Book One. GENESIS
And God said unto them,
Be fruitful, and multiply,
and replenish the earth,
and subdue it: and have dominion
over the fish of the sea,
and over the fowl of the air,
and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.
Orleanna Price SANDERLING ISLAND, GEORGIA
IMAGINE A RUIN so strange it must never have happened. First, picture the forest. I want you to be its conscience, the eyes in the trees. The trees are columns of slick, brindled bark like muscular animals overgrown beyond all reason. Every space is filled with life: delicate, poisonous frogs war-painted like skeletons, clutched in copulation, secreting their precious eggs onto dripping leaves. Vines strangling their own kin in the everlasting wrestle for sunlight. The breathing of monkeys. A glide of snake belly on branch. A single-file army of ants biting a mammoth tree into uniform grains and hauling it down to the dark for their ravenous queen. And, in reply, a choir of seedlings arching their necks out of rotted tree stumps, sucking life out of death. This forest eats itself and lives forever.
Away down below now, single file on the path, comes a woman with four girls in tow, all of them in shirtwaist dresses. Seen from above this way they are pale, doomed blossoms, bound to appeal to your sympathies. Be careful. Later on you’ll have to decide what sympathy they deserve. The mother especially-watch how she leads them on, pale-eyed, deliberate. Her dark hair is tied in a ragged lace handkerchief, and her curved jawbone is lit with large, false-pearl earrings, as if these headlamps from another world might show the way. The daughters march behind her, four girls compressed in bodies as tight as bowstrings, each one tensed to fire off a woman’s heart on a different path to glory or damnation. Even now they resist affinity like cats in a bag: two blondes-the one short and fierce, the other tall and imperious-flanked by matched brunettes like bookends, the forward twin leading hungrily while the rear one sweeps the ground in a rhythmic limp. But gamely enough they climb together over logs of rank decay that have fallen across the path. The mother waves a graceful hand in front of her as she leads the way, parting curtain after curtain of spiders’ webs. She appears to be conducting a symphony. Behind them the curtain closes.The spiders return to their killing ways.
At the stream bank she sets out their drear picnic, which is only dense, crumbling bread daubed with crushed peanuts and slices of bitter plantain. After months of modest hunger the children now forget to complain about food. Silently they swallow, shake off the crumbs, and drift downstream for a swim in faster water. The mother is left alone in the cove of enormous trees at the edge of a pool. This place is as familiar to her now as a living room in the house of a life she never bargained for. She rests uneasily in the silence, watching ants boil darkly over the crumbs of what seemed, to begin with, an impossibly meager lunch. Always there is someone hungrier than her own children. She tucks her dress under her legs and inspects her poor, featherless feet in their grass nest at the water’s edge-twin birds helpless to fly out of there, away from the disaster she knows is coming. She could lose everything: herself, or worse, her children. Worst of all: you, her only secret. Her favorite. How could a mother live with herself to blame?
She is inhumanly alone. And then, all at once, she isn’t. A beautiful animal stands on the other side of the water. They look up from their lives, woman and animal, amazed to find themselves in the same place. He freezes, inspecting her with his black-tipped ears. His back is purplish-brown in the dim light, sloping downward from the gentle hump of his shoulders. The forest’s shadows fall into lines across his white-striped flanks. His stiff forelegs splay out to the sides like stilts, for he’s been caught in the act of reaching down for water. Without taking his eyes from her, he twitches a little at the knee, then the shoulder, where a fly devils him. Finally he surrenders his surprise, looks away, and drinks. She can feel the touch of his long, curled tongue on the water’s skin, as if he were lapping from her hand. His head bobs gently, nodding small, velvet horns lit white from behind like new leaves.
It lasted just a moment, whatever that is. One held breath? An ant’s afternoon? It was brief, I can promise that much, for although it’s been many years now since my children ruled my life, a mother recalls the measure of the silences. I never had more than five minutes’ peace unbroken. I was that woman on the stream bank, of course. Orleanna Price, Southern Baptist by marriage, mother of children living and dead. That one time and no other the okapi came to the stream, and I was the only one to see it.
I didn’t know any name for what I’d seen until some years afterward in Atlanta, when I attempted briefly to consecrate myself in the public library, believing every crack in my soul could be chinked with a book. I read that the male okapi is smaller than the female, and more shy, and that hardly anything else is known about them. For hundreds of years people in the Congo Valley spoke of this beautiful, strange beast. When European explorers got wind of it, they declared it legendary: a unicorn. Another fabulous tale from the dark domain of poison-tipped arrows and bone-pierced lips. Then, in the 1920’s when elsewhere in the world the menfolk took a break between wars to perfect the airplane and the automobile, a white man finally did set eyes on the okapi. I can picture him spying on it with binoculars, raising up the cross-haired rifle sight, taking it for his own. A family of them now reside in the New York Museum of Natural History, dead and stuffed, with standoffish glass eyes. And so the okapi is now by scientific account a real animal. Merely real, not legend. Some manner of beast, a horseish gazelle, relative of the giraffe.
Oh, but I know better and so do you.Those glassy museum stares have got nothing on you, my uncaptured favorite child, wild as the day is long. Your bright eyes bear down on me without cease, on behalf of the quick and the dead. Take your place, then. Look at what happened from every side and consider all the other ways it could have gone. Consider, even, an Africa unconquered altogether. Imagine those first Portuguese adventurers approaching the shore, spying on the jungle’s edge through their fitted brass lenses. Imagine that by some miracle of dread or reverence they lowered their spyglasses, turned, set their riggings, sailed on. Imagine all who came after doing the same. What would that Africa be now? All I can think of is the other okapi, the one they used to believe in. A unicorn that could look you in the eye.
In the year of our Lord 1960, a monkey barreled through space in an American rocket; a Kennedy boy took the chair out from under a fatherly general named Ike; and the whole world turned on an axis called the Congo. The monkey sailed right overhead, and on a more earthly plane men in locked rooms bargained for the Congo’s treasure. But I was there. Right on the head of that pin.
I had washed up there on the riptide of my husband’s confidence and the undertow of my children’s needs. That’s my excuse, yet none of them really needed me all that much. My firstborn and my baby both tried to shed me like a husk from the start, and the twins came with a fine interior sight with which they could simply look past me at everything more interesting. And my husband, why, hell hath no fury like a Baptist preacher. I married a man who could never love me, probably. It would have trespassed on his devotion to all mankind. I remained his wife because it was one thing I was able to do each day. My daughters would say: You see, Mother, you had no life of your own.
They have no idea. One has only a life of one’s own.
I’ve seen things they’ll never know about. I saw a family of weaver birds work together for months on a nest that became such a monstrous lump of sticks and progeny and nonsense that finally it brought their whole tree thundering down. I didn’t speak of it to my husband or children, not ever. So you see. I have my own story, and increasingly in my old age it weighs on me. Now that every turn in the weather whistles an ache through my bones, I stir in bed and the memories rise out of me like a buzz of flies from a carcass. I crave to be rid of them, but find myself being careful, too, choosing which ones to let out into the light. I want you to find me innocent. As much as I’ve craved your lost, small body, I want you now to stop stroking my inner arms at night with your fingertips. Stop whispering. I’ll live or die on the strength of your judgment, but first let me say who I am. Let me claim that Africa and I kept company for a while and then parted ways, as if we were both party to relations with a failed outcome. Or say I was afflicted with Africa like a bout of a rare disease, from which I have not managed a full recovery. Maybe I’ll even confess the truth, that I rode in with the horsemen and beheld the apocalypse, but still I’ll insist I was only a captive witness. What is the conqueror’s wife, if not a conquest herself? For that matter, what is he? When he rides in to vanquish the untouched tribes, don’t you think they fall down with desire before those sky-colored eyes? And itch for a turn with those horses, and those guns? That’s what we yell back at history, always, always. It wasn’t just me; there were crimes strewn six ways to Sunday, and I had my own mouths to feed. I didn’t know. I had no life of my own. And you’ll say I did. You’ll say I walked across Africa with my wrists unshackled, and now I am one more soul walking free in a white skin, wearing some thread of the stolen goods: cotton or diamonds, freedom at the very least, prosperity. Some of us know how we came by our fortune, and some of us don’t, but we wear it all the same. There’s only one question worth asking now: How do we aim to live with it?
I know how people are, with their habits of mind. Most will sail through from cradle to grave with a conscience clean as snow. It’s easy to point at other men, conveniently dead, starting with the ones who first scooped up mud from riverbanks to catch the scent of a source. Why, Dr. Livingstone, I presume, wasn’t he the rascal! He and all the profiteers who’ve since walked out on Africa as a husband quits a wife, leaving her with her naked body curled around the emptied-out mine of her womb. I know people. Most have no earthly notion of the price of a snow-white conscience.
I would be no different from the next one, if I hadn’t paid my own little part in blood. I trod on Africa without a thought, straight from our family’s divinely inspired beginning to our terrible end. In between, in the midst of all those steaming nights and days darkly colored, smelling of earth, I believe there lay some marrow of honest instruction. Sometimes I can nearly say what it was. If I could, I would fling it at others, I’m afraid, at risk to their ease. I’d slide this awful story off my shoulders, flatten it, sketch out our crimes like a failed battle plan and shake it in the faces of my neighbors, who are wary of me already. But Africa shifts under my hands, refusing to be party to failed relations. Refusing to be any place at all, or any thing but itself: the animal kingdom making hay in the kingdom of glory. So there it is, take your place. Leave nothing for a haunted old bat to use for disturbing the peace. Nothing, save for this life of her own.
We aimed for no more than to have dominion over every creature that moved upon the earth. And so it came to pass that we stepped down there on a place we believed unformed, where only darkness moved on the face of the waters. Now you laugh, day and night, while you gnaw on my bones. But what else could we have thought? Only that it began and ended with MS. What do we know, even now? Ask the children. Look at what they grew up to be. We can only speak of the things we carried with us, and the things we took away.
The Things We Carried
WE CAME FROM BETHLEHEM, Georgia, bearing Betty Crocker cake mixes into the jungle. My sisters and I were all counting on having one birthday apiece during our twelve-month mission. “And heaven knows,” our mother predicted, “they won’t have Betty Crocker in the Congo.”
“Where we are headed, there will be no buyers and sellers at all,” my father corrected. His tone implied that Mother failed to grasp our mission, and that her concern with Betty Crocker confederated her with the coin-jingling sinners who vexed Jesus till he pitched a fit and threw them out of church. “Where we are headed,” he said, to make things perfectly clear, “not so much as a Piggly Wiggly.” Evidently Father saw this as a point in the Congo’s favor. I got the most spectacular chills, just from trying to imagine.
She wouldn’t go against him, of course. But once she understood there was no turning back, our mother went to laying out in the spare bedroom all the worldly things she thought we’d need in the Congo just to scrape by. “The bare minimum, for my children,” she’d declare under her breath, all the livelong day. In addition to the cake mixes, she piled up a dozen cans of Underwood deviled ham; Rachel’s ivory plastic hand mirror with powdered-wig ladies on the back; a stainless-steel thimble; a good pair of scissors; a dozen number-2 pencils; a world of Band-Aids, Anacin.Absorbine Jr.; and a fever thermometer.
And now we are here, with all these colorful treasures safely transported and stowed against necessity. Our stores are still intact, save for the Anacin tablets taken by our mother and the thimble lost down the latrine hole by Ruth May. But already our supplies from home seem to represent a bygone world: they stand out like bright party favors here in our Congolese house, set against a backdrop of mostly all mud-colored things. When I stare at them with the rainy-season light in my eyes and Congo grit in my teeth, I can hardly recollect the place where such items were commonplace, merely a yellow pencil, merely a green bottle of aspirin among so many other green bottles upon a high shelf.
Mother tried to think of every contingency, including hunger and illness. (And Father does, in general, approve of contingencies. For it “was God who gave man alone the capacity of foresight.) She procured a good supply of antibiotic drugs from our granddad Dr. BudWharton, who has senile dementia and loves to walk outdoors naked but still can do two things perfectly: win at checkers and write out prescriptions. We also brought over a cast-iron frying pan, ten packets of baker’s yeast, pinking shears, the head of a hatchet, a fold-up army latrine spade, and all told a good deal more. This was the full measure of civilization’s evils we felt obliged to carry with us.
Getting here with even the bare minimum was a trial. Just when we considered ourselves fully prepared and were fixing to depart, lo and behold, we learned that the Pan American Airline would only allow forty-four pounds to be carried across the ocean. Forty-four pounds of luggage per person, and not one iota more. Why, we were dismayed by this bad news! Who’d have thought there would be limits on modern jet-age transport? When we added up all our forty-four pounds together, including Ruth May’s-luckily she counted as a whole person even though she’s small-we were sixty-one pounds over. Father surveyed our despair as if he’d expected it all along, and left it up to wife and daughters to sort out, suggesting only that we consider the lilies of the field, which have no need of a hand mirror or aspirin tablets.
“I reckon the lilies need Bibles, though, and his darn old latrine spade,” Rachel muttered, as her beloved toiletry items got pitched out of the suitcase one by one. Rachel never does grasp scripture all that well.
But considering the lilies as we might, our trimming back got us nowhere close to our goal, even without Rachel’s beauty aids. We were nearly stumped. And then, hallelujah! At the last possible moment, saved. Through an oversight (or else probably, if you think about it, just plain politeness), they don’t weigh the passengers. The Southern Baptist Mission League gave us this hint, without coming right out and telling us to flout the law of the forty-four pounds, and from there we made our plan. We struck out for Africa carrying all our excess baggage on our bodies, under our clothes. Also, we had clothes under our clothes. My sisters and I left home wearing six pairs of underdrawers, two half-slips and camisoles; several dresses one on top of the other, with pedal pushers underneath; and outside of everything an all-weather coat. (The encyclopedia advised us to count on rain).The other goods, tools, cake-mix boxes and so forth were tucked out of sight in our pockets and under our waistbands, surrounding us in a clanking armor.
We wore our best dresses on the outside to make a good impression. Rachel wore her green linen Easter suit she was so vain of, and her long whitish hair pulled off her forehead with a wide pink elastic hairband. Rachel is fifteen-or, as she would put it, going on sixteen-and cares for naught but appearances. Her full Christian name is Rachel Rebekah, so she feels free to take after Rebekah, the virgin at the well, who is said in Genesis to be “a damsel very fair” and was offered marriage presents of golden earbobs right ofF the bat, when Abraham’s servant spied her fetching up the water. (Since she’s my elder by one year, she claims no relation to the Bible’s poor Rachel, Leah’s younger sister, who had to wait all those years to get married.) Sitting next to me on the plane, she kept batting her white-rabbit eyelashes and adjusting her bright pink hairband, trying to get me to notice she had secretly painted her fingernails bubble-gum pink to match. I glanced over at Father, who had the other window seat at the opposite end of our entire row of Prices. The sun was a blood-red ball hovering outside his window, inflaming his eyes as he kept up a lookout for Africa on the horizon. It was just lucky for Rachel he had so much else weighing on his mind. She’d been thrashed with the strap for nail polish, even at her age. But that is Rachel to a T, trying to work in just one last sin before leaving civilization. Rachel is worldly and tiresome in my opinion, so I stared out the window, where the view was better. Father feels makeup and nail polish are warning signals of prostitution, the same as pierced ears.
