Time Between Rocks and Diamonds
In the house I was born into, one with oak on the walls and carpets woven by Persian hands spread thick across the floors, my mother hired a woman to care for me. Not because she didn’t, you understand, but because as a single woman with two children and a career that demanded as much as a third, she had little time to go round for such things as teeth-brushing and hair-washing.
So this woman, she who sang to me whilst I washed, buttered toast for me without crusts and, with fingers quick as knitting needles plaited my hair down my back each morn, she was the one who would tuck me to the bed each night. Claudine’s skin smelt of cocoa cream and her kiss to my head felt as warm as a blanket in front of a November bonfire.
And each eve Claudine would tell out a tale to me, gathering her skirt round her like a net to catch any stray words that would otherwise slip between worlds. The sun dipped beneath buildings and the sky darkened as she’d sit soft upon my bed. At first the words were quiet and small but with each telling they grew until they filled the room and spilled over the doorframes and out through the windows. My nighttime world was green and hot, raw and alive. My evenings were filled with her ghosts and the hopes she hadn’t quite laid to rest.
And it seemed she poured her words straight to my bones for I near on remember them all.
They shaped a land. It was green and rich, with soil so pure that diamonds bloomed like underground flowers. The hills sloped to heaven’s doorstep and lakes spilled so wide and lush it seemed that god herself did wash in them.
There were villages built of homes clustered around squares, market days where colours and smells rivaled for attention, goats yawning at yams besides green peas and palm wine. Women with babies strapped to their backs and heavy jugs filled with water atop their heads balanced a grace that I couldn’t manage walking to school. Herbal medicines sold in exchange for vegetables and rice and the promise of a prayer for protection.
Claudine whispered this world into my ears and I felt the heat rise from the floorboards and the life of wild forests press in from the walls. I’d sit, so close that her breath would tickle my cheek with each word, and each week a little more would spill out from her heartspace.
Whole villages grew in my room. The space between the bed and the chest of drawers became cramped with market days, and the taste of spices rich with chilli scented my dreams.
She’d tell of a girl, seven years young, with plaits in her hair and fire in her eyes, who climbed trees and sat in branches to win at hide and seek. As dark hugged to the winter rooftops Claudine would speak of a boy who knew how to pull down stories from the sky and of all the hours spent sitting, just so, listening to his tales of flying old ladies, magic making jungle animals, and men who knew the way to the moon. He’d tell her of bananas that could speak, trees that grew gold like berries, and the day the gods argued and turned the sky red with blood.
Life continued turning and the world lapped at the feet of the village.
As the years passed and I grew beyond primary to secondary school, from knee socks to short skirts, the girl in her stories also grew. Claudine’s tales turned to that of a young woman catching the eyes of boys when she passed, a swing to her hips as she carried water from a well. It seemed the stories were made for me, this private world that only Claudine and I shared. And truly I think I may have believed she’d built it especially for me, word by word. I appropriated all I heard so well I found it hard to imagine Claudine knew things about this world that I didn’t. That life wasn’t exactly how I pictured it in my mind.
In honesty, by that time my mother didn’t need Claudine’s help. I was deep into secondary school, the youngest of two sisters, and my mothers finance business was stalling, allowing her more time at home to cook. However, Claudine was so much a part of my life that I couldn’t bare the thought of her not being there. I think my mother saw this and, with unspoken love collected over the years, granted me my wish and continued paying her wage. I gave little thought to what Claudine might want beyond assuming it would be to spend time with me. In the selfishness of youth I thought only of myself.
So now, instead of sitting side by side on the bed, Claudine and I grew to sit side by side at the kitchen table, cups of tea to our hands, and I’d ask her to tell me more. Hungrily I devoured her words and she, ever obliging to me her surrogate daughter, gave them willingly.
The day the tale turned was a winter’s eve, first flecks of snow falling outside and turning to slush on hitting the pavement. I remember because, as her heavy words fell to the carpeted floor, I lost myself in staring at the white specks. With ears half open and half closed, I struggled to remake the world in my head. What she told me that day broke my private picture into a million pieces and scattered them to the wind. Now, I’m aware that her words were never mine to own, but back then, having grown with half my mind in the cold hills of Edinburgh and half in the green heat of a Congo jungle, Claudine shattered what I thought I knew.
She told how unto this green, rich place a terrible plague was brought. One that arrived many, many years before and settled like a heavy cloth over all that was. They had grown to ignore it, or at the very least learnt how to move about underneath it, contorting their backs to fit. This plague blew from other lands on cool breezes and offshore storms. It was brought atop ships with sails made of African cotton and laden with rich spices and ivory trinkets. It fell from out the hands of men, with skin shades closer to the colour of clouds than all else. This plague took shape in lines of rubber trees, coffee plantations and underground mines. It spread through the sound of guns, the lash of whips and the cut of a knife blade that separated man from hand. And it nestled deep to the creases of white uniforms and shiny medals pinned to chests.
Like a hungry weed that strangles all else in the garden, it took root. And like life that struggles upwards to the sun, it grew.
Bigger and stronger than anyone could have thought, there was no stopping it. Market days flattened into dust, with only a desperate few sat hawking broken engine parts and thirsty root vegetables to an empty square, so powerful was the plague. It swallowed up the diamonds and it ate all the minerals. It soiled the lakes and bloodied the hills. The plague moved ever onwards through the sharp sides of machetes in eager new hands and the heaviness of bullets worn as a belt.
And time no longer meant a normal passing of sun up and sun down. Instead, it morphed into shapes new and ugly, minutes gaped into wounds too deep to stop the blood flow and whole nights could pass with but one gasp of breath in the throat for fear.
