Book Two. THE REVELATION
And I stood upon the sand of the sea,
and saw a beast rise up…
If any man have an ear, let him hear.
Orleanna Price SANDERLING ISLAND, GEORGIA
ONCE EVERY FEW YEARS, even now, I catch the scent of Africa. It makes me want to keen, sing, clap up thunder, lie down at the foot of a tree and let the worms take whatever of me they can still use.
I find it impossible to bear.
Ripe fruits, acrid sweat, urine, flowers, dark spices, and other things I’ve never even seen-I can’t say what goes into the composition, or why it rises up to confront me as I round some corner hastily, unsuspecting. It has found me here on this island, in our little town, in a back alley where sleek boys smoke in a stairwell amidst the day’s uncollected refuse. A few years back, it found me on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, where I’d returned for a family funeral: Africa rose up to seize me as I walked on a pier past a huddle of turtle-headed old fishermen, their bait buckets set around them like a banquet. Once I merely walked out of the library in Atlanta and there it was, that scent knocking me down, for no reason I can understand. The sensation rises up from inside me and I know you’re still here, holding sway. You’ve played some trick on the dividing of my cells so my body can never be free of the small parts of Africa it consumed. Africa, where one of rny children remains in the dank red earth. It’s the scent of accusation. It seems I only know myself, anymore, by your attendance in my soul.
I could have been a different mother, you’ll say. Could have straightened up and seen what was coming, for it was thick in the air all around us. It was the very odor of market day in Kilanga. Every fifth day was market day-not the seventh or thirtieth, nothing you could give a name like “Saturday,” or “The First of the Month,” but every thumb if you kept the days in your hand. It makes no sense at all, and then finally all the sense in the world, once you understand that keeping things in your hand is exactly how it’s done in the Congo. From everywhere within walking distance, every fifth day, people with hands full or empty appeared in our village to saunter and haggle their way up and down the long rows where women laid out produce on mats on the ground. The vendor ladies squatted, scowling, resting their chins on their crossed arms, behind fortresses of stacked kola nuts, bundles of fragrant sticks, piles of charcoal, salvaged bottles and cans, or displays of dried animal parts. They grumbled continually as they built and rebuilt with leathery, deliberate hands their pyramids of mottled greenish oranges and mangoes and curved embankments of hard green bananas. I took a deep breath and told myself that a woman anywhere on earth can understand another woman on a market day. Yet my eye could not decipher those vendors: they wrapped their heads in bright-colored cloths as cheerful as a party, but faced the world with permanent vile frowns. They slung back their heads in slit-eyed boredom while they did each other’s hair into starbursts of astonished spikes. However I might pretend I was their neighbor, they knew better. I was pale and wide-eyed as a fish. A fish in the dust of the marketplace, trying to swim, while all the other women calmly breathed in that atmosphere of overripe fruit, dried meat, sweat, and spices, infusing their lives with powers I feared.
One particular day haunts me. I was trying to keep track of my girls but could see only Leah. I recall she was in the pale blue dress with the sash that tied behind her back. All the girls but Rachel generally ran ragged, so this must have been-for our family-a Sunday, a coincidence of our big day and the villagers’.
Leah had a basket in her arms, carrying for me some burden that held her back from her preferred place at the head of the pack. The others had moved out of sight. I knew Nathan would be impatient for our return, so I beckoned to Leah. She had to cross over a row of produce to get to me. Without a thought, as the twin whose legs never failed her, she shifted the basket to her left hip and took a giant step over a pyramid of oranges. I stretched out my hand to her. Right there as she reached for it, though, she got stuck somehow, mid-straddle over the oranges, unable to bring the other foot over. The woman squatting beside the oranges leaped up hissing, slicing her hands like scissors blades at the two of us, scorching me with eyes so hot the angry chocolate irises seemed to be melting into the white. A row of men on a bench looked up from their bowls of new beer and stared at us with the same clouded eyes, all motioning for me to move my child: stupid ghost! non-person! straddling a woman’s market-day wealth. I can’t stop being embarrassed by the memory of myself and Leah there with her genitals-bare, for all anyone knew-suspended over a woman’s oranges. A foreign mother and child assuming themselves in charge, suddenly slapped down to nothing by what they all saw us to be.
Until that moment I’d thought I could have it both ways: to be one of them, and also my husband’s wife. What conceit! I was his instrument, his animal. Nothing more. How we wives and mothers do perish at the hands of our own righteousness. I was just one more of those women who clamp their mouths shut and wave the flag as their nation rolls off to conquer another in war. Guilty or innocent, they have everything to lose. They are what there is to lose. A wife is the earth itself, changing hands, bearing scars.
We would all have to escape Africa by a different route. Some of us are in the ground now and some are above it, but we’re all women, made of the same scarred earth. I study my grown daughters now, for signs they are resting in some kind of peace. How did they manage? When I remain hounded by judgment? The eyes in the trees open onto my dreams. In daylight they watch my crooked hands while I scratch the soil in my little damp garden. What do you want from me? When I raise up my crazy old eyes and talk to myself, what do you want me to tell you?
Oh, little beast, little favorite. Can’t you see I died as well? Sometimes I pray to remember, other times I pray to forget. It makes no difference. How can I ever walk free in the world, after the clap of those hands in the marketplace that were plainly trying to send me away? I had warnings. How can I bear the scent of what catches up to me?
There was so little time to ponder right and wrong, when I hardly even knew where I was. In those early months, why, half the time I would wake up startled and think I was right back in Pearl, Mississippi. Before marriage, before religion, before everything. Mornings in the Congo were so steamy you couldn’t see a thing but cloud come to earth, so you might as well be anywhere. Mama Tataba would appear to me standing in the bedroom doorway in her olive-green cardigan half buttoned up, with the five-dollar holes in the elbows, a knit cap of pilled wool pulled down to her eyebrows, her hands thick as hide; she could have been a woman standing in the alley door of Lutton’s General Store in the year of our Lord and my childhood, 1939.
Then she’d say, “Mama Prize, a mongoose be got in the white flour,” and I would have to hold on to the bed frame while the landscape swirled like water down a drain and pulled me back to the center. Here. Now. How in the world did a person get to be where I was?
Everything turned on the day we lost them both, Mama Tataba and the accursed parrot, both released by Nathan. What a day that was. For the native members of our household, Independence Day. The bird hung around, casting his vexed eye down on us from the trees, still needing to be fed. The other, she on whom our lives depended, vanished from the village. And the rain poured down and I wondered, “ Are we lost right now without knowing it? It had already happened so many times in my life (my wedding day comes to rnind) that I thought I was out of the woods, not realizing I’d merely paused on the edge of another narrow precipice in the midst of a long, long fall.
I can still recite the litany of efforts it took to push a husband and children alive and fed through each day in the Congo. The longest journey always began with sitting up in bed at the rooster’s crow, parting the mosquito curtain, and slipping on shoes-for there were hookworms lying in “wait on the floor, itching to burrow into our bare feet. Shoes, then, sliding me across the floor to greet the day.
Dreaming of coffee. I’m afraid I didn’t miss the physical presence of my husband in his absences as much as I missed coffee. Out the back door, into the shock of damp heat, straining for a look at the river: resisting the urge to run.
Oh, that river of wishes, the slippery crocodile dream of it, how it might have carried my body down through all the glittering sandbars to the sea. The hardest work of every day was deciding, once again, to stay with my family. They never even knew. When I pried open the lock meant to keep the beasts and curious children out of our kitchen hut, I nearly had to lock it again behind me, to keep myself in. The gloom, the humidity, the permanent sour breath of rainy season all bore down on me like a bothersome lover. The fresh stench of night soil in the bushes. And our own latrine, which was only one step removed.
Standing at the work table I would leave my own thoughts and watch myseF murdering oranges with our single dull knife, slitting their bellies and squeezing out the red blood. But no, first the fruit had to be washed; these strange, so-called blood oranges were gathered wild from the forest. When I bought them from Mama Mokala I knew they’d passed through the hands of her boys, all of whom bore white crusts on their eyes and penises. Washed, then, with a drop of precious Clorox bleach, measured out like the Blood of the Lamb. It’s comical, I know, but I carried through those days the image of a popular advertising campaign from home that pictured teams of very soiled children under the bold invocation: CLOROX NEEDED HERE!
Very well then, the juice wrenched from the disinfected skin, and then the pulpy liquid had to be diluted with water if I hoped to make the precious oranges last at all. It’s hard to say which cost me more dearly: bleach, oranges, or water. Bleach and oranges both I had to bargain for, or beg for in the case of supplies flown in to us by the awful man Eeben Axelroot. Every few weeks he turned up without warning, a sudden apparition in rotten boots and sweat-stained fedora, smoking Tiparillos in my doorway and demanding money for things that were already ours, donated by the Mission League. He even sold us our mail! But then nothing came to us free. Not even water. It had to be carried a mile and a half, and boiled. “Boiled,” a small word, meant twenty minutes over a roaring fire on a stove that resembled the rusted carcass of an Oldsmobile. “Fire” meant gathering up a pile of sticks in a village that had already been gathering firewood for all the years since God was a child, picking its grounds clean of combustibles as efficiently as an animal combing itself for lice. So “fire” meant longer and longer forays into the forest, stealing fallen branches from under the blunt-eyed gaze of snakes, just for one single bucket of drinkable water. Every small effort at hygiene was magnified by hours of labor spent procuring the simplest elements: water, heat, anything that might pass for disinfectant.
And food, that was another song and dance. Finding it, learning its name, cutting or pounding or dashing its brains to make it into something my family would tolerate. For a long time I could not work out how all the other families were getting by. There seemed to be no food to speak of, even on a market day -when everybody came around to make the tallest possible pile out of what they had. It didn’t seem to stack up to enough sustenance for the two dozen families in our village.Yes, I could see there was charcoal for cooking it, and shriveled red pili-pili peppers for spicing it, and calabash bowls to put it in, but where was the it, whatever it was? What on God’s earth did they eat?
At length I learned the answer: a gluey paste called fufu. It comes from a stupendous tuber, which the women cultivate and dig from the ground, soak in the river, dry in the sun, pound to white powder in hollowed-out logs, and boil. It’s called manioc, I was informed by Janna Underdown. It has the nutritional value of a brown paper bag, with the added bonus of trace amounts of cyanide. Yet it fills the stomach. It cooks up into the sort of tasteless mass one might induce an American child to try once, after a long round of pulled-up noses and double-dog dares. But for the people of Kilanga fufu was the one thing in life, other than time, that appeared to be taken for granted. There will always be manioc. It is the center of life. When the tall, narrow women dressed in their sarongs returned serenely from the fields, they toted it in huge parcels impossibly balanced on their heads: manioc-root bundles the size of crumpled horses. After soaking and peeling it, they arranged the long white roots into upright sprays in enamel tubs and passed single file through the village like immense lilies on slender, moving stalks. These women spent their days in the steady labors of planting, digging, and pounding manioc, though the dreamy way they moved through that work made it seem entirely separate from any end product. They reminded me of the groups of black men called gandy dancers in the Old South, who would come along the railroad track chanting, nodding, stepping forward and back in unison, banging out a rhythm with their steel rods, captivating children and moving on before you realized they had also, incidentally, repaired the track. That is how these women produced manioc, and that is how their children ate it: with no apparent thought to the higher purposes of production and consumption. Fufu was simply another word for food. Any other thing a person might eat-a banana, an egg, the bean called mangwansi, a piece of fire-blackened antelope flesh-was just the opposite, and its consumption was seen as a remarkable, possibly uncalled-for occasion.
My family required remarkable occasions three times a day. They couldn’t understand that the sort of meal they took for granted, a thirty-minute production in the land of General Electric, translated here to a lifetime of travail. A family might as well sit waiting for Mother and her attendants to come out of the kitchen with three Thanksgiving dinners a day. And Mama Tataba managed to do it, complaining all the while. She muttered while she worked, never resting, only pausing from time to time to hike up the waist of her wraparound pagne underneath her wool sweater. She rolled her eyes whenever she had to undo my mistakes: the tin cans I forgot to wash out and save, the bananas I failed to check for tarantulas, the firebox I once stoked entirely with sticks of bdngala-the poisonwood tree! She slapped the match out of my hand as I bent to light it, then pulled out the green sticks one by one with a potholder, explaining tersely that the smoke alone would have killed us all.
In the beginning I knew no Kikongo beyond the practical words she taught me, so I was spared knowing how she cursed our mortal souls as evenhandedly as she nourished our bodies. She pampered my ungrateful children, and resented us utterly. She could reach her fingers deep into a moldy bag, draw out a miraculous ounce of white flour, and slap out biscuits. She rendered goat fat into something like butter, and pulverized antelope meat into hamburgers with a device I think had been rigged from the propeller of a motorboat. She used a flat rock and the force of her will to smash groundnuts into passable peanut butter. And at the terminus of this long labor sat Rachel at the foot of the table: sighing, tossing her white hair from her shoulders, announcing that all she wished for in this world was “Jiffy, smooth. Not crunchy.”
Fufu nsala, MamaTataba called us. I gathered this had to do with fufu, the food staple, not yet knowing Kikongo is a language that is not exactly spoken but sung. The same word slanted up or down the scale can have many different meanings. When Mama Tataba incanted this hymn to all of us, under her breath, she was not calling us fufu eaters or fufu shunners or anything I could have guessed. Fufu nsala is a forest-dwelling, red-headed rat that runs from sunlight.
I’d thought I was being brave. The very first time I went into the kitchen house, a snake slithered away from the doorstep and a tarantula eyed me from the wall, hunkering down on his bandy legs like a football player on the offensive line. So I carried a big stick. I told Mama Tataba I’d grown up knowing how to cook, but not to be a circus trainer. Heaven only knows how she must have despised her pale rat of a cowering mistress. She couldn’t have imagined the likes of an electric range, or a land where women concerned themselves with something called waxy yellow buildup. As much as she held me in contempt, she may never have had any real inkling of my true helplessness. I like to think she wouldn’t have left us had she known. As it was, she left a pitched wake in which I felt I would drown.
Strange to say, it was Nathan’s frightful confidence in himself that drove her off. He believed, as I did, we were supposed to have come prepared. But there is no preparing for vipers on the doorstep and drums in the forest, calling up an end to a century of affliction. By the time summer trailed off into the season of endless rains, it was clear there was going to be trouble. I couldn’t stop imagining the deaths of my children. I dreamed them drowned, lost, eaten alive. Dreamed it, and woke in a stone-cold fright. When sleep refused to return, I lit the kerosene lamp and sat alone until dawn at our big dining-room table, staring at the words of the Psalms to numb my mind: Lord, I have loved the habitation of thy house, and the place where thine honour dwelleth. Gather not my soul with sinners, nor my life with bloody men.
At sunrise I sometimes left the house to walk. To avoid the river, I took the forest path. More than once I startled elephant families browsing in the clearings. Woodland elephants are different from their grand cousins who stomp across the grasslands: they’re smaller and more delicate, nuzzling through the leafy soil with rosy-pink tusks. Sometimes in the dawn light I also saw families of Pygmies moving among the shadows, wearing nothing but necklaces of feathers and animal teeth, and on rainy days, hats made of leaves. They were so small-truly less than half my size-and so gaily decorated, I thought for a long time they were children. I marveled that whole bands of boys and girls were out in the forest all on their own, with knives and spears and infants strapped on their backs.
Perhaps it was reading the Bible that had set my mind in such an open frame, ready to believe in any bizarre possibility. That, and the lack of sleep. I needed to tie myself down by some kind of moorings, but there was no one at all to talk to. I tried poring over the American news magazines sent to us via the Underdowns, but I only found them disturbing. President Eisenhower spoke of having everything under control; the Kennedy boy said Uncle Ike was all washed up and we need look no farther than the Congo- Congo!-for evidence of poor U.S. leadership, the missile gap, and proof of the Communist threat. The likes of Eleanor Roosevelt declared we ought to come forth with aid and bring those poor children into the twentieth century. And yet Mr. George F. Kennan, the retired diplomat, allowed that he felt “not the faintest moral responsibility for Africa.” It’s not our headache, he said. Let them go Communist if they feel like it.
It was beyond me to weigh such matters, when my doorstep harbored snakes that could knock a child dead by spitting in her eyes.
But Nathan wouldn’t hear my worries. For him, our life was as simple as paying in cash and sticking the receipt in your breast pocket: we had the Lord’s protection, he said, because we came to Africa in His service.Yet we sang in church “Tata Nzolo”! Which means Father in Heaven or Father of Fish Bait depending on just how you sing it, and that pretty well summed up my quandary. I could never work out whether we were to view religion as a life-insurance policy or a life sentence. I can understand a wrathful God who’d just as soon dangle us all from a hook. And I can understand a tender, unprejudiced Jesus. But I could never quite feature the two of them living in the same house.You wind up walking on eggshells, never knowing which Tata Nzolo is home at the moment. Under that uncertain roof, where was the place for my girls? No wonder they hardly seemed to love me half the time-I couldn’t step in front of my husband to shelter them from his scorching light. They were expected to look straight at him and go blind.
Nathan, meanwhile, wrapped himself up in the salvation of Kilanga. Nathan as a boy played football on his high school team in Killdeer, Mississippi, with great success evidently, and expected his winning season to continue ever after. He could not abide losing or backing down. I think he was well inclined toward stubbornness, and contemptuous of failure, long before his conscription into the war and the strange circumstances that discharged him from it. After that, hounded by what happened in a Philippine jungle and the ghosts of a thousand men who didn’t escape it, his steadfast disdain for cowardice turned to obsession. It’s hard to imagine a mortal man more unwilling to change his course than Nathan Price. He couldn’t begin to comprehend, now, how far off the track he was with his baptismal fixation. The village chief, Tata Ndu, was loudly warning people away from the church on the grounds that Nathan wanted to feed their children to the crocodiles. Even Nathan might have recognized this was a circumstance that called for reconciliation.
But reconciliation with Tata Ndu was a mighty cross to bear. When he granted us an audience, he sat in a chair in his front yard looking away from us. He adjusted his tall hat made of sisal fibers. He took off and examined his large black glasses frames (which bore no lenses), and made every other effort at scholarly disinterest, while Nathan talked. He flicked at flies with the official staff of his office-some sort of stiffened animal tail that ends in a silky white tassel. During the second interview, Nathan even retracted baptism as a specific program, and suggested we might organize some kind of sprinkling.
We eventually received a formal reply, via the elder Ndu son, stating that sprinkling was all very well but the previous Brother Fowles had disturbed the chief with peculiar ideas about having only one wife at a time. Imagine, Tata Ndu said, a shamefaced chief who could only afford one single wife! The chief expected us to disavow any such absurdities before he could endorse our church.
My steadfast husband tore his hair in private. Without the chief’s blessing he could have no congregation. Nathan burned. There is no other way to say it. Many are the afflictions of the righteous: but the Lord delivereth him out of them all, he declared to the sky, squinting up at God and demanding justice. I held him in my arms at night and saw parts of his soul turn to ash. Then I saw him reborn, with a stone in place of his heart. Nathan would accept no more compromises. God was testing him like Job, he declared, and the point of that particular parable was that Job had done no wrong to begin with. Nathan felt it had been a mistake to bend his will, in any way, to Africa. To reshape his garden into mounds; to submit to Tata Ndu on the subject of river baptism; to listen at all to Tata Ndu or even the rantings of Mama Tataba. It had all been a test of Nathan’s strength, and God was displeased with the outcome. He would not fail again.
