Part III: Lunama, 8-10.
We arrived in Lunama in the early afternoon, about a week after the incident with Maurice. It took me longer to get better than I'd thought it would. I was still weak by the time we pulled up in front of Lionel's house.
Lionel was there to greet us. He looked at me sheepishly. He knew I knew he'd told Manny what time I'd come in that night. I didn't even bother to say hello.
"You've been ill," he said. "You look thin."
"I'm better now," I said icily.
"Let's not open up old wounds," Manny said. "What's past is past. No harm done. Nothing happened, Lionel. They just talked, that's all. In future, you need to learn to keep out of my wife's affairs."
The pun didn't seem to have been intended. Manny and Lionel both blushed, then looked away. Manny sniffed. "Damn congestion," he said.
After that auspicious start, we all trooped into the house. Lionel tried to be ingratiating. He'd spent most of his meager Peace Corps salary on treats like mayonnaise, mustard, canned clams, and honey. He told jokes to lighten the mood, but the only one who laughed was Lady, and then only because she seemed to be amused by the sound of his voice. Lionel offered to walk Assie to her family's house. He played with Lady. None of it made any difference in my mind. He'd betrayed me once, he could do so again. When he began to talk about his dinosaur, I cut him off.
"Enough's enough, Lionel. No one believes that story anymore. What you saw was an elephant and now we've killed it. Do you have a Heineken?"
I had to see John Turay. To my amazement, Manny suggested we all go up to the mines to visit with him. Assie wanted to go. She'd missed out on the trip to the mines last time, and she had no intention of missing out again. I didn't know whether I liked the idea of us all going together, but at least it meant I could see John. After resting for a couple of hours, we got in the Jeep and drove up to the compound. I knew Manny had an agenda. His sudden turnaround was unconvincing. Once in a while he'd forget the new role he'd adopted and revert to his old, irritable self. But whatever plans he had, I knew I was safe. Nothing he could say could harm me anymore. As far as I was concerned, we were already divorced.
John was at home when we knocked on the door. He opened it and saw Manny first, then the rest of us. I couldn't tell whether he'd been warned that we were coming. He seemed relaxed. He welcomed everyone and hurried to get us sodas and beers.
Manny was nervous and the nervousness slipped into condescension. He wanted to demonstrate his superiority because he was in competition with the man before him. He spoke in the tone he'd used in creative writing workshops in Virginia. He asked John questions about the mine, then made fun of the answers. He commented on the size and location of John's house--neither of which was satisfactory. He asked after John's niece, and wondered how often John got down to Lunama to socialize. It was a deliberately pointed question designed to embarrass John, but it failed. When Manny saw how angry I was getting, he changed his tune, complimenting John on his way with children.
Lady was ecstatic to see him. She wouldn't let him put her down until Assie distracted her with a new coloring book I'd bought her.
John said he'd found out some more about my family. Would I like to go with him to meet an old woman who claimed to be my aunt? I looked over at Manny. Manny smiled. His whole face ached with the effort. I told John I'd love to go. We'd set out the next day with Lady, while Lionel and Manny worked at the rice project. Manny suggested Assie go with us. "The girl needs a change of air" It was such a stupid thing to say that Manny blushed when he'd finished the sentence. We could hear Assie's voice coming from the bedroom; she was playing with Lady, trying to teach her to count to ten. When John agreed it would be nice to go with Assieyatu, Manny was visibly relieved.
On the way back to Lionel's house, we passed by St. Peter's Church. I asked Manny to pull over. The red disk of the sun hit the side of the church, turning it salmon. The road looked like a river that shone in the dark, and the air was washed with a phosphorescent haze. This was the time of magic--when light seemed to resurrect itself from the bowels of the earth to stage a brief, glorious drama for those who cared to watch.
The nuns were scurrying back and forth in the church compound. We walked up to join the crowd of faces lined up along the high metal fence. Something was drawing people to the church. I pushed my way to the gate with Lady in my arms. On the grassy area in front of St. Peter's, the nuns were setting up a life-sized depiction of the crucifixion. The statues were white plastic with lightbulbs inside--giant Tupperware glowworms of Christ on the cross, the Virgin and the disciples. The sign above the cross flashed on and off: KING OF THE JEWS, KING OF THE JEWS, KING OF THE JEWS. "It is beautiful," Assie said, placing her hand over her heart.
The nuns saw us. They came over and invited us to step beyond the gates. I refused. It felt uncomfortable to be singled out because we were not "natives." The Africans were told to stand back; we were invited to come through the gates. The nuns wanted to know us. Did we teach English? They were looking for good English teachers. Were we Catholic? They looked at Lady and were glad. "All children are God's children," said one of the sisters as she reached a hand through the bars and placed it on Lady's head. Manny told them I was Roman Catholic. "Come in, come in," they said. I told them we had to be getting back. Lady was tired. We had an early start to make the next morning. We lingered for a few minutes, watching the nuns try to light the Virgin. She kept blowing a fuse. The nuns laughed at the trickery of electricity and one hurried off to find Father Marco. "He is the one who built the church. He is a great fixer of problems," Sister Renata told us. The nuns were from Spain, Mexico, Italy, Ireland, and Japan. The one from Ireland was nearly in tears when I refused to visit with them. She asked me if I'd ever been to Dublin. When I told her no she said l had missed seeing the most beautiful city on God's earth. She asked us if we planned to come to midnight mass the day after tomorrow. "We'd be traveling back home then," Manny said. She looked down at her feet and swallowed hard. "It is difficult here," she said softly. "Very few visitors from the British Isles. There was one young man a couple of weeks ago. From Nottingham. Nice young man. Liked the shortbread Sister Eunice baked. Ate twelve pieces, can you believe that, dear? AVSO. Taught over in the eastern province. Just passing through, that was all. A nice boy. Protestant, but a really nice boy."
I had forgotten it was Easter. I had forgotten that Jesus Christ would be risen in a few days. The organ music resonated in the minor key across the dusk--an anomaly passed from one world to another. We watched the light on the Virgin flicker on and off. When we got back to where we'd parked, the St. Peter Boy was waiting for us. He had climbed up onto the hood of the Jeep and had his crooked hand outstretched for pennies. Assie shooed him away.
"The polio is always begging for money. It is not good. He is everywhere in Lunama. He is putting off the tourists."
I was afraid to go after him. I had Lady in my arms. Disease pitted his face.
Behind me the cross burned on the lawn, and I gave nothing to the St. Peter Boy because I was afraid.
When we returned to Lionel's house, Manny found a way to get me alone. He took my face in his hands and covered it with kisses. He wanted to push me onto the bed and make love to me, but I told him I wanted to be left alone. "I love you," he said, over and over. "You know that, don't you? You're my life."
I pretended to be asleep when he climbed into bed that night. He was drunk. He and Lionel had been playing cards and he'd lost every hand. I'd listened to him railing against his own misfortune as Lionel beat him over and over again. He stubbed his toe and swore at furniture in the dark. "Damn wimp. Who's he think he is, anyhow? A cheat, that's who. Coulda slaughtered him if I'd wanted to. My daddy taught me how to play. Taught me how to win. I'm a winner. Emmanuel Fox knows how to play cards." His muttering woke Lady. She sat up in bed. I held my breath. If he knew I was awake, he'd want sex. Tonight I was lucky--his mood swung from resentment to sentimentality when he saw Lady sit up in the dark.
"Hush, sweetheart, it's only your very own daddykins," he said.
"Daddy," she replied, nestling into his chest. "I love Daddy."
Soon they were both snoring. I wondered how Lady stood the stink of him. When I turned over, her cheek was up close to his mouth. He was breathing cheap rum all over her sweet black curls. I pulled her toward me. He called out something in his sleep, farted, and rolled over.
