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CASTING WITH A FRAGILE THREAD a story of sisters and africa
By WENDY KANN
HENRY HOLT AND COMPANY Copyright © 2006 Wendy Kann
All right reserved.
Chapter One Lauren, my youngest sister, was killed in a car accident on a straight and lonely road in Zambia in 1999. By then I was so comfortable in my American life, so warm in its assumptions, that her death felt like a betrayal. Where I live, in Westport, Connecticut, people don't die. Mothers work on the PTA or spend their days, as I do, absorbed in how to improve downtown parking and which plants are deer resistant. On my kitchen table I have a large flat desk calendar and in it I write my three children's play dates and my school, car pool, and social obligations-but I am still notorious for double booking and forgetting things. My friends usually put me at the end of the class phone chain-the system we have for letting people know about snow days and whatnot-because they know it's a little risky to put me in the middle. I make an effort to stay intellectually active. I read a lot. Helping my children with their homework keeps me thinking, and I always listen to NPR during my long hours in the car to and from their activities. My husband fills me in before bed with stories from the New York Times, if I'm not asleep before he is. By the time Lauren was killed, it had been years since I had worried about whetherpeople whom I loved might live or die.
For most of my childhood, death was background noise, like a TV left on in an empty room. I was born the oldest of three sisters in 1960 in Salisbury, Rhodesia, a teapot-shaped British colony in Southern Africa that is now Zimbabwe. When I was five, the country's two hundred thousand white settlers declared themselves independent from Britain with the Unilateral Declaration of Independence, or UDI, as we called it, in an effort to guarantee permanent white minority rule. By then, there had already been alarming changes to the old imperial world: colonies had crumbled, communism loomed, adults around me spoke in nervous whispers about Europeans killed in the African countries to the north of us that had "fallen."
Technically, the Rhodesian civil war began when I was six and lasted until I was twenty, but initially the African leaders of the nascent rebel factions (including Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe's current president) were disorganized and easily contained by rigorous emergency legislation imposed after UDI. By the time I was a teenager, however, the conflict had spun out of control, leaving Rhodesia embroiled in a bloody racial clash that lasted until the end of 1979, when warring parties grudgingly agreed to an uneasy peace through British-sponsored talks at Lancaster House in London. Robert Mugabe was ultimately voted into office through democratic elections; nationalists renamed the country Zimbabwe. Up to thirty thousand people, black and white, died in the struggle for independence.
Growing up in Rhodesia, there were layers to my experience of death. Not all death was war-related, but it all was part of a more general death hum that seems to hover forever in Africa. There was the drone of faceless names I didn't know. There was the gasp that came with the death of other people's relatives and acquaintances. Then there was the punch that came with the death of those I knew well and loved-my family, my friends.
But at twenty-four, when I arrived in New York, it was as if my childhood had never happened. A path diverted, a faucet of tears turned off. Americans are without a mental image of Zimbabwe, and in its place are only fumbled associations. In Manhattan, when asked who I was I would reply, "I'm Wendy; I'm from Zimbabwe," to which a response of empty eyes would be returned. I began to feel invisible.
It's difficult even for people who live in Africa to see the continent clearly. Our heads are so choked with images of white foreigners adventuring under a romantic sun or haunted black children with distended bellies teetering on skeletal legs that myth tangles itself up with truth like ancient and overgrown wisteria, hiding and distorting what's really there.
But feeling invisible was painful, so I put aside my Zimbabwean identity-like a party dress boxed and wrapped in tissue paper, only to be taken out on special occasions when I went home-and began to cultivate an American self. For years my new identity felt uncomfortable, like a different dress full of prickles and stays, a corset too tight that sometimes made breathing difficult. Eventually, I stopped looking longingly at the closed Zimbabwean box for something that fitted more easily, as what had initially been painful slowly settled into a dull but manageable throb.
Then Lauren died.
Everyone who dies is remembered by their loved ones as beautiful, but Lauren truly was. She had a particular way of moving that was graceful and deliberate, exuding a sense of, if not serenity, then the feeling that nothing could perturb her. My middle sister, Sharon, who still lives in Zimbabwe, says it was as if Lauren never quite inhabited her body but, instead, seemed to wait lightly outside of herself. Once, when Lauren leaned over to pull a heavy wooden case of beer out from under the bottom shelf on the pantry floor, a huge cobra that had been lurking there reared up and hissed in her face. Richard, her husband, told me she simply wiped her hands on the back of her shorts and went back to the breakfast table, sighing in a ho-hum sort of way. "Richard, there's a cobra in the pantry," she said, while she buttered a piece of toast, as if commenting on the weather.
