Part III: Lunama, 6-7.
John Turay wasn't home.
We knocked on the door several times. Eventually an old man came around from the back of the house and greeted us.
"Where's Mr. John?" Lionel called out.
"He is at the club. It is breakfast. I am Mr. Charm, the gardener. You remember me, Mr. Lionel?"
"Sure. Charm. I remember."
"Mr. John will be home quick quick. You want to wait in the inside?"
"No. We'll go find him. Thanks, Charm."
We got back into the Jeep and Lionel gave me directions to the club. He became garrulous. It was obvious he'd wanted to find John Turay at home. He fidgeted with his glasses, pushing them onto the bridge of his nose, taking them off and cleaning them. He tried to be a good host, pointing things out along the way, but his heart wasn't in it. He'd begin sentences and then his voice would trail off into memory.
"When the iron ore mines were open, this place was booming, so they say.... Everyone talks about the good old days with the Germans. There's one of the old conveyer belts. Looks pretty rough, doesn't it?"
"Yes, it does."
"Things rust out here overnight. John does the best he can, but he's one man against the bush. God, can you believe it? I mean, like, it doesn't make sense. It's not logical. But we all saw it ... amazing. Where was I?"
"You were talking about John. One man against the bush."
"O yeah. Well, that's what it's like. One man. And then the bush creeping up on you. That's what it's like. Old John, he's an oddball in a way. I think he kinda likes the idea of the bush taking over again. Never did think much of the industrial age. Never wants to go back to Europe. Says he's had enough."
We passed the old tennis courts. Lionel said they were still used by some of the wealthier people in Lunama--the Lebanese shop owners, the bank manager from the city. The cement had risen up on one of the courts as if there'd been an earthquake. On either side of the net, you'd be playing uphill.
Yet there was something beautiful about the mining compound. The rusty edifices to the west brought me back to where Lionel was--with his dinosaur. They were peaceful. The hills around the abandoned buildings were dotted with gorgeous trees covered in crimson-pink blossoms. Each blossom was larger than my fist, and five or six were grouped together on each stem. Limbs of trees were hidden by hundreds of flowers.
"What are those blossoms called?" I asked Lionel.
"Don't know. John calls them 'In the Name of the Fathers,' but I think he's just kidding. He's always kidding around. Says they put him in mind of the father, son, and holy spirit. Says they look like the glory of Christ's blood."
"Is he a religious man?"
"John? No! Hates religion--Christianity anyway. Says it screws everything up."
We approached the swimming pool. I was glad Assie was spending time with her family. Seeing the state of disrepair the pool was in would have caused her real pain. Weeds grew up through the cracks in the cement, and a dark green fungus lined the sides of the walls. The fence around the pool was rusted, like everything else. I stopped the car to take a closer look. Lionel tried not to burst.
"We don't want to miss John," he said. "He'll be off on his rounds in a minute, checking on this and that, oiling things. We don't want to miss him."
I assured him we'd only stop for a moment. There was something hypnotic about the place. It was returning to nature. The white men had lost.
With my face up against the fence, I could block out everything except recent history. I heard the European expatriates telling the "native boys" to get their beer or their cocktails. I saw Assie with a white girlfriend laughing in the shallow end of the pool. A few wealthy Africans sat at tables under striped umbrellas. They laughed with the rest and forgot what was down in the town below them. St. Peter wasn't at the pool, of Course; neither was his wheelchair. And the lepers I'd seen at the market in the city were absent too. There were guards by the gates chatting up the girls who were looking after the white women's children. Boredom, hedonism, race, class, gender, and heat combined to color everything.
"Assie says it was beautiful," I told him.
"John says it was shit," Lionel replied.
I shifted Lady from one arm to the other.
"Can I take her for a moment?" Lionel asked.
I hesitated. I never gave Lady over to anyone easily. She'd been attached to me for too long. Only Assie had free rein with her.
"I'm fine," I said. "Let's go on to the club."
Lionel seemed hurt. He must have sensed that I didn't really trust him.
As we climbed into the Jeep, he asked me what had happened to Lady. I detected spite in his voice; he was trying to get back at me for refusing to allow him to hold her and for delaying him here at the pool.
"Nothing happened," I said.
"Was she born that way?"
He let the matter drop.
"Which way to the club?"
"Straight ahead, then turn left at the intersection. You'll see it there on the right. It's a two-story building with large glass windows."
We drove on in silence.
The club looked like the post office in the city, except it was on stilts--large concrete columns that held it up like a trophy for the bush to see. It had probably been grand a few years ago, but now it was eroding like the rest of the mining compound. The odd roach scuttled across the verandah, and the green paint on the wooden shutters was peeling. Ants had constructed small mounds in corners, and when we walked inside, we were greeted by the sweet-stale smell of mildew.
John Turay was sitting at a table in a lounge that a few years ago would have been crowded with Europeans. He was watching TV--news about the upcoming OAU conference to be held in the country in a few months' time. I saw him from the side. His hair was tight against his head so that the shape of his skull was clear. His dark skin shone. He was sitting under a fan eating rice and soup with a spoon, and he had a newspaper in his hand. He was dark in the poorly lit room. A fan whirred over his head.
"Hey, John! How are you doing, man? I've brought visitors."
John Turay stood up and walked over to us. He was of average height and build. His shirt was open almost to the waist. He began to button it up on his way over to us. His rich brown skin made the white of his shirt brighter.
"John Turay, Jacinta Moses and Lady. They're staying with me for a few days while Jacinta's husband works on the new rice project."
John Turay shook my hand. Lady wanted hers shaken too. She leaned over in my arms and reached out with her left stump. He took hold of it gently and shook it.
"Delighted, I'm sure," he said to her. She giggled.
Immediately, I liked him.
He invited us to join him. Lionel began his story before we'd sat down.
"I swear, John, it was the most amazing thing I've ever seen! Huge! Massive! At least thirty, forty feet from head to tail. And calm--as if we were like ants or something. It's changed me. Everyone saw her. Everyone."
"Hey, Lionel. Slow down. We've got all day. What was forty feet?"
"The dinosaur, John! I saw a fu--I mean, I saw a dinosaur."
I interrupted: "Lionel keeps referring to it as a woman."
"It was female, I tell you. I'm damn sure of it now. The more I think about it, the more it makes sense. She was distracting us from her young. Her eyes ... they were ... feminine."
John Turay didn't laugh. He called over to the only other person in the room--a man cleaning glasses behind the bar who stepped out from the shadows and smiled. John asked for three more bowls, spoons, and more rice and soup.
"I know white people eat Kellogg's cornflakes for breakfast," he said. "But now we're in Africa, we do as the Africans do, is it not so?"
"I am African. My father came from here."
"Is that so?" he said. "Well, then, Miss Jacinta, welcome home."
I had been made to feel welcome before in Africa--many times, in fact. But John Turay's welcome, simple though it was, outshone the others I'd received. It warmed me up like oatmeal, opened me up like the blossoms we'd seen on his trinity trees.
We ate cassava leaf stew. It was dark green--almost black--peppery and good. Even Lady liked it. John said she was a real African if she liked cassava leaf. That was the main test of heritage, he claimed. And she had passed.
Lionel showed John his drawings. The more he talked about the creature, the more animated he became. I wished I hadn't been rude to him about Lady's arm. I was too sensitive. He'd brought me to meet the man, and the man was worth meeting. I was grateful. As breakfast continued, we began to talk without barriers between us. Lady talked too. She chattered on and on. Then, out of the blue, she climbed down from my lap and toddled over to John.
"Me sit," she said, looking up at him.
"My God, she wants to sit on your lap!" I said. "She never does that with strangers--especially men."
"I'm glad she doesn't," John said, scooping her up and placing her firmly on his knee. "She will be too pretty to make that request in a few years. She will get into trouble. I hope her mother will teach her to look out for men of wicked intent."
"She will," I said.
Lady fell asleep on John's lap, we ate two or three helpings of cassava leaf, and still we talked.
Lionel was the one who spoke the most. He wanted answers.
"So what do you think, John? Is it possible? We all saw her--every one of us in the taxi. They could all verify my story. What do you think?"
"I think you need to talk to Isatu."
"The girl I met last time I was here?" Lionel asked.
"You and she need to talk."
"Who's Isatu?" I asked.
"She is a girl with a story," John said. "Come on, let's go and find her."
Isatu lived on the mining compound with her mothers and father. Her natural mother was Mr. Charm's senior wife. We found Isatu in a small house behind John's place. She was thrilled to see us. She was about twelve years old, with finely braided hair and a beautiful, inquisitive face.
John explained who we were. Isatu said she remembered Lionel from last time. "But he has grown taller," she said. We all laughed.
"I think I stopped growing a few years back," he said.
"Yes," said Isatu, unperturbed. "You have indeed grown, Mr. Lionel."
"Isatu," John said, "tell Mr. Lionel and Miss Jacinta the story you told me the other day."
Isatu drew herself up. Clearly, she liked the attention.
"My story is this. I was walking through the bush and it was hot. I was so hot I was sweated very much. I was over there by the river and so I said, 'Isatu, go for a swim in the water.' This is what I did because I was too hot. I took off my clothes and jumped in. I am, in fact, a good swimmer. Mr. John has been my teacher. Now I swim like the fishes."
"Swim! Swim!" Lady begged.
"And I was in the swim for many long minutes until I was tired. Then I went for a rest on the little island in the river. It is a small island, and I am happy there because I can think about my life and make dreams. So I am lied there in the sun, mind you, when all of a sudden I hear something. It is not much. It is like this."
Isatu bent down and scuffed up the red dust with her hand. "It is like this, but it is more loud. And then I sit up and I see something amazing."
I looked at Lionel. He seemed to be holding his breath. His eyes were wide open and his glasses sat on the end of his nose.
"What was it?" he asked in a whisper.
Isatu shrugged. "Who knows?" she said.
Lionel was exasperated. "Well, what did it look like, for Christ's sake?"
Isatu shrugged again. Then she said, "It looked like this."
Slowly, very, very slowly, she raised herself up on tiptoe, stretched out her neck, and stared through us to a place beyond all horizons. Slowly, very, very slowly, she began to turn her head. When she saw who we were there was a brief moment of recognition, then she dismissed us, all without a word, and slowly, very, very slowly, she turned back to face where she had been before.
"Christ," Lionel said. "You saw her too, didn't you?"
John looked from Lionel to Isatu and back again. "Well, it looks as though we have a genuine mystery on our hands. Why don't we go inside and talk about it some more?"
John Turay's house was a modest one: a vinyl sofa in the living room; a wooden table with four chairs; an old TV and a rug. Isatu and Lady made themselves at home. John said I could relax and let her run around. "It is safe in my house," he said. "I like children. My niece brings her little friends and Charm's family is always here."
He brought us iced tea with mint leaves. The drink was delicious. He said the wives of the mining crews loved the drink. He'd learned how long to steep the tea from them. He'd learned well. I wondered how many wives he'd known. I thought about the buttons on his shirt and how he'd done them up when he approached us this morning. I wondered how many women had seen him undo them. I wondered at the depth of the dark in his skin.
We talked for hours about monsters. Isatu elaborated on her story, though it began to be difficult to tell how much was made up, now that she was in the limelight. She'd certainly seen something. And her impersonation had been uncanny. It had sent chills down all of us. I thought I understood for the first time what Lionel meant when he'd said his dinosaur was female.
Lionel asked if they should report what they'd seen to the authorities.
John laughed. "You are talking like a white man, Lionel. Which authorities do you mean? The police? They are living in hovels. Many of them have not been paid for four months. They are thirsty for revenge. They do not want to hear about monsters. Or do you mean your authorities? The people at the American Embassy? The people at the British Consul? What is the term you use--psycho-vacked. Yes. You would be psycho-vacked back home in the blink of an eye."
"It's hopeless, then," Lionel said.
"No. That I did not say. We have one thing in our favor."
"What's that?" Lionel asked miserably.
"We have some people here who know the bush inside and out. If your dinosaur is in this area, Lionel, I think we stand a chance of finding her."
"You mean, you're willing to go on a hunt! With me! For something you've never even seen?"
John shook his head. "Lionel, you must always remember a phrase that the white people have put into their Christianity: 'Blessed are they who have not seen and yet still believe.'"
"Are you blessed, Mr. Turay?" I asked him.
"Yes. I had a mother who loved me and a sister who did not die before she had a beautiful daughter for me to remember her by. And now I have met you and Lady. I am blessed," he said.
Lionel looked at us both. His mouth was hard. When he spoke, his voice was clipped: "Your husband will be back soon from the rice fields. I promised I'd take care of you. We should be getting back."
When we climbed back into the Jeep, the sun was halfway down the side of the sky. It was mid-afternoon. We'd been talking for almost a whole day. We agreed to return early the next day and begin the hunt. I'd leave Lady with Assie, who had been wanting to take her young charge to see her family--this would be a good opportunity. Lionel, Isatu, myself, and John Turay would set out toward the river. I was to bring a bathing suit. John would pack us a lunch. We could head east, toward what I thought was the area my father's family had come from. John hadn't heard of any Moses from there, but he knew many of the villagers out beyond the third set of hills, and he could ask for me.
Once again I was on the road. Moving fast toward a destination whose coordinates escaped me. I was chasing a dream-monster with Lionel Saucer, Isatu Charm, and John Turay. If we found her, what the hell would we do? Our only weapon was a camera. But I already knew that, if we saw her, and if indeed she had the kind of grace that Isatu had displayed in her divine mimicry of the monster, I would never shoot her with film. I would let her go. Having seen her once, I would be blessed.
When we returned to Lionel's house, Manny was sitting on the front porch.
"You're late," he said.
"We hadn't agreed upon a time," I told him.
"You're late," he repeated. "I've been waiting for hours."
"What about the farmers?" I asked him.
"Sleeping. Say they won't do a damn thing on an afternoon like this. Say it's too hot. We're way behind schedule. I need to go down south and pick up some extra tools." He stood up and headed inside. "We'll leave early in the morning," he called back over his shoulder.
Lionel and I looked at each other in horror. Then I followed Manny inside with Lady in my arms.
"I'm staying," I said quietly. "We have plans for tomorrow."
"We? Who the hell are we?"
"Me, Lionel, a man named John Turay, and a young girl named Isatu. We have plans."
"It's always someone new, isn't it, Jazz? First this Esther Cole woman, now John what's-his-name. Pathetic. Look, I'll say it once more: We're leaving tomorrow morning. Early."
I went up to him and stopped a foot or so away from him. Heat sat on the tin roof of the house like a curse.
"Tomorrow, Lionel, John, Isatu, and I are going out into the bush to look for Simon's village. Lady will stay with Assie. She'll be fine."
Manny looked at me. Hatred lined his eyes.
"Do what you like. I guess you'll be taking the Jeep?"
"I guess I will."
Manny laughed. "Who gives a shit?" he said, and walked through the back door to the outhouse, grabbing a roll of toilet paper from the table on his way out.
