Mildred K Barya
I’m restless, fixing myself a second cup of coffee, feeling no desire to pick up a brush and paint. So I read The Daily Monitor from the first page to the last. Normally, I skip the Sports page because I’m never interested. Now, The Cranes—our soccer team—has beaten South Africa’s 3-1. The Heathens, our rugby team, after triumphs over Kenya, has scored 51 points versus South Africa’s 44, in the International World Rugby Cup, and will proceed to play against New Zealand, and then Italy. I realize the young coach, Mutamba Davis, was in my political science study group at Makerere University. His eyes always smiling, I didn’t think of him as particularly competitive. Now I see from his photo the poise of challenge, the muscular body slightly leaning in, hands gripping the ball, left foot forward, ready to run.
But it’s the Arts page that absorbs me; pictures from Gallery Kitgum, and the woman who owns it. A tremor runs through me as I take in the most scarred face I’ve ever seen. I hold the newspaper close to my eyes and run my finger across the image to be sure it’s not the print creases. Once in a while you find a page that has malfunctioned during the printing process. One irregular child that still must keep company with the others. But no such glitch, she’s an acid victim probably, or war casualty. Patches of pink, grey, and black all over her face, cheeks pulled towards the neck. Even the flesh on her hands, bust, legs, and feet seems to have been scissored and sewed roughly together, textured gravel. There’s no telling her age, without eyebrows and eyelashes, but I’d say 50 or above. The story reveals that she’s in her late-twenties. We’re in the same age group.
I’m sweaty and furious because throughout the article, the woman is referred to as the Artist. Without a name. We are many artists; we could do with a name. Her provoking sculptures remind me of Murambi Memorial Centre in Kigali. An obsession grips me. I want to meet her.
You have to take this trip, a voice inside me compels.
The only time I ever went to Northern Uganda was to bury my best friend, Akwap. We were tight like peas and carrots during our studies at the University, and remained so after we completed and left the campus. She introduced me to her friends: Aisu, Arot, and Akitoi, who also became my friends. My first task was how to tell them apart.
“Do all your names have to begin with A, Tweedledum and Tweedledee except there’s three of you.”
“Don’t insult us,” Arot said, and smiled broadly, revealing a gap in her front upper teeth. Milk-white, her gum raven, I envied her. What else to say to keep her smiling?
“What does Mugera mean?” Aisu asked me, her voice like a dove song.
I was the only one from the western region. Akitoi said hers meant a tree, so I called her Akitree, and she let go a ripple of laughter, deep and distinct.
I looked at Arot inquiringly. She was the tallest among us. Where you have a tree there is a giraffe, I was thinking.
“A road,” she said.
“The one taken or less travelled?”
“You’re incredible, really,” Arot said, shaking her head.
Me, admiring her long neck. Really liking her.
Two distinct lines like they were curved across her neck by a pencil, another mark of beauty among my people. Some young women I knew tried starving themselves and stretching their necks in exercise, hoping to get at least one line. I saw clearly how Arot stood out. Her face was ordinary but the fact that she had rare things; lines on her long neck, a natural gap in her white teeth, black gums, in addition to tallness; slender up, full-figured downwards—what we called figure six—she was beyond extraordinary. Who knew what else lay fathomless beneath her supple skin?
I already knew Akwap’s name stood for “earth.”
“Don’t you feel like Atlas carrying the whole earth?” I teased. “At least a river flows on its own.”
That’s how we joked about our people’s fascination with symbols, our desire to break free, yet somehow, we also found moments of pride.
Aisu said she was “the wilderness,” and we all burst out laughing. My gospel-filled mind imagined John the Baptist running in a tattered cloak, hair unkempt, scraping bits of honey and syrup off trees, catching locusts for food, because that’s all he could find in his wilderness.
“Wait till you hear what names the South Africans came up with at the end of Apartheid,” Aisu said, and we agreed we were outdone. “Wall, Wardrobe, China, House, No-violet, No-purple, No-blue and so on.”
