The Smell of Eucalyptus: Remembering David Foster Wallace Part 2

The Smell of Eucalyptus           By Thandiwe Gobledale

(written while in David Foster-Wallace’s Creative Writing class, Fall 2003)

I  pull down my panties, hoping for red wetness or even a mud-brown stain.  Nothing.  Nothing.  It’s the second month I’ve missed.  I squat over the hole in the cement-floored outhouse dreading what this means, this lack of igazi.  When I was younger, and I had just started to get my period, I sometimes missed a bleeding.  But not now – they’ve been regular for six years, since I was twelve.  I wipe myself with a piece of newspaper from the pile and pull my panties back up around my waist, smooth my blue uniform skirt, and return to the cloudless heat of a sunny February morning.  A rusty tap stands apart from the row of tin-roofed, cinder-block toilets, and I make my way uphill towards it.  Sun-warmed water flows from the spigot to rinse my hands.

I tread heavily across the gravelly ground, back towards the long, low classroom buildings.  Geography is my worst subject.  I don’t know why I’m taking it for ‘O’ Level.  It will be a miracle if I pass.

I should be grateful that I’ve gotten this far in my education.  Only three of my six older siblings got to ‘O’ Level.  Schooling is expensive.  Ubaba drives a taxi in Plumtree, and umama looks after our rural home, where we grow maize and keep goats, so that they can pay our school fees.  I need to do well in my exams.  Then I will be able to get a good job – perhaps leave Zimbabwe and go to South Africa to work.  Then I will be able to send money home to help pay for my younger brothers’ schooling.

A eucalyptus stands shyly some twenty metres from my geography classroom, and I stop to admire its slender sturdiness.  Then I quietly enter the crowded building, trying not to disturb Mr. Mlalazi’s dictation.  He turns from the blackboard for a moment to look at me.  I have interrupted both his talking and board-writing; I shrink and try to blend in with the walls.

It’s hot in the classroom, a cinder-block oven.  A girl sits at every desk except for mine.  Sweat yellows the armpits of their white shirts and drips from slippery necks onto starched shirt collars.  The smell of hot bodies follows me to my desk at the back of the class.  I sit and begin to write furiously, copying down the notes I missed while at the toilet.

A bell rings to mark the end of class.  My friend, Chipo leans on the wall outside the door, waiting, her books clasped to her chest.  She smiles at me.  “Heh wena, you’re never the last one out of geography.”

My lips twitch in a failed smile as we walk to our next class.  “Me, I had to catch up the notes I missed.”

“What’s wrong with you, Langa?” Chipo asks.  “You keep getting excused from class to go to the loo.  Are you ill?”

Her question catches me off guard.  “I’m not ill….Nothing’s wrong.”

“Something’s wrong.  You think I haven’t noticed how you’ve been acting differently since the beginning of the year?  You came back to school early to work in the office, but you don’t want to talk about it.  Actually, you don’t seem to want to talk about anything with anyone.  I feel like I never see you.  You’re always studying in your room or in the library.  You think I don’t notice?  And now, these trips to the toilet.  Are you meeting somebody down there?”

“No.”

“What’s the matter with you, then?”  We arrive at our next class, Environmental Science, and I’m saved from finding an answer that will satisfy my friend. Chipo’s question nags at me like my mother; whenever I think it’s going to leave me alone, it comes back without being invited.  I don’t want to think about it.

It’s true; I have been going to the loo a lot, even when there is no real need.  It’s becoming a ritual, this hoping, this waiting, this checking for igazi.  It’s like when I was young, and my uncle would come visit us from Bulawayo.  I would go to the window every five minutes to see if he had arrived.  It never made him come any sooner, but I always did it anyway.  Waiting for blood, checking so often, isn’t doing anything either.

I don’t want to think about igazi building up inside my body.

Can it really have been two months since the last time?  Yes, it was before the beginning of the December holidays, at the end of third term last year, the week before I went home, that it had come last.  There’s been nothing since then, nothing over the holidays,  nothing since I’ve been back at school, and I came back early.

I don’t want to think about that either.

