Book Three. THE JUDGES
And ye shall make no league with the
inhabitants of this land;
ye shall throw down their altars…
They shall be as thorns in your sides,
and their gods shall be a snare unto you.
Orleanna Price SANDERLING ISLAND, GEORGIA
LISTEN, LITTLE BEAST. Judge me as you will, hut first listen. I am your mother. What happened to us could have happened anywhere, to any mother. I’m not the first woman on earth to have seen her daughters possessed. For time and eternity there have been fathers like Nathan who simply can see no way to have a daughter but to own her like a plot of land. To work her, plow her under, rain down a dreadful poison upon her. Miraculously, it causes these girls to grow. They elongate on the pale slender stalks of their longing, like sunflowers with heavy heads. You can shield them with your body and soul, trying to absorb that awful rain, but they’ll still move toward him. Without cease, they’ll bend to his light.
Oh, a wife may revile such a man with every silent curse she knows. But she can’t throw stones. A stone would fly straight through him and strike the child made in his image, clipping out an eye or a tongue or an outstretched hand. It’s no use. There are no weapons for this fight. There are countless laws of man and of nature, and none of these is on your side. Your arms go weak in their sockets, your heart comes up empty. You understand that the thing you love more than this world grew from a devil’s seed. It was you who let him plant it.
The day does come, finally, when a daughter can walk away from a man such as that-if she’s lucky. His own ferocity turns over inside her and she turns away hard, never to speak to him again. Instead she’ll begin talking to you, her mother, demanding with a world of indignation: How could you let him? Why?
There are so many answers. All of them are faultless, and none good enough.
What did I have? No money, that’s for sure. No influence, no friends I could call upon in that place, no way to overrule the powers that governed our lives. This is not a new story: I was an inferior force. There was another thing too, awful to admit. I’d come to believe that God was on his side. Does this make me seem lunatic? But I did believe it; I must have. I feared him more than it’s possible to fear a mere man. Feared Him, loved Him, served Him, clamped my hands over my ears to stop His words that rang in my head even when He was far away, or sleeping. In the depths of my sleepless nights I would turn to the Bible for comfort, only to find myself regaled yet again. Unto the woman God said: I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception, in sorrow thou shall bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.
Oh, mercy. If it catches you in the wrong frame of mind, the King James Bible can make you want to drink poison in no uncertain terms.
My downfall was not predicted. I didn’t grow up looking for ravishment or rescue, either one. My childhood was a happy one in its own bedraggled way. My mother died when I was quite young, and certainly a motherless girl will come up wanting in some respects, but in my opinion she has a freedom unknown to other daughters. For every womanly fact of life she doesn’t get told, a star of possibility still winks for her on the horizon.
Jackson, Mississippi, in the Great Depression wasn’t so different from the Congo thirty years later, except that in Jackson we knew of some that had plenty and I guess that did make us restless from time to time. In Kilanga, people knew nothing of things they might have had-a Frigidaire? a washer-dryer combination? Really, they’d sooner imagine a tree that could pull up its feet and go bake bread. It didn’t occur to them to feel sorry for themselves. Except when children died-then they wept and howled. Anyone can recognize the raging injustice there. But otherwise I believe they were satisfied with their lot.
And so it was for me, as a child in the Depression, with that same practical innocence. So long as I was surrounded only with what I knew, that’s what life had to offer and I took it. As a noticeably pretty child, and later on, a striking girl, I had my own small way in the world. My father, Bud Wharton, was an eye doctor. We lived on the outskirts of Jackson proper, in a scrubby settlement called Pearl. Dad saw patients in the back room of the house, which had metal cabinets for his nested lenses that tinkled like glass wind chimes when you opened and shut the drawers. Up front, we ran a store. We had to, because in hard times everyone’s eyes get better or at least good enough. In the store we sold fresh produce my cousins brought in from their truck farm, and also dry goods and a little ammunition. We squeaked by. We all lived upstairs. At one time there were eleven altogether, cousins from Noxubee County, uncles who came and went with the picking season, and my old Aunt Tess. She was a mother to me if I needed one. What Aunt Tess loved to say was: “Sugar, it’s no parade but you’ll get down the street one way or another, so you’d just as well throw your shoulders back and pick up your pace.” And that was more or less what we all believed in.
