ISSUE SEVEN
May 1999

Rosa Shand

Rosa Shand Rosa Shand has published over 30 stories in such journals as Chelsea, VQR, Shenandoah, The Southern Review, and The Massachusetts Review as well as in a book: New Southern Harmonies: Four Emerging Fiction Writers (winner of the 1998 Independent Publisher's Award for a short story collection).  One story won the Katherine Anne Porter prize and 3 others have been broadcast on NPR's Sound of Writing.  She teaches at Converse college.

Her Arabic was Shabby     Click to hear this poem in RealAudio

        Ah, Love! could you and I with Him conspire
        To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire,
        Would not we shatter it to bits — and then
        Remold it nearer to the Heart's Desire!
        — Omar Khayyam

 

"Mamma, Mamma."

She was conscious, incipiently, of the pesky noises like mosquitoes from somewhere in the house. "She" was the mother who, being Southern, had been stuck with the sluttish-sounding name of Annabelle.

The air this time of day was heavy with gardenias. A raucous bird let out a caw. A breeze turned her book page over, blew hair in her eyes, and brought what sounded like the rain. She looked up out the window. It wasn't rain — it was pods hitting grass. The sun had dropped, but she could see the hornbills grip a limb against the wind. They were a prehistoric set of silhouettes. They stared in opposite directions.

The birds disturbed her. She couldn't think why.

"Mamma, Mamma."

She let her book fall back against her knees.

The wind changed its mind. The hornbills started on their dance. One hop-bounced up the limb closer toward his mate. That was overstepping bounds. The other pounded her wings to get away. She stopped at the small end of the limb.

The birds made Annabelle feel bleak, useless.

"Mam-ma. Mam-ma."

The mother hornbill didn't like it by herself. There she went, like her good mate had done, hopping up close along the limb.

It hit Annabelle — she didn't like these hornbills because Helen Bonham-Coffin painted hornbills. Yesterday she'd seen the woman's hornbill painting celebrated. Dominating the Senior Common Room. Wrecking her own coffee time. She was more the artist than Helen Bonham-Coffin, only she happened at the moment to be absorbed in mothering.

A crash from the direction of the shouts.

The hornbill made it to her mate, pressed into his side, looked away indifferently. Annabelle waited. She expected the first hornbill to lumber off the limb.

She wouldn't watch. She tossed the cotton blanket off her knees and swung her legs down off the bed. Blindly she swished her feet around the cold cement of the floor, feeling for her slipslops. Only one showed up. Nevermind. She forced the single thong between one toe, pushed up, and headed toward the wailing down the hall.

Leah was getting supper. Leah was cook and pinch-hitting ayah though not officially ayah because Annabelle took care of her own children. Already Leah had her arms stuck down in a scrum of children. A high-pitched hollering suggested the one-year-old had done harm to the four-year-old who in turn had inflicted an injury on the three-year-old. The one-year-old alone was happy, was toddling around to bang the table with a shovel.

Leah was managing. She needn't have rushed out but here she was, so she sat down in the chintz armchair which was wet from something. Two or three of the children buried in her lap. Over their heads, on the coffee table, she caught sight of the book she wanted to forget — sorry Uganda stories by a one-time friend. It was full of trite phrases, hackneyed situations, rusty African truisms. But published. The woman famous. When it was her own self who'd been here long enough to earn the insight into things. She hadn't yet forced herself to get down to what she meant to do, the writing OR the painting, but when or if she ever did she had more to say than this woman. While it was this woman's book that was hot.

She kissed a wet cheek stuck in her face. She rubbed an egg-shaped lump through gummy hair and said it was okay. Her eyes were on the tacky orange cover of the book. Her own hair now was gooed and poking up in patches from the sticky baby fingers and now her tall, clean husband Alec — black-bearded, good-looking even with his glasses — flew in the door with his satchel and said why weren't the children in bed yet when they were supposed to be at the art opening in half an hour and that rush of his was deadly suspicious because why was he so interested in her art all of a sudden when she had entered the identical bedraggled painting in every art show for the last five years and he had never shown such chirpy eagerness before.

