Part III: Lunama, 4-5.
Lady, Assie, and I left the next morning.
Esther didn't seem to care either way. She was indifferent when she wandered out from her bedroom as we were about to leave. I thanked her for putting us up. I thanked her mother. Esther's mother had tears in her eyes when she embraced Lady. Lady called her Ma Esther instead of Ma Di because she'd become oddly attached to Esther's name. Sometimes she'd repeat it over and over like a chant. Sometimes she sang the name as if it were, all on its own, a ballad.
Esther's hair was matted and her eyes were red. She said she needed a Bloody Mary. She kicked a nearby dog and Lady hid between my legs.
Assie whispered to me: "Esther is in a hard place without the Bloody Mary."
And I knew at that moment that Esther had a weakness that could topple her, and I felt sad and victorious all at once because she wasn't invincible after all.
I kissed her good-bye. She barely acknowledged me. "Go, go," she said.
"I need to go back. I didn't leave a note. I need to go back." She didn't say anything.
We'd come in Esther's car. Assie had set out early in the morning to find a ride. The taxi she'd found was a small Toyota sedan stuffed with five passengers. The three of us would make eight. Assie had reserved me a seat up front. In between my legs was the gear stick.
"I can't ride that way, Assie," I said.
"The back is too many. You will be squashed."
"But the gear stick--"
"It is okay. It is always this way. The driver, he does not mind."
"Great," I said. "That's just great. I'm so glad he doesn't mind, Assie."
A crowd gathered. Women and children from the village began to point and titter. I heard the word "Poro." They were calling me white. I was making a fuss the way all white people did because I was having to endure the things Africans endured every day. I picked Lady up and scooted across the front bench seat. When the passengers in the back caught sight of Lady's arm, some of them clicked their tongues in their mouths as an expression of distaste or sympathy. I'd heard that sound often since I'd arrived in Africa. It made me sick. I glared them quiet. Assie squeezed in beside us. I stared at Esther, who was gazing at the car from her position on her mother's porch. Her own, air-conditioned vehicle was parked to our left.
"She never even offered to drive us home," I said to Assie.
"Esther does not like to drive in the morning time," Assie said. "We should have waited until the afternoon or the nighttime."
I screwed up my mouth in disgust.
Ma Di was at the window, handing us oranges. She was crying and smiling. Her sullen daughter sat with her head on her hands. She looked nothing like the Queen of Africa she played so well. She looked like a washed-out, middle-aged singer with a bad hangover. She was no more powerful than I, after all. I looked away. The driver climbed in, reached down between my legs for the gear stick and shifted dramatically into first gear.
"We are on the go!" he cried, laughing. He was a short, powerful man with a build similar to my father's. His hand remained on the gear stick; the muscles in his forearm were defined by the sweat on his skin. He wore new Levi's--a status symbol of which he was proud. "New jeans, eh, Missus," he said. "You like?" I ignored him. He looked at Lady and said something in Krio about deformed children. Assie began to shout at him. Ma Di, still stooped over beside the car, began calling him names. He turned the key in the ignition and stopped the engine. He stared ahead. "What is it?" I whispered to Assie.
"Ma Di called him a fool."
Like mother, like daughter, I thought.
"We have to get out," Assie said. She was scared.
"I'm not going anywhere. He said he'd take us. We've paid, haven't we? If he's not going to take us, I want my money back. I'm not leaving until I get it."
Assie jumped out. "Please, Jassie," she begged. "He is very angry. You must get out. He has been insulted. He is a Christian Muslim and--"
"He does not like to be insulted."
"He insulted us, didn't he? What did he say about Lady? What did he say, Assie?"
Esther appeared at the other side of the car. She was leaning into the front seat, her mouth close to the ear of the driver. She spoke down into the car in a voice that hushed the onlookers and made the passengers in the back shift in their seats.
"Le' we go, woman. Eh, bo. Le' we go," one passenger pleaded. Esther ignored him and spoke into the driver's ear.
"He said they leave babies like Lady in the bush to die. He said her arms do not match," Assie told me.
I was so angry I wanted to hit him. Before I could react Esther had yanked open the car door. Her forearm was over the man's throat. Her mother had rushed round to rummage through the driver's pockets. Some of Esther's friends from the village were standing to attention around the car. Some of them were smiling.
"Big mistake," one man said, shaking his finger at the driver. "You no know Miss Esther. Big trouble. She na one bad woman. Big mistake."
I don't know how much money Esther's mother took, but the driver didn't argue. As soon as Ma Di had found sufficient cash, Esther let go of the driver. I scooted out from the front and Assie hurried round to the back to get the bags. The driver threw the keys for the trunk on the ground at Assie's feet. She picked them up. Everyone except the driver and me laughed. My legs were shaking. Assie reached into the trunk and got the bags. Before she'd closed it, the taxi had taken off at full tilt through the village, the trunk of the car clapping in the wind. The onlookers congratulated Esther and patted her on the back. Esther took the money from her mother, walked over to where I was standing with Lady in my arms, and handed me more than twice what I'd paid for the fare.
I wanted to thank her, but there was a lump in my throat.
Esther said she would be ready in five minutes.
It took her two hours to get packed and dressed, but I didn't care. It took almost that long for me to stop shaking. Assie said the driver was from the north. "They are bad up there," she said. "They have no manners."
Lady played in the dirt and sang her Esther chant: "ES-ther CO-le. ES-ther CO-le." Assie, realizing I was sensitive about Lady's difference, tried to make me feel better.
"Lady is a fine-fine swimmer, yes? She can swim like fishes. She is too smart."
Ma Di brought out more foo-foo and bitter leaf and tried to make us eat. She took me on one last tour of her small home, showed me the real glass windows again that Esther had bought her, the fine new tin roof--another gift from Esther; the generator (something she rarely used) locked up in a small shed, again the result of her daughter's generosity; and English lace curtains Esther had brought back during the period when she used to travel. I admired everything, even her partials and the photo of the dentist. I felt sad having to say good-bye all over again. I felt sad because a dumb idiot of a man had said my daughter's arms didn't match.