I don’t think Dad ever forgave me, later on, for becoming a Free Will Baptist. He failed to see why anyone would need more bluster and testimony about God’s Plan than what he found, for example, within the fine-veined world of an eyeball. That, and a good chicken dinner on Sundays. Dad drank and cursed some but not in any way that mattered. He taught me to cook, and otherwise let me run wild with my cousins. On the outskirts of Pearl lay a wilderness. There we discovered pitcher-plant bogs where we’d hike up our dresses, sink on our knees in the rich black muck, and stare carnivory right in the lips, feeding spiders to the pitcher plants. This was what I worshiped and adored as a child: miracles of a passionate nature. Later on, we discovered kissing boys.Then tent revivals.
It was some combination of all those things that ran me up against Nathan Price. I was seventeen, bursting utterly with happiness. Arm in arm we girls marched forward in our thin cotton dresses with all eyes upon us. Tossing our hair, down the aisle we went between the rows of folding chairs borrowed from the funeral home, right straight to the front of the crowded tent for the Lord’s roll call. We threw ourselves at Jesus with our unsaved bosoms heaving. We had already given a chance to all the other red-necked hooligans in Pearl by then, and were looking for someone who better deserved us. Well, why not Jesus? We were only in it for the short run anyhow-we assumed He would be gone by the end of the week, the same as all others.
But when the tent folded up, I found I had Nathan Price in my life instead, a handsome young red-haired preacher who fell upon my unclaimed soul like a dog on a bone. He was more sure of himself than I’d thought it possible for a young man to be, but I resisted him. His seriousness dismayed me. He could be jolly with old ladies in crepe de chine dresses, patting their hunched backs, but with me he could not let go the subject of heaven except to relieve it occasionally with his thoughts on hell.
Our courtship crept up on me, mainly because I didn’t recognize that’s what it was. I thought he was just bound and determined to save me. He’d park himself on our dusty front-porch steps, fold his suit jacket neatly on the glider, roll up his sleeves, and read to me from the Psalms and Deuteronomy while I shelled beans. How say ye to my soul, Flee as a bird to your mountain? The words were mysterious and beautiful, so I let him stay. My prior experience with young men was to hear them swear “Christ almighty in the crap-house!” at any dress with too many buttons. Now here was one from whose mouth came, The words of the Lord are pure words: as silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times; and He maketh me to lie down in green pastures. Oh, I wanted those green pastures. I could taste the pale green sweetness of the blade of wheat, stripped and sucked between my teeth. I wanted to lie down with those words and rise up speaking a new language. So I let him stay.
As a young and ambitious revival preacher, his circuit was supposed to divide him equally between Rankin, Simpson, and Copiah counties, but I’ll tell you what: more souls got saved in Pearl that summer than the Lord probably knew what to do with. Nathan hardly missed a Sunday chicken dinner at our house. Aunt Tess finally said, “You’re a-feeding him anyways, child, why not go on and marry him if that’s what he’s after.”
I suppose I’ll never know if that was what he was after. But when I told him Aunt Tess was more or less needing an answer, before committing more chickens to the project, the idea of marriage suited him well enough so that he owned it as his. I hardly had time to think about my own answer-why, it was taken to be a foregone conclusion. And even if anyone had been waiting for my opinion, I wouldn’t have known how to form one. I’d never known any married person up close. What did I know of matrimony? From where I stood, it looked like a world of flattering attention, and what’s more, a chance to cross the county line.
We married in September and spent our honeymoon picking cotton for the war effort. In ‘39 and ‘40 there had been such talk of war, the boys were getting called up just to make a show of being ready for anything, I suppose. But Nathan had always been exempted, as an indispensible worker-not for the Lord, but for King Cotton. He did farm labor between revivals, and in the autumn of ‘41 it was our first enterprise as newlyweds to bend our backs together in the dusty fields. When the rough cotton pokes were filled, our hands clawed raw and our hair and shoulders tufted with white, we believed we’d done our part. Never did we dream that shortly the bombs would fall on a faraway harbor whose name struck a chill across our own small, landlocked Pearl.
By the end of that infamous week, half the men in all this world were pledged to a single war, Nathan included. He was drafted. At Fort Sill, his captain made note of Nathan’s faith and vouched that he’d serve as a hospital cleric or chaplain, decently removed from enemy lines. I let out my breath: now I could truly say I loved the Lord! But then, without any explanation, Nathan found himself in Paris, Texas, training for the infantry. I was allowed to spend two weeks with him there on the wind-swept plain, mostly waiting in the strange vacancy of a cold apartment, trying to compose cordial things to say to the other wives. What flotsam and jetsam we were, women of all accents and prospects washed up there boiling grits or pasta, whatever we knew as comfort, united by our effort not to think about our husbands’ hands learning to cradle a gun. At night I cradled his head on my lap and read him the Scriptures: The Lord is my rock and my fortress… the horn of my salvation… so shall I be saved from mine enemies.When he left, I went home to Pearl.
