Winter 2008

Three Letters, One Song & A Refrain

Chris Abami

Chris Abani's prose includes the novels “Masters of the Board” (1985), “GraceLand” (2005), and “The Virgin of Flames” (2007), and the novellas “Becoming Abigail” (2006) and “Song for Night” (2007). His poetry collections are “Kalakuta Republic” (2001), “Daphne's Lot” (2003), “Dog Woman” (2004), and “Hands Washing Water” (2006). He is an associate professor at the University of California, Riverside, and the recipient of the PEN USA Freedom-to-Write Award, the Prince Claus Award, a Lannan Literary Fellowship, a California Book Award, a Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, and the PEN Hemingway Book Prize.

This red string is for you, Mama

Dear Mama,

This is a kind of letter, though I am writing most of it in my heart, for you, for me, for a time when I can speak it. This torn and bloodied sheet should be enough, but words bring clarity.

My first thought after it happened was that I should wash the sheet. I should take it home and wash the shame from it. But something stayed my hand. I was afraid to take the sheet at first, afraid of him. For what seemed like a long time, I couldn’t look at him. But it couldn’t have been that long because his shadow on the floor didn’t move. When I looked, his eyes didn’t meet mine. I guessed he was about forty. Maybe it was his greying hair. There are many stories in the camp about men like this. Ordinary men who because we are at their mercy here in Thailand, far from our home in Burma, take advantage of us like this. A rage blacker than any mud I have seen came over me, and I grabbed the sheet. At first I meant to strangle him with it but hesitated when I saw him stir, saw the hate in his eyes return. Instead I swallowed the bitter taste in my mouth and stuffed the sheet into the small raffia bag I had brought. You must take me back to the camp now, I said. You must take me home.

On the ride back, I sat shakily on the back of his motorcycle; the wind was like ice on my skin. I knew it wouldn’t be long before the rain came. I had nothing to cover myself with. The man was wearing a yellow rain slicker that ensured he would stay warm and dry. I had no choice but to wrap myself in the sheet, I thought. I pulled one end of the bloodstained cloth out of my bag. It fluttered in the wind like a red sail, and I felt revulsion for myself and the man fill me. But I couldn’t use it as a wrap. It would have felt more like a funeral shroud. I stared at it for a moment. There were two loose threads tickling my wrist.

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