I started calling us the five green bottles hanging on the wall. Now four are dead. Never would I open my mouth to sing that depressing nursery song. I was terrified I’d started a joke that took on a frightening reality. A nightmare to see one green bottle hanging on the wall and think, will I fall too?
We’d made plans in 2003 to open a studio together when we returned from Christmas holidays; the only time most of us left work and the city to visit our families and birthplace. I never missed celebrating Christmas in the village with my parents and siblings. While I headed west, the girls went north. The last time I saw them was when I accompanied them to their bus park. They boarded Gulu Coach, and I left with Akitoi’s laugh in my ears, luxuriant joy when she recognized an old friend on the bus.
Wiggling my way out of the park, I turned casually and looked at the bus, the number plate catching my attention. Ever since I was young, I’ve always been drawn to number plates. When I was four, dad’s friend visited once in a white van. He passed away when I was twelve, and I remember instantly asking my dad: the one with UVT 131 van? He was stoned, struck by what I could remember. I notice and store number plates even when I don’t consciously aim to do so. I know most of my friends’ by heart, and I’ve started to put some in my paintings with just a little manipulation here and there.
Back home, I was feeling at ease, having packed my bag and ready to leave for my village the next day. Late in the evening, I sat down to eat dinner and switched on the T.V news. I placed my feet on the coffee table, plate on my lap, and the image of a bus took centre stage as the reporter’s icon moved to a corner. “Kony rebels attack,” the reporter was saying, people spilling out of the bus, being engulfed in gunfire, the license plate unmistakable before my eyes. Then everything ablaze: people, bags, and vehicle. No, no. This is not happening. This is not the bus my friends boarded. This can’t be real, I told myself, and violently pushed away the plate. I couldn’t scream even when I opened my mouth to do so. I couldn’t move either. I wanted to reach for my phone and call someone, anyone and ask, did you watch the news? Confirm if they saw what I saw, but I stayed where I was, as if glued. In the news repeat it was the bus, same license plate. I felt like I was in the smoke, choking, so I licked the tears streaming down my face and swallowed hard, hoping that once they reached my throat, air could come in.
Three years, the bus park hasn’t changed. I weave my way through the crowds, the bus conductors calling for people, asking if I have luggage, ticket book in hand; ready to receive my fare and issue me a ticket. I take a good look at the Kitgum bus I’m to board. Nile Coach, in blue capital letters across the white background, a red, orange and black pattern of a river stretching from the body into the tires. No premonition. I glance at the Cheetah buses and wonder, between the fastest animal and the river, how do I wish to travel? I go for the river. I have my large thermos flask full of cinnamon-flavoured coffee. I cross myself as I get in, although for a few months now traveling to Northern Uganda has been relatively safe. It’s Southern Sudan and Eastern Congo where wars are raging. Joseph Kony’s children soldiers are blazing the Congo and Central African Republic, while some other rebel with a name like “weed” is wreaking havoc in Southern Sudan. Do these rebels even know what they’re fighting for?
I settle in the aisle seat and place my small bag in the little space between my feet. The passenger on my right falls asleep after we exchange greetings, and I’m thankful to not be the one near a window, in case I see something I’m not prepared for. How can we ever prepare for ambushes anyway? I think we beguile ourselves to even imagine that in war or post-war circumstances we can see trouble coming and know what to do. Throughout the journey I read newspapers and fill out crossword puzzles. The moment we arrive in Kitgum I set out for the gallery.
The entrance to the gallery is narrow and arched. It resembles an ancient church door with shady creepers hanging over it. I stoop to walk through the small passageway and I’m met with darkness. There’s no electricity? I cannot see my hands touching the wall but I feel the wall. I start to imagine giant caterpillars crawling out of the dark to meet me. I’m claustrophobic, even in open spaces. In this dark tunnel, my nerves are fried. Have I been tricked? Eleven hours on the bus and I’ve consumed nothing but a finger of plantain and too much coffee. I don’t want to turn back but what if—? Should I get ready to scream? Cries are a natural response in darkness. Even Jesus cried out when darkness came. I tread on lightly, trying to make as little contact with the ground as possible.
