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issue 20: september - october 2000 

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Extract from:
BUTTERFLY BURNING
Yvonne Vera

 

No. No suspicion of falling and therefore no desire to lay a grip on something solid or to lean on someone, somewhere. No need for anything as stiff as a will. But again, no lightness either. The type of weightlessness that comes with looking down a steep descent. This alone would have helped with flight or merely drawing the shoulders forward and the knees to a resolution. Feeling the weight of the top of tall trees - their lush green, their wave and pause. Just a pure longing for land that heaves and swells up to the sky forming wide hills whose backs hold basins filled with a calm essence, begetting grass, singing insects and trees, land that pauses, then listens as a leaf drops, as a raindrop drops, and vanishes.
      Instead, in this flat expanse arms are free and not groping toward another truth, and the eyes press directly upon the ground. The body is free. It is alone. Not disturbed. The ground near and naked you can smell its absence of weight. The body is only a feather held upright, pinned down to the ground and poised to fall from the slightest whisper. It is suspended, ready to collapse when a shadow falls. You are on the ground with nothing to measure the distance between the tip of one finger and the top of the shoulder when the arm is held out, nothing to secure height, or to know the pace of footsteps, to measure the tremors of distrust or of a cruel inhalation.
      There is no support for the spine. The people look tiny and safe, move like quills in this slim and lit space between the sky and the ground. The pounding of the heart, the solitary whisper; the agony of temptation - nothing to examine these. A broad green leaf held across the hand would have helped to cure tragedy. a way of measuring experience - the ambiguous, the futile and the magnificent. A broad green leaf. None of this. Thorns break boldly from every shrub. Grey and silver and dry. Stark and perfectly still.
      And courage, how is that to be measured without the firm bark of a tree somewhere about, or at least, something soft as the surface of a lake. A reflection. Nothing to consider tenderness. Where is good fortune to be found without the top of hills, the smooth fall into some valley some inviting groove of the earth, some fabulous rapture so that at least one feels older than spite, swings away from fate and folly.
      Land with movement. A varied motion of the horizon where the eyes swing from hill to valley, turn from the tops of trees back to the valley - this is a movement necessary for comfort. There is none of this.
      The land is bare and sparse with dots of short bush. Here, a thorn. Here, a bird. Just dots of living across this stretching flat land. Then further; fields and fields of dry waving grass, and no trees. On the other side, beyond the stunted bushes, is Makokoba, within it is Sidojiwe E2, Jukwa Street, Bambanani, L Road, D Square, and Banda Road, and many more. A black location. The houses tiny shelters, like the shrubs. Around them, tall trees introduced one by one after each row of houses, standing on guard against an anticipated accident, some incident of fracture, like breaking bone. In each street dream rubs against dream. Near and close.
      Sturdy thorns with dry and cracking bark, and long narrow fingers, firm, with a colour of tan like darkened glass.
      Phephelaphi has no fear as the sky falls over her forehead with flickers of lost desire, no fear; only the separate grains of sand under her feet; and an entire day.
      Push. She has pushed it in. Sharp and piercing. No fear. No excitement. This must be. In and out of a watery sac. Slowly she receives it as though this motion will provide an ecstatic release. Her hand is steady inside her body. Her own hand inserting an irreversible harm. Her right arm is supported by the inside of her thigh which is carefully raised from the ground. At the wrist, her hand turns sharply inward, as though broken. Her hand moves and beats in rapid motions. She keeps her head on the ground. away from her thighs. Her left leg is lowered on the ground and stretched out. Her hand slips past her left thigh. She is full of tension. Her fingers hold firm at each frantic pierce. The land is still. From a distance, she is only a mark on the ground.
      Her body accepts each of her motions, her legs spread open, wider, both knees now raised higher and higher into the forever light of day listening for the tremor she anticipates, and she feels it, beginning with the lukewarm warmth along her arm, hardly felt, like water left uncovered under the sun now spilling over; a vessel filled to the brim, the lukewarm warmth trickling down, then pouring. sinking, excruciating. A hurt lingers. Wave after wave and the lukewarm warmth is thickening and brave. It is her own vessel filled to capacity. It is herself, her own agony spilling over some fine limit of becoming which she has ceased suddenly. to understand, too light and too heavy. It is she. She embraces it, braces for the tearing. Her body breaks like decayed wood. Deep in the near deep of her; so close it is so deep and near in the same instant. She dares not look at her own harm. It is too near and new.
      The pain is more than she imagines. It is cutting. She holds it in her elbows which she pushes into the ground, behind her. She has to place the pain somewhere away from her own body. Somewhere else. But there is nowhere to hide anything. There is no shelter. Only her fingers merge with the agony of her release. Her right hand closes. She has to accept her own pain in order to believe it, to live in it, to know its true and false nuances for she desires desperately what is beyond the pain. She seeks something neutral and unthought. Just to be. Some kind of living but not this. To reach that fine plateau. this pain is a boulder she must defeat, and so she surrenders her cry to it, her time to it, and her joy too. She remembers her joy. She longs for some hill, some shape for her eyes to move over before she can touch the sky. She longs for the long branch of a tree just waiting for birds to perch on it, something to rid the anxiety. There is no reliefl Instead the pain sharpens and pulls at her. It burns, bottomless burning. beyond any action she might