I was up before five and ready to leave at six. Lady rose early too. She ran around the house singing John's name. Manny tried to keep calm. Assie had refused to go with us. She said she wouldn't travel to that village "up in the far beyond." She said there were secret societies up in the hills that stole young girls like her and used them for sacrifices. She'd told me some time ago about the Bundu society--the secret women's organization that had performed female circumcision on her. She wouldn't say much about it apart from that. When I'd tried to find out more, she'd clammed up. Later it had occurred to me that it was her business, not mine. I stopped passing quick judgments and learned to value her privacy. Now Assie restated her fear of the "bush people," as she called them. "They are not civilized like us. I am a city girl now. I do not go back to primitive ways. I am advancing with the rest of you."
Manny tried to convince her that she was being foolish. She set her mouth and sucked through her teeth. She defeated him. The only chaperone John and I would have would be Lady.
"Be good," Manny told me when we were about to leave. The sentiment seemed ridiculous. I just looked at him.
He hugged Lady again. "Daddy loves you, Lady. You're Daddy's girl, aren't you?"
Lady put her arm around his neck and kissed him. He tickled her under her arm stub. I strapped her into the car seat and got behind the wheel. I was going to spend the whole day with John Turay! I wanted to dance. It took every ounce of restraint I had not to laugh out loud.
We drove off in a flurry of dust. I didn't tell Manny what time we'd be back because I didn't know myself. He wanted to ask but restrained himself. A part of me begrudgingly acknowledged that he was handling things with unexpected dignity. Soon, however, I'd forgotten about Manny. I was going to meet the man again! Each time I said that to myself, it felt like flying.
At the mining compound, John was waiting for us. He was leaning up against one of the trinity trees outside his house. He was in deep shadow. When he stepped out as we approached, I imagined the tree had given birth to him. On his head and shoulders were a few wide petals. He brushed them off, and they fluttered to the ground like fuchsia wings.
"Hello, Miss Jacinta! Hello, Miss Lady!" he called out to us. His face was alight with happiness.
"Hello, Mr. John!" I called back.
We had arrived. A whole day together.
We climbed down from the Jeep and stood looking into each other's faces. John bent down, picked a handful of petals up from the ground, and handed them to Lady. She threw them up in the air and watched them fall. "Rain, rain!" she cried. "Lady make rain!" The petals fell on the three of us. John Turay took my hand and squeezed it.
"I heard you were sick. I wanted to come to you."
"Who told you?"
"Assie wrote to me. She sent the note with her cousin."
"Assie? My God. She knows, then."
"Yes. Of course," he said. I felt like a fool.
"Does she know everything?"
"She knows how we feel. It is not the same here as it would be where you are. It is not a scandal. I cannot believe you are here. I was sure I would never see you again. Now I am beginning to believe we will last for a long time."
John wanted us to ride in his van instead of the Jeep. He said he was more comfortable driving his own vehicle, especially after the dents he'd put in the Jeep the last time around. We sped away from the compound like thieves.
It took several hours to get to Simon's village, though the distance was relatively short, because the roads were becoming treacherous. The week before, an absurdly early rainstorm had washed away a bridge in the eastern province. Five people had died. We drove slowly, trying to avoid potholes, plunging into some that stretched the width of the road. The villages we passed through were filled with children. They ran up to the side of the van and banged on the doors. "Eh, Mister. Gi' we somting! Eh, Missus, gi' we koppoh, du-ya!"
Women waved to us as we drove past. They turned slowly to greet us, not wanting to disturb the baskets, the wood, or the bowls on their heads. They turned with the kind of grace Isatu had employed when she impersonated the dinosaur.
The leaves on the bushes and trees were a hundred different greens: yellow-green, purple-green, grass-green, black-green, water-green, mud-green, shimmer-green, turquoise, and viridian. When gradually the land raised itself up and away from flatness, I heard monkeys chattering from tree tops and felt a cool breeze on my face. The humidity of Lunama was left behind and things passed by us in sharp focus. Little had changed in this area for centuries. This part of the country belonged to the bush, which would reclaim things again once we had moved on. For a moment I tried to pretend that it made me happy to be a fleeting thing, but I was lying. I was like all the rest; I wanted to win. I wanted to find a way to make Lady and me a permanent fixture on the face of the earth; I wanted to change its expression. I didn't want us to be shadows no one would remember. I needed to be connected to the land so that there would be a way to pass things on.
Lady was playing happily in her car seat. She had her coloring book open on her lap. It was a counting book. She was looking at the picture "Two." There was a little girl in the picture. She was black. The writing above her head said "Two ears, two eyes, two legs, two hands, two arms, two feet." Lady was smiling. Her one hand was tracing the contours of the word "two."
"You know what 'two' means, Lady?" I asked her. She looked up at me--her big eyes were black and curious. "Two means the two of us--you and me." I made up a song about our being together and sang it to her.
Lady joined in. She stomped her feet on the seat and slapped my hand with hers to the beat of the made-up song.
What is the sound of one hand clapping? Just the same as two.
"No one can spoil it, Lady. That's what the book means. Two, you see it there? You and me."
We drove on singing our song, adding John's name once in a while if the rhythm allowed it.
Stupidly I had thought that John and I would be fastened onto each other's bodies by now. I had forgotten that, in a relationship based on friendship, desire is secondary to intimacy. As we drove along the dust roads, I looked over at him; his profile was framed by the bush. I fancied he was making the bush happen--that when he turned and spoke to me he created more of it with his words. As long as he kept on speaking, the bush would keep happening. On and on we could drive, on to the edge of the world, and still the bush would occur because his words had made it so.
"I am in love with Africa," I said.
"And she is in love with you," he replied.
"I will never leave."
"Or perhaps you will leave. Soon," he said.
"No! You're wrong! I've found something here. I've found peace. I've never had it before. Most people in England and America don't know what peace means. We take seminars on it and workshops and find cult leaders or TV gurus who will give it to us for a price, but really we don't know what it means. The bush is the quiet place in the center where everything stops. I'll never leave. Or if I do, I'll come straight back. I need to see my mother. There's so much to tell her. She'll want to know about my father's family--at least I think she will. And I want her to know I found him here. Because I feel him when I'm with you. I feel his stories and the power of his eyes. Last night I heard his voice telling me the story about the elephant. I was riding on its back through the bush. Me. Jacinta Moses. The African."
John laughed. "You have a vivid imagination," he said. "It is very obvious your father was a storyteller."
"I don't lie, John. I mean it when I tell you I can't leave this land now that I've found it. It's mine now. I have no intention of losing it again."
The village was a pause in the density of the bush. We came upon it unawares. We were talking and there was the bush surrounding us: we were talking and there was the village. My heart seemed to stop and I looked around almost expecting to see my father come toward me to let me know that the earrings he had bought me on my fifth birthday had made a difference. I was African like him after all, and he was proud of me.
John told me that Mohammed had contacted the villagers, so they were expecting us. I wondered how he had done it. The road had turned to little more than a bush path some fifty miles back. How did people learn about the outside world in this tiny place? What news came to them that could begin to touch the way they lived?
When we pulled up, children ran off to fetch their eiders. I took my father's book from the front flap of my rucksack. On the back cover was his photograph. I gave it to John. He pointed at it and then spoke in Krio and then in Mende to the group of people that had gathered around us. Some of the older ones nodded their heads. "Simon Moses. Simon Moses," they said. My father's name sounded holy coming from their lips. They propelled us toward a small house made of mud at one end of the village. Before we had reached the doorway, an old woman stepped out to meet us.
John greeted her. She replied in formal, somewhat stilted English.
"Yes. I am the one. This is my daughter, no?"
"Yes," said John.
"And this is her daughter, no?"
