Chipepo swipes at the flies that cling to his left eye. He rubs a gnarled knuckle into its inflamed corner and sighs. He leans back against the tree.
It is mid-morning. The baobab’s shade twists across the stump where he sits. He closes his eyes feeling its warm bulk through his tired, patched cotton shirt. He is comfortable in this place of his ancestors. James calls the baobab their ‘shopping mall’. What does James know?
Chipepo half smiles and shakes his head. Where is James? That young man is always late. Chipepo feels the flies move to settle around his mouth.
“Aaagh …” He flaps his left hand in irritation and opens his eyes. He shifts forward and picks up the small box sitting on the stump in front of him. He lifts it, stretching out his hand, forcing his old elbow to straighten. The box sits perfectly in the space between wrist and fingertips. He flattens out his fingers and watches as the box wobbles then settles. He turns his hand slowly from side to side. Shadows slip along the lines of the box, they cling to its edges leaving just the lid gleaming in the sun.
A fine box, Chipepo thinks. A place for secrets, a place for promises, its lid so tight and sleek you might miss the small groove for opening.
He tips his head to one side to admire a new angle then straightens slowly. He sits still with the mahogany in the hollow of his hand – soft as a baby’s smile. Today this is all he has to sell. He wonders what James will have.
Where’s James? There will be no-one else. Chipepo pictures the others in the city now – gone to sell and to work. What work? Chipepo snorts. They’ll be back.
He carefully places the box back on to the stump. Leaning forward he squints his eyes against the sun. He peers down the path ahead following its slice through the scrubby bush heat. It’s flat and still and lies like a discarded snake skin with thorn trees hooked along its edge. This is James’ path. Nothing … at first. Then something – a flicker of grey.
Chipepo stares again. There … James. He’s coming. Chipepo can now see the dark stride shimmer out of the heat towards him. Tiny dust clouds cling to its shadow, a shadow tilted sideways by the weight of a bag.
Chipepo smiles and waits, waits for the shadow to become a man, the man to become James.
“Old man … good morning. Have you slept well?’
Chipepo grins. “I have slept well. You’re late today.”
“I know.” James, tall and neatly dressed, drops his holdall to the ground. He squats down on his haunches and begins to unzip the bag. “I’ve come from the hotel. There are tourists and the driver has promised that he’ll stop. I said you’d buy him a beer, old man.” His eyes flicker briefly towards Chipepo. The corners of his mouth twitch.
He unpacks bundles of newspaper from his bag, then carefully unwraps the soapstone giraffe. He sweeps the grit and stones from a small area to his left and arranges his giraffe to face the road. They are each the height of a school ruler with delicate necks and twitching tails. Their polished dapple multiplies into rows.
“Eeey … you’ve got a lot.”
“I know.” James brushes his palms together, dust puffing between them. “Some are Sibongile’s. She’s too ill to come now.”
“Aah hah. I’m sorry.” Chipepo clucks softly. His eyes drift out across the growing heat. He thinks of Sibongile. She’s too young to die of this illness. Soon Sibongile’s children will be orphans – village children. Orphans and grandparents … and the dying. That’s not what a village is supposed to be.
Chipepo looks again at James. He studies the gaunt young man. He’s proud and used to be strong. He has the wide, intelligent look of his father Chipepo thinks.
“Old man … you’ve nothing to sell?”
“I do,” replies Chipepo. He holds out the small box. James takes it, touches the smooth sides and lifts the lid.
“It’s good old man,” he says, passing it back.
“I know,” says Chipepo.
“But it won’t make you much money. The tourists like the animals.” James surveys his army of giraffes.
Chipepo shrugs. “What tourists? Sometimes we wait for weeks and there are none. Besides, even if we’re lucky today, I’m an old man. I choose what I make. This is the perfect box. It’s clean. There’s no evil here. No corners to hide the spirits. No men with big sticks.” They laugh.
“No elections,” says James, then pauses, listening. He searches the distance. “Look. There’s the bus. I see the dust. The tourists … I told you they’d come. Huh.”
Chipepo looks. He watches the faint thread of dust gather and grow. It fluffs at its edges, drifts to either side, then curls upwards, pluming behind the glint of metal that becomes a bus. It rattles closer shimmering in the still heat. Chipepo can see the driver at the wheel, forcing the bus to the centre of the corrugated road.
