Last year and during the first months of 2021, we have felt as if we were climbing. But as this year progresses, hope for the future is making the effort easier for some. We study and pray for the strength to finish the climb and help others journey upward.
My parents worked in Botswana in the early 1980s. This is a flash fiction I wrote about a young woman in Botswana. It takes place during an earlier epidemic.
Serara rises above the tar dust of quarry stones that grind against gravel to become cement. In the breeze, yellow flowers wave like silent barkers. The flowers cover thorns of the frangipani plant that lie in wait. But Serara is wise and steps around them.
The rest rush ahead, disapproving of her insistence upon accompanying them up Kgale Hill. They cluck at her like geese; you shouldn’t hike now. She tramps the steep path, the weight of the baby but a feather inside. Serara wishes for a girl.
When the baby is born, Serara will carry her wrapped around her middle in a crimson and silver shawl tied with strong knots of calves’ leather. A wind tickles the scrubby treetops, and she suddenly longs to hear the quiet wheeze of her child’s breathing. She will call her daughter Norah.
As she grows Norah will sparkle. She will flit from flower to blossom on wings of laughter. Her eyes will shine like polished tiger-eye stones, laced gold on black satin; she will dance with strength, hands forming patterns of running ostrich, palm leaf, and shield. Serara will call for her daughter as she scrambles through tunnels of trees and climbs vine ladders, chattering ceaselessly at each new gnarl and knob. Norah will wrap dying butterflies in leafy cocoons and fall asleep shaking her fist at those who would trod too near.
Nylon sock guards with bright green velcro strips protect Serara from prickles on the hill. Without the sock guards, stickers from the high grasses could work their way into her ankles. Serara’s husband has brought them to her from Zambia where he studies ecological balance. He caught a ride back north today. Their latest HIV test results should arrive from the private hospital tomorrow. They check every six months.
From a child who knows no stranger’s voice, Norah will grow to a beauty who knows no stranger’s lands. She will speak English and French. She will be able to translate Latin, and advanced mathematical equations will be her games. London’s theatres, Chicago’s streets, and Xaa village will be as one to her, but she will not travel by car in Zimbabwe or South Africa until they are safe. Norah’s hair will be fashioned into slender braids that gather at the crown and flirt at her waist. But she will be wise. Disease may search for her, but he will not know her name. He must never know her.
As Serara climbs, she imagines that Norah is twenty-four and studying at Oxford, and she comes back to visit her mother in Gaborone. They stroll arm in arm toward the Mall and nod to the Parliamentary ladies who pass by like ships in full sail. Serara has dressed the hair of the finest women. Wrapped in ensembles of orange checks and purple circles, paisley headdresses, and boxy business suits, they all turn to look at Serara’s daughter, whose handpainted lavender scarf floats on her simple linen dress.
A man walks under the stone gateway to the Mall. He is as thin as the ribs of a dog on the lands, and he is dressed in a faded red jumpsuit over which is thrown a paramilitary jacket of khaki print. The wreck of a brown hat with a mushy brim sits on his forehead. He drags behind him a pock-marked canister on wheels. All can hear his constricted breathing through the oxygen mask strapped to his face. The side of his cheek and neck are marred by lesions. The man’s yellowed eyes search the crowd. As others do, Serara shudders softly. She presses her daughter’s arm, and drifts to the far side of the archway. The eyes of the sick man follow. Serara squeezes Norah’s hand fiercely.
The cheerful ring of a bicycle chime startles them. A young girl in a school uniform strolls with her bike toward the old man. She carries in her basket three long-stemmed sunflowers whose faces are bigger than her own. The old man stops and removes his mask; he is smiling. The girl shakes the man’s hand. He says something, and she laughs. They move away, she guiding the bike and chatting, he dragging his breath and nodding. The huge flowers bob their heads as if approving the conversation.
Serara reaches the top of the hill and places a hand on her belly. Rain suddenly falls; the dissolving clouds bathe her body as if she were naked. She opens her mouth and lets the drops sting her tongue, savoring their metallic taste. Just as quickly, a crisp breeze freshens the air, and the rain is softer, then it stops altogether. Small streams cut through the path; the streams will soon be dry. She is tired now, and her legs seem heavier. But she wishes to rise beyond the tree line and climb over the rocks where the freshest winds blow and the distant Gaborone Dam shoots back the sky’s colors. Serara will whisper her daughter’s name to the Botswana sunset.
The others are coming down now and they scold her. Come back with us, they say, you’re drenched, the top is much too slippery, and it will be dark by the time you reach the bottom. But Serara knows they will wait with torches to guide her.
A lilac-breasted roller glides homeward from its pink, blue, and yellow wanderings. The path is firm and damp, not loose to muffle her step.
We will press on.
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Thank you to my niece, Adz (Liechty) Kogan, for taking the picture that is this blog’s featured image.
Best wishes and have a good week.