Be Strong, Breathe

Full Text

Translated by Thangam Ravindranathan

I feel hands thumping at my chest. A drum playing its score without respite. Like that boat that didn’t stop pitching like a mean and savage wind. Where am I?

Come on! You can do it. Be strong. Come on, breathe!

All my life I wanted to breathe, and now that they are urging me to, I simply wish to close my eyes. To stop this unholy pain in the hollow of my chest and to give in. It hurts so much.

“Hurry up, Nina.”

“Wait for me, Jacob. Wait for me, I need to catch my breath.”

We had to walk two kilometers to get to school. The mountain is always beautiful for those who climb it willingly. Sometimes I see a foreign tourist or nature lover open their arms wide to take in the pure air. For me, inhaling hurts so much at times that I am left with mere dribbles of breath. Mama says I was born with frail lungs. Some days, when there was time, she would make me drink a warm infusion upon waking. But in the mornings, Jacob and I almost always had to hurry. We had to rise before the sun, wash our faces in icy water, throw on our jerseys riddled with holes Mama had roughly patched, wipe the dry skin of our feet with a wet rag, remove the red earth dirt from between our toes, and run off on the pebbly footpaths so as not to be late.

“Wait for me Jacob!”

“I don’t want to arrive after the bell rings. Mr. Marcel will again whip me. You know he’s not kidding with that.”

“I can’t breathe. Wait for me Jacob!”

“Come on, hurry Nina.”

I scrambled behind him. When the brotherly instinct prevailed, Jacob would let me catch up and hold my hand. More often, his large anxious strides left me behind, and I would clutch with one hand the skirt of my uniform which the morning wind kept lifting up. How could I hold it against him? It was not his fault nor mine that we arrived very often after the morning prayer. That hunger only barely contained by the light and sugary coffee mama made slowed our steps. That our panting intensified and left both our throats burning. I would be holding back tears. I had to collect my breath before entering the classroom. Before facing the beatings by stick and the scolding that awaited me.

Breathe properly. You have to help me now, we got you out of the water but now we need some effort from you!

To hell with this voice. They turn my body over as if I were a crude package. I feel a mouth pressed against mine. I feel that marine smell pressed against my skin. What is happening? I wish to sleep, to let myself loose and sink.

“Breathe,” they tell me.

I am far more used to holding my breath. If I hadn’t done that when they came to get Papa, I would not be here. I could hear the sound of their weapons, a frightful sound of dryness, like a frayed branch breaking, an arrowhead pounding a bone. I could hear their voices even though my hands were over my two ears. Pebbly sounds on a bare skin, evil voices without redemption. Hidden in the tree, I didn’t want to see, nor hear, nor breathe. Only to disappear, like when the school mistress’s eyes searched for where and how to vent her anger, on which buttock, on which face to land the smack filled with a bitterness aimed at life. To disappear like when the wind blew hard on stormy days and the cabin paling cried with terror. To not breathe, to disappear.

That morning, they entered the yard making a great din. The rooster fled beating its wings. Papa had guessed they might come again. Ever since they had come the week before to ask him to sell them his plot of land and he refused. Papa told Jacob and me: “Go hide children! All will be well. Go hide. Don’t make a sound.”

Mama had gone to the town at dawn; it was market day. Jacob ran off in a flash. I knew he would take refuge in the forest, he knows it so well.

“Nina, get up your tree, you’re not fast enough to come with me. Stay up there and don’t make a sound.”

Concealed in the leafy branches of the mango tree, I don’t breathe. I burrow into my hideout so much older than my ten years, so much larger and sturdier than my jumping heart. Mama often says that I learned to climb trees before I learned to walk. That day, I find myself way up in the thickest parts where no one can see me. Usually it’s to play hide-and-seek with Jacob and the cousins. Today, it’s to not watch Papa getting beaten up, it’s to not feel urine wetting my panties. My hideout props up my shaking legs. Pressed in amongst its leaves, I feel the little insects wander across my skin, I close my eyes and hold my breath. Don’t breathe. Not a sound that might draw their attention. Don’t breathe. My breath swells in my chest. Usually I feel nice up here but not today. I can’t breathe. I don’t want to breathe. I hear them beat Papa. I don’t lower my head. I  don’t open my eyes when I hear the blows, the groans, then the doors finally slam. I don’t open my eyes but the film unrolls behind my eyelids.

Breathe, girl. Get a hold of yourself. Expel the water from your lungs. Spit it out.

In the old hovel where Mama settled in the capital after Papa’s death, the walls quake beneath the weight of dirt and daily tribulations. Though there are layers of paint, the walls have a bitter color. Without a word, on the first day Mama started to scrub. The anger that no longer leaves her gave her gestures such force that we hardly dared look at her. Soon the smell of bleach filled the space. We set up home in this clean and sanitized destitution, though still unable to defeat the nauseating odors of the hallway. I spent three years in this rathole, then two more in another hole so similar to the first that I wondered why Mama even bothered with the move, then three years in a hovel even smaller than the first two. How to breathe here? I think often of the mountain, of the smell of mangoes, of my hideaway which will never see me again. Despite the persistence of my grief, I have long since understood why Papa chose to stay up there with his trees and his vegetable garden. After their visit, he had walked further up the mountain. Two days later, my uncle brought us his body. Some months after the funeral, we took the bus to the capital. An old cousin moved into our cabin. For in the end, the armed men had decided that Papa’s plot didn’t suit them. Mama still said goodbye to the mountain. In a silence of cold stones. Since Papa’s death, she speaks with enraged gestures. Her rare words lash out like pebbles that hurt.