He noticed the children less and less. He was hardly a father except in the vocational sense, as a potter with clay to be molded. Their individual laughter he couldn’t recognize, nor their anguish. He never saw how Adah chose her own exile; how Rachel was dying for the normal life of slumber parties and record albums she was missing. And poor Leah. Leah followed him like an underpaid waitress hoping for the tip. It broke my heart. I sent her away from him on every pretense I knew. It did no good.
While my husband’s intentions crystallized as rock salt, and while I preoccupied myself with private survival, the Congo breathed behind the curtain of forest, preparing to roll over us like a river. My soul was gathered with sinners and bloody men, and all I was thinking of was how to get MamaTataba to come back, or what we should have brought from Georgia. I was blinded from the constant looking back: Lot’s wife. I only ever saw the gathering clouds.
Things We Learned
JUNE 30, 1960
IN THE BEGINNING we were just about in the same boat as Adam and Eve. We had to learn the names of everything. Nkoko, mongo, zulu- river, mountain, sky-everything must be called out from the void by the word we use to claim it. All God’s creatures have names, whether they slither across our path or show up for sale at our front stoop: bushbuck, mongoose, tarantula, cobra, the red-and-black monkey called ngonndo, geckos scurrying up the walls. Nile perch and nkyende and electric eel dragged from the river. Akala, nkento, a-ana: man, woman, and child. And everything that grows: frangipani, jacaranda, mangwansi beans, sugarcane, breadfruit, bird of paradise. Nguba is peanut (close to what we called them at home, goober peas!); malala are the oranges with blood-red juice; mankondo are bananas. Nanasi is a pineapple, and nanasi mputu means “poor man’s pineapple”: a papaya. All these things grow wild! Our very own backyard resembles the Garden of Eden. I copy down each new word in my school notebook and vow to remember it always, when I am a grown-up American lady with a backyard garden of my own. I shall tell all the world the lessons I learned in Africa.
“We’ve learned from the books left behind by Brother Fowles, field guides to the mammals and birds and the Lepidoptera, which are the butterflies. And we’ve learned from anyone (mostly children) who will talk to us and point at the same time. We’ve even had a surprise or two from our own mother, who grew up way deeper in Dixie than we did. As the buds on the trees turn to flowers, she raises her black eyebrows in surprise above her wide blue eyes and declares: hougainvillea, hibiscus, why, tree of heaven! Who would have thought Mother knew her trees? And the fruits-mango, guava, avocado-these we had barely glimpsed before, in the big Kroger store in Atlanta, yet now the trees reach right down and deliver such exotic prizes straight into our hands! That’s one more thing to remember -when I’m grown, to tell about the Congo: how the mango fruits hung -way down on long, long stems like extension cords. I believe God felt sorry for the Africans after putting the coconut so far out of reach, and aimed to make the mango easier to get a hand on.
I look hard at everything, and blink, as if my two eyes were a Brownie camera taking photographs to carry back. At the people, too, who have names to be learned. Gradually we’ve begun to call out to our neighbors. Closest by is poor lame Mama Mwanza, who scurries down the road on her hands. And Mama Nguza, who walks with her head held strangely high on account of the giant goiter nestled like a goose egg under her chin.Tata Boanda, the old fisherman, goes out in his boat every morning in the brightest red pair of trousers you ever saw in your life. People wear the same thing day in and day out, and that’s how we recognize them, by and large. (Mother says if they really wanted to put one over on us, they’d all swap outfits for a day.) On cool mornings Tata Boanda also wears a light green sweater with a white border on the placket-he’s quite a sight, with his muscular chest as manly as all get-out framed by the V-neck of a ladies’-wear sweater! But if you think about it, how would he or anyone here ever know it’s a lady’s sweater? How do I even know? Because of the styling, though it’s nothing you could plainly describe. So is it even a lady’s sweater, here in the Congo? I wonder.
There is something else I must confess about Tata Boanda: he’s a sinner. Right in the plain sight of God he has two wives, a young and an old one. Why, they all come to church! Father says we’re to pray for all three of them, but when you get down to the particulars it’s hard to know exactly what outcome to pray for. He should drop one wife, I guess, but for sure he’d drop the older one, and she already looks sad enough as it is. The younger one has all the kids, and you can’t just pray for a daddy to flat-out dump his babies, can you? I always believed any sin was easily rectified if only you let Jesus Christ into your heart, but here it gets complicated.
Mama Boanda Number Two doesn’t seem fazed by her situation. In fact, she looks like she’s fixing to explode with satisfaction. She and her little girls all wear their hair in short spikes bursting out all over their heads, giving an effect similar to a pincushion. (Rachel calls it the “haywire hairdo.”) And Mama Boanda always wraps her pagne just so, with a huge pink starburst radiating across her wide rump. The women’s long cloth skirts are printed so gaily with the oddest things: there is no telling when a raft of yellow umbrellas, or the calico cat and gingham dog, or an upside-down image of the Catholic Pope might just go sauntering across our yard.
Late in the fall, the milky green bushes surrounding every house and path suddenly revealed themselves as poinsettias.They bloomed their heads off and Christmas rang out in the sticky heat, as surprising as if “Hark the Herald Angels” were to come on your radio in July. Oh, it’s a heavenly paradise in the Congo and sometimes I want to live here forever. I could climb up trees just like the boys to hunt guavas and eat them till the juice runs down and stains my shirt, forever. Only I am fifteen now. Our birthday, in December, caught me off guard. Adah and I were late-bloomers in terms of the bad things, like getting breasts and the monthly visit. Back in Georgia when my classmates started turning up in training brassieres, one after another, like it was a catching disease, I bobbed off my hair and vowed to remain a tomboy. With Adah and me doing college algebra and reading the fattest books we could get our hands on, while the other kids trudged through each task in its order, I guess we’d counted on always being just whatever age we wanted to be. But no more. Now I’m fifteen and must think about maturing into a Christian lady.
To tell the truth, it’s not purely paradise here, either. Perhaps we’ve eaten of the wrong fruits in the Garden, because our family always seems to know too much, and at the same time not enough. Whenever something big happens we’re quite taken aback, but no one else is the least bit surprised. Not by a rainy season come and gone where none was supposed to be, nor by the plain green bushes changing themselves bang into poinsettias. Not by butterflies with wings as clear as little cats-eye glasses; not by the longest or shortest or greenest snake in the road. Even little children here seem to know more than us, just as easily as they speak their own language. I have to admit, that discouraged me at first: hearing the little kids jabbering away in Kikongo. How could little babies smaller than Ruth May speak this whole other language so perfectly? It’s similar to the way Adah will sometimes turn up knowing some entire, difficult thing like French or the square root of pi when I’d been taking for granted I knew everything she did. After we first arrived, the children congregated outside our house each and every morning, which confused us. We thought there must be something peculiar, such as a baboon, on our roof. Then we realized the peculiar thing was ws.They were attracted to our family for the same reason people will pull over to watch a house afire or a car wreck. We didn’t have to do a thing in the world to be fascinating but move around in our house, speak, wear pants, boil our water.
Our life was much less fascinating from my point of view. Mother gave us a few weeks leeway on the schoolbooks, what with all the confusion of our settling in, but then in September she clapped her hands together and declared,”Congo or not, it’s back to school for you girls!” She’s determined to make us scholars-and not just the gifted among us, either. We were all chained together in her game plan. Each morning after breakfast and prayers she sat us down at the table and poked the backs of our heads with her index finger, bending us over our schoolbooks (and Ruth May her coloring), getting us in shape for Purgatory, I’d reckon. Yet all I could concentrate on was the sound of the kids outside, the queer glittery syllables of their words. It sounded like nonsense but carried so much secret purpose. One mysterious phrase called out by an older boy could rout the whole group in shrieks and laughter.
After lunch she’d allow us a few precious hours to run free. The children would scream and bolt in terror when we came out, as if we were poisonous. Then after a minute or two they’d creep forward again, naked and transfixed, thrilled by our regular habits. Before long they’d have reassembled themselves in a semicircle at the fringe of the yard, chewing on their pink sugarcane stalks and staring. A brave one would take a few steps forward, hold out a hand and scream, “Cadeau!!” before running away in horrified giggles. That was the closest thing to fellowship we had achieved so far-a shrieked demand for a gift! And what could we give them? We hadn’t given a single thought to them wanting earthly goods, in our planning ahead. We’d only brought things for ourselves. So I just tried to ignore the whole business as I lay in the hammock with my nose in the same book I’d already read three times. I pretended not to care that they watched me like a zoo creature or potential source of loot. They pointed and talked among themselves, lording it over me that their whole world left me out.
My mother said, “Well, but, sugar, it goes both ways. You know how to speak English and they don’t.”
I knew she was right, but I took no consolation from that. Speaking English was nothing. It wasn’t a skill like being able to name all the capitals and principal products of South America or recite Scripture or walk on top of a fence. I had no memory of ever having had to work hard for my native tongue. For a time I did work hard to learn French, but then Adah ran away with that prize so I dropped the effort. She could know French for the both of us, as far as I was concerned. Though I do have to say it seems an odd talent for someone who just on general principles refuses to talk. Back home, the idea of French had seemed like a parlor game anyhow. After we got here, it still did. These children have nothing to do with je suis, vous etes. They speak a language that burgles and rains from their mouths like water through a pipe. And from day one I have coveted it bitterly. I wanted to get up from my hammock and shout something that would flush them up like a flock of scared ducks. I tried to invent or imagine such a stout, snappy phrase. “Bukabuka!” I imagined myself shouting. “We like Ike!” Or, from a spaceship movie I had seen once:”Klatu barada nikto!”
I wanted them to play with me.
I suppose everyone in our family wanted the same, in one way or another. To play, to bargain reasonably, to offer the Word, to stretch a hand across the dead space that pillowed around us. Ruth May was the first one among us to get her way. That should have been no surprise, as Ruth May appears to be capable of leaping tall buildings with the force of her will. But who’d have thought a five-year-old could establish communications with the Congolese? Why, she wasn’t even allowed out of our yard! It was my job to keep her there, usually, with one eye always on the lookout for her to fall out of a tree and crack her head wide open. That really is the kind of thing Ruth May would do, just for the attention. She was bound and determined to run off, and sometimes I had to threaten her with catastrophe just to keep her in check. Oh, I said awful things. That a snake might bite her, or that one of those fellows walking by and swinging his machete might just cut her gizzard out. Afterward I always felt guilty and recited the Repentance Psalm: “Have mercy upon me, O God, according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies.” But really, with all those multitudes of tender mercies, He has got to understand sometimes you need to scare a person a little for her own good. With Ruth May it’s all or nothing.
As soon as I had her good and terrified I’d slip away. I’d go hunt for the Pygmies, who are supposed to be dwelling right under our noses in the forest, or for monkeys (easier to spot). Or I’d cut up fruit for Methuselah, still hanging around begging, and catch grasshoppers for Leon, the chameleon we keep in a wooden crate. Mother lets us keep him on the condition -we never bring him in the house.Which is funny, because I found him inside the house. His bulging eye sockets swivel whichever way they please, and we love to get his eyes going so one looks up and the other down. He catches the grasshoppers we throw in his box by whipping out his tongue like a slingshot.
I could also try to talk Father into letting me tag along with him. There was always that possibility. Father spends his days making rounds through the village, trying to strike up chats with the idle old men, or venturing farther afield to inspect the state of grace in the neighboring villages.There are several little settlements within a day’s walk, but I’m sorry to report they all fall under the jurisdiction of our same godless chief, Tata Ndu.
Father never lets me go that far, but I beg him anyhow. I try to avoid the drudgery of housekeeping chores, which is more up Rachel’s alley if she can stoop to being helpful on a given day. My view of the home is, it is always better to be outside. So I loiter at the edge of the village, waiting for Father’s return. There, where the dirt road makes a deep red cut between high yellow walls of grass, you never know what might be coming toward you on dusty feet. Women, usually, carrying the world on their heads: a huge glass demijohn full of palm wine, with a calabash bowl perched on top like an upside-down hat; or a bundle of firewood tied up with elephant grass, topped off with a big enamel tub full of greens. The Congolese sense of balance is spectacular.
Most of the girls my age, or even younger, have babies. They appear way too young to be married, till you look in their eyes. Then you’ll see it. Their eyes look happy and sad at the same time, but unexcited by anything, shifting easily off to the side as if they’ve already seen most of what there is. Married eyes. And the younger girls-if they are too young to be married and too old to be strapped on someone’s back (which is not a wide margin)-why, they come striding along swinging their woven bags over their shoulders and scowl at you, as if to say, Out of my road, can’t you see I’m busy! They may only be little girls tagging after their mothers, but believe you me, with them it’s all business.The girls are usually just about bald, like the boys. (Mother says it’s from not getting their proteins.) But you can tell the girls by their stained, frilly dresses, castoffs from some distant land. It took me aback for months that they look so much like little boys in ruffly dresses. No girl or woman wears pants, ever.We are the odd birds here. Apparently they think we’re boys, except maybe Rachel, and can’t tell a one of us apart from the other. They call us all Beelezi, which means
Belgians! I mean to tell you, they call us that right to our faces. It’s how they greet us: “Mbote, Beelezil”!
The women smile, but then cover their mouths, embarrassed.The little babies take one look and burst out crying. It’s enough to give you a complex. But I don’t care, I’m too fascinated to hide indoors or stay cooped up in our yard. Curiosity killed the cat, I know, but I try to land on my feet.
Right smack in the middle of the village is a huge kapok tree, which is where they get together and have their market every fifth day. Oh, that’s something to see! All the ladies come to sell and bicker. They might have green bananas, pink bananas, mounds of rice and other whitish things piled on paper, onions or carrots or even peanuts if it’s our lucky day, or bowls of little red tomatoes, misshapen things but highly prized. You might even see bottles of bright orange soda pop that someone walked here all the way from Leopoldville, I guess, and will walk a long way more before they’re all sold. There’s a lady that sells cubes of caramel-colored soap that look good to eat. (Ruth May snitched one and took a bite, then cried hard, not so much from the bad taste as the disappointment, I imagine. There’s so little here for a child in the way of sweets.) Also sometimes we’ll see a witch doctor with aspirins, pink pills, yellow pills, and animal pieces all laid out in neat rows on a black velvet cloth. He listens to your ailments, then tells you whether you need to buy a pill, a good-luck charm, or just go home and forget about it. That’s a market day for you. So far we’ve only purchased things from around the edges; we can’t get up the nerve to walk in there whole hog and do our shopping. But it’s fascinating to look down the rows and see all those long-legged women in their colorful pagnes, bent over almost double to inspect things laid out on the ground. And women pulling their lips up to their noses when they reach out to take your money.You watch all that noise and business, then look past them to the rolling green hills in the distance, with antelopes grazing under flat-topped trees, and it doesn’t fit together. It’s like two strange movies running at the same time.
On the other days when there’s no market, people just congregate in the main square for one thing and another: hairdos, shoe repair, or just gossiping in the shade. There’s a tailor who sets up his foot-pedal sewing machine under the tree and takes their orders, simple as that. Hairdos are another matter, surprisingly complicated, given that the women have no real hair to speak of. They get it divided into rows of long parts in very intricate patterns so their heads end up looking like balls of dark wool made of a hundred pieces, very fancily stitched together. If they’ve got an inch or two to work with, the hairdresser will wrap sprigs of it in black thread so it stands up in little spikes, like Mama Boanda Number Two’s. The hairdo business always draws an audience. The motto seems to be, If you can’t grow your own, supervise somebody else’s. The elderly women and men look on, working their gums, dressed in clothes exactly the same color as their skin, from all the many ground-in years of wash and wear. From a distance you can’t tell they have on anything at all, but just the faintest shadow of snow-white hair as if Jack Frost lightly touched down on their heads. They look as old as the world. Any colorful thing they might hold in their hands, like a plastic bucket, stands out strangely. Their appearance doesn’t sit square with the modern world.
Mama Lo is the main hairdresser. She also runs a palm-oil business on the side, getting little boys to squash it out of the little red oil-palm nuts in her homemade press and selling it to the other villagers just a little each day, for frying their greens and what not. Mama Lo doesn’t have any husband, though she’s as industrious as the day is long. With the way they do here, it seems like some fellow would snap her up as a valuable add-on to his family. She isn’t a whole lot to look at, I’ll grant you, with her sad little eyes and wrinkled mouth she keeps shut, morning till night, while she does everybody’s hair. The state of her own hair is a mystery, since she always wraps her head in a dazzling cloth printed with peacock feathers.Those lively feathers don’t really match her personality, but like Tata Boanda in his ladies’-wear sweater, she seems unaware that her outfit is ironic.
If I settle down on a stump somewhere at the edge of the village square, they’ll forget about me sooner or later, I’ve found. I like to sit there and keep an eye out for the woman with the great big white purse, exactly like what Mamie Eisenhower might take shopping, which she carries proudly through the village on her head. And I love to watch the boys climb up palm trees to cut down the oil nuts. Way high up there with the sunlight falling reddish-brown on the palm trunks and the boys’ narrow limbs, they look beautiful. They seem touched by the Lord’s grace. In any event, they never fall.The palm fronds wave around their heads like ostrich plumes.
Twice I’ve seen the honey man who comes out of the forest carrying a block of honeycomb dripping with honey-sometimes bees and all!-in his bare hands. A smoking roll of leaves juts from his mouth like a giant cigar. He sings softly to the bees as he walks through the village, and the children all run after him, mesmerized by the prospect of honey, their eagerness for a sweet causing them to vibrate and hum like the bees.
On the rare days when Eeben Axelroot is in his shack at the end of the airplane field, I’ve been known to go down there and spy on him, too. Sometimes Adah comes, although she generally prefers her own company to anyone else’s. But Mr. Axelroot provides a grave temptation, as he is such an abominable curiosity. We hide amongst the banana trees that have sprung up all around his latrine, even while it gives us the creeps knowing all this lush growth is fertilized by such a disgusting man’s night soil. The big banana-tree leaves grow right up against the shack’s filthy back window, leaving narrow gaps perfect for spying. Mr. Axelroot himself is boring to watch; on a typical day he sleeps till noon, then takes a nap. You can just tell he isn’t saved. But his clutter is fascinating: guns, tools, army clothes, even a radio of some kind, which he keeps in an army foot-locker. We can hear the faint static emanating from the trunk, and the spooky, distant voices speaking French and English. My parents told us there was not a radio within a hundred miles of our whole village (they wanted to get one for safety’s sake, but neither the Mission League nor the Lord has so far provided). So they aren’t aware of Mr. Axelroot’s radio, and since I only learned of it through spying, I can’t tell them about it.
My parents shun him completely. Our mother is so sure none of us would want to go near his house she hasn’t bothered to forbid it. That’s good luck for me. If no one has said outright that spying on Mr. Axelroot is a sin, then God probably couldn’t technically hold it against me. The Hardy Boys did spying for the cause of good, and I have always felt mine is in this same vein.
It was midway through September when Ruth May made her inroads. I came back from my spying foray one afternoon to find her playing “Mother May I?” with half the village’s children. I was flabbergasted. There stood my own little sister in the center of our yard, the focal point of a gleaming black arc of children strung from here to there, silently sucking their sugarcane sticks, not even daring to blink. Their faces concentrated on Ruth May the way a lens concentrates sunlight. I half expected her to go up in flames.
“You, that one.” Ruth May pointed and held up four fingers. “Take four scissors steps.”
The chosen child opened his mouth wide and sang a rising four-note song: “Ma-da-meh-yi?”
“Yes, you may,” Ruth May replied benevolently. The little boy crossed his legs at the knees, leaned back, and minced forward twice plus twice more, exactly like a crab that could count.