The end of the passage admits light. It leads to a large room that’s painted yellow, a luminous yellow like sunflowers. I remain tense. I take a deep breath.
“You’ve got to work on that entrance,” I say, before I see anyone. The sound of my voice in this mysterious room surprises me. It feels contained, as if I’m speaking from a large box, as if no one might hear me beyond the walls. I look around and see big, varnished shelves that give off a rich coffee hue. I swipe one nearest me with my index finger. Not a speck of dust. Newly polished. Coffee-smell. It could be my breath, or does the polish give off the aroma of Uganda Robusta coffee?
Suddenly I feel someone standing right behind me. Say something positive, a voice inside my head. You know how dust easily settles on things. Compliment the shining.
“This is spick and span,” I’m touching the shelves again. Forcing a smile.
Her voice is commanding but gentle.
She removes a white cloth from a drawer and starts cleaning. OCD candidate, I suppose. She also applies polish. Whiff of coffee, ah.
Now that she’s focused on cleaning what can be cleaned, what has been cleaned again and again, I can look at her face, and try to appear as if I’m not scanning her. I don’t want to be caught. The face in the newspaper didn’t lie: scarred beyond recognition. Whoever did this to her deserves to rot in hell. But if it was an accident, say she was driving and lost control of the vehicle, then it’s a miracle she survived at all.
“We paint the walls every six months,” she says, wiping the walls.
At the mention of “we” I look around but there’s no one. Not even another visitor.
“Inside is fine but that entrance,” I say, with my nose in the air.
“Yet you came in.”
“Why that way?”
“Humility is a forgotten virtue.”
Not another theology, please.
Stepping further in, I realize some of the shelves contain systematic arrangements of severed parts, heads to toes, the human body inglorious. Hands reaching nowhere. Elbows. Lips. Legs. Knees. Breasts. What looks like penises… and then, small skulls—probably children—medium skulls, large skulls. What if she’s a witch instead of an artist?
I stretch my hands to touch. To my amazement I’m not afraid. I stare into the skulls intently looking back at me.
“I warned you not to touch.”
This time her voice is electric. Knife-edge.
She tries to smile. All I see is the large star-like scar on her upper lip. I take my eyes off her and lay them on the skulls. There’s a warm sensation in my left hand that’s making me ache to touch, as I move from one collection to another. I fight to restrain myself. I close my eyes and pray this temptation will pass. How did she infuse this kind of yearning into her work? Her creations are not that special, not extraordinary, I’m thinking; body parts, bones, yet I’m pulled in.
I feel her following me but I do not hear any footsteps. Not even mine. We’ve become ghostly. The carvings have bewitched us. In my daze faces appear. Five green bottles crowding my head. It’s the coffee it’s the remembering it’s this strange place it’s the hunger it’s this woman trailing me… Boom. I fall into a cabinet filled with more wood skulls.
“I’m really sorry.”
“I know who you are,” the artist says with something that looks like a teasing glare.
“That’s terrible,” I say, because I don’t want to be known by her, but she laughs.
I know that laugh. Only one person—
“You’ve forgotten me, Mugera.”
She’s regarding me intensely and continues, “I’m meant to be a river, but sometimes I feel like a reservoir.”
I used to say that.
Glancing around perhaps to make sure we won’t be interrupted, she then opens her blouse.
“Here,” she touches the mole near her left ribcage. “Liberate yourself.”
I hug her.
She grips me so fiercely she’s bound to leave marks.
“I didn’t die.”
We laugh and cry.
