Monday, February 27, 2012

"The Breaking" (Part Two)

We worked until the light failed, digging and chopping and burning the krim. Their toughness surprised me, the branches far more sturdy and fibrous than I expected. Then we made the long walk back to the village. However, the next morning we found new tufts of krim in the spot we cleared the day before, none standing taller than a hand's length and all appearing brittle and sun-burnt.

"Impossible," I breathed.

Moses stamped his foot. "You didn't remove the root!"

"We must've missed these," Munetsi said doubtfully. "They are small. Must we bother with them?"

"Missed them? You didn't miss them. And they won't remain small. Your carelessness has doubled your work."

Itai tore a sprig from one. "There's no life inside. Such things don't grow."

"Then how have they swallowed the veld?" Moses scoffed. "Tell me that, ditchdigger's son. Now get to your work."

Itai's hand tightened on his machete. "Will you beat me if I don't, crippled one?"

They stared at one another, Moses quivering with anger, Itai working the handle of his blade in a deadly calm. Then Itai laughed his sharp laugh, swiped at a nearby krim and bent to dig. After a hesitation, Munetsi did the same.

I knelt and held my hand up to one of the new krim, measuring. It now stood taller than the tips of my fingers.

* * *

As days rolled into weeks, we beat back the krim back in almost imperceptible increments. Our labor not only changed the land, but us as well. My shadow grew broader at the shoulders, thicker around the arms, more a man's shape than a boy's. Itai became thinner, but a tough thinness like deep roots.

Munetsi changed, too -- he grew fatter. He always brought delicacies with him, a sack of roast mopane or carefully wrapped maize cakes. The charms about his neck and wrists multiplied, gifts secured by his father's trading and lavished at his mother's whim. Quick to claim the lightest load, he brought the fewest krim for burning and came back to the greatest number of new growths at his place of work.

He also bore the brunt of Moses' wrath.

"You're lazy and worse," Moses hissed upon finding him curled beneath a spreading krim, sleeping. I heard the whole exchange while feeding my cuttings to the fire. "We will stay here tonight. We will work until the light goes and work when it returns."

"But the food --" Munetsi stammered. He'd already consumed his treats, and little remained in the maize sack.

"I don't believe you will starve," Moses said.

I felt a sick resignation. A night on the hard earth would make the work even more unpleasant. When I told Itai, he became livid.

"The old snake," he spat. "He overreaches. He doesn't know how weak his influence has become."

"He is our elder," I said reluctantly. "Respect is his due."

Itai gave me a look simultaneously reproachful and sly. "You would do well to labor less and listen more. There's much talk about old Moses, about why anyone is out here at all." He thumped his thin chest with a fist. "Myself, I won't waste my strength on a cripple's last grasping for power, no matter his standing, no matter if he says all the world will burn."

* * *

The heat didn't fade with the day. It persisted, thickening the air and forcing sweat from our skin, even as the bloody sun slid down the sky and dusk swallowed it.

We built the fire high and boiled the remainder of the maize. This time Moses sat with us. Munetsi finished first and looked off in the direction of the village, his trinkets clattering against each other. Envy and contempt fought within me. I did not like the labor either, but he put forth such little effort, valuing only uncalloused hands and a full belly.

Something stung my shoulder -- a pebble flicked by Itai. Grinning, he motioned silently across the fire, at …

… at Moses, struggling to scoop sadza from the pot with his stumps, smearing the porridge about his face as he ate.

"I have a question about the krim," Itai called loudly.

Munetsi's head snapped around. He gawked openly. A cruel smile split Itai's face, thin and mean as if cut with a knife. Their reactions horrified me. Many of the other orphans had maladies, sicknesses that made them shake or misshaped limbs. I couldn't understand how these two found amusement in another's debasement. But as my gaze swept from Moses to them and back again, I found myself considering: Why would he come to the veld at all? Why not live a simpler, more-dignified life in the village?

Moses swallowed, seemingly uncomfortable with our eyes on him. "What is your question?"

"Why do we not burn them where they stand? We are far from the village."

Munetsi shot to his feet. "Yes! It'll save time. My father says time is more precious than any other thing."

Moses took up the bottle, and I felt a surge of irritation at his slowness in answering. The idea seemed sound.

"Try," he finally said.

"Yes, let's try!" Munetsi exclaimed. He swept a branch from the fire, seizing it by its unburned end. Then he ran and hurled it into the midst of the krim, where it flared -- and died.

He came back for another, and Itai grabbed one, too. This time, they thrust them into the midst of the bushes, wedging them between the branches. The flames winked out. The dry, brittle krim would not catch.

"What trick is this?" Itai cried.

"That's why we must dig," Moses answered. "While in the earth, they only burn with another flame." He shook his head. "And even then not as you might imagine."

"But what kind of flame?" I asked. "Where does it come from?"

Moses only lifted the bottle again.

* * *

Go to Part Three ...

No comments: