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Chris Abani: Abigail and My Becoming
Posted on Apr 19, 2006
By Chris Abani
Chapter III: Then
And even light can become dirty, falling sluggish and parchment-yellow across a floor pitted by hope walked back and forth, the slap of slipper on concrete echoing the heat gritting its teeth on the tin roof, the sound sometimes like rain, other times like the cat-stretch of metal expanding and contracting.
And there was also the business of reading maps. Her favorite thing. The only things she read. Other than old Chinese poetry in translation. Fragments, memorized, came to her. Mostly from Emperor Wu of Han. Dripping melancholy and loss; she couldn’t get enough.
The poem: Autumn Wind
She was lying face down over a large map spread out on the living room floor, studying it intently. She ran her fingers meditatively over the spine of the Himalayas, while peering at the upside-down fish that was New Zealand. There was something in the way the Amazon basin curled up, all green and fresh like a new fern unfurling, that reminded her of a story she had read somewhere about a Chinese poet from a long time ago who tried to live his entire life as a poem.
He was famous for the beautiful landscapes he created in low wide-lipped terra-cotta pots?white sand flowing like a bleached sea floating over the loam holding it up, sweeping up to the miniature trees that would inspire the later Japanese bonsai, rocks lounging in the shade, and little pools with the littlest fish. At least that’s what she imagined. There were no pictures to go by, nothing but what her mind could conceive. But it was the story of how he made his tea that stayed with her. Came flooding back as her hands roamed over the smooth green of the map. She mentally went through the process, making a love of it, measured in objects.
An intricate box made from rice paper that allowed just the right amount of air through, held up by a copper handle; and inside, a shallow pot with a lotus in the center. Then at dusk, the freshest tips of green tea picked and wrapped in the petals of the rare blue lotus from Egypt. The box, hung from the rafters of his veranda, took in all that was night. Dawn: the box taken down; the wait for the lotus petals to unravel slowly with the sun; and a pot of hot water, brought to boil; the leaves, dropped in the pot of water; inhaled, the gentle aroma of green tea, suffused with the longing of lotus.
Chapter IV: Now
The cigarette burnt her finger as it smoked down to the filter. She threw it into the river. Following its glowing path, she imagined the hiss of its extinction as it hit the thick wet blackness. Sucking her finger she watched a train rumble across a bridge flickering light from its coaches into the water, back and forth over the Thames, carriages lighting the darkness of warehouses and tired stations. It was like the reassurance of blood. That life would go forwards and backwards, but never stop. Not unless the tracks were snowed over.
She pulled up her left sleeve and absently traced the healed welts of her burning. They had the nature of lines in a tree trunk: varied, different, telling. Her early attempts were thick but flat noodles burned into her skin by cashew sap. With time came finer lines, from needles, marking an improvement. But there were also the ugly whip marks of cigarette tips. Angry. Impatient. And the words: Not Abigail. My Abigail. Her Abigail? Ghosts. Death. Me. Me. Me. Not. Nobody. She stared at them.
This burning wasn’t immolation. Not combustion. But an exorcism. Cauterization. Permanence even. Before she began burning herself she collected anecdotes about her mother and wrote them down in red ink on bits of paper which she stuck on her skin, wearing them under her clothes; all day. Chaffing. Becoming. Becoming and chaffing, as though the friction from the paper would abrade any difference, smooth over any signs of the joining, until she became her mother and her mother her. But at night, in the shower, the paper would dissolve like a slow lie, the red ink, warm from the hot water, leaking into the drain like bloody tears. That was when she discovered the permanence of fire.
Fumbling about in her bag, she pulled out her purse. Opening it, she stroked the two photographs in the clear plastic pouch, the faces of the two men she loved. Her father, obsidian almost, scowling at the world. Derek, white, smiling as the sun wrinkled the corners of his eyes.
?I am sorry.?
She muttered the mantra repeatedly. Soothing.
It was getting chilly and she wished she was wearing more than a light denim shirt. No point in catching a cold as well, she thought, sniffling unconsciously.
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