Whatever had me edgy releases me. I cup her face in the palms of my hands like I used to. At first she says no, and pulls back. But in remembrance perhaps, she steps forward and allows my hands to feel her face. We counted acne and traced the mole, felt our skin’s texture and believed we would always know one another even with our eyes closed. I could tell Akitoi from Akwap, Aisu, and Arot, with the touch of my hand.
“What about the others?”
She puts her hand across my back as she walks me to a section marked, “Special.”
“If you look at that round, peaceful mask on the second shelf, you’ll see it’s meant to be Akwap. And that one over there with a self-assured look, it’s our proud Aisu. Check her wide nose, like an avocado. And do you see Arot with her long neck and dangling earrings?”
I close my eyes and see them. When I look at the masks, it’s as if the girls’ spirits have been moulded into them.
“Please let me touch them.”
Although I’m shaking, Akitoi trusts me and puts them in my hands. I embrace them. I sit down holding them closely, thinking, here’s what remains when the flesh is taken, when the heart is gone. What restores. I understand why most of the sculptures are ebony black. Akitoi recreates her dark-skinned people who have been murdered like mosquitoes.
Akitoi says when the Lord’s Resistance Army rebels waylaid the bus, the men who grabbed her dragged her to the bush, raped and cut her many times she lost count.
“Shooting Arot, Aisu, Akwap and others wasn’t enough. Those skunks chopped them up, and set everything on fire. I do not know how I survived. Death did not want me.”
The picture comes: the bus on fire. Afterwards, singed pieces sent to families for burial. There’s a he, she, so and so… Dismembered. It occurs to me the dead may never find peace if they’ve been given the wrong funerals. If their parts have been mixed and assembled wrongly. In an effort to accept closure, families of the ‘deceased’ arranged burial ceremonies. Akitoi documents the slain, renames them.
“For a long time now I’ve been thinking about the word malevolence,” she says. “How come there’s no such a thing as femalevolence?”
That’s a stretch, I want to suggest, but she speaks from memory and personal pain inflicted by males.
“No woman unleashes evil like man. In the origin of language there are no evil females. We will never have a female equivalent of Kony, Hitler, and the rest of them.”
“Alice Lakwena,” I say. In 1986 she proclaimed herself a Holy Spirit warlady and mobilized young men to fight the government and other perceived enemies. She commanded her army to drink and smear themselves with shea oil, that it would repel the enemy’s bullets and turn them into feathers. Thousands died. When she was finally defeated and fled to Kenya, Joseph Kony took what was left of her army, regrouped, and established his own inferno—the Lord’s Resistance Army. In his charge hundreds of thousands dead, millions displaced.
Akitoi shakes her head. “She was delusional and quite insane but not malevolent,” she says. “Rape and murder were not her way, and she didn’t kidnap children or tell her soldiers to cut up bodies of the victims, cook and eat them as a booster for bravery.”
This is an argument I do not wish to sustain or win, so I listen. She talks until the sun sets, hiding its nakedness in the darkness of night. She talks until the owls come out to sing dirges. She talks until there’s nothing but blackness around us, and my head is full of fragmented images. How to comfort her? Say I understand? Where are the right words when you need them? When we finally say goodnight, I approach the bed she’s made for me like a still river, deep with silence.
In my quiet before I fall asleep I wonder why she did not reach me. Why she kept from me the fact that she was alive. Hadn’t we meshed and melted into the five?
“Five green bottles. Five green—”
“Wake up, Mugera. You’re talking in your sleep.”
She had a boyfriend. What became of—?
“Is your boyfriend—”
“You didn’t kill him.”
It’s not yet dawn but I’m afraid to go back to sleep. I sit up in bed and listen to Akitoi’s breathing. When one is young it is easy to carry hope like a perfumed handkerchief in the pocket. It is easy to be ignorantly happy and fall in the web of stupid yarns. Worry not when in trouble. Spinner of yarns casts dreams, in which a good warrior—a seasoned saver, a skilful hunter—comes to your rescue. He carries you safely to his hut decorated with animal paintings and hand-woven crafts. Leopard skin to walk on, nothing ever to harm you. Falling. They call it love. Common tale, the ending the same: Happily ever after. Stupid. Stupid. Where was the good warrior when my four needed him?
