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-Ama Ata Aidoo
"Yvonne Vera brings to this novel her extraordinary gift of sidelong and oblique entry into the heart of things using the total environment, trees, sky, river, rocks, and mountains—they are themselves characters—to express human emotion. Her treatment of love is unusual and strikingly original bringing out its redemptive power which triumphs over the horrors of war and human cruelty."
-Eldred D. Jones, Editor, African Literature Today
"The Stone Virgins is Vera at her lyrical best. Her affinity for visual art comes through in her writing. Her descriptions are painted, by turns, in bold palette-knife applied strokes and delicate pastel colors. The novel exudes compassion, tolerance and sensitivity — the three hallmarks of great writing. Post-colonial African literature is led by Zimbabwean writers and she is the by far the most imaginative and original voice among them."
The Stone Virgins
Selborne Avenue in Bulawayo cuts from Fort Street (at Charter House), across to Jameson Road (of the Jameson Raid), through to Main Street, to Grey Street, to Abercorn Street, to Fife Street, to Rhodes Street, to Borrow Street, out into the lush Centenary Gardens with their fusion of dahlias, petunias, asters, red salvia, and mauve petrea bushes, onward to the National Museum, on the left side. On the right side, and directly opposite the museum, is a fountain, cooling the air; water flows out over the arms of two large mermaids. A plaque rests in front of the fountain on a raised platform, recalling those who died in the Wilson Patrol. Wilson Street. Farther down the road is a host of eucalyptus trees, redolent, their aroma euphoric. Selborne Avenue is a straight, unwavering road, proud of its magnificence. The first half, beginning at the center of the city, is covered with purple jacaranda blooms. Vibrant. These large trees stand high off the ground, with masses of tiny leaves; their roots bulge off the earth where they meet rock, climb over, then plunge under the ground. Wedged in between them are the flamboyant trees, with blistering red blooms, flat-topped, which take over territory from December to January, brightening the sky louder than any jacaranda could. The rest of thecity is concrete and sandstone. Except here and there, a pride of cassias, flowering in resplendent yellow cones in June and July; then the temperature is at its lowest.
But first, the jacarandas. Their leaves and petals merge above the wide street and the pavements flanking it. The trees create a dazzling horizon. On the face of every passerby, the flickering movement of the leaves traces shadows of the trees like spilled dye, while light swims from above through their dizzying scent; the shadow is fragrant, penetrating. These trees, carefully positioned to color the road, create a deep festive haze. Bell-shaped petals carpet the street scene where a veiled bride and her maids suddenly appear from the magistrate's court at the Tredgold Building and drive a few blocks down to Centenary Park; they emerge out of polished cars in twirling gowns and fingers of white silk, clutching bouquets of pink carnations. They circle the fountain, and the groom. Their poses are measured and delicate. The groom wears a tailcoat, a pleated shirt, a gray cummerbund, and a single white buttonhole rose. The photographer bends and shifts and shields his lens from glare, from spray, but not from the blooms. From the beginning of October come a relentless heat and a gushing rain; November beats the petals down. The heat is intense. Long after the blooms have withered, the small leaves turn yellow and then dry. They rain down. The trees now are naked and majestic, while feathery seeds waft into the glassy sky. They drift. Higher than the trees. They land in the sky.
Selborne is the most splendid street in Bulawayo, and you can look down it for miles and miles, with your eyes encountering everything plus blooms; all the way from the laced balcony of Sir Willoughby's Douslin House (he was amongthe first pioneers with the British South African Company), or from the Selborne Hotel (built 1897) adjacent to it, or even from Thomas Meikle's Department Store. Selborne takes you to the Ascot Shopping Centre and Ascot Racecourse, where the horses bristle and canter past the Matsheumhlophe River, out of the city limits to the neat suburbs of Riverside, Hillside, Burnside. On your way to one of these fine suburbs, you may choose to turn into Catherine Berry Drive, or Phillips Way, which brings you past the Bulawayo City Golf Club green, to the smaller streets, secluded. Named after English poets—Kipling, Tennyson, Byron, Keats, and Coleridge. Before all that, Selborne Avenue is straight and unbending; it offers a single solid view, undisturbed.