Breathe. You can’t die like this. Be strong. What madness, to get into that boat, where did you think you were going? Be strong. Breathe.

I formed the habit in the early days of climbing up a tree not too far from the run-down shack for which Mama was paying the middleman a big sum of money. I tried to breathe, but this tree didn’t offer me the safety of my former hideout. Passersby raised their heads to stare at me from the heights of their good manners that often hide their distress. The local pastor was scandalized by such immodesty. He made clear to Mama that it is not right that a young girl should climb trees in this way. Her panties can be seen, it is a temptation for others. It’s a sin for sure. The pastor didn’t say it but there is no doubt he thinks I will go to hell. Am I not there already?

I was reunited with the smell of misery at the school where Mama enrolled us after we moved here. I no longer had to climb mountains and hills to go to class. Rather, we had to fight for a spot on the tap-tap. Hunched in the aisle between two rows of occupied seats, or half-seated, as the case may be, I am surrounded by so many breathings that I withhold my own. I fight against the hands that slip into handbags, rummage  in pockets, grope buttocks, brush against breasts. Mama set herself up at a street corner to sell vegetables which my godmother brings her twice a week from up there. Where Papa is buried, where Mama says she will no longer set foot. When she receives the vegetables, she still seems to breathe better for the space of a minute, then she releases a loud tsk-tsk. Before lifting her basket again, she spits out her anger every time on the ground.

Go on, make an effort. Breathe. Be strong. You are too young to die.

Be strong, I’ve been told that so many times. Where was I supposed to find that resilience that one speaks of so often when tragedy knocks at the door? Can strength defy the poverty that persists and leaves its mark on your skin? Even when you think you’ve escaped it, it stays in your gestures, hides under your bed, stashes away pieces of stale bread, remains of spoiled sorrows. It leaves its imprint under your steps, takes you by the hand just when you believe you’ve left it behind you. It makes you limp suddenly. Keeps you from breathing freely, wraps bands around your heart, you carry always in you the fear of suns too bright that veil the clouds.

The hands keep pushing on my chest. I hear a voice counting. “22, 23… Breathe,” says the voice. Will it not stop then?

At last month’s protest, I had to hold my breath. The smell of teargas took me by the throat. Tears were streaming from my eyes and burning me. At home, Mama rubbed my face with a lemon then made me drink eucalyptus infusions. But even with that, I was struggling to breathe. Yet again. Just as in the factory where I’ve worked for eight months. The only job that I could find after more than ten years of school. A garment factory for making shapeless paid-by-the-piece T-shirts. A huge and dimly-lit warehouse under a steel roof where dust fills my lungs and burns my eyes. All day that fine rain of cloth fibers surrounds you, settles on your skin, infiltrates your hair, your dress. The dust twist-wraps itself around your lungs, pervades your bronchi. You get sick more often. Neighbors tell you an evil eye has cast a spell on you, or that you have been offered up as someone’s pledge to the devil. But you know deep down that it is that satanic dust that is eating away at your being. You know it, the other seamstresses know it, the bosses know it too, as does the HR chief, to whom you complain. That is why we held the protest, merely to ask for better conditions, a more ventilated space, a decent pay. A small peaceful protest. With signs. Just as we had seen on TV. We can’t breathe. The police appeared and we were sprayed with teargas. Just like on TV. The next day, the boss fired several of us. Me first, since apparently I am one of the strike leaders, an inciter of protests. Simply because I said I couldn’t breathe. It was the mere truth. Mama looks at me in silence when I come home with my last pay. With her hypertension, she can’t work as much as  she used to. Jacob has gone to the Bahamas, we’ve had no news in three months. Mama looks at me without saying a word. No blame but eyes that are lucid and terrifying.

Breathe. You will not die like this.

I don’t really know why I got on that boat. With another seamstress from the factory. Why did I think I could leave? I didn’t really want to leave Mama, but I knew that despite her grumblings, she would end up going back up there. Her eyes too, more and more, have been turning toward the mountain. For a while now, I have been dreaming of mango trees, of pebbly footpaths and steep slopes. We all have spaces that imprint themselves within us, those that pick us up when we trip and which make us beautiful, and others that seize us by the neck and denature us. The city drinks up my breath, it invades me, it kills me. I yearn for the fresh dawn, for cool mountain air and for red earth.

When the boat sank, I let myself be carried by the current. I didn’t struggle. I don’t know how to swim, never learned. I just wanted to go as far as possible. To let go, most of all. To do nothing but let myself be carried. To see if life would be for or against me. If it is gentler in some other place, in some other way. I couldn’t breathe underwater, but what was new about that?

Breathe, goddammit. I know you are listening. Breathe, be strong.

A smell of mango suffuses my memory. Are my eyelids able to open? Am I going to make the effort?

Breathe! Come on girl, spit out the water. Nina, do you hear me? Spit out the water, open your eyes. Be strong, my girl. Breathe.

Is this the voice of Papa? A smell of red earth overlays that of the sea. I become once again the little girl huddled in her tree. The mountain calls me.

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