Tight Rope

by Isabella Mead

Rwanda, 2014

The tree trunk that bridged the road and his hut
had weathered to fungus at tissue and heart

yet he never replaced it. He, a master,
could scale the length of it even in rain,

machete in hand, held up like a feather,
jerry-can balanced on a banana-leaf crown.

When he’d been at the bar a crowd would gather
to watch him teeter, applaud when he’d land.

At the sound of his singing after dark
children would rush to stand in the water,

arms open, just in case of disaster.
The gleams of fireflies would light his way

intermittently, one then another,
and hearts would falter at the gaps between.

A wavering figure, he’d wobble and giggle,
perform perfected heart-stopping lurches

and always land squarely, both feet together.
His name was Erique, and he could recite

correct rhetoric, and show due disgust
at the doings of his clan, his father.

But beer made him stray off-course sometimes
and on such nights he would start to rail

at unacknowledged acts of violence.
Barmen would dilute his beer with Fanta

and we all tried, all, to watch out for him.
One day someone will hear, we said. He’d grin

and next week we’d be whispering it again;
how, here, our bridges can hold out for years

but can equally soften and give in
at a momentary easing of our fears,

at the slightest coaxing from termites or rain.