perform to reverse it. It whirls and stirs through her entire body and she is lightning. A streak of heat.
      She slips away a swimmer in noiseless water; through something soft and liquid which surrounds her entire body and it is as though she has forgotten everything, where she has been and what has been. An eternity passes, a gap of time she is not aware of, except this calm, this not being part of anything at all, not her body not the sky above her; not the not-here tree which she imagines, not even the not-hereness with hills to be imagined, the emptiness and none being. Not here. Instead, a quiet stretch of time where she is not. Not being. The soft liquid is now full of light. Phephelaphi.
      Her back is on the ground and her knees tremble. Her shoulders are half buried in the abundant and soft soil. Her head curls to the left and leaves her face resting over her left shoulder. Her eyes waiting. Tears squeeze through her tightly closed eyes tracing every intense furrow and each line of dismay One half of her lower lip is caught between her teeth. Held tightly against surrender. She presses her face down further on to her shoulder till her head is buried in the firm warmth of the sun, and her hair is the colour of sand. Changed, absorbed, her whole form is a wooden mask floating in the rapid sand. Drop after drop the land welcomes her tears like rain.
      She is lightning, burning like it. She is fire and flame. She is light. Then in her grief she clutches something as dead as a root. She fastens her grip over this dead substance which promises no anchor. No promises to rescue and heal. Hope fades after hope. Slowly her hold loosens and she slips again further into the soft lightness of a liquid stream. Her own open legs. Her body dissolves in the truest substance of pain. She has to move out of the ground but her movements are tortured. She turns her face back towards her body and relaxes her elbows. Her neck is raised forward, searching, rotating back to her left for a missed detail. Ahead, she finds her knees pulled up, and apart. Behind there is a stretch of empty land and then the thorn bush.
      The thorn bush from where she had earlier retrieved the longest and strongest needle she could find. This bush is now bright with dots of red. The red surprises her and fills her eyes because it was not there before. Perhaps she is just too tired. She looks cautiously again through the bush which is now covered with red blooms. There are red blooms. She accepts this as her failure to remember where she is, and what has been. Then, a sudden loud shudder and escape, lifting into the sky is a shrill breaking chorus, then she realizes that these veering red dots are the beaks of dozens of grey birds which have been resting within the thorns. The birds fly off in scattering cries. Their sound swells toward hen A dotted shadow spreads overhead leaving a multitude of beating wings in meandering layers. The red drops whirl past her body and reel into the back of her mind.
      Phephelaphi shifts her skirt upward and over the middle of her shivering and moist back. The skirt is tight. She twists the skirt to one end and she can feel the thick band rubbing against her skin, resisting her motion. A black button falls. A memory falls. The button has fallen from her blouse along the front. It lies half buried below her left elbow. The zip scrapes her back as she twists her skirt to one side. She turns and turns it till her left finger can reach the zip and pull it down.
      The band loosens, the skirt wider. The skirt moves easily and she can proceed to pull it in one direction. She pushes her body forward in order to free the rest of her cloth. She pulls the pleats of the skirt together into a bundle that she tucks firmly and safely under her. She protects her dress. The cold metal of the zip is pulled over her navel. Her body is almost naked. Except for the blouse. Along the open front the button is gone. She is naked except for the weight of her own suffering, the weight of courage.
      The land is dry. The rain is too far; too long ago. The sand is loose and shifts beneath her elbows like a tired breeze. Her elbows are buried in the sand. Her heels dig down. Her anxiety penetrates the ground. Too close, an unbearable sudden ache, and way too far. Hidden and tearing. Deeper. Deeper. And the lukewarm warmth becomes a solid. Thicker and immediate, It is hard. It slides and shifts like handfuls of saliva. It is too thick for saliva and too heavy to gather all of it only with her mind, the pain and touch of it is too extraordinary, too pure.
      For a brief time the sky has hills in it, the sky has many hills in it. She can see the drop of the valley and the basins with the same calmness that is inside her own body. A feeling, clean and ordered, floods her waiting body. She accepts it even as it recedes and the tears begin to well unbidden, and the pain climbs up her back and pulls her to a hidden place and her eyes are closed against the bright light. The valley is still held in her eyes so she can find a small place to hide while she watches hills fold on to hills and cast protective shadows into every slice of her pain.
      The stars are all carried in our eyes, this is why we are alone. We are yet to be born. Some of us are never to be born. To be born is chance and good fortune, and to survive into tomorrow, sheer motive and interest. She was not interested.
      She thinks of something else altogether while the child pulls away from her and finds the sky so low it graces her knees which are weak and folding. The hills have disappeared and are gone. They have been flattened to the ground by the simple drop of her eyelids. In a mixture of laughter and tears she sees again the crimson beaks, red scratches across an entire blue sky They land with silent wings back on the thorn bush, waving a shadow past her body like a fleeting breeze. All sound is stilled under the rise and rhythm of these wings. The birds merge with the dull thorns. Beautiful red blooms embrace, once more, the bush. Indeed, she can smell the pollen and see the bee. She laughs a lone woman's mad quiet laugh, rich with fateful recognition and regretful desire. From a distance, her laugh is only a mark on the ground.
