“Boy with Fire in His Mouth”

My father called to say that my mother had died in her sleep, unexpectedly but peaceably, and that now he could eat, drink, and make merry.  He manufactured security gates that trucks of bandits could not ram through.He said my mother had died holding one hand over her eye, the other arm held out, three fingers extended. Tell me if you see the letter E.  An optometrist’s gestures.  She had crusaded against river blindness, the plague of groundnut and plantain farmers who lived near rivers, where bred the tiny flies that deposit larvae in human tissue, causing lizard skin, leopard skin, and at last, irreversible scarring of the cornea.I hung up the phone.  I wished that I could have seen my mother again, given her a final chance to tell me if there was anything that I could do to make her happy, that was within my powers.  Though she didn’t believe that she should be made happy, or that I had any useful skills.  She considered me a selfish middle-aged nobody, no wife, no child, no spine, no guts.I flew to the country of my childhood with a suitcase of eyeglasses.My father kissed my cheek at the airport.  He drove recklessly, overtaking trucks on blind curves, veering around bicyclists, pedestrians, and stray cattle. He ate a different meat at a different restaurant every night for a week.  He drank so much waragi and banana wine he could barely walk.  “Maybe you should take it easy,” I said.  On the seventh night, he collapsed while dancing at a disco on the roof of a hotel, wracked with spasms, coughing up blood.  There was nothing peaceable about his death from food poisoning.I had him cremated.  I opened the can of my mother’s ashes, poured his ashes on top.  I turned to comforting myself.  My father would have recommended excess; my mother would have prescribed stripping away.

In the market, I walked among piles of bananas, shoes, and sweet potatoes.  Children asked me to buy sodas, batiks, live grasshoppers to snack on.

A small crowd gathered around a performer.  He was a beautiful boy, tall, thin, with arms that moved like birds, perfect teeth, scabby hands and blistered lips.  He put a torch into his mouth, pulled it out, and the fire was gone.  A meat vendor brought him a coal from her brazier.   He pretended to swallow it, rubbed his throat, patted his stomach.

When he spat out the coal, his tongue looked black and swollen.

After his performance, the boy went to a booth of jerrycans.  I followed him.  He traded places with the man working there.  I continued to watch.  He seemed ordinary now, no longer fanciful.  He did not toss a jerrycan to make it spin through the air before landing in a customer’s hands, or juggle the change, or sing the virtues of his wares.

I left the market at dusk, passed a procession of children.  Girls in pastel orange dresses, boys in pink button-down shirts and khaki shorts.  Too many to count, and one more on the hip of the woman at the back, a scrawny boy with stick-legs and stick-arms that swung as she  walked.   She gave me a paper slip with an address printed on it, said that her children made greeting cards from recycled paper, I should stop by.  I decided I would attempt to communicate.  I said, what a big family you have.  Or at least I tried to; I was still rusty with her language.  She said that the children were orphans and reformed street beggars, they slept in a church basement now.  Her name was Ruth.  I asked if I could carry the boy on her hip.  She said that he would attack a stranger, and I said, with what, and she said, with his mouth, he was a biter.

I mailed postcards.  I read any novels that I could get my hands on.  I bought strange vegetables, choosing them for bright colors or unique textures, chopped and threw them into a skillet of peanut oil, and dined on stir-fry.

My father would have bought ice cream for Ruth’s children, and yoyos, jacks, and rubber balls.  My mother would have organized donations, provided them with vaccines, vitamins, mosquito netting, ink pens, and writing tablets.

I went by minibus to the Kasubi Tombs, took off my shoes, and entered the round wattle-house roofed by a great dome of thatch.  The granddaughters of the royal kabakas were old women now, and they were sitting on mats and animal skins, weaving baskets from grasses.  They were lingering near their familial dead, buried just beyond the red barkcloth curtains.  I heard a whispering tour guide say that the bodies of the kabakas had been dehydrated on drying racks, and that the curtains concealed not just another part of the house, but a great forest, the home of the spirits.

My mother had said that if a thief broke into her house, she would give him her rings and fix him a meal. She shaved her head, wore sack dresses, cooked carcass soup and matoke that was bland as paste.

She said that you could never be robbed if you knew how to let everything go.

I walked into the yard of my parents’ house.  The high wall around their property was topped with barbed wire and busted bottles, jagged-side-up. I thought that if I looked carefully enough, if I listened long enough, then surely I would be spoken to.  The clouds were so pale I almost could not see them.  The sky was blue as a whisper.

At the market, I looked for the fire-eater.  I had been thinking about the sores on his lips.  I had no words for “petroleum jelly,” but I could hold up the tube I had bought, and the bottled water, and I could say, can I give these to you.

I wanted to take his picture, to drop coins in his cup.

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William Kelley Woolfitt

About William Kelley Woolfitt

William Kelley Woolfitt’s poems and short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Cincinnati Review, Ninth Letter, Shenandoah, Los Angeles Review, Sycamore Review, Southern Humanities Review, and Hayden’s Ferry Review. Poems from his completed book-length sequence, Words for Flesh: a Spiritual Autobiography of Charles de Foucauld, have been published in Salamander, Rhino, Pilgrimage, and Nimrod.