From the back seat of the car, Beth watches Maria’s familiar hands on the wheel as she drives, the back of her neck, her arms tanned golden, the very particular shape of her shoulders. Her fingers know the softness of Maria’s skin, like stroking a bird. How extraordinary to be so close but forbidden to touch her, to have lost the easy physical permission of lovers.
It’s a dry October, the parched season, electric with anticipation, building up for the great crashing lightning storms to come. The grassland is dry and yellow to the wavering horizon, but musasa trees have sent out new leaves in vegetable trust that rain will follow.
Together today in the yellow Mini after weeks apart, they are playing the host couple, showing Maria’s sister Gina the country, laughing about the signs along the Great Dyke Pass, perfect lesbian photo ops – ‘Great Dyke Butchery’ and ‘Great Dyke Car Repairs’ – about post-colonial British beverages – weak coffee, strong tea – the precise opposite of the Italian sisters’ taste.
Gina wants to know how life has changed in the six years since Independence, and Beth tries to explain how history tipped over, as the small parochial colony she’d grown up in had transformed itself into an African-ruled and supposedly socialist nation. She describes the government inviting Bob Marley to sing at the Independence celebrations, and her parents launching a Zambian poet’s new anthology in the garden, drummers on the lawn beside the pool, strings of lights.
How personal that history had felt, how synchronous with her own dreams. Not nearly enough change, they agreed in seminars and around kitchen tables, and not nearly fast enough. But once, driving in town on a rainy afternoon past her old, formerly whitesonly high school, Beth had seen two teenage girls, one black and one white, wearing the same uniform that she’d worn herself, dancing in front of the school gates, their heads thrown back, laughing as the rain drenched them.
Just where the road begins to lift from the wide cultivated plains up into the pass, they stop to show Gina the caves, climbing out of the car into the heat, and scrunching over the stone-strewn dirt road in their takkies.
The cave entrance feels like a portal into myth. Rough gravelly sounds cease, the air is suddenly still and, when Beth leans against boulders for balance in the murky light, the stone is cool against her hand. The three women walk silently down the steep steps between heaps of boulders. The cavern opens wider and wider as they are drawn down towards the light, towards the eerie turquoise of the Sleeping Pool, lit from hundreds of feet above where a sinkhole opens to the sky. Beyond the pool, the cavern twists on into bat screeching darkness.
Gina is gratifyingly stunned, and Beth and Maria smile at each other, a flash of accord. Maybe now, Beth allows herself to hope, following Maria’s khaki shorts and blue vest down the steps, maybe out here, we’ll be all right. Perhaps this is how grown-up relationships are: one learns to breathe until betrayal and ache subside. At the water’s edge, wet-suited divers are testing their oxygen tanks.
No diver has ever reached the bottom of the Sleeping Pool, one of them explains to Gina, although they go hundreds of feet down into its ballooning belly. ‘When I look up from deep underwater,’ he says, ‘I can see the sky above, with the sinkhole framing it. And the weird thing is it seems like somehow the clouds and the birds and the sunshine are all contained under the surface of the water.’ Gina nods.
Over their heads, in the dry heat above the lip of the sinkhole, musasa seedpods twist and explode loudly. They crawl back into the sweaty little car, and drive westward up and over the Great Dyke Pass and through farmland, acres of dry mealie fields and acacia woodlands. A hundred kilometres further on, the road reaches the edge of the savannah highveld and falls away dramatically into the vast flat heat-shimmering Zambezi Valley. From the escarpment, they can see the dirt road stretching into the ash-grey basin of the national park, punctuated with baobabs.
National Gallery, Harare
Six weeks before this trip, Beth had watched Maria and an apparently irresistible young photographer visiting from Sweden as they twinkled at each other through an interminable exhibition opening.
St Peter’s Kubatana marimba band played ‘Tie a Yellow Ribbon’ in the courtyard and then annual awards were presented under hard, hot TV lights. Beth slipped away from the crowd, out onto the steps below, leaned against the wall in the dusk with a plastic cup of acidic wine. She watched children play in the sculpture park, hiding and seeking and shrieking around the monolithic grey and green stone pieces: birds that morphed into fish, women with lizards in their hair, astronaut moon-faces with hooded eyes. She knew that Maria would leave with the photographer. Their non-monogamy pact, in action for the first time.
If the situation had been reversed, Maria would have come to claim her, but when Beth imagined herself crossing the gallery’s parquet floor to say – as truthfully she longed to say – ‘You can’t do this. I’ve changed my mind,’ she pictured herself as a 1960s housewife with a hairdo and a handbag that matched her shoes. There was no way she wanted to be loved and cleaved to by proclamation. What she had wanted, she now realised, was to keep the doors open in order to be chosen daily. She turned back to look at the crowd at the far end of the gallery.