 

 

Click to hear this poem in RealAudio

Zach Mutyaba had the painting prize for three years now. If you strained to see his painting, there behind where Helen Bonham-Coffin had dragged her train of men (which meant her own sweet husband Alec), you knew what had to win. His was gobs of inch-thick oily pigment. It was meant to be the insides of a chicken, oozing blood and flies and worms and all in the middle of a sea of thick brown mud. See that and you understood: Ugandans had exploded into painting. They'd stabbed to the gushing arteries of things. And it showed right here on the equator, in Kampala, in the black-railed Nommo Gallery on this windy night in the l960s with the drumming and the Babel-snatches in your ears: Luganda and Swahili and Gujarati and yes Russian and Hungarian and Luo and French — French because the French owned art exhibits and left music to the Germans and sewage to the British — all curled around the edges of foreign-lilted English peppered with its bwanas and memsahibs. People here were thinking they'd been tossed down — not in some forgotten midget of a country but in the center of the world. And if a person were left out of this headiness they had to be jealous, they had to come get in on it: like the Pope had had to come, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Gloria Steinem and V.S. Naipaul and Victor Turner and Paul Theroux and Terry Waite and you could see why when you saw this art — which actually you might not see much of because the press of bodies was making it not just difficult but dead impossible if it weren't that the paintings were bursting from the walls.

The crazy mixed-up crowd was good — all except for Helen Bonham-Coffin of Beacon Hill who got up to paint at four o'clock in the morning and who made her weary. Still, one day she would catch up with this mood. One day she too would pry her fanny up off her bed and join these busy people and do something, but in the meantime she craned to see paintings, like the one of the deep-sienna goat across the room, between her husband's head and Helen Bonham-Coffin's head.

The art was in an upstairs room. The floor was wobbly, but the building was like it ought to be. It was rough and living mud and not dead cinder block. It was a bypassed sort of structure, humanized with black-railed second-floor verandas, its walls soaked through with White Nile generations of adventurers. The air right now was sweet with spice and incense, and the crowd was red and green and orange and black because it swirled kitenges (that was the cotton cloth sold, cleverly, only in Africa though it was made in Holland out of Indonesian patterns). Gold was stirred in — gold bangles and gold saris and gold teeth. Red teardrops marked brown foreheads, and there were Nyerere-Chinese-style men's outfits and Arab-African kanzus and white linen suits and summer frocks and one purple-turbaned Sikh.

Christopher Bonham-Coffin was bringing her a drink. He'd let himself get gridlocked. She wiped back strands of hair that got knocked in her face. She said things to the chiseled-featured Indian (or some such race) who at the moment was pressed rather violently into her chest. She wanted to ease the young Indian's embarrassment — the mishap had not at all been the boy's fault: some California hippie's children ("paintings speak to children louder than to grownups") were barreling between their legs. No, he didn't paint, the young man said. He was reading English at Makerere and yes on his own he'd read some Asian poets (he was Ismaili, his name was Zulfikar, and his black hair curled over his white shirt collar). He wanted to know:

"You have read the Sufis? I do not believe that English people . . ."

"I'm American," she said, and registered: across the room Helen Bonham-Coffin was making an attempt to catch her eye. She wouldn't play, wouldn't notice Mrs. Bonham-Coffin. It was only glancingly she'd taken in the woman was dangling six-inch strands of cowry shells (tourist consumption stuff) for earrings and had four strands of shells around her neck designed to show off white against the silky blue the woman managed to let slip casually back and forth across her little hiney. And of course the woman was letting her hair float free half over her face — which happened to be the only similarity between the two of them, that hair (light brown, straight, long), only she herself possessed the natural modesty to catch a few strands up at the crown of her head, where — she was now mortified to think — she'd hung strands of the cowry shells.

"I do not hear American," the Indian was saying, while she was struck with envy for Ismailis because their lips were formed so perfectly.

"Southerners sound funny," she said.

He said, "You will say again that word?"

"Huh?"

"Sou . . . ," he began.

"Southunuhs," she helped him.

A faint charge shot through her hand. Without seeming to turn her head she checked for what she'd caught, out of the corner of her eye. Yes: Helen Bonham-Coffin had laid her fingertips on her own sweet husband's arm. Now she saw the woman pirouette, burn the identical touch onto Zach Mutyaba's wrist. And it just happened to be the same gesture that woman had used on herself. So — so the woman wasn't picky about who she seduced — male or female, black or white, artist or psychologist (the psychologist, that tall man with the dusky red cravat folded with just the right self-conscious looseness at the neck, the one with just the right-cocked angle to his charming head — that was her own husband Alec).

"Oh I did not know that one can talk in such a manner," said the Ismaili with the up-and-down music in his voice. "It is beautiful in such a manner. Your sound is very beautiful. It is not American."