I watched for a long while, astonished to see what Ruth May had accomplished behind my back. Every one of these children could execute giant steps, baby steps, scissors steps, and a few other absurd locomotions invented by Ruth May. She grudgingly let us join the game, and grudgingly we did. For several afternoons under the gathering clouds, all of us-including the generally above-it-all Rachel-played “Mother May I?” I tried to picture myself in a missionary role, gathering the little children unto me, as it was embarrassing to be playing this babyish game with children waist-high to me. But we were so tired of ourselves and each other by then the company was irresistible.
We soon lost interest, though, for there was no suspense at all: the Congolese children always passed us right by on their march to victory. In our efforts to eke the most mileage out of a scissors step or whatever, my sisters and I sometimes forgot to ask (or Adah to mouth) “Mother May I?” Whereas the other children never, ever forgot. For them, shouting “Ma-da-me-yi” was one rote step in a memorized chain of steps, not a courtesy to be used or dropped the way “yes, ma’am” and “thank you” are for us. The Congolese children’s understanding of the game didn’t even take courtesy or rudeness into account, if you think about it, any more than Methuselah did when he railed us with hell and damnation. This came as a strange letdown, to see how the game always went to those who knew the rules without understanding the lesson.
But “Mother May I?” broke the ice. When the other children got wise to Ruth May’s bossy ways and drifted off, one boy stayed. His name was Pascal, or something near it, and he captivated us with frantic sign language. Pascal was my nkundi: my first real friend in the Congo. He was about two-thirds my size, though much stronger, and fortunately for us both he owned a pair of khaki shorts. Two frayed holes in the back gave a generous view of his buttocks, but that was all right. I rarely had to be directly behind him except when we climbed trees. The effect was still far less embarrassing to me than pure nakedness. I think I would have found it impossible to be friends with a purely naked boy.
“Beto nki tutasala?” he would ask me by way of greeting. “What are we doing?” It was a good question. Our companionship consisted mainly of Pascal telling me the names for everything we saw and some things I hadn’t thought to look for. Bangala, for example, the poisonwood tree that was plaguing us all half to death. Finally I learned to see and avoid its smooth, shiny leaves. And he told me about ngondi, the kinds of weather: mawalala is rain far off in the distance that doesn’t ever come. When it booms thunder and beats down the grass, that is nuni ndolo, and the gentler kind is nkazi ndolo. These he called “boy rain” and “girl rain,” pointing right to his private parts and mine without appearing to think a thing in the world was wrong with that. There were other boy and girl words, such as right and left: the man hand and the woman hand. These discussions came several ‘weeks into our friendship, after Pascal had learned I was not, actually, a boy, but something previously unheard of: a girl in pants.The news surprised him greatly, and I don’t like to dwell on how it came about. It had to do with peeing in the bushes. But Pascal quickly forgave me, and it’s a good thing, since friends of my own age and gender were not available, the girls of Kilanga all being too busy hauling around firewood, water, or babies. It did cross my mind to wonder why Pascal had a freedom to play and roam that his sisters didn’t. While the little boys ran around pretending to shoot each other and fall dead in the road, it appeared that little girls were running the country.
But Pascal made a fine companion. As we squatted face to face, I studied his wide-set eyes and tried to teach him English words- palm tree, house, run, walk, lizard, snake. Pascal could say these words back to me all right, but he evidently didn’t care to remember them. He only paid attention if it was something he’d never seen before, such as Rachel’s Timex watch with the sweep second hand. He also wanted to know the name of Rachel’s hair. Hen, herr, he repeated over and over, as if this were the name of some food he wanted to make sure he never got hold of by mistake. It only dawned on me later, I should have told him “blonde.”
Once we’d made friends, Pascal borrowed a machete and cut sugarcane for me to chew on. With hard, frightening whacks he cut the cane into popsicle lengths before replacing the machete beside his father’s hammock. The cane-sucking habit in Kilanga was no doubt connected to the black stumps of teeth most everyone showed off when they smiled at us, and Mother never lost an opportunity to remark upon that connection. But Pascal had a fine set of strong white teeth, so I decided to take my chances.
I invited Pascal into our kitchen house when Mother wasn’t there. We skulked about in the banana-smelling darkness, examining the wall over the plank counter where Mother tacks up pictures she tears out of magazines. They are company for her, I suppose, these housewives, children, and handsome men from cigarette ads, of which Father would disapprove if the Lord’s path ever chanced to lead him through the kitchen, which isn’t likely. Mother even has a photo of President Eisenhower in there. In the dimness the President’s pale, bulbous head shines out like a lightbulb. Our substitute for electricity! But Pascal is always more interested in poking through the flour sacks, and he sometimes takes small handfuls of Carnation milk powder. I find that substance revolting, yet he eats it eagerly, as if it were candy.
In exchange for his first taste of powdered milk, Pascal showed me a tree we could climb to find a bird’s nest. After we handled and examined the pink-skinned baby birds, he popped one of them in his mouth like a jujube. It seemed to please him a lot. He offered a baby bird to me, pantomiming that I should eat it. I understood perfectly well what he meant, but I refused. He did not seem disappointed to have to eat the whole brood himself.
On another afternoon Pascal showed me how to build a six-inch-tall house. Crouched in the shade of our guava, he planted upright twigs in the dirt. Then he built the twigs into walls with a sturdy basket -weave of shredded bark all the way around. He spat in the dirt to make red mud, then patted this onto the walls until they were covered. Finally he used his teeth to square off the ends of palm fronds in a businesslike manner, for the roof. Finally he squatted back on his heels and looked over his work with an earnest, furrowed forehead. This small house of Pascal’s, I realized, was identical in material and design to the house in which he lived. It only differed in size.
It struck me what a wide world of difference there was between our sort of games-”Mother May I?,” “Hide and Seek”-and his: “Find Food,” “Recognize Poisonwood,” “Build a House.” And here he was a boy no older than eight or nine. He had a younger sister who carried the family’s baby everywhere she went and hacked weeds with her mother in the manioc field. I could see that the whole idea and business of Childhood was nothing guaranteed. It seemed to me, in fact, like something more or less invented by white people and stuck onto the front end of grown-up life like a frill on a dress. For the first time ever I felt a stirring of anger against my father for making me a white preacher’s child from Georgia. This wasn’t my fault. I bit my lip and labored on my own small house under the guava tree, but beside the perfect talents of Pascal, my own hands lumbered like pale flippers on a walrus out of its element. My embarrassment ran scarlet and deep, hidden under my clothes.
Ruth May Price
THE VERY DAY MAMA SAID, You’re going to crack your head wide open, but no sir. I broke my arm instead.
How I did it was spying on the African Communist Boy Scouts. Way up there in the tree I could see them but they couldn’t see me. The tree had green alligator pears that taste like nothing much. Not a one of us but Mama will eat them, and the only reason is she can remember how they tasted back home from the Piggly Wiggly with salt and Hellman’s mayonnaise. “Mayonnaise,” I asked her. “What color was the jar?” But she didn’t cry. Sometimes when I can’t remember things from Georgia, she’ll cry.
They looked like regular Congo Boy Scouts to me, marching, except they didn’t have any shoes. The Belgium Army men all have shoes and guns and they come marching right straight through here sometimes, on their way to somewhere. Father said they are showing everybody Congolese, like Tata Undo, that Belgium is still calling the shots. But the other army is just boys that live around here. You can tell the difference. There aren’t any white ones in charge, and they don’t have all the same clothes. They’ve just got their shorts and barefooted or whatever they’ve got. One has got him a red Frenchie hat. Boy, I like that hat. The others have red hankies tied around their necks. Mama said they are not Boy Scouts, they are Jeune Mou-Pro. She says, “Ruth May, sugar, you don’t have a speck of business with the Jeune Mou-Pro, so when you see them, why, you run on into the house.” Mama does let us play with little children and boys, even if they are mostly naked, but not those ones in the red hankies. Mbote fe-That means no good. That is how I come to climb up the alligator pear tree when I saw them. For a long time I thought Mama was saying they were the Jimmy Crow, a name I knew from home.
In the morning we can’t spy. My sisters have to sit and have their school, and I have to color and learn my letters. I don’t like having school. Father says a girl can’t go to college because they’ll pour water in your shoes. Sometimes I can play with my pets instead of coloring, if I’m quiet. Here are my pets: Leon and the mongoose. Also the parrot. My father let the parrot go because we accidentally taught it to say bad words, but it didn’t go plumb away. It goes and then it comes back because its wings aren’t any count; it got too tamed and forgot how to fly away and eat by itself. I feed it sour limes from the dima tree to make it sneeze and wipe its bill off, one side and then the other side. Mbote ve! Dima, dimba, dimbama. I like to say all those words because they come out of your mouth and laugh. My sisters feel sorry for the parrot but I don’t. I would have me a snake too if I could, because I’m not scared of them.
Nobody ever even gave me the mongoose. It came to the yard and looked at me. Every day it got closer and closer. One day the mongoose came in the house and then every day after that. It likes me the best. It won’t tolerate anybody else. Leah said we had to name it Ricky Ticky Tabby but no sir, it’s mine and I’m a-calling it Stuart Little. That is a mouse in a book. I don’t have a snake because a mongoose wants to kill a snake. Stuart Little killed the one by the kitchen house and that was a good business, so now Mama lets it come on in the house. Dimba means listen! You listen here, Buster Brown! The snake by the kitchen house was a cobra that spits in your eyes. You go blind, and then it can just rare back and bite you any old time it feels like it.
We went and found the chameleon all on our own. Leah mostly found that one on her bed. Most animals are whatever color God made them and have to stay that way, but Leon is whatever dern color he wants to be. We take him in the house when Mama and Father are still at church and one time we put him on Mama’s dress for an experiment and he turned flowered. If he gets out and runs away in the house, oh boy Jeez old man. Then we can’t find him. Wenda mbote- good-bye, fare ye well, and amen! So we keep him outside in a box that the comic books came in. If you poke him with a stick he turns black with sparkles and makes a noise.We do that to show him who’s boss.
When I broke my arm it was the day Mr. Axelroot was supposed to come. Father said that was good timing by the grace a God. But when Mr. Axelroot found out we had to go to Stanleyville he turned around and took right off again up the river or something, nobody knew, and he’d be back tomorrow. Mama said, “That man.” Father said, “What were you doing shimmying up that tree in the first place, Ruth May?” I said Leah was suppose to be watching me so it wasn’t my fault. I said I was hiding from the Jimmy Crow boys.
“Oh, for Pete’s sake,” Mama said. “What were you doing out there at all when I told you to run inside whenever you see them coming?” She was afraid to tell Father because he might whip me, busted arm and all. She told him I was a lamb of God and it was a pure accident, so he didn’t whip me. Not yet. Maybe when I’m all fixed, he will.
That arm hurt bad. I didn’t cry, but I held it right still over my chest. Mama made me a sling out of the same bolt of cloth she brought over to make the bed sheets and baptizing dresses for the African girls. We haven’t baptized any yet. Dunking them in the river, they won’t have it, no sir, nothing doing. Crocodiles.
Mr. Axelroot did come back next day at noontime and smelled like when the fruit goes bad on you. Mama said it could wait one more day if we wanted to get there in one piece. She said, “Lucky it was just a broken bone and not a snakebite.”
While we were waiting for Mr. Axelroot to sit in his airplane and get to feeling better, the Congolese ladies came on down to the airplane field with great big old bags of manioc on their heads and he gave them money. The ladies cried and yelled when he gave them the money. Father said that was because it was two cents on the dollar, but they don’t even have regular dollars here.They use that pink money. Some of the ladies yelled hard at Mr. Axelroot and went away without giving him their stuff. Then we got in the plane and flew to Stanleyville: Mr. Axelroot, Father, and my broken arm. I was the first one of my sisters ever to break any bone but a toe. Mama wanted to go instead of him because I was a waste of Father’s time. If she went I’d get to ride on her lap, so I said that to him, too, I was going to waste his time. But, no, then he decided after all he wanted to go walk on a city street in Stanleyville, so he went and Mama stayed. The back of the airplane was so full of bags I had to sit on them. Big scratchy brown bags with manioc and bananas and little cloth bags of something hard. I looked inside some of them: rocks. Sparkly things and dirty rocks. Mr. Axelroot told Father that food goes for the price a gold in Stanleyville, but it wasn’t gold in the little cloth bags. No, sir, it was diamonds. I found that out and I can’t tell how. Even Father doesn’t know we rode in a airplane with diamonds. Mr. Axelroot said if I told, why then God would make Mama get sick and die. So I can’t.
After I went to sleep and woke up again in the airplane Mr. Axelroot told us what all we could see from up there looking down: Hippos in the river. Elephants running around in the jungle, a whole bunch of them. A lion down by the water, eating. Its head moved up and down like our kitty in Atlanta. He told us there’s little tiny Pygmy people down there too but we never saw any. Maybe too little.
I said to him, “Where is all the green mamba snakes?”
I know they live up in a tree so they can drop on you and kill you, and I wanted to see some. Mr. Axelroot said, “There’s not a thing in this world hides as good as a green mamba snake. They’re just the same color as what they lay up against,” he said, “and they don’t move a muscle.You could be right by one and not know it.”
We landed nice as you please on the grass. It was bumpier up in the sky than down on the grass. The big huge house right there was the hospital and they had a lot of white people inside, and some other ones in white dresses. There were so many white people I forgot to count. I hadn’t seen any but just us for a coon’s age.
The doctor said,”What was a nice preacher’s girl doing up a tree?” The doctor had yellow hair on his arms and a big face and sounded foreign. But he didn’t give me a shot so I liked him all right.
Father said, “That is just what her mother and I wanted to know.”
I said I didn’t want anybody a-throwing me in a big pot and eating me, so I had to hide. The doctor smiled. Then I told him for real I was hiding from the Jimmy Crow, and the doctor didn’t smile, he just looked at Father. Then he said to me, “Climbing trees is for boys and monkeys.”
“We don’t have boys in our family,” I told him.
He laughed at that. He said, “Nor monkeys either, I should not think!”
He and Father talked about man things.The doctor was surprised about the Jimmy Crow boys being in our village. He didn’t talk plain English like us; he said, “ can not instead of I can’t, and they are and did not and such. They have heard, is what he asked Father. “They have heard of our Patrice Lumumba all the way down to Kilanga now?”
Father said, “Oh, we don’t see too much of them. We hear rifle practice on occasion.”
“Lord help us,” said the doctor.
Father told him, “Why, the Lord will help us! We’ll receive His divine mercy as his servants who bring succor.”
The doctor frowned then. He said to forgive him but he did not agree. He called my father Reverend. He said, “Reverend, missionary work is a great bargain for Belgium but it is a hell of a way to deliver the social services.”
He said that word: hell. I sucked in my breath and listened with my ears.
Father said: “Why, doctor, I am no civil servant. Some of us follow careers and some of us get called out. My work is to bring salvation into the darkness.”
“Salvation my foot!” is what that doctor said. I do believe that man was a sinner, the way he sassed back at Father. We watched him mix up the white plaster and lay out strips. I hoped he and my father wouldn’t get in a fight. Or, if they did, I hoped I could watch. I saw Father hit a man one time, who did not praise the Lord.
Without looking up from my arm, the doctor said, “We Belgians made slaves of them and cut off their hands in the rubber plantations. Now you Americans have them for a slave wage in the mines and let them cut off their own hands. And you, my friend, are stuck with the job of trying to make amens.”
He was wrapping up my arm while he said all that about cutting off hands. He kept on wrapping the cool white strips around and around till it was all finished up and my arm inside like a hot dog in a bun. I was glad nobody wanted to cut off my hands. Because Jesus made me white, I reckon they wouldn’t.
He told me, “That will bother you. We will take it off in six weeks.”
“Okay,” I said to his white coat sleeve. There was blood on it. Somebody else’s.
But Father wasn’t done with the doctor yet. He was hopping from one foot to the other and cried, “Up to me to make amens? I see no amens to make! The Belgians and American business brought civilization to the Congo! American aid will be the Congo’s salvation.You’ll see!”
The doctor held my white broken arm like a big bone in his two hands, feeling how my fingers bent. He raised his yellow eyebrows without looking up at Father, and said, “Now, Reverend, this civilization the Belgians and Americans brought, what would that be?”
Father said,”Why, the roads! Railroads…”
The doctor said, “Oh. I see.”Then he bent down in his big white coat and looked at my face. He asked me, “Did your father bring you here by automobile? Or did you take the passenger railway?”
He was just being a smart aleck and Father and I didn’t answer him. They don’t have any cars in the Congo and he knew it.
He stood up then and clapped the white stuff off his hands, and I could see he was all done with my arm, even if Father wanted to argue till he went blue in the face. The doctor held the door open for us.
“Reverend,” he said.
“Sir?” asked my father.
“I do not like to contradict, but in seventy-five years the only roads the Belgians ever built are the ones they use to haul out diamonds and rubber. Between you and me, Reverend, I do not think the people here are looking for your kind of salvation. I think they are looking for Patrice Lumumba, the new soul of Africa.”
“Africa has a million souls” is what Father told him. And Father ought to know, for he’s out to save them all.
“Well, yes, indeed!” the doctor said. He looked out into the hallway and then closed the door with us still inside. He said in a lower voice, “And about half of them were right here in Stanleyville last week to cheer on their Tata Lumumba.”
Father said, “Tata Lumumba, who from what I hear is a barefoot post office worker who’s never even been to college.”
“That is true, Reverend, but the man has such a way of moving a crowd he does not seem to need shoes. Last week he spoke for an hour on the nonviolent road to independence. The crowd loved it so much they rioted and killed twelve people.”
The doctor turned his back on us then. He washed his hands in a bowl and wiped them on a towel like Mama after the dishes. Then he came back and looked hard at my arm for a minute, and then at Father. He told my father there were only eight Congolese men in all this land who have been to college. Not one single Congolese doctor or military officer, nothing, for the Belgians don’t allow them to get an education. He said, “Reverend, if you are looking for Congo’s new leaders, do not bother looking in a school hall. You might better look in prison-Mr. Lumumba landed himself there after the riots last week. By the time he is out I expect he will have a larger following than Jesus.”
Hoo, boy! My father didn’t like the doctor one bit after that. Saying anything is better than Jesus is a bad sin. Father looked up at the ceiling and out the window and tried not to hit anything until the doctor opened the door and time for us to go. The ceiling light was a clear glass bowl half full of something dark, like a coffee cup, only it was dead bugs. I know why. They like to come up to the light because it is so, so pretty like something they want, and then they get trapped in there.
I know how they would feel if you touched them. Like somebody’s eyelashes right up against your fingers.
When we came home my sisters had to cut up my dinner every day and help me get dressed. It was the best thing that happened. I showed Leah where you could get into the alligator pear tree and she boosted me up. I could still climb just dandy with my other arm. I have to play with Leah the most because the others in my family have got something wrong with them or else they’re too grown-up to play.
We had to wait up there in the tree. I told her, “Mr. Axelroot drinks red whiskey. He has it under the seat of his airplane. I rolled it out with my foot and then put it back.”
I was the youngest, but I had something to tell.
You don’t ever have to wait around for the Belgium Army. They always come at the same time. Right after lunch, when it isn’t raining yet and all the women with their buckets and things have gone down to the river and the fields and the men are home sleeping. It’s quiet. Then the army boys will come a-marching down the road saying a song in French. That white one knows who’s boss and all the others have to yell back because they are the Tribes of Ham. But, boy oh boy, let me tell you, they all have shoes. They walk together hard in the road and then stop so fast the dust comes down on their shoes.
