South Africa is the scent of smoke that dances up into the sky from ochre brushfires. It’s the sound of a non-American football hitting a field that’s encased in million-dollar metal stadiums. It’s the sight of grandmothers fighting off black mambas on the sides of dust-encrusted roads. It’s the texture of avocados that cost twenty-five cents each. It’s the paradox of a horizon dotted with metropolises built out of wealth and villages built out of poverty.
But most of all, South Africa is where I discovered the absolute weight of stories— the kind of weight that yanks on my heartstrings and tears me down into the discovery that there are those who need their stories to be told for them. Because they can’t do it themselves.
And it all begins here. Here in a tiny hut in a land across the world that sees different skies at night.
My family of six looks strange in this country— a troupe of Koreans who introduce themselves as Americans. The orphans can’t stop touching our heads and sifting our black hair through their fingers.
“China? China? China?” they like to ask, because all they know is China.
“No, we’re American,” we answer.
A confused pause, then: “America! America! America!” They swarm around us, slinging their bony arms around our shoulders and crowing their knowledge of our nationality into our ears, because America, America, America is the land of plenty.
One of the careworkers steps into the hut where I’m struggling to stir a cauldron full of chicken heads. She has lighter patches of skin scattered throughout her dark complexion, and I can’t help but think that they look like stars.
“Siyabonga,” she says in Zulu. Then in English, “My name is Melody.” Her voice has a smooth register that soars up the walls in comforting reverberations. Melody. The letters that make up her name spell themselves out in my head, while I commit her white, white teeth and her kind, kind smile to memory.
“Siyabonga,” I say, unsure of my accent. I had tried to practice the word in the car ride on the way here, but it sticks in my throat in the face of her proficiency.
The corners of her eyes crinkle at the sound of my garbled greeting. “Finish?” she asks, holding out a star-covered hand to me.
I lay the wooden spoon in her palm, stand up, and make my way to the hole in the wall that serves as the door.
The sun beats against my face with a blast of light as I step outside of the hut. I blink and watch the orphans form a straight line in the dirt yard, bare, calloused feet stepping on sharp rocks and sticks without worry.
“Mom said that we can help them wash their hands before they eat.” My younger sister rocks on the balls of her feet, smiling at the prospect. I find myself excited at at the thought too, and accept a washing bowl from another careworker with a grin.
The children walk up to me with an English “thank you” and a giggle on their lips as I replace the dust on their hands with rivulets of water. The line for food consists of one hundred kids— bellies hanging swollen beneath their ripped t-shirts in uncomfortable parodies of hot air balloons— swollen on nothingness. My nine-year-old brain can’t wrap around the fact that they only eat one meal a day, so I sneak glances at their stomachs, wondering, wondering, wondering.
After the meal, they crowd around me and my siblings until we’re surrounded by a parade of luminous dark eyes so similar to our own. Each one of them wondering at us while we wonder at them. And although we can’t exchange words, we communicate through songs, games, grins, and the simple language of childhood joy.
From there, our six week trip passes by, the days pass by, the communities pass by, the careworkers pass by, and the orphans pass by, each one carrying tendrils of their stories and distributing them through the synapses of my brain to settle into select corners of long term memory:
There’s Beyonce, the girl dressed in a faded pink shirt and flimsy blue shorts, who grabbed my hands in her own to race through the straw-roofed mud structures of her community. There’s Little Boetie, the toddler with a runny nose, who conquered the terror of a millipede the size of a plate with a well-placed brick. There’s Patience, the ten-year-old girl with a baby brother strapped onto her back, who watched over her siblings with the solemn vigilance of a mother. And then there’s Trevor, the boy with cheekbones made gaunt from the devastation of AIDS, who sat in the shade of the trees, watching the other children play with the shadow of a smile on a face covered in sores.
And now it’s the last day of my family’s time in South Africa.
“Sarah!” my dad yells from outside of my room. “Come out here!”
I scramble up from my position on my bed, note the page number of the book I’m reading, and run to the doorway. “What is it?” I ask, craning my neck past the doorjamb to look into the night. It’s dark outside with only the occasional reflective eyes of a monkey to interrupt the inkiness of the black. My dad stands at the edge of the cement where it meets the grass, peering up into the sky.
He doesn’t respond, so slightly annoyed, I jam a pair of sneakers halfway onto my feet and walk across the sidewalk to stand by his side. The backs of my shoes bite into my heels, so I bend down to shove my feet all the way into them.
And them from my position on the ground, I look up.
Pinks, purples, and blues mix in harmony to form the glories of the celestial beings, swirling, singing, sinking into the retinas of my eyes. The arms of the milky way are uninhibited by light pollution here, and they seem to reach down to meet me on the Earth to pull me into the skies with them. Scorpius, Orion, Hercules, Cygnus. The whiteness of every constellation is bright against the black velvet of the sky, sparking from light years away to illuminate us— insignificant humans standing at the edge of a sidewalk in the dust of South Africa. And while we stand here, looking at the pasts of these stars, some of them may have perished already— burned out from exhaustion to dwindle away without the notice of people for years to come.
After my dad goes back inside, I stand outside in the cold for another half hour, goosebumps appearing on my limbs as I stare into the deep night sky, wondering, wondering, wondering.
Two years after South Africa, I’m sitting at my desk in California, diagramming grammar sentences, when my mom steps into the room.
“Do you remember Trevor?” she asks, looking me in the eye.
I nod, feeling the familiar sting of guilt that pricks my conscience like it always does when someone mentions the orphans. I don’t think about them very often anymore, even though I had promised myself that I would remember their faces every day.
My mom sighs, and the heavy note saturates the atmosphere with a sadness. My eyes close at the sound, because I know what she’s going to say even before she says it. “I found out today that he passed away six months after we left Africa.”
The words still stun me with their finality, and I grip my pen with a painful fierceness that turns my fingertips white with blood loss. A year and a half ago?
The realization that Trevor had died while I sat crunching through mediocrity stuns me and chokes me halfway up my throat with a ball of sorrow until my eyes water. And all at once, I remember those South African stars, giving way to exhaustion while I dwelled on the beauty of their memory. I remember those orphans, living on the back burners of people’s priorities, standing at food lines with bellies full on emptiness. I remember the feeling of their hands touching my hands, their arms around my shoulders, their smiles lighting my own, and their stories filling my mind until I could think of nothing else.
Trevor. The letters of his name spell themselves out inside of my head and flow out of my hand, transforming my pen from a writing utensil into a sword of emotion, clotted with ink, until I’m writing and moulding his story into a tangible picture. He hovers in my imagination, so alive through my words that I can hardly breathe.
It’s a climax of thought and epiphany, and it all begins here:
I won’t let their stories burn out in exhaustion.