"Maybe you should go with him," Lionel suggested. "He is your husband, after all"
I'd had enough of sulky men. Enough of people telling me what I should do.
"Go to hell, Lionel," I said." You know nothing."
Lionel walked out on me too, only he went through the front door into the heat-white light of a tropical mid-afternoon. Lady stayed behind, happily playing at my feet, bringing me some of Lionel's treasures to look at: an old pair of socks, a dog-eared photograph, a pen or two, and a feather. Each one fascinated her. She cooed and clucked and ran the feather over her tiny left limb, which seemed to be more sensitive than her other, long arm.
I picked her up and held her. Behind us I heard the crunch of Manny's footsteps as he came back from the outhouse. The snakes hadn't gotten him. Damn, I thought, before I could stop myself.
He was silhouetted in the doorway, looking taller than he was.
Even though his face was in shadow, I could just make out his expression. He looked pained. I felt a pang of guilt. My words had hurt him. I was about to apologize when he spoke:
"This is all I need"--his voice a long, thin whine--"one day in Lunama and what do I come down with? Diarrhea, that's what. It never rains but it pours. How am I supposed to get down to the southern province like this? I guess I'll just have to stay here and stew for a coupla days. This is peachy. This is just great."
That night Manny made fourteen trips to the outhouse. By morning, he was exhausted. I offered to stay with him; but, to my relief, he told me to go on. The illness had softened him. He told us to have a good time. He instructed Lionel to look after me. "Don't let her get into any trouble," he called after us. I didn't know Emmanuel Fox. He was one man and then he was another. I wanted to stay for a while and ask him what triggered his episodes of kindness and fury, but it was time to go on a journey again. The road wouldn't wait.
I left Lady with Assie and her mother. Assie's little boy, Michael, had been taken to Lunama by a cousin several weeks before, and Lady was delighted to be reunited with him.
On the way to the mines, Lionel repeated his story about the sighting of the dinosaur. As usual, his voice shook as he remembered the way she'd turned her head to look at him. I was struck again by how much this had meant to the young man from Minnesota who had been touched by a miracle and whose lifelong quest, it seemed to me, would be a desire to be touched again.
John and Isatu were waiting for us when we pulled up in front of the house.
"You two are late," John said, but there was no resentment in his voice, only joy at our arrival.
We didn't waste time talking--there was too much to discover. We had a rough map drawn by John, and Lionel's depiction of our dinosaur. We set out in the Jeep singing and laughing. John Turay drove and I sat with him in the front. Soon we had entered the bush and were driving along paths barely wide enough for the Jeep to get through.
After a while, Isatu got tired of using the binoculars she'd been so thrilled by early in the day. Lionel took them back and used them himself, urging John to stop whenever he caught sight of a shadow. John was patient, coming to an abrupt halt each time. But nothing was there. Only Lionel's need for confirmation.
As the journey progressed, Lionel became increasingly impatient.
"I saw it, I tell you," he said, as if we were disputing the fact. "She was real. Where the hell is she?"
I began to hope we wouldn't find anything. I realized that Lionel was a wild card--that he could just as soon try to harm her, cut off a piece of her to take home with him to Minneapolis. He began to talk as if she belonged to him, as if his sighting of her was more significant than the fact of her being there at all. He began to talk the way white men have talked on that continent for hundreds of years.
The river was an olive ribbon of light and dark. It cut through a section of the land that rolled up on either side of it in gentle banks and ridges. John said crocodiles came there at certain times of the year, but that we were safe now. I had my bathing suit on underneath my clothes, and I didn't think twice about slipping off my sundress and stepping into the warm water. Lionel didn't want to swim, however. He wanted to continue looking for his dinosaur. "She's round here somewhere," he said. He sniffed the air like a dog. "I smell her."
John told him to go off on his own and come back for us in a couple of hours. Lionel wouldn't take any food. He was too wound up to eat. He walked off into the bush by himself, muttering something about women. Isatu spent her time swimming back and forth from the island to the bank. In the end, she perched herself on an outcropping of rock and waved to us from time to time. She was not much more than a small black dot the size of my little finger by the time John and I climbed up onto the island in the middle of the river.
We were breathless. We'd raced. I'd won because he'd been carrying food above his head so that it wouldn't get wet. We both fell down onto the sandy bank and laughed.
He told me about his family. Most of his immediate relatives were dead. He'd been to the University of London years before I was there.
I estimated him to be about forty-five. He wanted a copy of my father's stories. He wanted my poems too. He told me I was beautiful, and I returned the compliment. I told him about Lady before he asked. I don't know why. I told him about Manny too and, for some reason, I told him about Maurice Beadycap. Not all of it, just the part about Mison Bean and his accusation. I needed to tell someone, I suppose; after all these years his words had burned a hole in me. For some reason, I knew that John Turay would understand. When I finished, we lay in silence for a while. Then he said:
"Don't be sad, Jacinta. There is much to be happy about in this world if we look for it. You have done well. It is time to stop trying so hard."
"How do you mean?"
"I mean that you can give yourself permission to be happy. It will be all right. You will see. You will not fall."
He put his warm hand on my thigh and began to move it up and down. I thought briefly about stopping him. I was married. I saw Manny's face in my head telling me he didn't give a shit, telling me I was late, telling me I'd failed, telling me fiction was harder than poetry, telling me Lady's arm was still missing and what was I going to do about it? Telling me his novel was nearly completed, telling me he would never be there when I needed him because his body was full of holes. I could plug them for the rest of my life and still the anger would spill out of him. And now here was a man saying I didn't have to try so hard, giving me a kind of dispensation. Not since the days when I used to kneel in the confessional and be cleansed of my sins had I felt so light. If my body had levitated off the ground then and there, I would not have been taken aback. I let John Turay touch me because in his fingers was forgiveness.
Soon he had eased my swimsuit up between my legs, and I let his fingers know me. If I had died then, I would not have been regretful. There, by the warmth of the olive river, near the land where my father grew up, I lay with a man who touched me, that was all. And that was all I wanted. He didn't ask for anything more than that. His fingers were never urgent; they were persistent and gentle. He didn't kiss me or make me look at him. I closed my eyes and focused on his African fingers. They were dark licks of light. I shifted position so that my face was to the sun. Isatu was too far away to notice us; Lionel was in the bush searching for redemption; Manny was in Lunama with diarrhea; and Lady was with Assie and Michael, making friends all over again. I lay back into his fingers and shivered.
Afterward we ate lunch together. He didn't ask me how I felt or if I minded what he'd done; it would have been a silly question. Every so often, when a pang of guilt grazed my cheek like a light wind, John seemed to sense it, and he would nod and smile at me, and tell me it would be all right. Something made me believe him.
A boy in a hollowed-out log paddled past us on the river. "Kushehya!" he called. We returned his greeting. Not more than ten years old, he maneuvered himself through the water with tremendous skill. John told me he was the ferry boy. People from the next village used his little boat almost every day. He was happy we were there, even happier when he caught sight of Isatu. He spent his time circling around her as she sat on the rocks. He hurled compliments at her in Temne, some of which John could catch if the breeze was blowing in the right direction. "The poor boy is in love," he said.
"Has he met Isatu before?"
"I don't know. Does it matter?"
"I suppose not."
"Love is never a question of time, is it not so? Love has a home outside that circle of fire."
"Have you loved, John?"
"No one can love many times. You love once, twice, three times, if you are lucky. The rest is just playing. This is the first and last time we will be together, is it so?"
"I don't know."
"Me, I know."
The ferry boy circled around Isatu and called out his love to her over the water. The sun warmed us and time beat upon us like a climax. We fed each other bread and fruit and dried fish. The fish was roasted with hot peppers and lime juice. It burned my lips and tongue.