The Jimmy Crow boys are harder to see. They don’t care for the Belgium Army, so they hide out. They come just every now and then and have meetings in a place back behind our chicken house. They squat down to listen to the main one that talks, and their legs and arms are so skinny you can tell just what shape a bone is. And no shoes, either. Just white scabby dust on the tops of their feet, and all of them with those dark black sores and scars. Every scar shows up good. Mama says their skin bears scars different from ours because their skin is a map of all the sorrows in their lives.
We were waiting to spy on them back there behind the chicken house when they came. Leah told me Mama says Mrs. Underdown says don’t even look at them, if they come. They want to take over the whole country and throw out the whites.
I said, “I’d like to have me a red hat like that.”
“Shhh, shut up,” Leah said. But then she said, “Well, I would too. That’s a good red hat.” She said that because “Shut up” hurt my feelings.
The boys said, “Patrice Lumumba!”
I told Leah that means the new soul of Africa, and he’s gone to jail and Jesus is real mad about it. I told her all that! I was the youngest one but I knew it. I lay so still against the tree branch I was just the same everything as the tree. I was like a green mamba snake. Poison. I could be right next to you and you wouldn’t ever know it.
WELL, HALLELUJAH and pass the ammunition. Company for dinner! And an eligible bachelor at that, without three wives or even one as far as I know. Anatole, the schoolteacher, is twenty-four years of age, with all his fingers still on, both eyes and both feet, and that is the local idea of a top-throb dreamboat.Well, naturally he is not in my color category, but even if I were a Congolese girl I’m afraid I’d have to say thanks but no thanks on Anatole. He has scars all over his face. Not accident scars, but thin little lines, the type that some of them here get done to them on purpose, like a tattoo. I tried not to stare but you end up thinking, How did somebody get all the cuts to line up so perfect like that? What did they use, a pizza-pie cutter or what? They were fine as a hair and perfectly straight, approximately a blue million of them, running from the middle of his nose to the sides of his face, like the ridges on a black corduroy skirt sewn on the bias, with the seam running right down the middle. It is not the kind of thing you see very much of here in our village, but Anatole is not from here. He is Congolese all right, but he has a different kind of eyes that slant a little bit like a Siamese, only more intellectual. We all had to make every effort not to stare. There he sat at our dinner table with his smooth haircut and a regular yellow button-down shirt and his intelligent brown eyes blinking very normal when he listened to you, but then, all those nerve-jangling scars. It gave him a mysterious air, like a putative from the law. I kept stealing glances at him across a plate of antelope meat and stale Potato Buds, which I guess just goes to show you how unaccustomed to the male species I have become.
Anatole speaks French and English both, and single-handedly runs the school all by himself. Six mornings a week, little noisy dirt-kicking crowds of boys from our village and the next one over come straggling in for their education. It’s only the boys, and not all of them either, since most of the parents don’t approve of learning French or the foreign element in general. But when those lucky few show up every morning, Anatole lines them up, littlest to biggest. If ever you happen to be out and about in our village at the crack of dawn, as I try not to be, you can watch them do it. Each boy stands with his hand on the shoulder of the taller boy ahead, creating a big long slope of arms. Leah drew a picture of them. Granted my sister is mentally disturbed. She titled it “The Inclined Plane of Males.”
After the lineup Anatole marches them into the church and urges them, I guess, to wrestle with their numbers and their French congregations and what not. But they only take it so far, you see. If they haven’t already lost interest by the time they are twelve or so, their education is over and out. It’s more or less something like a law. Imagine: no school allowed after age twelve. (I wouldn’t mind!) Mrs. Underdown told us the Belgians have always had the policy of steering the Congolese boys away from higher education. Girls too, I guess that goes without saying, because the girls around here, why, all they ever do is start having their own babies when they’re about ten, and keep on having them till their boobies go flat as pancakes. Nobody has their eye on that all-important diploma, let me tell you. And yet here Anatole speaks French, English, Kikongo and whatever all he first started out with, plus knowing enough to be the one all-purpose schoolteacher. He must have been busy as a beaver during his fleeting school days.
Anatole was born up around near Stanleyville, but at a tender age with his mother being dead got sent to work on the rubber plantations near Coquilhatville, where more opportunities both good and bad present themselves-that was his way of putting it when he told us his personal life autography at dinner. He also spent some time at the diamond mines down south in Katanga, where he says one-quarter of all the world’s diamonds come from. When he spoke of diamonds I naturally thought of Marilyn Monroe in her long gloves and pursey lips whispering “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.” My best friend Dee Dee Baker and I have snuck off to see M.M. and Brigitte Bardot both at the matinee (Father would flat-out kill me if he knew), so you see I know a thing or two about diamonds. But when I looked at Anatole’s wrinkled brown knuckles and pinkish palms, I pictured hands like those digging diamonds out of the Congo dirt and got to thinking, Gee, does Marilyn Monroe even know where they come from? Just picturing her in her satin gown and a Congolese diamond digger in the same universe gave me the weebie jeebies. So I didn’t think about it anymore.
I inspected Anatole’s special kind of face scarring instead. It is evidently considered beautifying in that region, or one of the places he’s lived at any rate. Around here the people seem content to settle for whatever scars life whangs them with as a decoration. That plus the splectacular hairdos on the women, which, man alive, don’t even get me started.
But Anatole not being from here, that explains why he doesn’t have his mother and father and fourteen hundred cousins living with him like everybody else does. We’d already heard part of the story, that he was an orphan. The Underdowns took him on as a project because his family all got killed in some horrible way they love to hint at but never exactly tell. Back when they used to live here, they heard about Anatole from some other missionaries and saved him from the famous diamond mines and taught him to love Jesus and how to read and write. Then they installed him as the schoolteacher. Father says Anatole is “our only ally in all this,” which is as clear as mud to me, but apparently Father’s say-so was a good enough reason to invite him to dinner. At least it gave us something to look forward to besides these wonderful dead animals we get to eat. And it provided Mother something to get all franticky about. She declared she was at her wits’ end to come up with a presentable meal. She’d cooked up some antelope meat and tried to make fried plantains that turned into something like black horse-hoof glue in the pan. She tried to make up for the food by using the white tablecloth and serving those pitiful black plantains in the bone-china platter with the forget-me-nots that she was so proud of-her one pretty thing in this big old mess we have to live in. And I will say she did her best to be the graceful hostess. Anyways Anatole gave her compliments right and left, which tells you right there he was either a polite young man or mentally cracked.
The small talk and compliments went on so long I was fixing to croak. My sisters gawked at the fascinating stranger and hung on his every syllabus of English, but as far as I was concerned it was just exactly like dinner with Father’s prissy Bible-study groups back in Georgia, only with more repulsive food.
Then all of a sudden the fire hit the pan.
Anatole leaned forward and announced, “Our chief,Tata Ndu, is concerned about the moral decline of his village.”
Father said, “Indeed he should be, because so few villagers are going to church.”
“No, Reverend. Because so many villagers are going to church.”
Well, that stupefied us all for a special moment in time. But Father leaned forward, fixing to rise to the challenge. Whenever he sees an argument coming, man oh man, does he get jazzed up.
“Brother Anatole, I fail to see how the church can mean anything but joy, for the few here who choose Christianity over ignorance and darknessl”
Anatole sighed. “I understand your difficulty, Reverend.Tata Ndu has asked me to explain this. His concern is with the important gods and ancestors of this village, who have always been honored in certain sacred ways. Tata Ndu worries that the people who go to your church are neglecting their duties.”
“Neglecting their duties to false idolatry, you mean to say.”
Anatole sighed again. “This may be difficult for you to understand. The people of your congregation are mostly what we call in Kikongo the lenzuka. People who have shamed themselves or had very bad luck or something like that. Tata Boanda, for example. He has had terrible luck with his wives. The first one can’t get any proper children, and the second one has a baby now who keeps dying before birth and coming back into her womb, over and over. No one can help this family anymore. The Boandas were very careful to worship their personal gods at home, making the proper sacrifices of food and doing everything in order. But still their gods have abandoned them for some reason. This is what they feel. Their luck could not get any more bad, you see? So they are interested to try making sacrifices to your Jesus.”
Father looked like he was choking on a bone. I thought: Is there a doctor in the house? But Anatole went right on merrily ahead, apparently unaware he was fixing to kill my father of a heart attack. “Tata Ndu is happy for you to draw the bad-luck people away,” he said. “So the village’s spirit protectors will not notice them so much. But he worries you are trying to lure too many of the others into following corrupt ways. He fears a disaster will come if we anger the gods.”
“Corrupt, did you say,” Father stated, rather than asked, after locating where the cat had put his tongue.
“Yes, Reverend Price.”
“Corrupt ways. Tata Ndu feels that bringing the Christian word to these people is leading them to corrupt ways’’
“That is the best way I can think of to translate the message. Actually he said you are leading our villagers down into a hole, where they may fail to see the proper sun and become trapped like bugs on a rotten carcass.”
Well, that did it! Father was going to keel plumb over. Call the ambulance. And yet, here was Anatole looking back at Father with his eyebrows raised very high, like “Do you understand plain English?” Not to mention my younger sisters, who were staring at Anatole like he was the Ripley’s Believe It or Not Two-Headed Calf. “Tata Ndu asked you to relay all that, did he?”
“Yes, he did.”
“And do you agree that I am leading your fellow villagers to partake of the meat of a rotten corpse?”
Anatole paused.You could see him trying out different words in his head. Finally he said, “Reverend Price, do I not stand beside you in your church every Sunday, translating the words of the Bible and your sermons?”
My Father did not exactly say yes or no to that, though of course it was true. But that’s Father, to a tee. He won’t usually answer a question straight. He always acts like there’s a trap somewhere and he’s not about to get caught in it. Instead he asked, “And, Anatole, do you not now sit at my table, translating the words of Tata Ndu’s bible of false idolatry and his sermon aimed at me in particular.”
“Yes, sir, that is what I am doing.”
Father laid his knife and fork crossways on his plate and took a breath, satisfied he’d gained the upper hand. Father specializes in the upper hand. “Brother Anatole, I pray every day for understanding and patience in leading Brother Ndu to our church,” he said. “Perhaps I should pray for you as well.”
This was Big Chief Ndu they were talking about, or “Mister Undo” as Ruth May calls him. And I don’t mind saying he is a piece of work. It is hard to muster up the proper respect for a chief who wears glasses with no glass in them (he seems to think they raise his intelligence quotient), and the fur of a small animal clasped around his neck, a fashion trademark he shares with the elderly churchgoing ladies of Georgia, charmed I’m sure.
“If you are counting your enemies, you should not count me among them, sir,” Anatole said. “And if you fear the rivals of your church, you should know there is another nganga here, another minister. People also put their trust in him.”
Father loosened his tie and the collar of his short-sleeved Sunday shirt. “First of all, young man, I do not fear any man in Kilanga. I am a messenger of God’s great good news for all mankind, and He has bestowed upon me a greater strength than the brute ox or the most stalwart among the heathen.”
Anatole calmly blinked at that. I reckon he was wondering which one Father had him pegged for, brute ox or stalwart heathen.
“Second,” Father went on, “I’ll point out what you clearly must know, which is that Brother Ndu is not a minister of any kind. His business concerns the governing of human relations, not matters of the spirit. But you are quite right, there is another preacher aside from myself guiding my own right hand. The Lord is our Shepherd’’ Naturally Father had to give the impression he knew who, or what, Anatole was talking about, even if he didn’t. What with him being the Father Knows Best of all times.
“Yes, yes, of course, the Lord is our Shepherd,” Anatole said quickly, like he didn’t believe it all that much and was just getting it out of the way.”But I am speaking of the ngangaTatu Kuvudundu.”
We all stared at the middle of the table like something dead with feet had just turned up there. Why, we knew Tata Kuvudundu. We’d seen him babbling and walking cockeyed down the road, leaning over so far you keep thinking he’ll plumb fall over. He has six toes on one of his feet, and that’s not even half the battle. Some days he sells aspirins in the market, all dignified like Dr. Kildare, yet other days he’ll turn up with his body painted top to bottom (and I do mean bottom) in some kind of whitewash. We’ve also seen him squatting in his front yard surrounded by other old men, every one of them falling over from drinking palm wine. Father told us Tata Kuvudundu conducts the sin of false prophecy. Supposedly he and his grown-up sons tell fortunes by throwing chicken bones into a calabash bowl.
“Anatole, what do you mean by calling him a preacher?” Mother asked. “We kind of thought Tata Kuvudundu was the town drunk.”
“No Mama Price, he is not. He is a respected nganga, a priest of the traditions, you might say. He is quite a good advisor to Tata Ndu.”
“Advisor, nothing” said Father, raising halfway up out of his chair and starting to get his Baptist voice. His red eyebrows flared above his scowling eyes, with the bad one starting to squint a little from the strain of it all. “He is a rare nut, is what he is. A nut of the type that never falls far from the tree-Where I come from, sir, that is what we call a witch doctor!”
Anatole took one of Mother’s cloth napkins and blotted his face. Dots of perspiration were running into the little ridges along his nose. My sisters were still staring at him with all their might, and no wonder. We hadn’t had any company since Mother vanished Mr. Axelroot from our table way last summer-merely because he spat and cursed; we didn’t even know yet that he was a criminal element that would charge us for our own things. Since that time we hadn’t heard word one of English at our dinner table from any mouth but a Price’s. Six months is a long time for a family to tolerate itself without any outside distractions.
Anatole seemed to be getting ants in his pants but was still bound and determined to argue with Father. In spite of the seven warning signals of “You’ll be sorry” written all over Father’s face. Anatole said, “Tata Kuvudundu looks after many practical matters here. Men go especially to him when their wives are not getting children, or if they are adulterous.” He glanced at me, of all things, as if I in particular were too young to know what that meant. Really.
Mother suddenly snapped out of it. “Help me out, girls,” she said. “The dishwater is boiling away on the stove, I forgot all about it.You all clear the table and start washing up. Be careful and don’t get burned.”
To my surprise, my sisters practically ran from the table. They were curious, I’m sure, but the main consideration had to be Father. He was as frustrated as it gets and looked like he was fixing to throw a rod. I, however, didn’t leave. I helped clear the dishes but then I sat back down. If anybody presumed I was too young for a conversation about adulters and not getting babies they had another think coming. Besides, this was the most exciting occasion that had happened to us since Ruth May fell out of a tree, which goes to show you how fascinating our life was. If big Daddy-O was going to blow his stack over a witch doctor, here’s one cat that wasn’t going to miss it.
Anatole told Father he ought not to think of Tata Kuvudundu as competition. He said barrenness and adultery were serious matters that probably ought to remain separate from Tata Jesus. But he assured us that many people in Kilanga remembered the missionary times, when Brother Fowles had gotten practically the whole town praying to Jesus, and it was their recollection that the gods hadn’t been too angry over it, since no more bad things had happened in Kilanga than usual.
Well, that did it. Remembered the missionary times? This was a nerve shock even to me, to hear that the villagers thought Christianity was like some old picture show that was way out of date. What did that make Father then, Charlie Chaplin, waddling around duck-footed, waving his cane and talking without any sounds coming out?
Mother and I watched him, expecting the dreaded atomic blowup. Father actually did open and close his mouth like a silent-picture version of “What!” or “Waaa!” and his neck turned red. Then he got very still.You could hear Ruth May’s creepy pet mongoose scurrying around under the table looking for somebody to drop something. Then Father’s whole face changed and I knew he was going to use the special way of talking he frequently perpeturates on his family members, dogs that have peed in the house, and morons, with his words saying one thing that’s fairly nice and his tone of voice saying another thing that is not. He told Anatole he respected and valued his help (meaning: I’ve had about enough of your lip, Buster Brown) but was disappointed by the villagers’ childlike interpretations of God’s plan (meaning: you are just as big of a dingwit as the rest of them). He said he would work on a sermon that would clear up all the misunderstandings. Then he announced that this conversation had come to an end, and Anatole could consider himself excused from the table and this house.
Which Anatole did, without delay.
“Well, that puts a whole new outlook on things, doesn’t it?” Mother asked, in the very quiet silence that followed. I kept my head down and cleared off all the last things except the big blue-flowered platter in the middle of the table, which I couldn’t reach without crossing into Father’s atomic danger zone.
“I wonder what outlook you might think that to be,” he said to Mother in that same special voice, for bad dogs and morons.
She brushed her hair out of her face and smiled at him as she reached across for the china platter. “Well, for one thing, sir, you and the good Lord better hope no lightning strikes around here in the next six months!”
“Orleanna, shut up!” he yelled, grabbing her arm hard and jerking the plate out of her hand. He raised it up over her head and slammed it down hard on the table, cracking it right in two. The smaller half flipped upside down as it broke, and lay there dribbling black plantain juice like blood onto the tablecloth. Mother stood helplessly, holding her hands out to the plate like she wished she could mend its hurt feelings.
“You were getting too fond of that plate. Don’t you think I’ve noticed?”
She didn’t answer him.
“I had hoped you might know better than to waste your devotion on the things of this world, but apparently I was mistaken. I am ashamed of you.”
“You’re right,” she said quietly. “I was too fond of that plate.”
He studied her. Father is not one to let you get away with simply apologizing. He asked her with a mean little smile, “Who were you showing off for here, -with your tablecloth and your fancy plate?” He said the words in a sour way, as if they were well-known sins.
Mother merely stood there before him while all the sparkle drained out of her face.
“And your pitiful cooking, Orleanna? The way to a young Negro’s heart is through his stomach-is that what you were counting on?”
Her light blue eyes had gone blank, like shallow pans of water. You could honestly not tell what she was thinking. I always watch his hands to see which way they’re going to strike out. But Mother’s shallow-water eyes stayed on his face, without really looking at it.
Finally he turned away from, her and me both with his usual disgust. He went and sat at his desk, leaving us all in a silence even greater than before. I suppose he was working on the famous sermon he’d promised, which would clear up all misunderstandings. And since it’s none other than Anatole himself who stands beside Father and translates the sermons into their language, I’m sure he figured Anatole would be the very first one of the childlike dog-pee dingwit congregation to be touched by God’s pure light.
WALK TO LEARN. I and Path. Long one is Congo. Congo is one long path and I learn to walk. That is the name of my story, forward and backward. Manene is the word for path: Manene enenam, amen. On the Congo’s one long manene Ada learns to walk, amen. One day she nearly does not come back. Like Daniel she enters the lions’ den, but lacking Daniel’s pure and unblemished soul, Ada is spiced with the flavors of vice that make for a tasty meal. Pure and unblemished souls must taste very bland, with an aftertaste of bitterness.
Tata Ndu reported the news of my demise. Tata Ndu is chief of Kilanga and everything past it in several directions. Behind his glasses and striking outfit he possesses an imposing bald forehead and the huge, triangular upper body of a comic-book bully. How would he even know about a person like me, the white little crooked girl as I was called? Yet he did. The day he visited my family I had been walking alone, making my way home on the forest path from the river. It was a surprising event for him to come to our house. He had never gone out of his way to see my father, only to avoid him, though he sometimes sent us messages through Anatole, his own sons, or other minor ambassadors.This day was different. He came because he had learned I was eaten by a lion.
Early that afternoon, Leah and I had been sent to bring back water. Sent together, the twin and the niwt, chained together always in life as in prelife. There was little choice, as Her Highness Rachel is above manual labor, and Ruth May beneath it so to speak, so Leah and I were considered by our mother, by default, disposed for her errands. It is always the twin and the niwt she sends out to the marche on market day, to walk among all those frightening women and bring back fruit or a kettle or whatever thing she needs. She even sends us sometimes to bring back meat from the butcher marche, a place where Rachel will not set foot on account of the intestines and neatly stacked heads. We can look out our door and know when the butcher marche is open for business, if the big kapok tree down there is filled with black buzzards. This is the truth. We call them the Congolese billboard.