He wasn’t even gone three months. He was trucked, shipped, and shuttled on the Asiatic Fleet, and finally encamped under palm trees on the Philippine shore, to make his stand for General MacArthur. His company fought their way into Luzon, facing nothing worse than mosquitoes and jungle to begin with, but on their second night were roused from sleep by artillery. Nathan was struck in the head with a shell fragment. He ran for cover, dazed, and spent the night in a bamboo pig shed. He had suffered a concussion but gradually regained consciousness through the dawn and staggered about half-blinded into the open, with no more sense of direction than an insect rushing at flame. By pure luck, just before nightfall, he was spotted on the beach and picked up by a PT boat. From a hospital bunker in Corregidor Island he wrote me a cheerful V-mail letter about his salvation by the grace of God and a Jap hog manger. He couldn’t tell his location, of course, but promised me he was miraculously mostly intact, and coming home soon!
That was the last I would ever hear from the man I’d married- one who could laugh (even about sleeping in a manger), call me his “honey lamb,” and trust in the miracle of good fortune. I can still picture the young soldier who wrote that letter while propped up in bed, smiling through his eyepatch and bandages, showing the nurses a photo of his pretty bride with Delta cotton poking out of her hair. Enjoying, as it turned out, the last happy hours of his life. He hadn’t yet learned what happened to the rest of his company. In a few days the news would begin to reach Corregidor. Through the tunnels of that island fortress came wind of a horror too great to speak aloud-a whispered litany that would take years to be fully disclosed to the world, and especially to me. It would permanently curl one soldier’s heart like a piece of hard shoe leather.
When the shelling began that night, as Nathan was hit and stumbled unseen through the darkness into a pig shed, the company received orders to move quickly to the Bataan Peninsula, where
they could hide in the jungle, regroup, then march back to retake Manila. It was an error of a commander’s overconfidence, small in history, large in the lives of those men. They were trapped on the peninsula, starving and terrified, and finally rounded up at bayonet point to be marched north through tepid rice paddies and blazing heat, marched through exhaustion and sickness and beyond it, marched from their feet to their hands and knees, emaciated, hallucinating from thirst and racked with malaria, toward a prison camp which few of them ever reached, and fewer survived. Nathan’s company died, to the man, on the Death March from Bataan.
Private Price was evacuated from Corregidor just a few weeks before MacArthur himself abandoned that post, with his famous promise to return. But he would not be back, so far as those boys in Bataan were concerned, and neither would the soldier boy I’d married. He came home with a crescent-shaped scar on his temple, seriously weakened vision in his left eye, and a suspicion of his own cowardice from which he could never recover. His first words to me were to speak of how fiercely he felt the eye of God upon him. He pulled away from my kiss and my teasing touch, demanding, “Can’t you understand the Lord is watching us?”
I still tried to tell him we were lucky. I believed the war had made only the smallest possible dent in our plans. Nathan was changed, I could see, but he only seemed more devout, and it was hard to name the ruin in that. At last I’d get to cross the state lines I’d dreamed of, traveling as a minister’s wife.
Lord have mercy, that I did-Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia. We crossed lines in sand drawn through palmetto scrub, lines down the middle of highways, soup-kitchen lines, lines of worry, souls lined up awaiting the burning tongue of salvation. Nathan aimed to scorch a path as wide as Sherman’s.With no money and no time to settle, we moved to a different ramshackle rental cottage or boardinghouse every season until I was so pregnant with Rachel that our nomad state seemed disreputable. One night we simply chose Bethlehem, Georgia, off a map. By good luck or Providence our station wagon made it that far, and Bethlehem turned out to be an open market for Evangelical Baptists. I tried to laugh about it, for here we were: man and swollen wife and no more room at the inn.
Nathan did not laugh at that hopeful comparison. In fact, it brought his hand down against me for the first time. I recall that I was sitting on the edge of a chair in our still-unpacked kitchen, holding my huge body together with both hands as we listened to the radio. A man had been reading a long war story, as they did then: a firsthand account of a prison camp and a dreadful march, where exhausted men struggled hopelessly, fell behind, and perished in brief orange bursts of pistol fire in the darkness. I was only half listening, until Nathan brought me to attention.
