Book excerpt

Butterfly Burning

A Novel

Yvonne Vera

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Butterfly Burning
oneThere is a pause. An expectation.They play a refrain on handmade guitars; lovers with tender shoulders and strong fists and cold embraces. Birds coo from slanting asbestos roofs. Butterflies break from disused Raleigh bicycle bells.In the air is the sound of a sickle cutting grass along the roadside where black men bend their backs in the sun and hum a tune, and fume, and lullaby. They are clad in torn white shorts, short sleeves, with naked soles. The grass burns over their palms where they reach over and pull at it, then curve over the sickle and beyond, pull, inward, and edge the grass forward with the left palm. They bend it toward the left shoulder and away from the eyes. Sweat drips like honey over the firm length of the arms tearingand tugging and splitting the grass. Often they manage to pull the roots out of the ground; to free something; to conquer a stubbornness; to see what is below; to touch what keeps something alive and visible. Sharp rays of the sun drop along the sharp curve, and flow along the rotating glint of the silver sickle. The arm agile, the arm quick over the grass.The tall grass sweeps across the length of their curved bodies, above their bowed shoulders, and throws a cascade of already dry seeds over their bare arms. The grass is a thin slippery tarnish as it waves smoothly. It sways away and again away in this current of heated air. There are seeds, light and flat, like tiny baked insects. Falling down, with their surfaces rough, flat. They waft into the thickness of grass.Each motion of the arms, eyes, of the entire body is patiently guided. The palms are bleeding with the liquid from freshly squeezed grass. The brow is perpetually furrowed, constricted against this action, and against another, remembered; against regret for a possible inaction, and against each memory that dares not be understood. A silence, perhaps, or something near and anticipated but not yet done. There is waiting.Their supple but unwilling arms turn, loop, and merge with the shiny tassels of the golden grass whose stems are still green, like newborn things, and held firmly to the earth. The movement of their arms is like weaving, as their arms thread through each thicket, and withdraw. This careful motion is patterned like a dance spreading out, each sequence rises like hope enacted and set free. Freed, stroke after stroke, holding briskly, and then a final whisper of release. The grass falls. Arm and arm and arm of it. It falls near and close to each curled body. The grass submits to the feet of the workers who step over it to arrive where the grass is high and stands defiant. They hug it indifferently, concerned only to keep its tassels from their eyes, spreading it away. With an easyease they escape the fine flutter of dry seeds raining downward. The men cut and pull. Cut and pull. They bend, cut, and pull. It is necessary to sing.They cut and level the grass till the sun is a crusty and golden distance away and throws cool rays over their worn arms, and the sky dims, and everything is quiet except the spray of light breaking and darting between the grass tossing back and forth above their foreheads and above their eyes now filled with fatigue. The grass is swishing hopelessly below the shoulder, under the armpit, grazing the elbow, and its sound folds into a faint melody which dims with the slow dying of the sun, and each handful of grass becomes a violent silhouette: a stubborn shadow grasped.The men twist the grass together and roll it into a large mass, stacks of it, and gather it into heavy mounds to be carried away the following day. Their bare soles grate against the stubble now dotting the ground, raised like needles, and where the grass is completely dried, turning to fierce thorns. The men, adapted to challenges more debilitating than these, discover welcoming crevices, empty patches where the grass has been completely uprooted and the soil turned to its cooler side. So they place their soles to safety, their heels to a mild earth. The work is not their own: it is summoned. The time is not theirs: it is seized. The ordeal is their own. They work again and again, and in unguarded moments of hunger and surprise, they mistake their fate for fortune.As for healing, they have music, its curing harmony as sudden as it is sustained. It is swinging like heavy fruit on a low and loose branch, the fruit touching ground with every movement of the wind: they call it Kwela. It is a searing musical moment, swinging in and away, loud and small, lively, living. Within this music, they soar higher than clouds; sink deeper than stones in water. When the branch finally breaks and the fruit cracks its shell, the taste of the fruit is divine.This is Kwela. Embracing choices that are already decided. Deciding which circumstance has been omitted and which set free, which one claimed, which one marked, branded, and owned. The beauty of eyelids closing; a hand closing; and a memory collapsing. Kwela means to climb into the waiting police Jeeps. This word alone has been fully adapted to do marvelous things. It can carry so much more than a word should be asked to carry; rejection, distaste, surrender, envy. And full desire.Trust lovers to nurture hope till it festers. Always wounded by something--a word, a hope, a possibility. After all, they are the kind of people to get caught by barbed-wire fences. A part of them calcifies, dries, and falls off without anyone noticing or raising alarm.Bulawayo is this kind of city and inside is Makokoba Township where Kwela seeks strand after strand of each harsh illusion and makes it new. Sidojiwe E2, the longest street in Makokoba, is fresh with all kinds of desperate wounds. Bulawayo, only fifty years old, has nothing to offer but surprise; being alive is a