Published in Gone Lawn 10 (Summer 2013).
How They Clasp Their Lips
I.S.O. Dave Eggers, “When They Learned to Yelp”
At the Americans’ first footsteps off the rickety bus onto the village soil, the lips of the African staff, guides and residents tighten and release in the breath between words—it is quietly learned and does not appear all places the way it does here, but the steady stare is always present—they offer their hands to the Americans, whose pale fingers accept stiffly.
“How can you not see, not remember?” their dark eyes whisper. “Don’t they teach you these things in America?”
The only answers the Americans can muster are dull smiles, unfocused gazes.
It begins in the shoulders: straightening, flexing, sometimes only slightly, and the tightness goes to the waist; the feet shift, squaring themselves, as if in military inspection.
The face works in four steps: the nostrils flare and shrink, then gape for a second time; this is the moment of horrible realization: the sniff is hard, anxious, like a last breath.
Then: the eyes brighten as the idea of what is happening—who this is and what they, their people, have done—becomes crystalline, focused; it is going into the basement from the sunlight, and bathing, for a second, in what could happen there, in the dark.
After which: the eyes narrow and do not widen again—the settling that happens just after an injury, the dizzy exhaustion that tears everything else away, the quiet moment when the entire world is pain, wide and comforting.
Finally: the mouth moves as if to speak through the closed lips—jaws making way for the seething tongue, which flicks the gums and molars—the jaw strikes shut. The lips push against each other brutally: a stealthy, sour taste coating the mouth after the smell of bad milk.
This marks the end of the soundless fury that develops in the belly and spreads to the arms, toes, the burning ears—something so raw and old that the intensity seizes the muscles of the chest and squeezes them: the mind perceives only the present moment.
The clasping is essential, and is a custom passed down without words, having evolved in many places into many actions; the rage and screams and spilled blood all fall in on each other until the chest feels completely still, a star after collapsing: it encompasses hurt too big and buried to be spoken of and thrusts it into the bones of the living.
A witchdoctor danced in Botswana, the same dance his father and his father’s father had done, swinging his arms and shaking his beaded chains—luck seeds and plastic bells, whistles and reed skirts—and said he had a vision of Suzanne, the honey-haired elementary school teacher from New Jersey, “that she is good luck.” The villagers all turned to her, speaking and patting the pale skin of her back; she looked directly into their eyes for the first time, smiling—their lips no longer clasped in her presence.
Those who clasp their lips have been chained in the dark, sent to ships and taken to another world; worked like machines until they were; they have felt their spine, hands, feet as open callouses, the bones brittle and close to the skin; the bullets and sun, the spit and swinging rope.
The clasping can be done any place, at any time deemed necessary; the chest may tighten while outside or indoors, and the clasping comes whether you have planned for it or left the thought unattended. Standing on the grass in Hiroshima, people’s lips are clasped; in Berlin, touching broken stones; the clasping is seen on the arid reservations of the Western U.S.; and in Dresden, they are always held clasped—tourists with cameras, agitated smiles.
The Americans did not meet Dineo, the African who never clasped her lips, until later, after the village and the witchdoctor: her eyes never narrowed, the tannin-brown was always searching; her skin was taut, her laugh deep and throaty; she threw her many tiny braids over her shoulder while she spoke. Her daughter, she said, would be sent to America to go to school, in hopes that she could come back home to Africa and aid her people—help to ease the clasping.
“It will happen,” Dineo—whose name means ‘gift’—told the Americans that night. “Sometime, our children will not be scared when green trucks pull into the villages. They will not fear skin lighter than their own or the men who speak only English. We push them quickly, the parents and generations older try, but the undoing of things is harder than the doing, yes?” Dineo smiled. “It will happen. When it does, the people will dance, open their mouths to laugh; they will never stop singing again.”