"It's just that Southerners have lost their 'R's and don't know where to look for them. They don't have gumption, Southerners — they don't look too hard. They don't even get around to doing what they want to do." She knew the boy couldn't hear her and even if he could he would think he hadn't, or he would decide Southern women were mysteriously philosophical and anyway she didn't feel like censoring herself.     

The boy looked puzzled. He laughed anyway — she noticed his eyes had a rather nice way of crinkling up. He said "You Westerners do not read Sufi poets. You Westerners cannot know the beauty of Islam. You cannot know the mysticism of Islam. Until you read the Sufis you cannot comprehend how women live in our tradition."

Off in the center of the room some bodies were shifting around. It made her squeeze further to the side, where she could keep her eye on the little happenings across the gallery, see Helen Bonham-Coffin sidling up to the painting she'd done. On that canvas of hers the woman had spotlighted, next to a hump-backed cow, what looked suspiciously like her pregnant Bonham-Coffin self and the woman was acting now as if she were lecturing on that murky conception. Of course she herself wasn't worthy at the moment of being listened to like Helen Bonham-Coffin was: her production had been slight and she honestly didn't expect to be noticed for her own clump-of-breadfruit painting. But she did know she had that thing in her (an authentic grasp of texture, for instance) that Helen Bonham-Coffin did not have and anyone with eyes would recognize that truth and see straight through this tinny woman.

She said, "Where will I find Sufi poets?"

"I have a book that I will give to you," he said. "Where do I get to you?"

"Kasubi View," she told him, "the house where Naipaul lived. But my Arabic is shabby."

"I will . . . "

They couldn't hear a word each other shouted. She was shoved against the wall when a man in a kanzu lost his balance. Christopher Bonham-Coffin got to her and sloshed the drinks on her olive green kitenge wrap-around with its paisley swirls of black and gold that reached down almost to the gold thongs on her feet. A thin Munyoruanda she had had a crush on once was battling to get to her and Christopher was brushing at her skirt and breathing whiskey in her face. She laid her fingers lightly on the young Ismaili's arm. She meant to comment on the painting she was betting on but he couldn't hear her and then the place went quiet and at first she didn't catch on why. An official-looking African was waving his arms and drums were rolling and the Acholi Minister for Cultural Affairs yelled that this was a grand and noble occasion for the arts in Africa. He spelled out long indebtedness before he turned things over to the French ambassador. The ambassador listed more indebtedness before he got around to honorable mentions — Henry Lubega and Abdul Ali. Zulfikar was happy and the crinkles flamed around his eyes — Abdul Ali was his artist friend and by this time the place was hushed to hear the third place winner, Helen Bonham-Coffin.   

She twisted her hair with her fingers and fixed her gaze on the geckos suctioned to the wall behind the door. She was glad she wasn't part of this charade. She was glad she'd kept her own identity distinct from this mangy rush of whites who'd come lickety-splitting it to Africa to paint their own selves on new scenery. She was glad she'd been here long enough to see through this self-serving snatching at fame, what these Helen Bonham-Coffins all were doing.

 

 

Click to hear this poem in RealAudio

They had just pulled up from the weekly Saturday outing, the Lake Victoria picnic at Entebbe.

"Don't move. Wait in the car." Her dark-bearded husband Alec was hooking the burglar rod to the steering wheel. In his rage his motions were so jerky he couldn't make it fit.

She opened the car door on her side.

The one-year-old and the three-year-old were wailing and jabbing at her bosom and hair and the four-year-old had vanished up the jacaranda tree. The Mukiga who wanted her to bake his wedding cake was pushing himself up from under the frangipani and Hezekiah the egg man and a couple of unknown seekers-after-work were lurking by the rangy bougainvilleas. The garden boy stood in the middle of the grass, wordless, patient, waiting on his pay. His shoulder poked through the rip in his white shirt.

Her unhappy husband threatened: "You heard me. Stay where you are. I'm getting Leah."

She unwrapped juicy fingers till she could climb out of the car. She said to the three-year-old, "Stop crying. I will find your mongoose. I will get you another mongoose. I will get you ten mongeese." She snatched one child by the arm and yanked the other one up to her hip and started to the door.

Her husband came at her. He was big and strong. He had never hit her but he had bruised her arm in "leading" her. The babies let out piercing shrieks and kicked and buried faces in her shoulder.

She said to her husband, "There are a few people watching. Would you please move so I can go inside?"