The woman raised her hands to her face and laughed like a girl. "This is a great day, my friends. Look!" she said, holding up the book with Simon's photo on the back. "Simon Moses has come home."
Everyone laughed and cheered. They led us into the house. The circle had come home. It would never be broken again.
The old woman was not my aunt in the Western sense of the word, but she was distantly related to Simon. Eventually John was able to discover that she was the daughter of my grandfather's third wife. But she did remember my father, and she welcomed her newfound family with a joy that touched me.
Miss Regina had only a few scraps of furniture in her house, so we sat outside where she cooked and talked about what life had been like before disease had wiped out most of the village. It sounded as if the culprit was cholera, but no one knew for sure. She remembered my aunt Jacinta--the one who had run away from the nuns. She said she'd left some time after Simon did. She said she was a typical daughter of Christopher Moses: full of fire. Once she crossed the paramount chief and had to pay a steep fine. She didn't remember what happened to Jacinta. Like her brother, she had left them, never to return until now. When Miss Regina said this, I was struck by the ease with which she relegated death to the margins of existence, and by how easily she adopted me as the messenger of the late Simon Moses. Curiosity and then death may have snatched Simon away, but his family could bring him back from the dead. This Easter, he was resurrected. I wished Louise could have witnessed the miracle.
While we were talking I realized my aunt would be an old woman by now; that, if my father had lived, he'd be over seventy. On average, you were in your forties when death claimed you in this country. The elderly were the middle-aged, and youth was old before it had a chance to grow up. But because Simon's death was premature, I could see my father as he had been. Frozen in time, my parent became my peer, and then, at last perhaps, my young relative who never allowed age to rust his brilliance.
We were taken to the palm wine bar at a place a mile or two inside the bush. Miss Regina led the way, and a dozen or more of my new "family" came with us. We met Mr. Kargbo at the palm wine bar, which was a lean-to in the middle of a clearing. A rough-hewn bench was all the furniture Kargbo had at his bar, but he had mugs and a metal tea strainer with which to remove the maggots from the palm wine. I'd tasted the drink before and hated it. This time, however, it was kinder to me. It sat on my tongue in layers--bitter like lemon juice, then sweet like honey. Mr. Kargbo was the principal of the boys' school situated ten miles up the road. He was a loud man, full of his own dictums. He claimed he was a good friend of my father, but he spoke about him as if my father had left the village last week, so I knew he was lying. I wasn't angry. It felt right to be sitting in the heart of the bush drinking palm wine out of a mug that said "Jesus Saves" Miss Regina would not let go of my hand. Her own was large and warm. A grandmother's hand. She asked me to carry her daughter's child back with me to America. She said there was nothing here for young people. She didn't seem to be pinning her hopes on my agreeing to take her grandchild, however, and she was pleased when I said I'd write instead. "And send books?" Yes. I'd send as many books as I could afford.
On the way back along the bush path, John Turay asked me how I was going to send books from America if I wasn't going back there. I told him I would go for a visit and buy them then. "You will go back soon," he said, his voice low in his throat.
"How many times do I have to tell you, John? I'm here to stay. I've come home. Even if I go back for a while, I'll return. This is where I belong."
We ate with Miss Regina, her daughter, and her daughter's daughter in the clearing outside her small house. We had groundnut stew made from fresh-ground peanuts, goat meat, and onions. Lady ate three helpings. Everyone admired her appetite.
I looked around while we ate because I was afraid I would forget some detail, which would spoil everything. I wanted to be able to write about Miss Regina's talent for giggling like a teenager and welcoming us all with the grace of a matriarch; I had to capture the hands reaching for food in a rhythmic, soothing gesture of community; I mustn't forget the old mission schoolhouse in the background, long since abandoned by the priests who had come to teach the boys how to read and write in English and how to pray in English too; and I must remember the shadows and the light that played on the ground and in the air like a symphony of lighter and deeper darks. I put Alfred and Louise into the picture with me. They ate and were glad. Simon joined us then, dressed in local clothes, humming the song his mother had hummed before him, watching us eat like a family, white and black together.
Just then, Miss Regina stood up. She had remembered something, she said. She went into her house and brought out an old black book with tattered edges. Carefully, so as not to displace any of the treasures glued inside, she turned the pages until she found what she was looking for. She pulled it out and held it up for me to see. Simon, in a white shirt, was standing in the bush, his face a wide, bright smile, the palm trees black behind him. She told me Simon had the same, the very same photo himself, but he'd given her a copy. She was his auntie, she said. They were friends together.
She told of the time when Simon had gone on his first hunt. Not more than a small boy, he had traveled with his father into the bush to hunt. "He could not do it," she said.
"Do what?" I asked.
"Kill. He could not kill. When they came upon the elephant--and there were elephants here in those days--many elephants--"(the old people at the feast nodded in agreement) "Simon Moses tried to save the animal. Can you imagine it? He ran in front of them and told them no. A priest was hunting with them. A Christian man who later was the man who helped Simon go to school in the capital. It was he who nearly shot your father by accident. Everyone laughed at Simon. He was too tenderhearted. He would never be strong enough to be a hunter like his father. But Simon did not care what people said. He was a strange, strange one. He did not want to be like all the rest. It is no surprise that he left us. And it is no surprise that he has come home."
After the meal, we pulled ourselves away, leaving just enough time to get back to Lunama before dark. I'd brought gifts with me. I left photographs behind, and magazines, two Timex watches, four bras, five T-shirts, and eight packs of chewing gum. It was little. I was ashamed when we were thanked again and again for such small gifts.
The journey home seemed quick. To my dismay, I fell asleep on the way home. When we reached his house, John woke me. "We're here," he said.
"O no! It's too early."
"It is late. See. The sun has gone down. It is dark, but I think there will be a moon tonight."
It was true. It was dark. Lady was fast asleep. Around us the air was shot with fireflies that played upon your sight like motes of brilliance. The night air hummed with crickets and the bush seemed to be a place where secrets were safe.
Reluctantly, I put the car seat in the Jeep and said good-bye. "We'll be back soon"
"Next week. I plan to tell Manny tonight. We're leaving tomorrow. Then I'll come back next week, okay?"
"Let me be there when you tell him. It is not safe for you to tell him alone."
"Manny's not dangerous, John, believe me. I know him. He wouldn't hurt me. I know it will be hard for him, but I've sorted it all out. I'll let him see Lady. I'm not going to make things difficult. He just has to let me go, that's all."
"It is never as simple as that."
"It will be this time," I said.
"You are young."
"And you are patronizing. I know Manny. Take my word for it, Lady and I will be back within a week, and Manny and I will be separated by then. I have a part-time job, and I still have some savings. We'll be okay."
"You can reach me at the post office if there is an emergency. Call Mr. Kline. He is a friend of mine. He knows the situation."
"He does! Why didn't you just broadcast it over the BBC? Okay, okay. I suppose it doesn't really matter. Besides, the whole world will know soon. God, I hate to leave. We haven't even ... we haven't ..."
He touched my hand. "Do you want to come inside?" he said.
I had been waiting for him to ask, but now, when he did, I wasn't ready. "I don't have anything. Do you?"
"Condoms? Yes. I have some."
He'd had some last time. They'd been there in his bathroom. Was it true then about the women in the town? Had he been with anyone else since then? What did I know about John Turay apart from having witnessed his courage, and felt the profound dark beauty of his body and his mind? I knew nothing. Suddenly I felt anxious. What if this man were like Manny? What if he went mad like Louise and turned on me, enraged by something I'd said or done? These thoughts flashed by in a moment, then they were gone. In their wake, a residual insecurity, enough to turn the tide of our lives.
"Let's wait, okay? I want to tell Manny. Once I've done that, I'll feel better. It's driving me crazy, lying like this. I can't do it."