In a tiny back room overlooking the yard where Ma Diamond cooked the meals was a chest of drawers. It looked like a piece of Victoriana I remembered seeing in Alfred's flat. It was an ugly piece, incongruous in this little fishing village in West Africa. Ma Diamond opened one of the drawers with great care and pulled out a scrapbook. She looked around furtively and drew a potato sack curtain across the doorway.
She opened the book to the first page. It was another photograph, this time of a beautiful young girl with a baby in her arms. The girl was Esther; the baby, of course, was Florence. Ma Di didn't say a word. She just pointed and nodded.
I looked hard at the photo. I wanted some clues to the woman who could fell me at every turn, who could make me feel like dancing on air or like crawling in the dirt. Esther's young face was Esther's older face. The only significant difference was in the eyes, which looked at you with question marks in them, the way eyes can when they don't yet know what kinds of solutions they will find. The eyes were expectant. Alcohol had not yet clouded them. I wished I could have met Esther back then. I would have been a child. She could have shown me who I was. I hadn't thought enough about my mother's race and my own. I was mixed race; Louise Buttercup was white, my father was African. Yet I wasn't simply a bringing together of opposites. I was me. Distinct. A race apart. I didn't just want to know Esther; I wanted to know other people like myself. It would be a luxury to talk with someone who understood what blackness meant from a white perspective and what whiteness meant inside the dark.
Assie and Lady slept all the way back to the city. Esther and I didn't talk much; she was still hung over. She took four aspirin at a time. She washed them down with Star beer.
She drove fast, almost recklessly. I couldn't remember whether she'd done that on the way there or not--I'd been too exhausted to care. She turned the radio up loud, and then played tapes of Sabanoh '75. The taut guitar strings and the frenzied beat of the music raised my spirits. I pictured the driver left to die in the bush. Ants were eating his generous forearms. He was crying out to me for mercy; I pretended not to hear.
"Revenge is often unwise," Esther said without preface.
"I'm not ... I mean, I was just ..."
"He will know what it means to suffer, little Jacinta. You do not need to waste time thinking about a man like that. He is already dead."
We careened around a corner. A huge pothole in the road forced us to swerve to the right. Assie hit her head on the window and moaned before she went back to sleep.
"Why do you drive so fast?"
"You could kill all of us."
"Don't you care? Do you have some kind of death wish or something?"
"If I wished to die, I would die. I am alive. I like to drive fast. I like the world to rush past me. It is exhilarating. Sometimes I drive slow. Sometimes I drive medium. It depends."
"Drive slow today. Please. These roads make me crazy. They're lethal. And people here drive like crazy people. They're all kamikaze pilots. It's nuts. Lady doesn't have a car seat, so she could fly right through the windscreen if I were to let go--"
"Okay, okay! Calm down. See. Now I drive as slowly as a hearse." She slowed down to a crawl.
"Not that slow."
"Okay." She sped up.
"Esther! That's too fast!"
"You see. How can I please you? There is no way, is it not so? You are a difficult woman."
She did slow down after that. Assie only hit her head three more times. I was grateful but still uncomfortable driving with a woman who was high on Bayer and last night's vodka. I needed the Jeep back. Without it, I was at everyone's mercy. I felt pulled toward that vehicle as much as I was pulled toward the house. It was my means of escape.
I tried to take in the scenery. I stared at the women who seemed to fly by us with tree limbs on their heads. They would make fires in the afternoon and cook with other women. The ones with the babies on their backs carried as much wood as the others. The babies were extensions of their bodies; the women, in turn, extensions of the land they walked upon. If I were ever to paint them, they'd merge with the bush and people would have to ask me where the women were. When I'd point them out, people would say, "Yes! Of course! There they are! How stupid we were not to see them before!" The palm fronds waved languidly in the slight breeze. Here and there a child darted out from the bush and ran along beside the car. Esther would slow down to greet them, then speed up, leaving them behind in the dust clouds we created. None of the children had shoes. We passed old men who walked bent over with their eyes on the ground. Some had sticks to help them. One blind man was led by a child who had him on a piece of rope. The boy stretched out his hand when he saw us. Esther threw something out of the car window. In the side mirror I saw the child fling himself on it and stand up smiling and waving.
"The taxi driver is very generous today," Esther said, making me laugh.
Heat held us inside the vehicle. When we had to stop at the army roadblock, it leaped into the car with us and blanketed the cool air in seconds. The soldiers knew Esther Cole. They joked with her respectfully, then waved her on. One of them asked for my phone number. Esther said in Krio that I was a married woman, faithful to her husband. She said it mockingly. I tried not to think about it.
It seemed to me on that journey that the country was peopled with women walking through the bush with great loads upon their heads. It seemed as though the weight from the loads was what pitted the roads and made them seem endless. I imagined myself as a woman like them, carrying load after load from the bush to my village. Perhaps I would know another life because of rumors I'd heard or infrequent market trips to the city. And if I knew, perhaps each step I took would be to the beat of my yearnings. Or perhaps I'd know the secrets of the bush. If I'd found its center, perhaps I'd be blessed with calmness. Why didn't privilege bring peace? Measured in terms of these women's possessions, I was wealthy beyond belief. I'd wanted wealth growing up. I'd wanted privilege. I had it. It wasn't enough.
Lady stirred in my arms. She was sweaty. She had several mosquito bites on her arm. Supposing I had made her sick by taking her to Murunghi? I held her closer to me.
"Your baby is well," Esther said, surprising me again. "You do not need to be afraid."
"Thanks." I eased up on my hold of her. She was strapped into my lap. I knew I'd crush her in an accident. You weren't supposed to travel this way. I wished I'd brought the car seat.
During the journey, I tried not to picture Manny's face. There were too many empty spaces in it. It was my responsibility as his wife to fill them. I would fail again. I took an eraser and rubbed him out.
Because Manny had been erased completely by the time we arrived in the city and rounded the bend at the crest of the hill, I cried out when I saw him, as if he were a ghost.
Esther placed a hand on my knee and patted it. Lady woke up.
"Daddy!" she cried.
Assie woke up then too. "My Jesus God!" she cried. "It is Mr. Manny! Tell him that going away was not my own idea!" Manny didn't come up to the car. He stood by the open gate and watched us pull into the driveway. He had on a pair of white shorts and a white T-shirt. His hair was bleached a lighter blond. His skin was the color of new leather.