“Not a one of those men will ever see a son born to carry on his name. And you dare to gloat before Christ himself about your undeserved blessing.”
Until that night I’d never known the details of where Nathan had been, nor the full measure of what he was still escaping.
He was profoundly embarrassed by my pregnancies. To his way of thinking they were unearned blessings, and furthermore each one drew God’s attention anew to my having a vagina and his having a penis and the fact we’d laid them near enough together to conceive a child. But, God knows, it was never so casual as that. Nathan was made feverish by sex, and trembled afterward, praying aloud and blaming me for my wantonness. If his guilt made him a tyrant before men, it made him like a child before his God. Not a helpless or pleading child, but a petulant one, the type of tough boy who’s known too little love and is quick to blame others for his mistakes. The type who grows up determined to show them all what he can do. He meant personally to save more souls than had perished on the road from Bataan, I think, and all other paths ever walked by the blight of mankind.
And where was I, the girl or woman called Orleanna, as we traveled those roads and crossed the lines again and again? Swallowed by Nathan’s mission, body and soul. Occupied as if by a foreign power. I still appeared to be myself from the outside, I’m sure, just as he still looked like the same boy who’d gone off to war. But now every cell of me was married to Nathan’s plan. His magnificent will. This is how conquest occurs: one plan is always larger than the other. I tried hard to do what I believed a wife ought, things like washing white shirts and black socks separately in rooming-house sinks. Making meal after meal of fried corn mush. The towns where we preached were stripped bare of young men, with it still being wartime, and this fanned the fires of Nathan’s private torture. When he looked out over those soldierless congregations, he must have seen ghosts, marching north. For my part, I merely watched young, deprived female bosoms panting before my handsome husband, soldier of the Lord. (I longed to shout: Go ahead and try him, girls, I am too tired!) Or else I was home waiting for him, drinking four glasses of water before he arrived so I could watch him eat whatever there was without my stomach growling. When I was carrying the twins I had such desperate cravings I sometimes went out at night on my hands and knees and secretly ate dirt from the garden. Three babies in less than two lonely years I had. I cannot believe any woman on earth has ever made more babies out of less coition. Three babies were too much, and I sensed it deep in my body. When the third one was born she could not turn her head to the side or even properly suckle.That was Adah. I’d cried for days when I learned I was carrying twins, and now I lay awake nights wondering whether my despair had poisoned her. Already Nathan’s obsession with guilt and God’s reproof was infecting me. Adah was what God sent me, either as punishment or reward. The world has its opinion on that, and I have mine. The doctors gave her little hope, though one of the nurses was kind. She told me formula was the very best thing, a modern miracle, but we couldn’t afford it for two. So I ended up suckling greedy Leah at my breast and giving Adah the expensive bottles, both at the same time; with twins you learn how to do everything backhanded. Not only twins, mind you, but also a tow-headed toddler, whose skin seemed too thin, for she wailed at the slightest discomfort. Rachel screamed every single time she wet her diaper, and set the other two off like alarm bells. She also screamed excessively over teething. Adah howled from frustration, and Leah cried over nightmares. For six years, from age nineteen until I turned twenty-five, I did not sleep uninterrupted through a single night.There it is. And you wonder why I didn’t rise up and revolt against Nathan? I felt lucky to get my shoes on the right feet, that’s why. I moved forward only, thinking each morning anew that we were leaving the worst behind.
Nathan believed one thing above all else: that the Lord notices righteousness, and rewards it. My husband would accept no other possibility. So if we suffered in our little house on the peanut plain of Bethlehem, it was proof that one of us had committed a failure of virtue. I understood the failure to be mine. Nathan resented my attractiveness, as if slender hips and large blue eyes were things I’d selected intentionally to draw attention to myself. The eyes of God were watching, he gave me to know. If I stood still for a moment in the backyard between hanging up sheets to notice the damp grass tingling under my bare feet, His eyes observed my idleness. God heard whenever I let slip one of my father’s curse words, and He watched me take my bath, daring me to enjoy the warm water. I could scarcely blow my nose without feeling watched. As if to compensate for all this watching, Nathan habitually overlooked me. If I complained about our life, he would chew his dinner while looking tactfully away, as one might ignore a child who has deliberately broken her dolls and then whines she has nothing to play with. To save my sanity, I learned to pad around hardship in soft slippers and try to remark on its good points.