He put his finger on my lips and hushed me. He told me he understood. He told me if I decided to come back, he'd be waiting. But I knew from his tone that he never expected to see us again. I felt superior as I drove away. It would be fun proving him wrong. How surprised he would be when the taxi dropped me and Lady off next week. Everything was possible now that I had come home.
Manny wasn't back when we arrived at Lionel's house. Assie was there instead, swinging in Lionel's hammock on the verandah. She rushed up to the Jeep when she saw us approaching.
"He is here!" she cried. "At the Lebanese shop!"
"Who? Who is here?"
"Your enemy. Mr. Maurice Bodykip. He is here!" She sounded excited. I remembered what Maurice had said about Assie and his underwear. I wondered whether she had been his informant.
My hands began to shake. I asked Assie where Manny was.
"He is with Mr. Lionel at the palm wine bar. They are merrymaking."
I told her to go home. I told her we'd leave tonight--go back to the city and tell Esther what had happened.
"No, I am not leaving this place at this time," she said, a new confidence rising in her. "I am not afraid of Mr. Maurice. He has been kind to me. He and I are the same one. He was a poor boy who made it good. He is my friend who will take me to see Lagos, isn't it so?"
I took hold of her shoulders and shook them.
"Listen, Assie! For Christ's sake, listen to me! Maurice is evil. He is a bad, bad man. He will eat you up, Assie. He is not kind. He will use you. He doesn't even respect you. He told me as much. He is using you to get at me."
"Ha!" she said, loosening herself from my grip and raising her eyes skyward. "So he is like all men, then? He is in love with Miss Jacinta from the United States of America and not Miss Assie from Lunama. Well, I do not think it is so. I think you are very much in the error of your ways, Jassie. And I do not care what you think. I am on the up and the up. He is one man who will be helping me to get there."
I took some money from my purse and shoved it into her hand.
"Okay, then, fine. Take this and keep it somewhere safe. It may come in useful if you need to get away."
She was ecstatic. She threw her arms around me and kissed me full on the mouth.
"Esther taught me that one!" she cried. "Esther is a fine, fine woman, is it not so?"
I urged her again to be careful, but it was useless. She said she'd be back in the city in a few days.
I grabbed Lady's car seat, being careful not to wake her, hurried into the house, and threw our things into a bag. I asked myself again, why was I afraid of Maurice Beadycap? John was here. Manny was here too. And yet who would Manny side with were I to ask him for a divorce? I'd wait. Ask him once we got to the city. Better still, I'd ask him when Esther was there. Nothing bad could happen with Esther Cole around.
I knew I was behaving like a coward. I could hear Esther's words on the journey back from Murunghi:
"Why go back to an idiot husband who has only a dick to recommend him? You are strong. You are free. Do what you want. Why stay with an old rag when you can have a new mop?"
My explanation had been weak then; it was weaker now. When it came right down to it, the reason I stayed was because Manny was the devil I knew. ("Better the devil you know," my mother used to say, "than the devil you don't know.") Manny was my familiar demon. I had lived with him for several years and I knew what he was and wasn't capable of. I knew also that he would never be able to stop me when I made up my mind to leave. That was my comfort. That gave me the strength to take my time. Feminist friends of mine, like Barbara Simpson in the writing program or Esther Cole herself, would certainly mock my faulty logic. I didn't care. In a way, I was like Assie and like Simon--bullheaded. Besides, and here was the rub, supposing underneath our play of domesticity lay a kind of violent subtext--a violence that could suck strength from me and make me as weak as I had been when the bastard who was flirting with Assie had shoved me against the flowered wallpaper on Lavender Sweep? Ever since Maurice's tongue had salivated over my innocence, and ever since my mother's hands had clutched my neck, a part of me waited for violence to make its grand entrance again. I could pretend to dismiss Lydia's story about Sophie, but way in the back of my head, in a place I was only now admitting to, was a deep-seated fear. It was only a fish, I told myself, but I had dreams about Manny's pet writhing on the floor, a mermaid this time rather than a fish, gasping unto death as he drew the contours of her pretty glitter tail. Evil could come at you from anywhere. Why hadn't Alfred warned me about its power? His stories of goodness and light, crafted morality tales, didn't help one damn bit when this fear hit me. We like to think that we are the brave ones, but most of us are not. I was not like Esther, and that's why I valued her as a guide, in spite of her vicious tongue. She didn't seem to be afraid of much at all. Esther, I thought, I wish you were here with me tonight.
"Mr. Manny is making you very sick," Assie said. "I know this is true. It is he who has made you to cry. I remember this. You are Esther's girl now, and Mr. John's. They will not let him do a harm to you."
"I'm not Esther's girl, Assie. I'm no one's girl. I'm Jacinta Louise Buttercup Moses. I'm me. That's all. Do you understand?"
"Exactly. Esther will not let a man touch you."
It was my turn to raise my eyes skyward.
"Good-bye, Assie," I said. "I'll see you next week. Don't go anywhere with Maurice, you hear me? The man is evil. He is dangerous. He hurt me. He will hurt you too. You understand?"
"Yes," she said. "He is a naughty man. I know this." She winked at me. "And he has a face like one of the movie stars who is in the movies, is it not so?"
I gave up. She would never be aware of the danger she was in. I couldn't help her anymore. I said good-bye again and took the sleeping Lady to find her father.
I found him where Assie said he would be--at the palm wine bar on the far end of town. He was dancing with a young woman from the town. He had his arms around her and he was kissing her on the cheek. I couldn't tell whether or not he was drunk. When he saw me drive up, he pushed the girl away and giggled like a child who has been caught with his hands in the cookie jar. I wanted to tell him I didn't care who he went with as long as it wasn't me, but we were in a hurry; and, as well as that, he had an annoyed expression on his face when he turned and saw me. I'd seen him give his mother the same look.
I called to him to get in the Jeep. Lionel joined him from his place at the bar. "Go away, Lionel," I said. "We're going back to the city."
"We're going where?" Manny asked. "We're going to the city. Get in."
"What's the rush? I'm not driving on those roads at night, Jazz. Don't be ridiculous. What happened?"
"Nothing happened. We just need to go back, that's all."
"Well, I'm sorry, but there's no way in hell I'm driving a hundred miles along shitty roads--"
"Maurice is here." "What?"
"Who's Maurice?" Lionel asked.
Manny shuffled his feet on the ground, pulled at his hair, tried to look brave, then changed his mind. "Okay, okay. Do we need to get our things?"
"They're in the back."
"Who's Maurice?" Lionel called as I shifted into first gear.
"Someone you don't want to meet," I called out to him. "If he comes looking for us, tell him we went to Timbuktu."
I was surprised that Manny had agreed to leave so readily. When he got in the car, however, he told me he'd seen Maurice hanging around our house after "that madwoman" had thrown him out. At first he assumed he was after Assie. Then he found Maurice peeking in through the bedroom window one night, watching.
"He saw you naked," he said, between his teeth. "You should learn to close the goddamn curtains. Sorry," he said, as if surprised by the spitefulness of his own voice.
He went on to explain how he'd chased Maurice off, and threatened him with prosecution the next day when he caught him trying to peer into our windows again. He said the man gave him the creeps. I asked him why he hadn't mentioned all this before now. He hadn't wanted to scare me, he said, but now he thought we needed to do something. The whole thing was getting out of hand. "You're my wife, for God's sake!" he said, pushing a strand of blond hair from his face.
Not for long, I thought.
Manny changed his mind about leaving when we were on the edge of town.
"Why run from the bastard?" he said. "It's only Maurice Beadycap, not Jack the Ripper. Whose wife are you, anyway? We could tell the police."