Lionel came back just before we'd finished eating. He was angry. He hadn't seen anything. He called to us from the bank, telling us to hurry. It was already afternoon and we had a long way to go, he said.
I didn't tell him I'd found what I'd been looking for.
We called out to Isatu, who had finally gotten tired of her place on the rocks, swum back to land, and fallen asleep under the shade of a tree. She woke up with a start, claiming she had had a terrible dream.
"Our monster was a monster," she said. "She chased us and then she killed us all, every one. Except for Miss Jacinta. Miss Jacinta was left alone and crying. And the monster went away with us in her mouth. As for me, I would rather be the one she is eating than the one she is leaving behind. Because then it was the night and Miss Jacinta was all alone in the bush with death."
John could see that Isatu's dream disturbed me. Gently, he urged her to be quiet. Nothing like that was going to happen, he said. The monster wouldn't eat any of us. Lionel's picture quite clearly showed a dinosaur with vegetarian preferences.
We drove on toward Simon's place of birth. It would be impossible to reach the exact place, even if I were sure of where it was. But we could come close if we drove pretty fast. Lionel kept asking us to slow down. Again and again he grabbed the binoculars from Assie and jerked them up to his eyes. Each time, nothing.
At last we pulled into a clearing. Around the circle of cleared land was a group of huts. A man came up to greet us. John and he embraced. We were introduced. When John told the man my father's name, he whistled through his teeth, then he called over his shoulder to his wife.
"Fatmata, come on out here. Quick! Quick! We have a guest. The daughter of Simon Moses!"
His wife came up to us. She was a woman of about fifty with strong features and an ironic expression.
"The daughter of Simon Moses," she repeated. Then she said something in Temne. I asked John to translate. He didn't want to at first.
"She says he ... that he ..."
"She says your father was ashamed of his people. She says your hair ... proves it."
I looked at the woman. She looked back at me. Then her husband stepped forward. "Come, Miss Moses. Come and eat with us. We have potato leaf and plantain. We have pawpaw and palm wine. This was not your father's village, but it is close. Only a half day away. But now his fambul is dead. All dead. There was a terrible illness in that village twenty years ago. Very terrible. Half of the village is gone. I do not think there are any Moses left now. Except for you."
"I have a daughter," I said. "Her name is Moses."
"That is a good thing," he said. "Now there will be a way to keep on to tell your story. Come. We have palm wine and chicken grun'nut. Plantain too...."
We ate with the people from the village. The woman who had taken a dislike to my mother's whiteness mellowed. She began to talk about Simon as a boy. She came from his village too. After a while, I understood they had been sweethearts. But then she'd been betrothed to Mohammed, and Simon had won a scholarship at the missionary school and gone off to study in the city. No one else could remember much about him apart from the name that his family had taken. Moses because of the missionaries, they said. The old name was lost now; they couldn't remember it. Simon's father had been Christopher Moses for as long as they could remember. They'd heard that Simon was a writer when they had learned of his death. They said a countryman studying in England had gotten word to the village about it when he'd read my mother's memorial to him in The Guardian newspaper. They said Simon's old mother had been sad beyond sad to hear of it. They said she died soon afterward. I'd understood that my paternal grandmother had passed away when Simon was a child, but I didn't mention it. I suspected that part of what I was hearing was stories made up to comfort me, but I didn't care. I was finding it more and more difficult to distinguish between what actually happened and what we dreamed had happened. I wasn't faithful to Truth in the old way anymore.
I'd brought a copy of my father's stories with me. I gave it over to John's friend, Mohammed. He didn't put it down for the rest of the evening. Once in a while he'd gasp at something he'd read. Once he shouted out, "Na me, oh!" meaning "That's me in there!" He read with incredible speed, turning over the pages as though all the secrets of the bush were caught inside them. Often he was silent for fifteen or twenty minutes at a time; then he'd burst out laughing or sigh like an old man. He liked the story about the elephant best of all. He said he'd show it to the principal of the local secondary school and get him to add the book to the syllabus. Perhaps the whole country would soon be reading Simon Moses for their O levels, he said. "We are very very tired of Charlotte Bronte and even our own writers sound too much like Englishmen. We need someone who is remembering us too well. I will tell Mr. Bangura, our principal. He will take it from there. Yes, I am about to remember the elephant story again. Ha, ha! That girl on the elephant back. What a warrior! Your father has a photogenic memory. Indeed it is a miracle, is it not so?"
When darkness came, we climbed back into the Jeep and headed for home. Mohammed and Fatmata told us to come back soon. They would find out more about my family, they said.
John asked me whether I was satisfied with what I'd found out about my father.
"Yes," I told him. "I found everything I've been looking for today."
My response irritated Lionel: "Well, I sure am thrilled you found what you were looking for, Jacinta. Because none of the rest of us did. And now we've wasted so much time we'll never find her in the dark."
As we drove through the pitch dark of the bush, John asked me again whether I was disappointed. I couldn't help but think he was doing it on purpose to tease Lionel. I repeated the fact that I wasn't disappointed. If I were to die now, I said, I would be happy.
"Not me!" said Isatu from the back. "I want to live a long, long time. I want to be a great typist or a singer. I will not die in this place. It is too far away."
"Too far away from what?" I asked her.
"Too far away from where you are," she replied.
Just then, Lionel called out again. We were all so used to it by now that we barely reacted, even though his cry was frantic.
"Stop the car! Stop! Look! Jesus Christ, look over there!"
John slammed on the brakes and we all jerked forward in our seats. We looked out over the dense blackness of the bush to see where he was pointing.
To our left, not more than fifty feet away and higher than the tops of small trees was a form, huge and ponderous, making her way toward us, shaking the earth as she came.
Isatu screamed. "The monster! She is coming to eat us[ Help! Help!"
I was frozen. The thing moved toward us through the dark. Forty, thirty, twenty feet from the hood of the Jeep. "Simon!" I whispered.
"Jesus Christ!" Lionel cried. "Get the camera!"
I felt a hand pull me out of the car. John had rushed round to my door, opened it, and was dragging me out. He was yelling at us:
"Get out, all of you!"
I reached over the seat and grabbed Isatu's hand. She was whimpering. "Do not let her eat me, Miss Jacinta! I am only a child!"
We were out in seconds. Running, running as fast as our legs could carry us. All I could hear was my own heart and my breathing and Isatu crying to me not to let the monster eat her. I stopped suddenly and Isatu ran into me.
"Where's John?" I cried.
"I ... I ... I ..."
I shook her until her teeth clicked together. "Where is he? He dragged us out. What happened? Shh! What's that?"
"I ... I ..."
"Shh, Isatu! For God's sake, shut up! I'm sorry. It's okay. It's okay. What the hell was that?"
Behind us was the sound of voices--dozens of them. Men's voices. Screaming and shouting. And another sound. A bellow sadder than any sound I'd ever heard. A bellow that rocked the land we stood on and made my eyes sting.
"We must go back!" I cried, pulling Isatu after me.
"No! No! Please no, Miss Jacinta! She will be eating Isatu Charm! Do not do this to me! I am your friend!"
I dragged her back down the bush path we'd taken, calling John's name. I could hardly see in the dark, but I didn't care. I couldn't run away. He had saved us. I had to know what had happened to him. There were lights up ahead. A circle of fire. And men. Twenty or thirty men encircling the monster.
And the monster was dead.
John rushed up to us. He hugged us. He wanted to know whether we'd been hurt. I caught sight of Lionel sitting on the ground, his head between his knees, sobbing.