If there was still some part of a beautiful heathen girl in me, a girl drawn to admiration like a moth to moonlight, and if her heart still pounded on Georgia nights when the peeper frogs called out from roadside ditches, she was too dumbfounded to speak up for herself. Once or twice while Nathan was away on a revival I may have locked the doors and breathed into my own mouth in the mirror, putting on red lipstick to do the housework. But rarely. I encountered my own spirit less and less. By the time Ruth May was born, we’d moved into the parsonage on Hale Street and Nathan was in full possession of the country once known as Orleanna Wharton. I accepted the Lord as my personal Saviour, for He finally brought me a Maytag washer. I rested in this peace and called it happiness. Because in those days, you see, that’s how a life like mine was known.
It took me a long time to understand the awful price I’d paid, and that even God has to admit the worth of freedom. How say ye to my soul, Flee as a bird to your mountain? By then, I was lodged in the heart of darkness, so thoroughly bent to the shape of marriage I could hardly see any other way to stand. Like Methuselah I cowered beside my cage, and though my soul hankered after the mountain, I found, like Methuselah, I had no wings.
This is why, little beast. I’d lost my wings. Don’t ask me how I gained them back-the story is too unbearable. I trusted too long in false reassurances, believing as we all want to do when men speak of the national interest, that it’s also ours. In the end, my lot was cast with the Congo. Poor Congo, barefoot bride of men who took her jewels and promised the Kingdom.
The Things We Didn’t Know
KILANGA, SEPTEMBER 1960
FOR THE SECOND TIME, we flew from Leopoldville over the jungle and down into that tiny cleared spot that was called Kilanga. This time it was just Father and me in the airplane, plus Mr.Axelroot, and twenty pounds of dry goods and canned whole prunes the Underdowns couldn’t take with them when they fled the Congo. But this second bumpy touchdown didn’t have the same impact as our first arrival. Instead of excitement, I felt a throb of dread. Not a single soul was standing at the edge of the field to greet us-no villagers, not even Mother or my sisters. This much is for sure, nobody was pounding on drums or stewing up a goat for us. As Father and I crossed the lonely field and made for our house I couldn’t help but think about that earlier night and the welcome feast, all the tastes and sounds of it. How strange and paltry it seemed at the time, and now, looking back, what an abundance of good protein had been sacrificed in our honor. A shameful abundance, really. My stomach growled. I silendy pledged to the Lord that I would express true gratitude for such a feast, if ever one should happen again. Rachel’s opinion of goat meat notwithstanding, we could sure use a good old feast, because how else were we going to eat now? You can only get so far in this life on canned whole prunes.
On account of Independence I’d been thinking more about money than ever before in my life, aside from story problems for sixth-grade math. Fifty dollars a month in Belgian francs might not sound like much, but in Kilanga it had made us richer than anybody. Now we are to get by on zero dollars a month in Belgian francs, and it doesn’t take long to figure out that story problem.
Sure enough, within a few weeks of Father’s and my empty-handed return, the women figured out we had no money, and stopped coming to our door to sell us the meat or fish their husbands had killed. It was a gradual understanding, of course. At first they were just confused by our lowered circumstances. We spelled out our position as best we could: jyata, no money! This was the truth. Every franc we’d saved up had gone to Eeben Axelroot, because Father had to bribe him flat-out to fly the two of us back from Leopoldville.Yet our neighbors in Kilanga seemed to think: Could this really be, a white person jyata? They would remain in our doorway for the longest time just staring us up and down, while their baskets of plenty loomed silently on their heads. I suppose they must have thought our wealth was infinite. Nelson explained again and again, with Rachel and Adah and me looking over his shoulder, that it was Independence now and our family didn’t get paid extra for being white Christians. Well, the women made lots of sympathetic noises upon hearing that.They bounced their babies on their hips and said, A bu, well then, ayi, the Independence. But they still didn’t believe it, quite. Had we looked everywhere, they wanted to know? Perhaps there is still a little money stashed under those strange, tall beds, or inside our cabinet boxes? And the little boys still attacked us like good-natured bandits whenever we went outside- cadeau, cadeau!-demanding powdered milk or a pair of pants, insisting that we still had a whole slew of these things stashed away at home.
Mama Mwanza from next door was the only one who felt sorry for us. She made her way over on the palms of her hands to give us some oranges, Independence or not. We told her we didn’t have a thing to give her back, but she just waved up at us with the heels of both her hands. A bu, no matter! Her little boys were good at finding oranges, she said, and she still had a bakala mpandi at her house-a good strong man. He was going to set his big fish traps later in the week, and if the catch was good, he would let her bring us some fish. Whenever you have plenty of something, you have to share it with the jyata, she said. (And Mama Mwanza is not even Christian!) Really you know things are bad when a woman without any legs and who recently lost two of her own kids feels sorry for you.