I can still picture her slow-moving almond-shaped eyes, flawless skin, and high, pronounced cheekbones. She had dark blond hair, which she had highlighted when she lived in Harare, Zimbabwe's capital city, where there are hairdressers, and she used to flick it away from her face with a soft hand in a shy self-conscious manner. Her smile was broad and showed equal amounts of perfectly straight and white upper and lower teeth, which she was proud of and careful to floss.
When Lauren was happy and smiled in that broad way, she was at her most beautiful. When she wasn't happy, which was a lot of the time, she was no less beautiful, but after you first gaped at her you felt her emptiness, a too-long pause that would occur as she floundered in her head, trying to think of what to say. She grew somewhat more certain after she married, but even then those who met Lauren could sense her quiet panic and might grow uneasy and move on, leaving her to drift back into a shadowy periphery, where she was more at home anyway.
She met her husband, Richard, at a party in Wedza, a small and prosperous farming area east of Harare, about ten years after the Rhodesian war ended. It was just like Lauren to drive for three hours alone from Harare on a dark road, on which huge trucks with no headlights rumbled dangerously and abandoned buses waited shrouded in darkness, to go to a party hosted by people she didn't even know. When she called me in New York to tell me about it I muttered maternally at her recklessness and she laughed, explaining that she really needed to meet a new crowd.
Coincidently, Richard didn't know the hosts of the party either. He was from Zambia, an immense country to the north of Zimbabwe that rolls out to almost touch the middle, more unfathomable parts of Africa. There are not many white people in Zambia. Richard, a naturally shy young man then in his late twenties, grew tobacco on the same isolated farm in the southern part of the country where he had grown up.
As Lauren described to me years ago, Richard and two other Zambian bachelors, each still percolating on the warm beer and banter from their daylong drive south, boisterously outdid one another to impress her. But she was most intrigued by Richard. His startling blue eyes were difficult to ignore, his skin was tanned a deep russet, and she felt it still warm from the sun when he draped a self-consciously possessive arm around her shoulders. Fascinated by the romance of isolation, she caught the subtle scent of his loneliness and was touched, in a way, by its intense magnetism.
Lauren and Richard arranged to meet again, a few weeks later, at the elegant Victoria Falls Hotel, on the Zimbabwean side of the Zambian border. Victoria Falls is quite far from Harare, so Lauren flew north. Richard made the long journey south on a potholed ribbon of road in his overheated farm pickup. I remember her telling me how strange their meeting was; Richard's formerly smooth words seemed cut off by the unfamiliar necktie that he had quickly pulled out from the back of a drawer for the occasion, a formal dinner that was regularly interrupted by the noisy clinking of glass and silverware. After coffee Lauren suggested they walk the grounds, and they did, both wondering what to say, the sound of the falls faintly thundering through the far-off trees and the crickets shrieking loud and close.
The hotel pool was bright and deserted, with umbrellas carefully folded and loungers stacked. Lauren laughed unexpectedly and started to unbutton her blouse. She then slipped off her skirt and sandals and stepped out of her underwear. She paused for a long time, quite naked, a little heavier than she liked, her painted toes curled over the edge of the pool, smiling at the water. She let him look at her, young breasts happily unrestrained, tiny goose pimples, shocked and alert, covering her with a fine invisible down. Then she dove in with a small splash, her form cracking and quivering in the illuminated white ripples.
LAUREN WAS WORKING AS A SECRETARY FOR TABEX, THE TOBACCO auction floors in Harare, when she met Richard, a job she felt no qualms about abruptly quitting when I sent her a ticket to visit me in America. I had just had my first baby and spent those long stay-at-home hours lecturing her. I knew Lauren, how much she enjoyed what we in Zimbabwe called a "townie" life: movies and pedicures, cappuccinos (nothing an Italian would recognize), and salads at trendy places for lunch. She had watched a lot of Dynasty as a teenager and sometimes still tilted her chin and tried on those upper-crust mannerisms. Once, for a wedding, she rented an enormous feathered hat from Reps Theatre, which she wore with aplomb, blocking views at the church, tickling polite noses in the car, bobbing like a baby ostrich at the luncheon that followed. And she didn't do it as a joke.
I reminded her that even in Zimbabwe, where most farms and their communities were wealthy and established, a farming life was a lonely one in which men and their African labor took on the challenges of the land and left little, really, for their wives to do. Black servants took care of the children and housework. White women kept themselves sane with sewing groups and gardening clubs and flower-arranging circles. They drove trucks long distances, their hairlines full of dust, to visit female neighbors for tea and cake, desperate to confide frustrations with kids or husbands-impatient to forget their isolation, or grumble how hot it was, or wonder aloud, to another white woman, about whether or not it might rain.