He didn't say a word. He opened the gate for us and Esther drove up the driveway. He followed us with his hands in his pockets, his head bowed.
"Daddy! Daddy come home!" Lady cried, as if it had been Manny who had left us.
Guilt swept me up in a great wave. I didn't bother to ask Esther in. I told Assie she could have the day off. They drove away as soon as I'd gotten my bags. Manny still hadn't uttered a word.
Inside the house, the rooms were surprisingly cool. I walked to the bedroom and put my bag on the bed. Lady wrenched herself out of my arms and ran to her father. He picked her up and kissed her. I couldn't look at him. "I had the air fixed," he said.
"Yes. I could tell. It's much cooler."
"Yeah. Not so loud either. Should have fixed it before."
He kissed Lady again.
"I've made lunch," he said.
"How did you know we'd be back?"
"Just hoping, I guess," he said.
Guilt caught me again and made me weak.
"Put Lady in the playpen, Manny. We need to talk."
He obeyed immediately. I heard Lady protest, then he handed her something--a cookie maybe. It was quiet again.
He came back to the bedroom and stood in his place at the door.
"Come and sit here," I said, indicating a place on the bed.
He came in and sat down beside me.
"We need to talk, Manny. We're in trouble. We--"
"I know. I know all about it, and I don't blame you.You read the book--what there is of it. I could see you'd been through my things."
"I'm sorry. Really I am. It was an accident. I--"
"Don't apologize. To tell you the truth, Jazz, it's a relief. It was driving me crazy lying to you about what I'd gotten done. The thing is, you've been lucky with writing and all, and I haven't. You sit down and it's written in a few minutes. For me it takes weeks--months. So I lied about the novel. Said it was done when it wasn't. You didn't give me a choice. I'd gotten so caught up in lying, I didn't know myself what was real. But now I do. I've thought about nothing else in these few days. You're real, Jazz. And I want you back."
"What about Lady?"
"Lady's real too. Sure she is."
"Manny, you don't even know her. You pick her up once in a while and you think that makes you a father. It doesn't. And I don't care about the writing. I never cared as long as we could be happy. But it's too late."
"No it's not, Jazz! You're wrong! I'm going to prove it to you. You'll see. You've come back and we can make it work. I know it was wrong to lie about 'Sophie,' but I can make that work too. I'll write the damn novel; I'm just kinda stuck, that's all. All I need is a bit more time. I'm out with these damn farmers day in, day out, and it's tough trying to focus on writing when you get back home at eight or nine. And Lady's a sweet kid. I'll play with her, you'll see. And we can have others. There's no reason why all the others couldn't be perfect."
"You really don't understand, do you, Manny?"
"I met a man like you earlier today. He said Lady's arms didn't match. He said we should have left her out in the bush to die."
"O, for Christ's sake, Jazz! Have I ever said--"
He stopped in mid-sentence and looked away.
"We can still make it work," he said softly. "We've got to."
"Why, Manny? We don't bring you any joy. Why do you need to make it work?"
"When I was a boy, something terrible happened to me. I don't need to tell you what it was. It's over now. But it changed everything. I'd lie in bed--I was ten years old--and I'd wish I was dead. I'd try to will myself dead, if you must know, but it never worked. My mother had given me a radio for my tenth birthday. One of those big ugly things. I'd wanted a transistor to carry to school, but she'd found this thing at a yard sale and carted it home. It wasn't pretty, but it turned out better than I'd thought it would because it picked up all kinds of stations. And there was this one station that played black music--blues and jazz. And I'd listen and try to pretend I was inside the radio with the guitars and the pianos. It wasn't like other music; it was like my life."
"Esther sings that way," I said. "She can make her music your life too."
"Esther's the woman who drove you home?"
"She's a singer. Esther Cole. She sings like that."
He shrugged. "Never heard of her. Anyhow, I'd listen to the music and there'd be certain women singers who could ... I don't know how to say it.... They could turn the air around me into a flight of stairs and make me go on up to the top and look down on everything terrible. And then I wouldn't be afraid because I'd risen above it. Do you see what I mean?"
"What happened to you, Manny? What was so terrible?"
"Doesn't matter. It's over. But I wanted you to understand why--"
"How can I understand if you don't tell me?" "Look, I am telling you. I'm telling you that you're the voice on the radio. You're the jazz I heard. You are. Your name, your face, everything. When I make love to you, I'm not afraid. You can take me up the stairs. I need you, Jazz. I don't know how to live without you. You've got to help me with Lady. Okay, okay. I know I don't play with her much, but you don't let me in. You've built a wall around the two of you. Assie gets in. Looks as though this Esther woman gets in too. Why not me? I'm your husband. Doesn't that mean anything to you?"
I thought about it. Did his being my husband mean anything? He was working himself up into anger. I'd seen him do it before as a kind of release. It bored me. Sweat stood on his temples, and he moved his hands along his thighs like someone trying to rid himself of a stain.
"Look, Jazz, I'm not an unreasonable guy. I know it's been hard for you too, having Lady the way she is. I know it's a pain that will never go away."
"Manny, you're a fool," I said, looking him straight in the eye.
I thought he was going to cry. The lower half of his face caved in, and he blinked hard.
I didn't back down. Too much had been pent up for too long. I couldn't stop myself.
"This is how I see it, Manny. I see a man who's scared stiff of himself and of the world he's in. I see a man who doesn't even begin to know what it means to have a child like Lady, who still thinks we can measure her by the length of her arms. I see a man who has never focused on anyone else's pain. I see a man who's tired of life, hanging on for fear of drowning, willing to risk other people's happiness to ease his own, self-induced pain. I see a man who told me we should kill our daughter. I see a father who will make his child ashamed of who she is. Do you know what it's like for a child to be ashamed of who she is? I was a child like that. My mother was mad. For several years she didn't know which way was up. You have to love children unconditionally and then love them even beyond the unconditional. You have to make them feel they can move mountains if they want to. If you look at them and see what's not there, they carry that space with them--they're empty for the rest of their lives. I was never my father, you see, and in my mother's eyes for years that was my failing--"
"And I was never tall."
"My father was ashamed of me. I was too damn short."
"O yes. Lydia mentioned something--"
"That bitch should learn to keep her mouth shut!"