Realizing how they would laugh were we to go to them with a story like this, he sighed. "What's he going to do to us anyway?" he said weakly, and I realized Manny was even more frightened of Maurice than I was.
I pointed out that the man he thought was harmless had followed me all the way over here. "He is insane," I lied, wanting nothing more than to get back to Esther and her bodyguards so that they could boil Maurice's testicles as they'd promised. "I saw him with a gun in the house."
That was enough to convince Manny we should continue our journey. He sat back in the seat and his leg shook like a leaf for several minutes. He kept glancing toward the side mirror to see whether Maurice was high-tailing it after us. When he was sure we were safe, he began to puff himself up again like some silly bird. And I had been afraid of this man! I almost laughed out loud.
I hadn't planned to tell Manny about me and John until we got home. But, after I gave up the driver's seat because Manny was a better driver than I in the dark, I had a chance to think about things. I climbed into the back with Lady. Manny was a nervous passenger, and he'd made me nervous too. Sitting in the back I listened to his monologue. There was nothing in Lunama, he said. Nothing but a few has-been Africans. He asked me about my trip to Simon's village but didn't wait to hear my reply before he was ranting again about Maurice Beadycap.
"The man's crazy. Who the hell does he think he is? Hanging around our house with a gun, for Christ's sake! Saw him at the supermarket too, coupla days after I threw him out. Hanging around the checkout. Didn't think much of it at the time, but it all adds up now. Man's insane."
At that moment I looked up and saw the moon. Round and majestic, she appeared briefly, then was enveloped by clouds. Held up against her glory, Manny's words seemed even triter than they had seemed before. I checked to see that Lady was asleep, then leaned forward and began speaking before I'd fully formed the words in my head. They tumbled out into the humid night air. I told him I wanted a divorce because I couldn't love him anymore.
"I was afraid to tell you, but I shouldn't have been. It wasn't fair to either of us. I'm sorry. You need someone else. I'm not good for you; neither is Lady. You can see her as much as you want. This isn't about revenge or anything. It's just the ... the sensible thing to do when people don't love each other anymore. Do you understand?"
He didn't seem to hear me at first. He tapped some tune out on the steering wheel, and I thought I'd have to repeat myself. Then he bit his bottom lip until blood came, balled his hand up into a fist, and flung it back behind him. It caught me on the mouth and sent me flying back onto the seat. I looked down into my hand. There was blood trickling from my bottom lip. Manny was accelerating round curves, calling me a bitch and a whore. I kept staring ahead because I didn't know what to do next. He'd hit me! Manny had hit me! I shook my head to try to clear it. I looked over to see that Lady was okay. I didn't want her to see what had happened. Her mother being hit by her father. I never wanted her to see that. I shook my head again. I had to remain calm. He was at the wheel. He was driving. He was banging his fist on the dashboard. He was swearing. He was cursing me to hell. I looked down at my feet. There was a crowbar. Manny carried it in case we got stuck out on the road somewhere. I thought about hitting him with it. No! No! What was wrong with me? He would calm down soon. I should have listened to John. I should have waited. I tried to picture Esther's face. She wouldn't be afraid. I looked up to find courage in the moon but the clouds had covered her again so her light was eclipsed. Soon we'd be there with her in the city. Lady and I would stay with her. We'd be fine. The two of us. Fine.
Manny was pulling over. He was getting out and coming round to the backseat. He was opening the door. He had me by the hair. Now I was up--up against the hood of the car and my skirt was in my mouth! Dear God! He had his hands between my thighs and he was telling me to love him. "You ... owe ... me!" Each time he pushed me deeper into the metal. My child was sleeping in the backseat of the car. If I made a noise, I'd wake her. Lady was sleeping. If she woke up and saw what he was doing, how would she forget it? I was quiet. I studied the moon, which had emerged above his head like a fingernail halo as he banged himself into me. I could see the moon rise and fall behind him as if it were a yo-yo on a long string. I focused on the moon. I watched. I turned my body numb below the waist and watched the rise and fall of a star. A car zoomed by. He threw me down when he caught sight of the headlights. We were on the ground, scrambling in the dirt. He was trembling, asking me if that's the way I liked it. I didn't say no, because how do you say no to horror? Asking me who was better, Turay or him? I found the moon. There she was. I brought her closer to me, close enough to swallow. White, warm moonlight down my throat. It was okay. Esther was there with me in the moonlight. I hadn't forgotten the moon.
Manny was kind to me after that. He helped me up and asked me if I was hurt. He found my panties and made me step back into them while he knelt down at my feet. He found a cloth and wiped my nose where it was bleeding and my mouth where it was covered with the wet light of the moon. When I couldn't stop shaking, he rummaged in the back of the car and found some rum that he made me drink. He said I was getting sick. He said it was probably malaria all over again. He said he'd take care of me.
"My father never took care of me, Jazz. That was the problem. That's why I've been ... I mean, I'm so damn depressed and that's the reason. He used to like ... he was a bad man. Evil. Evil. When I was ten, he came to my room. Are you listening, Jazz? He came in. He'd left us, but he was visiting. He was always leaving us. It was the last time I let him touch me. The last time. He tore up my paintings. The ones I was working on. I was drawing a girl I knew at school. They were good drawings. My best ever. He tore them up. He said all I'd ever have for a girlfriend would be my pet goldfish. I had a goldfish named Sophie. He went round to the other side of the bed and bent down so that he could look at me through the fishbowl. I kept the bowl. I always kept the bowl as a memento. His eye was as big as a fist. 'Sophie's your gal,' he said. 'You and Sophie. Two of a kind.' Then he laughed into the fishbowl and his mouth was fucking huge because of the glass, and you could see each one of his fillings, and the brown stains left by the chewing tobacco. Ugly teeth. Ugly as shit, my dad. I never let him see me again after that. And now I'm okay about it. I've read the books. I know how to deal with it. I'm okay now. But men's hands ... I never like looking at men's hands, you know what I mean, Jazz? Jazz? Are you okay, honey? C'mon, let's get you home. You'll catch your death of cold out here. There's a storm coming." He helped me into the car and covered me with a blanket.
Lady was still asleep in the back of the Jeep. I thought about taking her out of the car seat and holding her to me, but I still had the moon for comfort. I unwound the window partway down and peered up at her. She was a clean eye against the dark. I let her wash me.
"We're in for rain," Manny said. "Hear the thunder? Better step on it if we're going to beat the storm home."
His voice was far away. It was mixed up with a woman called Sophie and someone's fist. It was all mixed up with music on the radio and a baby's flipper arm. The moon was a hole punched into the dark tent of the sky. I hummed "Moon River" and dreamed the road into rapids. We were in a boat. There was a harbor just around the corner. We couldn't see it yet, but the moon would guide us home.
He drove faster, dodging potholes that were sometimes small craters.
"This road is gonna be shot by the middle of the rainy season if they don't start filling in some of these things." He swerved from one side of the road to the other in an effort to avoid the worst of them.
"I saw a work crew back there before night came on. Let's hope they're repaving the damn road. It's a bitch."
I watched the scene as it flew by us watched by the moon. The road was barely wide enough for two cars. I wasn't nervous about the rain or the condition of the road. Manny was an excellent driver. I wasn't nervous about anything. The shaking had stopped. I was calm. Thunder rolled across the sky and shook the land like a brief stampede.
Manny's words tumbled over each other like penitents. I had to understand what made him tick, he said. There were things that made people act in a certain way. It wasn't their fault. "He was always drunk, my father. One time, I heard him come in. I crept to the bedroom door and cracked it open. He had my mother by the hair and he was banging her head against the wall. Bang. Bang. Bang. Her head didn't sound human, you know. It sounded like a basketball. Then he did some other things. I watched. They didn't see me. I saw them. Disgusting. He was drunk."