He was right about the lilies of the field, too. Somewhere along about the Atlantic Ocean, the six pairs of underwear and cake mixes all commenced to be a considerable cross to bear. Every time Rachel leaned over to dig in her purse she kept one hand on the chest of her linen jacket and it still made a small clinking noise. I forget now ‘what kind of concealed household weapon she had in there. I was ignoring her, so she chattered mostly to Adah-who was ignoring her too, but since Adah never talks to anyone, it was less noticeable.
Rachel adores to poke fun at everything in Creation, but chiefly our family. “Hey, Ade!” she whispered at Adah. “What if we went on Art Linkletter’s House Party now?”
In spite of myself, I laughed. Mr. Linkletter likes to surprise ladies by taking their purses and pulling out what all’s inside for the television audience. They think it’s very comical if he digs out a can opener or a picture of Herbert Hoover. Imagine if he shook us, and out fell pinking shears and a hatchet. The thought of it gave me nerves. Also, I felt claustrophobic and hot.
Finally, finally we lumbered like cattle off the plane and stepped down the stair ramp into the swelter of Leopoldville, and that is where our baby sister, Ruth May, pitched her blond curls forward and fainted on Mother.
She revived very promptly in the airport, which smelled of urine. I was excited and had to go to the bathroom but couldn’t surmise where a girl would even begin to look, in a place like this. Big palm-tree leaves waved in the bright light outside. Crowds of people rushed past one way and then the other. The airport police wore khaki shirts with extra metal buttons and, believe you me, guns.
Everywhere you looked, there were very tiny old dark ladies lugging entire baskets of things along the order of wilting greens. Chickens, also. Little regiments of children lurked by the doorways, apparently for the express purpose of accosting foreign missionaries. The minute they saw our white skin they’d rush at us, begging in French: “Cadeau, cadeau’ I held up my two hands to illustrate the total and complete lack of gifts I had brought for the African children. Maybe people just hid behind a tree somewhere and squatted down, I was starting to think; maybe that’s why the smell.
Just then a married couple of Baptists in tortoiseshell sunglasses came out of the crowd and shook our hands. They had the peculiar name of Underdown-Reverend and Mrs. Underdown. They’d come down to shepherd us through customs and speak French to the men in uniforms. Father made it clear we were completely self-reliant but appreciated their kindness all the same. He was so polite about it that the Underdowns didn’t realize he was peeved. They carried on making a fuss as if we were all old friends and presented us with a gift of mosquito netting, just armloads of it, trailing on and on like an embarrassing bouquet from some junior-high boyfriend who liked you overly much.
As we stood there holding our netting and sweating through our complete wardrobes, they regaled us with information about our soon-to-be-home, Kilanga. Oh, they had plenty to tell, since they and their boys had once lived there and started up the whole of it, school, church, and all. At one point in time Kilanga was a regular mission with four American families and a medical doctor who visited once a week. Now it had gone into a slump, they said. No more doctor, and the Underdowns themselves had had to move to Leopoldville to give their boys a shot at proper schooling-if, said Mrs. Underdown, you could even call it that.The other missionaries to Kilanga had long since expired their terms. So it was to be just the Price family and whatever help we could muster up. They warned us not to expect much. My heart pounded, for I expected everything: jungle flowers, wild roaring beasts. God’s Kingdom in its pure, unenlightened glory.
Then, while Father was smack in the middle of explaining something to the Underdowns, they suddenly hustled us onto a tiny airplane and abandoned us. It was only our family and the pilot, who was busy adjusting his earphones under his hat. He ignored us entirely, as if we were no more than ordinary cargo. There we sat, draped like tired bridesmaids with our yards of white veil, numbed by the airplane’s horrible noise, skimming above the treetops. We were tuckered out, as my mother would say. “Plumb tuckered out,” she would say. “Sugar, now don’t you trip over that, you’re tuckered out, it’s plain to see.” Mrs. Underdown had fussed and laughed over what she called our charming southern accent. She even tried to imitate the way we said “right now” and “bye-bye.” (“Rot nail” she said. “ Whah yay-es, the ayer-plane is leavin rot nail!” and “Bah-bah”-like a sheep!) She caused me to feel embarrassed over our simple expressions and drawn-out vowels, when I’ve never before considered myself to have any accent, though naturally I’m aware we do sound worlds different from the Yanks on the radio and TV. I had quite a lot to ponder as I sat on that airplane, and incidentally I still had to pee. But we were all dizzy and silent by that time, having grown accustomed to taking up no more space in a seat than was our honest due.
At long last we bumped to a landing in a field of tall yellow grass. We all jumped out of our seats, but Father, because of his imposing stature, had to kind of crouch over inside the plane instead of standing up straight. He pronounced a hasty benediction: “Heavenly Father please make me a powerful instrument of Thy perfect will here in the Belgian Congo. Amen.”
“Amen!” we answered, and then he led us out through the oval doorway into the light.
We stood blinking for a moment, staring out through the dust at a hundred dark villagers, slender and silent, swaying faintly like trees. We’d left Georgia at the height of a peach-blossom summer and now stood in a bewildering dry, red fog that seemed like no particular season you could put your finger on. In all our layers of clothing we must have resembled a family of Eskimos plopped down in a jungle.
But that was our burden, because there was so much we needed to bring here. Each one of us arrived with some extra responsibility biting into us under our garments: a claw hammer, a Baptist hymnal, each object of value replacing the weight freed up by some frivolous thing we’d found the strength to leave behind. Our journey was to be a great enterprise of balance. My father, of course, was bringing the Word of God-which fortunately weighs nothing at all.
Ruth May Price
GOD SAYS THE AFRICANS are the Tribes of Ham. Ham was the worst one of Noah’s three boys: Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Everybody comes down on their family tree from just those three, because God made a big flood and drowneded out the sinners. But Shem, Ham, and Japheth got on the boat so they were A-okay.
Ham was the youngest one, like me, and he was bad. Sometimes I am bad, too. After they all got off the ark and let the animals go is when it happened. Ham found his father Noah laying around pig-naked drunk one day and he thought that was funny as all get-out. The other two brothers covered Noah up with a blanket, but Ham busted his britches laughing. When Noah woke up he got to hear the whole story from the tattletale brothers. So Noah cursed all Ham’s children to be slaves for ever and ever. That’s how come them to turn out dark.
Back home in Georgia they have their own school so they won’t be a-strutting into Rachel’s and Leah and Adah’s school. Leah and Adah are the gifted children, but they still have to go to the same school as everybody. But not the colored children. The man in church said they’re different from us and needs ought to keep to their own. Jimmy Crow says that, and he makes the laws.They don’t come in the White Castle restaurant where Mama takes us to get Cokes either, or the Zoo. Their day for the Zoo is Thursday. That’s in the Bible.
Our village is going to have this many white people: me, Rachel, Leah, and Adah. Mama. Father. That is six people. Rachel is oldest, I am youngest. Leah and Adah are in between and they’re twins, so maybe they are one person, but I think two, because Leah runs everywhere and climbs trees, but Adah can’t, she is bad on one whole side and doesn’t talk because she is brain-damaged and also hates us all. She reads books upside down.You are only supposed to hate the Devil, and love everybody else.
My name is Ruth May and I hate the Devil. For the longest time I used to think my name was Sugar. Mama always says that. Sugar, come here a minute. Sugar, now don’t do that.
In Sunday school Rex Minton said we better not go to the Congo on account of the cannibal natives would boil us in a pot and eat us up. He said, I can talk like a native, listen here: Ugga bugga bugga lugga. He said that means, I’ll have me a drumstick off’n that little one with the curly yellow hair. Our Sunday-school teacher Miss Bannie told him to hush up. But I tell you what, she didn’t say one way or the other about them boiling us in a pot and eating us up. So I don’t know.
Here are the other white people we had in Africa so far: Mister Axelroot that flies the plane. He has got the dirtiest hat you ever saw. He lives way on down by the airplane field in a shack by himself whenever he comes over here, and Mama says that’s close enough quarters for him. Reverent and Misrus Underdown, who started the African children on going to church way back years ago. The Underdowns talk French to each other even though they are white people. I don’t know why.They have their own two boys, the Underdown boys, that are big and go to school in Leopoldville. They felt sorry for us so they sent us comic books to take on the airplane with us. I got almost all of them to myself when Leah and them all went to sleep on the airplane. Donald Duck. Lone Ranger. And the fairy-tale ones, Cinderella and Briar Rose. I hid them in a place. Then I got to feeling bad and upchucked on the airplane, and it got all over a duffel bag and the Donald Duck. I put that one under the cushion so we don’t have it anymore.
So this is who all will be in our village: the Price family, Lone Ranger, Cinderella, Briar Rose, and the Tribes of Ham.
MAN OH MAN, are we in for it now, was my thinking about the Congo from the instant we first set foot.We are supposed to be calling the shots here, but it doesn’t look to me like we’re in charge of a thing, not even our own selves. Father had planned a big old prayer meeting as a welcome ceremony, to prove that God had ensued us here and aimed to settle in. But when we stepped off the airplane and staggered out into the field with our bags, the Congolese people surrounded us-Lordy!-in a chanting broil. Charmed, I’m sure.We got fumigated with the odor of perspirating bodies. What I should have stuffed in my purse was those five-day deodorant pads.
I looked around for my sisters to tell them, “Hey, Ade, Leah, aren’t you glad you use Dial? Don’t you wish everybody did?” I couldn’t find either one of the twins but did catch sight of Ruth May fixing to executrate her second swoon of the day. Her eyes were rolled back with mostly the whites showing. Whatever was pulling her under, I knew she was opposing it with all her might. Ruth May is surprisingly stubborn for a child of five and unwilling to miss out on any kind of a spree.
Mother took hold of her hand and also mine-something I would not have tolerated in the slightest back home in Bethlehem. But here in all the hubbub we would have lost track of each other, with how we were just getting swept along on a big dark river of people. And the dirt, law! There was dirt everywhere like red chalk dust, and me with my good green linen suit on the outside, wouldn’t you know. I could just feel the grit in my hair, which is so extremely fair it is prone to get stained. Boy, what a place. Already I was heavy-hearted in my soul for the flush commodes and machine-washed clothes and other simple things in life I have took for granite.
The people were hurrying us on down toward some kind of open dirt-floor patio with a roof over it, which as it turned out was going to be our father’s church. Just our luck, a church made of dirt. But worship was not on the docket that night, let me tell you. We ended up there in the throng under the thatched roof and I almost screamed when I realized the hand I held was not my mother’s but a thick brown claw, a stranger! What I trusted was gone. I just plumb let go, and the earth reeled beneath me. I threw my eyes around in panic like Black Beauty trapped in the flames. Finally I spotted my mother’s white shirtwaist like the flag of “We Give Up!” waving near Father. Then, one by one, I found the pastel shapes of my sisters like party balloons but in the wrong party, man oh man. I knew right then I was in the sloop of despond. Father, on the other hand, was probably all deeply gratified, just gratified up one side and down the other. Praising Jesus for this occasion to which we were all going to have to rise.
We needed desperately to change-the extra underwear and dresses were dragging us down-but there was no chance whatsoever for that. None. We just got shoved straight into the heathen pandemony. I have no idea where our suitcases and canvas bags had gone to. My embroidery hoops and a pair of pinking shears in an oilcloth sheath hung around my neck, threatening myself and others in the push and shove. Finally we were allowed to sit down about as close together as humanly possible at a table, on an oily bench made out of rough logs. Day one in the Congo, and here my brand-new tulip-tailored linen suit in Poison Green with square mother-of-pearl buttons was fixing to give up the goat. We had to sit so close to other people there wasn’t room to breathe, if you even wanted to, being in the position to contract every kind of a germ there was. Another thing we should have brought: Listerine. Forty-five percent fewer colds. A roar of voices and weird birds lombarded my ears and filled my head to the brink. I am sensitive to noise of any kind-that and the bright sunlight both give me tension headaches, but the sun at least by then had gone down. Otherwise I probably would have followed Ruth May’s example and passed out or upchucked, her two big accomplishments of the day. The back of my neck felt pinched, and my heart smote like a drum. They had made a horrible roaring fire in one end of the church. Oily smoke hung above us like a net, drooping under the thatched roof. The scent of it ‘was strong enough to choke any animal you can think of. Inside the bright orange rim of the fire I could see the outline of some dark thing being turned and pierced, with its four stiff legs flung out in a cry for help. My woman’s intuition told me I was slated to die here and now, without my mother’s palm even to feel the sweat on my forehead. I thought of the few occasions in my life up to now when I had tried-I admit-to bring on a fever to avoid school or church. Now a real fire beat in my temples, all the fevers I’d ever begged for, caught up to me at last.
All at once I understood the pinch on my neck was Mother. She had all four of us within the reach of her long arms: Ruth May, me, and my sisters Leah and Adah-Ruth May just small, of course, but Leah and Adah being a pretty good-sized pair of twins, although with Adah being the shorter because of her handicap. How Mother managed to keep a grip on us all like that is beyond me, I’m sure. And the beat of my heart was not my heart, I finally figured out, but the drums. The men were pounding on big loggedy-looking drums, and women were singing high, quavery tunes like birds gone crazy in the full moon. They called the songs back and forth in their own language between a leader and the rest of the group. They were such weird songs it took me a while to realize they followed the tunes of Christian hymns, “Onward Christian Soldiers” and “What a Friend I Have in Jesus,”which made my skin crawl. I guess they have a right to sing them, but here’s the thing: right in front of our very eyes, some of the women stood up there in the firelight with their bosoms naked as a jaybird’s egg. Some of them were dancing, and others merely ran around cooking, as if nakedness were nothing special. They passed back and forth with pots and kettles, all bare-chested and unashamed. They were very busy with the animal in the fire, pulling it to pieces now and mixing it with something steaming in a pot. Whenever they bent over, their heavy breasts swung down like balloons full of water. I kept my eyes turned away from them, and from the naked childrea who clung to their long draped skirts. I kept glancing over at Father, wondering, Am I the only one getting shocked to smithereens here? He had that narrow-eyed, lockjawed look like he was starting to get steamed up, but you never know exactly where that’s going to lead. Mostly someplace where you wish you were anyplace but.
After a good long hootenanny of so-called hymns shouted back and forth, the burnt offering was out of the fire and into the frying pan so to speak, all mixed up into a gray-looking, smoldering stew. They started plunking it down in front of us in tin plates or bowls. The spoons they gave us were big old metal soup ladles, which I knew would never fit into my mouth. I have such a small mouth, my wisdom teeth are coming in all sigoggling. I looked around for someone to trade spoons with, but lo and behold, nobody but our family even had any kind of a spoon at all! What the others aimed to do with their food, I wouldn’t hazard to guess. Most of them were still waiting to get served, like birds in the wilderness. They held up their empty metal bowls or hubcaps or whatnot and cheerfully beat them like drums. It sounded like an entire junkyard orchestra, because everybody’s plate was different. Ruth May just had a little tiny cup, which I knew she would resent because it made her seem more of a baby.
In all the ruckus, somebody was talking English. It just dawned on me all of a sudden. It was near about impossible to make out what was going on, because people all around us were singing, dancing, banging their plates, waving their arms back and forth like trees in a hurricane. But up by the bonfire where they were cooking, a coal-black man in a yellow shirt with the sleeves rolled up was gesturing towards us and hollowing at the top of his lungs: “Welcome! We welcome you!”