He looked at my expression and softened his own. "It's my life, not hers. She had no right to tell you that."
The room was filled with rage. It ran down the white walls like blood. We both had to pause for a while. Lady called out from the living room. I went in to her. She'd finished whatever it was she'd been eating. I turned on the television. There was a local, self-help broadcast--"How to Build a Village Well." As usual, Lady was mesmerized by the screen. I handed her a bottle of juice and went back to the bedroom.
Manny looked small on the bed--almost as small as his father must have made him feel. His features were delicate, like his hands. Clean nails--an air of fastidiousness about him. Out of the blue, I was overcome with the notion that something brutal would put an end to his studied refinement. He and Alison Bean merged into one. It was Manny twisted up in the middle of the road, fly undone, blood oozing out from under him. It was closer to a vision than a daydream. I was so certain of its reality that I had to go and touch him to check that he was still whole.
"What's wrong?" he asked, grabbing hold of my wrist as I touched his cheek. It wasn't ripped and bleeding. It was only my imagination.
"Nothing's wrong," I lied, seeing Alison again, hearing the obscene screech of the bus's brakes. Maurice Beadycap was there, telling me it was my fault. My best friend had been killed before I had a chance to tell her I was sorry. Killed because of me.
'I'm sorry," I said.
Manny looked up and smiled. In that moment I'd spoken to the dead, and two words had changed our lives. We'd been going in one direction, but now we swerved off along another road.
His face lit up. He buried his head in my chest. "I love you, Jazz," he said. "Without you, I'm lost. I need you to get me through this hell."
He took me in his arms and positioned me on his lap. He was passionate. He tore off my buttons and buried his face in my neck. He hadn't shaved since we left and his beard was rough on my skin. He rocked me and cried out to me. We were dying again--the two of us plunging farther and farther into loss as he took me down with him to the darkness and begged me to hold his hand. When he reached a climax, he was sobbing. I cradled his head in my arms and felt the weight of a man's fear.
After he calmed down, he wanted to make me promise to stay with him until he died. I couldn't answer at first.
"Please, Jazz. I need to know you'll be here through thick and thin. We can grow old together. I know we can be happy. Please. Give me another chance. I have a trip to take next week. To Lunama--Assie's hometown. Why not come with me---you, Lady, and Assie? We can make a vacation of it. You're always saying you don't get to see anything. I want to make you happy, Jazz. I know I can do it. Please. Give us another chance."
"Okay" I said, and it was as though someone else was speaking. "Another chance. But I can't promise a lifetime. I just can't promise that. Things have happened. I'm not the same as I was when we got married."
"That's okay. I don't care about that. As long as you're here. As long as you keep holding me."
Lady cried out: "Mama! Mama!"
Manny told me to rest. "I'll get her," he said. "My wife needs her sleep."
He walked out of the room and closed the door quietly behind him. I heard him talk to Lady. They were both laughing. The white walls of the bedroom seemed to step back several feet and I floated up toward the ceiling.
My husband was playing with my child. Maybe he could love her after all.
Sometimes when you've waited for something for a long time, it doesn't materialize in the manner you thought it would. Manny's pledge to me and Lady was like that. I'd wanted to hear him say he could love us for a long time. Now he'd said it, and I felt nothing but weariness. I'd sat with Esther on a beach and watched the moon fight up our skin. I was beginning to know my father's country. I'd swung my child round and round in the ocean and watched her scoot forward through the waves in a movement fashioned from grace. I was writing poems full of words whose shapes Manny would never appreciate. I'd left him behind. But he wanted to come too. I reasoned I had a responsibility to him because of the vows we'd made. Wasn't that why I'd come back? Or was it fear? Was Esther right in thinking I was a coward? And if I was, what right did I have to dismiss the man I'd married because he too was afraid? And deep down, there was my own fear, snapping at my ankles, telling me I couldn't make it on my own. Louise's voice saying women needed a man. Society's voice telling me I was the one who was weak.
I listened to the man and the child in the other room. The air-conditioning made muffled protestations to the heat. I wanted to step aside from my life for a while and watch myself pass by, but I couldn't be anything but a participant. I was being rushed off in a direction I
hadn't consciously chosen. I wanted time for me and time for Lady, time for my writing, time to know what gender and race added up to in this country. Wifehood was a scheme designed to ensure that there was never time to unravel yourself from the threads of obligation. I was married. Manny was playing with Lady in the other room. He was taking us to Lunama. He would try and love us. I had to be content for a while longer. All my wishes had come true. Over the rainbow was here and now. No going back. The trains were coming in my head. Just like poor Hubert Butcher, I'd have to wait for them to arrive. In the meantime, the important thing was to hold the skull together while it endured the vibrations of a machine careening on its way from past to future tense. No point in falling apart like my mother had done when she understood the sad inevitability of her present tense. Whatever happened, I planned to endure. If not for my sake, then for Lady's. I'd lost a mother once; I refused to become a mother who was lost.