Silence makes the air heavy in my ears.  The teacher must have come in during my distraction and begun lecturing.  And now he’s stopped.  I have to refocus my eyes; I’ve been staring at nothing, not paying attention.  Only now do I notice that we have a substitute.  How did I not notice him before?  His presence makes Chipo’s questions all the more pressing.  Mr. Ngwenya is looking at me from the front of the classroom.  I feel like a mamba has my stomach in its jaws and is trying to pull it up my throat.  Mr. Ngwenya’s a big man and frightening.  I feel ill.  None of us girls like him very much.

“Langa, you aren’t listening.”  Forty-two heads turn to look from Mr. Ngwenya to me.    Silence.  His eyes bore into my own.

“I’m sorry, Sir.”  My desk is suddenly interesting; I trace the lines in the wood with my finger.  I cannot meet Mr. Ngwenya’s dark eyes.  Instead, I picture his tightly knit eyebrows, the slight flaring of his nostrils, the firmly set mouth.  I know the concentration in his face – he reminds me of a lion crouched, ready to pounce and kill.  How I wish I could rid my memory of him.  The mamba writhes in my stomach.

“Come here.”  His voice is quiet.

I rise from my seat and walk through the crowded desks, between the hot, wet bodies of my classmates to receive my punishment.  Mr. Ngwenya stands ready, holding the blackboard duster tight in his rough hand.  I know the routine.  I extend my own hand, palm up, fingertips together, like a bird gazing at the sky.  The wooden duster blurs through the air to slam down on the tips of my up-raised fingers.  I blink and steady my hand.  I will be strong.  Again, the duster comes down.  And again.  I can feel my classmates watching in sympathy.  They are glad to be sitting safely at their desks.  My body absorbs the shock from my fingertips and turns it into tears, which I blink back from my eyes.  I will not be weak.

“Ten,” Mr. Ngwenya announces to the class when he finishes.  “You must pay attention in class, Langa.”  He says it for the benefit of the forty-two other girls seated in the room.

“Yes, Sir.”  My mouth forms the words, but it surprises me to hear them leave my throat as sound.  Only the pain in my fingers is real and the expression on Mr. Ngwenya’s face.  When I look, the nail of my pointer finger is cracked and oozing dark blood.  The red makes me angry; I am not waiting for this blood.  Mr. Ngwenya turns away; his body says that he is finished with me.  I do not hear the question he asks of another student.  My hand throbs, and I blink and blink to keep the pain from spilling out my eyes and running down my cheeks.  I will not let my weakness show.

I blink my way through the class and the afternoon, paying just enough attention to spare my hand from more pain.  I avoid Chipo between classes and at lunch, knowing that she will only ask again what is wrong.  Answers and more questions flood my head.  I cannot avoid my friend forever.  She finds me in the queue outside the dining hall at dinner.

“Where’ve you been all day, heh wena?  I’ve been looking for you.”

I don’t bother to answer.  We’re not supposed to talk in line.

When we sit down after grace, Chipo stares at me.  She’s worried, but she says nothing; she doesn’t have to.

“I can’t talk now,” I say.  “After prep, when we’re walking back to the dorm.  We can talk then.”  I sigh.  “Me, I don’t even know what’s really going on.”  I blink back pain and humiliation.  I don’t dare to look at her face.  I blink again but this time gratitude adds saltiness to the water behind my eyes.

The meal drags on and on.  Announcements last forever.  Boys have been visiting girls and not signing the guest book.  All visitors MUST sign the guest book, and they must have the students’ parents’ permission in order to visit – only registered guests are allowed. Someone’s wallet has been stolen.  Stealing is evil and will not be tolerated at this school.  There’s a netball game against St. James Girl’s High on Wednesday that everyone must attend.  All hostel prefects must attend a prefect meeting directly after supper.  Girls in Form One don’t have to clear the tables; the meal detention girls will do it.  Finally, “Please stand quietly.  You may leave.”  We file out by year – Form Sixes first, then Form Fives, Form Fours and so on.  I walk out quietly without a word to Chipo.  Someone is hammering inside my head, but the hammering has no rhythm.

It’s dark when Chipo and I meet outside the classroom blocks.  We have spent the last hour monitoring the younger girls’ prep, making sure that they spend the time doing their homework or reading quietly.  There is no moon, but a thousand stars mark the sky above us.  When I was visiting my brother in Bulawayo, I was surprised by how few stars there were in the sky.  He said it is because of the city’s lights; he said that they are too bright for the stars.  Chipo waits for me to talk.