Akitoi leaves her bed and lights a lamp. “You’re awake, I can tell,” she says. “This is the forth night in a row without electricity. “You wonder why we pay the bill.”
“Aren’t you afraid all by yourself?”
“I’m not alone,” she says. “Besides, what’s the worst that can befall me that hasn’t?”
I carry the lamp and follow her to the other room. I watch her polish the girls. She cleans Arot’s eyes, until they sparkle with the passion she always had. It was Arot who said a writer’s journey starts from nothingness, and the painter’s job was to give that nothingness shape. She spoke like that, and for a long time her words walked in my head. I believed them.
Next to be cleaned is Akwap. A mango in my chest, I find it impossible to look while she’s being wiped.
As for Aisu, Akitoi has given her the most sensual and wondrous lips. No wonder, Aisu once held us in her song after one of her brothers died. We had agreed we would comfort her. So we said, why not meet at her favourite coffee place, 1000 Cups? We ordered white coffee. Moral support was on our minds.
As soon as we were seated Aisu started to sing, “Abide with Me.” Our Enya, she imbued the hymn with the mournful emotion of a spiritual. We avoided looking at the waiter hovering around us, and even wished we could leave silently. We’d be a long way gone by the time she finished her song and opened her eyes. But we couldn’t leave, of course. Embarrassed as we were, we seemed stuck to our chairs. By the fourth stanza she transposed down an octave.
I fear no foe, with Thee at hand to bless;
Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness.
Where is death’s sting? Where, grave, thy victory?
I triumph still, if Thou abide with me…
To our surprise the waiter brought us a bigger pot of coffee and cookies. On the house, he said, and looked admiringly at Aisu. We waited for her to break. But that was all. Alone perhaps, she did break. In our presence she carried on with fortitude so we gave in to her ability to encourage herself.
“Akitoi,” I say, wishing to see myself through her eyes. “If you were to carve me—”
“You’re not dead yet.”
“Do you understand a hypothetical question?”
“I know what you’d be,” I say, turning to her.
“Sturdy, like a 300-year-old baobab.”
She looks at me angrily, and I realize the mistake I’ve made. Of all the trees, the baobab has the roughest bark with hard rings forming everywhere. That’s not what I meant.
“We don’t have to talk,” she says. “Let’s be quiet.”
At first I can’t silence my brain. I blame myself for offending her but also think that being alone here, looking the way she does, and me showing up, we’ve forgotten how to make conversation.
My hands begin to twitch, and I wish I had a brush. I hadn’t packed any of my tools, thinking I was making a one-day visit. Now there’s energy in my hands, I want to work. I get a pencil and make sketches till daybreak. Then, I run into town and buy materials. There’s a sense of urgency as I paint. Release, no doubt, but also the feeling that the ink will eventually run dry. Best to seize the gift as long as it lasts. So I stay. I borrow Akitoi’s clothes and share food. We work quietly, take short walks and go to town when we need to make purchases. But mostly we work. We have few visitors, and I have my own workspace.
I do not paint anything but bones. Some look brittle and fragile, easy to break. Others are robust and heavily built. Imposing like concrete towers. Defiant. Unlike Akitoi, I use different food-colours for hues, although I mainly paint black bones. I use henna designs on women’s hands and feet, intricate geometric patterns: tattooed bones.
I give my bones names. Male names like Olemo, which means warrior, Otiang, which means animal. Female names like Aneno, which means I have seen, and Akiru, which means rain.