Lunama. A place of moons and legacies. I could meet Assie's family. I could try to find out more about my own. Lunama was near my father's village. Nothing had changed. I was still on my way home. I got up quietly, found a pen and paper, and wrote:
Dear Alfred: You were right about unconditional love. I am trying to live accordingly. If you still pray once in a while, pray for me. I am not as strong as I should be. I am going to begin looking for my father's house in earnest. We go to Lunama soon--a town whose name is full of promises. I will write from there about our adventures. I have a feeling that life has just picked up speed. I have visions. Do you believe in them? I am trying not to. Give my love to Louise. Give her Lady's love too. This is short. There isn't time to write--so much to do. I should never have been angry with Louise for being tired for all those years. Now I understand. Please tell her I'm sorry. I've met a woman who reminds me, strangely enough, of Louise, of you, of Alison Bean, and Simon. She is marvelous and dangerous all at once. Sometimes she hates me. Sometimes she makes me glad. I miss Alison Bean. I think about you and Louise and Vera Butcher and Hubert--even the Beadycaps--and wonder how it is I've arrived here at this place when I began over there on a different schedule on a different train altogether. I think about poor Hubert with the trains coming in his head, and I think I understand his torment. I think about Maurice Beadycap and wonder if evil is a style we inherit like a way of walking or speaking, or whether it's acquired when we lie in the seams of bitterness and regret. He did some terrible things. I think of his twin sister and I shudder. I've learned to love Lady not "in spite of" but "in the light of" her difference. Her lack of an arm seems incidental to her many talents. She is simply beautiful. I don't love Manny anymore. Did I tell you that? I've forgotten what you know and what you don't know. We have been apart too long. You taught me about the accident of gender and Simon taught me about the profundity of race. Louise taught me how to gather myself up and "screw myself to the sticking point" and so avoid utter failure. I hope it will be enough. I love this country. Manny is a particular kind of white male. It's only just occurring to me that perhaps this is significant. I wish my father were alive now in this country so that he could show me who he was in Africa. I see him in the faces and in the land, but it's too little, much too late. This sounds sad. I'm not sad. I have Lady. Manny says he loves us after all. We are blessed, aren't we? And all the roads not taken cannot come to haunt you if you keep your eyes fixed on the path ahead. Is it not so? That's the phrase they use in this country at the end of almost every sentence. Is it not so? Is it not so? And often, it is indeed so. Lady is crying for me. I must go. I can hear the crickets in the bush and the ocean calls to us over the hum of the city. The night is shot through with fireflies--they look like small explosions--minutiae in their necessary mating dance. Thank you for being the voice I can always write to. My dear almost mother and father, my dear Alfred Russell-Smythe. Cinta
Lunama was as ugly as Murunghi had been beautiful.
Assie began to complain about it when we still had ten miles to go. It was clear she didn't want to be associated with her hometown, now that she saw it in the light of the city. It was also patently clear that Assie was a snob.
"The town it is a shame," she said from her seat in the front of the Jeep. "It is certainly a very ugly place. The sewers run in the road and there are rats. Some of the rats are as big as pigs. There is a story of a family who hear a big noise in the night. They are nervous. They get up and go to the kitchen. They are from India. They look in the kitchen. They say, 'We are aghast. Look at the rats!' And indeed, a hundred rats have eaten a hole in the screen itself, that same one, and here they are in the kitchen eating the food for the month. The man and the woman and the servant take brooms and hit the rats unconscious. It is too sorrowful. No one survives."
"The rats killed them!" I say, horrified.
"No. Of course the rats are the ones who are dead."
"Rats do not kill people. Only babies," she said.
"Aren't babies people?" Manny asked.
Assie thought for a minute: "No. I do not think they are people as such. They are bits of people. One day, when they grow, they will be real people. When they are babies, they do not speak. They suck titty. That is the end."
"Seems to me they're people all right. Isn't your son a person?" Manny asked.
"No," Assie insisted, "they are not people as such. But they remember how to be people and that is why they will become them."
Manny winked at me in the rearview mirror. This was one of the moments when we were supposed to laugh at Assie's ignorance. Yet I liked the idea of babies remembering how to be people. It seemed sensible. How else would they know where to go once they'd shed their infancy?
"But Lunama is the most dirtiest town in the northern province," Assie continued, determined that we should know she forfeited all claim to the place. "Many a time I have been telling people there to clean the roads, but it is not done. And now here is the St. Peter Boy, which is to ask us for money. For years he begs on the road. It is not good."
Manny slowed down as a young man approached the vehicle. At first, I wasn't sure what I was looking at. The man's limbs were so altered as to be hard to recognize. Assie saw my surprise. "He is a polio," she said, much too loudly.
The young man was at the window. He thrust his hand inside the car. I jumped back and made Assie laugh.
"It is only St. Peter," she cried. "He is here at the intersection every day. Do not be afraid, Jassie. He is crazy." She rolled her eyes in her head and laughed again.
"Shut up, Assie," I said.
She looked scornfully at me, then closed her mouth tight and stared ahead.
St. Peter's hands were huge. He had three fingers on one hand, two on the other, and their size compensated for their number. His legs were twisted into boomerangs. His left leg curled under so far that he couldn't put his weight on it. He walked a step, then crawled another step--walk, crawl, walk, crawl, all the way from the roundabout in the center of the intersection to the car. "Du ya, Missus," he begged. "Gi me ten cent."
I reached into my pocket. I found a coin. As I handed it to him, Manny jammed his foot on the accelerator and we sped off'. St. Peter's hand was caught in the gap between the window and the top of the car. I screamed to Manny to stop, but before he could respond, Saint Peter had pulled it back from harm.
"What the hell--he could have lost his arm, for God's sake! What are you doing, Manny?"
"If you encourage them, they never leave you alone," Manny said.
He was trembling. I remembered what he'd told me about having to leave Africa because of the lepers. I was disgusted.
Assie tittered. "Ah, that St. Peter he is always having to beg. It is not good. The priests give him money, the nuns, the tourists. He is too happy."
"He didn't look too happy to me," I said. "He looked pathetic"
Manny had recovered his composure. He lectured to me in his calm, arrogant fashion about the importance of consistency. If we gave it to one, we should give it to them all.
"We do give it to them all," I said. "We screw them right and left."
Assie tittered again. I was beginning to hate her. She and Manny belonged together in the front of the car. Two snobs mocking the unfortunate in unison. I wanted to spit.
Manny asked Assie why he was called St. Peter.
"It is a good reason," she said. "He was adopted by the priests. They gave him a wheelchair. It says 'Donated by the Church of St. Peter the Rock, in the Name of Jesus the Lord Christ Almighty.' It is in white letters on the side. It is a very proud thing. So we call him St. Peter from the time he get the wheelchair. But he doesn't like to use because then it is that the tourist see he has friends in high places. He will be more richer if he does not ride."
Manny smiled. "He is a wise man."
"No. He is crazy, "Assie said.
One of Manny's rice projects involved a Peace Corps volunteer named Lionel Saucer. He was the person we were to stay with while we were in town. There were no hotels now that the iron ore mines had closed, but at least there was electricity in some homes, and occasional running water--part of the legacy of the German mining company.
We had to pass right through the main thoroughfare in order to get to Lionel's house. The main street was named after the current president. It was a politically correct thing to do, especially as he was Temne, and Lunama sat in the heart of Temne country. Besides, a town in the south that had refused to name a street after the previous Mende president had been attacked one night by soldiers. Five of the councilmen who had voted against the naming were dead by morning. People learned from others' mistakes. The presidential street sign in Lunama was three times as large as the other signs, and all the councilmen were famous for their peace of mind.
