Sissi Barra: the way of smoke

Room Magazine - - CONTENTS - CARA WA­TER­FALL

San-Pé­dro, Côte d’Ivoire —af­ter the pho­tog­ra­phy project “Sissi Barra” (“Smoke Work”) by Joana Choumali

In the morn­ing, you are white as mercy, brown as a bit­tern’s wing, grey as goats’ breath af­ter rain. In the dusk, you are crim­son as a cox­comb, blue as a whetstone, black as a shovel at day’s end. You knuckle me like a right hook; each eye a lozenge, weep­ing ash. You scis­sor my ap­petite. My heart is a shard get­ting darker and darker.

//

I was born in the Bar­dot dust, not far from the bark­ing sea. I played in saw­dust squalls, and on scabbed logs criss-cross­ing the sewage. When I was eight, my mother took me to the sawmill dump. The men sat in the ware­house while we picked through the dregs—trash­wood, tree­barks, co­conut shells. We hitched a ride home and rigged the char­coal oven. A whip of smoke curled like an agouti’s tail. The fire bucked like a dark­ling mare, its mane a ham­mer­fall of flames. The oven bawled like a stymied hyena, its tears bless­ing the blue­ing wood. A day later, its slow and beaten scent smoul­dered to prayer. To­gether, we broke the oven open and col­lected its ebony trin­kets with grate­ful palms.

//

Ashes hail a frail parch­ment. I shove through smoke’s first lather, the fields shriek­ing its stench. Char­coal stubs poke through dunes like blunt snouts. I skit­ter across cin­ders, my steps a boil­ing stac­cato. The heat is a lit wick hit­ting me again and again. Sweat caramelizes my neck. A cough corkscrews my chest, my lungs sar­dined of air. The rain’s dark arms welt my body as my mother watches from the eaves. At night, I sink like an anvil into the mud.

//

You bur­row into me like a thief. You bend my body like a scythe. A colony of bones un­furls, your petalled hands brush­ing my ribs. But I keep work­ing—all my po­ten­tial lives within your dark­ness.

//

Char­coal is a crop like any other. I stock­pile pa­tience. I work for a pit­tance. My tithe mea­sured in the drenched hours, in San-Pé­dro starlight.

//

I gather you in my arms, skin still stip­pled white, sprigs of hair still damp. I clean your body with sea­wa­ter. I chant psalms into the seashell curl of your ear. Then I bury you un­der the bana tree. I of­fer fresh wa­ter, kola nuts, mil­let flour and saliva so you may as­cend to your an­ces­tors. I in­voke the smoke to ac­com­pany you, my half-winged daugh­ter.

//

How do I dis­pel the night’s vis­cera? By nam­ing the in­vis­i­ble. Her name was Lolo: star.

//

We bil­low in the ovens’ af­ter­glow, in that breach be­tween dark­ness and deed. Our shad­ows, sup­ple as spi­ders, swim through the air. As we breathe, we are eaten by smoke. A slow cleav­ing of soul from body, so we may van­ish one day into a light taller than trees.

//

Wid­owed by smoke, we must find our own way. So we find di­vin­ity in this in­fin­ity of black. We sow wings of ash upon our backs.

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