But above all else and every day, she would send us to get water. It was hard for me to carry the heavy pail with my one good hand, and I went too slowly. Slow lee two went I. My habit on that path was reciting sentences forward and back, for the concentration improved my walking. It helped me forget the tedium of moving only one way through the world, the way of the slow, slow body. So Leah took all the water and went ahead. As all ways.
The forest path was a live thing underfoot that went a little farther every day. For me, anyway, it did. First, it went only from one side of our yard to the other: what our mother could see and deem safe if she stood in the middle. At first we only heard stories about what happened to it on the north, after the forest closed down on it: a stream, a waterfall, clear pools for swimming. It went to a log bridge. It went to another village. It went to Leopoldville. It went to Cairo. Some of these stories were bound to be true, and some were not; to discover the line between, I decided to walk. I became determined to know a few steps more of that path every day. If we stayed long enough I would walk to Johannesburg and Egypt. My sisters all seemed determined to fly, or in Rachel’s case, to ascend to heaven directly through a superior mind-set, but my way was slowly and surely to walk. What I do not have is kakakaka, the Kikongo word for hurrying up. But I find I can go a long way without kakakaka. Already I had gone as far as the pools and the log bridge on the north. And south, to clearings where women wearing babies in slings stoop together with digging sticks and sing songs (not hymns) and grow their manioc. Everyone knows those places. But without kakakaka I discover sights of my own: how the women working their field will stand up one after another, unwrap the pagne of bright cloth tied under their breasts, stretch it out wide before retying it. They resemble flocks of butterflies opening and closing their wings.
I have seen the little forest elephants that move in quiet bands, nudging the trees with their small, pinkish tusks. I have seen bands of Pygmies, too. When they smile they reveal teeth filed to sharp points, yet they are gentle, and unbelievably small. You can only believe they are men and women by their beards and breasts, and the grown-up way they move to protect their children. They always see you first, and grow still as tree trunks.
I discovered the bidila dipapfumu, the cemetery of witch doctors. I discovered a bird with a black head and mahogany-colored tail as long as my arm, curved like a bow. In the Field Guide to African Birds left by our fowl-minded patron Brother Fowles, my bird is called the paradise flycatcher. In the notebook I keep in my pillowcase, in which I draw pictures of all things I know, I put a smile on the face of the paradise flycatcher and printed underneath, in my backward code for secrecy:
NEVAEH NI SEILF FO FOORP WEN REHCTACYLF ESIDARAP
I also made a habit of following Methuselah as he made his way around our house in insecure spirals. He roosts right inside our latrine, which is near where his empty cage was thrown by the Reverend into the weeds. Its hulk rots there like a shipwreck. Methuselah, like me, is a cripple: the Wreck of Wild Africa. For all time since the arrival of Christ, he had lived on seventeen inches of a yardstick. Now he has a world. What can he possibly do with it? He has no muscle tone in his wings. They are atrophied, probably beyond hope of recovery. Where his pectoral muscles should be, he has a breast weighed down with the words of human beings: by words interred, free-as-a-bird absurd, unheard! Sometimes he flaps his wings as if he nearly remembers flight, as he did in the first jubilant terror of his release. But his independence was frozen in that moment. Now, after stretching his wings he retracts them again, stretches out his head, and waddles, making his tedious way up one branch and down another. Now Methuselah creeps each morning out of the little hole under the rafters of our latrine house, cocks his head, and casts one nervous eye upward as if in prayer: Lord of the feathers, deliver me this day from the carnivores that could tear me breast from wishbone! From there, I track his path. I set out small offerings of guava and avocado I have picked and broken open, exposing them to him as food. I do not think he would recognize these fruits wholly concealed in their own skins. After he learns to do that, it will b e another whole step to make him see that fruit is not a thing he must rely on the hands of mankind for, but grows on trees. Treason grows but for kind man.
In following Methuselah on his slow forays through the forest, I discovered the boys and men practicing drills. This was not the Belgian Army, official conscripted protectors of “white people, but a group of young men who held secret meetings in the woods behind our house. I learned that Anatole is more than a teacher of schoolboys and translator of sermons. Ah Anatole, the lot an aha! Anatole carried no gun in the clearing where I spied him, but he spoke to armed men who listened. Once he read aloud a letter about the Belgians setting a timetable for independence. Anatole said 1964. “Mil neuf cent soixante quatre!”The men threw back their heads at this and laughed ferociously. They cried out as if their skin had been torn.
I feared not, and grew accustomed to walking alone. Our mother did not think she allowed it, especially near dark. It was my secret. She never did realize that whenever she sent me anywhere with Leah, such as to the creek that day to carry water, it would mean coming back alone.
It was already late afternoon, and I passed through spotted light, then brighter clearings, with grass so tall it bent from both sides to form a tunnel overhead, then back under trees again. Leah long gone ahead of me with the water. But someone was behind, some one or some thing. I understood perfectly well that I was being followed. I cannot say I heard anything, but I knew. I wanted to think: Methuselah is playing a trick on me. Or the Pygmies. But I knew better. I paid attention to the small hairs rising on my nape. I did not feel afraid because it does no good in my case. I cannot run away on the muscular effects of adrenaline, but I could taste fear in the back of my throat and feel its despairing weight in my slack limbs. For some, I am told, this weighted-down helplessness comes in dreams. For me it is my life. In my life as Adah I must come to my own terms with the Predator.
I stopped, slowly turned, looked back. The movement behind me also stopped: a final swish in the tall grass by the path, like the swinging of a velvet curtain dropped. Each time I paused, this happened. Then I would wait in the still and growing darkness, till I could not wait anymore and had to walk on.
This is what it means to be very slow: every story you would like to tell has already ended before you can open your mouth. When I reached our house it was nighttime in another life.
Sunset at six o’clock means that life does go on after dark: reading by lamplight on the porch, our family’s evening event. Leah had come home with the buckets of water, Mother had boiled it and set it out to cool while she worked on dinner, Rachel had dipped a cloth in it to drape across her forehead while she lay in the hammock examining her pores with the hand mirror. Ruth May had attempted to convince every family member in turn that she could lift a full water bucket by herself with her one remaining unbroken arm. I know all this without having been there. Somewhere in this subdued family din I was presumed to have been minding my own business for many hours. When I finally did return home it was as if, as usual, I had shown up late for my own life, and so I slipped into the hammock at the end of the porch and rested under the dark bougainvilleas.
A short while later Tata Ndu emerged out of darkness. He came up the steps to explain in his formal French that the tracks of a large lion, a solitary hunting male, had been spotted on the path from the river. Tata Ndu’s eldest son had just come back from there and brought this report. He had seen the marks of the little girl who drags her right foot, and the lion tracks, very fresh, covering over her footprints. He found the signs of stalking, the sign of a pounce, and a smear of fresh blood trailing into the bush. And that is how they knew the little crooked white child, the little girl without kakakaka, had been eaten. La petite blanche tordue a ete mangee. This was Tata Ndu’s sad news. Yet he looked pleased. As a favor to my parents, a party of young men, including his sons, had gone in search of the body, or what might be left of it.
I found I could not breathe as I watched his face tell this story, and the faces of the others as they received the news. My sisters could not comprehend Tata Ndu’s word salad of French and Kikongo, so were merely spellbound by the presence of a celebrity on the porch. I was the last thing on their minds, even Leah’s. Leah who had left me to the lion’s den in question. But my mother:Yes. No! She understood. She had hurried out to the porch from the cooking hut and still carried a large wooden paddle in her hand, which dripped steaming water onto the floor. Part of her hair fell in a wave across her face. The rest of her seemed unalive, like a pale wax model of my mother: the woman who could not fight fire with fire, even to save her children. Such affliction I saw on her face I briefly believed myself dead. I imagined the lion’s eyes on me like the eyes of an evil man, and felt my own flesh being eaten. I became nothing.
Our Father rose and said in a commanding voice, “Let us all pray to the Lord for mercy and understanding.”
Tata Ndu did not bow his head but raised it, not happily but proudly. Then I understood that he had won, and my father had lost. Tata Ndu came here personally to tell us that the gods of his village did not take kindly to the minister of corruption. As a small sign of Their displeasure, They ate his daughter alive.
It was very nearly impossible to make myself stand and come forward. But I did. Our Father stopped praying, for once. Tata Ndu drew back, narrowing his eyes. Perhaps it was not so much that he wanted me eaten, but that he did not like being wrong. He said no more than mbote-fare thee well. Then turned on his heel in a dignified way and left us to ourselves. He would not come back to our house again until much later, after many things had changed.
The next morning we heard the search party had found what the lion killed in my place: a yearling bushbuck. I wonder about its size and tenderness, whether the lion was greatly disappointed, and whether the bushbuck loved its life. I wonder that religion can live or die on the strength of a faint, stirring breeze. The scent trail shifts, causing the predator to miss the pounce. One god draws in the breath of life and rises; another god expires.
SOME PEOPLE WILL SEND a bread-and-butter note after you have them over to dinner. Well, Anatole sent us a boy. He arrived at our door with a written note stating that his name was Lekuyu but we were kindly requested to call him Nelson. He was to be given his meals, the privilege of sleeping in our chicken house (where a handful of wary hens had crept back home, after hiding from Mother’s killing spree for the picnic), and a basket of eggs to sell each week so he could start saving up for a wife. In exchange, Nelson would chop our firewood, boil up steaming pots of lumpy manioc, and bring us fruit, greens, and bark potions collected from the forest. He concocted a headache cure that Mother came to rely upon. He identified our snakes according to the categories of death they liked to inflict, which he acted out for us in action-packed dramas on the front porch. He undertook other surprising tasks in our household, too, on his own incentive. For example, one day he constructed a bamboo frame to hold Rachel’s hand mirror, so we could hang it up on the living-room wall for better viewing. Subsequently Nelson began each day by standing with his face three inches from the framed mirror and laboriously combing his scant hair in our living room, while smiling so broadly we feared his molars would pop out. Other people also began stepping into our house to avail themselves of our mirror in the same way. Evidently, what we had hanging up on our wall was Kilanga’s only looking glass.
As he peers at his reflection, I catch myself studying Nelson: his elbows darkened by use, his skin many tones of brown, like antique mahogany furniture. Owing to his sugarcane habit, his stubby front teeth are all pretty much gone to the sweet hereafter. There’s a disturbing, monkeylike glint of canines off to the sides when he grins. But still, when he smiles you know he really means it. He’s cheerful and tidy and came to us with no possessions we could see other than an intact seat to his huge brown shorts, a red T-shirt he wears every day of his life, a leather belt, a pink plastic comb, a French grammar book, and a machete. Nelson travels light. He keeps his hair cut very close and has a perfectly round, pink scar on the back of his neck. Anatole chose Nelson to help us because, like Anatole, he’s an orphan. Some years ago Nelson’s entire family, including both parents, numerous older brothers, and a spanking newborn baby sister, drowned all together on a trip upriver when their boat overturned. The Congolese pirogues are made of a dense wood that sinks like pig iron when given half a chance. Since most Congolese can’t swim, you’d think they would consider this a drawback to river travel, but evidently they don’t. Merrily up the river and down they go, without a thought to capsizing. Nelson was left behind that fateful day by accident, he claims. He says his mother was so excited about showing off the baby to the upstream relatives he got jealous and hid out, and she plumb forgot to take him. Consequently Nelson places great stock in signs and superstitions. And now he had found himself at loose ends, having no family of his own to help support and being twelve years of age, finished with school.
Anatole wrote in his note that here was his best student and we would soon see why. We did. The day Nelson came to us he only spoke, “How are you, thank you please,” for English, but after a few weeks he could say about anything that mattered, without turning it all on its head the way Mama Tataba used to. I would say Nelson is gifted. But I’ll tell you what, gifted doesn’t count for a hill of beans in the Congo, where even somebody as smart as Nelson isn’t allowed to go to college, any more than us Price girls are. According to the Underdowns, the Belgians are bent on protecting against independent thought on native ground.
If that is so, I wonder about Anatole-how the Underdowns got away with putting him in as a schoolteacher, for instance. I have scenes in my mind sometimes where I ask him. When my sisters and I are lying down after lunch and my mind is idle, I think of these scenes. Anatole and I are walking on the path toward the river. There is some good reason we’re doing this, either he’s going to help me carry something home or maybe he invited me to discuss some point of the Scripture he’s not totally clear on. And so there we are, and we talk. In my imaginary scene, Father has forgiven Anatole and encourages his friendship with our family. Anatole has a very understanding smile, with a slight gap between his perfect front teeth, and I imagine feeling so encouraged by that smile I even get up the nerve to ask him about his amazing face: how did they make every scar so perfectly straight? Did it hurt very much? And then he tells me about the rubber plantations. What were they like? I read in a book that they cut off the workers’ hands if they hadn’t collected enough rubber by the end of the day. The Belgian foremen would bring baskets full of brown hands back to the boss, piled up like a mess of fish. Could this be true of civilized white Christians?
In my imagination Anatole and I talk in English, though in real life he mostly speaks Kikongo to his schoolboys. His Kikongo accent is different from everyone else’s-even I can hear that. He pulls his mouth into broad, exact shapes around his teeth as if he’s forever worried about being misunderstood. I think Anatole helps out our family because he is an outsider here too, like us. He can sympathize with our predicament. And Father does seem grateful that he’s still willing to translate the sermons, even after the two of them had words. Anatole could be my father’s friend, if only he had a better grasp of the Scripture.
We were stumped as to why he was kind enough to send us Nelson, though. The first time Nelson fetched the water and boiled it by himself Mother was so grateful she sat down in a chair and cried. A prize pupil is a very large gift. My theory is it was because of two things Anatole saw in our house: one, plenty of books for a smart boy to read, even if he can’t go to school anymore. And two, we needed the help about as badly as the children of Moses needed Moses. Somewhere around Thanksgiving, Mother had begun praying out loud in front of my father for the Lord to please deliver us out of here all in one piece. He did not care for her displays of faltering faith, and said so. It’s true Ruth May gave us a bad scare, but he reminded Mother sensibly that a child can break an arm in Georgia or Kansas City or anywhere. And to tell the truth, if any of us was meant to do it, it was Ruth May. She tears through her life like she plans on living out the whole thing before she hits twenty. And I hate to say it but Adah is just as ornery and bent on destruction, in her own slowpoke way. No one tells her to go off trailing through the jungle all alone. She could have stayed with me. The Lord is our Shepherd and the very least we sheep can do is keep up with the flock, by our own devices, I should think. Especially since we are practically grown-ups now, to hear others tell it. You always see twins dolled up together as kids, but you never see two grown women running around in identical outfits, holding hands. Are Adah and I expected to go on being twin sisters forever? Nevertheless, we both had to do the Verse, Genesis 4, about Cain and Abel, after her so-called brush with the lion, and what with all that and the broken arm, Mother feared for our lives with fresh vigor. The rainy season had gotten heavier and the whole village was coming down with the kakakaka. We’d thought this just meant “hurry up.” When Mama Mwanza told us all her children were getting it, we thought she meant they were getting restless or were finally scolded into doing their chores. But Nelson said, “No, no, Mama Price, kakakaka!” Evidently it’s a disease where you have to go to the bathroom a thousand times a day. (He acted it out in a pantomime that made Ruth May laugh fiercely.) He said you go so many times you don’t have anything left of your insides.Then the children sometimes will die. Well, Nelson says a lot of things. For example, if you run across two sticks in the shape of an X you have to hop over it backwards on your left foot. So we didn’t know whether to believe him about the disease. But then, next thing we knew, the little house right down the road from us turned up with a funeral arch made of braided palm fronds and flowers and sad, sad faces in the yard. It wasn’t a baby dead, but the mother of them all, who were left looking just that much more skinny and forlorn, as if the wind got knocked out of the family when the mama went. You do have to wonder what she died of, and if it’s catching.
Well, that put Mother in a whole new frame of mind. Contagion, why, this was worse than snakes, since you couldn’t see it coming! She dreamed up a hundred and one excuses for keeping us inside the house even when it wasn’t raining. She invented “rest time,” a period of endless inactivity stretching out after school and lunch, in which we were ordered to stay in our beds, under our mosquito-net canopies. Mother called it siesta time, which at first I mistook as, fiesta time, a puzzlement to me since it was not at all festive. Ruth May usually fell asleep, open-mouthed in the heat, with her hair plastered down across her sweaty face like the poster child for fever. The rest of us just sweated like swine as we sprawled side by side in our metal-frame beds, separated by the ghostly walls of our mosquito nets, insulting each other out of a sense of general outrage and wishing we could get up. I had nothing to read but The Bobbsey Twins in Eskimo Land, a childish book with nothing whatsoever to hold my interest. I just envied those dumb Bobbseys for having a superior adventure to ours, in that cool, snowy place, where no one had to endure an enforced fiesta.
I missed my freedom. There were so many things I needed to keep up with in the village. Foremost among them,EebenAxelroot. He was up to something. The last time Adah and I spied down there we heard the radio shrieking bloody murder, and for once we actually got to see him answer it. He rolled off his cot and muttered words I knew I could go to hell just for hearing. He knelt by the roaring footlocker and put a wire contraption against his head. He said, “Got it,” many times over, and “As good as dead if they do, sir.” Oh, mercy, I had to tear myself away!
And now I might never find out who or what was as good as dead, for it looked as if we were going to have to languish on our cots forever while the rain poured down. At least Rachel was useful, for once in her life. In desperate straits she can make us laugh, with her main talent being radio commercials oozed out in a fabulous fashion-model voice: “Medically tested Odo-ro-no, stops underarm odor and moisture at the source!” She’d toss her head then and throw her arms into the air, exposing her dark-stained underarms. She also did various hair products, swirling her white mane into a cow pie on top of her head, “For today’s new look of luxury! “And she loved to remind us of Carnation instant nonfat dry milk (“New magic crystals dissolve instantly!”), which had become our mainstay food and did not dissolve instantly but clotted up like white blood in our glasses. We were all so sick of those crystallized lumps they choked us in our dreams.
Sooner or later she always ran out of commercials, though, like a toy winding down. Then all would go quiet and we’d return cheerlessly to our books. Our reading material was random and inappropriate, delivered to us in unlabeled cardboard boxes from Leopoldville. We suspected Mr. Axelroot of having better boxes that he took to luckier children elsewhere. Back in Bethlehem, we ourselves had organized book drives for the underprivileged, and now I pitied those children who got slogged with our dusty second-rate novels and outmoded home-carpentry manuals, and were expected to be grateful about it. When we get back home, I vow I shall give all my very best books to the underprivileged, once I have read them.
From the same nursery-school lot that brought the Bobbsey Twins I chose a Nancy Drew, out of pure boredom, feeling guilty, and outraged to be reduced to that circumstance, as a young woman who menstruates and reads at the college level. Though I must confess, some of the Nancy Drews held my attention. One of them had a strange, secret-basement plot that led me astray, while I lay in bed trying to fall asleep, into long fantasies that felt sinful. I think maybe it is true that the idle mind is the Devil’s workshop. I did have thoughts of the Devil at these times. I imagined Nancy descending a long iron staircase into the netherworld, and a man who waited for her at the bottom. Sometimes he was just a shadowy faceless man in a hat. Sometimes he had a gap-toothed smile and an elegant, scarred face. Other times he was that red Devil who lurks on the Underwood ham cans, self-satisfied and corrupt in his bow tie, mustache, and arrow-point tail. The first time I dreamed this scenario I can’t really say whether I was still awake or had fallen into a feverish, colorful sleep. All I know is that suddenly I snapped out of it, surrounded by the sharp odor of my own sweat, and felt prickled and exquisitely wide awake below the waist. I knew this feeling was very wrong. Even so, I had more such dreams-and sometimes, I’m sure, I was still half awake when they began.