Selborne carries you straight out of the city limits and heads all the way to Johannesburg like an umbilical cord; therefore, part of that city is here. Its joy and notorious radiance are measured in the sleek gestures of city laborers, black, who voyage back and forth between Bulawayo and Johannesburg and hold that city up like a beacon; when they return home, they are quick of step and quick of voice. They have learned something more of surprise, of the unexpected: of chance. They have been dipped deep in the gold mines, helmeted, torchlit, plummeted, digging for that precious gold which is not theirs. Not at all. They are not only black; they are outsiders. They make no claim. This is paid work, so they do it. Egoli ... they say and sigh ... about Johannesburg. The way they pronounce the name of that city, say it, fold it over the tongue, tells you everything; you can see the scaffolding and smell frangipani at nighttime, in Jo'burg. They are nostalgic and harbor a self-satisfied weariness that belongs to those who pursue divine wishes, who possess the sort ofpatience required to graft lemon trees and orange trees and make a new and sour crop.
They are content. They know how to evade gazes. They can challenge the speculative, the hostile and suspicious inquiries about their presence in the city, and this without flicking an eyelid. They click their fingers, move one knee forward, and dance mightily. To begin with, only their fingers move, tapdance heel to toe, with a body as free as a weed in running streams. What they touch, they sing of with scorn; what they scorn, they do not touch.
Their trousers hang low past their heels, loose, baggy, and their hands tuck into large pockets and beat over their thighs in a quick motion. These men are impatient, ready to depart. They are uneasy, almost ready to return to Jo'burg empty-handed, to work there with appetite, with that steady easy zeal which accompanies anything temporary. Ready to sleep under the most luminous streetlights, to find places where they can bury their hurt and make love to new women while the sound of pennywhistles and bicycle tires sliding on tar urges them on. And anonymity.
Home is Bulawayo. This side of the city, not the other, their own side separated. Over and past Lobengula Street, the last road before you touch Fort Street and penetrate the city, before this, beyond. When they return here, neighbors give way and let them pass, and they enjoy suddenly being regarded as strangers in their own town, where everyone listens intently to their sun-dried whispers, examines their indolence and scorn, respects their well-decorated idleness, their cobra-skin belts and elephant-skin hats, eloquent, topped with their exciting layabout tones, why not, what with their cross-belts pulling their waistlines up when it suits them, on an afternoonwhen they attend soccer matches at Barbourfields Stadium, or Luveve Stadium, or White City Stadium. There they watch a game between Highlanders and any visiting team, whatever its name. So they put on their expensive shirts, which they fold carelessly up to the elbow, and their Slim Jim ties dangle all the way to the waist. What is more, they know some gumboot dance, some knuckle-ready sound, some click song.
Their readiness is buoyed by something physical, their portable radios, their double-doored wardrobes, recently purchased, which they squeeze into small single rooms with low roofs, already tight and bursting with metal single beds, paraffin stoves, and display cabinets lined with silk flowers, teapots, breakable plates. Bright, colorful carpets from Nield Lukan to cover the cold township cement. No anxiety, even though in a week or less these new carpets will be choked with dust, and they have available to them nothing more than grass brooms, with which they will raise the dust off them, and let it settle, and raise it again. Midday. The men change into their double-vent jackets and their bright scarves, and walk easily down the street. Heat or rain. On Selborne.
In a secluded bar, black men recite all they can remember about that time when Satchmo was suddenly in their midst, taking their song, their song, "Skokiaan," from their mouths and letting it course through his veins like blood, their blood. The wonder of it. The enduring wonder of it. The love of it. The Bulawayo men play it again in their half-lit bars, wondering if their memory is true, if indeed they have touched the arm and sleeve of that glorious man, that Satchmo. The basement. A dark dank room in one of the finest hotels on Selborne Avenue, a storage place for empty beer bottles and crates and disused cutlery, where only the black workersdescend; they note the amusement and let it be, from midnight till dawn.
