A Lighter Shade of Pale

October in the Jacaranda City
every avenue arched in purple
even the ragged and the lost 
sleep under the soft lavender counterpane.
Tourists gather on the ridge above the city, 
look down on a city softened for a season.

Students hurrying to sit exams pause a moment
good luck they say if a petal lands on you,
and, from the drifts under every tree,
surely there must be luck and plenty to go around.

When Peter was a boy, 
on his way to the bantu school, 
he might have stood under one,
waiting, hoping.
Even apartheid’s child, color-coded.
group area allotted, horizon assigned,
can dream of distinction.

Tall, straight, and cheetah lithe, 
hair cut military short, just like the Marines he admired,
so short you never guessed the gray.
Polished shoes, pants with a knife-edge crease, shirts immaculate
Captain of the bus drivers, hauling kids to school and home again.
every Friday he led a morning stretch
parents, students, teachers standing round him in a circle
Jump, he commanded, jump.
and he leapt and we leapt with him.
High and higher.

That June he drove me to the airport
dark, early winter 
his mother would never understand
leaving his wife for a white woman,
What can I do? he asked.
I imagined his mother in her Pedi village,
from her shack door to his dreams 
was a distance beyond miles, 
a gulf beyond language.

I thought of his wife and their kids in their Mamelodi shack
Tin sheets laced with wire, dirt floor
Water fetched from a standpipe in a plastic bucket

Thought about the house he’d go back to that night
Hot bath, fridge, 
garden filled with spreading jacaranda trees,
but I couldn’t think what words to say.

In October with the streets all purple in the spring
he asked to leave early, a sore throat, he said.
He’d be back at work tomorrow.
I got the call two hours later

It’s Mr. Peter

I couldn’t believe the rest
drove out to the house determined it couldn’t be

but it was
it was him, swinging quietly
from the spreading jacaranda outside her house
his polished shoes just skimming the softly purple ground, 
and by then it was too late for any words.

I sat with his brother in the silent garden
Waiting for the police procedures to run their course.
Waiting for the coroner’s van.
The detectives shared their spare report. 
No questions unanswered, all lines filled, though I saw,
they failed to note the petal on his shoulder.

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