"These men are from Lunama," John told us. "They've been chasing it for days."
I walked up to the form on the ground. Even on its side, it was huge. I reached out and touched the skin. "An elephant? Is that what we've been chasing?"
Lionel heard me and called out to us in a voice seamed with despair: "That's not what we saw! You think I don't know an elephant when I see one? You think I'm too stupid to tell the difference between an elephant and a dinosaur! She's the wrong one, I tell you. I never saw her before in my life."
Isatu came up behind us. Her fear had changed to fascination.
"A real elephant," she said. "This is a miracle like the Eucharist. I have been in a miracle. For years, ever since I was a little girl, I have been chasing for elephant. My father, he tell me there are no elephant left in Lunama. No elephant in the whole country. I tell him he is wrong. He laughs at me. And now who is laughing? Isatu. Isatu Charm! I have been in a miracle! I have seen the elephant alive!"
"And now she's dead," I said.
"He. It is a male," one of the men told me.
It didn't seem to matter much.
I asked John why they killed it. He told me they probably wanted food and ivory. Elephants are dangerous in places like this, he said. There was no room for them anymore. It was a great pity that the elephant had strayed so far from home.
"It didn't," I said. "We did."
They cut the elephant up. We watched for a while because Isatu wouldn't leave and Lionel was too distraught to stand up. We saw them slice through the trunk and score the flank with knives. The blood shimmered like mercury in the light from the torches, a mercury river that poured from the creature's body and soaked the ground. Soon our shoes were squelching in the mud created by the slaughter. I thought of butchers. I thought of racks of meat hanging from hooks. I thought of tiger skins and lions' heads, antlers, and goatskin rugs. I witnessed butchery on a huge scale, and I knew I was in no position to speak. I had killed and eaten for years. My own wealth was predicated on the poverty of my father's people. Who was innocent? I looked over at Isatu. She was. Lady was. We had been in a miracle. I wished I could say that without irony the way she could.
Lionel staggered over to us. His voice was staccato with rage.
"I'm not crazy! I'm not! We all saw it. Ask any of them. And it wasn't some ... some ... rogue elephant."
John placed his hand on Lionel's shoulder to quiet him.
"We believe you, Lionel," he said. "We'll look for the dinosaur on another day."
We had to drag Isatu from the scene. She begged to stay until morning. She said she wanted to see the size of the carcass at sunrise. She said the bones would be as big as a house. She wanted to play inside them.
John lost his patience. He told her to get into the Jeep and be quiet. I suddenly realized how scared he'd been--how scared we'd all been. The elephant could have killed us.
The Jeep was intact. There was a dent in the door on the passenger side, which meant that it couldn't be opened from the inside. Apart from that, it looked okay. Some of the men ran ahead of us for at least a couple of miles. They wanted to guide us home. In the headlights their dark legs were beautiful. They ran like gazelles, and I thought of the kind of life nay father must have known growing up in a land close to itself. By the time the men left us, Isatu and Lionel were fast asleep in the backseat. They were leaning on each other for support. Lionel's glasses had slipped to the end of his nose. They winked at me in the dark.
"I heard the elephant's death cry. It was a terrible sound. I don't think I'll ever forget it," I said.
"Yes. It was terrible."
"Why didn't you come with us?"
"Lionel and his stupid camera. He wanted photographs."
"Why didn't you just leave him behind? You could have been killed."
"He is my friend."
"He's a fool."
"That does not make him less of a friend."
"In my book it does. Supposing you'd been killed?"
"I was not killed. The elephant was killed." He sighed. "It is funny," he said. "Saying those sentences should make me feel good. But they do not make me feel good. The elephant is dead. I am not dead. Those words are sad ones. I saw them with their rifles. Army rifles. I saw them coming. I saw the wound in the eye. The eyeball burst and then the elephant made the sound you heard. It fell at our feet. At first, I thought we were lucky. Now I don't know. It's sad to think what is happening to the world. Once upon a time, elephants roamed this land. They lived here in West Africa with us. And then we hunted them. And the white men hunted them even more than we, without regard to who they were. Now it is only your grandfather or your uncle's uncle who has seen an elephant. They do not come here anymore. If Lionel's dinosaur is real, I hope it runs away into the darkest part of the bush. I hope it stays there like the Loch Ness monster, and never comes out again. If it comes out, we will surely kill it. White and black, that is our way."
I placed my hand on his knee and patted it. He put his hand on mine. We rode together that way until we reached the outskirts of Lunama. Then we took our hands away because I was returning to my husband, and John Turay had no legal claim to me like Manny did.
Manny was in bed when we walked through the door. He hadn't waited up for us. He came out sleepily and asked what time we thought it was to be coming back. Then he gasped.
"You're covered in blood!" he cried.
And it was true. All of us had been spattered by the elephant. We told him the story. He listened for a while, then got up quickly and headed for the back door.
"Damn diarrhea!" he said. "Where's the toilet paper?"
John stood up to go. He said it was very late. I said I'd drive him home. He said it wasn't necessary. I insisted. When Manny came back, I told him I was driving John and Isatu home. Manny began to offer to drive them home himself, then he had to make another hurried exit. I didn't wait for him to come back.
Lionel was already asleep on the sofa.
"We could have walked," John said. "It is only a few miles."
"You're not walking after a night like this. Besides, Isatu certainly doesn't want to walk, I'm sure. Don't worry about it. It's no big deal. Just a ride home, that's all."
But I was lying. I knew I had no intention of dropping them off and coming straight back to Manny. I hated Manny. He turned me into a monster when I was with him.
The moon came out during the journey home. It cast a watery light on the road. It made me think of Murunghi and what Esther had whispered about the moon: "Don't forget the moon." I looked up, found it, and made a wish.
I drove slowly. I didn't want the night to end. John fell asleep. When we pulled up to his house, Mr. Charm and his wife were waiting by the door.
"We are being afraid," Mr. Charm said. "You are indeed late."
"Yes. I'm sorry. We had an adventure," I told him.
Isatu snapped herself awake and John soon followed. Her words tumbled out of her. She ran to her parents, chattering about miracles. Her mother smiled and reeled her in like a fish. John quickly explained what had happened and told Charm he was sorry for keeping Isatu out so late. "Forgive me, old friend," he said. "It was unwise to take a child on such a journey."
"Isatu has not been a child for years," the old man replied. "She is here, is it not so? Then all is well."
"Yes," said John, smiling. "All is well."
Inside John's house it was dark. He moved to flick on the lights, but I wouldn't let him. I took his hand and led him across the living room. I had caught a glimpse of his bedroom when we'd been here yesterday. Even in the dark, I knew where it was. I don't know what made me so bold with the man from Africa I barely knew. It would be easy to dismiss it as a symptom of frustration or a play at vengeance. But in truth, Manny was the farthest thing from my mind at that moment when I dared to reach for happiness. I didn't care what I was risking because it would be worth it to have lived without restraint with this man for an hour or two. Alfred taught me to live in the present and use the memories to bless the future. If I had one night with John Turay, it would compare to the day I had had with Louise at the museum. Most of us don't have many such days or nights to live by. Most of us cannot become the day like Hubert Butcher could. Tonight I would become the night with John. No line between us and the dark.
John steered me away from the bedroom. At first I thought he wanted me to go home, then I realized he was leading me to the bathroom. It was a tiny place--room only for a toilet, a shower stall, and a sink. He took off his clothes, throwing the blood-stained shirt on the floor in disgust. Then he helped me take off mine. I still had my swimsuit on. He eased the shoulder straps down my arms. When he saw my breasts in the moonlight, he put his forehead on mine and thanked me.