There was another man behind him, much older and dressed just out of this world, with a tall hat and glasses and a cloth drapery dress and swishing an animal’s tail back and forth. He hollowed something in their language and everybody began to pipe down just a hair.
“Reverend and Mrs. Price and your children!” cried the younger man in the yellow shirt. “You are welcome to our feast. Today we have killed a goat to celebrate your coming. Soon your bellies will be full with our fufupili-pili.”
At that, why, the half-naked women behind him just burst out clapping and cheering, as if they could no longer confine their enthusiasm for a dead goat.
“Reverend Price,” the man said, “please offer with us a word of thanks for this feast.”
He gestured for Father to come forward, but Father needed no invitation, it seems. He was already on his feet, away up on his chair, so he looked ten feet tall. He was in his shirtsleeves, which was not an unusual sight as he’s one of those men that’s easy in his body and in the heat of a sermon will often throw off his suit jacket. His pleated black trousers were belted tight but his chest and shoulders looked just huge. I’d almost forgotten, he still carried numerous deadly weapons under that clean white shirt.
Slowly Father raised one arm above his head like one of those gods they had in Roman times, fixing to send down the thunderbolts and the lightning. Everyone looked up at him, smiling, clapping, waving their arms over their heads, bare bosoms and all. Then he began to speak. It was not so much a speech as a rising storm.
“The Lord rideth,” he said, low and threatening, “upon a swift cloud, and shall come into Egypt.”
Hurray! they all cheered, but I felt a knot in my stomach. He was getting that look he gets, oh boy, like Here comes Moses tramping down off of Mount Syanide with ten fresh ways to wreck your life.
“Into Egypt,” he shouted in his rising singsong preaching voice that goes high and low, then higher and lower, back and forth like a saw ripping into a tree trunk, “and every corner of the earth where His light,” Father paused, glaring all about him, “where His light has yet to fall!”
He paused for breath and began again, swaying ever so faintly as he sang out: “The Lord rideth in the person of His angels of mercy, His emissaries of holiness into the titles on the plain, where Lot dwelled amongst the sinners!”
The cheers were slowing down. He had everybody’s attention now.
“And Lot said unto the sinners who crowded at his door, I pray ye, brethren, do not do so wickedly] For the sinners of Sodom pressed their evil will against the entrance to his household!’
I shuddered. Naturally I knew Chapter 19 of Genesis, which he’d made us copy out time and again. I detest the part where Lot offered his own virgin daughters to the rabble of sinners, to do with as they might, just so they’d forget about God’s angels that were visiting and leave them be. What kind of a trade is that? And his poor wife, of course, got turned to a pillar of salt.
But Father skipped over all that and went straight to the dire consequences: “The emissaries of the Lord smote the sinners, who had come heedless to the sight of God, heedless in their nakedness’’
Then he stopped, just froze perfectly still. With one of his huge hands he reached out to the congregation, pulling them in. With the other, he pointed at a woman near the fire. Her big long breasts lay flat on her chest like they’d been pressed down with an iron, but she did seem heedless of it. She was toting a long-legged child all straddly on her hip, and with her free hand was scratching at her short hair. She looked around nervously, for every pair of eyes in the place had followed Father’s accusing gaze straight to her nakedness. She bounced her knees, shifting the big child upwards on her hip. His head lolled. He had hair that stood out in reddish tufts and he looked dazed. For an eternity of silence the mother stood there in the spotlight, drawing her head back on her neck in fear and puzzlement. Finally she turned around and picked up a long wooden spoon and went to poking at the stew kettle.
“Nakedness,” Father repeated, “and darkness of the soul! For we shall destroy this place where the loud clamor of the sinners is waxen great before the face of the Lord.”
No one sang or cheered anymore. Whether or not they understood the meaning of “loud clamor,” they didn’t dare be making one now. They did not even breathe, or so it seemed. Father can get a good deal across with just his tone of voice, believe you me. The woman with the child on her hip kept her back turned, tending to the food.
“And Lot went out and spake unto those that were worthy” Now Father was using his gentler, simmering-down tone. “And Lot said unto them, ‘Up! Get ye out from this place of darkness! Arise and come forward into a brighter land!’ HERE
“O Lord, let us pray,” he concluded, landing abruptly back down on earth. “Lord, grant that the worthy among us here shall rise above wickedness and come out of the darkness into the wondrous light of our Holy Father. Amen.”
All faces were still set on my father, as if they all were shiny, dark plants and his red head was the sun. But their expressions had fallen in slow motion from joy to confusion to dismay. Now, as the spell broke, people began to mutter and move about. A few women lifted up their wraparound sarongs and tied them in front, to cover their breasts. Others gathered up their bare-bottomed children and moved out into the darkness. I guess they were going home to bed without any supper.
The air above our heads grew perfectly quiet. There was not a peep to be heard but katydid noises outside in the deep, black night.
Well, there was nothing now but to dig in. With everyone’s eyes upon us, my sisters and I picked up our big metal spoons. The food they’d set before us was a stew that tasted like pure nothing, just wet clumps stuffed in my mouth that I would have to chew into glue. Once I took it in, though, the very first bite slowly grew to a powerful burn on my tongue. It scorched my eardrums from the inside. Tears ran from my eyes and I couldn’t swallow. This was going to be the start of a real crying jag, I had the feeling, for a girl whose only hopes for the year were a sweet-sixteen party and a pink mohair twin set.
Ruth May choked out loud and made a horrible face. Mother leaned over, to slap her on the back, I thought, but instead she whispered at us in the awfulest, hissing voice: “Girls, you be polite, do you hear me? I’m sorry but if you spit that out I will thrash you to an inch of your lives.”
This was Mother, who’d never laid a hand on us in all our lives! Oh, I got the picture, right there, our first night in Africa. I sat breathing through my nose, holding in my mouth the pure, awful slavor of something on fire and a bristle of stiff hairs from the burnt hide of a dead goat. I shut my eyes tight, but even so, the tears ran down. I wept for the sins of all who had brought my family to this dread dark shore.
SUNRISE TANTALIZE, evil eyes hypnotize: that is the morning, Congo pink. Any morning, every morning. Blossomy rose-color birdsong air streaked sour with breakfast cookfrres. A wide red plank of dirt-the so-called road-flat-out in front of us, continuous in theory from here to somewhere distant. But the way I see it through my Adah eyes it is a flat plank clipped into pieces, rectangles and trapezoids, by the skinny black-line shadows of tall palm trunks. Through Adah eyes, oh the world is a-boggle with colors and shapes competing for a half-brain’s attention.The parade never stops. Into the jangled pieces of road little jungle roosters step from the bush, karkadoodling. They jerk up their feet with cocky roosterness as if they have not yet heard about the two-legged beasts who are going to make slaves of their wives.
Congo sprawls on the middle of the world. Sun rises, sun sets, six o’clock exactly. Everything that conies of morning undoes itself before nightfall: rooster -walks back into forest, fires die down, birds coo-coo-coo, sun sinks away, sky bleeds, passes out, goes dark, nothing exists.Ashes to ashes.
Kilanga village runs along the Kwilu River as a long row of little mud houses set after-one-the-other beside a lone red snake of dirt road. Rising up all round us, trees and bamboo. Leah and I as babies had a long, hodgepodge string of unmatched beads for dress-up which would break when we fought over it and fly into a snaking line of odds and ends in the dirt. That is how Kilanga looked from the airplane. Every red mud house squats in the middle of its red dirt yard, for the ground in the village is cleared hairless as a brick.
The better to spy and kill our friends the snakes when they come calling, we are told. So Kilanga is a long low snake break clearing. In a long row the dirt huts all kneel facing east, as if praying for the staved-off collapse-not toward Mecca exactly but east toward the village’s one road and the river and behind all that, the pink sunrise surprise.
The church building, scene of our recent feast, resides at one end of the village. At the other end, our own house. And so when the Price family strolls to church we are able en route to peer straight into each and every villager’s house. Every house has only a single square room and a thatched roof, under which might dwell the likes of Robinson Crusoe. But no one here stays under a roof. It is in the front yards-all the world’s a stage of hard red dirt under bare foot-where tired thin women in every thinkable state of dress and disrepair poke sticks into their little fires and cook. Clumps of children stonethrowing outflowing rush upon terrified small goats, scattering them across the road so that the goats may tiptoe back and be chased again. Men sit on buckets and stare at whatsoever passes by. The usual bypasser is a woman sauntering slowly down the road with bundles upon bundles balanced on her head. These women are pillars of wonder, defying gravity while wearing the ho-hum aspect of perfect tedium. They can sit, stand, talk, shake a stick at a drunk man, reach around their backs to fetch forth a baby to nurse, all without dropping their piled-high bundles upon bundles. They are like ballet dancers entirely unaware they are on stage. I cannot take my eyes from them.
Whenever a woman leaves her wide-open-to-the-world yard to work her field or saunter off on an errand, first she must make herself decent. To do this, even though she is already wearing a wraparound skirt, she will go and get another large square of cloth from the house, which she wraps around her first skirt-covering her legs right down to the instep of her foot-into a long, narrow sarong tied below her bare breasts. The cloths are brightly printed and worn together in jangling mixtures that ring in my ears: pink gingham with orange plaid, for example. Loose-joint breaking-point colors, and whether you find them beautiful or find them appalling, they do make the women seem more festive, and less exhausted.
Backdrop to the Kilanga pageant, rising up behind the houses, a tall wall of elephant grass obscures our view of anything but the distance. The sun suspended above it in the afternoon is a pink, round dot in the distant white haze you may stare at and never go blind. The real earth where the real sun shines seems to be somewhere else, far from here. And to the east of us, behind the river, a rising rumple of dark green hills folded on each other like a great old tablecloth, receding to pale hazy blue. “Looming like the Judgment,” says our mother, pausing to wipe her damp forehead with the back of her hand.
“It’s a place right out of a storybook,” my twin sister, Leah, loves to declare in response, opening her eyes wide and sticking her short hair behind her ears as if to hear and see every little thing oh so much better. “And yet this is our own family, the Prices, living here!”
Next comes this observation from my sister Ruth May: “Nobody here’s got very many teeth.” And finally, from Rachel: “Jeez oh man, wake me up when it’s over.” And so the Price family passes its judgments. All but Adah. Adah unpasses her judgments. I am the one who does not speak.
Our Father speaks for all of us, as far as I can see. And he is at the moment not saying much. His hammer turned out to be a waste of two or three good pounds, because there appear to be no nails in the mud-and-thatch town of Kilanga.The wide-open building that serves as church and school was built of concrete-block pillars holding up a. roof of palm thatch and billowy clouds of scarlet bougainvillea. By now it all seems more or less welded together by its own decay. Our house is also mud, thatch, cement, and flowering vines. Leah in her earnest way helped him scout around for a project, but alas he found nothing worth pounding at, anywhere. This was a great disappointment to Our Father, who likes to repair things between Sundays.
Yet here we are to stay. The bush plane that dropped down into the field to leave us here went right away again, and there will be no more coming-going until that same plane returns again. We asked about the dirt road through the village and were told it stretched all the way to Leopoldville. I doubt it. A short way on either side of our village the road falls into a frenzy of hard dirt ruts that look like ocean waves frozen solid in the middle of a tempest.
Our Father says in the great beyond nearby there are probably swamps you could sink a battleship in, not to mention a mere automobile. We do see vestigial signs of automobiles in our village, but they resemble the signs of life you would dig up in a graveyard if you were inclined to that pastime. Which is to say: parts dead and rusted, scattered around and used not for transportation but for anything but. On a walk one day with Our Father he pointed out for his daughters’ edification a carburetor air-filter lid boiling a family’s dinner over a cookfire, and a Jeep muffler being put to use by six boys at once, as a drum.
The Kwilu River is the throughway here: Kwilu, a word without a single rhyme. Nearly a prelude, but not quite. Kwilu. It troubles me, this dubious escape route. It sits unanswered like a half-phrase of music on my ear.
Our Father claims the Kwilu is navigable downstream from here all the way to where it joins the Congo River; upstream, one may go only as far as the high, scenic cataracts that thunder just to the south of us. In other words, we have arrived very nearly at the end of the earth. We sometimes do see the odd boat passing by, but only carrying people from nearby villages exactly like this one. For news or mail or evidence of what Rachel calls The Pale Which We Are Way Beyond, we wait for the rough-and-ready airplane pilot, Mr. Eeben Axelroot. He is reliable in the following way: if they say he is coming on Monday, it will be Thursday, Friday, or not at all.
Like the village road and the river, nothing here really continues to its end. The Congo is only a long path that takes you from one hidden place to another. Palm trees stand alongside of it looking down at you in shock, like too-tall, frightened women with upright hair. Nevertheless, I am determined I will walk that path, even though I do not walk fast or well. My right side drags. I was born with half my brain dried up like a prune, deprived of blood by an unfortunate fetal mishap. My twin sister, Leah, and I are identical in theory, just as in theory we are all made in God’s image. Leah and Adah began our life as images mirror perfect. We have the same eyes dark and chestnut hair. But I am a lame gallimaufry and she remains perfect.
Oh, I can easily imagine the fetal mishap: we were inside the womb together dum-de-dum when Leah suddenly turned and declared, Adah you are just too slow. I am taking all the nourishment here and going on ahead. She grew strong as I grew weak. (Yes! Jesus loves me!) And so it came to pass, in the Eden of our mother’s womb, I was cannibalized by my sister.
Officially my condition is called hemiplegia. Hemi is half, hemisphere, hemmed-in, hemlock, hem and haw. Plegia is the cessation of motion. After our complicated birth, physicians in Atlanta pronounced many diagnoses on my asymmetrical brain, including Wernicke’s and Broca’s aphasia, and sent my parents home over the icy roads on Christmas Eve with one-half a set of perfect twins and the prediction that I might possibly someday learn to read but would never speak a word. My parents seem to have taken this well in stride. I am sure the Reverend explained to his exhausted wife that it was the will of God, who could plainly see-with these two additional girls so close after the first one-our house had enough females in it now to fill it up with blabber. They did not even have Ruth May yet, but did have a female dog that howled, Our Father still likes to say, Like One Too Many Sopranos in Church. The Dog that Broke The Camel’s Back, he also calls it. Our Father probably interpreted Broca’s aphasia as God’s Christmas bonus to one of His worthier employees.
I am prone to let the doctors’ prophecy rest and keep my thoughts to myself. Silence has many advantages. When you do not speak, other people presume you to be deaf or feeble-minded and promptly make a show of their own limitations. Only occasionally do I find I have to break my peace: shout or be lost in the shuffle. But mostly am lost in the shuffle. I write and draw in my notebook and read anything I please.
It is true I do not speak as well as I can think. But that is true of most people, as nearly as I can tell.
IN THE BEGINNING my sisters bustled indoors, playing the role of mother’s helper with more enthusiasm than they’d ever shown for housework in all their born days. For one reason only: they were scared to set foot outside the house. Ruth May had the bizarre idea that our neighbors desired to eat her. Rachel, who sighted imaginary snakes at the least provocation, said, “Jeez oh man,” rolled her eyes, and announced her plan to pass the next twelve months in bed. If they gave out prizes for being sick, Rachel would win the gold bricks. But soon she got bored and dredged herself up to see what all was going on. She and Adah and Ruth May helped unpack and set up housekeeping. The first task was to pull out all the mosquito netting and stitch it into tents to cover our four identical cots and my parents’ larger one. Malaria is our enemy number one. Every Sunday we swallow quinine tablets so bitter your tongue wants to turn itself inside out like a salted slug. But Mrs. Underdown warned us that,pills or no pills, too many mosquito bites could still overtake the quinine in our blood and spell our doom.