      Her thighs tremble but her body is buried far from the shelter of the bushes which are bare of leaves and offer no relief. She buries her head within the fold of her right arm, above her elbow. She has to close her eyes and fold her arms to support this last seeping of desire. Strong wave after wave is released like a flood breaking over the bank of the river; discovering a new shore where water has not been. She is at the bottom of the river but it is dry there. She is untouched by the flood tearing the river bed from shore to shore. The river is a pounding and deafening omniscience. This is not water but a liquid wind - a pool of fire in which she burns without pause. Nothing has been born. Nothing has been born at all. Nothing has been taken away.
      Time closes her eyes and then, slowly gathers an undiscovered strength that propels her forward like a petal carried in a current of wind. Her fingers are slippery. Her skin burns. Time endures each rupture as though a flower were blooming or a leaf were being cleansed.
      The thorns and the red petals wait together. She is standing on shaky legs near the bush weaving a cradle out of thorn. Her fingers bleed as she breaks each small branch, each tiny wing of shrub. The skin on her hands tears. She leaves the delicate blooms intact. She weaves a nest, a coarse cradle of thorn which she offers to the ground near her feet where a smooth agony flows. The cradle holds her flowing blood like a sieve. The grey and smooth sharpness of each thorn locks bravely into another and rests beneath her body, a tight nest, above it is the stretch of her body and its shiver toward light, beneath her the child, not yet, is released.
      Falling on a basket of thorns, on the separate sand, each grain pushing away from the other, not touching, not knowing, not belonging. Arrows of light, not seeming to be from a single place but passing through her whole body, as though she is a transparent membrane coating the inside shell of an egg.
      She feels the heat on the inside of her arm, over her elbow, the hidden curve of her foot and knows she is nowhere nearer those petals than here. She is on this ground with a heavy forehead licked with pain, with sweat dripping behind her ears. Her pain knows no bounds. She is on the ground struggling against a fierce fear and surrender.
      She pulls the nylon petticoat held past her waist, under the skirt. She pulls it down, towards her knees and over her feet. When she has removed it she brings the nylon cloth to her face and wipes her forehead. The cloth simply slips over her and falls to the ground beside her but she repeatedly picks it and replaces it on her forehead. She holds the cloth down though her hands are shaking and soaked. She presses hard and wipes her forehead, again and again. When she is done her face is dry to breaking.
      Nothing in her is consoled, nothing concealed. She clears her forehead. The cloth, wet and spreading the wetness through her fingers, has become more slippery now filled with the warmth of her body. She carries this warmth across her stomach. As she proceeds, she feels the wet fabric over her. She reaches down and tucks the nylon petticoat between her thighs.
      The skirt is a hard mass underneath her; between her alarming hurt and the ground. Her left arm folds over her body and finds the lump of cloth, and brings it up to her front. Her entire left side is now resting directly on the ground, and immediately she understands that this crushed cloth, though a hardness that has brought a continuous ache to her side, has become an anchor. An anchoring ache. She holds this unravelling cloth across her body as she attempts to rise from the ground with the petticoat and the warmth wedged securely between her legs.
      The land, soft pliant sifting soil, carries her entire shape on it. She sees the place where she has been buried when she lifts her body forward from the ground and offers the blood to her petticoat. The blood soaks into the fabric and she folds her right hand and gathers, with the thin nylon fabric, the lukewarm warmth which is no longer her own.
      Steady and steadier. She receives each motion of her body and the liquid spreads over her arm, over the sliding nylon in her fingers, and the unborn child too small to be a child, just a mingling within the nylon, something viscous and impolite amid the lace spreading along the hem, and the elastic gathering the nylon into pretty pink frills that glisten, shimmer; cupped in her hand. She closes her hand secretly.
      The ground is soft and she moves it, shifts it easily with her fingers, handfuls of soil burning with the scent of the sun, and easy, easy grains of sand. The grains turn freely and bright with daylight. Between each grain the soil is a fine brown powder, crushed to a sacred lightness. Her fingers are wet, so the grains of sand paste along the wetness and climb over her quiet arm. She gathers this abundant soil rapidly and its motions are graceful and easy like a greeting. Suddenly beneath the softness of the soil, is the hard ground. A black hard helmet, compact, and she fails to hollow or break it.
      Is. Is. Is. This soil just is. It does not move. No kindness to it. It is a violent quiet. A plain roof sealing the bottom of the earth. Water could not dissolve its rigid hold, its stiff will. She burrows like certain kinds of animals which fear prey and have nowhere to hide, whose coats are too visible, whose odour, though meant to defend them, leaves a trail too apparent to be ignored. Their desperation, their movements, tell an entire distrust. The ground is rock and resists each of her attempts to open it with her desperate hands.
      Only the soft soil slides to one side, piles over, slides and piles over. The soft soil forms a mound, a bowl for her warm tears which have not yet fallen. It is so dry and fine that when she presses it together it holds together like a batter. Yet the slightest wind frees it and it turns into air. But inside it is even drier land, intense like a repeated dream, tight and holding together. It is darker; and its triumph matches something inside the roof of her head where there is a constant burning. Everything that burns soon turns to ash. She digs beyond this core, the soil is smooth, charitable, full of pardon. It has turned into ash. She takes this soil into the bowl of her knitted fingers and raises it up, above her head, higher; separates it, and it falls like a sweet memory to the ground.
