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    Battelle Tompkins, Room 237

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Hanging from the Paw-Paw Tree

Excerpt from the novel by Greta Schuler, 2010 fall

Faustina could see a child’s eye peeking between the plywood door and the mud wall of the hut. Her niece’s footsteps had been silent—Faustina felt Mazvita’s stare before she heard her. “Pendai,” Faustina urged. "Come in. Why are you afraid?”

The maize meal sack was empty, so Faustina hadn’t bothered to start a fire. Letting the girl wait outside, Faustina splashed her face with water from the tin bucket. The drops running down her cheeks felt cooler as she neared the door, where the dry night seeped in through the cracks.

“Now tell me, child, how is maiMazvita?” Faustina had to remember to call her young sister maiMazvita, the mother of Mazvita, instead of Silent. The moon shone on the very top of the little girl’s head, which was smooth and shaved as her father’s religion dictated. Mazvita told her aunt that maiMazvita was at the clinic and that the fat nurse with the Karanga accent wanted her to go to the hospital.

The baby, Faustina thought. Something is wrong with her sister’s baby. Silent was little more than a girl herself—so young that Faustina was married with her first child before her father had taken Silent’s mother. And now Silent is pregnant with her second.

“Mange, mange!” Faustina ordered Mazvita to hurry back to the clinic. She would follow with the white women in their car.
 
Faustina rolled a rock in front of the door and left her hut without looking back. Her own children were gone, Lovemore dead. And now Silent sick. But what could she do? Only hurry her usual walk down the mountain. She would be the one to bring the white women; they would drive Silent from the rural clinic to the city hospital.
 
Branches entwined with shadows hid the unfinished booster rising from the top of the tallest rock in Nharira—maybe even Marange—but Faustina knew the half-built tower was still there. Abandoned. Surrounded by forgotten tools. Sheets of rusty metal. The people in Nharira didn’t know why the city workers had left the booster incomplete—Marange continued to wait for cell phone service. Outside the bottle shop, half-dead men with beer dripping from their sluggish lips spit words they wouldn’t say sober: “the government doesn’t want us to talk.” But Faustina assumed that even the cell phone men had run out of money as everyone else in Zimbabwe had. Would a cell phone help Silent and the baby?
 
The knot of her dkuku loosened. The colorful cloth slipped, draping her eyes, and she stumbled. Her rubber sandals crushed a line of termites. She retied the dkuku around her smooth head. When the hairstylist posted new prices—up by two million—outside her concrete shack, Faustina had shaved her head. More saved for her journey to South Africa. More ten-thousand-dollar bills to stuff behind the pendulum of her broken clock. She wondered if Silent and her baby would need the money. Would she give it to them? No one knew about the crumbled wad.

The fading gleam of stars and moon broke through the branches above her, dotting her path down the mountain. The thin musasa leaves dangled like fingers and held the scent of baboon feces. Faustina hated walking through the dark, past the patches of weeds, densest on the mountain’s summit. The weeds looked dead but came back to life for the afflicted who picked them and put them in water as the n’anga instructed. Silent had told her to go to the n’anga when her children left—bad omens, bad spirits. Someone is unhappy with you, Silent had said, meaning the dead. But Faustina suspected that the living were unhappier. Her neighbor who completed form four had to tell her what the note said. Her oldest and only son Lovemore II had left the piece of cream paper folded into the children’s blanket: We take the food you dont have. Work in South Africa.

Faustina didn’t need a witchdoctor; she needed money to follow her boy and girl. She would never make enough for a passport and visa, but with fifty million she could take a bus to the border and pay a guide to help her cross the Limpopo. Only the diamond miners and the foreign missionaries had money in Marange. A relative of her father lived near Chiadzwa, closer to the diamonds than Nharira. She had warned Faustina about what happens to women who search for rocks. When Faustina had asked to stay with her, the relative had said that a young man called Never and his mining gang smashed a girl’s head against the paved road because she wouldn’t give them her sack of groundnuts. “It is as it was during war,” the relative had shaken her head. So Faustina had returned to her hut alone, and the next morning she had walked down the mountain to Nharira Missionary Orphanage. Auntie Virginia had only glanced at her before nodding, yes, yes, you can have a job, and pointing to the kitchen.

Faustina took the shorter and rockier footpath that wound through wild fruit bushes. At the bend she glimpsed the mountain’s steepest cliff beyond the bramble. The huge rock jutted over the lowveld—its jagged surface stained from the rainy season when the rainy season had come every year. November, December, April. Months and months of rains. The streaks on the cliff appeared golden and burnt during the day, but under layers of stars they sparkled—the ghosts of waterfalls. Baboon silhouettes flitted up the cliff. Faustina heard them panting, though they didn’t bark, their mouths probably filled with stolen paw-paws from the orphanage. The dogs would chase them out of the orchard; the baboons would slash with claws and teeth. Dogs and baboons were always fighting; they were enemies.

As the path flattened, Faustina reached the line of thorn bushes, the outer fence of the orphanage land. The gate of sticks and barbed wire hung limply from the mutasa fencepost. Faustina lifted her denim skirt to step over the loose wire. One of the two new varungu, AuntieAudrey, had given her a pair of jeans, not knowing women should not wear pants. Faustina had to take thread and scissors from the orphanage to make the pants into a skirt.