Assie told us the main street had once been asphalt. Now it was mostly dust and rocks. In the rainy season, the road was a mud hole. Assie told us that Lunama was sick in the rain because the sewers overflowed, and the electricity came on less frequently than usual. The marketplace stood off to the side of the road, mostly housed under a big shed roofed in sheet metal. Vendors with rickety wooden stalls, who hadn't been fortunate enough to have a place inside the market shed, set up shop along its outside walls, while their children slept under tables with dogs and flies and disease. Some of the stalls' total produce was worth little more than two or three dollars--four or five piles of old "Irish" potatoes; a modest selection of mangoes; perhaps a dozen yams and a mound of rice. Other stalls were piled high with merchandise from China: cheap perfume, colorful fabric, beads, knickknacks, hairpins, nylon twine for braiding. Poverty echoed around the market--in the cheap plastic sandals people wore and the holes in their clothing. It echoed in the obsessive care with which the consumers purchased goods, counting out their cents one at a time and knowing what it meant to give them up. Poverty was there in the acceptance of a debilitating heat and in the open gashes on the hindquarters of dogs. But poverty couldn't smother the spirit of many of the women, who sat on stools and told each other what they knew. Their laughter traveled over the heat and entered us. A few boys of five or six rushed up with oranges and begged us to buy them.
We bought three oranges. Manny told us to douse them in bottled water before peeling them. We ignored him. Assie pointed to a woman at one of the nearby stalls. The woman was dressed in yellow gara cloth. The patterns on the cloth swirled in brown toward the center of her body, making me think her navel was a whirlpool. At her feet was a massive bowl of palm oil. Assie wanted some to take to her mother. She jumped out of the Jeep. The woman filled an old jam jar with the orange oil, which shone like gasoline and smelled like thatch. It would give the food a distinctive flavor. It would make you imagine that the meat and fish and chicken and rice had been cooked under the earth because palm oil when it's fresh has a deep-down taste of old nutrition.
In spite of Manny's protests, I got out of the Jeep to watch how the women poured the liquid from a dipping can to the jar. "Liquid gold," I murmured as it slid from one container to the other--shimmering, glorious, Africa orange. The woman selling the palm oil heard me, and I watched as laughter traveled down her throat. She handed the jar of oil to Assie, stood up, and came over to me. She was small--about my height. She placed her hands firmly over my breasts and squeezed. I was too surprised to push her away.
"Very nice titty," she said. "You give me the bra?"
Assie burst out laughing. Manny rushed up and shoved the woman to one side. I turned on him.
"What are you doing?"
"I don't want some market woman manhandling my wife"
"She wanted my bra, that's all. She didn't hurt me. Do you want my bra?" I asked her.
"Jacinta, get in the car" Manny said.
"Do you want it?" I asked her again.
I reached up under my Mickey Mouse T-shirt and unclasped the hooks.
"Jazz! What in Christ's name--?"
It was easy slipping it off. The T-shirt was extra large. My bra had black cotton cups trimmed in lace. In Paris, Manny had told me he could live inside it happily for the rest of his life. He'd said it would be dark and warm like I was.
"Here," I said to the woman. "It's yours."
The woman was thrilled. She put it on over her blouse. She thanked me over and over and hugged Assie. Manny stormed off to the Jeep. I decided to walk around for a while. Assie came with me.
People recognized Assie and called out her name: "Eh, Miss Assieyatu! Eh, Miss Assie!" One Lebanese shopkeeper called out from her store: "Miss Assieyatu, hi! You bring your friends to us. We will give them cold Star beer! You bring the Americans to us."
Assie said something in Krio, then she turned to me. "The Lebanese want all the Americans to take money back to their children in the States. They need the dollar bill. They need them for the tuition schooling fees. That Mrs. has four girls in the colleges in the United States. There is never enough money. Lebanese are thieves." I told Assie she was racist.
"I cannot be racist. I am black," she said simply.
"You're still racist," I said.
"You do not know how the Lebanese treat the black in this country. You do not know what I mean."
"Some Lebanese people must be okay."
"I do not know one," Assie said and set her mouth again in a deliberate move to shut me up.
We returned to the Jeep. We'd kept Manny and Lady waiting in the scorching car. Manny barely glanced at us. We were being punished.
Assie climbed into the front again. "I am riding again in the front!" she said. "It is a wonderful thing."
We were a few blocks from Lionel's house. We reached the end of the main road and saw ahead of us a building that must have been flown in from Italy.
Assie brightened. "Look! There is the St. Peter Catholic Church, Jassie! You see it! It is the largest church in all of the northern province, built here in Lunama. Father Marco from Italy built that church. My own father, he was the one helping with the construction. He himself was the one who place the cross on the top of the spire. Look up! See how high this man was climbing! It is a miracle!"
St. Peter's was a huge building that dwarfed the rest of the town. It stood inside a large, well-kept compound. Assie pointed out the priests' house and the convent, which stood to the right of the church. They were painted a weak sky blue. The church was a white monolith against the heat of the day.
"When the Germans were here, this church was full every Sunday. The Germans and the Italians and the British, they all came. They wore nice hats and shoes. The town was very much having fun. At the mining compound there is tennis courts and a swimming pool."
"Swim! Lady swim, Mama! Now!"
"No, Lady, "Assie said to her. "The pool is closed. Weeds grow in the bottom now because the Germans have gone. They were the ones who made it work. Africans are no good to make things work. There is no water in the pool now. But in the old days, it was full. When I was a child, I swam in there because my very own mother was the main worker in the foreman's house. Those were the good old days."
I shook my head.
Assie took offense. "We had water and electricity with the Germans.
Now we have nothing. Lunama is a dead town full of old Africans. Soon I will go to the United States. You can carry me back with you. Then I will live like Assie used to five. Then I will be happy."
Manny couldn't resist the temptation to preach. He told Assie that happiness did not rest upon material wealth. He told her that she wouldn't like America--that it was one of the most racist countries on earth. I asked him if that meant he didn't plan to go back after all.