I personally set myself apart from the war on blood parasites. I preferred to help my father work on his garden. I’ve always been the one for outdoor chores anyway, burning the trash and weeding, while my sisters squabbled about the dishes and such. Back home we have the most glorious garden each and every summer, so it’s only natural that my father thought to bring over seeds in his pockets: Kentucky Wonder beans, crookneck and patty-pan squash, Big Boy tomatoes. He planned to make a demonstration garden, from which we’d gather a harvest for our table and also supply food and seeds to the villagers. It was to be our first African miracle: an infinite chain of benevolence rising from these small, crackling seed packets, stretching out from our garden into a circle of other gardens, flowing outward across the Congo like ripples from a rock dropped in a pond. The grace of our good intentions made me feel wise, blessed, and safe from snakes.
But there was no time to waste. About as soon as we’d knelt on our own humble threshold in a prayer of thanks, moved in, and shed our kitchen goods and all but the minimum decent requirement of clothing, Father started clearing a plot of ground out of the jungle’s edge near our house, and pacing off rows. He took big goose steps-giant steps, we’d have called them, if he had first asked, “Mother May I?” But my father needs permission only from the Saviour, who obviously is all in favor of subduing the untamed wilderness for a garden.
He beat down a square of tall grass and wild pink flowers, all without once ever looking at me. Then he bent over and began to rip out long handfuls of grass with quick, energetic jerks as though tearing out the hair of the world. He wore his cuffed, baggy work khakis and a short-sleeved white shirt, and labored at the center of a rising red cloud of dust like a crew-cut genie who’d just appeared there. A fur of red dust gathered on the curly hairs of his forearms, and rivulets of perspiration ran down his temples.The tendon of his jaw was working, so I knew he was preparing a revelation.The education of his family’s souls is never far from my father’s thoughts. He often says he views himself as the captain of a sinking mess of female minds. I know he must find me tiresome, yet still I like spending time with my father very much more than I like doing anything else.
“Leah,” he inquired at last, “why do you think the Lord gave us seeds to grow, instead of having our dinner just spring up out there on the ground like a bunch of field rocks?”
Now that was an arresting picture. While I was considering it, he took up the hoe blade that had crossed the Atlantic in our mother’s purse and shoved it onto a long pole he’d whittled to fit its socket. Why did the Lord give us seeds? Well, they were sure easier to stuff in our pockets than whole vegetables would have been, but I doubted if God took any real interest in travel difficulties. I was exactly fourteen and a half that month, and still getting used to the embarrassment of having the monthly visits. I believe in God with all my might, but have been thinking lately that most of the details seem pretty much beneath His dignity.
I confessed I didn’t know the answer.
He tested the heft and strength of his hoe handle and studied me. He is very imposing, my father, with broad shoulders and unusually large hands. He’s the handsome, sandy-haired type that people presume to be Scottish and energetic, though possibly fiery-tempered.
“Because, Leah, the Lord helps those that help themselves.”
“Oh!” I cried, my heart rushing to my throat, for of course I had known that. If only I could ever bring forth all that I knew quickly enough to suit Father.
“God created a world of work and rewards,” he elaborated, “on a big balanced scale.” He brought his handkerchief out of his pocket to ream the sweat, carefully, out of one eye socket and then the other. He has a scar on his temple and poor vision on the left side, from a war injury he doesn’t ever talk about, not being one to boast. He refolded the handkerchief and returned it to his pocket. Then he handed me the hoe and held his hands out from his sides, palms up, to illustrate the heavenly balancing act. “Small works of goodness over here,” he let his left hand drop slightly, “small rewards over here.” His right hand dropped just a mite with the weight of an almost insignificant reward. “Great sacrifice, great rewards!” he said then, letting both hands fall heavily from the shoulders, and with all my soul I coveted the delicious weight of goodness he cradled in those palms.
Then he rubbed his hands together, finished with the lesson and with me. “God merely expects us to do our own share of the perspiring for life’s bounty, Leah.”
He took back the hoe and proceeded to hack out a small, square dominion over the jungle, attacking his task with such muscular vigor we would surely, and soon, have tomatoes and beans coming out our ears. I knew God’s scale to be vast and perfectly accurate: I pictured it as a much larger version of the one at the butcher’s counter in the Bethlehem Piggly Wiggly. I vowed to work hard for His favor, surpassing all others in my devotion to turning the soil for God’s great glory. Someday perhaps I shall demonstrate to all of Africa how to grow crops! Without complaint I fetched bucket after bucket of water from the big galvanized tub on the porch, so he could douse the plot a little at a time ahead of his hoe, to hold down the awful dust. The red mud dried on his khakis like the blood of a slain beast. I walked behind him and found the severed heads of many small, bright orange orchids. I held one close to my eye. It was delicate and extraordinary, with a bulbous yellow tongue and maroon-spotted throat. Nobody had ever planted these flowers, I felt sure, nor harvested them either; these were works that the Lord had gone ahead and finished on His own. He must have lacked faith in mankind’s follow-through capabilities, on the day He created flowers.
Mama BekwaTataba stood watching us-a little jet-black woman. Her elbows stuck out like wings, and a huge white enameled tub occupied the space above her head, somewhat miraculously holding steady while her head moved in quick jerks to the right and left. Mama Tataba’s job, we were surprised to learn, was to live with us and earn a small stipend by doing the same work she’d done for our forerunner in the Kilanga Mission, Brother Fowles. He’d left us two boarders, in fact: Mama Tataba and a parrot named Methuselah. Both had been trained by him in the English language and evidently a good deal else, for Brother Fowles left some mystery in his wake. I gathered through overhearing my parents that Brother Fowles had entered into unconventional alliances with the local people, and too he was a Yankee. I heard them saying he was New York Irish, which tells you a lot, as they are notorious for being papist Catholics. Father explained to us that he had gone plumb crazy, consorting with the inhabitants of the land.
That’s why the Mission League finally allowed us to come. At first they’d insulted my father by turning us down, even after our Bethlehem congregation had done special tithes for a whole year to fly us here for the perfusion of Jesus’ name. But no one else volunteered for the Kilanga post, and the Underdowns had requested that it be taken by someone steady, with a family. Well, we were a family all right, and my father is steady as a stump. Still, the Underdowns insisted that our mission last no more than one year-not enough time for going plumb crazy but only partway, I guess, even if things went poorly.
Brother Fowles had been in Kilanga six years, which really when you think about it is long enough for about any kind of backsliding you could name. There was no telling how he might have influenced Mama Tataba. But we needed her help. She carried all our water up from the river and cleaned and lit the kerosene lamps and split wood and built the fire in the cookstove and threw buckets of ash down the hole in the outhouse and paused to kill snakes more or less as a distraction between heavier jobs. My sisters and I stood in awe of Mama Tataba, but were not quite used to her yet. She had a blind eye. It looked like an egg whose yolk had been broken and stirred just once. As she stood there by our garden, I stared at her bad eye, while her good eye stared at my father.
“What you be dig for? Worm grub?” she demanded. She turned her head slightly from side to side, surveying my father’s work with what he calls her “acute monocular beam.” The galvanized bucket remained perfectly still on top of her head-a great, levitating crown.
“We’re cultivating the soil, sister,” he said.
“That one, brother, he bite,” she said, pointing her knuckly hand at a small tree he was wresting from his garden plot. White sap oozed from the torn bark. My father wiped his hands on his trousers.
“Poisonwood,” she added flatly, emphasizing the descending syllables as if she were equally tired of all three.
My father mopped his brow again and launched into the parable of the one mustard seed falling on a barren place, and the other one on good soil. I thought of the bright pointy-nosed mustard bottles we used in abundance at church wiener suppers-a world apart from anything MamaTataba had ever seen. Father had the job of his life cut out for him, bringing the Word to a place like this. I wanted to throw my arms around his weary neck and pat down his rumpled hair.
Mama Tataba seemed not to be listening. She pointed again at the red dirt. “You got to be make hills.”
He stood his ground, my father, tall as Goliath and pure of heart as David. A film of red dust on his hair and eyebrows and the tip of his strong chin gave him a fiendish look untrue to his nature. He ran his large, freckled hand across the side of his head, where his hair was shaved close, and then through the tousled crown, where Mother lets it grow longer. All this while inspecting Mama Tataba -with Christian tolerance, taking his time to formulate the message.
“Mama Tataba,” he said at last, “I’ve been tending the soil ever since I could walk behind my father.”
When he says anything at all, even a simple thing about a car or a plumbing repair, it tends to come out like this-in terms that can be interpreted as sacred.
Mama Tataba kicked the dirt with her flat, naked sole and looked disgusted. “He won’t be grow. You got to be make hills,” she stated, then turned on her heel and went in the house to help my mother slosh Clorox water across the floor to kill the hookworms.
I was shocked. In Georgia I’d seen people angered by my father before, or intimidated, but not contemptuous. Never.
“What does she mean, make hills?” I asked. “And why did she think a plant could bite you?”
He showed no trace of concern, though his hair blazed as if it had caught fire in the late-afternoon light. “Leah, our world is filled with mystery” was his confident reply.
Among all of Africa’s mysteries, here were the few that revealed themselves in no time flat. My father woke up the next morning with a horrible rash on his hands and arms, presumably wounded by the plant that bites. Even his good right eye was swollen shut, from where he’d wiped his brow. Yellow pus ran like sap from his welted flesh. He bellowed when Mother tried to apply the salve. “I ask you, how did I earn this?” we heard him roar in their bedroom, through the closed door. “Ow! Great God almighty, Orleanna. How did this curse come to me, when it’s God’s own will to cultivate the soil!” The door flew open with a bang, and Father barreled out. Mother chased him with bandages but he batted her roughly away and went outside to pace the porch. In the long run, though, he had to come back in and let her tend to him. She had to bind his hands in clean rags before he could even pick up a fork, or the Bible.
Right after prayers I went out to check the progress of our garden, and was stunned to see what Mama Tataba had meant by hills: to me they looked like graves, as wide and long as a regular dead human. She had reshaped our garden overnight into eight neat burial mounds. I fetched my father, who came walking fast as if I’d discovered a viper he meant to behead. My father by then was in a paroxysm of exasperation. He squinted long and hard with his bad eye, to make out the fix our garden was in. Then the two of us together, -without a word passing between us, leveled it out again as flat as the Great Plains. I did all the hoeing myself, to spare his afflicted hands. With my forefinger I ran long, straight furrows and we folded into them more of our precious seeds. We stuck the bright seed packets on sticks at the ends of the rows-squash, beans, Halloween pumpkins-to remind us what to expect.
Several days later, once Father had regained his composure and both his eyes, he assured me that MamaTataba hadn’t meant to ruin our demonstration garden. There was such a thing as native customs, he said. We would need the patience of Job. “She’s only trying to help, in her way,” he said.
This is what I most admire about Father: no matter how bad things might get, he eventually will find the grace to compose himself. Some people find him overly stern and frightening, but that is only because he was gifted with such keen judgment and purity of heart. He has been singled out for a life of trial, as Jesus was. Being always the first to spot flaws and transgressions, it falls upon Father to deliver penance. Yet he is always ready to acknowledge the potential salvation that resides in a sinner’s heart. I know that someday, when I’ve grown large enough in the Holy Spirit, I will have his wholehearted approval.
Not everyone can see it, but my father’s heart is as large as his hands. And his wisdom is great. He was never one of those backwoods ministers who urge the taking up of copperhead snakes, baby-flinging, or the shrieking of nonsense syllables. My father believes in enlightenment. As a boy he taught himself to read parts of the Bible in Hebrew, and before we came to Africa he made us all sit down and study French, for the furtherance of our mission. He has already been so many places, including another jungle overseas, in the Philippine Islands, where he was a wounded hero in the Second World War. So he’s seen about everything.
ON CONGO EASTER SUNDAY there were no new clothes for the Price girls, that’s for sure. We tromped off to church in the same old shoes and dresses we’d worn all the other African Sundays so far. No white gloves, it goes without saying. And no primping, because the only mirror we have in the house is my faux-ivory hand mirror brought from home, which we all have to share. Mother set it on the desk in the living room, propped against the wall, and every time Mama Tataba walks by it she yelps like a snake bit her. So: Easter Sunday in dirt-stained saddle oxfords, charmed I’m sure. As far as my sisters are concerned I have to say they didn’t care. Ruth May is the type to wear rolled-up Blue Bell jeans to her own funeral, and the twins too, they’ve never cared a hoot what they looked like. They spent so much time staring at each other’s faces before they were born they can go the rest of their lives passing up mirrors without a glance. While we’re on the subject, you should see what the Congolese run around in. Children dressed up in the ragbags of Baptist charity or else nothing at all. Color coordination is not a strong point. Grown men and women seem to think a red plaid and a pink floral print are complementary colors. The women wear a sarong made of one fabric, with another big square of a different fabric wrapped over the top of it. Never jeans or trousers-not on your life. Bosoms may wave in the breeze, mind you, but legs must be strictly hidden, top secret. When Mother steps foot out of the house in her black Capri pants, why, they all just gawk and stare. As a matter of fact, a man walked into a tree in front of our house and knocked out a tooth, thanks to Mother’s stretch pants. Women are expected to wear just the one style of garment and no other. But the men, now that is a course of a different color. They dress up every different way in the world: some have long shirts made from the same flowery African cloth that is attired by the women. Or they’ll wear a bolt of it draped over one shoulder in the style of Hercules. Others wear American-style buttoned shirts and shorts in drab, stained colors. A few of the smaller men even go gallivanting around in little undershirts decorated with childish prints, and nobody seems to notice the joke. The one that knocked his tooth out has got himself a purple, steel-buttoned outfit that looks like a cast-off janitor uniform. As for the accessories, I hardly know where to begin. Sandals made of car tires are popular. So are antique wing tips curling up at the toes, black rubber galoshes unbuckled and flapping open, or bright pink plastic thongs, or bare feet-any of these can go with any of the before-mentioned outfits. Sunglasses, plain glasses, hats, no hats, like-wise. Perhaps even a knit woolen cap with a ball on top, or a woman’s bright yellow beret-I have witnessed all these wonders and more. The attitude toward clothing seems to be: if you have it, why not wear it? Some men go about their daily business prepared for the unexpected tropical snowstorm, it seems, while others wear shockingly little-a pair of shorts only. When you look around, it appears that every man here was fixing to go to a different party, and then suddenly they all got plunked here together.
So that is how Easter Sunday looked in our church. Well, anyhow it was hardly the church for crinolines and patent leather. The walls were wide open. Birds could swoop in and get your hair for their nest if they felt like it. Father had put up an altar made of palm leaves in front, which looked presentable in a rustic way, but you could still see black char and stains on the floor from the fire they made on our first night here, for the welcome feast. It was an unpleasant reminder of Sodom, Gomorrah, and so forth. I could still choke on the memory of goat meat if I thought about it. I never swallowed it. I carried one bite in my mouth all evening and spat it out behind the outhouse when we went home.
