The next morning, slashes of red stain my pillow. When I wash myself I study every inch of my dark skin. I note each lesion, each hatch of worn skin, every scar, and I remember its history, why it became, and if it persists. Then I rub this skin with cassava oil until it glows like the umunzenze stripped of its bark, like pulp softly beating beaten brown. I slowly dress, wrapping the pagne sewn through with gold threads tightly around my thinned hips. The pagne belonged to my mother, and then my sister, and now me. They wore it on the day they were given in marriage. I shuffle on my old plastic sandals, they cannot be helped, and I sit again in the chair that is propped against the door. I unwrap the lipstick from its blanket and find my lips, using my left hand as a guide, and coat them thickly with vivid red. I wind the lipstick back into the gold tube and wrap the blue blanket around it. I store the blanket in my basket, under the skein of pink wool, and place the basket on the floor. When I exit the bedroom, both Christine and datá stare – Christine holds the full, tarnished spoon aloft, in mid-air, and datá’s jaw hangs open – but they say nothing, there is no heated rush of thorny air, so I step outside, into the soft blue of morning.
I pass the Memorial Gardens next to the church. Cassius is there, standing guard over bones he has arranged as playmates. He is the caretaker of the garden. This morning his machete flashes like silver as he trims the pyrethrum growing over the graves dug there. The severed flowers and leaves drift to the ground in dunes of white and green. It is said that Cassius sleeps with his machete on the bench of a wooden pew inside the church, cradling it like a woman. His family was killed in this church. Cassius survived by pretending to be dead. He was seven years old. He hid in the swamp for fifty days as the rest of the killing took place. The whites of his eyes were stained red by the swamp water, made bloody by those who were cut and died there. At night Cassius would wade back through the floating, bloated bodies to sleep on dry land below the manioc tree. One night the Hutu discovered him there and cut his head with a machete. A Tutsi woman named Mathilde found him after they had left, and each night would bring him food and water. Cassius said he could feel his head rotting and worms gnawing next to his brain, but Mathilde put some leaves and medicine over the wound and finally it healed. Her husband, who was Hutu, learned that she was caring for a Tutsi child. He took her to the edge of the pond at Rwaki-Birizi, three kilometers away, and killed her with one thrust of his knife. Sometimes now I see Cassius in the garden, cradling his head or rolling his eyes and pounding his skull with his fists to rid himself of the worms he still feels crawling inside. I leave him alone then, chattering with ghosts and howling to the sky.
This morning I stop and pick up a small, severed flower. I tuck it above my ear, into the scarf wound tightly around my head. Cassius smiles when he sees me. He cuts a much larger, intact flower. He bows as he presents the flower to me, and I laugh. Cassius says that when I laugh the angels of Heaven are singing. He is one of the few that have heard them.
The gacaca has started when I arrive. I stand in back, where no one can see me. I search through the crowd for Denis Munyankore. I do not see him, though he is required by law to be here. I feel the blood pulse through my veins until I hear a clap of laughter and see Denis there, with a group of men, bent double and swiping at his eyes. I think he has seen me. I hope that he sees me. The laughter stops abruptly when the prisoners arrive, wearing dirty pink robes, shackled hands clasped before them. The first prisoner is directed to approach his accuser. She is seated on the dried grass beneath the umunzenze tree. His crimes are recounted, and as I watch Denis I remember the smell of the children that burned, the smell of roasted meat. The woman who accuses the prisoner boasts that she is still living, he could not kill her, perhaps she will never die, perhaps she is immortal. She slowly unwinds the long, colorful scarf tied around her head, then tilts her head so that the sun illuminates a deep, lightening-white streak across one side and over her remaining ear. The prisoner cries out when he sees it. He snatches a rock off the ground and tries to scratch this same passage over his own head, but is constrained by the shackles he wears. He is then told to ask for forgiveness, and he does. Her eyes are blank as she watches his shoulders heave and the shackles are undone. He will live in Kibungo now, again; he will be her neighbor.
I wait as each prisoner is forgiven and unshackled, and as the crowd starts to disperse I raise my arm and call to le magistrat. The crowd pauses, and as I make my way forward they fall back, away, clearing a passage for me, marveling at the red of my lips and the white of my flower and my limbs entwined in gold. I stand under the umunzeze. Now, I am ready. Le magistrat calls to Denis Munyankore, who hesitates until he is pushed forward by his friends. He is required by law to be here. I hear a muffled cough as he stumbles toward me, and I do not recognize the wide, flat hand clamped over that mirthful, mocking mouth or those streaming eyes. I search frantically through the crowd – he has gone? Or he is there, behind the tree, hiding, ashamed – but I look again, and now he is here, kneeling before me. I recognize this bowed head and again I detect the scent of fused earth. But I cannot see his eyes, and I hesitate until he grasps my hands with his – wide, soft – and holds them firmly against his intact head. I can feel the throb of his thoughts, their pulse matches mine, and now I want to see them, to understand how they are created from just meat, meat that he has seen, that can be stripped away or devoured until all that remains is bleached white bone. He whispers:
“Pardonnez-moi, madame,” and so I do. He nods in response, an abrupt dip. My hands slip from his head and fall loosely to my side. When he stands he turns his back to me and approaches his friends, and again I hear that clap and he is rubbing his eyes as though crying. They depart, the crowd drifts away and I remain, standing under the umunzeze tree. I wait until it grows dark, and then I scratch the wax off my lips with my fingernails. Now the red is real. I walk home alone.
