Chipepo swipes at the flies that cling to his left eye. He rubs a gnarled knuckle into the eye’s inflamed corner and sighs. He leans back against the tree.
It is mid-morning. The baobab’s shade twists across the stump where Chipepo sits. He feels the warmth of the tree through his tired shirt. He is comfortable in this place of his ancestors.
Chipepo, dreamy in the sun, half smiles, then frowns. Where is James? Chipepo feels the flies move to settle around his mouth.
“Aaish …” 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 stretches out his hand, forces his old elbow to straighten. The box sits perfectly in the space between wrist and fingertips. He flattens his palm 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, cling to its edges leaving just the lid to gleam 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 box, soft as a baby’s smile, in the hollow of his hand. Today this is all he has to sell. He pictures the others in the city now – gone to sell and to work. What work? Chipepo snorts. They’ll be back.
He places the box carefully on to the stump, then leans forward and squints his eyes against the sun. He peers down the path ahead, watches it 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 comes. Chipepo sees the dark stride shimmer out of the heat towards him. Tiny dust clouds cling to its shadow, tilted sideways by the weight of a bag.
Chipepo smiles. Soon the shadow becomes a man, then, closer still, and the man becomes James.
“Good morning,” the younger man calls as he approaches. “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 unzips 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.” His eyes flicker briefly towards Chipepo. The corners of his mouth twitch.
He takes 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 the carvings to face the road. They are each the height of a school ruler with delicate necks and tails twitched. Their polished limbs multiply into rows.
“Eeey … you’ve got a lot.”
“I know.” James brushes his palms together. Dust puffs off 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 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 at James. He studies the gaunt young man. He notes his pride, the strength that was, the wide intelligent look of his father.
James scowls. “You’ve nothing to sell?”
“I do,” says Chipepo. He picks up the small box from the stump and passes it to James. The younger man lifts the lid, then puts it back.
“It’s good,” he says.
“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.” His voice drifts across the hot, stillness of the bush. Nothing but quiet. He touches the little box. “This is clean James. No evil. No men with big sticks.” They laugh.
“No elections,” says James, then pauses, listening. Together they search the distance. Then James tips his chin towards the road: “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 gather and grow. It fluffs at its edges, drifts to either side, then curls upwards. It plumes behind the glint of metal that becomes the bus, that rattles closer, that shimmers in the heat. The driver bounces from side to side as he holds the bus to the centre of the corrugated road.
“They’re going to stop.” Chipepo’s smile is wide. “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, followed by his flock of foreigners. They chatter like guineafowl, then come closer. All eyes are on the baobab.
Chipepo listens. Some voices are American. He likes that. He likes the Americans, the way they spend, the way they laugh. He knows James will do well.
“Hello.” Chipepo jumps. The voice comes 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. She carries no camera and her accent is not American. Her clothes are the same colour as the great tree and her skin is the smooth mahogany of his box.
“Do you have anything for sale?” she repeats softly. Chipepo backs away, startled by 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.
Chipepo clears his throat, then picks up the box.
“One box,” he says with difficulty.
“May I see it?” Chipepo lowers his eyes. He forces his fingers to loosen their grip, then he raises the smooth hollow towards her.
She draws closer, then asks if she may hold the box.
Chipepo nods. She takes it and opens it.
“I like it,” she says slowly. “How much?”
Chipepo hesitates. Today, with this woman, he is unsure. He drops his eyes to his bare feet, and shrugs his shoulders. He says nothing.
The woman waits. “No price?” she asks.
Chipepo looks up. His eyes catch hers, then drop back towards the ground. “You tell me,” he says.
“Okay.” She studies him. “Your box – I’ll pay you well. It’s a beautiful box.”
He listens as the woman eases the box open once more. She begins to talk again.
“I’ll pay you $100.” Chipepo sucks in his breath. He lifts his head, his eyes wide. “$100,” the woman repeats.
He nods, slowly. He understands … $100. He cups his hands together. He smiles, and cannot stop. The pleasure spreads from his eyes to hers.
“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. “In here, in your box, is the shadow of the baobab. My mother was from Zimbabwe, from this valley. My ancestors are your ancestors.”
Chipepo stares at the woman.
“This tree knows us all,” she says.
Chipepo nods … now he understands. His mind maps the woman, watches her calm, her belonging. She’s one of his people. He’d known that … and not known … from the moment she spoke.
He sees the baobab’s sun in her blood but not the sickness that’s in his people.
The woman hands Chipepo a crisp new note. He takes it carefully.
“Thank you,” he says, folding it slowly in half.
“My pleasure,” she replies. “Stay well.”
“Travel well,” he answers.
The woman walks back towards the bus. Chipepo watches as she and the others take their leave of the baobab. The woman waves as they board the bus.
The engine roars its life then pulls away. Soon it is a distant cloud of dust with just a bright flash for its roof. Both men know it might be many days, months even, before the tourists came again.
“Did you sell your box?”
“I did.” Chipepo slowly extends his right hand and uncurls his fingers. The $100 note lies folded in his palm. James whistles.
Chipepo smiles. Today they have both done well.
Copyright Georgie Knaggs & The Phraser 2018