      She is thinking of her thirst, and wondering how long it will be before she can taste water. In her longing is the pliant soil, like loam, and the taste of water. She longs for simple truths; a morning with lust the rising sun and its caress of the earth, just that. She laughs at her longing of something else beginning, something harmless like sunrise, something she need not measure against her own body. Out there, tantalizing, far off in the horizon. Yes, a sunrise with a wild tumult like red dust. That is it. Familiar and free. A liquid ferment.
      A lack of water. Water brings things together. Two stones in a pool of water become one, but in the air each is proud and alone. Two sticks, two eyes that belong to the face of a child. When a plant dries, it bears the indifference of stone. Often, it burns. It is light like dust.
      She is in dry land. Waiting in an eternity. She burrows the ground, her tongue held between her teeth in surprise. Her focus held against a gentle softness ready to yield such an impenetrable wall. A lulling sandy soil, an impassive ground.
      The thorns match the sharp edge of the horizon. Here, both morning and day offer the same slicing circle of sky and hard earth. Unless there is some other object in sight, turning the body around means nothing crucial, no change but the same sight over the shoulder, unless of course you know something about clouds, their shape and weight which meets the eye, the water in them, or, most of the time, the water not in them. If there is water you can sniff it from the cloud like pollen. Changing direction means something else entirely, maybe about living, certainly not the notion of shoulders realigned against the trunk of a tree, or a boulder; or a river, or hope.
      When the sky is a solid unforgiving blue all round, then one searches for the tiny spray of whispered sentences twisting in and out of the sky. This distant dance above is something as noticeable as a faint breeze passing over a mound of feathers. A disturbance which does not change the absolute contours of the object but its emotion. It is a suggestion which, like the naive breathing of a child released on a grain of rice, frees the broken shell.
      Sometimes there are thin and narrow pestles wavering, suspended, and they look like anthills in the sky And the whole bowl of sky looks as though it has hills floating in it. There are dark hills with white smoke swirling over them. Then rocks hanging on the borders of smaller rocks, over and over, and touching the sky on all sides of its horizon. Nothing tumbling, just some curved reality. This is dryness, not water.
      There is a crack, like thin and dry twigs; the break of a branch.
      The smoothness of her thighs is beautiful like a remembered scent which carries one toward another moment which is separate. not joined by water. This is a safe place. The passing of this moment is brief. The touch along her left thigh holds like a prolonged sigh.
      The sky is low and lights everything with its glow. The grains of sand are a silver glitter like drops of dew. The air cools to a crisp freshness and she feels it over her forehead, the tiny breeze growing and fanning her eyes. She closes her eyes and listens to her skin cool to mildness. Her knees turn cold. Each burden vanishes with the strength gathering in her knees and she knows she can walk and find shelter of her own.
      The heart beating is hers, her arms, and she is she. She has emerged out of a cracked shell. There is a soothing emptiness in this canopy of sky. She has endured the willed loss of her child. Willed, not unexpected. Expected, not unwilled. The dried blood over her thighs, between her fingers, her head spinning and heavy the dry ground, hollowed and free.
      This.
      Each moment is hers and she recalls each detail with clarity even while she is still living it, living in it, part of it, and parting from it. Rising, she must remember. The soil around her moulded like clay. Dark with the blood that is hers. Her petticoat missing, buried under a crust of dry ground. Her skirt falling down from her waist to her knees. The fabric flaring its folded seams from where the sand showers down from its folds to her feet. The hem swings over her skin. The skirt is bright yellow and covers her knees.
      When she pulls the zip along the skirt it is already broken. She pulls the cloth and tucks the button at the top of the zip firmly into the seam on the opposite side, along the band, and she allows the blouse to fall untidily over the skirt. The material is wrinkled. This too she remembers. The mess and untidy chaos. This whole action had been about tidying up. Ordering the disorder. Instead, her fingers are torn and bleeding. Her blouse is open at the top where the button has fallen. She looks behind her and to the ground, where her elbow has been. The button has disappeared and she knows it is futile to search for it.
      The remaining thread hangs on the fabric where the button had been secured. Already she plans to move the last button on the blouse to the top of the garment. This action will change how she feels, now, in the midst of her confusion. Her breasts are naked. Her nipples are tender as they rub against the cloth, as though scalded, and in the groove where her breasts meet she is touched with the sun's coolest rays.
      She spreads smooth soil over the dotted spots which are going round and round on the ground where an animal, wounded, has performed a lonely rite. She spreads the clear sand cleanly over the marks. In the grave grasp of her own agony, in her riotous release, she pours handful and handful. The finest soil blows away while the heaviest grains fall quickly downward. The finest soil blinds.
      Phephelaphi closes her eyes and pours her sorrow down. She adds more and more of the soil till she has formed a high mound around her and then she collapses to the ground. She has built a solid mound of earth smooth like ash. Then she rests. Her gain restored.
      A firmament of despair. Whoever has to be buried in this land is placed in the lightest soil there is, so light ants can carry it, paste it with saliva, and build structures higher than trees.

