Years of Fearful Nights
by Yasmine Ghata
Translation by Marjolijn de Jager
The students were extremely unruly that day. A woman came into the classroom, asked you to get back to your seats and to be quiet. She wrote her name on the board. Then she carefully put down the chalk and took you all in with a penetrating look. You weren’t very focused, you didn’t understand what she was talking about. For a long time she spoke of old family objects. You told yourself that this writing workshop surely wasn’t intended for an exiled orphan like you. You stopped listening to her chatter, drew back into yourself. Here and there you picked up a few isolated words, without any meaning.
She asked questions. Some kids raised their hand to be called on, others were more reluctant. You didn’t budge, as if excluded, not affected by this exercise in any way. She drew a vase on the board, with eyes for looking, ears for listening, and a mouth for talking. She decided to add two flowering branches to make the whole thing look more plausible. She turned around and smiled. Then it all came together, she asked you to choose an old family object at home and bring it to the next session.
When the bell rang, you felt doubly orphaned. You had no real parents nor anything that had belonged to them. You had kept nothing of your childhood except for one thing: that old misshapen, worthless suitcase that didn’t even look like a suitcase anymore. It was the only thing you possessed when you arrived in France.
Your classmates were loudly calling out their long list of objects and proudly announcing their family lineage, which the world had all too soon sent into oblivion. Their voices expressed a sometimes-excessive pride.
Your suitcase didn’t measure up, even the few objects your parents used to have in the house didn’t measure up: ceramic utensils from Gatagara, sisal baskets with motifs of prosperity and decorative bamboo panels. What had become of these things?
Your heart cringed, you imagined them soiled, stained with the blood of your people, taken by a neighbor who was once a friend, or even sold at an open auction. Your imagination was wandering, you were present without being present, in pain. The images assaulted you, everything was coming back to you, everything speeding up, you saw your mother’s humble bone jewelry again, the line of her neck when she was kneading bread, your father’s old Seiko watch that stared at you when he would point his finger at you. What had become of your brothers’ and sister’s toys, those figurines cut from eucalyptus wood? Sometimes your grandmother would confiscate them and keep them in the deep pocket down by her lower belly.
What had become of your house? Was it demolished? Is a different family living there? Did they steal the doors and windows before burning it?
A house emptied of its occupants is a book without any writing, a story without a narrator. Your mind wanders through this place, you see the large living room again, stroke the table in the center. You have memories of freshly cut up meat attracting flies, its cool surface covered with spices, of your mother’s hands skillfully and expertly handling the ingredients. Her earrings jingle as she works. Your mother was very beautiful and you revered her.
Sitting on your bed, you’re staring at your palms. Your clammy feet are sticking to the linoleum, you put them together like two pieces of a puzzle. You sniff your shoulder, your arms, your armpits. Your black skin is rough and dry. You sit there ready to jump up but something inexplicable holds you down, a superior force that has kept you nailed to the mattress for more than an hour.
What you’ll be doing in a few moments will change the course of your adolescent life. It’s an act of bravery that entails getting up, leaving the room, and walking the length of the hallway. Then you’ll have to get on a stepladder to reach the top of a closet. An object has been waiting for you there for eight years. Wrapped up in a sheet it’s one with the whiteness of the shutters. You come down this narrow hallway every day; raising your gaze this high up amounts to staring deeply into your past. This place is the crypt of your fears. You don’t want to regret your act so you’re still holding back.
A voiceless groan, gritting teeth, were needed before you had enough courage to stand up. Your fists are tightened, your step resolute. Your adoptive father is watching television in the living room, they’re talking about the wind squalls over the Atlantic coast. You, you are a storm brewing deep inside your heart…
There you are, in front of the closet, the stepladder within reach. You get up, no empty gestures, your body is rigid. Through the dusty sheet you feel for a handle. Once you’ve got a grip on it, it’s time to pull the object out. You hesitate a moment but it’s too late. You can’t go back anymore. Your adoptive mother is standing at the end of the hall, dish cloth in hand, the kitchen faucet still running. Both of you are looking at the object on the floor as if you have each given up the fight. You find refuge in her arms. For eight years the tears have been waiting to flow. The TV continues its string of commercials. There’s nothing to say. The important thing has been done.