At night when I retire from painting I lie awake. My eyes feel heavy, but there’s a sweet lightness in my head like I used to get when I drank fermented banana juice. I feel as if I’ve been living too long. I hug the beautiful bones close to my body and I’m comforted. I read Fred D’Aguiar. But he annoys me very much. In The Longest Memory, a dreadful phrase leaps out at me, and attempts to strangle me. “The future is just more of the past waiting to happen.” Go away. The book drops. I do not want to imagine the past or present continuing to happen. Yes, but— he has a point. What point? Back and forth until clarity seeps into my brain: What strangles is fear, it touches my hands and I get up: begin to paint bodies and faces, not just bones. The future must have space among the breathing, among flesh and blood. Akitoi is awake too in her workroom. I hear her carving. I feel so good. Swelling. I’m rising, rising, flowing and flooding the canvas.
When I’m done I show Akitoi my paintings, wondering how she might react. She looks at them carefully, one to another.
Children with lips parted in horrifying screams. Flies feasting on drooping tongues, chests bloated.
Parents crying. Their tears and agony stem from a place buried deep where children can never return. These parents…if they could, they’d pay with all they’ve got for a little ignorance. They know too much and it cannot save them.
Crowds killed and hurriedly bundled. Buried in mass graves. One cannot tell how many they are. It would be a bad sign for the government. International watchdogs can only say, many. Toll unknown.
Forms that death has rejected. I prevent them from facing the light directly. I’m subtle and sparing with my brush. I use my fingers to soften and blur the edges. Limbs eaten by landmines, festering sores, gashes, pus… It’s all there.
The moon bleeding. Imagine a ruptured ovary.
Emaciated figures stealing food from relief trucks, sharing and passing the food through bullet-holed walls. Figures that have refused to die but are growing daily into skeletons.
Figures dying of exhaustion. They’ll never reach a granary or a storehouse. Figures that have forgotten they were used to plenty before the war. I sponge them. I use acrylics for little girls whose bodies look like they’ve been borrowed from older women. I give them names like Dikeledi, which means tears, Enitan, which means person of story, and Lindiwe, meaning I have waited. I give them hands that beckon: Here, take me. Don’t you recognize me?
A deranged sun, shrieking, emitting rays like poison arrows.
Reporters reading war news like robots. Faces detached from life. Expressionless.
Burning houses. Smoke. Peace talks. Empty promises. Inspired by the president of the Republic on the TV, saying, “This war is just a jigger in the foot. We shall end it soon.” Soon is 21 years and there’s no end to war but fading.
Misty faces that have been missing since the war started. Faces that aren’t clearly dead or alive but might show up one day. Faces that may never return. Faces we might read about in the papers someday. Faces whose ghosts might turn up and shake things a bit, begrudged they weren’t given a decent burial. The right burial.
Old and young folks singing in camps even when their voices are long gone out of tune, even when their strength is dried up like mangoes in the scorching sun. Among them are women who worship, women so devout that, even though time and time again their prayers have not been answered, continue to pray. Men have plans. Sounding the trombone, banjo and thumb piano, they make music and dance. Children are laughing, saying look, life is expensive but laughter remains tax-free.
Akitoi says, “What would you do without me?”
Relieved, I hug her.
“You know what,” I say, “if I don’t leave soon I’ll not be able to carry all these paintings with me.”
“The rate at which you’re creating one would think you’re going to die.”
“Please don’t say.” I’m still not comfortable joking about death. “I’d love for you to visit,” I say.
“I’m thinking we could have a joint exhibition in town. I don’t want to leave this place, but you’re more than welcome whenever you like.”
“You should come see my studio.”
“I’m not ever getting on a bus, car, plane, anything,” she says resolutely.
“That’s so like a tree.”
“And be sure to call.”
It sounds like a dismissal but it’s an encouragement.
We hold our joint exhibition in two connected sections within the same hall. Some visitors look at my paintings and turn away. Some deposit their tears. There are also those that stay longer.
“Why do you paint bones?” they ask, after circling the paintings more than once.
“Bones remain when life is gone.”
They buy my paintings. Bones are feeding my family.