"Maybe I'll never go back," he said. "Maybe I'll die here. Africa's growing on me. I'm in tune with things here. As soon as we find your folks, I plan to look into buying some land. I like it here. It's unspoiled."
Assie interrupted him. He hadn't made a dent in her desire to live in the United States.
"I do not care about this racist business. The foreman's wife used to make cream caramel. I want cream caramel in my own refrigerator. I want to eat it every day until I am sick of cream caramel. In America I will have all the ingredients. Everyone has a refrigerator in the United States. I am asking them each time if they have one and they say yes. It is true. Some of them have refrigerators you can walk inside. That is what I want. But I do not care if it takes me many years to get a big, big one. When I first go there, my refrigerator will be small because I will be saving to bring over my son. Michael will stay with my mother until I am ready. He stays with her now and he is happy. Often it is only me and you and Lady at the beach, is it not so? And we are happy. So I will leave him for a few years and get an education and a refrigerator. Then I will send for him. Then I will be happy, yes?"
Lionel Saucer wasn't home.
We knocked on the door for ten minutes because Manny was convinced that the young man from Minnesota was still asleep.
We sat on the porch and waited. Lionel lived on the outskirts of town in a concrete-block, single-story house with brown shutters and an outhouse. Assie explained that most of the houses had indoor plumbing because of the mines, but now that the water was mostly turned off, there was nothing to flush them with. "It is too sorrowful," she moaned.
I took Lady round to the outhouse. It was several yards away from the house at the end of a tiny bush path. Draped across the top of the makeshift wooden structure were two fat black snakes. I stood looking up at them, fascinated.
"Sake!" Lady cried. She was shocked at first, then we both began to laugh.
Manny had heard her cry and came rushing round the side of the house.
"Stand clear! Stand clear!" he cried.
We stood clear. Assie screamed. And then none of us knew what to do.
"Kill them, Mr. Manny," Assie suggested.
"With what?" he said. It was a practical question.
"With a gun," she said.
"I don't have a gun, Assie."
"All whites have guns," she said.
"Only in the movies," he told her. "Do you really need to go?" Manny asked me.
"You went just before we left the last town."
"That was hours ago. I need to go now."
Manny put his hands on his hips. He'd been relatively patient for an impatient man since I'd come back from Murunghi, but now he was becoming his old self again.
"I'm not risking life and limb so that you can take a piss," he said.
"Fine," I said. "Then I'll do it."
"This I must see," he said.
I walked off in the direction of the house. I hunted around for a big stick. When I found one I carried it back with me to the outhouse.
"And what do you plan to do with that?"
"Here, take her," I said, handing him Lady. I wanted to do something grand. Manny was impotent; I wanted to make him feel his inferiority. He'd tricked me into staying with him and I wanted to make him pay. I knew I could kill the snakes. I wasn't afraid.
"Jazz, put that stick down. You'll hurt yourself. Is this some kind of statement or something? First the tossing of the bra, then the killing of the phallic symbol. Is this what this is about?"
"No, dear," I said. "These snakes are not your penis. I only wish ..."
He looked away. I'd hurt him. Revenge felt warm inside me.
I walked up to the outhouse and whacked both of the snakes off the doorway at once. They fell writhing to the ground and I jumped back. One had almost brushed my toes.
Assie was screaming. I told her to shut up. Manny was calling me an idiot. Lady was laughing. Just then we heard a car pull up. We all forgot about the snakes and rushed round the side of the house in time to see Lionel Saucer get out of a crowded taxi. What he did next was odd, to say the least. He leaned down into the Toyota sedan and hugged each one of the passengers. He was crying. I assumed someone had died. My first thought was one of selfish annoyance. Several days with a grieving Peace Corps volunteer would not be pleasant.
The taxi pulled off slowly, and Lionel walked over to his front porch and sat down on the steps. He didn't seem to know we were there. Manny tried to introduce us, but it was a while before Lionel understood who we were.
"O, hi," Lionel said. Then he was gone again.
"What's the matter with you?" Manny said, all of his impatience coming to a head.
Lionel looked up at us, bewildered. He wasn't seeing us; he was looking out beyond us to somewhere in the distance.
Manny repeated his question: "What happened? What's the matter with you, man?"
"I'm--I'm sorry. It's just that ... something amazing ... We saw ... amazing."
"What did you see, Lionel?" I asked, strangely excited by his mood.
"We saw ... and she was ... I mean ... huge."
"Who was?" I asked.
"She was," Lionel said. "Huge. And we thought at first it had to be some kind of mirage and then we realized we'd all seen it! I mean ... well ... fuck!"
"The boy's drunk," Manny said, heading off to the Jeep to unload the bags. Lionel jumped up.
"No! You're wrong, Mr. Fox. I'm not! I'm not drunk! Look!"
To Assie's delight, Lionel attempted to walk a straight line. "See!" he said. "See!"
"Okay, so you're not drunk. Will you help me unload the Jeep then and cut all the crap?" Lionel flinched.
"I'll help. But I want you to know I saw it. We all saw it. And it's real."
"What is?" I pleaded.
Lionel Saucer gazed down the road into the heart of the bush. "The dinosaur. It's out there. We saw it."
Lionel was agitated for the rest of the day and into the night. The only thing he wanted to talk about was the dinosaur. Manny dismissed his story out of hand. He muttered something about Lionel and pot, and then refused to listen to him. I, on the other hand, was fascinated by it. Whatever he'd seen out there, it was obvious it had changed him. Every few minutes he'd stop in mid-sentence as if he'd been struck dumb by the shock of his vision.
After dinner, once I'd put Lady to sleep on the bed Lionel had given over to his guests, I suggested he try to draw the creature he'd seen. We couldn't call it a dinosaur in Manny's hearing; the word drove him crazy. "Dinosaurs are extinct, for Christ's sake!" he'd exclaim, and then storm off. Why it made him so angry I didn't know. But I had a nasty suspicion that Manny was jealous of Lionel, especially when he saw how moved I was by his story.
Lionel drew the picture with great care.
His creature looked like a cross between a brontosaurus and a giant lizard. Lionel said he wasn't an artist. He said we should go to the library in the city and see if they had any books on dinosaurs. I asked him if the creature he'd seen could have been one of those giant lizards found in Indonesia or Papua New Guinea or some such place I'd read about. He shook his head.
