Before he stopped speaking, mon père called me ntawé: no one. I was born unformed, with a screed of white over the center of my left eye. La cataracte. A kiss on the eye from the Imâna who knit me in my mother’s womb. But He had time only for my eye. This life was calling, and so the rest remains, like you, black as the sooty chat that glides above, singing sweetly to the sky of dying.
When I was born they were frightened by this white. They took me straight from my mother’s collapsed womb to that place where the Nyabarongo and Akanyaru meet, where our Tutsi kings die and their heirs are created. They held me under the silted current, but the white would not be stained black and I would not drown. Today they are still frightened. His kiss is what has saved me.
I am the second of two daughters. My sister and her children were killed by her husband’s family that day in April. My father now has ntawé; he is childless. When he is dead, there will be none.
There is a woman here in Kibungo whose five children were also killed by a Hutu. His name is Emmanuel. He confessed this to her, but only after they had met and become friends at Ukuri Kuganza. He looked changed after admitting his guilt – he became taller, as though his spine were able to straighten after the large, heavy block that comprised his sin was lifted. He said that to admit guilt is a heroic act. And yet it was Valerie Batamuliza, the mother whose children were killed, who lifted this heavy block from him and carries it still. I have heard that Emmanuel has a collection of small fingers, strung together with twine woven from grass from the shore of Lake Kiva. He keeps them in a wooden box under his bed. They are the fingers of the children he has killed. I have heard that he wore them as a necklace after all the Tutsi were killed and they celebrated in the village with iragwa and a newly slaughtered cow. Because they were so small, all of the fingers fit around his neck on a single piece of twine.
But that was long ago. We are told to forgive and not forget. There are some here who say it never happened, who refuse to believe, even though many had participated. We call them the genocidaire. My father is one, even though he is Tutsi, even though he only observed, with me, at our terre-tôle, when the Hutu were frightened and would not enter. They went instead to the church to find the women and children and my sister and her sons. After mon père proclaimed what he did not believe his voice took leave of his body. His lungs still contract and the air vibrates through his throat and lips that are moving, but now there is no sound. Sometimes I think he accuses me; that I have cursed him and stolen his voice, though I hear it still, whispering ntawé and asking me why I am living.
And so this morning datá will not eat. Again he will not open his stubborn mouth, and he twists his old grey head left then right to avoid my spoon. He wants Christine to feed him; he is waiting for her. She takes care of my father the days I work as la bonne for muzûngukazi in Kigali. A few times I am able to grasp his head with my left arm, wrapping it around the shell of his skull to hold it steady and pinch his nostrils closed. Then I scrape the matoke across his closed, pursed lips until he opens them to gasp in anger and I push it inside with my fingers. Once he bit my finger, and I had to twist the wide spoon against his old teeth and bleeding gums until he would release it. My finger was crushed but did not bleed. I could not understand why he preferred Christine to me, so one day I watched them. They did not know I was there. Christine bent at the waist in front of my father, peering up into his eyes, offering matoke heaped high on the tarnished spoon. The scarf she always wore had slipped, and the raised welts encircling her neck were visible. His mouth dropped open, and she gently pasted la banane on his tongue. He would nod as he swallowed. His eyes asked for more until the dish was empty. Then he slept, his head fallen to one side, exposing the old artery slowly beating under the skin of his neck. My father refused to believe she could cut it, as her people had done to the others they hunted before she fled to the Congo, as she was surely capable. I told her this, to warn her. She stood then with her hand on her hip, worn pagne with faded blue flowers stretched tight over the opal bone, and said datá would not allow me to feed him because he knew it would be poisoned. I told her never to return, but she would not listen and did not stay away.
Today Christine is late. I leave him with his stomach grumbling, staring out the window. Outside, the red clay of the slippery, rutted road clings to my sandals and stains my feet, so I step in the wide, level prints of someone who walked before me. I balance my basket with my left hand and hold the edge of my pagne out of the mud with my right. In my basket are skeins of wool, in pink and light blue. I knit small blankets on the matatu to and from Kigali, blankets for le bébé, to sell to the abazûngu there. The blankets must remind them of a home that they miss, where there is cold, because many of the expatriates who buy do not have children. I purchase the wool from a merchant in Kigali. He first tried to sell me each skein for twenty francs, when they were only worth ten. I let him notice my eye, and he cowered behind the counter and begged for my forgiveness. Now I buy them for five. I was taught to knit by an umubikíra – la Catholique. She did not mind my eye and taught us to pray. She left when the killing began.