My voice catches in my throat as if I have the flu.  When sound does come out, it is quiet, and Chipo leans towards me to hear.  “Me, I haven’t had my bleeding for two months.  I’m worried.”

I study my friend’s face.  I watch as she weaves a ream of truth from the threads of her suspicions.  Concern, betrayal, anger, betrayal, concern flicker across her face like candlelight on a dark wall.  She knows.

“You’re pregnant.”  It’s not a question; it doesn’t need to be.

Again, words are gone.  Air is trapped inside my lungs.  Pregnant – the word echoes in the still air.  I have refused to say it out loud since I started the blood-waiting ritual.  I can’t be pregnant.  I can’t be.  I can’t.  My lungs push bitter air out of my body and suck in sweet new air without my permission.  Speaking things makes them true, and this cannot be true.  It cannot.

We have stopped walking and stand in the shelter of a small eucalyptus tree.  Its bitter-sweet smell enters our noses and flows through our bodies.  I drink it in.  The tree is lucky; it stands alone in the world; it needs nothing.  No one expects anything from the tree except its bitter-sweet smell, which it gives freely.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Chipo’s voice is low, quiet – so much worse than loud and angry.

I nudge the ground with my shoe, willing it to move.  It doesn’t.

“The father works here, doesn’t he?”  It’s almost not-a-question.

My head nods itself.

“Who is it?”

My finger throbs; my throat burns; my body sways.  But the earth is steady beneath my feet.

“Mr. Ngwenya.”  The words taste like vomit.

Finally Chipo speaks, anger gone from her voice.   “When?” she asks.  My tongue sticks to the top of my mouth when I try to speak.  “When you were working here at the end of the holidays?”  My head nods again.  “Have you been with him since then?”  My head shakes.  “So two months.  You’re not showing.  Not at all.”  We are as still and quiet as the tree beside us.  “How will you tell your parents?”

Even the darkness cannot hide my shame.  I breathe deeply, trying to fill my body with the smell of eucalyptus.  They will not be happy with me.  To get pregnant before you are married is to dishonor your family.  I picture umama sitting in the thatched hut at home, cooking sadza over the fire.  I picture her in the fields, tending the maize.  She has worked so hard that I might have a better life than hers, and I repay her with this.

“You won’t be able to write your ‘O’ Levels.”

Chipo can’t be right.  I have to write my O’s, no matter what else happens.  Even if I must be humiliated in front of the entire school with my big stomach and dripping breasts, I must write my ‘O’ Level exams.

Chipo nods.  “You’ll have the child in late September, early October.  What about going to a nganga?” she suggests.

“I don’t have money.” Traditional healers are as expensive as hospitals.  I don’t even have money for Sunshine soap to wash my clothes.  Anyway, even if I did have the money, I’ve heard stories about girls who go to ngangas and then they can’t have children later on when they’re married.  I’ve heard that some of them get bewitched and the spirit of the unborn child follows them, haunting their homes and families.  Sometimes the babies refuse to die without their mothers, so their mothers die, too, and there’s nothing the nganga can do.  Spirits are powerful, no matter if they are born yet or not.

“So, what then?  You are just going to have this child?  And do what?  Live at home with your parents?  You won’t have your ‘O’ Levels.  How will you get work?  How will you support yourself and your child?”

Like washing on the clothes line, Chipo’s questions hang, dripping in the air.  The eucalyptus tree above us whispers its answers.  The stillness feels like a twenty-litre jug of water on my head, pushing my body into the ground.  I cannot answer Chipo’s questions, so I stumble-walk away from my friend, away from the tree, towards the dorms.  Wind moves the leaves of the eucalyptus tree.  It whispers to me, but I cannot understand it.  Its meaning is a mystery, and I stumble-walk faster. The wind raises goose-pimples on my bare arms.  I stop abruptly and breathe deeply.  I must not ignore umoya.  I must listen.  The breeze carries the scent of the eucalyptus to my nostrils.  Bitter-sweetness fills my lungs and body, just as igazi fills my womb.

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About Thandiwe

Hopeful cynic, creative, seriously silly, lover of people and places, hypocrite, third-culture kid, queer, life-long learner, white woman, Christ follower, outdoor enthusiast: I am a seeker of justice and truth who has re-found my spiritual home in progressive Christianity. I serve as the Associate Pastor at a small Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) congregation near the mountains of Colorado where I live with my beloved.
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