And in the middle of such redness new life continued to be made and born. Little boys, knowing nothing but what they saw, acted hell upon their mothers, sisters, fathers, brothers. Little girls, born with survival in their bones, washed fear into the bright colours of their clothes with each new dawn. And in the days that burned mud to dust the milk of mothers turned sour and the world continued spinning.
On seeing the tears roll down my face as I realised I had lost something that was never mine to own, Claudine stopped. She reached her familiar arms out to comfort me, as she had done over the years of scrapped knees and injured pride, of friendship battles and lost boys, but I stopped her. Realising for the first time that it was not for her to comfort me. That in the telling of her life, year upon year, perhaps it was my turn to give but a little back to her. I held her with all I had, wanting to squeeze the story from her and leave nothing but memories of laughter and the call of bright birds in the trees.
But she wanted to speak it out.
And so it continued, she said, until the hills were nothing more than graveyards and black dust mines dug out the purity buried deep inside and carried it away in ships weighed down with rubber. The purity travelled far across the seas wrapped tight into the shape of greed and power. In its wake chaos had come.
And what of the boy, the one who pulled stories from the air? Well, one day he became a story himself. He’d been starting a cooking fire in the space behind the house when five men had appeared, eyes high and limbs wild.
They left with blood on their clothes, and a pile of bones and body seeping back into the earth.
And the little girl, she with the plaits in her hair who had become a young woman with the swing to her hips, what of her? Well, she’d seen her brother’s blood. Alerted by the shouts she’d come running, only to stop at the sound of metal against bone. With a speed she hadn’t known she possessed she’d climbed a tree, and silently, with nothing but her heart beating, she’d camouflaged herself in branches, all the time looking at what had become of her brother, tears too scared to fall from her eyes.
Once the men had left and the sky had darkened she’d slid from the tree, cutting her arms on the branches without noticing. She had found her parents. Her mother with her dress ripped open and her throat slit. Her father now in two. Crumpled to the floor she cried the salt out of her blood, wishing herself dead.
Time passed, she does not know how long, before her neighbour came looking. On finding her she picked her up, led her away over ground marked red to a room filled with others seeking refuge. Pressed water to her lips and cassava bread to her hands. A refugee. That’s what she now was. But the word had little meaning, for where can be safe when you’ve seen the worst that god’s devils can do and the demons now live in your head? Where is your refuge when you lived nightmares more real than those in books?
So what became of she?
Well, she followed the purity stolen from the land. Wrapped deep into the belly of an ocean ship and shut into a pitch black shipping container squeezed between cargo boxes filled with coffee beans and cane sugar, she spent a week a month a year away, she could no longer tell, cramped with fear, a lack of air in her lungs and sea sickness to her belly. Upon reaching land, she knew not where, she was led into the black container of a lorry and told to sit quiet. Her and the 22 others she shared it with learnt all about the meaning of quiet over the days, nights, weeks that followed. For a boy, wearied and alone and with no words for his story passed to the next world besides her. They did not stop the lorry to remove him. He received no burial rites, his body was not washed to prepare him for beyond and no prayers were said to his soul, except the ones Claudine whispered over him. This continued until, reaching an unwelcoming cold city, she was pushed from the lorry and left, alone, hungry, and scared to her bones.
She spoke of detention centres built like prisons, of bars on windows and five to a room on metal beds with broken springs that groaned each time a person moved. Of owning nothing but one set of clothes and finding herself believing all she had known to be nothing but a dream, so far away was the village square and market days now. Each eve, as she’d bed down on a lumpy mattress and use a pillow pressed to her ears to block out the sound of crying, begging, praying that filled the room in whispers, she’d whisper her own prayers out. Those in the shape of stories of her youth. Of hot spices that filled the air and tickled her tongue. Of colourful clothes that mirrored the parrots that owned the sky. Of the sound of crickets that sang at dusk. Of four walls owned by her family. Of a little girl with plaits in her hair. And a boy who pulled down stories from the stars. These were her prayers, and years later she found herself telling them to me.
The space between detention centre locked doors and a key to our house was brief in her telling. As if a punctuation point could fill in details too awful for her mouth to say. Claudine mentioned nights spent curled to a ball on the streets, snow touching her ears. Of a tiger to her belly, the hunger forcing her to beg for food from strangers who stared coldly past her. Of those with kind faces who put her in touch with lawyers who looked tired. Of legal words and food vouchers, of staying on sofas and moving, moving moving. Of swapping vouchers for money to catch buses when her feet bled from ill-fitting charity shoes. Of the space between what some define illegal and legal to be. She had few words left for a system that left no place for a story to be told.
As I sat, frozen in place, absorbing all she said like punches to my chest she, in infinite beauty, spoke of the things she had saved up her words for, those which were precious and filled her heart up. For out of this time will come another. One built on the softness of a mother’s breast. Out of this time sweet milk will flow and we will wash our hands and bury fear and the women will nurse each other with words and shoulders to cry on and spades for the soil and sweet potatoes for to eat. And they will also grow.
And slowly, in the time it takes to turn rock to diamond, they will remake the world anew. They will put their hopes into the earth and from out of redness will come rainbows. Her belief was as strong as the beams above my head and one day, some day, her prayers will be answered.
As for me, well I cannot hope to understand all she told me and all she left unsaid. But now, with children of my own, I find myself thinking more and more back to Claudine’s stories and all she kept inside.
And I speak out my own prayers each day.
As I run a bath for my daughter I tell her of lakes so pure it seemed that god herself did wash in them.
As I walk my son to school I speak to him of a boy who could pull down the tales from the stars and mix them fresh.
And as I lie down each night to sleep green heat slips behind my eyes and I taste the spice of chilli to my tongue.