Cimarron Review
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Ben Berman

Teachers watch as I take off my
shoes and roll up my pant legs. I lower
myself carefully into the ditch. I
fill the bucket with water, pass it over
my head to Makwezva. My students walk
by with firewood and laugh when they see
me shoveling, barefoot, and laying bricks.
Mr. Chikanya sits pensively,
watches me dig his son’s grave. The shovel
is heavy in my hands. My shoulders ache
as I dig into the ancestral
burial grounds, an ancient act. It wakes
my soul as I dig, dig until Marwizi
tells me to put the shovel down and helps
me up out of the ditch. There will be
no more work without proper beer
, he yells.
Mr. Chikanya stands up and leaves
as we sit on logs in the shade, the grave
halfway dug. There are shrieks of women’s grief
and sympathy from the house. We’re not slaves
, a man tells me as he walks
by. Makwezva sits next to me, asks about
my holiday—did you visit Vic Falls
or Chimanimani?
A woman walks out
of the house crying, screaming. Isn’t it hot
, Makwezva says. Everyday
is hot, I think, and a woman has brought
us tea to drink. Three young children play
with a plastic bag. I stare straight ahead
at the piles of bricks. My fourth funeral
in two weeks. I know the songs for the dead
by now. The beer will arrive soon or we’ll
take the shovels home
, Marwizi says.
Makwezva takes my hand. In our tradition,
you must pay the workers with beer
, he tells
me. Chikanya is a good Christian
and doesn’t want beer at his home
. It’s just
beer, I say. Yes, just beer, he says. But also
our way of holding on to our past.

Eventually the beer comes. And although
we still wait for our sadza and goat meat
we go back to work—get rid of the water
rising from the ground, which feels cool on my feet.
We seal the grave with bricks and mortar
then retreat to the shade with our buckets
of beer as Chikanya leads prayers for his son.
An older woman from the market
comes over to us and tries to sell us some
tomatoes and greens. Men are tipping their heads
back, pouring the thick, opaque home brewed beer
down their throats, some dancing, I forget
everything I once knew. All I hear
is music, women and babies crying,
songs to Jesus, songs in Shona, there are drums,
men and women everywhere, trying
somehow to go on, forced to watch their sons
and daughters dying every single day,
their culture dying with every psalm and hymn.
The beer helps me forget the strange way
everyone is staring at me, the Christians
waiting for me to lead them in prayers,
others laughing at me and my bare feet.
I tip my head back and let the beer
ease down my throat, I listen to the beats,
look for them in my knees. I watch the body
being lowered into the ground, I listen
to every single sound around me
and I can not figure out the rhythms.


Cimarron Review
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