When I enter our terre-tôle, datá is watching. His lips move and his throat contracts as he points to my lips, my dress, my flower, and again I hear ntawé, so I storm to him. He tries to cover his head when I snatch the white flower from behind my ear and grind it into his mouth and clamp my flat, wide palm over it so that he must chew, he chews, and chews. He is red and wheezing. He swallows. I leave him cowering there and storm to the bedroom: my woven basket is gone. My blanket, the skein of pink wool, the fluted tube of gold. I search every corner – it is nowhere to be found. But I know who has taken it, so I storm out of our house and leave datá with his lips scratched red and the tang of soil on his tongue.
I stand outside Marie-Lauré’s cabaret. It is well-lit inside by the flickering flames of kerosene lamps. Music jumps through the clay walls and climbs out the windows. I enter. The first to see me are suddenly silent, because I have never before set foot in this place, though it is where my father would stay, clutching his straw while his daughters at home cried from hunger. I make my way to the bar and sit, searching through the crowd until I see Christine there, red lips flashing, my red lips, narrow hands clasped in dance with the wide, flat hands of Denis Munyankore. I watch them move closer, and so I stand and I declare injustice, thievery, there, her, she, she has stolen what I possessed – And the music stops and the dancing halts, and they watch me again. It is silent, and then there is a cough, a clap, and Denis Munyankore’s hands clasp his knees. He shakes and swipes his eyes, and this time the laughter becomes a contagion that sweeps through the cabaret and rumbles the clay walls that I demand bury all as I run from the light into darkness.
I go to the Memorial Gardens to sit with the bones of my sister buried there. Cassius sits with me, and asks me why I am crying. I tell him, and he explains to me that the universe is not just. It is our responsibility, the living, those knit to life by Imâna, to seek justice: we must rectify the wrongs implicitly woven into the matter of things. But I don’t understand, and I am again crying, so he gives me his blanket to sleep on and I am grateful for his kindness. Cassius stands guard at the gate. The shimmering steel of his machete is like a flickering flame that banishes dark. I close my poor eye and sleep.
The next morning Cassius gently wakes me. He shows me the golden flute of my lipstick, nestled in his red-stained palm. He tells me that justice has been served, and he no longer feels worms crawling in his head, nor gnawing at his brain. He now shall sleep only peacefully. He smiles an exhausted smile and cradles his machete on the wooden pew. His eyes flutter closed. His machete drips with blood. I stumble out of the church now, because I need to know which justice he has served, whose justice, what is just – and I find myself on the narrow dirt road that winds below the eucalyptus grove. The road ends at the poor wooden shack where Christine has lived since her return from the Congo. I pause before I open the door because I hear the languid buzz of fat, black flies and I see them, sated, flying in lazy black circles inside and then out of the bare window. Now I smell it, wet red soil, and my hands are shaking when I push open the door.
Inside, Christine and Denis Munyankore lie unclothed on the mat spread over the floor. I do not avert my eyes. Their limbs are entwined and their necks are cut. Small baubles of blood have pooled along the simple, clean slice of the machete, of the color still smeared on her lips. I approach them now, slowly, but can no longer stand. I sit on the drenched, packed earth. I lean over Christine and pick up her hand. I hold it to mine, they are similarly sized. I examine the wrist connected to this hand, then the arm and then Denis, woven there, and as I carefully separate these plaited inches of dark skin I note each scar, each hatch of worn skin, and I imagine its history, the violence of its birth, the slow seeping poultice of healing, and here, now, the end. The buzz of black flies subsides. I hear a sound like the cry of a kitten and I see you there, inside my woven basket, lying on top of my knitted blue blanket. Strands of pink wool twine through your tiny dark fingers. Already you resemble Christine, I can see the tall, proud slant of her forehead and those small pursed lips, and your smell is of the earth awaiting creation. I lift you from the basket and hold you to my breast. You stop crying instantly, and watch me with ancient, expectant eyes. I pull the blanket from the basket. The fluted tube of lipstick tumbles to the ground. I leave it there, tarnished in bloody soil, and wrap the blanket tightly around you. Now, we start. I hook the basket under my arm and carry you home.
Emily Eiselein will be a first-year student in NYU's MFA program in Creative Writing this fall.
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