Manny reached back and placed a hand on my knee. He told me to scoot forward; I obeyed him. He let his fingers crawl up my thigh, leaning back in the seat so that he could reach far up into me. I didn't move or say a word. I was looking at the moon. She was more beautiful than ever.
"You've got to understand, Jazz, what it was like living with a madman. It changes you. But we don't have to be that way. I mean, your mother was kinda crazy too, but you turned out all right, didn't you? We're the same, you and me. That's why we belong together. We've been through hell and come out on the other side, and we're okay. We have Lady. We have each other. We can begin again. Put all that behind us. Okay?"
I kept staring at the moon.
"What are you looking at?" "The moon."
"Did you hear what I said?"
I focused harder on the moon. I let myself dissolve into the eye of the bright disk. I had become the moon. It was easy.
We rounded a bend at the crest of a hill. Hurtling toward us on the wrong side of the road was a pair of blinding headlights.
Manny jerked his hand back to the wheel. He swerved the Jeep over to the left, rode partway up a bank, and came down again on all four wheels.
"Are you guys okay?" he cried, slamming on the brakes. In his voice was the same concern I'd heard when he'd pulled up my panties.
"Yes," I said, pulling myself away from the moon. "We're fine." Lady was still fast asleep--totally unaware of how close we'd skirted disaster. She was sucking her thumb. Her juice cup was nestled in her lap.
Manny cursed the driver, though he had disappeared into the night without evincing any sign that he'd seen us.
"They drive like jerks in this country. Probably some taxi driver. Those are the worst." His voice was tripping over itself. Things were happening too fast, he said. No time to think. "Let's get home, Jazz, and sort all this out. We can get on the right track again. We're safe, that's the main thing. We've got a second chance. I love you, you know that. You and Lady. We're gonna make it. Things are always darkest before dawn. My morn used to say that."
I looked up at the moon. She was still perfect. I turned Manny off. Click. He was gone.
After a few more miles, my body was yielding to the way the car moved along the pitted road. I sank into the curves of sleep and dreamed about the moon.
When I was jerked awake, the first thing I thought about was Lady.
We were careening through the air and Manny was yelling something that sounded strange. A word, said in slow motion. "Jeeessuus!" No. It wasn't that. It was my name stretched out like elastic: "Jaaaazzz!" The word wound out from his mouth like fishing line before his body was hurled up against the steering wheel. Earth inside my mouth or the powder of shattered teeth. Which?
When I opened my eyes, it was pitch dark. The Jeep was leaning over slightly, as if we were riding along the side of a steep riverbank. No. It wasn't pitch dark. There was a faint light coming from somewhere and there was a trinity tree in the car. Its branches scratched my neck.
No reply but the moon.
I opened my eyes again and saw the tree in the car. Not a trinity tree. No blossoms. Just a simple tree. Or part of a tree--yes, part of a tree. This time, someone was crying. The noise came to me convulsively, as if I were coming up for air every so often and could only hear sound in gulps before my ears were filled with water. I reached out toward the sound and caught hold of what felt like a spatula. It was warm. I recognized it. I'd never been so happy to feel the warmth of Lady's flesh before. I'd found my child's signature in the dark.
And it was beautiful.
Lady was alive and crying. I held on to her tiny arm for as long as I could before passing out again.
I came to for good when the rain was just beginning to come down. My head hurt so much that I must have sobbed myself awake. I was still sobbing. I thought it was someone else making all that noise, but it was me. I knew in the first few seconds that we'd had a terrible accident and that Lady had been crying the last time I opened my eyes. I was able to move my right hand. I reached over to where I thought Lady would be. Nothing.
"Lady!" I screamed.
Lady's small voice a few inches from my hand. I groped toward it. There was my child's hair, her eyes, her mouth and nose and neck. Thank God! Thank God!
I tried to move from beneath whatever was pinning me down. There was part of a tree in the car. I hadn't been dreaming. It was a tree. Branches had smashed through the glass.
I called Manny's name. Nothing.
Limbs from the tree were wedged between the driver's and the passenger's seats in the front. It was impossible to see through them to the driver's seat. I concentrated again on Lady. I began to talk to her--silly, nonsense things that would soothe her. At the same time, I worked on freeing myself from underneath the debris. I was crazy with fear--something could tumble down on top of Lady. I didn't know what the hell was among the branches. I didn't let myself think about it.
After a long struggle, I had most of my body freed up. One of my feet was wedged against something and there was still a kind of wall between me and Manny, but I was able to reach over at last and unstrap Lady from the car seat. I pulled her out.
I could see a little better in the dark now that my eyes were used to it. My hands were bloodied and trembling as I felt all over my little girl for signs of injury.
Torso--no cuts, no gashes.
Thank you, thank you, thank you! I never want any more than this! Just this, and I will be grateful!
Lady wanted to cuddle me, but I had to help Manny.
The rain was steady overhead. Wherever we were, we were shielded from it a little. Maybe we'd crashed into some huge tree, which was giving us some shelter from the rain? Water dripped through the smashed windshield, but it didn't pour down upon us even when the wind picked up. I was grateful a second time.
My head was throbbing as I picked at the mess piled up along the center of the car. Every so often I called out his name. After forty or fifty calls I did it out of habit, with no hope that he would be able to respond. If he was badly injured, I'd have to risk taking him to a hospital. But white people said it was better to die than to go to one of the hospitals up-country. For a moment, I was paralyzed with fear. Then reason took over again: he may not be badly injured. I should find out first, then worry about getting help. I didn't even know if he was still in the front seat. He could have been thrown into the bush. I saw his neat body thrown into a high arc, then smashed into obscene disintegration. My vision. It had come true. I started to giggle. Then it became laughter. Someone was laughing like Rochester's wife, like Louise--and it was me. Then it stopped. I wouldn't be afraid. I had Lady with me. She was alive. That would be enough.
I worked from the top, slowly, slowly, leveling the wall between us.
Stones, rocks, great clumps of earth, twigs, branches, limbs of trees--only limbs of trees, please God--all the things that had been launched into the car upon impact. I found Manny's briefcase and one of Lady's little sneakers. Then I found a square box. Tupperware. Some of Lionel's food I'd packed in case of emergencies. I put it to one side for Lady, shocked by my ability to remain relatively calm.
Until I found the top of Manny's head. I could feel it when I reached over the wall. Lady crying. "Shh! Shh! Mama's here. Don't cry."
A cut on something sharp--a piece of metal. Part of the bloody car door! O, Jesus! "Manny! Manny!"
My foot freed itself quite suddenly--I didn't know how. I leaned back and swiveled my legs up as high as I could. I had a tight hold on Lady. A hammer still pounded my forehead. I scooted up between the seats, glad that I was small enough to fit into the narrow space on her side of the wall. I pushed on the wreckage with my feet, calling his name into the dark. If I pushed it hard enough, I could create a space to slip through. I'd tried climbing over the top; it was impossible. The roof had been opened up like a tin can and jagged pieces of metal would have cut me to pieces. If only the elephant hadn't damaged the Jeep. I could have gotten out on the passenger side and tried from the outside. No, you fool! The Jeep was crushed on that side too. It wasn't the elephant. Don't blame the elephant. I cursed myself instead--all the errors I'd made, over and over, learning nothing from the time before. I cursed Manny, while I was trying to save him, for coming to me in pieces and telling me to pick them up and make a man out of them.
And then I'd done it! The wreckage collapsed under the weight of my feet, falling around us in a clatter. Manny was visible, slumped over the wheel.
Part of his face had been sheared off and the part that remained was staring hard into his lap.
"Manny? I just want you to know a few things."