We showered together. There was no hot water. He apologized. I hushed him. After the first shock of it, the water felt good. The soap was Palmolive--a soap I'd used in England. It took me back to Lavender Sweep and the first time I'd taken a bath in our new bathtub. In the light of the moon, our bodies looked like paintings. When we toweled off we were both shivering.
In his bed the sheets were cool. He held me tighter than hunger. I didn't let myself think of Manny. He was a dream I'd had once. I'd woken up now. I felt the urgency of John's tongue and thought about his blackness and my own. He knew what to do without my saying anything. He listened to the way I responded and took his cues from me. I had never felt so lucky in my life as I did that night in John Turay's bedroom. My life had turned around at last. He'd opened me up, given me courage. If love could be like this, then there was no settling for anything less than triumph.
Afterward, John asked me why I'd said my father's name when we'd seen the elephant.
"I don't know. I didn't know I had. I suppose it just came to me. He'd written about the same thing, if you see what I mean. It was as if
we were entering his story, as if we had become the characters he wrote about. And the girl, Jacinta, the one who rides the elephant, she was me and she was Isatu as well. I don't know. It doesn't make sense. The elephant was Simon--just for a second. I'm not mad."
"Maybe I am mad. I feel like someone who's in a story, and the story is going to turn out badly. I've read the end, you know, but I can't change it. Someone else has already written the words. Sometimes I think all people of color feel like that--as if the words have already been written and the story always runs backward, to pain. Then, at other times, I convince myself I can write the end and that it will be a good one. The elephant was one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen. I wish they hadn't killed it. I wish we hadn't. I wish he hadn't died. Why did we do it? There's no goodness in the world anymore. Everything turns to dust."
"Shh, Jacinta. That is no way to talk. Look at you. You have talent and beauty and a lovely child. You were born in the West--you are more privileged than three quarters of the world. And you have a heritage to come back to. Africa is not going anywhere."
"Africa's a mess."
"Yes. But it is also Africa."
"Yes. I've committed adultery."
"Yes. Does it make you sad?"
"Good. Because from what you have told me, you are married to a fool."
"I was raised Catholic. I should feel guilty."
"Okay. Let us feel guilty for the next two minutes. Then we must make love again."
"So that we remember why you sinned in the first place."
"You sinned too."
"Perhaps. But I will take my punishment like a man and never say it was not worth it. Will you regret this, Jacinta?"
"No. You don't believe me."
"You were raised as a Roman Catholic. It is hard to overcome."
"Did you hear the way the elephant cried out? It sounded like old pain, you know what I mean? Forest pain, centuries old. It was all I could do not to fall on the ground and try to bury myself just to get away from it. There shouldn't be that kind of pain in the world. It's too much to bear. My mother ... there shouldn't be that kind of pain."
"The other side of that pain is bliss, Jacinta. Without one, there cannot be the other."
"I think that's ridiculous. I don't need pain to be happy. All I need is a few kind people and a lot of luck."
"You can have all that and more," he said. "I will be kind to you, Jacinta. Let me be kind to you."
I didn't stay all night. I left at around two or three. Saying good-bye was torture. I went back three times. Each time he wanted to begin all over again. He said I could live with him. He said he would protect me. I told him I could protect myself. He asked if I'd protect him, then, in that case. When I drove away, I saw him in the rearview mirror. He was standing in the doorway waving. I had the strange sensation that he was on a boat, or I was--one of us was leaving on an ocean voyage. Parting was so painful that I thought of slave ships and departures the land had seen long before we had been born.
On the journey home I wondered what happened to residual pain. The elephant's death cry was joined to the cries of my father's people, their bones shifting on the ocean bed after a hundred thousand Middle Passages. Lionel's dinosaur, her face held between grace and suffering, walked off into the distances where miracles lived. Lady's left arm swirled under the tides with Manny's pet goldfish, its fin the arm of a baby. And Louise's cry echoed the elephant's roar, for my mother too had loved a man like John Turay, and she had loved him for nearly a decade, become accustomed to his smell and his touch, before he was torn from her like a limb and sealed into the quiet earth. No wonder she went mad. Poor Louise Buttercup. No wonder my mother went mad.
And then there was the other side. Always, that was the light to cling to. The other side of the Middle Passage, which had resulted in a hundred new cultures sprung from the old. Jazz and blues and Martin and Baldwin and Zora and basketball and a kind of vast reservoir of glory that traced its roots to here. Here, where I was tonight. Driving back from love. On a road in a town called the moon.
Manny was snoring in bed, his arm cradling Lady. I climbed in softly. He moaned. I couldn't hear what he said. Tomorrow, I'd tell him about John Turay. I couldn't pretend to keep trying. I hadn't loved Manny for a long time. It was time to tell him that as gently as I could. I wasn't afraid. It was time. It would be obvious to both of us that there was nothing left to work with.
When I woke up, vultures were crash landing on the roof. The click-click of their claws sounded like a woman's high heels.
Manny was sitting up in bed. He said he was too sick to continue with the project. He told me he had to get back to the city--see an American doctor before this country killed him. I got up and packed our bags. As soon as we got home, I'd tell him. I stared at him for a while trying to see whether this was some ruse he'd made up, knowing that the end was near. But his face was almost green; and, if he was acting, it was the best act I'd ever seen. We said good-bye to Lionel and drove away from Lunama in a cloud of dust.
Lady was sick on the way home, sicker even than Manny. I cursed myself for not giving strict instructions to Manny to collect her from Assie's house before evening. The mosquitoes had probably gotten to her there--Assie's family had no screens on the windows. I drove fast. Manny moaned about his stomach. Assie moaned because her vacation had been cut short. Lady moaned in pain.
By the time we reached home, I'd been driving for six hours straight. The roads had slowed me down. The early rains had increased the potholes left from last year's rainy season. We'd had three near accidents and my head was pounding with the stress. As soon as we got in, Manny went to bed. I saw to Lady, with Assie's help. Soon she was asleep. We'd take Manny and Lady to the Peace Corps doctor in the morning. Assie lay down with Lady. I went to the kitchen to make some tea.
I sat down and watched the steam rise from the cup. I would tell Manny when he woke up, if I could find a time when he wasn't sitting on the toilet. God, life was absurd! I could still feel John's fingers running across my body. I didn't know how I would contain my own happiness. If it was wrong to love him, I didn't care. It had never been right to give myself to Manny, who could only be part of a man. One sin begets the other. And what was sin anyway but a code created by a flawed group of men determined to have power?
The doorbell rang. For some reason, I knew who it was as soon as I heard it. There was only one person I knew who would ring the bell like that: Esther. I was happy. Esther would understand what had happened. While the house slept, we could talk. She'd never be pious. She'd talk about sex without obligation and tell me again how good it could be.
I rushed to the door and opened it.
The man standing on the doorstep was white and clean-shaven. His clothes were immaculate. It wasn't until he said my name that I remembered him.
"Hello, Cinta. Remember me?"
I took several steps backward and nearly tripped over one of Lady's toys. He rushed up and grabbed me.
"Careful now," he said. "It's only me. You look pretty shaky. Sit down."
I opened my mouth to speak.
Only one word would come.
Then the room went dark.
When I woke up, Maurice was holding my hand. He was patting it gently, as an old friend would pat it. I tried to pull it away, but I was too weak.
"Who's this John fella?" he said.
I opened my mouth, but no words would come.
"Hubby's sick too. So's the kid. What's happened to her anyway? Some kind of accident?" I tried to sit up.