After a few weeks my fevers became more pronounced, and my mother realized that because I am large and active for my age she’d been underestimating my dosage of quinine. Those feelings below my waist, it turns out, were a side effect of malaria.
For Christmas Mother gave us all needlework things.We’d known not to expect much, and lest we forget, Father’s Christmas-morning sermon was all about having grace in your heart, which displaces the lust for material things. But still. For a Christmas tree we had a palm frond stuck in a bucket of rocks. As we gathered around it and waited our turn to open our meager, constructive gifts, I stared at that pitiful frond decorated with white frangipani angels going brown around the edges, and decided the whole thing would have been better off ignored. Even when you’ve recently turned fifteen without a birthday cake, it’s hard to be that mature about Christmas.
Mother announced that now we girls could use our idle time to build up our hope chests. I’d heard of this kind of thing before, without giving it a second thought. I’d seen those Mark Eden advertisements in the backs of comic books, which promised things embarrasing to look at, and so I assumed that building a hope chest was a question of exercising the muscles of the chest to get busts. But no, that wasn’t it at all. Mother meant the other kind of chest, like a steamer trunk, in which a girl was supposed to put everything she hoped she’d get to use one day after she got married. This was her rationale for all the embroidery floss, pinking shears, and so on that we toted (secretly or otherwise) across the Atlantic.
Now we were supposed to get enthusiastic about long-range marriage plans, while lying here in bed watching our shoes mildew. Rachel and Adah were assigned any number of hope-chest projects to work on, but the domestic arena was never my long suit, so I was to focus on a single, big project: a cross-stitch tablecloth. It’s nothing but a thousand tiny x’s to be made up in different colors of thread. The tablecloth has the pattern stamped straight on the linen in washable ink, like a paint-by-numbers picture. A monkey could do it, if he got bored enough. Certainly no talent is required for cross-stitch. The hopeful part, I guess, is that after you’re done with it all, you’ll find someone who’d want to marry you.
Personally I can’t see it as likely. In the first place I am flat-chested, just plain too skinny. When Adah and I got moved up two grades, it just made things that much worse. We were preacher’s daughters to begin with, and now we were really onions in the petunia patch, amongst all those ninth-grade girls with flirty eyes and foundation makeup and bosoms poking out the fronts of their mohair sweater sets. No boy ever looked at me except for homework help. And to tell the truth, I can’t say that I care. Kissing looks like too much of somebody else’s dental hygiene if you ask me. If you want to see stars-which is what Rachel claims it’s all about-then why not just go climb up a tree in the dark? When I try to picture the future, I can’t see myself as anything but a missionary or a teacher or a farmer, telling others how the Lord helps those that help themselves. Some kind of a life of piety, at any rate (which should guarantee that Adah’s nowhere within a hundred miles); and I should like to spend as much time as I can outdoors, exulting in God’s creation, and wear pants if at all possible.
I do sometimes picture myself with children, for why else am I keeping my notebook, with all the lessons of my childhood in Africa? Yet you can’t say boo to your own children without a husband first. It does seem a dreadful obstacle.
My father says a girl who fails to marry is veering from God’s plan-that’s what he’s got against college for Adah and me, besides the wasted expense-and I’m sure what he says is true. But without college, how will I learn anything of any account to teach others? And what red-blooded American boy will look twice at a Geography whiz with scabs on her knees, when he could have a Sweater Girl? I suppose I’ll just have to wait and see. God must know his arithmetic. He’d plan it out well enough to plunk down a husband for every wife that He aims for to have one. If the Lord hasn’t got a boyfriend lined up for me to marry, that’s His business.
Rachel, on the other hand, has never had any doubts in this department. Once she got over the initial shock of no new record album by the Platters, no mohair twin set, nor any place to wear or dance to either one, she was thrilled by the notion of a hope chest, or pretended to be. Why, she’d throw herself belly down on her bed with her knees cocked and feet sticking up and her busy hands five inches in front of her eyes, plowing through her hope-chest projects in earnest. She seemed to think she needed to have it all finished up in the next week or so. Oh, she monogrammed guest towels and crocheted collars for her trousseau and I don’t know what all. It was the only time she ever stopped rolling her eyes and flicking her hair, to settle down to a piece of honest work.
Adah and I dragged our sewing projects out to the porch so we could still keep an eye out for interesting goings-on in the world. Something had come between Adah and me for the worse, since the day she was supposed to have been followed by that lion, which the whole village was still talking about. They loved to point Adah out when they saw us, pantomiming a lion’s roar, which didn’t help us to put the affair behind us. But on the bright side, the event provided a great boost for Father’s church. People seem to think that if Jesus could stop a lion from gobbling up a poor lame girl, he must be staying awake pretty good for the Christians-ha! Just when everybody was thinking their regular African gods were aggravated with us and fixing to teach us a lesson. The way they see it, it was kind of a wrestling match between the gods, -with Jesus and Adah coming out on top. Father of course says this is superstitious and oversimplifying matters. But as luck would have it, he’d preached the parable of Daniel and the lions’ den just a few days before, so naturally now they are knocking each other over to get to church on Sunday. And Adah is the cause. Father is pleased as punch with Adah, I don’t care what he says-he put his arm around her shoulder in public! Which is not entirely fair.
But we still had to go on being each other’s main company. Chained to the porch by Mothers instructions, like grumpy twin bears in captivity, we enviously watched Nelson as he went about his business, free to go back and forth to the village and contract the kakakaka any time he had a mind to. As he walked away we could see his round pink scar spying back at us through the trees like a small, laughing eye. We also watched Methuselah, who after four months of liberation still hung around our house mumbling. It was very strange to hear the voices of our own family members coming from the tree branches, as if we’d been transformed into flying spirits of a type preoccupied with peanuts, bananas, and common phrases of greeting. Sometimes at night he’d startle us, when we forgot he spent his lonely nights in the latrine. Believe me, it gives you a queer feeling to sit down in the dark to pee and hear a voice right behind you declare, “Sister, God is great!” But we felt sorry for him and took to leaving him pieces of fruit in there. We were careful to keep the latrine door shut and latched at night, so no mongoose or civet cat would find its way in and polish him off.
At first I wanted Methuselah to come back and live in his cage, until Father explained to me that this whole arrangement was wrong. We let Methuselah go because his captivity was an embarrassment to us. It made the parrot into a less noble creature than God intended. So I had to root for Methuselah to learn to be free. I don’t know what Adah rooted for as we lay out there with our needlework, watching him waddle up and down the branches. I have to say she probably didn’t care one way or the other, really, and was just fascinated to see what would happen next. Adah is that way. She feels no obligation to have good thoughts on behalf of her mortal soul in the hereafter, or even the here and now. She can simply watch life, without caring.
Certainly she wasn’t putting in any effort on behalf of her future womanhood. Adah did weird, morbid things for her hope chest, black borders on cloth napkins and the like, which exhausted our mother. And Ruth May was exempt from hope chest, but was allowed to lie in a hammock with us and make cat’s cradles out of yarn if she promised not to run off and break something.
I lolled on my back and worked on my tablecloth listlessly, to preserve my mother’s fantasy that I’d be getting married one day, and after a while it began to draw me in. The cross-stitch itself was tedious, but the prospects were beautiful; Mother had the foresight to give me a botanical motif, knowing how I love green and growing things. Bunches of pansies and roses were meant to bloom in the four corners, all connected by a border of twining green vines. And in the very same way the Spirit long ago became manifest in the Body of Christ, the first cabbage rose began to materialize on my tablecloth. From there, I could envision the whole garden.
Still, the project seemed impossibly large. Rachel polished off a complete set of dinner napkins in the time it took me to fill in one pink rose. The humidity was so thick it dripped off our eyelashes, and in this damp atmosphere the first bouquet took so long that my metal embroidery hoops rusted in place.
The hope-chest program didn’t last long as our main preoccupation. Rachel hoped too much and ran out of material, while the rest of us hoped too little and ran out of steam. Once in a great while I still do pull out my tablecloth and try to get reinspired. I’ve even prayed for God to make me more fit to be a wife. But the rusted embroidery hoops left an unsightly orange ring on the linen that may have damaged my prospects for good.
TRIED TO SEE NELSON NAKED. I don’t know why I wanted to. When he gets up in the morning first he washes his face out of a dingered-up bowl in the chicken house and puts on his pants and his shirt. He washes the back of his neck with the pink hole in it till his skin shines and water runs all down.Then he looks at his clothes real hard and says a hex before he puts them on. Brown pants, red T-shirt.That’s all the clothes he has. Everybody here has just one clothes. My friends are the one with the blue pajama shirt, the one with the checkered pants with the legs rolled up, the one with shorts with big white pockets hanging out the bottom, and the one with the pinkish shirt down to his knees and no pants.The girls don’t ever, ever wear pants. And the little babies don’t wear a speck of clothes so they can just squat down and pee-pee ever-when they take a mind to.
The chicken house is made out of sticks. The wall has square little holes and I just wanted to see Nelson. I was bad. Sometimes I prayed for Baby Jesus to make me be good, but Baby Jesus didn’t.
The chickens were setting on eggs. Good little mamas, we said, making us some more chickens. Their house was nothing but a shack. They tried to hide their nests in the bushes but Nelson and I found them. He said they were bad hens trying to steal their babies from us. I tried to scold them, but he said chickens don’t understand English. He showed me how to sing to them: Kuyiba diaki, kuyiba diaki, mbote vel Mbote ve! Then we took back all those eggs. I got to help Nelson in the morning when Rachel and them had school, if I promised Mama I wouldn’t go near any other children.They are all sick. They have to go to the bathroom number two in the bushes and we might catch it.
We took the eggs in to Mama and she floated them in a bucket. Some sank on the bottom, and some floated on top like when you bob for apples.The sinkers are okay to eat and the floaters are the rotten ones. When you say, Last one in is a rotten egg! I reckon that means you’re going to float. Nelson wanted those and Mama worried he’d get sick if he ate them but she said, “Oh, go ahead,” and so he took them. But he didn’t eat them. He hid them in a place. He said the witch doctor Tata Kuvudundu wanted those eggs for the dead people that needed to lie down. Nganga means witch doctor. Tata Kuvudundu is one because he has six toes on one of his feet. Nelson said Nganga Kuvudundu could make live people dead, and dead people come back alive. Nelson thinks Tata Kuvudundu is probably so important he could run the army, but he’s too old. Maybe one of his sons instead. Nelson knows who Patrice Lumumba is, too, like me. He says some of them are saying to bury rocks in your garden right now, and after the white people are all dead, dig them up and those rocks will be turned into gold. Nelson said he didn’t believe that. Nobody really believes it, he said, except the people that want to. I said, Why will all the white people be dead? Nelson didn’t know.
There’s all these extra people going to church now. Nelson says it’s because the lion tried to eat up Adah, but Jesus turned her into a bushbuck right just at the last minute. Like in the Bible. And right when the lion’s mouth bit down on the Adah that turned into a bushbuck, the real Adah disappeared from there and turned up okay on our porch.
Nelson says everybody’s got their own little God here to protect them, special African ones that live in the little tiny thing they wear around their necks. Agree-gree is what you call it. It’s like a little bottle, only made out of sticks and shells and things. Sometimes I think about all those little teeny Gods riding around on people’s necks, a-hollering: Help! Let me out of here! Like the genie in the Laddin’s lamp. You just rub it and say, Here, little God, you better watch out for me or you’ll get eat up by the lion right along with me!
All the little Gods are mad at Jesus right now, and they’d like to hurt one of us if they could. If Jesus doesn’t look out. I told Nelson that Jesus is -way too big to ride around in a little gree-gree. He is big as a man, with long brown hair and sandals, size extra-large. Nelson says yes, everybody has figured out that He is a right good size. They’ve a lot of them started going to hear Father talk about Jesus and figure out what’s what. But Nelson says they’ve got one foot in the door of the church and one foot out. If something bad happens to one of us, out they’ll go.
After we found all the eggs in the bushes and took them, Baby Jesus made all the chickens be good and lay their eggs in the one big nest we made in the corner of the chicken house. Mama took a pencil and marked thirteen eggs with X.We kept those in the nest, and when the hens laid fresh ones, we took those for eating. Sometimes scrambled, sometimes hard-boiled. We don’t ever eat the X-mark eggs, because they’re a-going to turn into baby chickens. When they grow up they’ll be our new laying hens, some of them. And the other ones will grow up to be fried chicken! The not-lucky ones. They’ll get their necks chopped off and jump around squirting blood, ha ha ha, poor them. The chickens better get their own little gree-grees to wear on their necks, I reckon.
Every day I looked to see if the babies hatched out, and I was the first one to find them. They all hatched out but save for one, and it got squashed. It was flat against the mud wall behind the nest like a picture hanging up. Nelson lived in there with a dead baby chicken picture on the wall. I was sorry and didn’t try to look at his peewee any more after that.
If it’s dark outside and you see a snake, or even if you just want to talk about one, you can’t say snake.You have to say string.You say, Remember that day we saw a little black string coming home from the picnic? If it’s nighttime, that’s how you talk. Nelson got so mad at me for saying snake when it was dark, because he says after the sun goes down a snake can hear you calling its name and it’ll come a-running. Other animals too. They can hear real good in the dark, so watch out.
Nelson got mad at Leah, too, for keeping her a owl for a pet.The owl was a baby that couldn’t fly right when we found it, so Leah made it a cage and fed it bugs and some meat. Its fur is white and sticks out all over. Leah named it a word in that language they have here: Mvufu. It means owl. But Leah’s friend Pascal hates it, and Nelson hates it worse. Mama Mwanza hates it when she comes over scooting on her hands to trade us oranges for eggs. And Mama Boanda does. She’s the one that wears the black skirt with the great big pink star across her bottom and a hairdo that looks like stars too, sticking up ever whichaways. The one that does people’s hairdos is old Mama Lo, who’s only just got the two teeth, one upstairs and one down, so she chews crossways. She hates our owl the most of all, and hollered at us for having it! Because her sister just died here awhile back. Everybody that ever sees our owl just plumb hates it. Nelson said take it out of the house or he wasn’t coming in and that
was that. Well, Mama made her take it outside, even though Leah pitched a fit because it was still yet just a baby. That’s true, it was. It was getting feathers but mostly it still had white baby hair and was tame.
Nelson went and got Anatole, pulling on him by the hand like he was a note from home. Anatole said the Congo people don’t like owls because an owl flies around at night and eats up the souls of dead people. And there’s just way too many of them here lately, he said. Too many sick children for people to abide an owl hanging around and looking at them with his eyes still hungry. Even if the owl was just a baby himself. Maybe he’d want other babies for company.
Father said that was just all superstitions. So Leah went and fetched the owl back and sashayed around the house with it sitting on her shoulder, saying Father was sticking up for her side of things. Uh-oh. He smacked her hard for the sin of pride, and made her do The Verse. She sat there holding the side of her neck while she wrote it out. When she put her hand down you could see the bruise just as plain. It looked like Father was holding his hand in front of the kerosene light and making a shadow on her. But he wasn’t, he was in the other room a-reading in his Bible.
When she got done with her Verse, she went way down in the jungle to turn that baby owl loose, and we thought she never would come back. We were all scared half to death and sat up waiting for her, except Father. It was so quiet you could hear the second hand on Rachel’s Timex going sit-sit-sit. The flames in the lantern went up and down and the shadows jiggled ever time you’d go to blink your eyes. It was way after dark by then. So whatever you were thinking might have got ahold of Leah out there, snake or leopard, you couldn’t say anything out loud but string or spotted cloth. I said, “I hope a string didn’t bite her!”
Father already went in his bedroom, way way earlier. He hollered finally for Mama to put us to bed and come on herself. He said our sister would be back, so we’d just as well go on about our business because she was just looking for the attention. He said not to pay her any mind or we’d get the same medicine. Then he said, “If an owl can eat up a soul outright, he is one step ahead of the Devil, for the Devil has to purchase them first, and I see he has made some purchases right here in my own household.” Father was mad and wanted to get the subject off of Leah, since it was him that ran her off.
We didn’t say boo to him, nor go to bed either. We just sat there. Mama stared out the open doorway with all her might, waiting on Leah to get home. The mosquitoes and big white moths came in the door and went out the windows. Some of them decided to take off their coats and stay awhile, so they flew in the kerosene lamp and got burned up. That is what happens to you if you’re bad and don’t go to heaven, you go and get burned up in the bad place instead. So that night our house was the bad place for the Congolese bugs. Ha ha.
Father is trying to teach everybody to love Jesus, but what with one thing and another around here, they don’t. Some of them are scared of Jesus, and some aren’t, but I don’t think they love Him. Even the ones that go to church, they still worship the false-eye dolls and get married to each other time and again. Father gets right put out about it.
I’m scared of Jesus, too.
When she came back from the woods, we hooped and hollered and ran to the porch and just jumped up and down and pulled her inside by her shirttails. But uh-oh, there “was Father in his dark bedroom doorway looking out. All you could see was his eyes. We didn’t want to get the same medicine, so we just looked at Leah real hard with I’m sorry for you eyes and tried to get a nice message across. After we went to bed I reached over through the mosquito net and held her hand.
Mama didn’t sleep in her room.
Mama says birds are going to be her death. I’d sooner say it was snakes. But I guess if a bird is going to eat up the dead children’s souls, that is a worry. That is one more sound to listen for at night. One more thing you can’t say out loud after dark.
IN JANUARY the Underdowns showed up as a complete surprise from Leopoldville.They came in Mr. Axelroot’s plane, when the most we were really expecting was Potato Buds and Spam. The Underdowns don’t like to come out here in the boondoggles, so believe you me this was an occasion. They looked like they had nervous-tension headaches. Mother was upset because they’re our bosses from the Mission League, and they’d caught her red-handed doing housework in her old black Capri pants with the knees worn through. She was a sight to behold there on the floor, scrubbing away, with her flyaway hair sticking out and dark bruise-colored circles under her eyes from all her worrying about us catching the kamikaze disease. What with the mongooses and lizards traipsing in and out of the house as they pleased, she had a lot more to be embarrassed about than just getting caught in her old clothes, it seems to me. But at least that horrible owl was gone.Thank goodness to that, even if Father did come down too hard on Leah about it. That was a bad scene. We were all tiptoeing around on the eggshells even more than usual, after that. But that owl stank of rotten meat so I do have to say, Good riddance.
But listen, why should we have to put on the Ritz for the Underdowns? They aren’t even Baptists, I heard Father say; they just oversee the financial affairs for the Mission League since so many people have pulled out. They are Episcopotamians, and their real name is actually something foreign like On-tray-don. We just say Underdown because it’s easier. To tell you the truth, the two of them are just a couple of the plainest Janes you ever saw, in their economical home haircuts and khaki trousers. The funny thing about Frank and Janna Underdown is that they look exactly alike except for the accessories: he has a mustache, she has little gold cross earrings and glasses on a chain. Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head.
They sat at our table sweating while Mother ran and squeezed the orangeade and served it. Even the glasses were dripping with sweat. Outside, the sky was getting its regular afternoon storm organized: wind whacking the palm leaves together, red dust ghosts flying up from the road, little kids running like bansheets for cover. Mother was too nervous to sit down with the company so she stood behind Father’s chair, leaning on the windowsill, waiting for him to finish the newspaper they’d brought. All of them passed it around. Except Mr. Axelroot, the pilot, who probably wouldn’t know what to do with a newspaper except wipe his you-know-what.Yes, he was there among our numbers too. He stood leaning in the back doorway and spitting until I thought I would croak. He stared right at me, undressing me mentally. I have said already my parents are entirely in the dark about certain things. I made faces at him and finally he went away.