So all right, no new dresses. But I was hardly allowed to complain about that because, guess what. It wasn’t even real Easter. We arrived smack dab in the middle of summer, far from the nearest holy day. Father was disappointed about the timing, until he made the shocking jet-age discovery that days and months do not matter one way or another to people in this village. They don’t even know Sunday from Tuesday or Friday or the twelfth of Never! Theyjust count to five, have their market day, and start over. One of the men in the congregation confided to Father that having church just every old now and then, as it seems to them, instead of on market day, has always bamfuzzled everybody about the Christians. That sure gave us a hoot! So Father had nothing to lose by announcing his own calendar and placing upon it Easter on the Fourth of July. Why not? He said he needed a focal point to get the church geared up.
Our great event for counterfeit Easter Sunday was a pageant, organized by Father and whoever else could drum up the enthusiasm. So far, for our first few weeks in Kilanga, attendance in church had been marked by almost total absence. So Father saw this pageant as a splectacular mark of things being on the upswing. Four men, including the one in the janitor uniform and another with only one leg, performed the roles of soldiers and carried real spears. (There “weren’t any women at the services to speak of, so they weren’t going to be caught dead in any play.) At first the men wanted to have someone play out the role of Jesus and raise up from the dead, but Father opposed that on principle. So they merely dressed up as Roman guards, standing around the tomb laughing with pagan satisfaction because they’d managed to kill God, and then in the second act, leaping about, showing great dismay to find the stone rolled back.
I didn’t much care for looking at those men in the pageant. We aren’t all that accustomed to the African race to begin -with, since back home they keep to their own parts of town. But here, of course, with everyplace being their part of town. Plus, these men in the pageant were just carrying it to the hilt. I didn’t see there was any need for them to be so African about it. They wore steel bracelets on their black arms, and loose, flapping clotths tucked half hazardly around their waists. (Even the peg leg one!) They came running or hopping into the church, carrying the sarnie heavy spears they would use later in the week to slew the animals.We knew they did it. Their wives came to our door daily with whole, dripping legs of something not ten minutes dead. Before the great aadventure is all over, Father expects his children to eat rhinoceros, I ssuppose. Antelope is more or less our daily bread. They started bringing us that the very first week. Even, once, a monkey. Mama Tatalba would haggle with the women at the door, and finally turn tco us with her scrawny arms raised up like a boxing champ, holding up our dinner. Jeez oh man, tell me when it’s over! Then she’d stoimp out to the kitchen hut and build such a huge fire in the iron stowe you’d think she was Cape Carniveral launching a rocket ship. Slhe is handy at cooking anything living or dead, but heaven be prraised, Mother rejected the monkey, with its little dead grin. She told MamaTataba we could get by on things that looked less like kinfollk.
So when the men with their bloodstained spears came jingling down the aisle of our church pageant on Easter Sumday it represented progress, I’m sure, but it wasn’t what Father re:ally hoped for. He had envisioned a baptism.The whole point of Easster in July was supposed to be an altar call, followed by a joyful proceession down to the river with children dressed all in white getting saved. Father would stand waist deep out there like the Baptist Saint John and hold up one hand, and in the name of the Father amd the Son and the Holy Ghost he would dunk them under, one by one. The river would be jam-packed with purified souls.
There is a little stream that runs by the village, writh small pools where people wash clothes and get water for drinkiing, but it isn’t deep or wide enough for anything near the proper bsaptismal effect. For Father it’s the wide Kwilu River and nothing less. I could see exactly how he meant the ceremony to go. It couild have been, really, a pretty sight.
But the men said no, that was not to be. The women were so opposed to getting dunked in the river, even on hiearsay, they all kept their children extra far from the church that day. So the dramatic points of Father’s pageant were lost on most of Kilanga.What with my sisters and me, our mother, and Mama Tataba being the only females in attendance, and all the men that could walk being in the play, a higher proportion of the audience than you’d care to think was either daydreaming or examining the contents of their nostrils.
Afterwards, instead of the baptism, Father lured people down as near as he could get them to the river by means of the age-old method of a church supper. We had a picnic down on the bank of the Kwilu, which has the delightful odor of mud and dead fish. The families that would not darken the door of the church, which by the way doesn’t have any door, did manage to join us for the picnic. Naturally, since we brought most of the food. They seem to think we are Santa Claus, the way the children come around begging us for food and things every single day-and us as poor as church mice! One woman who came trying to sell us her handmade baskets looked in our door and spied our scissors and asked right flat out if she could have them! Imagine having the nerve.
So they all came grandly down to the picnic: women with their heads wrapped in print cloth like birthday presents. Children wearing what few clothes they had-which even that was only for our benefit, I knew, after Father’s blowup over the little dress-code problem. In a certain way they seemed naked irregardless. Some of the women had newborn babies too, teeny fawn-colored frowning things, which the mothers wrap up in great big bundles of cloths and blankets and even little woolly caps, in all this heat! Just to show how prized they are, I guess. In all this dust and dirt with hardly anything ever coming along that’s shiny and new, a baby does seem like quite an event.
Of course, everyone kept staring at me, as they always do here. I am the most extreme blonde imaginable. I have sapphire-blue eyes, white eyelashes, and platinum blonde hair that falls to my waist. It is so fine I have to use Breck Special Formulated and don’t care to think what I’ll do when my one bottle that Father allowed runs out: beat my hair on a rock like MamaTataba does with our clothes, charming. On their own initiative the Congolese seem unable to produce much in the way of hair-half of them are bald as a bug, even the girls. It is a disturbing sight to see a good-sized little girl in a ruffly dress, and not a hair on her head. Consequently they are all so envious of mine they frequently walk up boldly and give it a yank. It’s surprising that my parents allow the situation to present itself. In some ways they are so strict you might as well have a Communist for your parents, but when it comes to something you really wish they’d notice, oh, well! Then parental laxity is the rule of the day.
The Easter picnic on the Fourth of July was one long, drawn-out eternity of a Congolese afternoon. The riverbank, though it looks attractive from a distance, is not so lovely once you get there: slick, smelly mudbanks framed by a tangle of bushes with gaudy orange flowers so large that if you tried to put one behind your ear like Dorothy Lamour you’d look like you were wearing a Melmac soup bowl. The River Kwilu is not like the River Jordan, chilly and wide. It is a lazy, rolling river as warm as bathwater, where crocodiles are said to roll around like logs. No milk and honey on the other side, either, but just more stinking jungle laying low in the haze, as far, far away as the memory of picnics in Georgia. I closed my eyes and dreamed of real soda pop in convenient throwaway cans. We all ate fried chicken that Mother had cooked, southern style, starting from scratch with killing them and lopping off their heads. These were the self-same chickens Ruth May had chased around the house that very morning before church. My sisters moped somewhat, but I nibbled my drumstick happily! Considering my whole situation, I was not about to be bothered by the spectrum of death at our picnic. I was just grateful for a crispy taste of something that connected this creepy, buzzing heat with real summertime.
The chickens had been another surprise for us, like Mama Tataba. There was just the biggest flock of black-and-white-checkered hens here waiting for us when we arrived. They were busting out of the henhouse, roosting in the trees and wherever they could find a spot, for after Brother Fowles left, they’d all gone to hiding their eggs and raising up babies during the backslide between missions. People in the village had thought of helping us out by eating a few before we got here, but Mama Tataba, I guess, kept them warded off with a stick. It was Mother who decided to contribute most of the flock for feeding the village, like a peace offering. On the morning of the picnic she had to start in at the very crack of dawn, to get all those hens killed and fried up. At the picnic she walked through the crowd passing out thighs and drumsticks to the little children, who acted just as pleased as punch, licking their fingers and singing out hymns. Yet, for all her slaving over a hot stove, Father hardly noticed how she’d won over the crowd. His mind was two million miles away. He just mostly stared out at the river, where no one was fixing to get dunked that day, whatsoever. Just big mats of floating plants going by with stilty-legged birds walking around and around on top, every one of them no doubt thinking he’s king of the world.
I was sore at Father all right, for us having to be there in the first place. But it was plain to see he was put out, too, something fierce. When he gets his mind set on something you’d just as well prepare to see it through.The picnic was festive, but not at all what he’d had in mind. It was nothing, in terms of redemption.
IF SOMEBODY WAS HUNGRY, why would they have a big fat belly? I don’t know.
The children are named Tuniba, Bangwa, Mazuzi, Nsimba, and those things. One of them comes in our yard the most and I don’t know his name at all. He’s near about big, like my sisters, but doesn’t wear a thing on God’s green earth but an old gray shirt without any buttons and baggy gray underpants. He has a big old round belly with his belly button sticking out like a black marble. I can tell it’s him because of the shirt and underpants, not because of the belly button. They all have those. I thought they were all fat, but Father said no. They re hungry as can be, and don’t get their vitamins. And still God makes them look fat. I reckon that’s what they get for being the Tribes of Ham.
One of them is a girl, because of her dress. It’s purple plaid, and it’s ripped right open on the bodice so one of her nipples shows, but she just runs around a-wearing it anyway like she never noticed and neither did anybody. She has shoes too. They used to be white but now they’re dirt-color. Anything that ever was white is not white here.That is not a color you see. Even a white flower opening up on a bush just looks doomed for this world.
I only got to bring me two toys: pipe cleaners, and a monkey-sock monkey. The monkey-sock monkey has done gone already. I left him out on the veranda and come the next morning, he was gone. One of those little children stole, which is a bad sin. Father says to forgive them for they know not what they do. Mama says you can’t hardly even call it a sin when they need ever little thing as bad as they do. So I don’t know which one, if it was a sin or it wasn’t. But I sure got mad and had a fit. I accidentally peed in my britches. My monkey-sock monkey was named Saint Matthew.
The grown-up Congo men are all named Tata Something. That one, name of Tata Undo, he is the chief. He wears a whole outfit, cat skins and everything and a hat. Father had to go see Tata Undo to pay the Devil his do. And the women are all Mama Something, even if they don’t have children. Like Mama Tataba, our cooking lady. Rachel calls her Mama Tater Tots. But she won’t cook those. I wish she would.
The lady in the little house that’s pretty close to ours is Mama Mwanza. One time her roof caught on fire and fell on her and burnt up her legs but not the rest of her. That happened way back years ago. Mama Tataba told Mama about it in the kitchen house and I was listening. They won’t talk about the bad things in front of my sisters, but me I can listen all the livelong day while I’m getting me a banana in the kitchen house and peeling it. Mama Tataba hangs the whole big family of bananas up in the corner all together, so the tarantula spiders that use it for their house can just move on out when they take a notion. I sat real still on the floor and peeled my one banana like Saint Matthew would if he was a real monkey and not gone, and I heard them talking about the woman that got burned up. The roofs burn up because they are all made out of sticks and hay like the Three Little Pigs. The wolf could huff and puff and blow your house down. Even ours. It’s a right smart better than the other ones, but it’s not bricks. Mama Mwanza’s legs didn’t burn all the way off but it looks like a pillow or just something down there she’s sitting on wrapped up in a cloth sack. She has to scoot around on her hands. Her hand bottoms look like feet bottoms, only with fingers. I went over there and had me a good look at her and her little girls with no clothes on. She was nice and gave me a piece of orange to suck on. Mama doesn’t know.
Mama Mwanza almost got burnt plumb to death when it happened but then she got better. Mama says that was the poor woman’s bad luck, because now she has got to go right on tending after her husband and her seven or eight children. They don’t care one bit about her not having any legs to speak of. To them she’s just their mama and where’s dinner? To all the other Congo people, too. Why, they just don’t let on, like she was a regular person. Nobody bats their eye when she scoots by on her hands and goes on down to her field or the river to wash clothes with the other ladies that work down there every day. She carries all her things in a basket on top of her head. It’s as big as Mama’s big white laundry hamper back home and seems like she’s always got about ten hundred things piled up in there. When she scoots down the road, not a one of them falls out. All the other ladies have big baskets on their heads too, so nobody stares at Mama Mwanza one way or another.
What they do is, they all stare at us. They look at Rachel the worst. First Mama and Father were thinking it might do Rachel some good to be cranked down a notch or two. Father said to Mama: “A child shouldn’t think herself better than others because she is blonde as a white rabbit.” He said that. I told it to Leah and she laughed out loud. I am blonde too but not as much as a white rabbit. Strawberry blonde, Mama says. So I hope I don’t have to get cranked down a notch or two like Rachel. I like strawberries about better than anything.You can keep a rabbit for a pet or you can eat it. Poor Rachel. Everwhen she goes out, whole bunches of little Congo children run after her on the road a-reaching and a-yanking on her long white hair to see if they can get it to come off. Sometimes even the grownups do too. I reckon they think it’s a right good sport. Leah told me it’s because they don’t believe it is her hair and think she’s got something strange draped over her head.
Rachel gets her the worst sunburns, too. I get burnt but not like her. Pink is Rachel’s favorite color and it’s a good thing because that’s what she is. Father says it is the lot of every young woman to learn humility and God plots for each her chosen way.
Mama says, “But must they look on us as freaks of nature?” Rachel was Miss Priss and now she is a freak of nature. Used to be, Adah was the only one of us in our family with something wrong with her. But here nobody stares at Adah except just a little because she’s white. Nobody cares that she’s bad on one whole side because they’ve all got their own handicap children or a mama with no feet, or their eye put out. When you take a look out the door, why, there goes somebody with something missing off of them and not even embarrassed of it. They’ll wave a stump at you if they’ve got one, in a friendly way.
At first Mama got after us for staring and pointing at people. She was all the time whispering, “Do I have to tell you girls ever single minute don’t stare!” But now Mama looks too. Sometimes she says to us or just herself, Now Tata Zinsana is the one missing all the fingers, isn’t he? Or she’ll say, That big gouter like a goose egg under her chin, that’s how I remember Mama Nguza.
Father said, “They are living in darkness. Broken in body and soul, and don’t even see how they could be healed.”
Mama said, “Well, maybe they take a different view of their bodies.” Father says the body is the temple. But Mama has this certain voice sometimes. Not exactly sassing back, but just about nearly. She was sewing us some window curtains out of dress material so they wouldn’t be looking in at us all the time, and had pins in her mouth. She took the pins out and said to him, “Well, here in Africa that temple has to do a hateful lot of work in a day.” She said, “Why, Nathan, here they have to use their bodies like we use things at home-like your clothes or your garden tools or something. Where you’d be wearing out the knees of your trousers, sir, they just have to go ahead and wear out their knees!”
Father looked at Mama hard for talking back to him. “Well, sir,” she said, “that is just what it looks like to me. That is just my observation. It appears to me their bodies just get worn out, about the same way as our worldly goods do.”
Mama wasn’t really sassing back. She calls him sir the way she calls us Sugar and Hon, trying to be nice. But still. If it was me talking back that way, he’d say, “That is a fine line you are walking there, young lady.” And he appeared to be fixing to say just such a thing to Mama. He was debating about it. He stood there in the front doorway with the sun just squeaking by him on all sides. He is so big he near about filled up the whole doorway. His head almost touched. And Mama was just sitting down short at the table, so she went back to sewing.
He said, “Orleanna, the human body is a sight more precious than a pair of khaki trousers from Sears and Roebuck. I’d expect you to comprehend the difference.”
Then he looked at her with his one eye turned mean and said, “You of all people.”
She turned red and breathed out like she does. She said, “Even something precious can get shabby in the course of things. Considering what they’re up against here, that might not be such a bad attitude for them to take.”
After that Mama put pins back in her mouth, so no more talking.
He didn’t say anything,Yes or No, just turned his back and went on out. He doesn’t approve talking back. If that was me, oh, boy.