“They’re going to stop.” Chipepo’s smile is as wide as the Zambezi. “Today they’ll come to see our baobab. We may be lucky.”
James is on his feet. He moves towards the bus as it chokes to a halt on the far side of the road.
Chipepo doesn’t move. He watches the guide descend first with the foreigners clustered behind, chattering like guineafowl. The group approach. All eyes are on the baobab.
Chipepo listens. Some are American. He can hear that and he likes that. He likes the Americans. They are happy and not shy with money – dollars for them aren’t just about food – not about life or death. They are for living. He knows James will do well.
“Old man?” Chipepo jumps. The voice seems to come from the baobab itself. “Do you have anything to sell?”
Chipepo stumbles to his feet and turns to face the voice. A small woman steps towards him but Chipepo can’t place her. She carries no camera and her accent is not American. Her clothes are the same colour as the bark of the great tree and her skin is the smooth mahogany of his box. Chipepo’s voice flies in confusion.
“Do you have anything for sale old man?” she repeats softly. Chipepo backs away, staring at the woman.
“I didn’t mean to give you a fright. I’m sorry.” The woman moves closer. Chipepo can smell her now. It’s not the clean bright scent of other foreigners but richer than that. She smells of the earth after rain.
Chipepo clears his throat. His hand grips tight on the box.
“One box,” he says slowly and with difficulty.
“May I see it?” Chipepo lowers his eyes. He breathes deeply, forcing his fingers to loosen their grip. He raises the smooth cup of the box slowly towards her.
She draws closer, circling the box slowly, delicately. At first she does not touch it but then asks if she may hold it.
Chipepo nods and stretches his arm further, lifting the box towards her. She takes it and opens it then smiles at Chipepo.
“It has no corners,” she says. “No corners for evil to hide in.”
Chipepo says nothing.
“I like it,” she says slowly. “How much?”
Chipepo doesn’t know. He always knows but today he doesn’t know. He shrugs his shoulders.
“I’ll tell you,” she says. “This box, if you’ll accept my price, will come with me to my city. It’ll sit by my window overlooking my river. It feeds into the sea that separates us.”
Chipepo shakes his head.
“My river isn’t as mighty as the Zambezi but it’s a good river.” The husky voice pauses briefly. “Your box – I’ll pay you well. It’s a beautiful box.”
Chipepo watches the glossy-skinned woman ease the box open once more. She begins to talk again.
“I’ll pay you $100.” Chipepo sucks in his breath. His eyes pop wide. “$100,” the woman repeats.
Chipepo nods, slowly at first then more rapidly. He understands. He grins. He cannot help himself. This isn’t the way to sell … but $100. He cups his hands together in appreciation. His smile splits across missing teeth. The woman nods and begins to speak again.
“I’ll pay you this because your box is from the Zambezi Valley, our Zambezi.” She points towards the sun trapped in the branches of the baobab, then back to the box. “I’ll have – in here – in your box”, she strokes the box, “the shadow of the baobab.” She hesitates. “My grandmother was from Zimbabwe, from this valley.” Chipepo stops his breath. He stares at the woman. “My ancestors are your ancestors,” she adds softly. “This tree has known them all.”
The suck of air whistles through Chipepo’s teeth … “my ancestors are your ancestors”. Chipepo understands. His mind maps the woman, watches her calm, her belonging. Finally, he nods slowly. She’s one of his people. He’d known that, but not known, from the moment she spoke.
He feels sure that the baobab’s sun is in her blood but not the sickness that’s in the people. He feels hope wash through him. She lives on another river and her river will carry his people on.
The woman hands Chipepo a crisp new note. He takes it carefully.
“Thank you,” he says folding it slowly in half.
“It’s my honour old man. Stay well.”
“Travel well,” Chipepo replies.
The woman walks back towards the bus. Chipepo goes to stand beside James. Together they watch the tourist group take their leave of the baobab. They board the bus and the woman waves as the engine clanks, then roars alive in a haze of exhaust fumes.
The two men are side by side as the bus pulls away. Soon it is a distant cloud of dust with the bright flash of its roof the last to disappear from sight. Then silence. Both men know it might be many days, months even, before the tourists came again.
“Did you sell your box, old man?”
“I did.” Chipepo slowly extends his right hand and uncurls his fingers. The $100 note lies folded in his palm. James whistles.
Chipepo smiles … then flaps the note at the flies that have settled around his eye.
© Georgie Knaggs 2013