Millie jumps as Never’s hand grabs her wrist in the dark. Amid the rough maize stalks, he pulls her close, and her cheek smashes against his chest. The cologne covering the odor of his sweat smells like pine, like Nyanga, the home she left two years ago, the home where evergreens towered above as she carried firewood on her head. The air on those mountains was bright like the citrus spray of naartjies when she bit hard through the skin.
They are barely alone before Never touches her hip. She can hear Titus, the head guard, closing the orphanage gate behind her. Locking her out. Titus’s pocket would be swollen with Never’s diamond money. Millie heard them bickering over price as she waited on the other side of the gate. Seventy million Zimbabwe dollars. Hundred million.
Before Never arrived, Titus had threatened her. He had said that if she mentioned this visit with Never to the matron at the orphanage, he would tell them that a baby is growing inside of her. They will believe me. I’m the head guard.
Afraid of him, not the threat, she knew it was better to obey Titus and to be alone with Never, who was lean like maize but much taller than this year’s stunted harvest. She had not seen Never before tonight, but she had heard the older children at school speak of him.
His breath drowns the pine scent as his lips close over her face—his mouth so wide he could swallow her. His tongue, wetting her chin, leaves bits of saliva that she wants to wipe away, but her arms remain stiff with fear at her sides. If she were strong, she would pull back, tear their lips apart as children rip jongwe in summer, splitting the red-yellow flower to see whose wish will come true. She remains still, trying to slip into the purple-blue night. Blue-purple shadows. She could never distinguish between the colors no matter how many times the teacher pointed to the blue-purple triangle and said blue or the purple-blue circle and said purple.
Millie’s lips go numb as Never rubs his own against hers, which must be purple-blue under the pressure of his teeth. His body is everywhere. She can’t breathe. She gasps, but the Marange air is too dry to inhale. Never slips his hand under her shirt and up her spine to her neck.
Looking deeper between the stars, Millie searches for the sky’s darkest point. Never’s fingers close around her neck and then creep toward her chest, his arms so long they wrap around her like rope.
“You have a beautiful neck,” he whispers. He snaps the elastic around her skirt. It stings her skin. “Come up the mountain with me.”
The fallen stalks cut at her bare feet as she walks, but she stares up. The full moon is pinned behind the unfinished cell phone tower.
“See up there?” Never asks. “Chiadzwa looks like that. Fields of diamonds that sparkle like the night sky.” The stars look ready to fall. Shimmering hot raindrops, they would burn. “Come with me. I’ll take you away,” he whispers.
Millie wants to go away. The police came when a neighbor reported how loud and violent the grunts of her grandmother’s tenants were throughout the night. The policeman grabbed her by her shoulder and led her away from her grandmother’s house. They drove her down the mountains to Mutare. They sent her to the orphanage in Marange, where the ground may hide diamonds but is an ugly, thirsty red. Here, she no longer needs to lower her head to escape the looks of the tenants when they hand her grandmother rent money; there are no tenants and no grandmother here. But Titus is here at the orphanage. Tonight, Titus brought Never. Her nights are never still.
And Never’s hand is on the small of her back, pushing her toward the edge of the orphanage land, toward the mound of rocks that these Marange people call a mountain.
They step over the sagging gate, and the rusted barbwire tears the hem of her skirt. She sewed it herself, securing it with tiny stitches as her grandmother had taught her. She thought she could be a seamstress and work in the colorful fabric store in Mutare, which she’d visited as a child. The Indian woman there smelled of roses and let her feel the brilliant rolls of calico and velvet ribbons. Millie pulled a loose purple-blue thread from a scrap on the cutting table when the woman wasn’t looking; she keeps it hidden beneath the sole of her left school shoe.
“The mountain is my home now,” Never says; his other hand grabs her wrist so he pulls and pushes her at once. “The police are searching, but they can never find me here.” His laugh is not happy but wild, like the children mimicking the baboon’s bark. “The police want all the diamonds. The Chefs in Harare want them. So they want us to pay. But this is our home. These stones have rested under our feet all our lives, and now they want the ground of our ancestors. I am the best at finding glass. I find the biggest stones, so now they want me, too.”
Mountain home. She does not want to know about the diamonds—that is what the girls at school said of Never, that he is in a gang, that he is a diamond miner—Millie hears only mountain home amid Never’s frantic talk. She might love him if he takes her to the mountains in Nyanga—bigger and greener than these bare boulders of Marange. In Nyanga, where she was a child and then a girl and then a woman-girl, she would listen to waterfalls and catch fish and pick avocado and stare for hours at the rock formations, giants’ hands reaching up. Her grandmother called them God’s Fingers.
