A Tree Grows in Mangochi
Ask me, she said.
Ask you what?
My name. Buseje. It means ask me.
Can I kiss you here? How about here? Here?
Keep asking, Buseje laughed. Her fingers explored the gentle contours of his chest. She breathed the strange sweetness of his corn silk hair. He was an afterimage of the sun, a specter in the dimly lit room. As the last candle nub dissolved into the neck of an empty bottle, their shadows, indistinguishable and dancing, merged into black. Jar flies blended with bedlam from the tavern down the hill, an argument in Yao percussive thunder in thick air.
I should have picked up more, she said. They felt for each other in the dark. He ran his hands over her sturdy hips. He had been there a week, but he was still no closer to feeling like he was on solid ground. This place, forty-two hours from Milwaukee, a city in which he wore shoes with laces and taught English to very rich university students and ended the day with the words of T.C. Boyle and a glass of unpronounceable scotch. This place, where the electricity cuts every night at ten and roosters walk right into the house and mamas fanning flies from piles of dried fish along a red dirt road eye him with a mix of suspicion and mirth.
This place, where he decided he was going to live, now that his life in Milwaukee was over and the Michael he knew himself to be was gone.
Teach me Chichewa, he said.
You need to learn Yao, she said, Chichewa’s no use here. It’s just what I speak, what I learned growing up on the island.
Teach it to me anyway.
You calling me one?
Never mind. Teach me another.
Papita thawi tisanaonane. Long time, no see.
Ndimakukonda. I love you.
The words echoed through the dark, landed on the crack in Michael’s heart he had mended hastily with spit and paper on the cab ride to the airport. The dressing sagged under the weight. He scrambled to assemble it again. It held, by a shred.
Let’s go out on the lake tomorrow, he said.
The lake was as big as an ocean and clear as one too, brimming with fish the color of peacocks. Buseje stayed in the boat while Michael dove in. You can teach me to swim when we go to America, she said. You can teach me to swim in one of those indoor pools like they have in the Olympics, the ones where you have to say please and thank you and pass people in straight lines.
He learned about the fish that live in the lake, tiny jewel-colored mbuna and fierce chambo that inhabit the weedy shallows. For dinner, he and Buseje roasted kampango, a meaty catfish that left them both replete and content. At night they sat by the shore and watched fishermen set off with their nets and spotlights, their beams like spaceships luring hordes of silver-bullet prey.
Michael almost forgot what it was like to eat things other than fish and maize until he was rooting through his backpack and found the pear.
The pear that had traveled from:
Chipoka to Mangochi in the bed of a stranger’s pickup truck;
from Lilongwe to Chipoka in the cab of an expat who knew Michael’s old Peace Corps friend;
through customs in Lilongwe, forgotten and undeclared;
on a 757 from Addis Ababa, an airbus from Washington-Dulles, a commuter flight from Chicago, a train from Milwaukee, and a cab from Avenues West, where it sat in a fruit bowl on his and Allison’s kitchen counter next to the divorce papers and Alex’s lunch box, which contained a juice box and a bag of Goldfish for his first day of school.
The dressing on Michael’s heart fell off. He tossed the pear in Buseje’s backyard.
The next morning he packed his things while Buseje slept and was sitting on the porch when she awoke. I have to go for a little while, he told her. I promise I’ll come back. It’s just… there’s a lot to see and I need to clear my head, and I promise I’ll come back, I just need…
Buseje went back in the house and closed the door.
Ask me, she spat, her chest a quiver of poison-tipped arrows. Ask me what it feels like to wake up to that same lake every day for twenty-two years. Ask me what I’m proud of, what I dreamed about when I was a child, what I would have given to finish school and see something besides the four walls of a mud brick house. Ask me about the time my own heart broke in two and whether or not it ever came together again. Ask me as a flesh-and-blood woman, not as a story you tell your friends about your adventure in Africa, a dream of the exotic evaporated into haze.
The ones with silver in their hair and agitation in their hearts, they never come back.
One day, a seedling broke through. Buseje nurtured it with great care, spoke to it, fed it water from the lake. Five years later it became a tree, and by the time it bore fruit, Buseje’s son Bomani was big enough to climb its branches, stretching his tiny arms up to grab the golden fruit. Word spread quickly through Mangochi about the pear tree, and soon it spawned fables of its magical healing powers. Women traveled day and night to buy fruit that was rumored to bring strength and return lost love. By the time Bomani was thirteen, there was a fledgling orchard in his mother’s backyard. He went to school. He learned to read. He was unusually adept at languages. With the money Buseje stashed away selling pears, there was enough for a university admissions application, enough for the stamps to send it overseas, and enough for the phone that received an email informing Bomani that he was awarded Marquette’s full global scholarship to study English in America.
Ndimakukonda, he told her as he packed his suitcase. Ndimakukonda, baby, she said.
As an afterthought, Buseje threw a baobab fruit in his bag, just in case he was hungry when he arrived.