Yvonne Vera

Butterfly Burning by Yvonne Vera (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, September 2000)
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This electronic version reproduced by kind permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC, New York, New York, USA. From Butterfly Burning by Yvonne Vera. Copyright 1998 by Yvonne Vera. All rights reserved.

This excerpt  may not be archived or distributed further without the express permission of TBR and the author. Please see our conditions of use.

author bio

Y. VeraYvonne Vera, one of Zimbabwe's best known authors, was born and brought up in Bulawayo where she now works as the Director of the National Gallery. Her novel Under the Tongue received the 1997 Commonwealth Writers Prize (Africa region). Her collection of short stories, Why Don't You Carve Other Animals?, and her two earlier novels: Nehanda and Without a Name were all previously short-listed for the same prize. Under the Tongue and Without a Name both won first prize in the Zimbabwe Publisher's Literary Awards in 1997 and 1995 respectively. Her books have been highly acclaimed and published in Spain, Canada, Denmark, Germany and Sweden.  Yvonne Vera is a doctoral graduate of York University, Toronto, Canada.

navigation:                         barcelona review #20                 september - october 2000
-Fiction

George Saunders: Sea Oak
Anthony Bourdain: Bobby At Work
Robert Antoni: How Iguana Got Her Wrinkles...
Anne Donovan: Hieroglyphics
Yvonne Vera:
excerpt from Butterfly Burning
Clayton Hansen: A Box for the Sand Country
Nuria Amat: excerpt from Intimacy

-Essays

Carole Maso: Rupture, Verge, and Precipice...
Lawrence Norfolk: Being Translated...
Translators' Replies to Norfolk

-Poetry

John Ashbery: 3 Poems
Jonathan Monroe: 3 Poems

-Interview Carole Maso
-Article September and October in Barcelona
-Quiz

Harry Crews
Answers to last issue's Toni Morrison Quiz

-Regular Features Book Reviews
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