While Father was reading the latest news, Mrs. Underdown tried to make friends with Mother by complaining about her houseboy in Leopoldville. “Honestly, Orleanna, he would steal anything except the children. And he would have those, too, if he thought he could sell them. If I try to lock things up, he slaps his hands over his heart as if I’ve accused him of murder. Even though I just caught him the night before with four of Frank’s handkerchiefs and a kilo of sugar tucked into the front of his shirt. He always claims he has no idea how they got there.”
“Well, my stars,” Mother said, without seeming all that interested.
Mrs. Underdown stared at Mother, puzzled. “Your stores’?” She always implies we have an accent, by repeating our words and expressions like little jokes. With her being somewhat of a foreigner herself, that’s the pot calling the skillet black if you ask me.
For once, my sisters and I got excused from spending the whole livelong morning playing Ding Dong Schoolhouse with Mother. But we were curious about the Underdown visit and didn’t really
want to leave. We were so deprived of company, honestly. I lingered about the room checking my hairdo once or twice in the mirror and tidying up the desk, and finally ended up loitering out on the veranda with my sisters, close enough to the doorway so that we could keep tabs. We stared at the glasses of orangeade, wishing Mother had had the simple confederation to make enough for all of us, while we listened in and tried to get the picture of what had caused them to come out here. Even though I knew before it was over I would probably go bored out of my gourd.
Sure enough, when they’d finished passing around the newspaper article, they dropped the subject of the Underdowns’ criminal-element houseboy and moved onto the subject of everything dull under the blue sky: new sheets, malaria pills, new Bibles for the school. That jazz.
I sashayed in and picked up the newspaper after Father had thrown it down on the floor. Well, why shouldn’t I? It was written in red-blooded English, from New York, the United States of America. I read the page they’d folded back: “Soviet Plan Moves Forward in Congo.” It said Khrushchev wanted to take over the Belgian Congo and deprive the innocent savages of becoming a free society, as part of his plan for world domination. Jeez Louise, if Khrushchev wants the Congo he can have it, if you ask me. The newspaper was from last December, anyway. If his big plan was going so well, seems like we would have seen hides or tails of the Russians by now. The article told how the Belgians are the unsung heroes, and when they come into a village they usually interrupt the cannibal natives in the middle of human sacrifice. Huh. If they came to our village that day they would have interrupted Mother in the middle of scrubbing the floor and about twelve little naked boys having a pee-pee contest across the road. I gave the newspaper to Adah, and Leah read it over her shoulder. They turned some pages and showed me a cartoon: big, fat, bald-headed Nikita Khrushchev in his Communist uniform was holding hands and dancing with a skinny cannibal native with big lips and a bone in his hair. Khrushchev was singing, “Bingo Bango Bongo, I don’t want to leave the Congo!”
I stared out the window, -wondering who wouldn’t want to leave the Congo before you could say Jack Robinson if they had half a chance. The Underdowns and mother were just finishing up with the fascinating subject of quinine pills, and then it went quiet for, as they say, an uncomfortable silence.
The Underdowns went “Ahem, ahem” and crossed their legs and got around to what appeared to be their big news: the Congo is going to have an election in May and declare their independence in June. As far as I am concerned you can chalk that one right up with malaria pills and Bibles for a tedulous topic, but Mother and Father seemed to take it as a shock. Mother’s whole face dropped out of its socket. She looked like Claire Bloom in Beauty and the Beast when she finally gets a look at what she’s going to have to marry. I kept waiting for Mother to snap back to her old Everything Is Just Fine attitude, but she stayed blanched out and kind of stopped breathing. She put her hand on her throat like she’d swallowed a shot of Mr. Clean, and that look scared me. I started paying attention.
“This June,” Mother said.
“Belgium won’t possibly accept the outcome of an election,” Father said. Oh, well, naturally he already knew all about it. No matter what happens on God’s green earth, Father acts like it’s a movie he’s already seen and we’re just dumb for not knowing how it comes out. Leah, of course, was about to fall out of her hammock, hanging on his every word. Ever since Father smacked her over the owl, she’s been trying twice as hard to win him back over.
“Belgium absolutely will, Nathan. This is the new official plan. King Baudouin invited eighty Congolese leaders to Brussels to chart a course for independence.” So said Mr. Potato Head, who has no elocution in his voice whatsoever. I am positive he is foreign, or used to be.
“When?” Mother asked.
“Two weeks ago.”
“And might we ask what happened to the old official plan?” Father said. He always has to say, “And might we ask?” Instead of just asking.
“Leopoldville and Stanleyville have been shut down with riots and strikes, in case you haven’t heard. The old official plan did not go over so well.”:
“What about the threat of a Soviet takeover?” Mother wanted to know.
“Frankly, I think Belgium is more concerned about the threat of an African takeover,” he said. Reverend Underdown, whose name is Frank, says “Frankly” a lot, and he doesn’t even see the humor. “The Russians are a theoretical threat, whereas the Congolese are quite actual and seem to mean business. We say in French, if your brother is going to steal your hen, save your honor and give it to him first.”
“So they would just hand over independence to the Congolese?” Mother leaned forward over Father’s head to speak. She looked like Father’s guardian angel with iron-poor tired blood. “Frank, what leaders are you talking about, getting invited to Brussels? Who on earth around here is eligible for a thing like that?”
“Tribal chiefs, heads of unions, and the like. They say it was a pretty motley assembly. Joseph Kasavubu wavered between boycotting and trying to run the show. Lumumba got out of jail just for the occasion. They settled on a parliamentary system of government. Elections will be mid-May. Independence day, June thirtieth.”
Methuselah had sidled up into the bougainvillea bush right behind us, muttering, “Lubberlubberlubber.” I swear it was like he was trying to listen in on the conversation, too.
“Belgium has never been willing to discuss independence before,” Father declared.
“That’s true, Frank,” Mother added. She had both hands on her hair, pulling it back from her face like a skinned rabbit and fanning her neck in the back. It wasn’t at all becoming. “We discussed this with the mission people in Atlanta before we ever decided to come. They said the political advisors in Belgium had mapped out a plan last year that would grant independence in, what was it, Nathan, thirty years? Thirty years’ time!”
Mother had raised her voice a little, and Mr. Potato Head looked embarrassed. “I’m sorry to have to remind you that you were advised not to come,” he finally said.
“That’s not exactly true,” Mother said. She looked at Father, and Mrs. Potato Head looked at Father. Father stared at Mr. Potato Head, who didn’t have the nerve to look him in the eye.The whole thing was out of this world.
Finally Mr. Potato Head dared to speak. “No offense intended,” he said. “Your work here certainly has the blessings of the Mission League, Orleanna.” He may have meant no offense but he pronounced my mother’s name like a bad word. “And I would also say it has the admiration of many people who lack your family’s… boldness.” He looked at the button on his sleeve, probably sewn on upside-down or something by the handkerchief-stealing houseboy. Then he started turning his wet empty glass around and around on its damp ring on the table.
Everybody waited for what else Frank Underdown might have to say with no offense intended. Finally he allowed, “But you do know your mission here was not sanctioned.” He glanced up at Mother, then back to his spinny-go-round glass.
“Well, whatever does that mean?”
“I think you know.You didn’t get the language in-service or any of the ordinary kinds of training. I’m afraid the Mission League thinks of your stipend as an act of kindness on their part. I would not be too surprised to see the end of it now.”
Well! Mother’s hand hit the table, bang! “If you think my family is living in this moldy corner of hell for the fifty dollars a month!” she practically shouted at him. Man oh man, if the porch could have opened up and swallowed us all.
“Orleanna,” Father said. (Dog peed on the carpet voice.)
“Well, Nathan, for heavens sake. Can’t you see you’re being insulted?”
Usually Father doesn’t have to look twice to see when he’s being insulted. Usually he can see insults as big as a speck when they’re hiding under a rock in the next county over. We all crossed our fingers.
“Now everyone simmer down,” said Mr. Potato Head, trying for a fake friendly laugh. “Nobody is being insulted. We don’t have any control over the decisions of the Mission League, you know that.
We are just humble administrators for the SBML and a lot of other organizations, who are all giving similar advice right now. We came here to talk with you personally, because we are deeply concerned about your witness for Christ and your precious children.”
My mother, who had just said the word “hell,” was about a million miles from her witness for Christ at the present time. I would say at the present time she looked ready to bean somebody with a baseball bat. She turned her back on the Underdowns.”Why in the world did they even let us come here, if it was dangerous?” she asked some birdy outside the window.
Father had not spoken up yet. My theory was he didn’t know who to jump on first, the insulting Underdowns or his cussing wife, so he just stood there brewing like a coffeepot. Only with a coffeepot you know exactly what’s going to come out of it.
“Now, please, Orleanna,” Mr. Potato Head crooned. “This is not the fault of the Mission League. No one could have predicted the move to independence would come so suddenly.”
She turned around and faced him. “Wasn’t it somebody’s darn business to predict it?”
“How could they?” he asked, opening his hands wide. “Last year when De Gaulle gave independence to all the French colonies, the Belgians insisted this had nothing to do with us! No one even took the ferry across to Brazzaville to watch the ceremony. The Belgians went on speaking of rule with a fatherly hand.”
“A fatherly hand, is that what you call it!” She shook her head from side to side. “Using these people like slaves in your rubber plantations and your mines and I don’t know what all? We’ve heard what goes on, Frank, do you think we’re simpleminded? There’s men right here in this village with tales to make your hair stand on end. One old fellow got his hand whacked off up at Coquilhatville, and ran away while he was still spurting blood!”
Father shot her a look.
“Well, honestly, Nathan. I talk to their wives.” She looked at Mrs. Potato Head, who was keeping mum on the subject.
“We had no idea,” Mother said quietly then, like she’d just figured the whole thing out. “Your King Baudouin is living off the fat of this land, is what he’s doing, and leaving it up to penniless mission doctors and selfless men like my husband to take care of their every simple need. Is that how a father rules? Hell’s bells! And he didn’t expect trouble?”
She glanced back and forth between Mr. Underdown and Father like a nervous child herself, unsure which of the two men was entitled to give her a licking.
Mr. Underdown stared at Mother like he suddenly had no idea where she’d come from-like that houseboy that didn’t know how the sugar got under his shirt. Man oh man, that made me nervous. Every grown-up in the room, including my mother, the Cussing Lady, and Mrs. Underdown, who kept rubbing her neck and craning her chin to the side, you could have mistaken for a mental psychiatry patient right then. Except for Father, and of course he is the one who is really mental.
The Reverend Underdown flung out his fist, and Mother flinched. But he wasn’t aiming for her at all. It turns out he just meant for them all to admire his hand. “That is the relation of Belgium to her Congo,” he said. “Look there! A strong hand, tightly clenched. No one could have predicted an uprising like this.”
Mother walked straight out of the room, out the backdoor toward the kitchen. No one mentioned her absence. Then in a minute she came back, having just remembered, evidently, that she couldn’t go hop on the Greyhound Bus to Atlanta.
“What’s he really saying?” she asked Mrs. Underdown. “That there’s going to be no transition at all? No interim period for-I don’t know-a provisional government-in-training? Just wham, the Belgians are gone and the Congolese have to run everything on their own?”
Nobody answered, and I was scared Mother would start swearing about the King again, or crying. How embarrassing. But she didn’t do either one. She pulled on her hair for a while and then tried out a new, improved Let’s Get This All Straight voice.” Frank. Janna. Not a soul among these people has even gone to college or traveled abroad to study government. That’s what Anatole tells us. And now you’re saying they’ll be left overnight to run every single school, every service, every government office? And the army? What about the army, Frank?”
Reverend Underdown shook his head. “I can’t tell you how, Orleanna. I can only tell you what I know.”
Home, home, home, home, I prayed. If the problem was big enough, we’d just have to go home. We could get on that plane tomorrow and fly right straight out of here, if only he would say so.
Father got up and came to stand in the doorway, facing out toward the porch. I shuddered, both hoping and dreading that he’d read my mind. But he wasn’t looking at us girls. He just stared right past us, to make a point of turning his back on the present company of Underdowns and Mother. I slouched back into my hammock and attended to my cuticles while Father spoke to the great outdoors.
“Not a television set in this whole blessed country,” he announced to the palm trees. “Radios, maybe one per hundred thousand residents. No telephones. Newspapers as scarce as hen’s teeth, and a literacy rate made to match. They get their evening news by listening to their neighbors’ drums.”
That was all true. Almost every single night we could hear those drums from the next village over, which Nelson said was talking drums. But what in tarnation could you tell somebody with just a drum? It would have to be worse than that dip-dip-dop More Scold thing they use in the army.
Father said, “An election. Frank, I’m embarrassed for you. You’re quaking in your boots over a fairy tale. Why, open your eyes, man. These people can’t even read a simple slogan: Vote for Me! Down with Shapoopie! An election! Who out here would even know it happened?”
Nobody answered him. We girls never said a peep, of course, any more than the palm trees did, for we knew he was talking to Mother and the Underdowns. I knew just how they felt, getting one of Father’s pop quizzes.
“Two hundred different languages,” he said, “spoken inside the borders of a so-called country invented by Belgians in a parlor. You might as well put a fence around sheep, wolves, and chickens, and tell them to behave like brethren.” He turned around, looking suddenly just like a preacher. “Frank, this is not a nation, it is the Tower of Babel and it cannot hold an election. If these people are to be united at all, they will come together as God’s lambs in their simple love for Christ. Nothing else will move them forward. Not politics, not a desire for freedom-they don’t have the temperament or the intellect for such things. I know you’re trying to tell us what you’ve heard, but believe me, Frank, I know what I see.”
Mrs. Potato Head spoke up for the first time since they’d drifted from the subject of malaria pills. “Orleanna, all we really came here for is to tell you to make your plans to leave. I know you were going to stay on till the fifteenth of June, but we have to send you home.”
Boy, my heart did the cha-cha, hearing that. Home! Well. If there’s one solitary thing Father does not like it’s being told what to do. “My contract expires in June,” he announced to all concerned. “We will stay through July to help welcome the Reverend and Mrs. Minor when they come. I’m sure Christian charity will be forthcoming from America, regardless of any problems Belgium may have with its fatherly hand”
“Nathan, the Minors…” Frank started to say, but Father ran him right over and kept going.
“I’ve worked some miracles here, I don’t mind telling you, and I’ve done it single-handedly. Outside help is of no concern to me. I can’t risk losing precious ground by running away like a coward before we have made a proper transition!”
Transition when, is what I wanted to know. Another week? A month? July was practically half a year away!
“Frank, Janna,” my mother said, in a voice that sounded scared. “For my own part,” she said, and faltered. “For the girls, I’d like to…”
“You’d like to what, Orleanna.” Father was still right out there in the doorway, so we could see his face. He looked like a mean boy fixing to smash puppies with a brick. “What is it you’d like to say, for your own part?” he asked.
Mrs. Underdown was shooting worried looks over at her husband like, “Oh, Lordy, what next?”
“Nathan, there may not be a transition,” Mr. Underdown said nervously, saying Father’s name the way you’d say a growling dog’s name to calm it down. “The Minors have declined their contract, on our advice. It may be years before this mission resumes.”
Father stared at the trees, giving no indication he’d heard his poor frightened wife, or any of this news. Father would sooner watch us all perish one by one than listen to anybody but himself. Years before they send someone else to this mission, I thought. Years! Oh, please God make a tree fall on him and smash his skull! Let us leave right now!
Mrs. Underdown pitched in helpfully, “We are making preparations to leave, ourselves.”
“Oh, yes,” her husband said. “Absolutely. We are packing to leave. We have called the Congo our home for many years, as you know, but the situation is very extreme. Nathan, perhaps you don’t understand how serious this is. In all likelihood the embassy will evacuate from Leopoldville.”
“I believe I understand perfectly well,” Father said, turning around suddenly to face them. In his khakis and rolled-up white shirt sleeves he looked like a working man, but he raised up one hand above his head the way he does in church to pronounce the benediction.
“Only God knows when our relief may arrive. But God does know. And in His benevolent service we will stay.”
SO MUCH DEPENDS on a red wheelbarrow glazed with rain water standing beside the white chickens. That is one whole poem written by a doctor named William C. Williams. Chickens white beside standing water rain, with glazed wheelbarrow. Red on! Depends much. So?
I particularly like the name Williams C. William. He wrote the poem while he was waiting for a child to die. I should like to be a doctor poet, I think, if I happen to survive to adulthood. I never much imagined myself as a woman grown, anyway, and nowadays especially it seems a waste of imagination. But if I were a doctor poet, I would spend all day with people who could not run past me, and then I would go home and write whatever I liked about their insides.
We are all waiting now to see what will happen next.Waiting for a child to die is not an occasion for writing a poem here in Kilanga: it isn’t a long enough wait. Every day, nearly, one more funeral. Pascal doesn’t come anymore to play because his older brother died and Pascal is needed at home. Mama Mwanza without a leg to stand on lost her two smallest ones. It used to astonish us that everyone here has so many children: six or eight or nine. But now, suddenly, it seems no one has enough. They wrap up the little bodies in layers of cloth like a large goat cheese, and set it out in front of the house under a funeral arch woven from palm fronds and the howling sweet scent of frangipani flowers. All the mothers come walking on their knees. They shriek and wail a long, high song with quivering soft palates, like babies dying of hunger. Their tears run down and they stretch their hands out toward the dead child but never do they reach it. When they have finished trying, the men carry the body in a hammock slung between sticks. The women follow, still wailing and reaching out. Down the road past our house they go, into the forest. Our Father forbids us to watch. He doesn’t seem to mind the corpses so much as the souls unsaved. In the grand tally Up Yonder, each one counts as a point against him.
According to my Baptist Sunday-school teachers, a child is denied entrance to heaven merely for being born in the Congo rather than, say, north Georgia, where she could attend church regularly. This was the sticking point in my own little lame march to salvation: admission to heaven is gained by the luck of the draw. At age five I raised my good left hand in Sunday school and used a month’s ration of words to point out this problem to Miss Betty Nagy. Getting born within earshot of a preacher, I reasoned, is entirely up to chance. Would Our Lord be such a hit-or-miss kind of Saviour as that? Would he really condemn some children to eternal suffering just for the accident of a heathen birth, and reward others for a privilege they did nothing to earn? I waited for Leah and the other pupils to seize on this very obvious point of argument and jump in with their overflowing brace of words. To my dismay, they did not. Not even my own twin, who ought to know about unearned privilege. This was before Leah and I were gifted; I was still Dumb Adah. Slowpoke poison-oak running-joke Adah, subject to frequent thimble whacks on the head. Miss Betty sent me to the corner for the rest of the hour to pray for my own soul while kneeling on grains of uncooked rice. When I finally got up with sharp grains imbedded in my knees I found, to my surprise, that I no longer believed in God. The other children still did, apparently. As I limped back to my place, they turned their eyes away from my stippled sinner’s knees. How could they not even question their state of grace? I lacked their confidence, alas. I had spent more time than the average child pondering unfortunate accidents of birth.
From that day I stopped parroting the words of Oh, God! God’s love! and began to cant in my own backward tongue: Evol’s dog! Dog ho!
Now I have found a language even more cynical than my own: in Kilanga the word nzolo is used in three different ways, at least. It means “most dearly beloved.” Or it is a thick yellow grub highly prized for fish bait. Or it is a type of tiny potato that turns up in the market now and then, always sold in bunches that clump along the roots like knots on a string. And so we sing at the top of our lungs in church:”Tata Nzolo!”To whom are we calling?
