Dispatches | May 08, 2013

During the month of May, The Missouri Review will highlight a single short story to help celebrate National Short Story Month. We’ve asked a diverse group of readers and writers to participate by sharing a short story that demands to be read. Today’s blog post comes from associate editor Evelyn Somers. 

“The Collector of Treasures,” the title story of Bessie Head’s 1977 collection, begins with the day-long journey of a police truck transporting an unnamed prisoner to a state prison in Gaborone, Botswana.  All we know: the prisoner is a woman, and at a certain point in the journey “she slowly crumpled forward in a wasted heap.” This story is about a private, inner victory, though, and she won’t stay that way.  She arrives by night and is ushered to the cell she will share with four other women all guilty, like our protagonist, of killing their husbands. “It’s becoming the fashion these days,” remarks the night wardress.

The protagonist is Dikeledi Mokopi, whose name means “tears.”  Sensitive and artistic at needlework, she “collects” acts of kindness and love—the treasures of the title; hence her resilience. Love irrigates a soul dessicated by hate, or by the injustices of patriarchy. Bessie Head, a mixed-race writer who fled her native South Africa to spend much of her adult life in Botswana, was a feminist and advocate for the poor and oppressed. She spends careful attention on the characterization of this uneducated African woman. Read on, to the extended flashback that is the substance of the story, and we are learning about how British colonialism and the 1966 independence of Botswana created weak and grasping men who exploited village women—and another kind of man of the new independence, “with the power to create himself anew.”  This kind of man, writes Head, was “a poem of tenderness.”

In a sense this is old-fashioned naturalism.  Dikeledi is at the mercy of her own nature, family history and a transitional culture, and there would be no story if she had married the “poem.” But instead she marries Garesego Mokopi, who impregnates her and then abandons her for alcohol, sex and freedom to spend his undeserved salary on himself.  Dikeledi is better off, of course, and after a period of struggle, she is fortunate to have new neighbors in the village, Paul Thebolo and his wife, Kenalepe, who recognize her gifts and her need. Eight years of near-paradise pass as Kenalepe, Paul and Dikeledi form a deep bond of friendship.

But the danger of ever forming a connection with a man like Garesego is that even if he abandons you, he might come back.  Faced with her husband’s declaration that he’s coming “home” to reclaim her, Dikeledi can’t bear the thought of him defiling her happiness.

In a bloody conclusion, she feeds him dinner, lets him fall asleep and castrates him with a knife she spent the afternoon sharpening.  She watches him bleed to death “with an intent and brooding look, missing not one detail of it.” Then she sends her oldest son to bring the police.

A defeat?  But it’s not. Because already, at the beginning of the story, we’ve learned that Dikeledi will discover new “treasures” to collect in the unexpected kindnesses of the other women inmates. If you don’t know Bessie Head’s work, start here, with “The Collector of Treasures.”

Evelyn Somers edits anything and everything and is associate editor of the Missouri Review. Her fiction is forthcoming in Blood Lotus, Silk Road, the Collagist and the Florida Review.