That razor strop burns so bad, after you go to bed your legs still feel stripedy like a zebra horse.
I’ll tell you one thing that Father has sure wore out bad: his old green swivel rocker in the living room of our house where we live in Bethlehem, Georgia.You can see white threads in the shape of a bottom. It doesn’t look very polite. And nobody but him did it, either. He sits there of an evening and reads and reads. Once in a while he reads to us out loud when we have our scripture stories. Sometimes I get to picking my scabs and think about cartoons instead of Jesus, and He sees me doing that. But Jesus loves me and this I know: nobody can sit in that green swivel rocker but Father.
Mama says there’s another man and lady with two little girls and a baby living in our house in Bethlehem, Georgia. The man is the minister while we’re gone. I hope they know about Father’s chair
because if they sit in it, oh, boy. They’ll get it.
IT WAS NEITHER DIABOLICAL NOR DIVINE; it but shook the doors of the prison house of my disposition; and like the captives of Philippi, that which stood within ran forth. So feel I. Living in the Congo shakes open the prison house of my disposition and lets all the wicked hoodoo Adahs run forth.
To amuse my depraved Ada self during homework time I wrote down that quote from memory on a small triangular piece of paper and passed it to Leah, with the query: FROM WHAT BOOK OF THE BIBLE? Leah fancies herself Our Father’s star pupil in matters Biblical. Star Pupil: Lipup Rats. Miss Rat-pup read the quote, nodding solemnly, and wrote underneath, The book of Luke. I’m not sure which verse.
Hah! I can laugh very hard without even smiling on the outside.
The quote is from The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which I have read many times. I have a strong sympathy for Dr. Jekyll’s dark desires and for Mr. Hyde’s crooked body.
Before we fled Bethlehem’s drear libraries I had also recently read The Pilgrim’s Progress and Paradise Lost, which have weaker plot lines than Dr. Jekyll, and many other books Our Father does not know about, including the poems of Miss Emily Dickinson and Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque by Edgar Allan Poe. I am fond of Mr. Poe and his telltale Raven: Erom Reven!
Mother is the one who notices, and tells naught. She started it all, reading the Psalms and various Family Classics aloud to Leah and me. Mother has a pagan’s appreciation for the Bible, being devoted to such phrases as “purge me with hyssop,” and “strong bulls of Bashan have beset me round,” and “thou hast put off my sackcloth and girded me with gladness.” Likely she would run through the fields dressed in sackcloth, hunting hyssop amongst the wild bulls, if not obligated to the higher plane of Motherhood. She is especially beset by Leah’s and my status as exceptional children. When we entered the first grade, we were examined by the spinster principal of Bethlehem Elementary, Miss Leep, who announced that we were gifted: Leah, on account of her nonchalant dazzling scores on reading-comprehension tests, and myself by association, as I am presumed to have the same brain insofar as the intact parts go. This was a shock to Mother, who up to that point had offered us no education higher than the names of the wildflowers growing in the roadside ditches where we walked barefoot (when Our Father’s scorching eyes were not upon us: Sun o put o not upon us!) from the parsonage to the corner market. My earliest Mother memories lie laughing blue-eyed in the grass, child herself, rolling side to side as Rachel and Leah decorated her all over with purple-clover jewelry. Once Leah and I were gifted, though, everything changed. Mother seemed sobered by this news from our teachers, as if she had earned a special punishment from God. She became secretive and efficient. She reined in our nature walks and settled down to business with a library card.
She need not have troubled with secrecy, for all Our Father noticed. On first hearing Miss Leep’s news he merely rolled his eyes, as if two dogs in his yard had reportedly been caught whistling “Dixie.” He warned Mother not to flout God’s Will by expecting too much for us. “Sending a girl to college is like pouring water in your shoes,” he still loves to say, as often as possible. “It’s hard to say which is worse, seeing it run out and waste the water, or seeing it hold in and wreck the shoes.”
And so I shall never have opportunity to have my leather wrecked by college, but I do owe a great debt to Miss Leep for saving me from the elementary discard heap. A principal less observant would have placed Leah in Gifted, and Adah in Special Ed with the mongoloids and all six of Bethlehem’s thumb-sucking, ear-pulling Crawley children, and there would I remain, to learn how to pull my own ear. Overjoyed, null and void, Mongoloid. I still have a fellow feeling for that almond-tasting word.
Oh, but it did unsettle the matrons of Bethlehem to see the poor thing boosted into a class ahead of their own children, there to become dazzling slick-quick at mathematics. In third grade I began to sum up our grocery bill in my head, silently write it down and hand it over, faster than Delma Royce could total it on her cash register. This became a famous event and never failed to draw a crowd. I had no idea why. I merely felt drawn in by those rattling, loose numbers needing their call to order. No one seemed to realize calculating sums requires only the most basic machinery and good concentration. Poetry is far more difficult. And palindromes, with their perfect, satisfying taste: Draw a level award! Yet it is always the thin gray grocery sums that make an impression.
My hobby is to ignore the awards and excel when I choose. I can read and write French, which in Kilanga is spoken by all who ever passed through the Underdowns’ school. My sisters seem not to have slowed down long enough to learn French. Speaking, as I said-along with the rest of life’s acrobatics-can be seen in a certain light as a distraction.
When I finish reading a book from front to back, I read it back to front. It is a different book, back to front, and you can learn new things from it. It from things new learn can you and front to back book different a is it?
You can agree or not, as you like. This is another way to read it, although I am told a normal brain will not grasp it: Ti morf sgniht wen nrael nac uoy dna tnorf ot kcab koob tnereffid a si ti. The normal, I understand, can see words my way only if they are adequately poetic: Poor Dan is in a droop.
My own name, as I am accustomed to think of it, is Ecirp Nelle Hada. Sometimes I write it this way without thinking, and people turn up startled. To them I am only Adah or, to my sisters sometimes, the drear monosyllabic Ade, lemonade, Band-Aid, frayed blockade, switchblade renegade, call a spade a spade.
I prefer Ada as it goes either way, like me. I am a perfect palindrome. Damn mad! Across the cover of my notebook I have written as a warning to others:
ELAPSED OR ESTEEMED, ALL ADE MEETS ERODES PALE!
For my twin sister’s name I prefer the spelling Lee, as that makes her-from the back-court position from which I generally watch her-the slippery length of muscle that she is.
The Congo is a fine place to learn how to read the same book many times. When the rain pours down especially, we have long hours of captivity, in which my sisters determinedly grow bored. But are there books, books there are! Rattling words on the page calling my eyes to dance with them. Everyone else will finish with the singular plowing through, and Ada still has discoveries ahead and behind.
When the rainy season fell on us in Kilanga, it fell like a plague. We were warned to expect rain in October, but at the close of July- surprising no one in Kilanga but ourselves-the serene heavens above began to dump buckets. Stekcub pmud! It rained pitchforks, as Mother says. It rained cats and dogs frogs bogs then it rained snakes and lizards. A pestilence of rain we received, the likes of which we had never seen or dreamed about in Georgia.
Under the eave of the porch our charge Methuselah screamed like a drowning man in his cage. Methuselah is an African Grey parrot with a fine scaly look to his head, a sharp skeptical eye like Miss Leep’s, and a scarlet tail. He resides in a remarkable bamboo cage as tall as Ruth May. His perch is a section of a sturdy old-fashioned yardstick, triangular in cross-section. Long ago someone broke off the inches nineteen through thirty-six and assigned these to Methuselah for the conduct of his affairs.
Parrots are known to be long-lived, and among all the world’s birds, African Greys are best at imitating human speech. Methuselah may or may not have heard about this, for he mumbles badly. He mumbles to himself all day long like Grandfather Wharton. Mostly he says incomprehensible things in Kikongo but also speaks like Mr. Poe’s Raven a desultory English. On the first day of rain, he raised his head and screeched through the roar of the storm his best two phrases in our language: first, in Mama Tataba’s side-slant voice, “Wake up, Brothah FowelslWake up, Brothah Fowels!” Then in a low-pitched growl,”Piss off, Methuselah!” The Reverend Price looked up from his desk by the window and made note of the words “Piss off.” The morally suspect ghost of Brother Fowles was thick upon us.
“That,” the Reverend declared, “is a Catholic bird.” Mother looked up from her sewing. My sisters and I shifted in our chairs, expecting Father to assign Methuselah “The Verse.”
The dreaded Verse is our household punishment. Other lucky children might merely be thrashed for their sins, but we Price girls are castigated with the Holy Bible. The Reverend will level his gaze and declare, “You have The Verse.” Then slowly, as we squirm on his hook, he writes on a piece of paper, for example: Jeremiah 48:18. Then say ye good-bye to sunshine or the Hardy Boys for an afternoon as you, poor sinner, must labor with a pencil in your good left hand to copy out Jeremiah 48:18, “Come down from your throne of glory and sit in the mire, O daughter that dwells in Dibon,” and additionally, the ninety-nine verses that follow it. One hundred full verses exactly copied out in longhand, because it is the final one that reveals your crime. In the case of Jeremiah 48:18, the end is Jeremiah 50:31, “Lo! I am against you, O Insolence! saith the oracle of the Lord, the God of hosts; For your day has come, your time of reckoning.” Only upon reaching that one-hundredth verse do you finally understand you are being punished for the sin of insolence. Although you might well have predicted it.
He sometimes has us copy from Old King James, but prefers to use the American Translation that includes his peculiarly beloved Apocrypha. That is one pet project of the Reverend’s: getting other Baptists to swallow the Apocrypha.
I have wondered, incidentally: does Our Father have his Bibles so entirely in mind that he can select an instructive verse and calculate backward to the one-hundredth previous? Or does he sit up nights
searching out a Verse for every potential infraction, and store this ammunition at the ready for his daughters? Either way, it is as impressive as my grocery sums in the Piggly Wiggly. We all, especially Rachel, live in terror of the cursed Verse.
But in the case of the cursing parrot that first long rainy day, Methuselah could not be made to copy the Bible. Curiously exempt from the Reverend’s rules was Methuselah, in the same way Our Father was finding the Congolese people beyond his power. Methuselah was a sly little representative of Africa itself, living openly in our household. One might argue, even, that he was here first.
We listened to parrot prattle and sat confined, uncomfortably close to Our Father. For five solid hours of downpour we watched small red frogs with immense, cartoonlike toes squeeze in around the windows and hop steadily up the walls. Our all-weather coats hung on their six pegs; possibly they were meant for all weather but this.
Our house is made of mud-battered walls and palm thatch, but is different from all other houses in Kilanga. In the first place it is larger, with a wide front room and two bedrooms in back, one of which resembles a hospital scene from Florence Nightingale’s time, as it is chock-full of cots under triangles of mosquito net for the family surplus of girls. The kitchen is a separate hut, behind the main house. In the clearing beyond stands our latrine, unashamed, despite the vile curses rained upon it daily by Rachel. The chicken house is back there too. Unlike the other villagers’ houses, our windows are square panes of glass and our foundation and floor are cement. All other houses have floors of dirt. Curt, subvert, overexert. We see village women constantly sweeping their huts and the barren clearings in front of their homes with palm-frond brooms, and Rachel with her usual shrewdness points out you could sweep a floor like that plumb to China and never get it clean. By the grace of God and cement our family has been spared that frustration.
In the front room our dining table looks to have come off a wrecked ship, and there is an immense rolltop desk (possibly from the same ship) used by Our Father for writing his sermons. The desk has wooden legs and cast-iron chicken’s feet, each clutching a huge glass marble, though three of the marbles are cracked and one is gone, replaced by a chink of coconut husk in the interest of a level writing surface. In our parents’ room, more furniture: a wooden bureau and an old phonograph cabinet with no workings inside. All brought by other brave Baptists before us, though it is hard to see quite how, unless one envisions a time when other means of travel were allowed, and more than forty-four pounds. We also have a dining table and a rough handmade cupboard, containing a jumble-sale assortment of glass and plastic dishes and cups, one too few of everything, so we sisters have to bargain knives for forks while we eat. The cabinet also contains an ancient cracked plate commemorating the World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri, and a plastic cup bearing the nose and ears of a mouse. And in the midst of this rabble, serene as the Virgin Mother in her barnful of shepherds and scabby livestock, one amazing, beautiful thing: a large, oval white platter painted with delicate blue forget-me-nots, bone china, so fine that sunlight passes through it. Its origin is unfathomable. If we forgot ourselves we might worship it.
Outdoors we have a long shady porch our mother in her Mississippi-born way calls a veranda. My sisters and I love to lounge there in the hammocks, and we longed for refuge there even on the day of our first downpour. But the storm lashed sideways, battering the walls and poor Methuselah. When his screaming got too pathetic to bear, our grim-faced mother brought in his cage and set it on the floor by the window, where Methuselah continued his loud, random commentary. In addition to papism, the Reverend probably suspected this noisy creature of latent femaleness.
The deluge finally stopped just before sunset. The world looked stepped on and drenched, but my sisters ran out squealing like the first free pigs off the ark, eager to see what the flood had left us. A low cloud in the air turned out to be tiny flying antlike creatures by the millions. They hovered just above the ground, making a long, low hum that stretched to the end of the world. Their bodies made clicking sounds as we swatted them away from us. We hesitated at the edge of the yard, where the muddy clearing grades into a long grass slope, then charged on into the grass, until our way was barred by the thousand crossed branches of the forest’s edge: avocado, palms, tall wild sugar-cane thickets.This forest obscures our view of the river, and any other distance. The village’s single dirt road skirts our yard and runs past us into the village to the south; on the north it disappears into the woods.Though we watch MamaTataba vanish that way and return again, intact, with her water buckets full, our mother did not yet trust the path to swallow and deliver her children. So we turned and tromped back up the hill toward the pair of flowery round hibiscus bushes that flank the steps to our porch.
What a landing party we were as we stalked about, identically dressed in saddle oxfords, long-tailed shirts, and pastel cotton pants, but all so different. Leah went first as always, Goddess of the Hunt, her weasel-colored pixie haircut springing with energy, her muscles working together like parts of a clock. Then came the rest of us: Ruth May with pigtails flying behind her, hurrying mightily because she is youngest and believes the last shall be first. And then Rachel, our family’s own Queen of Sheba, blinking her white eyelashes, flicking her long whitish hair as if she were the palomino horse she once craved to own. Queen Rachel drifted along several paces behind, looking elsewhere. She was almost sixteen and above it all, yet still unwilling for us to find something good without her. Last of all came Adah the monster, Quasimodo, dragging her right side behind her left in her body’s permanent stepsong sing: left… behind, left… behind.
This is our permanent order: Leah, Ruth May, Rachel, Adah. Neither chronological nor alphabetical but it rarely varies, unless Ruth May gets distracted and falls out of line.
At the foot of the hibiscus bush we discovered a fallen nest of baby birds, all drowned. My sisters were thrilled by the little naked, winged bodies like storybook griffins, and by the horrible fact they were dead. Then we found the garden. Rachel screamed triumphantly that it was ruined once and for all. Leah fell to her knees in a demonstration of grief on Our Father’s behalf. The torrent had swamped the flat bed and the seeds rushed out like runaway boats. We found them everywhere in caches in the tall grass at the edge of the patch. Most had already sprouted in the previous weeks, but their little roots had not held them to the Reverend Farmer’s flat-as-Kansas beds against the torrent. Leah walked along on her knees, gathering up sprouts in her shirttail, as she probably imagined Saca-jaweah would have done in the same situation.