I think it must be the god of small potatoes. That other Dearly Beloved who resides in north Georgia does not seem to be paying much attention to the babies here in Kilanga. They are all dying. Dying from kakakaka, the disease that turns the body to a small black pitcher, pitches it over, and pours out all its liquid insides.The heavy rains brought the disease down the streams and rivers. Everyone in this village knows more about hygiene than we do, we have lately discovered. While we were washing and swimming in the stream any old place, there were rules, it turns out: wash clothes downstream, where the forest creek runs into the crocodile river. Bathe in the middle. Draw water for drinking up above the village. In Kilanga these are matters of religious observance, they are baptism and communion. Even defecation is ruled by African gods, who command that we use only the bushes that Tata Kuvudundu has sanctified for those purposes-and believe you me, he chooses bushes far away from the drinking water. Our latrine was probably neutral territory, but on the points of bathing and washing we were unenlightened for the longest time. We have offended all the oldest divinities,in every thinkable way.”Tata Nzolo!” we sing, and I wonder what new, disgusting sins we commit each day, holding our heads high in sacred ignorance while our neighbors gasp, hand to mouth.
Nelson says it was our offenses that brought on this rainy season. Oh, it rains, it pours, Noah himself would be dismayed. This rainy season has shattered all the rules. When it came early and lasted so long and poured down so hard, the manioc hills melted and tubers rotted away from their vines, and finally the downpour brought us the kakakaka. After all, even when everyone defecates righteously, there are villages upstream from us. Downstream is always someone else s up. The last shall be first.
Now the thunderstorms have ended. The funerals are drying up as slowly as the puddles. Methuselah sits puny and still in his avocado tree with his eyes ticking back and forth, unprepared for a new season of overwhelming freedom. Beto nki tutasala? he mutters sometimes in Mama Tataba’s ghost voice: What are we doing? It is a question anyone might ask. In the strange quiet our family doesn’t know what to do.
Everyone else seems brain-dashed and busy at the same time, like dazed insects coming out after the storm. The women beat out their sisal mats and replant their fields while grieving for lost children. Anatole goes to our neighbors’ houses, one by one, offering his condolences for our village’s lost schoolboys. He is also, I have seen, preparing them for the election, and Independence. It is to be a kitchen election: since no one can read, every candidate is designated by a symbol. Wisely these men choose to represent themselves with useful things-knife, bottle, matches, cooking pot. Anatole has set out in front of the school a collection of big clay bowls and next to each one the knife, the bottle, or the matches. On election day every man in Kilanga is to throw in one pebble. The women tell their husbands constantly: the knife! The bottle! Don’t forget what I’m telling you! The men, who get the privilege of voting, seem the least interested. The old ones say Independence is for the young, and perhaps this is true. The children seem most excited of all: they practice throwing pebbles into the bowls from across the yard. Anatole dumps these out at the end of each day. He sighs as the stones fall on the dirt in the shapes of new constellations. The make-believe votes of children. At the end of election day Tata Ndu’s sons will put the pebbles in bags along with the proper symbol for each candidate-knife, bottle, or matches-and carry them by canoe all the way upriver to Banningville. Pebbles from all over Congo “will travel up rivers that day. Indeed, the earth shall move. A dugout canoe seems such a fragile bird to carry that weight.
Toorlexa Nebee, Eeben Axelroot, is traveling also. He wastes no time. These days he makes as many trips as, he can up the Kwilu River to wherever he goes in the south. Katanga and Kasai, his radio says. Where the mines are. He stops here every week just long enough to pay the women his nothing for their manioc and plantains, leaving them wailing like mourners alt a funeral, flying away with whatever he can stuff into his sack, while he can. The Belgians and the Americans who run the rubber plantations and copper mines, I imagine, are using larger sacks.
The doctor poet in our village is the nganga Kuvudundu, I think. The rare nut, Our Father calls him, a thing, a seed to be cracked. The pot calls the kettle black. The nganga Kuvudlundu is writing poems for us alone. So much depends on the white chicken bones in the calabash bowl left standing in a puddle of rain outside our door.
I saw him leave it there. I was looking out the window and he turned back just for a second, staring straight into my eyes. I saw a kindness there, and believe he means to protect us, really. Protect us from angry gods, and our own stupidity, by sending us away.
Bongo Bango Bingo. That is the story of Congo they are telling now in America: a tale of cannibals. I kmow about this kind of story-the lonely look down upon the hungry; the hungry look down upon the starving. The guilty blame the damaged. Those of doubtful righteousness speak of cannibals, the unquestionably vile, the sinners and the damned. It makes everyome feel much better. So, Khrushchev is said to be here dancing with the man-eating natives, teaching them to hate the Americans and the Belgians. It must be true, for how else would the poor Congolese know how to hate the Americans and the Belgians? After all, we have such white skin. We eat their food inside our large house, and throw out the bones. Bones that lie helter-skelter on the grass, from which to tell our fortunes. Why ever should the Congolese read our doom? After all, we have offered to feed their children to the crocodiles in order for them to know the Kingdom and the Power and the Glory.
All the eyes of America know what a Congolese looks like. Skin and bones dancing, lips upcurled like oyster shells, a no-count man with a femur in his hair.
The mganga Kuvudundu dressed in white with no bone in his hair is standing at the edge of our yard. He of eleven toes. He repeats the end of his own name over and over: the word dundu. Dundu is a kind of antelope. Or it is a small plant of the genus Veronia. Or a nil. Or a price yam have to pay. So much depends on the tone of voice. One of these things is what our family has coming to us. Our Baptist ears from Georgia will never understand the difference.
FATHER FLEW with Eeben Axelroot to Stanleyville for the same reason the bear went over the mountain, I guess. And all that he could see was the other side of the Congo. The other main reason for his trip was quinine pills, which we had just about run out of, how unfortunate. Quinine pills taste bad enough to give you a hair problem. I happen to know Ruth May doesn’t even swallow hers all the time: once I saw her hide it behind her side teeth when she opened wide to show Mother it was down the hatch. Then she spat it out in her hand and stuck it on the wall behind her cot. Me, I swallow. All I need is to go back home with some dread disease. Sweet sixteen and never been kissed is bad enough, but to be Thyroid Mary on top of it? Oh, brother.
Father is mad at the Underdowns. Usually they send the basic necessities they think we will need every month (which believe you me is not much), but this time they just sent a letter: “Prepare your departure. We are sending a special Mission plane for your evacuation June 28. We are leaving Leopoldville the following week and have arranged for your family to accompany us as far as Belgium.”
The end? And the Price family lived happily ever after? Not on your life. Father is all psyched up to stay here forever, I think. Mother tries to explain to him day in and day out about how he is putting his own children in jeopardy of their lives, but he won’t even listen to his own wife, much less his mere eldest daughter. I screamed and kicked the furniture until one whole leg came off the table and threw a hissy fit they could probably hear all the way to Egypt. Listen, what else can a girl do but try. Stay here? When everybody else gets to go home and do the bunny hop and drink Cokes? It is a sheer tapestry of justice.
Father returned from Stanleyville with his hair just about standing on end, he was so full of the daily news. They had their election, I guess, and the winner is a man named Patrice, if you can believe. Patrice Lumumba. Father said Lumumba’s party won thirty-five of a hundredy-some-odd seats in the new parliament, mainly because of his natural animal magnetism. And also the large population of his hometown. It sounded kind of like student-council elections at Bethlehem High, where whoever has the biggest click of friends, they win. Not that a minister’s daughter would ever have a chance, jeez-oh-man. No matter how much you flirt or carry on like a cool cat and roll up your skirt waistband on the bus, they still just think you’re L-7. A square, in other words. Try to get a boyfriend under those conditions: believe you me, your chances are dull and void.
So Mr. Patrice will be the Prime Minister of the Congo now and it won’t be the Belgian Congo anymore, it will be the Republic of Congo. And do you think anybody in this hip town we live in is actually going to notice? Oh, sure. They’ll all have to go out and get their drivers’ licenses changed. In the year two million that is, when they build a road to here and somebody gets a car.
Mother said, “Now is he the one they’re saying is a Communist?”
Father said, “Not so’s you’d notice.”That is the one and only Mississippi expression he has ever picked up from Mother. We’ll ask her something like “Did you iron my linen dress like I asked you to?” And she’ll say, “Not so’s you’d notice.” Back home she could be a smart aleck sometimes, and how. When Father wasn’t around, that is. Father said he heard soon-to-be Prime Minister Lumumba talk on a radio in a barbershop in Stanleyville about neutral foreign policy and African Unity and all that jazz. He says now Patrice Lumumba and the other elected Congolese are trading chickens and eggs to set up a government that everybody in the parliament will go along with. But the problem is all of them still like their own tribes and their own chiefs the best. I can just picture the parliament room: a hundredy-some-odd Tata Ndus in pointy hats and no-glass glasses all flicking flies away with animal-tail magic wands in the sweltering heat, pretending to ignore each other. It will probably take them one hundred years just to decide which person gets to sit where. It’s enough already. All I want is to go home, and start scrubbing the deep-seated impurities of the Congo out of my skin.
MAMA NEEDS her some Quick Energy.After Father went away with Leah on the plane, she went and got in her bed and won’t get up.
It wasn’t the Mr. Axelroot plane. He goes and comes whenever he feels like it. This was another airplane just as little but yellow this time. The driver had on a white shirt and Vitalis in his hair that you could smell. He smelled clean. He had Experimint gum and gave me a piece. He was a white man that talked French. Sometimes some of them do and I don’t know why. We all put on our shoes and went down to see the airplane land. I have to wear white baby shoes even though I’m not a baby. When I am grown my mother will still have my shoes. She aims to turn them into brown shiny metal and keep them on the table in Georgia with my baby picture. She did it for all the others, even Adah and her one foot’s no count; it curls up and makes the shoe wear out funny. Even that bad sideways-worn-out shoe Mama made into metal and saved, so she’ll save mine.
Mama said the airplane was a special chart plane the Under-downs sent for us to get all our stuff that needed getting and fly on out of here. But Father wouldn’t allow. Only he and Leah got on, and didn’t take anything because they are coming back. Rachel sassed him straight to his face, and tried to climb right into the airplane with her things! He flung her back. She threw her stuff on the ground and said fine, then, she was going to go drown herself in the river, but we knew she wouldn’t. Rachel wouldn’t want to get that dirty.
Adah wasn’t there either; she stayed home. Just me and Mama stood on the field to watch the plane fly away. But Mama wouldn’t even jump up and wave bye. She just stood with her face getting smaller and smaller, and when you couldn’t see the airplane anymore she went in the house and lay down on her bed. It was morning, not night. Not even nap time.
I told Rachel and Adah we needed some yUp for Mama. Rachel does the radio advertisements from back home and that is one: “Bushed? Beat? Need ionizing? yUp is the greatest discovery yet for getting new energy quick. In two to six minutes you’ll feel like a new you.”
But all day went by and it got dark and Mama still doesn’t feel like a new Mama. Rachel won’t talk to me about getting yUp. She’s sitting out on the porch looking at the hole in the sky where the airplane went away. And Adah doesn’t talk anyway, because of how she is. Nelson got us our dinner, but he is sneaking around the house like somebody got in a fight and he’s staying out of it. So it’s real quiet. I tried to play but I didn’t feel like it. I went in and picked up Mama’s hand and it fell back down. Then I just crawled in the bed with her, and now that makes two of us that don’t feel like getting up ever again.
MY FATHER AND I have patched things up. He allowed me to accompany him to Leopoldville, where we got to see history in the making. We watched the Independence ceremonies from a giant rusty barge tied to the bank of the Congo River that was loaded with so many pushing, squirming people Mrs. Underdown said we’d probably all go down like the Titanic. It was such an important event King Baudouin of Belgium, himself, was going to be there. It was childish, I know, but I got very excited when she told me that. I suppose I was picturing someone in a crown and an ermine-trimmed scarlet robe, like Old King Cole. But the white men sitting up on the stage were all dressed alike, in white uniforms with belts, swords, shoulder fringe, and white flat-topped military hats. Not a single crown to be seen. As they waited their turn to speak, dark sweat stains blossomed under the arms of their uniforms. And when it was all over I couldn’t even tell you which one had been the King.
The white men mostly spoke of the glorious days of the previous king of Belgium, King Leopold, who first made the Congo into what it is today. Mrs. Underdown reported this to me, in quick little bursts of translation while she squeezed my hand tightly, since it was mostly all in French. I didn’t care for her holding my hand; I am as tall as she is and a good sight less of a scaredy-cat. But we could have gotten lost from one another in all those people, too. And Father wouldn’t have held my hand for the world-he isn’t like that. Mrs. Underdown called me a poor lost lamb. She couldn’t believe it when Father and I showed up without the rest of them.
Her jaw dropped to her bosom. Later, when we were alone, she told me it was her opinion that Father was not in his right mind and should think of his poor children. I told her my father would know what was best in the sight of the Lord, and that we were privileged to serve. Why, that just flabbergasted her. She is a meek woman and I can’t say that I respect her. They are leaving tomorrow to go to Belgium, and we’re going back to Kilanga to hold the fort until another family can come. That is Father’s plan. Reverend Underdown is pretending not to be mad at us.
After the King and the other white men spoke, they inaugurated Patrice Lumumba as the new Prime Minister. I could tell exactly which one he was. He was a thin, distinguished man who wore real eyeglasses and a small, pointed beard. When he stood up to speak, everyone’s mouth shut. In the sudden quiet we could hear the great Congo River lapping up its banks. Even the birds seemed taken aback. Patrice Lumumba raised his left hand up and seemed to grow ten feet tall, right there and then. His eyes shone bright white with dark centers. His smile was a triangle, upcurved on the sides and reaching a point below, like his beard. I could see his face very clearly, even though we were far away.
“Ladies and gentlemen of the Congo,” he said, “who have fought for the independence won today, I salute you!”
The quiet crowd broke open with cheers and cheers. “Je vous salue! Je vous salue encore!”
Patrice Lumumba asked us to keep this day, June 30,1960, in our hearts forever and tell our children of its meaning. Everyone on the raft and the crowded banks would do what he said, I knew. Even me, if I ever get to have any children. Whenever he paused to take a breath, the people screamed and waved their arms.
First he talked about our equal partner, Belgium. Then he said other things that made Mrs. Underdown nervous. “Our lot was eighty years of colonial rule,” she translated, and then she stopped. She let go my hand, wiped it on her slacks, and grabbed me again.
“What all’s he saying?” I asked her. I didn’t want to miss word one of Patrice Lumumba. As he spoke his eyes seemed to be on fire.
I have seen preachers at revival meetings speak like that, with voices rising in such a way that heaven and anger get mingled together. The people cheered more and more.
“He’s saying we despoiled their land and used the Negroes for slaves, just as long as we could get away with it,” she said.
“We did that?”
“Well. The Belgians in general. He’s very mad about all the nice things they said earlier about King Leopold. Who was a bad egg, I’ll admit that.”
“Oh,” I said. I narrowed my eyes to a hard focus on Patrice Lumumba and tried to understand his words. I was jealous of Adah, who picked up languages easier than she could tie her own shoes. I wished I’d studied harder.
“We have known les maisons magnifiques for the whites in the cities, and the falling-down houses for the Negroes.”
Oh, I understood that all right. He was right, I’d seen it myself when we went to the Underdowns’. Leopoldville is a nice little town of dandy houses with porches and flowery yards on nice paved streets for the whites, and surrounding it, for miles and miles, nothing but dusty run-down shacks for the Congolese. They make their homes out of sticks or tin or anything in the world they can find. Father said that is the Belgians’ doing and Americans would never stand for this kind of unequal treatment. He says after Independence the Americans will send foreign aid to help them make better houses. The Underdowns’ house has soft red Persian rugs, chairs with matching ottomans, even a radio. She had a real china tea set on the dark wooden sideboard. Last night I watched her pack up all the fragile cups, moaning about what she’d have to leave and who’d get it. For dinner the houseboy brought us one thing after another until I thought I’d burst: real meat, orange cheeses wrapped in red wax, canned yellow asparagus. After a hundred white meals of fufu, bread, Potato Buds and Carnation milk, it was too much taste and color for me. I chewed and swallowed slowly, feeling sick. After dinner, why, chocolate cookies from France! The Underdowns’ two sons, big crew-cut boys shifting around in grown men’s bodies, grabbed handfuls of cookies with their big hands and bolted from the table. I took only one and couldn’t get my mouth to eat it, though I wanted to badly. The Underdowns’ skinny houseboy sweated in his ironed white apron while he hurried to bring us more things. I thought about the kilo of sugar he’d tried to stash under his shirt. With so much else around, “why wouldn’t Mrs. Underdown just go ahead and give it to him? Was she actually going to take all her sugar back to Belgium?
Tomorrow she’ll be gone, and I’ll still be here, I thought to myself as we stood on our barge fastened to the bank of the Congo, watching history. A rat ran under the bare feet of some people standing near us, but no one paid any attention. They just cheered. Patrice Lumumba had stopped speaking for a moment to take off his glasses and mop his forehead with a -white handkerchief. He wasn’t sweating in his dark suit the way the white men had stained their white uniforms, but his face gleamed.
“Tell me what he’s saying,” I pleaded with Mrs. Underdown. “I’ve only gone as far as the past perfect tense in my French book.” Mrs. Underdown relented after a while and told me certain sentences. Much of the rest of it began to come to me in bursts of understanding, as if Patrice Lumumba were speaking in tongues and my ears had been blessed by the same stroke of grace. “My brothers,” he said,”Mesfreres, we have suffered the colonial oppression in body and heart, and we say to you, all of that is finished. Together we are going to make a place for justice and peace, prosperity and grandeur. We are going to show the world what the homme noir can do when he works for freedom. We are going to make the Congo, for all of Africa, the heart of light.”
I thought I would go deaf from the roaring.
EMULP DER ENO. So much depends on the single red feather I saw when I stepped out of the latrine.
It is early morning now, rooster-pink sky smoky air morning. Long shadows scissoring the road from here to anywhere. Independence Day. June thirtieth.
Does anyone here know about the new freedom? These women squatting, knees wide apart in their long wrapped skirts, throwing handfuls of peppers and small potatoes into hissing pans over cook-fires? These children defecating earnestly or weakly, according to their destiny, in the bushes? One red feather for celebration. No one yet has seen it but me.
When Miss Dickinson says, “Hope is the thing with feathers,” I always think of something round-a ball from one of the games I will never play-stuck all around like a clove-orange sachet with red feathers. I have pictured it many times-Hope!-wondering how I would catch such a thing one-handed, if it did come floating down to me from the sky. Now I find it has fallen already, and a piece of it is here beside our latrine, one red plume. In celebration I stooped down to pick it up.
Down in the damp grass I saw the red shaft of another one, and I reached for it. Following the trail I found first the red and then the gray: clusters of long wing feathers still attached to gristle and skin, splayed like fingers. Downy pale breast feathers in tufted mounds. Methuselah.
At last it is Independence Day, for Methuselah and the Congo. O Lord of the feathers, deliver me this day. After a lifetime caged away from flight and truth, comes freedom. After long seasons of slow preparation for an innocent death, the world is theirs at last. From the carnivores that would tear me, breast from wishbone.
Set upon by the civet cat, the spy, the eye, the hunger of a superior need, Methuselah is free of his captivity at last. This is what he leaves to the world: gray and scarlet feathers strewn over the damp grass. Only this and nothing more, the tell-tale heart, tale of the carnivore. None of what he was taught in the house of the master. Only feathers, “without the ball of Hope inside. Feathers at last at last and no words at all.