The rain had stopped but we were still in the center of the night. I thought it would be safer to stay there and hope someone would spot us than to try to pry the rest of the door open and go for help. I probably couldn't get out anyway. The door was a mess before the accident-impossible now. Lady was sleeping against me. I didn't turn to look at Manny's silhouette when I spoke because it no longer made sense to me now that so much of it was missing. Every so often I could've sworn it moved. I fixed my eyes on the bent hood of the car and the lessening rain, and imagined beyond the darkness the brilliant light that shattered into stars. It was the night sky that was overlaid onto a long bang of light--a fabric overlay so that we could bear the whiteness of things.
"Manny, Lady is fine. She is fine. I wished you dead and then you died. Walt Disney knew: Dreams can come true if you wish for them hard enough. He was right. They do. My head is killing me! You called out my name! Bastard! You called out my name! Why? I know. Maurice again. Accusing me. You did it, Cinta! You are the killer again ..."
Wild animals! They can smell blood from miles away. Listen! Something out there in the dark! Eyes staring from the bush! Look! There they are! "Lady! I've got you! Don't cry! Please don't cry!"
A howl rushed out of the dark from somewhere nearby. I jumped, and Lady began to cry.
She was hungry and thirsty. I pushed the fear and the pain in nay head into the background and found the Tupperware container. I fed her bits of Lionel's stew with bloody fingers. There was beer in a cooler somewhere. I couldn't find it. Lady was thirstier than ever after the stew. There were puddles of water from the rain. One puddle on the seat by the door. I scooped some rain up in my hand and managed to get a little into her mouth. Then I thought about breast feeding. I had no milk, but it would quiet her. "Titty," I said. "Do you want some titty?"
Lady sucked. I listened to the bush and the silence beside me.
Two people breathed: that detail changed everything.
I was in the Jeep again, racing along the road with Manny. Suddenly he cried out:
"Look! Over there! Dear God, Lionel was right!"
I followed his arm. Twenty, thirty feet away, no more, the monster. A silhouette. Neck as long as a bridge. Towering over the bush.
"Jesus! We saw her, Jazz! She's real! She's--"
Brakes! Brakes! Like the screech of an animal in its death throes. Eyes in the headlight. Baby eyes. Mirrors. As round as saucers. Jeep swerving to the right! And suddenly we were flying! Yes, flying to the right! Up over the bank, then down, down into trees.
What was that in the road? What was it? Bigger than a small elephant, frozen by headlights in the middle of the road? Rump. Leather. Wrinkled. And the smell ... ancient. Ancient past Egypt, past the Benin Empire. As ancient as the moon. Lionel's voice: I told you she was a mother.
Then my father came to me. His face was elongated into pain--three feet from his hair to his chin. Raffia around his neck. Eyes--slits in the dark. Behind him drummers, pounding on skins, heating up the air. A wild dance in the mask of death. Drums playing midnight. Hands on drum skins--the wings of hummingbirds. The sound of crickets whirring in the bush like clocks. We were in the dance! Lady and me. In the dance with my father, Africa! I looked up at the sky: a constellation in the shape of a monster. Glory be! We'd seen it! We'd seen the Thing Itself rise from the ashes of time to fill the land with grace! No need to launch wishes like boomerangs anymore. Simon was with me, dancing with death in the night.
Simon opened the door from the outside--the only way doors can be opened--and pulled Lady and me from the Jeep. He carried us gently up the embankment and laid us on the side of the road. I asked him why he had risen from the dead.
"I was never there," he said. "You were only dreaming."
He told me to rest. "Help will come soon," he assured me. "All will be well."
I fell asleep smiling.
They said they found us in the morning as the sun was coming up. A crew was working on the road. The foreman was British. We must have been thrown from the car, they said, when they found us lying by the side of the road--though how we had traveled so far from the Jeep and sustained only minimal injuries, they couldn't say. It was a miracle. They never would have found us if we had remained trapped in the vehicle. The Jeep was covered by the bush. No one could have found us if we hadn't been lucky. They said we must have swerved off the road. Did I remember anything? they said. Yes, I told them. I remembered my father. He was wearing a mask as long as exile. No one heard me.
They put us in the back of one of the trucks and drove us to a place whose name l cannot remember--the nearest town with a mission hospital. I was fully conscious all the way there. I wouldn't let anyone else touch Lady. At first they thought she'd lost her arm in the accident; they tried to hide it from me. I told them she was born with it. Once they understood, they were happy for me.
Soon after we arrived at the mission hospital, John came to us. He was with Assie and Lionel. He held me like a lover. The nuns at the hospital were shocked. "It was your husband who was killed in the accident?" they asked.
"Yes," I said. "This man is my brother."
They let him stay.
They kept us in the hospital for two days. They said they needed to observe me. John stayed with us. Assie stayed too. I slept with Lady. I wouldn't let anyone touch her. When the nightmares came, John held me. When he asked me about the accident, I said I couldn't remember anything. He said it was a blessing.
"Yes," I said. "I'm lucky."
They took us back with the body. We rode in the front of Father Marco's truck. Assie and John rode in the van with Lionel. I had wanted to ride in the van, but the nuns insisted I ride with Father Marco. Father Marco was a good driver. He would take care of Lady and me.
Some of the nuns followed in a car. They were kind to us. The journey was like a dream. Manny's body bounced around in the back. I heard his coffin bang the side of the truck. Father Marco tried to talk over the sound so that I wouldn't hear it, but I heard it. I asked him to hear my confession as I drove. He listened while I told him I had killed Manny. I left out the part about John Turay. I left out everything except Manny's anger and my wanting a divorce.
Father Marco said I was typical. He forgave me. All wives blame themselves, he said. It was not your fault; it was the Lord's will. It was an accident. I didn't know how to reconcile the three statements.
We dropped Manny off at the old church down by the docks. The funeral would be held tomorrow. There was a strange smell coming from the back of the truck. People wore masks as they lifted the coffin. Lady asked me where Daddy was. "In heaven," I lied. "Daddy's gone to heaven."
Esther was waiting at the house. The nuns didn't argue when she took over. She and John and Assie and Lionel took care of us. Esther treated me like a baby. John's face appeared in the doorway of the bedroom, then disappeared again.
"Lady is safe," Esther said. "That is the main thing."
The funeral was blurred. Someone had it out of focus. I tried to adjust the lens, but it was too late. Manny was already buried in a little plot in the Creole cemetery. The priest got muddled up, said it was Manny's father who was African. Told the story of a man who went on a journey to find his father. In his sermon, the man found peace.
After the funeral, I got a call from Alfred, who had just learned through the British Consul what had happened. He wanted to fly out. I told him no. Louise was on the phone then. "My poor baby," she said. "Let us come and be with you." "No," I said. "We're fine. Our friends are taking care of us."
Alfred spoke with Esther. I don't know what she said. When I took the phone again, he was calm. "She is a good woman" Alfred said. "Yes," I answered. "She is looking after us."
We stayed in the city for two more weeks. Esther stayed with us, so did Assie. Lionel left one day. I can't remember when. Before he went away, I asked him about his dinosaur.
"There never was a dinosaur, Jacinta. I was a fool to believe it. It was an old elephant, that's all. I know that now. It's funny. It was Manny who helped me see that. We talked about it--at the palm wine bar the night you left.... He helped me see the light. Was driving me crazy. I think your husband's common sense may have saved me. I'm peaceful now. Easy."
"I envy you," I said. But I didn't know whether I was being sincere.
We never spoke after that.
Soon after Lionel had gone, things came back into focus. I looked around me: Lady was playing at the foot of my bed; Esther was with Assie in the living room singing a song with her in a language they shared; and John was in a chair in my room waiting for me to recognize him.
"You have been in and out of things. The sedatives," he said, "and the painkillers."
"Am I better now?"
"Yes. I think you will soon be better. Will you tell me what happened?"