Later Our Father came out to survey the damage, and Leah helped him sort out the seeds by kind. He declared he would make them grow, in the name of God, or he would plant again (the Reverend, like any prophet worth his salt, had held some seeds in reserve) if only the sun would ever come out and dry up this accursed mire.
Even at sunset, the two of them did not come in for supper. Mama Tataba bent over the table in our mother’s large white apron, which made her look’ counterfeit and comic, as though acting the role of maid in a play. She watched him steadily out the window, smiling her peculiar downturned smile, and made satisfied clicks with her tongue against her teeth. We set ourselves to the task of eating her cooking, fried plantain and the luxury of some canned meat.
Finally he sent Leah in, but long after dinner we could still hear the Reverend out there beating the ground with his hoe, revising the earth. No one can say he does not learn his lesson, though it might take a deluge, and though he might never admit in this lifetime that it was not his own idea in the first place. Nevertheless, Our Father had been influenced by Africa. He was out there pushing his garden up into rectangular, flood-proof embankments, exactly the length and width of burial mounds.
IT ONLY TAKES FIVE DAYS in hot weather for a Kentucky Wonder bean to gather up its vegetable willpower and germinate. That was all we thought we needed. Once the rains abated, my father’s garden thrived in the heat like an unleashed temper. He loved to stand out there just watching things grow, he said, and you could believe it.The beanstalks twisted around the sapling teepees he’d built for them, and then they wavered higher and higher like ladies’ voices in the choir, each one vying for the top. They reached out for the branches of nearby trees and twined up into the canopy.
The pumpkin vines also took on the personality of jungle plants. Their leaves grew so strangely enormous Ruth May could sit still under them and win at “Hide and Seek” for a very long time after the rest of us had stopped playing. When we squatted down we could see, alongside Ruth May’s wide blue eyes, yellow blossoms of cucumber and squash peering out from the leafy darkness.
My father witnessed the progress of every new leaf and fat flower bud. I walked behind him, careful not to trample the vines. I helped him construct a sturdy stick barricade around the periphery so the jungle animals and village goats would mot come in and wreck our tender vegetables when they came. Mother claims I have the manners of a wild animal myself, as I am a toimboy, but I never fail to be respectful of my father’s garden. His devotion to its progress, like his devotion to the church, was the anchoring force in my life throughout this past summer. I knew my father icould taste those Kentucky Wonder beans as surely as any pure soul can taste heaven.
Rachel’s birthday came in late August, but the Betty Crocker cake mix let us all down. Normal cake production proved out of the question.
To begin with, our stove is an iron contraption with a firebox so immense a person could climb right in if they felt like it. Mother yanked Ruth May out by the arm, pretty hard, when she found her in there; she dreaded that Mama Tataba in one of her energetic fits might stoke up the stove with the baby inside. It was a sensible concern. Ruth May is so intent on winning Hide and Seek, or any game for that matter, she would probably go ahead and burn up before she’d ever yell and give herself away.
Mother has figured out how to make bread “by hook or by crook,” she likes to say, but the stove doesn’t really have a proper oven. In fact, it looks less like a stove than a machine hammered together out of some other machine. Rachel says it was part of a locomotive train, but she is famous for making things up out of thin air and stating them in a high, knowing tone.
The stove wasn’t even the worst of our cake troubles. In the powerful humidity the powdered mix got transfigured like Lot’s poor wife who looked back at Gomorrah and got turned to a pillar of salt. On the morning of Rachel’s birthday I found Mother out in the kitchen house with her head in her hands, crying. She picked up the box and banged it hard against the iron stove, just once, to show me. It clanged like a hammer on a bell. Her way of telling a parable is different from my father’s.
“If I’d of had the foggiest idea,” she said very steadily, holding her pale, weeping eyes on me, “just the foggiest idea. We brought all the wrong things.”
The first time my father heard Methuselah say, “Damn,” his body moved strangely, as if he’d received the spirit or a twinge of bad heartburn. Mother excused herself and went in the house.
Rachel, Adah, and I were left on the porch, and he looked at each one of us in turn. We had known him to forbear with a silent grimace when Methuselah said, “Piss off,” but of course that was the
doing of Brother Fowles. The mote in his brother’s eye, not the sin of his own household. Methuselah had never said “Damn” before, so this was something new, spoken right out very chipper in a feminine tone of voice.
“Which one of you taught Methuselah to say that word?” he demanded.
I felt sick to my stomach. None of us spoke. For Adah that’s normal, of course, and for that very reason she often gets accused when none of us speaks up. And truthfully, if any of us was disposed to use curse words, it would be Adah, who could not care less about sin and salvation. That’s the main reason I got Mother to cut my hair in a pixie, while Adah kept hers long: so nobody would get our attitudes mixed up. I myself would not curse, in or out of Methuselah’s hearing or even in my dreams, because I crave heaven and to he my father’s favorite. And Rachel wouldn’t-she’ll let out a disgusted “Jeez” or “Gol!” when she can, but is mainly a perfect lady when anybody’s listening. And Ruth May is plain too little.
“I fail to understand,” said Father, who understands everything, “why you would have a poor dumb creature condemn us all to eternal suffering.”
I’ll tell you what, though, Methuselah is not dumb. He imitates not just words, but the voices of people that spoke them. From Methuselah we have learned the Irish-Yankee voice of Brother Fowles, whom we picture as looking like that Father Flanagan that runs the Boys Town. We could also recognize MamaTataba, and ourselves. Furthermore, Methuselah didn’t just imitate words, he knew them. It’s one thing simply to call out, “Sister, God is great! Shut the door!” when the spirit moves him, but he’ll also call out “banana” and “peanut” as plain as day, when he sees these things in our hands and wants his share. Oftentimes he studies us, copying our movements, and he seems to know which words will provoke us to laugh or talk back to him, or be shocked. We already understood what was now dawning on my father: Methuselah could betray our secrets.
I didn’t say so, of course. I haven’t contradicted my father on any subject, ever.
Rachel finally blurted out, “Father, we’re sorry.”
Adah and I pretended to be fascinated by our books.We brought our schoolbooks with us and study them whenever Mother threatens we’re going to fall behind and wear the dunce cap when we go home, which there’s no chance of really, except for Rachel, who is the one stubbornly mediocre mentality in our family. I think our mother is really just afraid we’re going to forget about normal things like George Washington crossing the Delaware and autumn leaves and a train speeding west toward St. Louis at sixty-five miles per hour.
I peeped up from my book. Oh, dear Lord. He was staring directly at me. My heart palpitated fiercely.
“The Lord will forgive you if you ask,” he said, very disgusted and quiet, the tone of voice that makes me feel worse than any other. “Our Lord is benevolent. But that poor African bird can’t be relieved of what you’ve taught it. It’s an innocent creature that can only repeat what it hears. The damage is done.” He started to turn away from us. We held our breath as he paused on the steps and looked back, right in my eyes. I burned with shame.
“If there’s anything to be learned from this,” he said, “it’s about the stink and taint of original sin. I expect you’d better think about that while you do The Verse.” Our hearts fell. “All three of you,” he said. “Book of Numbers, twenty-nine thirty-four.”
Then he walked off abruptly, leaving us like orphans on the porch.
The thought of spending the rest of the day copying out the tedious Book of Numbers sobered me deeply as I watched my father go. He directed his stride toward the river. He’d been going down there nearly every day, tearing his walking stick into the elephant-ear leaves that curtained the riverbank. He was scouting out baptismal sites.
I already knew how Numbers 29:34 came out, as I’d gotten it before.The hundredth verse winds up at 32:32, with how when you sin against the Lord you get found out, and to watch what proceeds out of your mouth.
I hadn’t even considered the irreversible spoiling of Methuselah’s innocence, which just goes to show I have much to learn. But I’ll admit I prayed that afternoon that Father had taken Rachel’s apology as a confession, so he wouldn’t think the sin was mine. It was hard, accepting his accusations by keeping silent. We all knew very well who’d been the one to yell that word Damn! She’d said it over and over when she wept over the wreck of her useless cake mixes. But none of us could let him in on that awful secret. Not even me-and I know I’m the one to turn my back on her the most.
Once in a great while we just have to protect her. Even back when we were very young I remember running to throw my arms around Mother’s knees when he regaled her with words and worse, for curtains unclosed or slips showing-the sins of womanhood. We could see early on that all grown-ups aren’t equally immune to damage. My father wears his faith like the bronze breastplate of God’s foot soldiers, while our mother’s is more like a good cloth coat with a secondhand fit. The whole time Father was interrogating us on the porch, in my mind’s eye I was seeing her slumped over in the kitchen house, banging in mortal frustration against that locomotive engine of a stove. In her hand, Rachel’s Angel Dream cake mix, hard as a rock; in her heart, its heavenly, pink-frosted perfection, its candles ablaze, brought proudly to the table on that precious bone-china platter with the blue flowers. She’d been keeping it a secret, but Mother was going to try and have a real sweet-sixteen party for Rachel.
But Angel Dream was the wrong thing, the wrong thing by a mile. I’d carried it over in my own waistband, so it seemed like some part of the responsibility was mine.
HOLY FATHER, bless us and keep us in Thy sight,” the Reverend said. Sight Thy blessed father holy. And all of us with our closed eyes smelled the frangipani blossoms in the big rectangles of open wall, flowers so sweet they conjure up sin or heaven, depending on which way you are headed. The Reverend towered over the rickety altar, his fiery crew cut bristling like a woodpeckers cockade. When the Spirit passed through him he groaned, throwing body and soul into this weekly purge.The “Amen enema,” as I call it. My palindrome for the Reverend.
Mama Tataba’s body next to mine in the pew, meanwhile, was a thing gone dead. Her stiffness reminded me of all the fish lying curved and stiff on the riverbanks, flaking in the sun like old white bars of soap. All because of the modern style of fishing Our Father dreamed up.The Reverend’s high-horse show of force. He ordered men to go out in canoes and pitch dynamite in the river, stupefying everything within earshot. Shot ears. Now, where did he get dynamite? Certainly none of us carried it over here in our drawers. So from Eeben Axelroot, I have to think, for a large sum of money. Our family receives a stipend of $50 a month for being missionaries. This is not the regular Baptist stipend; Our Father is a renegade who came without the entire blessing of the Mission League, and bullied or finagled his way into this lesser stipend. Even so, it is a lot of Congolese francs and would be a Congolese fortune if that were that, but it is not. The money comes in an envelope on the plane, brought by Eeben Axelroot and to Eeben Axelroot it mostly returns. Ashes to ashes.
To Kilanga’s hungry people Our Father promised at summer’s end the bounty of the Lord, more fish than they had ever seen in their lives. “The word of Christ is beloved!” he cries, standing up precariously in his boat.”zita Jesus is bangala!” So determined he is to win or force or drag them over to the Way of the Cross. Feed the belly first, he announced at dinner one night, seized with his brilliant plan. Feed the belly and the soul will come. (Not having noticed, for a wife is beneath notice, that this is exactly what our mother did when she killed all the chickens.) But after the underwater thunder, what came was not souls but fish. They came rolling to the surface with mouths opened wide by that shocking boom. Round shocked bubbles for eyes. The whole village feasted all day, ate, ate till we felt bug-eyed and belly-up ourselves. He performed a backward version of the loaves and fishes, trying to stuff ten thousand fish into fifty mouths, did the Reverend Price. Slogging up and down the riverbank in trousers wet to the knees, his Bible in one hand and another stickful of fire-blackened fish in the other, he waved his bounty in a threatening manner. Thousands more fish jerked in the sun and went bad along the riverbanks. Our village was blessed for weeks with the smell of putrefaction. Instead of abundance it was a holiday of waste. No ice. Our Father forgot, for fishing in the style of modern redneck Georgia you need your ice.
He was not going to bring up the loaves and fishes in today’s sermon, was a good guess. He would merely give out the communion with the usual disturbing allusions to eating flesh and drinking blood. Perhaps this perked up congregational interest, but we Price girls all listened with half an ear between us. And Adah with her half a brain. Hah. The church service lasts twice as long now because the Reverend has to say it once in English, and then the schoolteacher Tata Anatole repeats it all in Kikongo. Our Father finally caught on, nobody was understanding his horrible stabs at French or Kikongo, either one.
“It was lawlessness that came forth from Babylon! Law less ness!” declared the Reverend, waving an arm impressively toward Babylon as if that turbulent locale lurked just behind the school latrine.
Through the bedraggled roof a ray of sun fell like God’s spotlight across his right shoulder. He paced, paused, spoke, and paced behind his palm-leaf altar, giving every impression he was inventing his Biblical parables on the spot. This morning he was spinning the tale of Susanna, beautiful and pious wife of the rich man Joakim. Annasus ho! While she bathed in the garden, two of Joakim’s advisors spied her naked and cooked up their vile plan. They leaped from the bushes and demanded that she lie down with them. Poor Susanna. If she refused they would bear false witness against her, claiming they caught her in the garden with a man. Naturally the righteous Susanna refused them, even though this meant she would be accused and stoned for adultery. Stoning moaning owning deboning. We were not supposed to wonder what kind of husband was this Joakim, who would kill his own lovely wife rather than listen to her side of the story. No doubt the Babylonians were already out scouting around for their favorite rocks.
The Reverend paused, resting one hand flat on the altar. The rest of his body rocked almost imperceptibly inside his white shirt, marking time, keeping his rhythm. He scrutinized his parishioners’ blank faces for signs that they were on the edge of their seats. There were eleven or twelve new faces now, a regular stampede to glory. A boy near me with his mouth hanging open closed one eye, then the other, back and forth. We all waited for Tata Anatole the school-teacher-translator to catch up.
“But God would not let this happen,” the Reverend growled, like a dog awakened by a prowler. Then rising an octave like “The Star-Spangled Banner”: “God stirred up the holy spirit of a man named Daniel!”
Oh, hooray, Daniel to the rescue. Our Father loves Daniel, the original Private Eye. Tata Daniel (he called him, to make him seem like a local boy) stepped in and demanded to question the two advisors separately. Tata Daniel asked them what kind of tree Susanna was supposedly standing under when she met this man in the garden. “Um, a mastic tree,” said one, and the other, “Well, gee, I guess it was a live oak.” How stupid, that they had not even conspired to get their story straight. All the evildoers in the Bible seem spectacularly dumb.
I watched Tata Anatole, expecting him at least to stumble over “mastic” and “live oak,” as there could not possibly be words for these trees in Kikongo. He did not pause. Kufwema, kuzikisa, kugam-bula, smoothly the words rolled forward and I realized this slick trick schoolteacher could be saying anything under the sun. Our father would never be the wiser. So they stoned the dame and married two more wives apiece and lived happily ever after. I yawned, uninspired yet again by the pious and beautiful Susanna. I was unlikely ever to have her problems.
In my mind I invented snmyhymns, as I call them, my own perverse hymns that can be sung equally well forward or backward: Evil, all its sin is still alive! Also I made use of this rare opportunity to inspect MamaTataba at close range. Normally she moved much too fast. I considered her my ally because, like me, she was imperfect. It was hard to say what she ever thought of Our Father’s benedictions, in church or out, so I pondered more interesting mysteries, such as her eye. How did she lose it? Was she exempt from marriage because of it, as I presumed myself to be? I had little idea of her age or hopes. I did know that many women in Kilanga were more seriously disfigured and had husbands notwithstanding. Standing with naught. Husbands. Here, bodily damage is more or less considered to be a by-product of living, not a disgrace. In the way of the body and other people’s judgment I enjoy a benign approval in Kilanga that I have never, ever known in Bethlehem, Georgia.