The bell resounds through the hallways of the school building. Students scatter. One by one the doors close. Suzanne is looking for class 3-C. A green-and-white door, she was told. She has one hour to give to these adolescents, one hour a week, no more, to lead a literary workshop and try to have them make peace with the French language.
Thirty-two faces stare at her. The pens get busy, sheets of paper are shuffled. Before introducing herself, Suzanne asks them to be quiet.
‘Good morning everyone. I am a writer, I have two children who used to attend school here. We’ll be working together an hour a week for one trimester. I’m going to ask you not to write anything today, just listen to what I have to tell you. My first question will probably surprise you but here it is: what is an object?’
Suzanne sits down and looks as their eyes are going in every direction; they stare at corners, the ceiling, peer at the sky and its rooftops. There’s some movement in the room but no one dares speak up, some are smiling, too. A student raises his right arm, wants to say something and in the same fraction of a second ten more follow.
‘Yes, you! What’s your name?’
‘Samuel. An object is something man-made.’
‘Yes, very good. You there, in the back?’
‘It’s something made by man to respond to a need. That’s what we learned in technology.’
‘Right, absolutely. Go ahead, one more, yes you in the front!’
‘It can be something very old or very new.’
‘Yes, quite so. In fact, that’s what I was getting to. We’re going to pay attention to some relatively old objects. Why? Because they tell us a story. I’ve always been fascinated by family objects, and we all have them at home. We tend to think they’ve always been there, we often leave them unattended for years on end. We hardly even notice them anymore and, yet, they see us every day. What do you think they see?’
The question throws them. The class falls silent. The students’ eyes no longer search for spots up high, they’re all looking at the blackboard.
One hand goes up:
‘Objects see the everyday life of people…’
‘Yes, but be more specific.’
The only redhead in the class now raises his hand:
‘They see people talk, eat…’
The girl next to him cuts him off, eager to speak:
‘They see people laugh and sometimes cry as well.’ Suzanne stops the racket that suddenly fills the classroom. She draws a vase with curved lines on the board. It’s a basic drawing, a flared neck, a wide base, and a narrow opening, with on the right and the left of the vase two very stylized flowering branches beginning to bloom. On the paunch she adds two eyes, two ears, and a mouth and says:
‘To me objects are living beings that can see, hear, and speak. I’m going to ask you to choose an object at your house, ideally one that has been in the family for several generations. Don’t pick anything too bulky or too precious, it would complicate things. We’re then going to make these objects speak, don’t worry, I’ll help you.
Next week, same day, same time, don’t forget to bring it in. The object you choose can be made of paper, leather, metal, stone, ivory, wood. It doesn’t matter, it must have been in your house for a long time. The beauty of the object is of no importance, that’s not the point here. Does everybody understand?’
‘Take your pens now, I’d like you to write me a small note with your full name, first and last, your date and place of birth, then also what you love in life and what you hate more than anything else. Samuel, you will please collect the papers.’
Suzanne sits down, chairs are creaking loudly. Then it becomes quiet again. Writing throws the class into an almost mute concentration. After a few minutes the eyes stare at the blackboard again, their imagination’s point of departure. Here and there some chalk traces show through. One student has his chin on the table, tired of not finding any answer to the last two questions. Eyebrows are furrowed. The girls write without stopping, convinced that their lists of hobbies will do the job. The redhead rocks back and forth in his chair, positive that this jerky swaying will clarify his ideas.
A black teenager stares at Suzanne without blinking, his paper is done, placed on the upper corner of his desk. He is the first to be finished and now looks at Suzanne without letting up.
The place hasn’t changed in thirty years. Roaming through the halls of her former school Suzanne is brought back to her childhood. Her eyes run over the things she first saw, the things she first touched.
The school was founded a hundred and fifty years before by Saint Marie-Eugénie, beatified by Pope Paul VI in 1975. A statue of the Virgin Mary looks at her with the same kindly gaze, her palm outstretched as for an offering. Suzanne goes over to the century-old oak tree that reigns in the middle of the courtyard. Its roots have raised the asphalt, loosened the blacktop, she smells its bark, follows the grooves in the wood as if to decode them. Before this trunk was a world in and of itself, it needed several children with their arms stretched out to embrace it. Today, Suzanne hugs it halfway without looking for contact of other fingers. She could stay here for hours stirring these memories, but she feels she’s being spied on through the dark windows.