The large footprints stop in front of Marie-Lauré’s cabaret. The outside of the red clay walls are plastered with a paper advertisement for Primus. I call it the beer that saved many Tutsi, even though it is du Belge, because the Interahamwe would drink it all morning and be drunk by noon, too drunk to pursue those hiding in the eucalyptus grove at the top of the hill. Everyday the hidden Tutsi watched as the Hutu approached, singing their work songs and swinging their machete lazily by the wrist as though the metal blade was too heavy to lift. The Tutsi would run the moment they smelled the foamy, yeasted stench of beer on their breaths, to draw the Hutu after them so the others would not be discovered. The Hutu would try to follow, but would stumble and fall into each other, laughing and singing still, and then cut only what lay directly in their path and required little effort: the husks of thin trees or those who remained because they were too old or too young to run or had been cut the day before. There were some who could still run but refused to move. They would assist the attackers by throwing their heads back and lowering their shoulders to expose the long, smooth cord of their neck. They spread their limbs wide in an open embrace to be easily removed in three or four smart blows rather than many that were inefficient and flailing, though because the Interahamwe were drunk, they most often were.
Now I stand in the last set of footprints and search for a new path through the clay. The cabaret is dark – the kerosene lamps burnt out hours ago – but I hear voices inside. I peer through the doorway. There is a sharp hiss demanding instant silence. I can see Marie-Lauré in the dark, wrapped in her gaudy pagne. She leans with one fat elbow propped onto the bar, a plank of wood balanced on two dirty, scuffed jerry cans filled with the iragwa that she makes herself, in a pit behind the cabaret. She would sell my father sips directly from the yellow cans because he could not pay for a glassful. Now she holds her finger over her mouth and looks directly at me. I hear her breathe through her finger:
“Witch. Evil witch! Va háno-- ” a man’s voice shouts that is slurred and then muffled as he tries to say more, grasping at the wide, flat hand another holds over his mouth. Three pairs of shining eyes watch me from the dark, but I refuse to show them my eye and turn quickly, almost running now because I am nearly to Bill Clinton road, the smooth black lash of highway where I catch the matatu to Kigali. I do not want to be late. My feet slip in the wet clay and pink and blues yarns tumble from my basket. They are caught by a wide, soft hand, whose mate has grasped the bone of my left upper arm and keeps me from falling. Denis Munyankore releases my arm. He stands blinking heavily as his eyes adjust to the light of the morning from the dark of the cabaret. Denis is the youngest brother of my sister’s husband, a Hutu. When he was twelve years old he used his father’s machete to cut open my sister’s womb. He removed her daughter and smashed the gasping, unborn baby against the stone wall of the church. The stain remains, I have seen it. He was forgiven by others at the gacaca because they said he was just a boy and we are all Rwandans now. I knew better, and refused.
He walks slowly ahead of me now, creating new prints for me to follow. He cradles the soft skeins of my yarn in his hand. I carefully step around each wide, flat footprint and keep my eyes on the treacherous earth until I reach the paved road. I stop under Bill Clinton light, suspended from wires out of reach above our heads. It used to flicker red, yellow, green, but now is dark. Bill Clinton gave us this light and this road because the lives of one million Tutsi were not worth the life of one American soldier. Some children believe he built the road himself, carefully removing his suit jacket and tie, then stabbing and placating the churning earth with his brilliant magic shovel. I try to tell them this is not true but they refuse to believe me.
I stand now and wait for the matatu, and watch the mules clop by, pulling wooden carts filled with ibango or grasses for thatch. Denis Munyankore stands just behind me. His head is bowed, but I know he watches me. When the matatu arrives, veering freely across the pavement, lingala music blaring, it is already packed with passengers. The door swings open and Denis takes my hand. He slowly opens the fingers of my clenched fist with the tips of soft, scarred fingers. He places the skeins of wool in the center of my palm, then closes my hand back over the wool. I climb onto the matatu, clutching the skeins warmed by his hands against my stomach so that I will not drop them. They make room for me in front as they always do, scattering to the back when I arrive. When I lift my eyes Denis Munyankore is gone, and I am jyênyiné: alone.