We finished off Susanna by singing “Amazing Grace” at the speed of a dirge. The ragtag congregation chimed in with every sort of word and tune. Oh, we were a regular Tower of Babel here at the First Baptist Church of Kilanga, so no one noticed that I mouthed my own words to the proper tune:
Evil, all… its sin… is still… alive!
Do go… Tata… to God!
Sugar don’t… No, drag us drawn onward,
A, he rose… ye eyesore, ha!
When church was over Mama Tataba took us back to the house, while the clever Reverend and his wife stayed behind to smile and shake hands and bask in the general holiness. Mama Tataba stomped down the path ahead of my sisters and me. Bringing up the rear, I concentrated on trying to pass up the dawdling Rachel, who walked with her hands held out slightly from her thighs as if she had once again, as usual, been crowned Miss America. “Hold your hands like you’ve just dropped a marble,” she instructs us generally as she fashion-models her way through the house. In spite of all that stateliness, I could not catch up. So I watched an orange-and-white butterfly that hovered over her and finally lit on her white head. The butterfly poked its tiny proboscis down into her hair, probing for nurture, then flew away unsatisfied. Mama Tataba saw none of these events. She was in a bad mood and shouted at us confidentially, “Reverant Price he better be give that up!” Flesh eating and blood drinking, did she mean? The sermon had meandered from the pious Susanna to Rahab, the harlot of Jericho. So many Biblical names sound backward, like Rahab, I wonder sometimes if the whole thing was written by a mental freak like me. But in the end he got around to emphasizing baptism, as always. This was likely what disturbed Mama Tataba. Our Father could not seem to accept what seemed clear enough even to a child: when he showered the idea of baptism-batiza-on people here, it shrunk them away like water on a witch.
Later on at the dinner table he was still animated, though, which is the status quo on Sundays. Once he gets wound up in the pulpit he seems unwilling to give up center stage.
“Do you know,” he asked us, tall and bright-headed like a candle in his chair, “last year some men drove here all the way from Leopoldville in a truck with a broken fan belt? A Mercedes truck.” Ah, me. One of his Socratic moods. This was not dangerous, for he rarely actually struck us at the table, but it was designed to show us all up as dull-witted, bovine females. He always ended these interrogations with an exasperated, loud private conversation with God concerning our hopelessness.
Methuselah was definitely in the girls’ camp. He made a habit of prattling at the top of his lungs through Sunday dinners at our house. Like many human beings, he took the least sign of conversation as his cue to make noise. Our mother sometimes threw a tablecloth over his cage in frustration. “Mbote! Mbote!” he screamed now, which in Kikongo means hello and good-bye, both. This symmetry appeals to me. Many Kikongo words resemble English words backward and have antithetical meanings: Syebo is a horrible, destructive rain, that just exactly does not do what it says backward.
We listened vaguely to Our Father’s tale of the putative Mercedes truck. Our only material goods from the outside world of late were comic books, which my sisters cherished like Marco Polo’s spices from China, and powdered eggs and milk, to which we felt indifferent. All brought by Eeben Axelroot. As for this truck-and-fanbelt story, the Reverend loved to speak in parables, and we could surely spot one coming.
“That road,” said our mother, bemused, gesturing with a lazy bent wrist out the window. “Why, I can’t imagine.” She shook her head, possibly not believing. Can she allow herself not to believe him? I have never known.
“It was at the end of a dry season, Orleanna,” he snapped. “When it’s hot enough the puddles dry up.” You brainless nitwit, he did not need to add.
“But how on earth did they run it without a fanbelt?” our mother asked, understanding by the Reverend’s irritation that she was expected to return to the subject at hand. She leaned forward to offer him biscuits from the bone-china platter, which she sometimes, secretly, cradled like a baby after the washing and drying. Today she gave its rim a gentle stroke before folding her hands in submission to Father’s will. She was wearing a jaunty shirtwaist, white with small red and blue semaphore flags. It had been her outermost dress when we came over. Its frantic little banners seemed to be signaling distress now, on account of MamaTataba’s vigorous washings in the river.
He leaned forward to give us the full effect of his red eyebrows and prominent jaw. “Elephant grass,” he pronounced triumphantly.
We sat frozen, the food in our mouths momentarily unchewed.
“A dozen little boys rode on the back, weaving fan belts out of grass.”
Leah blurted out all in a rush, “So the plain simple grass of God’s creation can be just as strong as, as rubber or whatnot!” She sat ramrod straight as if she were on television, going for the sixty-four-dollar question.
“No,” he said. “Each one wouldn’t last but two or three miles.”
“Oh.” Leah was disconsolate. The remaining nitwits ventured no other guesses.
“But just as soon as it gave out,” he explained, “well, they’d have another one at the ready.”
“Keen,” Rachel said, unconvincingly. She is the most dramatic member of the family, and the worst actress, which in our family is a crucial skill. All of us were giving diligent attention to our powdered potatoes. We were supposed to be reaching an understanding here about the elephant-grass fan belt illustrating God’s vast greatness; nobody wanted to be called on.
“A Mercedes truck!” he said finally. “The pinnacle of German invention, can be kept in business by twelve little African boys and some elephant grass.”
“Sister, shut the door! Wenda mbote!” Methuselah called out. Then he shouted, “Ko ko ko!” which is what people in Kilanga shout in someone’s doorway when they come visiting, since generally there is no door to knock on. This happened often at our house, but we always knew it was Methuselah, since we did have a door and did not, as a rule, have visitors. If anyone actually ever came, usually in the hope of selling us food, they did not knock on the door but merely hung about the yard until we took notice.
“Well, I expect you could keep anything going with enough little boys and enough grass,” our mother said. She did not sound all that pleased about it.
“That’s right. It just takes adaptability.”
“Damn damn damn!” observed Methuselah.
Mother shot the bird a worried glance. “If that creature lives through nine hundred Baptist missions he will have quite a lot to say.”
She stood up then and started stacking the plates. Her Living Curl had long since been pronounced dead, and on the whole she appeared to be adapted to within an inch of her life. She excused herself to go boil the dishwater.
Unable to work either the dishwater or Methuselah’s long memory into a proper ending for his parable, Our Father merely looked at us all and heaved the great sigh of the put-upon male. Oh, such a sigh. It was so deep it could have drawn water from a well, right up from beneath the floor of our nitwit household. He was merely trying, that sigh suggested, to drag us all toward enlightenment through the marrow of our own poor female bones.
We hung our heads, pushed back our chairs, and filed out to help stoke up the firebox in the kitchen house. Cooking meals here requires half the day, and cleaning up takes the other half. We have to boil our water because it comes from the stream, where parasites multiply in teeming throngs. Africa has parasites so particular and diverse as to occupy every niche of the body: intestines small and large, the skin, the bladder, the male and female reproductive tracts, interstitial fluids, even the cornea. In a library book on African public health, before we left home, I found a drawing of a worm as thin as a hair meandering across the front of a man’s startled eyeball. I was struck through with my own wayward brand of reverence: praise be the lord of all plagues and secret afflictions! If God had amused himself inventing the lilies of the field, he surely knocked His own socks off with the African parasites.
Outside I saw Mama Tataba, on her way to the kitchen house, dip in a hand and drink straight out of the bucket. I crossed my fingers for her one good eye. I shuddered to think of that dose of God’s Creation going down, sucking her dry from the inside.
MY FATHER had been going to the garden alone, every day, to sit and think. It disturbed him that the plants thrived and filled the fenced patch with bloom like a funeral parlor, but would not set fruit. I knew he was praying about it. I sometimes went out to sit with him, even though Mother held it against me, saying he needed his solitude.
He speculated that there was too much shade from the trees. I thought long and hard about this explanation, as I am always eager to expand my understanding of horticulture. It was true, the trees did encroach on our little clearing. We constantly had to break and hack off branches, trying to win back our ground. Why, some of the bean vines had wound themselves all the way into the very treetops, striving for light.
Once he asked me suddenly as we sat mulling over the pumpkins, “Leah, do you know what they spent the last Bible convention in Atlanta arguing about?”
I wasn’t really expected to know, so I waited. I was thrilled by the mere fact of his speaking to me in this gentle, somewhat personal way. He didn’t look at me, of course, for he had much on his mind, as ever. We’d worked so hard for God’s favor, yet it seemed God was still waiting for some extra labor on our part, and it was up to my father to figure out what. With his stronger eye he stared deeply into a pumpkin blossom for the source of his garden’s disease. The flowers would open and close, then the green fruits behind them would shrivel and turn brown. There wasn’t a single exception. In
exchange for our honest sweat we’d so far earned flowers and leaves, but nothing we could actually have for supper.
“The size of heaven,” he finally said.
“I’m sorry?” My heart skipped a beat. Here I’d been trying to second-guess Father, working out the garden business. He is always two steps ahead of me.
“They debated about the size of heaven, at the Bible convention. How many furlongs it is. How many long, how many wide-they set men with adding machines to figuring it out. Chapter twenty-one of Revelation sets it out in reeds, and other books tell it in cubits, and not a one of them quite matches up.” Inexplicably, he sounded put out with the men who brought their adding machines to the Bible convention, and possibly with the Bible itself. I felt extremely uneasy.
“Well, I sure hope there’ll be room enough for everybody,” I said. This was a whole new worry to me. Suddenly I began to think of all the people already up there, mostly old, and not in particularly good shape either. I pictured them elbowing each other as if at a church rummage sale.
“There will always be room for the righteous,” he said.
“Amen,” I breathed, on safer ground.
“Many are the afflictions of the righteous, and the Lord delivers him out of them all. But you know, Leah, sometimes He doesn’t deliver us out of our hardships but through them.”
“Heavenly Father, deliver us,” I said, although I didn’t care for this new angle. Father had already bent his will to Africa by remaking his garden in mounds, the way they do here.This was a sure sign to God of his humility and servitude, and it was only fair to expect our reward. So what was this business of being delivered through hardships? Did Father aim to suggest God was not obligated to send us down any beans or squash at all, no matter how we might toil in His name? That He just proposed to sit up there and consign us to hardships one right after another? Certainly it wasn’t my place to scrutinize God’s great plan, but what about the balancing scales of justice?
Father said nothing to ease my worries. He just plucked up another bean flower and held it up to the sky, examining it in the African light like a doctor with an X-ray, looking for the secret thing gone wrong.
His first sermon in August waxed great and long on the subject of baptism. Afterward, at home, when Mother asked Mama Tataba to go put the soup on the stove, Mania Tataba turned and walked smack dab out the front door in between the words “soup” and “stove.” She went out and gave my father a good talking to, shaking her finger at him across a row of tomatoless tomato plants. Whatever it was he’d done wrong in her opinion, it was really the last straw. We could hear her voice rising and rising.
Naturally it shocked us half to death to hear somebody caterwauling at Father this way. It shocked us even more to see him standing there red-faced, trying to fit a word in sideways. With all four of us girls lined up at the window with our mouths gaping open, we must have looked like the Lennon Sisters on Lawrence Welk. Mother shooed us from the window, ordering us to go hunt up our schoolbooks and read them. It wasn’t the proper time for school, or even a school day, but we did everything she said now. We’d recently seen her throw a box of Potato Buds across the room. After a quiet eternity of the Trojan War, Mama Tataba burst in and threw her apron on a chair. We all closed our books.
“I won’t be stay here,” she declared. “You send a girl get me at Banga you be need help. I go show you cook eel. They got a big eel downa river yesterday. That fish a good be for children.” That was her final advice for our salvation.
I followed her out the door and watched her tromp down the road, the pale soles of her feet blinking back at me. Then I went to track down my father, who had wandered a little distance from the fenced garden and was sitting against a tree trunk. In his fingers he carefully stretched out something that looked like a wasp, still alive. It was as broad as my hand and had a yellow 8 on each clear wing, as plain as if some careful schoolchild or God had painted it there.
My father looked like he’d just had a look down Main Street, Heaven.
He told me, “There aren’t any pollinators.”
“No insects here to pollinate the garden.”
“Why, but there’s a world of bugs here!” An unnecessary remark, I suppose, as we both watched the peculiar insect struggling in his hands.
“African bugs, Leah. Creatures fashioned by God for the purpose of serving African plants. Look at this thing. How would it know what to do with a Kentucky Wonder bean?”
I couldn’t know if he was right or wrong. I only faintly understand about pollination. I do know that the industrious bees do the most of it. I mused, “I guess we should have brought some bees over in our pockets too.”
My father looked at me with a new face, strange and terrifying to me for what it lacked in confidence. It was as if a small, befuddled stranger were peering through the imposing mask of my father’s features. He looked at me like I was his spanking newborn baby and he did love me so, but feared the world would never be what any of us had hoped for.
“Leah,” he said, “you can’t bring the bees.You might as well bring the whole world over here with you, and there’s not room for it.
“ I swallowed.” I know.”
We sat together looking through the crooked stick fence at the great variety of spurned blossoms in my father’s garden. I felt so many different things right then: elation at my father’s strange expression of tenderness, and despair for his defeat. We had ‘worked so hard, and for what? I felt confusion and dread. I sensed that the sun \vas going down on many things I believed in.
From his big cage on the porch, Methuselah screeched at us in Kikongo. “Mbote!” he said, and I merely wondered, Hello or goodbye?
“What was Mama Tataba so mad about just now?” I dared to ask, very quietly. “We saw her hollering.”
“A little girl.”
“She has one?”
“No. A girl from here in the village that got killed last year.” I felt my pulse race ahead. “What happened to her?” He did not look at me now, but stared off at the distance. “She got killed and eaten by a crocodile. They don’t let their children step foot in the river, ever. Not even to be washed in the Blood of the Lamb.”
“Oh,” I said.
My own baptism, and every one I have witnessed so far, took place in something like a large bathtub or small swimming pool in the Baptist Church. The worst harm that could come to you might be that you would slip on the stairs. I hoped there would be room in heaven for that poor little girl, in whatever condition she’d arrived there.
“I fail to understand,” he said, “-why it would take six months for someone to inform me of that simple fact.” The old fire was seeping back into this strange, wistful husk of my father. I felt gratified.
“Ko ko ko!” Methuselah called.
“Come in!” my father retorted, with impatience rising in his craw.
“Wake up, Brother Fowles!”
“Piss off!”my father shouted.
I held my breath.
He shoved himself straight to his feet, strode to the porch, and flung open the door of Methuselah’s cage. Methuselah hunched his shoulders and sidled away from the door. His eyes in their bulging sockets ticked up and down, trying to understand the specter of this huge white man.
“You’re free to go,” my father said, waiting. But the bird did not come out. So he reached in and took hold of it.
In my father’s hands Methuselah looked like nothing but a feathered toy. When he hurled the bird up at the treetops it didn’t fly at first but only sailed across the clearing like a red-tailed badminton shuttlecock. I thought my father’s rough grip had surely got the better of that poor native creature, and that it would fall to the ground.
But no. In a burst of light Methuselah opened his wings and fluttered like freedom itself, lifting himself to the top of our Kentucky Wonder vines and the highest boughs of the jungle that will surely take back everything once we are gone.