Distance and TV lights encapsulated the audience, their faces raised sunflower-like to the ceremony on the ramp above. She was suddenly an exile from that intense bright life. She glanced over women from a village craft co-op, ambassadors’ wives and a group of rasta sculptors, and then saw Maria’s sleek black head bent towards the Swede’s, laughing. Who could resist Maria laughing? ‘A more reactionary country than we’re led to believe,’ Beth remarked abruptly to a young woman standing near her, a woman she barely knew. ‘Sweden, I mean. In fact, I begin to have doubts about all of Scandinavia. Oh I know, I know,’ as the woman made to disagree, ‘they may appear to be progressive, those people, but they’re ignorant, they interfere, they just don’t care what trouble they’re stirring up.’
When Maria headed in her direction later that evening, Beth looked at her lover as though she was a stranger, maybe another species. She’d been running scenarios on her inner screen – rage, reconciliation, reunion – but they all evaporated on contact with actual Maria, smiling, unrepentant but slightly wary on the steps beside her. ‘Horrible wine,’ Beth commented blandly, to her own surprise. Clearly, they were not going to fall instantly back into each other’s arms. Some powerful force field kept them a good metre apart, and the air had thickened, making movement sludgy. Maria proffered another cup of wine, slowly and deliberately, as if she were demonstrating for an audience.
‘I’ve drunk far too much of it,’ Maria said. She laughed. ‘I feel like I might pass out.’
Delight seemed to bubble up in her, barely contained.
‘So,’ Beth asked, still flat-toned, taking the cup Maria offered, ‘are you coming home with me tonight?’
‘No,’ Maria said and looked firmly into Beth’s eyes. ‘You know I’m not staying. You know I have another plan.’ It was one of Maria’s finest attributes (one among many, Beth thought sadly), this idealism, as fierce on the politics of personal love as on the freedom of nations. Beth sighed and looked out at the sculpture. ‘I don’t think I can do this,’ she said softly, almost into her cup. ‘Beth. We’ve talked about this, we agreed … ’ Maria didn’t ask, there was no query in her voice, only a dare: don’t let me down.
The yellow Mini feels even more like a bright city plaything once they are down in the searing heat of the valley, where the graded road throws small boulders up in their tracks as they roar along.
Beth is driving when one of the stones strikes something crucial in the undercarriage and a rear wheel begins to thump ominously. They cannot stop there in the late afternoon, out in the park, no human beings for miles, tree trunks recently ravaged by hungry elephant, so they press on.
At last, after handing the Mini over to a parks mechanic who says he’ll do what he can, they set off for an evening wilderness walk, uncrimping their limbs, alert to distant howls and cries above the sunset birdcalls.
A Landrover approaches, swirling up a rust dirt wake as it brakes beside them. ‘Hallo there!’ the driver calls out. ‘I’m Cliff,’ he proffers his hand for them to shake. He wears a John Deere tractor cap above a sun-ruddied face, and behind him in the open back of the Landrover are a group of men, one woman and several cooler boxes.
‘So,’ Cliff enquires, ‘would you girls like to join us on a game drive tomorrow morning?’
Beth wants to say, ‘Very kind thank you but we’re fine,’ but Maria and Gina respond enthusiastically.
‘And then maybe some canoeing in the afternoon?’ This is the clincher. Canoes! Maria is delighted.
They are not to worry about a thing, Cliff insists: he and the guys will come by at dawn to collect them. The Landrover drives away and the women head back to their lodge. They take their pick of the six beds on the open veranda upstairs, each under its own mosquito net, with a view over the wide, redlined Zambezi on its way to Mozambique and the Indian Ocean. The lodge sits on the banks of an inlet, with the main river beyond an island. Far away, on the other shore, Zambian hills reflect the sunset. As they unpack, they hear a loud splash. An elephant has waded off the nearby island and is making its way across to them. Then another, then another. They loom up out of the river and lumber silently across the grass to eat seedpods from the acacia albida tree growing right next to the lodge.
About the Author
Annie Holmes taught at Highfield Secondary School, edited books at Zimbabwe Publishing House and made documentaries and television all around Southern Africa.
She moved to the US for a creative writing programme in San Francisco, and worked for a feminist network in Washington, DC. Since 2012, she has led research uptake for an international consortium at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
Her stories have been published by Weaver Press, Cimarron Review, Salt Hill Journal and a Ma Thoko anthology, and she co-edited two volumes of oral narratives in McSweeney’s Voice of Witness series. One of her stories was shortlisted for a Pushcart Prize and in 2012 she was awarded a month’s fiction residency at Hedgebrook.Post published in: Arts