Walking quickly, she crosses the path of hurrying monitors and departs, deeply inhaling the air. Suzanne cuts across the intersection and leaves the little island of her youth, each step taking her a little farther away from her childhood memories. The neighborhood is strangely quiet, cars pass softly as if not to interrupt the pervading calm, not a sound too many. Suzanne became independent in this street: holding her mother’s hand until she was eight, her footsteps matching her mother’s until she was twelve, and then walking this same route all by herself, these same turns, at set times. She remembers the moments she spent smoking cigarettes in front of the lycée at a time when she only moved with her pack. The wind, the rain, and the storm have swept it all away. Looking at things amounts to looking at herself. For her this street is a mirror.
You moved the suitcase into your bedroom, standing it in the center of the space. Your adoptive mother has taken off the old sheet and rolled it into a ball. Your father caressed your neck several times but you didn’t react and he immediately went back to his chair in the living room. What happened had to happen sooner or later. You look at the outlines of the suitcase and its old moldy seams. The whipstitched braiding has come apart, you’re tempted to remove the thin little leather coil that runs all around but you stop yourself. The suitcase is a whole lot smaller than you remembered it, and to think you used to sleep inside it once… The two straps hold down the lid and your dark secret.
Your eyes examine the damaged surface of the flap, dark stains scattered on the darkened skin; deep striations, corresponding scratches, and a hole are visible in the center. Mute after so many years of abandonment, the suitcase doesn’t seem to be telling you anything, and yet it encompasses part of your life. Undoing its fastened straps would amount to making it speak but just as you are about to touch it you draw back.
You smell the various whiffs it emits, sharp fumes of skin, dried urine, and saltless tears. You’re fascinated, turning around it as if it were a wild animal. Memories come back to you in a jumble, memories of burning air, of a road winding through the village of Shyorongi, of sandy soil, and of tires screeching on the asphalt. You remember the hunger, the thirst, the mirages in the distance hindering the way to any hope.
Before, this suitcase was neatly put away under an old mattress at the level of the bare feet of your brothers and sister who would never stop fighting. When your mother washed the floor, swirling the water around, she’d put it within your reach. You opened it hundreds of times to retrieve the toys your father had seized to put an end to the racket that dominated the single living space of your modest dwelling. Today the suitcase seems empty, and you’d like to check it but you still don’t have the courage to open it. You close your eyes, your right hand seeking contact without your knowing it. At last, your hand is placed on top, your wide-spread fingers seem to be glued to the leather, almost paralyzed. Squatting down, you move closer as if to tame the beast. You open your eyes, put your other hand down on it. One after the other, you free the soft leather straps; they’re lying on the floor still with their deep fold. You’re afraid to open this suitcase, afraid to peer into the darkness it enfolds. For you, it shelters a corpse: that of your tattered, pillaged childhood. Opening it would mean hearing your brothers’ and sister’s screams again: Willy, Flora, and Trésor. You resist, but your grandmother’s whispers encourage you to go ahead.
It was she who urged you to flee the village and ordered you to take the suitcase she’d hurriedly filled for you. She begged you to leave, but you resisted, you were only eight years old. She repeated the same things five times, using her hand to enumerate them in order. First of all, go hide as fast as you can in the banana fields below the village of Kanyinya, not far from the elementary school. Then stay there through the night without moving before going around the Mukana Forest at dawn to reach the red clay road that winds through the hills. Her fourth finger warned you against the large paved road that leads to Kigali.
She had kissed you gently and then gone off toward the village. A sand storm was slapping against the walls of the houses, covering the homes with an ochre cloud as if to mask the horror. The motor of a Daihatsu would accelerate or slam on the brakes, each stop decimating another family. You could hear the echo of bullets flying around inside the homes. You ran without stopping, convinced you were holding someone’s hand but it was only a bulky suitcase that a grandmother in too great a hurry to save her oldest grandson had filled.