Whitewash

by Isabella Mead

Cyprien told me in confidence,
and I promised his secret was safe.
I remember the bar, the tarnished walls,
the termites sucking the whitewash,

their exuberant, tenacious persistence
upturning the earth underneath.
We were sucking Fanta through straws.
He was the one neighbour I knew didn’t drink.

He leaned forward to utter the words.
I am actually Tutsi. And heartbeats
as the iron roof swelled the sound of the wind,
the men argued louder over the bar,

yet still we worried the termites had heard.
I could almost see them pause,
their drab wings tense as they listened. They didn’t.
Perhaps they were in on the secret.

We are all ‘Rwandan,’ now. Not Then.
My grandmother found ID cards of Hutus
after my parents were killed. She carried me
away to this village, where nobody knew us,

and told everyone she was my mother.
One day the people hid in a church
while I led our cows to pasture.
A bit later I heard some screams.

Now the air was still and the men went quiet.
I think they react to the wind.
We looked towards the bar and, reassured,
we talked about termites, terrible things.

I knew the rest: how other survivors
moved ahead with scholarships and stories
and interviews and internships and universities,
while Cyprien still farms for subsistence

and sits in the bar as each evening gathers
collecting the wings that fall from termites,
toying with flakes of whitewash.
He told me this story in confidence

and I promised his secret was safe.
And look at me now, continents away,
sharing this without shame, without even
the courtesy to change his name.