, who knows she doesn’t know her sibling Baby B anymore, realises she can’t even speak to her; a father, aware that waiting for an answer may be too much to ask but too afraid to speak; a man who let four words slip and wishes he could swallow them whole; Beatrice/Poet, surrounded by butterfly letters, wings grazing her face and hands, finally they are back, they are finally back, after.
In the kitchen.
The maid had dropped a pan into the sink and broken a glass. A glass she had polished repeatedly during the morning. It was to be washed and rinsed and dried out before dinner, after fresh mango juice had filled it at tea time, so the mzungu would find a clean kitchen. She reached into the suds floating in one half of the double-sink and pricked her finger on a shard. She felt the prick and winced, not from the pain but from the thought of what Madam would do to her when she found the broken glass.
In the café.
He grabbed her. He dropped her notebook. They ran. They hid behind a table. They held hands for the first time. Their eyes met as glass breaking in the window rained on the floor. Thick shards, neat breaks. They seemed to fall soft, like snow. His eyes were like a painter’s, the Painter’s, her dying Painter. He saw the colour in her skin. He could colour her words. One flitted by, a gentle purple, one of sunsets and sunrises. It was shaped like his name. She can’t say it. She’s scared. She’s heard of these things. Distant things. The occasional grenade in a backwater church. Not today. Not when her shirt is open one button too low. Not when he’s saved up to take her here, where she deserves. Not when they talked every night for days, for lifetimes. He moves. He falls. She can’t remember how or why. She remembers red by a coffee cup, a pool. It seemed to turn black fast. Maybe coffee. Maybe mixed. She remembers it like she remembers the glass falling, individual memories like individual raindrops. Not rain, raindrops before they land and cover the earth, a flood. She thinks he was shot. They said so after. She can’t remember being told to go by the shooter. She remembers showing her Painter her notebook. He was smiling. He read it aloud and she saw them gain life, wrestle free from the pins on the page, no longer monochrome. Full Technicolor; neon and pastel; acid and jewel tones; bright. Most died in the blast and the rapport; fell in the rubble; were stampeded by survivors; simply gave up and died, easy. Some remained. Those hovered over him. She left. She called to them. They refused. The neon faded back to grey, except one. It was rust red. It was angry. Except another. It was purple. No soft sunsets and sunrises. The purple in the centre of a flame. They were angry. Except another. Chlorine blue. It knew she would leave. They, at least, were loyal. They, at least, were brave. They smelt of coffee. She didn’t see him breathe his last breath. They did and they loathed her for it. They punished her with the brown moth. “An Observation” observing her for them.
The crash in the kitchen.
The table was grateful for the crash.
“Eh, kwani nini imefanyika jikoni jamani?” her mother said, pushing her seat from the table in that hurried exasperated manner saved for the help. She caught herself and smiled. “Please excuse me, let me see what’s happening in the kitchen.” She hurried off, swearing to herself.
The American turned to her sister and whispered something. They talked in hushed whispers, glancing, with poorly executed discretion, at Poet. Father’s knife scraped against his plate. It was dinner. A planned dinner. He was eating according to plan.
There were butterflies everywhere. They came out after that question, the unfinished “with”. They wanted to answer. They couldn’t feed on his spilled red, on his open eyes anymore. They had observed. Their spy told them she had few words left. Nearly none. Only the ones he carried on his bent wings. She was tired. They were sorry they left. He called them back; he, with his unfinished question, called them back. They filled the room and begged her to spell them out, to say them out, to write them out; to say how his eyes were the Painter’s eyes, how she can’t remember either day (chlorine blue and rust red) but she remembers both their eyes; to say she was happy he coloured her words again, that she missed the purple of sunrise and sunset; to say his name.
She was overwhelmed. She without her brother, without her love, never had a chance to love, both gone, one to chlorine blue, one to rust red, both of whose eyes burned purple fire; she, abandoned by words; she, without a family willing to speak; she, who had a mother who hid the photos of her dead son in the store; she, with a sister who didn’t speak of it, got a scholarship, left and seven years later returned only to flaunt her American; she, failing a father relentless in his pursuit of perfection, a father who failed to factor in something as obvious as death; she, who used to have her dreams, her poems, about him, her love; she, who imagined the feel of him, used to touch his hair, in her mind, a coconut oil slick on her hand as it rested on the back of his head when they kissed, a kiss that never happened; she, Beatrice, Poet without words, without butterflies, with a dying moth writhing on her tongue, was overwhelmed.
She could not do it.
She could not speak. She did not want to.
She was done.
With all of it.
Done with the smell of chicken stew and beef masala, with awkward conversation and even more awkward silences, with the side steps and avoidance, with the hanging question she almost answered. She would have answered before the crash in the kitchen. Before the crash in the café. Before the crash in the swimming pool.
Not after. The moment was gone.
The butterflies filled the room. They were real. Not distant images, not translations of a process. Real. Millions. Billions. She breathed in powder. She felt wind from their flight. She smelt ink, coffee, chlorine, rust. All black and white save for three: chlorine blue, rust red and fire purple. She felt tears. They were leading the others. They were dancing. Swirls and patterns of letters moved in the air, shifted. His eyes. Their eyes. Painters both.
She was done.
With the before and after. Before and after the crash in the kitchen. Before and after the crash in the café. Before and after the crash in the pool. During. Her life was cracked during. She was done. She didn’t want the words. Not anymore.
They were hurt.
She refused to care.
They flooded. They swarmed in. Her mouth, her nose, her ears. They flooded in. They rejected her rejection. How dare she? She choked. She felt them rush down her throat. The wings beat against her, within her, violent, sounded like thuds, felt like cuts. She felt them flutter in her lungs, one on top of the other on top of the other, filling it up like the smoky ash had, like the blue-green water had. She felt them bore into her ear canal, digging, antennae poking through her ear drum, wriggling, digging, boring through her brain. She didn’t cover her mouth, her nose, her ears. She took them in and felt herself, the little tiny corner of her, the back of her mind that called itself Poet, leave to make room for them.
Her father watched her lips part, barely, and shut. Again. Again. Silently they parted, as her mother shouted softly in the kitchen at the maid. Anita and David were too busy whispering to notice. He called her.
“Beatrice.” A long pause.
He heard her sigh. Saw her blink. Slide slightly in her chair. She was alive.
Beatrice sat in a room alone. It was filled with butterflies, all black and white except for three: chlorine blue, rust red, fire purple. The room was well lit. Bright. Huge. She was bored witless. She stared at the swirling patterns they made. Perhaps they were poems. She was indifferent. In her hand she held a moth. Brown. It wriggled. Almost dead. She smiled a little. Accepting of it. It was easy. She crushed its body between her fingertips. She did it carefully, let its wings stay unbruised. Its body released a gush. She felt it ooze onto her palm. Ink. The letters on its wings changed. Slightly.
She didn’t notice.
Anne Moraa is a creative writer and performer. Her poetry has been commissioned and performed at venues including the Festivale CulturElles at Alliance Francais to name but one. Her interest in all things ‘writing’ led to her work as an Editorial Assistant at Kwani?, and current Editor at Jalada Africa. She is presently studying for her Creative Writing (MA) in Fiction. Find her on <a href="http://twitter.com/tweetmoraa“>@tweetmoraa.
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