Forcibly, red-faced, he pried the babies from her, yelled for Leah, transferred the howling creatures, thought better of the car as place for confrontation, and led her to the bedroom. He latched the door on them and then he noticed through the bedroom window the Mukiga and garden boy and Hezekiah and seekers-after-work displaying some degree of curiosity about how Western marriage operated. Rudely Alec jerked the curtains closed and said "I am going to get things straight with you. Right now. Sit down."

She complied, her arms folded on her chest, her face blankly statuesque.

He said, "Look. I don't like to get angry like this. But I can't go on this way."

She stared down at the rose-orange Indian bedspread, caught sight of an unexpected tendril-swirl twisting through the pattern. Script — the tendril was Arabic script!

He waited. "Will you say something?"

"I'm listening."

"Well I'm telling you my nerves can't stand another week of this. Driving thirty-five miles without one word from you except "Peter Peter pumpkin eater" and "Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall" and not one sound to either me OR the Bonham-Coffins except "Yes, no, okay, maybe." I am so humiliated I will not be able to face them."

Once more he waited.

She noticed the window behind his head. It gaped four inches where the curtain had bounced back — he'd jerked it so — and now the Mukiga and the garden boy and Hezekiah the egg man and seekers-after-work could keep on with their learning. The observers were polite. They didn't interrupt like babies interrupt. The babies were, at the moment, kicking in the bedroom door. She looked down again, at the odd rose-orange tendrils, curled and intertwined. Pure Arabic — and right here on her bed.     

He sighed. He waited her out in silence for so long she stole a glance at him. His shoulders were slumped. It struck her: he looked genuinely sad and baffled. She felt a movement of chagrin because he was extremely good-looking. No she couldn't talk to him because she couldn't bear his schemes for her redemption, but his face and body moved her — his size, his beard, his dark longish hair, his bright blue eyes even with his glasses. He affected her, like he affected all the women, and she didn't want, not at the moment, to lose him. She said, "I'm sorry. I don't seem to be able to help it."

He sighed deeper. "That's what worries me."

"I'll be better when the children are bigger."

"That doesn't make sense. Here you are where you've got all the help in the world and if you need more all you have to do is say so. It isn't that. I think . . ."

He paused. She was genuinely curious what textbook formula he'd find for her perversity this time.

"I think — I've said this — I don't think, I know you're the kind of person who needs some sort of a creative outlet. Before we were married you were enterprising and creative and don't say it — I know you had to type and I studied, and I know the babies came too quickly. But you've had time out here. It's been perfect for you out here. And still it's like you're paralyzed and you resent me for it."

"It's not just time," she mumbled. "There's something, when you have little children, that overwhelms your feelings — like don't you hear what's at the door?"

"You're changing the subject. And what you say is indefensible. Helen has a child and see what she's done with herself. Though I would even go so far as saying you are almost as good a painter . . ."

"Get out of here."

His eyes stretched at her inappropriate reaction. He said, "Get a hold on yourself. I happen to know that Helen wants to be your friend. She likes you, sincerely likes you, and she is the kind of friend you need to get you out of this malaise and yet you act like . . ."

She threw herself across the bed. She split his ears with screams. He tried to touch her shoulder but her arm flew up and hit his glasses off. He gave a few more pieces of advice, but she wouldn't stop her yelling, and he got the idea he should leave. The door was stuck. He yanked and cursed and when it opened he popped back and barked at howling babies. He slammed the door. Outside she could hear him snap Swahili at the window gang and then careen the car off down the drive.

She was dry-eyed. She flipped over, onto her back. She stared at hornbills out the curtain crack, conscious, incipiently, of pesky noises like mosquitoes from somewhere in the house.

But she was otherwise absorbed this time. Lines of swirling script were flowing in her head. Arabic script — curving, twirling, fattening and thinning into fine sleek disappearing curls. She intended to forget the crass-bright colored paint, the self-indulgent Helen-Bonham-Coffin paint. Sufi poetry held the key. She would touch the secret of the sweet dark words of Zulfikar. They would meet in some thatched cabin in the jungle, near the lake, where he would trace the fat ink flowing in her Arabic. She'd stare down at long brown fingers — susceptible, compassionate. And they would hear lake water, and the shriek and plunge of a distant wild fish eagle.

She closed her eyes — at shrieks and pesky noises, just outside her door.      

to top

 

Rosa Shand: Fiction
Copyright 1999 The Cortland Review Issue SevenThe Cortland Review