A man I used to know walks into the hall arm-in-arm with an attractive young woman. While he’s examining the paintings, I notice pure disgust on his face. Good!
“She’s lost it,” I hear him tell his attractive friend. “Disturbed artist.”
I take it as a compliment. I’m in reality, brother. Does this look like fantasy to you?
Folks who owned something once and lost it keep coming. An old lady holds the darkest painting and says, “This is how my children died. Eight of them.”
How can I not say I’m humbled?
“Would you like to keep that one?” I ask.
“I cannot afford it.”
The woman smiles. “We’re not even allowed to know our dead,” she whispers in my ear and squeezes my hand.
A young man with a porcupine head I’d recognize anywhere appears. Mutamba Davis. Famous rugby coach. Back in the days we’d say a head like his was either full of intelligence or chicken poop. He stares at #10 and asks, “Is that how it is?”
Surely he remembers me! But before I can utter a thing, a well-dressed woman in a striking olive green and yellow dotted kitenge says, yes, and adds, “Let’s not trade in delusions. We don’t want to be kept in the dark. We really want to know what’s happening. We can handle it. But we can’t trust the politicians.”
A gentle tap on my shoulder and I turn to see Akitoi smiling. “What do you think of him?” She’s looking at the porcupine head longingly.
“You don’t say.”
“Yes,” again the smile. “He’s bought nine skulls.”
“Hmm. Good luck, my sister.”
I want to warn her to be aware of false hope but she probably knows that already.
“He was telling me he knows a good doctor. Says something can be done, plastic surgery and whatnot. But I’d have to move.”
My heart is afraid to rejoice. Of course she has feelings. Expectations. She’s young. Certainly, she has dreams. She was once attractive and can be attractive again but how precarious! Her laughter fills up the hall and the porcupine head stays by her side until closing time. He absolutely has no eyes for me and I see no point in trying to jog his memory.
On the eve of my return to Kampala, I put some money in a jar with a note: Surgery fund. Akitoi will find it when it’s too late to resist accepting it.
She accompanies me to the bus station walking dreamily, knocking stones in her path.
“You’re in love.”
“Who knew,” she hoots.
“I want to know about the surgery. I’ll be with you soon as you give me the date.”
“You shouldn’t trouble yourself. He will be there.”
“It will be a pleasure. Come on!” I open my arms to hug her farewell.
“Keep flowing, Mugera,” she says. “Do not let male evil turn your waters sour.”
I feel her breath on my neck, her scarred body tightly holding mine.
Even in my studio, the blood of my canvas does not dry before a new face or bone grips me. The oil keeps burning, and the waters keep flowing. I paint to stay sane, to avoid awaking into a future that’s more of the past waiting to happen. I paint freely. I do not hold back. I am a river shaping watercolours and paintings that bless the broken path.
When I call Akitoi sometimes there’s so much to tell. Work to explain, and other times nothing at all. I listen to her moods and rhythms and know when to hold the phone and say nothing, hear nothing, yet keep the minutes going for a time. She also calls and leaves her laughter. I haven’t found anyone who laughs like her.
Mildred K Barya graduated from Syracuse University MFA program in creative writing, and is currently a PhD fellow at the University of Denver, Colorado. Her short stories include: Black Stone published by Per Contra, USA, 2012, Scars of Earth, published in “The African Love Stories” Anthology, by Ayebia Clarke, UK, 2006, Effigy Child, published by Commonwealth Broadcasting Association (CBA) UK, 2004, and republished in “Gifts of Harvest” FEMRITE, 2006, Land of my Bones, published in “Dreams, Miracles & Jazz” anthology, Picador, Africa, 2008, and Raindrops, published in “Words From A Granary” FEMRITE anthology, 2001. Besides fiction, her poetry books include: Give Me Room to Move My Feet, The Price of Memory After the Tsunami, and Men Love Chocolates But They Don’t Say. She blogs at: http://mildredbarya.com/