"Mrs. Fox ... I mean, Moses--"
"Jacinta. This wasn't some lizard. I swear. This was unlike anything I've ever seen in my life. It must have been thirty feet long and fifteen feet--maybe eighteen feet high. And yet it moved softly. None of the ground-shaking crap you see in the movies. This was real. We all saw it. Some of the women and some of the men began to cry. I was crying. There was something about it. It came onto the road. We saw its head first and we all gasped, and then the rest of its body emerged from the bush, and the driver said 'Monster' in this whisper and we all kinda froze and he jammed on the brakes. We nearly hit it. No kidding. We nearly hit the thing. And then it kept on going, right across the road. But before it disappeared into the bush on the other side, it turned its head and looked at us. And it seemed to be saying, 'What the hell are you doing here?' And then she was gone."
"She? Why do you call it a 'she'?"
"I don't know. Didn't know I was."
"Was there something female about it?"
"No. I mean, yes. I don't know. I guess ... it's just that she seemed ... I mean it seemed like a female. I half-expected to see a baby trailing behind it. She had an air about her. She looked like a goddess. I guess you think I'm crazy, don't you? Calling some animal a goddess?"
"No. I think that some creatures do live in a state of grace. We have a lot to learn from them."
"Thanks," he said. "God, I'm glad you're here."
"What are you going to do?" I asked him.
"Well, I know one thing for sure. I can't forget it. Something has happened to me, Jacinta. I'm not the same person I was when I set out this morning. I'm not. I've been changed. I'm from Minneapolis, for God's sake! I mean, this kind of thing doesn't happen to guys like me. Coming here was about the most adventurous thing I've ever done in my life. I plan things. I map them out. I try to anticipate. I'm going to be a field engineer. I like logic. I've always liked logic. My father, Lionel Saucer the First, liked logic. Things like this don't happen in my world. I feel like those wise men in T. S. Eliot's poem--"
"'The Journey of the Magi.'"
"Yes, that's it. Do you like poetry?"
"Very much. I write it once in a while."
"You do. Neat. That's why you're not laughing at me. My poems go from A to B. They're logical. I like fancy metaphors, but only the kind someone like John Donne would use. The ones that join mathematics, say, with romance. I think I'll go see John tomorrow."
"John Donne! He's dead, Lionel."
"No! Not John Donne! I'm not crazy. I know I must seem crazy, but I'm not. I'm talking about John Turay. He's African. A good friend of mine. Works up at the old mines."
"I thought they were closed."
"They are. He, like, keeps things oiled and stuff. Maintains the place in case they ever decide to come back."
"Anyone. Doesn't matter. This town is dying."
"Why did they leave?"
"Taxes. The government got greedy."
"What do you think John will say about your creature?"
"Don't know. But I think he'll say something wise. He's about the wisest person I've met over here. He studied in England at the University of London."
"So did I! When was he there?"
"Don't know for sure. But he's older than you. Now he reads and reads. Reads just about everything. Has a daughter--or is it a niece?--but no wife. Don't know where she is. Cooks the best venison around. Hey, would you like to come with me tomorrow?"
"I'd need to bring Lady. Assie wants to visit with her family."
"That's okay. John loves kids. Want to come?"
"Yes. I do."
"Great," he said. Lionel looked at me shyly. I knew he liked me, and I didn't want to lead him on. He'd seen the way Manny treated us, and I could tell he wasn't impressed with him. But I had to make Lionel realize I wasn't looking for anyone else--at least until I'd determined what to do about Manny. Something in Lionel's eyes told me I needed to let him know that fast. I'd tell him tomorrow at the mines.
I wished him good night and went to join Manny and Lady in Lionel's bedroom.
The flimsy bed creaked when I climbed in. Lady was in the middle of the bed. Her small left stump was nestled up against Manny's mouth. I could see them by the fight of the moon that shone through the window. It looked as if Manny were kissing her. He woke up briefly when I lay down.
"How's the visionary?" he whispered sleepily.
"Lionel's okay. He really saw something, you know."
"Maybe. But it wasn't some damn dinosaur, that's for sure."
"How do you know?"
"Jazz, grow up. Dinosaurs have been extinct for eons. What the hell would one be wandering around West Africa for?"
"Some people say the Loch Ness monster is some kind of dinosaur."
"And some people say there are UFOs, but most of us aren't dumb enough to believe it."
"Do you only believe in what you see with your own eyes?"
"I believe in rationality. Dinosaurs in this day and age are not rational."
"But you're a writer. Don't writers transcend the rational world?"
"No. We leave that kind of thing to lunatics and poets."
He turned over. The conversation was finished. Lionel's dinosaur didn't make sense. Lionel's dinosaur was a fabrication.
"I'm going with Lionel to the mines tomorrow. There's a man there he needs to see"
"Suit yourself," he said. "See if you can keep your bra on this time."
With my one gesture of giving the bra away, I'd triggered in Manny a retreat into meanness. There would never be a time when I would be able to please him. I knew that now. He'd pretend for a while and then his love for us would dissipate. He couldn't help himself. Weak people are always the most dangerous.
I lay awake for hours listening to them breathe. Manny moaned once or twice in his sleep. I thought about Murunghi and pretended I was still there. Esther was holding my hand and the ocean was spilling into me like absolution. Everything about the air and the stars and the beach and me was clean. I went to sleep listening to Esther singing. Her voice merged with Murunghi's ocean until there was no distinction to be made between the waves and her melody.
In the morning I woke up early, got Lady up and dressed, and headed up to the mines with Lionel before Manny had finished breakfast.
"You'll love John," Lionel said. "There's no other man like him."
I didn't listen much. I was thinking about Simon. I'd hardly begun looking for his family. Time was running out. Again I had the sense of things speeding up. Perhaps this John Turay person could help me. He knew the land. And he sounded like a nice person. I'd tell him about my father. Yes. He'd be the one to help me.
I kissed Lady and sighed.
"We're going to meet the man!" Lionel cried.
"Yippee!" Lady cried in her sweet baby voice.
"Yippee yi yay!" I shouted back as I put my foot on the gas pedal of the Jeep and sent us flying along the road that led to the mines.
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|Date:||Jan 1, 1998|
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