Dream begets dream. Smoke burns on an evening and buries talk and blinds the view. The drinking glasses passing from hand to hand are improvised from brown Castle beer bottles cut in the middle. Drinks spill over the tray and are cuddled between elbow and breast. They clink and splash between the lowest chairs and the highest chairs and among the blossoming yellow shadows cast by the kerosene lamps pegged to the walls, where they hang, swing, hang. Nothing is permanent, neither anger nor caress, just swinging. In that half dark, elbows, handshakes, and knees quiver and navigate all the way to the back of the room, slip and settle down, while pledges and promises spoil and are reversed, as short-lived as the moth wings squashed under their feet. Someone curses. The insult is brief, is lost, as someone else whistles a friendly tune that lasts. A glass drops and breaks. The floor is wet and slippery as the beer dissolves into dirt and cement and the fragments of glass. The eyes numb and burning with smoke, the humming voices, the quiet afterward, as though anything could silence despair and turn it into a private matter. They speak low, in tones docile and easy. Inebriated; the night, the smoke, the music beating their soles.
A woman tugs a short skirt downward to cover her knees. Her panty hose is laddered nylon all the way to the heels, but who is checking in this kind of half dark, half love; she just wants the feeling of panty hose, if nothing else. She moves her waist, and the nylon stretches from her waist all the way to her toes. A round wooden table is held still by a folded newspaper tucked beneath one of its four unstable legs; the top is worn smooth by friction from naked arms. A man restshis folded arms on the table. His fingers taper down, his hands slack; the floor is near. His gaze on this woman, on this skirt, and these knees, is solid. He says nothing. He wants nothing. He lets her be. If she can, she will love him come what may. Every night, he has been here, watching. When he is not here, he is thinking about being here. Every subtle difference in the room interests him, the movement of each chair, the betrayals, the voices intertwined, the smoke circling the knees. He takes a sip from the perfume rising from this woman's elbows. He moves his chair close. Real close. She notes his movement and adjusts her gaze. She slides one leg above another. Her right. She looks smoothly down, under the table. Her toe is touching his knee. She presses her naked elbow firmly on the tabletop, as near and detached as she can be. She slides one hand into the warm cleft of her arm. An elbow bent.
The band has been playing softly on the raised platform in a corner of the room. The bandleader sits back in his pale blue shirt and his navy blue trousers and his sky blue tie, and in his deep blue voice softly says, "Did you say Louis ... Louis Armstrong? ..." He rises. He plays a trumpet. Plays his "Skokiaan" with Louis before his eyes, as far as he can imagine to the left, under that dimming lamp and the smell of kerosene light. And everyone agrees that yes, he played with Louis; there is no doubt about that. He is Satchmo—so what, can he play upstairs in the President's Room? The country is landlocked, bursting. The war is in their midst. The Umtali-Beira railway line has been bombed. He sure cannot play upstairs, but it is clear he is trying to get that train where it is heading; he is crossing that line, and his trumpet is glittering in the faint light, his eyes squeezed blind.
They want him to be heard above ground—somewhere. This is the day they are all waiting for. Not for Satchmo to come, and go, and play their "Skokiaan," leaving them breathless and blue, but for this man to carry their own desires above ground—somewhere. Not to cover their sorrow with their hats, like that, their trumpet covered with a hat, like that. To be honest, there is nothing they actually wish to enjoy up there, not all that velvet on the chairs, all that ribbon on the curtain, and all that frill on all that curtain ... They have no wish to acquire that. All they want is to come and go as they please. At independence, they just want to go in there, and leave, as they please, not to sneak or peep, but to come, and go, as they please. They would stay gone if they could establish this one condition, to come and go, as they please. Satchmo.
The city is built on a grid. Where Selborne meets Main Street, the building there forms a sharp turn; the same angle is repeated over and over again, street to street, all the way down Selborne to Ascot Centre, the tallest building as far as the eye can see. A man in an orange overall sweeps the corner along Main Street, at Douslin House. He has a stubborn zeal, rapid strokes that pull the street dirt of bottle tops, plastic containers, paper, fruit peels all toward him till he forms a small pile, and then he bends, scoops it with bare hands, rises, empties it into a wheeled plastic bin beside him. His lips are moving. His arms are swinging. He pauses. He looks around him for any stray paper, as though he is seeking a stray thought and finds none. He looks again, stepping aside, from toe to shoulder, moving his silent lips. He wipes his eyebrows, only his eyebrows, with the tips of his right fingers. He brings the fingers down to the long handle of his broom. The handle leans on his left shoulder. He stands still. His body mute.Only his fingers are moving. Tapping. Quietly. On the broom. Lovingly. The cars drive past. One by one. They drive quickly past. He moves away as though from his own shadow, steps from the tarmac onto the pavement. He is now on elevated ground under the raised balcony, close to the wall of the building, no longer completely on Main Street, not quite on Selborne, either. Standing here, at this corner, his body is softly disturbed.