We arrive in Kigali. I have finished my blanket. Its color is the sweet, soft blue of the morning when only I am awake. I carefully knot the thread. I hold the wool to my face, over my face, to be assured of its softness, and detect a new scent entwined in its fiber, something warmed and earthen that I cannot name before I am jostled out of the matatu. I fold the blanket into my basket and protect it under the remaining skein as I slip through the crowded market to the wide, quiet streets of Kacyiru, where the houses are large enough to hold three Rwandan families, but are only for one expatriate. The houses are built from concrete, with roofs of tile and glass windows. The tops of the walls that surround them are embedded with broken bottles to slice tiny, curious hands.
The door to the house is open when I arrive, and so I enter. The woman who lives there is Umunyameriká, from a place called Wiskonsin, a home she is sick for, where they make foromaje that is yellow like the color of her hair. Her eyes are like small, open mouths filled with watery blue. Before I worked as la bonne I had never seen a person with these colors; they are fragile and quivering and seemed lightly washed, as though she were only quickly dipped in that vat that creates us. Some who are older thought she was a ghost and were frightened, and others stare with jaws slack and eyes panting and claim she is La Madonna. When she welcomes me, she clasps my hands and looks directly at the space between my eyes, and her voice is sad when she asks about my people. I have learned not to laugh, and when she has left I shave a piece of yellow cheese from the block in her refrigerator and enjoy its sourness on my tongue.
Today when I enter she is still here, sitting at the table in her kitchen with a man named Phillip. He is thin, like those wasting with SIDA, and has small, darting eyes. He came to Kigali from Angland many years ago, to also work for the United Nations. I have seen the children that he claims are not his – they are light brown and wrinkled and have yellow eyes. The table is scattered with empty bottles and sticky with beer. Cigarette butts are ground into saucers overflowing with ashes. She sits close to him, and his thin arm lies heavily on top of hers, on the table amid the bottles. They have not heard me enter. I watch his large red hand clasp hers, small and white. Her shoulders are visible through thin fabric, and knobbed like bedposts. He kisses one knob with dry, splintery lips. I drop my basket to the floor to startle them. She turns her face to me, and for a moment I think it is not her because the eyes are red and ringed with thick black, and the blue is solid as metal. Philip lightly touches both sides of her face with the flat of his hands. He swivels her head back to him and stares at her lips as though he wants to eat them. He smiles to me. His teeth are edged in brown.
“Excusez-nous, madame.” He pushes back his chair and stands. He pulls her arm off the table and leads her to the bedroom. She does not resist. He does not close the door. Moments later I hear him, grunting and heaving like ingurube searching for its mother’s teat, but I ignore the sound and unfurl a large plastic bag from a cardboard box.
I drop the empty bottles into the bag and sop up the beer and cigarette ash with the arm of a sweater he has left slung over the chair. I slowly rinse the saucers in the sink, making the water that flows from the tap as hot as I can stand. The morning sunlight pours through the window, and a glint of light flares from the bedroom. There, on top of the bureau next to the door, is an exquisite shimmer of gold. I look closer: it is a small, fluted tube of shiny yellow metal. Unwound from its base, thrusting above the glimmering rim, is a carved column of blood red lipstick. I cradle it in my hand. The metal is cold and the red stains my palm. There is a gasp in the room and a voice pants get the hell outta here, and now those flat eyes watch me run.
It is still early and datá and Christine are surprised to see me. I go directly into the bedroom and close the door. I can hear the fierce wind issue from his lips, so I set the chair against the closed door and sit on the chair. I slowly unwrap my newly knitted blanket so that it lies flat on my lap. The golden tube of lipstick glows there, at the center of the blanket. I hold the lipstick in my right hand, and with my left I tap the crease of my upper lip. I trace the gentle slope of its rise, probe the center impression (the tip of my finger rests in the deep divot) and ascend to the opposite peak. I increase the pressure of my finger over this soft skin until I reach its downward corner, then I sweep my finger over the puffed parchment of my lower lip. This skin is thin and irritable and demands notice, so I unwind the lipstick and paint it red. To appease and conceal. To appeal. The lipstick clings to my lips like thick wax and its taste is sweet tin. I press the heel of my hand against my lips, my mouth. I feel the sharp bone of my teeth against my lips, my hand, my palm is blood red and now I remember that wide, flat hand, and I imagine its taste, of red earth or black soil, of that which gently stirs sleeping seeds to wake what is luminous and undying. I wind the lipstick back into its case and fold my blue blanket around it. I lower myself onto the woven mat and wrap my arms around the blanket. The flat pillow cradles my head. I close my eyes and dream of sleep.