"I wouldn't try that, if I were you. You're too sick. Malaria. Doc says you'll be weak for several days. But don't worry. Nurse Maurice is here to take care of you. Good job I showed up when I did. God knows what would have happened to the little Foxes if I hadn't appeared on the scene at just the right too. That Assieyatu is a sweetie. Washed my undies for me. Think she rather fancies old Maurice Beadycap. Good with the kid too. Shame her name sounds like a sneeze. Still, can't have everything, can you?
"S'pect you're surprised to see me here like this. Well, Jacinta, I've been planning this visit for a long, long time. Thought I'd be visiting you in Virginia, then you moved on me. Got all the news from Mum. Did you ever get my postcard? Sent it from Madagascar. Yeah. Been on my mind a lot over the past years. I've done well for myself. Very well. Did you hear about Mary? A complete loon. Had to put her away. Always thought the poor sod was doomed. Alfred's still as queer as ever, so I hear. Prancing around in those purple negligees. Never did understand what you saw in him, myself. At least your mum isn't as nutty as she used to be. Let's see ... who else? Hubert is as happy as a sand clam. Still a retard, but harmless. I was back there last month. They couldn't believe it when they saw what had become of me. Remember what I used to look like? Vera Butcher says I've turned into a movie star. My mum can't get enough of me. Dad thinks I'm Superman. I earn more in a year than they've made in a lifetime. Gave them a few thousand pounds. Ten actually. Should've seen their faces. Mum cried for three hours solid. Yeah. I've done okay for myself. Funny, isn't it? You were always the superior one, the one at the convent school. We were the comprehensive school kids--the dumbos. Remember when Mary spat in your school hat? Took her two and a half hours and she still couldn't fill it up. And now I talk like you and act like you, and no one would know there was ever any difference. Funny--what goes around comes around. What? Are you trying to say something?"
"Go to ... hell, Maurice."
"Now, Cinta, that's not nice. Here I've come all the way from Nigeria--Lagos, actually. I'm in computers now. Did I tell you? Traveled thousands of miles to see you, and you insult me. I'm quite miffed. If you don't behave, you won't be getting the pressie I brought you. Funny, isn't it? You, Jacinta Louise Buttercup Moses, having a handicapped child. Bit of a comedown, isn't it? Must have just about blown you away when it happened. Was she born that way, by the by, or was it some kind of accident?"
I tried to reach up and scratch his eyes out, but I couldn't raise my arm more than a few inches. I felt tears on my cheeks and tried to wipe them away before he saw them, but again my arms let me down. I still couldn't believe that Maurice Beadycap was sitting on my bed, stroking my hand, filling me with poison. I wanted to call for help. But how would I explain to Assie that this good-looking, cultured Englishman was evil? She would never believe me. The only thing to do was turn him off until I was strong enough to maim him.
"Don't cry, Cinta," he said. "I'm not going anywhere. I'll stay with you all and nurse you back to health." He ran his index finger along my neck and down the middle of my chest. "Always did like thirty-four B," he said. "It's my favorite number."
Then he stood up abruptly and walked out. I heard him whistling in the kitchen. He was singing the song Lily Beadycap used to sing at Lavender Sweep, "Pack Up Your Troubles."
But it wasn't Lavender Sweep; this was West Africa. And I wasn't the Jacinta I used to be. I'd moved on, hadn't I? Where had Maurice come from? He was history. He couldn't invade my present tense. He had no power over me. I would not be afraid of him. I would not. And if he harmed a hair on my angel's head, if he even touched Lady, I'd kill him.
It took three days for me to recover sufficiently from malaria to be able to sit up. I had the usual symptoms--uncontrollable shakes, high fever. I vomited into a bowl held for me by Maurice Beadycap. He tried to give me a bed bath, but I summoned up all of my strength and bit him. He nearly hit me, then changed his mind because Assie came in. Assie gave me the bath. She asked Maurice to leave, but I saw him peeking in through a crack in the door.
Manny got stronger before I did. He must have lost ten pounds during his bout with what was either malaria or intestinal flu, the doctor never could say for certain. He looked like a skeleton when he came into the room. He'd been sleeping in Lady's room on the spare bed, while Maurice had moved into the guest room. I was grateful for the fact that he'd been there with Lady. At least Maurice couldn't get to her at night. As soon as I could string some sentences together, I asked Manny to turn Maurice out of our house.
"I thought he was a pal of yours."
"I hate him."
"He's been pretty good to you since you've been sick. Besides, I like the guy. We have a lot in common."
"Maurice Beadycap is a pervert. He is dangerous, Manny, and ... he's in love with me."
"Ha, ha! Seems to me that he's gotten over you pretty well. Seems to me he's focusing on younger blood these days. Got quite a thing for little Assieyatu. Took her out on the town last night. Sorry to burst your bubble, but I don't think Maurice Beadycap has the hots for you anymore. To be honest, Jazz, you don't look too pretty throwing up in a bowl in bed. You really don't. By the way, that John Turay has been calling here. I told him to get lost. Lionel tells me you didn't get back until the early hours that night you dropped them off at the mines. Maurice tells me you've got quite a reputation along Lavender Sweep. Not in so many words, of course. But now a lot of things make sense. I'm willing to let bygones be bygones, Jazz. You're not all you were cracked up to be, but then neither am I. We've both had to settle for less than we'd hoped for. But we have a child, and maybe it's about time we both grew up. I'm your husband. We belong together. John Turay is an African has-been. Lionel tells me he'll never amount to much. In the government's pocket, so they say. And even the locals don't treat him with much respect. Got some kid he passes off as his niece and three women in the town he visits on different nights to satisfy his urges. Anyhow, it's your choice. Maybe I'm not such a bad catch, after all. I've always been faithful to you, Jazz. Always. Even when you spat in my eye. Even when you turned your back on me and wouldn't give me any ... even then. You owe me. You owe me big time. Think about it."
I threw up all over him. It came out in a flood of venom. It gushed out of my mouth and splattered his face, arms, and chest. He stood up in fury, shouting something to Assie about clearing the shit up. I fell back to sleep, glad I'd been able to respond appropriately.
The next day I got up and took a shower. I washed my hair and changed my own sheets. No one seemed to be home. I looked in on Lady, but her little bed was empty. By the time they came home from a trip to the beach, I had made the phone call I'd been desperate to make ever since Maurice's arrival.
Maurice walked in with Manny, Assie, and Lady. He was telling some filthy joke. Manny was laughing. Manny looked at me and grinned. It was clear he wanted to use Maurice as a weapon. It was clear Maurice liked being used.
Assie put Lady down for a nap. Manny told me I was looking more human. But I was too thin. Need a little flesh on those bones, he said, pinching me in the side. I slapped his hand away. The two men laughed.
"Was she like that when she was a kid?" Manny asked.
"Worse," Maurice said. "A real spitfire. Uppity too. Glad she found a man who could keep her under control."
Manny grinned again, then tried to pat me on the head. I jerked my head away and then had to steady myself by holding on to the table. I looked at the clock. Surely the phone call would pay off soon.
Manny and Maurice helped themselves to what was in the refrigerator. manny was talking about making another trip to Lunama--asking Maurice if he wanted to come too.
"Not much there, Maurice. But it's got a few things to recommend it. The Germans used to have iron ore mines up there. Closed down some years ago. There's this crazy Peace Corps volunteer we could stay with. Thinks he's seen a dinosaur."
"God's truth. Ask Jazz. She accompanied a merry band of explorers on a trip to find the thing. Got pretty beat up along the way. Turns out it was some damn rogue elephant. Guess Lionel had been eating too many brownies."
"Lunama, eh? I'll think about it."