The city revolves in sharp edges; roads cut at right angles. At noon, shadows are sharp and elongated. Streets are wide. Widest at intersections. In this city, the edge of a building is a profile, a corner ... ekoneni. The word is pronounced with pursed lips and lyrical minds, with arms pulsing, with a memory begging for time. Ekoneni, they say, begging for ease, for understanding.
The corner of a building is felt with the fingers, rough, chipped cement. You approach a corner; you make a turn. This movement defines the body, shapes it in a sudden and miraculous way. Anything could be round the corner. A turn, and your vision sees new light; nothing is obscured. You are as tall as these buildings sprouting from the ground. You are as present as time, solid and whole; the heart beating is your own, the breath warming your lips as alive as this moment, as true and unhurried. Ekoneni. A vista, and Selborne Avenue is stretching from your forehead all the way to the stars. Your fear floats to the skin, like touch.
Ekoneni is a rendezvous, a place to meet. You cannot meet inside any of the buildings because this city is divided; entry is forbidden to black men and women; you meet outside buildings, not at doorways, entries, foyers, not beneath arched windows, not under graceful colonnades, balustrades, and cornices, but ekoneni. Here, you linger, ambivalent, permanentas time. You are in transit. The corner is a camouflage, a place of instancy and style; a place of protest. Ekoneni is also a dangerous place, where knives emerge as suddenly as lightning. Death can be quick and easy as purses and handbags are snatched, discarded, and pockets are emptied. Tomorrow is near and forgotten.
Noon. A man wears his hat low, a cap squeezed down and shifted over the right eye. His faded and tight jacket, worn out at the elbow, is pulled down on one side by something heavy in the pocket, a flashlight, a folded umbrella, or something only he knows. His companion is swinging his head back and forth in quick rhythm; his fingers are held between his folded knees; his fingers are snapping—this is how certain truths are born, between thumb and forefinger. This sound alone ignites a hope larger than gloom.
The man with the cap falling over his nose turns his head round the corner and searches the distance. The lower part of his shirt collar is a sharp triangle pointing sideways; the edge of the collar is torn. He kicks the wall playfully with a well-worn shoe, quick, fast, eager. He is testing his own strength. He pulls back. He turns his back to the wall and leans back. He fumbles inside his jacket pocket, and brings out the stem of a bicycle pump, and raises it to his parted lips. First, he brushes his lips with the back of his hand, from wrist to thumb to forefinger. He curls down, his shoulders off the wall now. He blows into the folds of his fingers as though blowing into bone; a crystal sound follows his body as he slides downward on the edge of the building, feeling lighter. He hugs the ground with a frail body. His jacket is a heap on the cement. A handheld sound lengthens from the tip of his shoe, like a shadow. His companion has vanished.
Ekoneni. Here, love soars or perishes when lovers meet. The purpose of this encounter is to establish which of the two lovers is the survivor, which the quiet mind—which one is imbued with disasters, which is the channel of forgiveness, which one is the accuser, the architect of guilt.
The man stands on one edge of the building; meanwhile, on the other side, along the sharp dividing end of the wall, separate, the woman is waiting, too. Each of their elbows rests against the wall; their fingers search, uncertain, and curl over the wall, touch, without joining hands. When it suits them both, they will maneuver, move away in slow motion, their minds solitary. Or one of them turns completely round the corner to meet the other, soon, before he or she moves away and disappears. Her hand moves slowly up his arm and holds him tight. As though mutually agreed they proceed together, two shadows. Often, they choose to maintain territory, ekoneni. Just waiting, knowing full well someone is on the other side, waiting also. A leg rises up the wall and glides down. The shoulder leans farther back. The heel rubs against the wall. Then, as though responding to a sudden whistle, the woman and the man both move away and go in separate directions. They wander off without remorse, into the distance. They have postponed surrender and yielded to the temptation of delays. They leave no trace of their presence. Not here. Something else materializes, another quick agony, perhaps a song handheld, gracefully, like desire.