The new white Aunties brought trouble, Faustina thought. Her empty stomach seemed to tighten—no porridge to stop it from shriveling. What if these white women refused to drive Silent to the hospital? Or if they argued for too long and forgot Silent? They would fight like elephants until all of the grass beneath their feet was dead. Faustina thought their pale eyes unhappy yet earnest. They always demanded opposite things. Faustina suffered the pipe’s fate—bitten on one end, burned on the other. Nhamo yechikwepa kuti uku chakarumwa uku chirikutsva.

Hints of wood smoke drifted on the last breeze of the night. Faustina wondered who had mealie meal for porridge. Where did they get it? Passing the orchard, she hurriedly tugged a guava from a tree, which violently shook behind her. As she walked, she bit into the fruit, and it lightly sprayed her dry lips. The guava felt so small in her hand, then small in her mouth, then smaller and smaller down her throat, and she imagined it disappearing completely, not even a flake of peel reached her stomach.

Faustina stopped. A large dark shadow lay before her. She slowly slid her worn sandals back in the dirt, the tips of her footprints less than a hand’s width away from the black mamba, spread across her path like a corpse with outstretched arms. Dying moonlight made slivers of the gray snakeskin silver. Faustina closed her eyes. She didn’t want to watch it strike, see its fangs dig into the tops of her feet. Who would hear her if she screamed? No guard sat at the top gate—probably at the beer hall. The white women never stirred at night as if they died when the sun set.
 
Faustina tried not to twitch even while her feet tingled—tiny raindrop taps. She once had heard a story from a soldier who fought in Congo about Kakutshi’s dead village, where ghosts had backward feet. And she wished her feet were backward, so she could run without turning. Or leave her feet for the viper and fly. But the prickling disappeared, and her eyelids quivered, unsure whether or not to open. The path was empty. No viper. Nothing in the sand to show where he had gone. Or if he had been there at all. A bad omen. If sekuruwere alive, he would have told her to go back; his old grandfather voice rasped in her ear: Turn back. If you find a snake in your path, do not complete your journey.

Softly, Louis stepped down from the cement stoop to rock dusted with dirt and cooled by the night. His bare feet hit the earth, heel to toe, heel to toe, leaving shallow prints that mapped his path to the largest paw-paw tree in the orphanage yard. Hints of dawn shone on the green and gold paw-paws above him, but everything still looked misty gray, like the haze of his vision when he first woke beneath the mosquito net. Alone, Louis smiled. A quiet space, the emptiness between night and day. An eastern breeze rustled the fronds of the banana trees with the pregnant smell of midsummer. The insects had disappeared with the stars. Somewhere near the outhouse, the night guard snored, his broken lawn chair empty by the unlocked gate, which the dog, Shadow, nosed open. Whimpering, Shadow lay down to lick the wound where a baboon had ripped a clawful of flesh from his hind end.
 
From the brush beneath the trees, Louis selected a stick gnarled like old mbuyaknuckles but still twice his height—long enough to knock down the ripest paw-paw from the tallest tree, the tree that shaded Auntie Audrey’s bedroom window. Bars, glass panes, and cloth covered the openings in the flat where the three white Aunties slept. The two new Aunties were strange but beautiful—younger than Auntie Virginia. Their skin changed color when Louis pressed his fingertip against their smooth arms: reddish pink to white to reddish pink again.

Auntie Audrey had fine hairs on her arms, translucent like scorpion legs. For her, Louis would pick a paw-paw. Her thin, light limbs were like bones. He once had found the skeleton of a leopard on the mountain—now people were so hungry even the bones had disappeared. Lying on the sun-hot rocks, the leopard bones had been delicate and pale. Louis imagined giving the paw-paw to Auntie Audrey and watching her white, white teeth bite into the fruit, pink like her flesh. She wouldn’t eat the bitter yellow skin as he would—she must wait until she’s black for that.
 
Rustling beyond the inner fence reminded Louis that his quiet moment was dying. The bushes shuddered with the movement of laborers plodding to the fields. Though Louis could only hear them, he knew they rested hoes on their shoulders. It was time to bend and pull the weeds from the fields, even though the short stalks were lost beneath the dry grass—everything a golden dead. If the rains had come, the farmers would be harvesting their crops. Faustina said Louis must have farmer’s blood; he felt the seasons even though Auntie Virginia had found him in a cardboard box on the paved streets of Harare. His box read Fragile, which Auntie Virginia called a sign from God. She picked up the box with the baby and brought it to her new orphanage. You are my first, she often whispered to him. Louis could not remember any odor from the shiny buildings in Harare, but he knew the smell of wet grass thatching after the rains. Even on the driest day, that sweet scent drifted up from deep inside him—something like home. Kumba.

The metallic scrape of the cast iron lid against the pot in the kitchen cut through his thoughts. “Five o’clock in the morning,”  Louis said to himself, imitating the slow English of his schoolteacher. “Good morning. I’m fine.”

Louis dropped the long stick to the ground as the gate squeaked softly. Faustina was walking toward him—no, toward the Aunties’ flat. She should have been in the orphanage kitchen by now, helping the other matron cook the porridge for breakfast. But instead she stepped onto the concrete porch and knocked on the Aunties’ door.

 

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Greta Schuler

Greta Schuler