"Don't take too long. I want to leave the day after tomorrow. Got a million things to do. Had to come back early with this damn intestinal flu. I'm way behind schedule."
Maurice began to eat some cold meat and bread. Manny joined him. I watched their mouths while they chewed. I thought of Maurice's tongue and Manny's lips. I thought about how easily I had given myself over to some of the men in my life, not understanding how dangerous it was to open yourself up to those who were not ready to receive you. I thought about violation and about Maurice's twin sister, Mary Beadycap. I thought about what madness meant and how vital it was for some people to enter into a pact with insanity if they were to remain on this earth. I thought about evil. I didn't know how to fight it. It made me weak. Evil was the void they never prepared you for in school. The nuns had taught me to be good and obedient. They had betrayed me. Good and obedient made you a slave. You had to fight. Alfred had been wrong too. He'd seen good in everything. Sometimes, when good wasn't there, he'd had to invent it. But I'd learned my lesson at last; I wouldn't be inventing it anymore.
I looked at the two white men consuming the food Assie had prepared without regard to the flesh they were eating or the trouble a black woman had gone to in making them something to appease their fat appetites. I thought about Lady growing up to please a man. I would not let her do it. The only person she would please would be herself. At four or five she'd be enrolled in karate. I must have begun to smile because Manny asked me what was so funny. He was always afraid I was laughing at him. I smiled more broadly.
"I want Maurice to leave my house and never set foot in it again," I said in as matter-of-fact a way as I could muster. "I don't want him ever to contact Assie or come near Lady. I want him to leave now without finishing the food he has stuffed into his foul mouth. Go and pack your bags, Maurice. It's time to go."
Manny had a wad of food in his mouth. He opened his mouth to howl with laughter. Bits of meat and bread sprayed out over the table. Maurice simply stared at me, one eyebrow slightly raised.
Manny recovered at last.
"Jazz, Jazz, Jazz, you're delirious. First, this isn't your house, it's our house. In fact, I pay the rent, so I guess, if I were being picky, I could claim it as mine. Second, I kinda like old Maurice. He's opened my eyes to a few things since he's been here. He's been good to me. Besides, you should be grateful. He took care of you for days. And you were not a pretty sight"
"I'm asking you one more time to leave, Maurice," I said, trying to stand.
"And what will you do, Jazz, if he doesn't?"
A voice boomed out behind Manny's head, almost making him choke.
"She will ask her good friend, Esther Cole, to kill him."
Esther stood in the kitchen doorway. Visible behind her were two large members of her entourage.
"Where the hell did you come from?" Manny asked.
"As Jacinta Moses can tell you, I came from hell, Mr. Manny. And now I plan to take a few people back with me, if I find it is a necessary thing to do."
"Who is this bitch?" Maurice asked.
The two men who had been standing behind Esther moved forward into a position on either side of Maurice Beadycap. He turned whiter and appealed to Manny.
"What's going on here, man? Who are these people?"
"Time to leave, Mr. Shittyscrap," Esther said. "Jacinta is tired of you. Jacinta thinks you are a mess in her house. We have come to escort you to the hotel. If you come back to visit at this house, we will find you and boil each one of your testicles. After this, we will detach them from your body. Now it is time to go."
The two men yanked Maurice up and led him out. Manny just sat there like a stone. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Assie with her mouth open. Manny stayed in the same position until he heard the door close, then he got up and went to the phone.
"I'm calling the police," he said.
I told him it would be unwise to call them as Esther was a close friend of the police chief. He cursed me and slammed the phone down. He ranted and raved for several minutes, but I could never recall what he said because I was too bored to listen. At last he left me alone and went to his study. Esther called an hour later to say Maurice was safely installed in one of the city's more expensive hotels. One of her people would pick up his bags tomorrow and drop them off there. When I tried to thank her, she wouldn't let me. She said we were friends. She said it was nothing.
That night, for the first time in ages, I slept peacefully for several hours, until there was a knock at the bedroom door at three A.M.
It was Manny. I told him to bugger off. He began to cry. He knelt down at the side of my bed and told me he knew how bad he had been. He told me he was sorry--that my illness had driven him out of his head. He told me he still loved me but that he'd panicked when he'd thought he was going to lose me. He said he was nothing without me--that over the past few months he'd grown to love Lady. If he lost her now, it would kill him.
"She's beautiful," he said, finding my main weakness and exploiting it. "In the ocean today, she was gorgeous. I've never seen a tiny kid swim like that. To be honest, I've always hated it when people saw what she looked like.... I was embarrassed ... ashamed ... as though it was my fault. You never seemed to care. But I've always felt that beauty is important. I mean, we're beautiful people, Jazz. You can turn anyone's head. And we should have had a beautiful child. At least that's what I thought. But today, when we took off her shirt and she ran into the water, she looked like a little mermaid. And I couldn't remember why I'd wanted more than that. I know you've been trying to tell me how lucky we were. You think I didn't want to hear you, but I did. The thing was, I was afraid. Handicapped people have always made me afraid. Once I went swimming and this kid came along, not much older than me, and he had this artificial leg. He took it off and dove in the water, and I swear I nearly threw up. Had to get out. Ran all the way home. I was terrified. And then when she was born, she took you away. Day in, day out, all you could think about was Lady--when should she get a prosthesis, what kind of physical therapy did she need, how could we teach her to swim? But I think I'm starting to feel the same way you do about her. You think I can't. I know you've given up on us. But you must believe me, Jazz. I didn't know. I mean, I just didn't know her. She's my daughter too. She's the only thing I've ever loved without wanting anything back. I'm proud of her. I didn't know I could love like this. Please. Don't take her away. Why don't we begin again? I have to go back to Lunama. Come with me."
"That nice vacation with Maurice. I remember."
"No. He can go to hell for all I care. I've been sitting thinking about a lot of things. Maybe Maurice isn't the monster you make him out to be, but he's not to be trusted either. There's something about him that makes you say things you don't mean--makes you--makes me into someone I don't know. I can't explain it. I wanted him here to get back at you. I'm ... I'm sorry. Will you come to Lunama again? Could we try one more time to get it right?"
"I don't love you."
"Why not? Esther Cole, is that who you love? They say she does it with anyone. Or is it the mine man? I'm sorry. I'm sorry. See what you've made me say? Shit, this isn't coming out the way I'd planned. Look, let's go to Lunama. Hell, I'll even sit down with you and John and talk things over. I'm not unreasonable, Jazz. And I love you. I love you and Lady more than I love the air I breathe. I'd die if anything happened to you. But I'm not a good man. I never claimed to be a good man. I'm just a man. I have faults. I can't always tell you how I feel or what I need. You're strong, Jazz. You're like Esther. You see something and you go for it. You've got to be patient with people who aren't like you. I'm Lady's daddy. I love' her. I love every inch of her. Don't take her away from me. Please."
I told him we could go to Lunama. He buried his head on my neck and thanked me over and over.
He thought we were going to try to patch things up. But what he'd said about Lady had sent ice through my bones. I'd imagined it would be easy getting custody of my child. But now he was trying to sabotage that. He knew that Lady was his hold on me. I didn't trust in his sudden conversion to fatherhood. So I was cautious in my response. I needed to talk this over with John. He'd know what to do. I could consult with Esther too. Among the three of us we'd find a way to rid me of the man who was weeping in my lap.
I didn't tell Manny we were going to Lunama because the only man in the world who could open me like the blossoms on trinity trees lived there; I didn't tell him I would use anyone, including my husband, to get to see him again.
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Date:||Jan 1, 1998|
|Previous Article:||Part III: Lunama, 4-5.|
|Next Article:||Part III: Lunama, 8-10.|