Lovers part again and again. They move on, holding their heads high, as though they have never met, as though they can each command the movement of the sun, yet each feelsthe other's absence. When it reaches the earlobe, a word is soft like skin.
For them to part, it must be something he did not say, something she did not say; it could not be anything either of them said, not with the scent he feels fading along his naked arm, her warm breath, remembered. No. Their fingers have touched. For them to part, it must be the unsaid words between them, the fear of finding out that what has not been said would remain so, long after everything else has been said. The silence parts them, but they remember, their voices foraging.
What was that he said to her about having a photograph taken at the African Photo Studio on Lobengula Street and Eleventh Avenue? She wants to go to Kay's Photo Studio on Jameson Street, where they give you a small mirror for one hand and a wineglass for the other while the camera clicks and flashes and another self flickers right past you while you stand still, and time stands still, and the self that you have prepared all week and now set free falls into the palm of your hand as easy as morning. Your finger is curled tight over the slim, long stem of the glittering glass, your eyebrows are pencil sharp, and the smile you have prepared in the mirror hanging behind the door is not all tucked right at the edges, almost not there, but your head is as far back on your shoulders as it could ever be. You are looking just fine; the city is part of you and you are not part of the city. A lift of your arm captures its mood.
At Star Photo Studio, just across the street from Kay's, they make you sit on a high stool with your back to the camera and ask you to hold the mirror as high as your shoulder, then turn your head slowly back till the photographer says to stop, and you do, and hold your neck still, or something likethat. Two selves emerge out of every picture, so you get your money's worth, for sure. A backdrop of sailing ships shows that you are not as landlocked in this city as everywhere else in the country. She wants to see that sailing ship and that wide expanse of sea where her own body would fit and float and she would be as far from herself as she ever could be, as well traveled as the camera confirms. She is not sure because she has not been to Star Photo Studio yet. But she will be. If not with him, with someone else. They part too completely, knowing only this.
What they both know fully by heart are contradictions. They both recall lost chances like warm fires—with fondness. They nurture risks like tenderness; they love uncertainties the way they love the drumming of a brief rain on zinc roofs, the way they love the pale silence after church bells. They love the vanishing quality of things: a woman breathless.
They love their own voices dreaming, their own fingers dreaming on each other's bodies. They love memory reaching out, veined as arms. They avoid ladders, stairs, pillars; when they can, they stay on level ground.
Hats are borne on drifting laughters, then captured below the hemline, under the billowing skirts of the women—hats tossed like feathers, like sentiments. The day is too short, as brief as the turn of a man's hat falling on bare arms.
They leave the city, here, where a woman lingers at a corner of the street, her arms heavy with a basket of pomegranates; a cloth is tied over the slippery handle of her basket. She stands, with the basket at her feet, her brow tightened, remembering an unpleasant encounter perhaps, wondering what she forgot to remember, if anything. She beats her gathered skirts as though shaking off grains of sand, while a stream of peoplehurry to Lobengula Street and pass by without casting a single glance at her. When she is ready, she hugs the basket back to her waist and hurries, too, toward Lobengula Street; the incessant voices, the jostling bodies amid the tomatoes spilling in mounds onto the pavement, the smell of guava fruit, all mingling with the sound of braking wheels. "Tshova! Tshova!" Voices explode and bodies scramble into the overloaded vehicle, which speeds quickly out of the city.
If you turn from Selborne Avenue into Grey Street and go west, you can drive all the way out, without turning either left or right, to the ancient Matopo Hills, those tumbling rocks reaching out to the lands of Gulati, past that to Kezi. Kezi: two hundred kilometers from the bustling porch of the Selborne Hotel, where parasols mingle with disgruntled miners, bankers, and day-to-day merchants, where industry is brisk. Here the delivery boy, with telegrams and the day's post, waits outside before someone finds him and relieves him of the mail.
Copyright © 2002 by Yvonne Vera