consolation.Bulawayo is not a city for idleness. The idea is to live within the cracks. Unnoticed and unnoticeable, offering every service but with the capacity to vanish when the task required is accomplished. So the black people learn how to move through the city with speed and due attention, to bow their heads down and slide past walls, to walk without making the shadow more pronounced than the body or the body clearer than the shadow. It means leaning against some masking reality--they lean on walls, on lies, on music. One can always be swallowed by a song.The people walk in the city without encroaching on the pavements from which they are banned. It is difficult, but they manage to crawl to their destination hidden by umbrellas and sun hats which are handed down to them for exactly this purpose, or which they discover, abandoned, at bus stations.They understand something about limits and the desire that thisbuilds in the body. Their bodies long for flight, not surrender, simply the need to leap over the limit quickly and smoothly without bringing attention to oneself. This they do, often and well.After all, they are the ones who keep the pavements clean and sweep the entire city. They have the duty by virtue of their own humility and obedience to pick up the white men fallen on the pavements while the door swings open, once more, from the smoke-filled taverns, and voices are heard briefly before the door swings back in. They help these men into an upright and respectable position, then lead them into solid black cars. Then they spit on the pavements and move on.When they arrive back in Makokoba, Sidojiwe E2 is flooded with Kwela music. The feet feeling free. Hostilities too burdensome to give up. There is a search in the narrow gutters for passions and separations. The people smoke burned-out stubs and tone their fingernails with nicotine, and lovers mourn with joyful release. We do it together. This and that--fight, escape, surrender. The distinctions always unclear, the boundaries perpetually widening. Kwela music brings a symphony of understanding, then within that, other desperate confusions. Poverty prevails over innocence. In such times, a song is a respite.Dying in your sleep. Not once, but several times. Fleeing from an image reflected from translucent shop windows. And then, again, sleep. Afterward, a brief resolve not to bend. Then saying yes.Kwela strips you naked. Anything that reminds of pride can be forgotten in the emptiness introduced. A claim abandoned. A lover lost. It is the body addressed in its least of possible heights. A stone thrust. The knees down and the baton falls across the neck and shoulders. Kwela. Climb on. Move. Turn or twist or ... move. No pause is allowed, and no expectation of grace. Kwela. Cut, pull, bend. It is necessary to sing.Then one chaotic evening the word is pulled back from the police Jeep by whoever is listening in sleep as a car tire digs along Sidojiwe E2.It is freedom and style and survival with no fear of flight or stagnation. This is the city and the pulse of possessing desire. Something that can be recovered, must be restored. Even if it may now be frayed or torn. It has to be put back somewhere where there could be a hint of belonging fastened on somebody. If not freedom then rhythm.Patience is abandoned and something else witnessed: a raised eyelid; a handshake; fingers snapping. Then slow courtship under the tall trees which divide the houses from the red roofs of the police camps. These trees have been brought from faraway lands. They are the sort of trees which do not seem to need water, or when they do, send tentacles that burrow deep, no matter how hard the ground. With no regard whatsoever for the lack of pliable soil, or absent drops of edible rain.Underneath these trees, the lovers stand forlorn in the cluster of large silver-and-white peelings which are curled among the thin pointed leaves now fallen, where forked roots break the earth. The dead leaves cling to their tinge of green, resisting their separation from the tree. A shell expands, dries. Pods explode and spread black rounded seeds to the ground. The seeds have hard surfaces, with gray veins.So tall, these trees, firm and impossible. They look as though they have been built by hand to carry improper histories. A strong scent rises from the base of the tree, from the roots perhaps, like a fading dream. A beautiful, precious, remembered scent. Wafting and vanishing like a mist. The trees make the search for love good by their strong presence and brief odor. In the night--moonshine, words, a happy tune, fate, and distance are shared. The lovers bask in immaculate dreams. Kwela includes the harmonies one can name, and misname. There is night.Kwela in daylight is incessantly bold. No parting or other phenomenon of rupture. Some fighting. A slap and a slash and more Kwela. Torn leather shoes rubbing against cement. Tar melting in the hot sun as though newly spread. The sanitary lane carries the secrecy and stenchwhich envelopes the waste of every character--wasted time, wasted love, wasted this and that.Time flips like a tossed coin and in the luster and swinging surprise it is nothing on a single day to hear a thief leap over hedges on Sidojiwe E2 and by noon to listen to bicycle bells in the city center. There copper coins crash and jingle onto the pavement as they are swept out in the early hours of the morning from empty city taverns which have NO BLACKS signs, WHITES ONLY signs, and CLOSED signs which say OPEN on the flip side signs and dangle CLOSED from ornate door handles, and outside ...There is music.Copyright © 1998 by Yvonne Vera Yvonne Vera is one of Zimbabwe's best known authors. She was born in Bulawayo, where she now works as the director of the National Gallery. Her novels include Without a Name, and Under the Tongue, which recevied the 1997 Commonwealth Writers Prize (Africa region).