In the shadows of wild fig trees, Never slips. The loose stones slide from under his too-white shoes. He pulls her, his hands still on her, but she grabs a branch to stay standing. His new jeans tear. She bends down to help him up. He’s crying.
“I can mend it,” she says. The jeans are new, the material still dark and stiff and thick. She would like to mend them in a mountain home. But she would want his hands to be whittling or hammering, not touching her. He could be carving or chopping while she was sewing. Quiet together. “Don’t cry. I can sew.”
Never’s cry is strange like his laugh, and she wonders if he is crying or laughing. Panting. A baboon. A boy. The orphan boys imitate baboons barking to scare her when they gather firewood. Even when she knows it must be them, she still jumps and drops her kindling when they bark.
Never speaks. And she jumps, even though his voice is soft now. He tells her he’s scared—afraid to be on the mountain while the police search. Last week, his friend swallowed a large diamond. “Glass, a glass the size of my thumbnail.” The police caught them before they left Marange. Because they were scared, the police knew. They cut open his friend. They beat Never and forced him to search through the intestines until he found the stone.
“The next one I find, I’ll keep. I’ll cut myself and stick the glass under the skin. It’ll heal, and I’ll be gone.”
Millie wants to ask where he’ll go, but he’s crying or laughing again. She leaves him there and imagines walking all the way to Mutare, to the Indian woman’s fabric shop, and making a purple-blue dress so dark that she can float through the night without anyone seeing her. No one would touch her. She’d vanish between the stars.
But Titus sees her when she reaches the orphanage gate. She could not have slipped by even in the darkest dress and dhuku because he was waiting for her.
“Tomorrow, you must leave with that boy, Never,” he says. She cannot be at an orphanage and have a child. He tells her this and does not tell her that he cannot be a guard at the orphanage and a father to an orphan’s orphan. He’ll send her away. Away doesn’t scare her. Titus scares her. The rough stubble on his chin stands straight out when he frowns. Scratches still cover her cheeks from his mustache.
Leaving the next night, Millie doesn’t look back at the orphanage but stares between the dry stalks of the maize field to the shadows, which look soft like petals. Titus told her she must love Never tonight—do exactly as he showed her in the guard shack. She wonders if the other children will miss her and who will find her bed empty in the morning, the blue mosquito net lying flat against the sweat-stained sheets. Millie often says goodbye to her grandmother under her breath and hopes her grandmother does the same.
On the dirt road, she hears men at the beer hall, singing. They beat drums in wild rhythms, different from the drinking songs of her grandmother’s shabeen on the tea plantation. But she can’t think of that night pulsing, or of Titus, or of the baby. She will have a husband tonight—maybe in a hotel room in Mutare, maybe near the fabric shop. The baby will be named Never II, as Titus told her. But this is her escape. She’ll forget Titus. And forget the men who stayed in the spare room of her grandmother’s home when they came to work for Four Roses Tea Company. Their arms couldn’t stop shaking after using the machines that picked the tea leaves. They shook when they touched her, and she shivered; the whole world seemed as though it would never be still again.
She kicks off one sandal then another so that the whole sole of each foot hits the cool earth. The shoes fit in the plastic bucket with her blue Sunday dress and the English book she stole from the primary school and another large T-shirt that makes her stomach not look quite so big. The police did not give her time to pack; she does not have anything in the bucket from her grandmother’s house. She will have to remember and forget that house. She will remember the gourds of traditional beer her grandmother gave her before the brew became too strong and the stories about leopards and spirits and God’s Fingers.
The approaching headlights sting her eyes. Never hoots the car horn and leans out the window. She doesn’t know the other man in the passenger seat. She reaches in her pocket and feels the purple-blue thread, fraying now at both ends. Never hoots again.
She wants to remember this walk by herself and how the ground felt so quiet and strong beneath her bare feet. She hasn’t been by herself much at the orphanage and needs to decide what to forget and what to remember. She squints at the light, feeling naked under its glare. The men must be able to see her belly. She trembles. With so much forgetting of her grandmother’s house, she will not forget how to sew. She wonders how far they will be from the fabric shop. At night, the fabric shop must be still and soft, with rolls and rolls of fabric.
She climbs into the backseat of Never’s car.