I admit I didn't know a lot about Zambia then. In my mind it was one of those limitless slabs of Africa that baked quietly under the relentless sun. Though it had rich copper deposits near its border with Congo and enough fertile land to be plucked up as the British colony they called Northern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe was Southern Rhodesia and then, after Zambian independence, just plain Rhodesia), it never attracted many white settlers. It was too far-well, north, and the malaria was unmanageable, so Britain gave it up fairly easily in the early sixties when nationalists made a fuss.
Many of the girls who boarded at my high school in Salisbury came from Zambia. During the war, Zambia supported freedom-fighter or terrorist camps-it's hard to find the right word for them now-and Rhodesian troops staged dramatic bombing raids on Zambian soil. The thick Zambezi River marks the boundary between the two countries. In those days, the bus that took the Zambian boarders home wasn't allowed to cross the bridge spanning the bottomless gorge where the river becomes the Victoria Falls, so my schoolmates were dropped off in their brown pleated skirts and turquoise blouses and instructed to drag their heavy trunks over steamy concrete and steel into their different and dangerous world.
"Is there at least a club in Choma?" I asked Lauren, on one of those afternoons in Manhattan. Every African farming district I'd ever heard of had a club-a few tennis courts for the ladies or a Sunday afternoon of mixed doubles and a hall-like clubhouse with a long bar at one end. Farmers showered and combed, darkly sunburned, uncomfortably formal in long pants, sipped beer there on Friday or Saturday nights while their wives fussed in the kitchen, swatting flying ants off the beef Stroganoff and pinching moths out of puddings. Parties at rural clubs were notoriously festive, with children sleeping in corners or shrieking on the rickety playground long after midnight. Eventually, somebody's husband would grope another woman or vomit into the flower bed, which gave the district something to gossip about for weeks.
Lauren said that there was a club in Chorea, and, during Richard's childhood when Zambia was still Northern Rhodesia, it had once even hosted black-tie dinners, but she laughed now at how hard that was to imagine. The club building still existed, but only just. The swimming pool had been empty for years; its sides collapsing in great concrete lumps atop tufts of grass that pushed through the cracked, chalky bottom. There was a Coke machine-Lauren laughed at my surprise (even Zimbabwean clubs weren't advanced enough for Coke machines)-but then she added that it didn't work. Desperate women sometimes, but not often, drove hot hours to the Choma club to meet other white wives on the potholed tennis court there. It was risky, communication being what it is in Zambia, to plan a game. Too often, one would simply have to sigh and drive those long hours home again after slapping mopane flies and mosquitoes, enduring the whimpers of balding kaffir dogs and giggling hellos from scampering bone-thin children practicing their English, who would be intrigued, in a place where nothing changed, by a mazungu, or white woman, with a tennis racket.
My motives for dissuading Lauren from Richard were not entirely selfless. I was lonely and wanted her to move to America. During her three months in New York I encouraged her to study, but she chose courses like Off-Broadway Theater, which left her lost in a sea of first-world inside jokes. I encouraged her to date, but one young investment banker I introduced her to spent the evening rudely checking the gold price on something demanding and electronic in his pocket.
Lauren, like me, was baffled by America but had no particular interest in grappling to find an identity that Americans could recognize. We laughed when a young woman on the corner of Sixth Avenue and 49th Street approached us to be part of a TV focus group; when we said we were from Zimbabwe, she said, "I'll just put down New Jersey." Later that same trip, Lauren was spat on by a homeless man on the A train, leaving an oozing oysterlike blob of yellow mucus wandering down the front of her shirt. She left New York in disgust.
LAUREN WAS MARRIED IN THE OLD PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH ON Enterprise Road in Harare and had her wedding reception in the Kariba Room of the Holiday Inn. Richard's Zambian friends packed their best clothes and drove south in pickups and station wagons stuffed with coolers, pillows, and orange peel. Delighted at the excuse for a party, they were nevertheless awkward with the bustle of Harare after their quiet farms. When they arrived, they tapped out quick cigarettes, sucking on them hungrily with uneasy sun-browned lips. Richard's best man, Darren, had long blond hair that fell past his shoulders and wore a string of crocodile teeth on a strip of leather around his neck.
Excerpted from CASTING WITH A FRAGILE THREAD by WENDY KANN Copyright © 2006 by Wendy Kann. Excerpted by permission.
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