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Beggars.

Ardis slips from the white Peugeot and past the beggars squatted in front of the greengrocer's. Five or six of them are always there, wrapped within rough brown cloth, eternal victims of flies. From cardboard islands floating in the dust, they reach out insistent hands, they whimper and moan to me. Though we speak a separate language, and they have moved beyond words anyway, I understand what the beggars want: we need the same thing. Their limbs melt in Tanzanian sun, shrink before my sight: shortened fingers, toeless feet, bare rounded bones like handles of old walking sticks smoothed by constant touch. They could be male or female, young or old. Leprosy, Ardis has told me, on one of her good days. Inside the store, my mother's firm, clear voice requests oranges and mangos, rejects imperfect produce. The main street of Morogoro bakes in the middle of afternoon; it is empty except for the beggars and me. Once a month police with clubs herd them out of town; through the night they shuffle or limp or crawl back to their place before the store to wait for me again: they will always return, I know. Lily and MJ say that if a beggar touches you lightly, even once, you will catch what it has, and no medicine will ever cure you. The features of your face will crumble into dust, blow away across sisal fields, scatter upon the four corners of the globe--until even your own mother and father would not recognize you. Then you too will squat in the dirt, moan eagerly when anyone comes along to spit on you, accept anything as alms. Don't touch, says Ardis, if I reach towards the red ring upon the stove, the crimson ring around her mouth. I kneel beside the beggars; they fumble at my empty pockets, then stroke my ordinary limbs. My eyes close. I feel the imprint of a unique touch, shiver beneath hands shaped like no others in the world. A lipless mouth kisses the centre of my forehead. I am blessed; all outcasts are holy, says the Koran. Ardis emerges from the store, her string bag filled with brilliant tomatoes, perfect papaya. We stretch our eroded hands to her, we whimper and moan. All we want is a single coin, small and round and flawless, to hide within our rags. We have learned not to ask for much; give us only a token of pity, please. Now I am missing one ear, a nose. This is only the beginning: one day my soul's straitjacket may disintegrate with divine disease, my heart lose its cage of bone. Ardis glances indifferently down, her cool summer dress flutters just beyond my reach, the white Peugeot pulls away. Then the street is very silent, very empty.

They let her out of the clinic too soon or she returns to us too late. In 1969, four years after she unwillingly enters the cold white rooms in Canada, Ardis flies with one light suitcase to where we have ceased waiting for her on the Ngondo hills of Morogoro. Mitch explains to Lily, MJ, and me that our mother will seem different after having been apart from us so long. He does not prepare us for muscles twisting like taut ropes beneath dead white skin, for eyes looking a little beyond whatever falls before them, for a head constantly turning to see if someone stands behind. "Did you get the presents?" she asks, at the arrivals gate, in a voice roughened and deepened by all the medication. Sometimes in Occupational Therapy Ardis fashioned gifts for us: on her eighth birthday, Lily received a clay ashtray painted with anguished faces of flowers; for my sixth Christmas, I was sent a papier-mache paperweight supported by more wiry legs than any spider has. In the airport, Ardis looks at us evenly, taking in who we are and what we might ask of her. Then she looks away, and she will not see us again, except as another feature of the landscape, like the bent baobab at the end of Mitch's garden. During the drive home from Dar es Salaam, Lily and MJ and I hang over the front seat and watch our mother silently bite her lip. Perhaps she is struggling to find appropriate words, suitable sentences. "Judy Garland died," she finally remarks, flatly. "She died to save us all." Mitch's hands tighten on the steering wheel; Ardis looks beyond what lies ahead of us. Apparently this continent that she has never seen is familiar to her nonetheless. Schizophrenia has shown my mother everything already; nothing can surprise her now.

I believe that the beggars before the greengrocer's suffer so I will not. Their sickness is my health; their need, my wealth: we are that closely connected. Later, I come to think that the beggars are blessed with wisdom which increases in direct proportion to the gravity of their disease and want. Their compensating powers transform them into another kind of wizard or witch who with waves of wands can alter flowers into foetuses, change sticks into snakes. Now, as in the year before they took her away, Ardis cannot touch me or her other children: despite the doctors, her hands are still poisoned. They would leave a pale patch upon my skin, the first sign of sickness that spreads and erodes and eats at bone, tissue, cartilage. When I fall and scrape a knee, my mother's mouth twists and her hands clench tightly in her lap. I stare at the entwined fingers, squint at their stains of nicotine. I would like to tell Ardis that I am already contaminated from need: it is too late to worry about infection by her power to transfigure terrain into symbols which speak its truth. The baobab beyond the wall, the armies of ants which file relentlessly through the garden, the mica glinting upon the road: what do these things mean beyond themselves? Ardis has learned to hoard knowledge which they call madness. This is all that is left to her; she will not speak. Perhaps her visions are the product of a biochemical disturbance of the brain, the doctors dubiously propose, tendency towards which may or may not be hereditary. I do not know then that I will spend my life fearing Ardis's secrets, which I am convinced are the same enigmas guarded by all the indigent and infirm, and in denying that they are only distortion. I am persistent as any unwanted thing: if you drive me out of town with your blunt, heavy clubs, I will always crawl or limp or shuffle back.