I opened my mouth to speak, but nothing came out except a sentence or two of mumbling.
"Who is Sophie?" he asked me.
"A fish," I was able to reply.
"I don't understand."
"Neither do I," I said.
"Do you want to sleep?"
"No. I want to watch everyone."
"Okay," he said.
He cradled me in his arms and I watched Lady play with her toys. When I fell asleep it was in his embrace, and when I woke he was there by my bedside, where he promised he would always be.
Gradually I got stronger, and John said he had to return to Lunama and the mines.
"Will I see you again?" he asked.
I told him I believed we would see each other again, but that first I needed to be alone for a while. When I tried to apologize, he placed a hand gently over my mouth.
"You are you, Jacinta. You decide which road you take. If you want me to ride with you, I will come. If you want to ride alone, I will wave good-bye and await your return. It is not complicated. It is what should be done."
Then he broke down and cried because once there had been trinity trees and storytellers and elephants, and now there would only be a conjuring up of these in the memory of the ones who were there.
When he left, it was as if he had taken a limb of mine with him.
Esther remained with me and Assie. Assie had come back from Lunama as soon as she'd heard about the accident. She and Esther would help Lady and me get ready for the trip back to Virginia. We would spend time with Lydia, then perhaps I would find work. I didn't know. Tom Brandon in the writing program was going to help. Lydia had contacted him, apparently. There would be space in Virginia to absorb the enormity of what had happened here.
The day before I left, Assie handed me two notes. One was from Maurice. She told me she'd been afraid to give it to me after what I'd said about him. She told me he was sorry. "You must forgive him," she said. "He is a poor man like Assie."
The other note was from John.
I read Maurice's note first.
Dear Cinta , We just heard about the accident. Let me know f I can do anything. Probably you hate me. But I want you to know I came to Lunama to apologize to you and to Manny. You bring out the worst in me, Cinta. You always have. I don't mean half the things I say. I just want you to know Mary and I were not monsters. If you and the kid want to visit me in Lagos, that would be great. Bring Assie too. I'm not a monster, Cinta. Just someone who didn't "love wisely but too well." Come and see me in Lagos. I'll be waiting. Yours ever, Maurice
The second note was very different.
Jacinta : I know that things happened on the road from Lunama that you will hold forever in your heart. I am sure that the horrors of what happened will, in some way, accompany the other journeys you will make. But I urge you to remember that Lunama was not just a tragedy. It was also a love story, Jacinta, one that you and I dared to tell. When you go home (Assie tells me you leave on Monday. Without good-bye?) know that nothing is lost if it is remembered. I will carry you and your pretty Lady in my heart. I will remember the scent you wear and your hair covered in In the Name of the Father's blossoms. How can pain last in a world where such bliss has been shared? It is too early to talk about you and me. But one day it may be too late. When you too can say, "I am ready," let me know. I am ready now. I will be ready then. Always yours, John Turay
I burned the first note. I watched the flames curl up from the burner on the stove and lick the note to death.
The second note I put carefully in a plastic sheet. Then I placed it in my diary with the other treasures of my life.
During the last few days of my time in Africa, Esther would hold me and shush me to sleep when the nightmares came. When I woke up the night before I was due to leave, I cried out:
"I did it, Esther! It was me! He was right. I did it."
"No," she said, not needing to understand what I was referring to. "Whoever told you that was a fool. We cause little in this world, Jacinta. The world makes itself happen, for the most part. Then there are people like Maurice Shittycrap who can throw bad luck around like dice. They can make a few things happen once in a while. So you are on your guard, and you protect your little girl from idiots like that. Lady, she is what you have got. Keep her, Jacinta Moses. You had a husband. He was killed in an accident. You will have another. That is your story."
"I saw you that night. You were in the moon."
She smiled and stroked my head with her hand.
"Will I see you again?" I asked her.
"Maybe," she said." If you come home again."
"Manny is dead, but I feel nothing. I am evil. I feel nothing."
She hushed me, but I needed to speak.
"I saw Simon in the bush. He had a long face with raffia at the end. I dreamed he saved us."
"Perhaps it was the Poro or one of the other secret societies. They wear masks like that. Or perhaps your father made them come to you."
"Could he do that?"
"The dead can do anything, silly child. They teach you nothing at the white schools."
"You're angry with me. Don't be angry. Don't you love me, Esther? I don't think you love me anymore."
She held me in her arms. "Little Jacinta Moses," she said. "You know nothing."
Lady and I left the next day.
The day after, we were back in Virginia.
When Lydia saw us at the airport, she ran toward us like a woman who understands the need to comfort another. I was grateful.
"You poor children," she said. Then, "Did he suffer?"
"No. It was instantaneous."
"Good. That's a blessing. He was ... I don't know. I don't really know who he was."
"He was the father of little Lydia Fox, my Lady Moses," I said, remembering how words can comfort us if we let them.
"Yes," she replied, her face lighting up as she looked at her pretty grandchild. "That's worth something. Isn't it?"
A few days before she dies, I am holding her hand when she begins to speak.
"My name is Louise Buttercup Moses," she says. "I have not been a good woman, but I have tried hard. I fell in love with a man called Simon Moses. People thought it was strange because he was a black man from Africa and I am a white woman from England. But it was not strange. We were like the moon and the night. We made each other brighter. Really, there was no difference between us. People are fools if they don't know what I mean. I never spent time looking for difference. I just made love to it. What else can you do? When he died I loved his little girl, Jacinta. She was like the sunshine. Is that you, Jacinta, all grown up? Now I'm going to go and be with him. I will be buried in the grave where he ties. They dug it deep enough for two. I am happy. Never be sad about this. The cancer is a blessing. It takes me back to where I want to be."
This is what I must carry with me. Not the accusations or the outbursts, not the guilt or the sense of loss. Only this:
Just around the corner, my mother waits for me, the way parents wait for their children who are still making the journey they have already completed. In the bend of the night, she and Simon are there, arms entwined, waiting for their wayward child to come home.
As Alfred has entreated, I pick up a pen again and write. This time it is an answer to the question that had troubled me:
If life is only a brief journey toward great loss in a small room, what will I tell my child when she asks me again, just as she did at five years of age, "What is the meaning of life, Mama?"
At the funeral, I read my response to the small group of people gathered to remember what mothers mean.
"I will tell my daughter the same thing my mother told me: that it is worth the coming back in order to be with those we have made. The joy we find with them, however brief, is the thing 'of great constancy' Shakespeare wrote about. Louise Buttercup built something amazing with Simon Moses on Lavender Sweep. Unwittingly, she handed the passion to me when she railed against his loss and refused to accept that the small room of mortality equaled separation.
"In memory of Louise Buttercup Moses, I refuse to accept it too. Likewise, I refuse to accept that the light cannot house the dark, and that night is not blessed when the moon's whiteness kisses it. We will not fly away from one another anymore. When I am here so is she, because I remember her.
"Love cannot happen in a small room, that's the secret. And the journey is only brief if you segregate the tenses. Her past is my present is my daughter's future. The beloved together are the meaning of life. There is no more than this."
After the funeral, Alfred, Lady, and I sit in the living room again and plan the future. I have a long-overdue trip back to Africa to make. Alfred wants to come. He insists his arthritis will not bother him. "I am still a young man in here," he says, pointing to his large cranium.
Lady is thrilled to hear we three may go back in the summer. She wants to ride an elephant. When I tell her elephants are gone from that part of Africa, she tells me I'm wrong and rushes to the bookshelf. She returns with her grandfather's story collection.
"Read it!" she commands. "You'll see, Mom. They are there. You have forgotten."
I begin to read. She is right.
They are there after all.
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|Date:||Jan 1, 1998|
|Previous Article:||Part III: Lunama, 6-7.|