Upon her arrival to Africa, Ardis steps as carefully as every paroled prisoner who dreads being returned behind bars. After her most casual comment, she glances toward Mitch to read his reaction: he has become the doctor with the drugs, the warden with the keys. This is only a conditional release, my mother knows. In the afternoon, her limbs flail the Morogoro Country Club pool, churn enough laps of murky water to equal the width of any ocean, pull her finally out to pant in a puddle on burning cement, short blond hair darkened with wet, dreaming. Lily and MJ and I are supposed to play healthy childish games in the distance. Instead, concealed by fences and shrubs of camouflage, we stalk Ardis like spies, watch her stride back and forth across the roughly stubbled golf course; swinging her club at the ball, sending it out of sight, she plays one round after another until, with burned skin, she drives us home at sunset. There she sits on the verandah and stares down into the valley. Her cigarette's smoke winds through the air like the steam from the train snaking through sisal fields below. Mitch stands amid his gardens, shades eyes with one hand, watches Ardis sink into her private shadows. This is more than he bargained for; perhaps my father is already planning his famous disappearance into the desert, twenty years in the future, far from the acrid taste of medicated kisses. Inside, the houseboy fixes food, makes sure our clothes are changed, our faces washed. I separate myself from Lily and MJ, who dance rings around the lemon tree and in weak voices sing the song about the circle game. Stealing up on Ardis from behind, I lean toward her neck. Mother, I whisper into a shelled ear. Her back stiffens; the cigarette falls from her fingers. She rises to walk swiftly to her room, where behind a closed door she whimpers and moans, pleading for Mitch to pity her with a pill.

For several months, the heavens remain clear and calm. Ardis makes careful lists in handwriting that does not waver, composes intricate menus with many courses for the houseboy, at the market requests perfect produce in firm tones. Then clouds return, and she dozes on pills in the afternoon, wanders from her room to ask what time it is. Her face is puffy, the short blond hair uncombed, a trail of fallen ash betrays her route of aimless roaming around the cement-block house. Halfway through the rainy season, she no longer makes an effort to keep up appearances, doesn't hastily comb her hair and put on lipstick upon hearing Mitch whistle home from work. She stops offering casual comments that might meet with anyone's approval. With one finger she pokes at the wire-mesh screens that keep out snakes, makes minute openings that Mitch will not notice. Escape is always on her mind.

Before sleep I chant my prayers to Judy Garland and Jesus; then lipless mouths open to impart essential information into my dreaming ear. The world beneath the Ngondo Hills requires interpretation; five senses cannot be enough. From sleep's abraded ovals, however, emerges only moaning. I waken to realize that this is the painful sound Ardis and Mitch make together in the dark.

Later, she begins to vanish. When Lily and MJ are at school, and Mitch away at work, Ardis puts on crimson lipstick, ties a scarf around her head, drives off in the white Peugeot. The grey house beats with silence. The houseboy will only answer yes or no; he pushes me away firmly when I try to touch his smooth black skin. The dirt road to the village beyond the college is wide and shaded by ancient trees. Smoke scents heavy air around a confusion of huts; tin roofs glare at the blinding sun; drying clothes drape like bright flowers in the shrubs. Children as small as myself flee when I approach. Garbled and incomprehensible as the language of beggars, Ardis's voice emerges from a hut before which the white Peugeot waits. When I knock on the door, my mother falls silent; birds still whistle about over the rainbow and way up high. The door won't open, there are no windows, thick darkness must reign inside. Ardis must be feeling the ruling blackness with her hands; it will dissolve her form, render her invisible for another four years. I crouch in the dirt before the hut, while shadows stretch into exaggerated shapes and the hills above turn deeper jungle green. Now Lily and MJ will be home from school, colouring pictures and playing crazy eights in our room. Then Mitch will also return, change out of good teaching clothes, work in his gardens that bloom with the speed and brilliance of hallucination. Supper will be silent except for the screams of crickets outside in the dark. Later we will lie in bed and listen for the white Peugeot to crunch the gravel drive. The car door slams, the kitchen door opens. Mitch begins to beg in their room at the other end of the house. Lily and MJ hold breath in beds near mine. Years later, I will study their photographed features, inspect faces thinned and hardened by the effort required not to ask for anything.

Once Ardis takes me with her. When the white Peugeot has passed the edge of town, she stops to kick off her sandals and to open all the windows. Then we are flying faster and faster along the narrow road that winds all the way to Dar es Salaam. My mother's bare foot presses hard against the pedal; wind whips her scarf and tears my eyes. I blink to see soldiers chew sugar cane beside the road, spit pulp at our swift passing. Ardis gazes fixedly ahead; she doesn't glance or talk to me. When her foot pushes right to the floor, the engine begins to whine and the metal body shudders. Sometimes, hitting a rough place, the car seems to lift into the air for a moment as mad and timeless as a skipped heartbeat. We rise and fall across the hills until the sky blooms red and clouds seep blood and the Indian Ocean stretches beyond a foamed shore before us. I ask Ardis what lies on the other side of the water. She bites her lip; a fleck of crimson sticks to a tooth. Now the palms are disappearing and dhows drown in darkness. We sit in the car and watch waves turn silver as the moon, the stars. There is a great gulf between us, as much salty space as separates this shore from Zanzibar. I can't see what waits across the water and I can't see her face when at last my mother speaks. "Don't ask me for anything again," implores Ardis in the dark, before she vanishes back into the clinic at the other side of the world. "Please," she begs, before she turns the key and takes us slowly home.
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Author:Roscoe, Patrick
Publication:West Branch
Article Type:Short story
Date:Mar 22, 2015
Words:2376
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