Mother was taking life hard. The last we knew, when Father and I took off on the plane for Leopoldville, she was still trying to rise to the occasion; but in the short time we were away she’d stopped rising and gone downhill. Now she tended to walk bewildered around the house in her nightgown, scuffed brown loafers, no socks, and an unbuttoned pink blouse, spending both nights and days only halfway dressed for either one. A lot of the time she spent curled up on the bed with Ruth May. Ruth May didn’t want to eat and said she couldn’t stand up right because she was sweating too much. The truth is, neither one of them was taking a healthy interest.
Nelson told me confidentially that Mother and Ruth May had kibaazu, which means that someone had put a curse on them. Furthermore he claimed he knew who it was, and that sooner or later the kibaazu would get around to all the females in our house. I thought of the chicken bones in a calabash bowl left on our doorstep by Tata Kuvudundu some weeks back, which had given me the creeps. I explained to Nelson that his voodoo was absolutely nonsense. We don’t believe in an evil god that could be persuaded to put a curse on somebody.
“No?” he asked. “Your god, he didn’t put a curse on Tata Chobe?” This was on a sweltering afternoon as Nelson and I chopped firewood to carry into the kitchen house. It was endless work to feed our cast-iron stove just for boiling the water, let alone cooking.
“Tata Chobe?” I was wary of this conversation but curious to know how well he’d learned the teachings of the Bible. Through the very large holes in his red T-shirt I watched the strings of muscle tense up in Nelson’s back for one hard second as he raised his machete and split the deep purple heart of a small log. Nelson used his machete for everything under the sun, from splitting kindling to shaving (not that he had a real need at age thirteen) to cleaning the stove. He kept it extremely sharp and clean.
He stood to catch his breath. He laid the machete carefully on the ground and threw his arms in wide circles to loosen them out. “Your god put a kibdazu onTata Chobe. He gave him the pox and the itches and killed all his seven children under one roof.”
“Oh,Job” I said.”Why, that wasn’t a curse, Nelson. God was testing his faith.”
“A bu” Nelson said, meaning more or less, “Okay, fine.” After he’d taken up his weapon again and split three or four more purple-heart logs he said, “Somebody is testing faith for your mother and your little sister.The next one he will be testing is the Termite.”
Mvula-a pale white termite that comes out after a rain-is what people here call Rachel, because she’s so pallid.Their opinion is that she gets that way from staying indoors too much and being terrified of life in general. Rachel doesn’t think much of termites, needless to say, and insists that the word has some other, higher meaning. I am generally called Leba, a much nicer word that means Jig tree. At first we thought they couldn’t say “Leah”but it turns out they can say it perfectly well and are being nice to avoid it, because Lea is the Kikongo word for nothing much.
I repeated to Nelson that, however he might interpret the parable of Job, our family doesn’t believe in witch-doctor ngangas and evil-eye fetishes and the nkisis and gree-grees people wear around their necks, to ward off curses and the like. “I’m sorry, Nelson,” I told him, “but we just don’t worship those gods.” To make our position perfectly clear I added, “Baka vei.”This means, “We don’t pay for that,” which is how you say that you don’t believe.
Nelson gently stacked wood into my outstretched arms.”A bu” he said sorrowfully. I had no choice but to look closely into Nelson’s sweat-glazed face as he arranged the wood in my awkward embrace-our work brought us that close together. I could see that he seemed truly sad for us. He clicked his tongue the way Mama Tataba used to, and told me, “Leba, the gods you do not pay are the ones that can curse you best.”
WONK TON O DEW. The things we do not know, independently and in unison as a family, would fill two separate baskets, each with a large hole in the bottom.
Muntu is the Congolese word for man. Or people. But it means more than that. Here in the Congo I am pleased to announce there is no special difference between living people, dead people, children not yet born, and gods-these are all muntu. So says Nelson. All other things are kintu: animals, stones, bottles. A place or a time is hantu, and a quality of being is kuntu: beautiful, hideous, or lame, for example. All these things have in common the stem word ntu. “All that is being here, ntu,” says Nelson with a shrug, as if this is not so difficult to understand. And it would be simple, except that “being here” is not the same as “existing.” He explains the difference this way: the principles of ntu are asleep, until they are touched by nommo. Nommo is the force that makes things live as what they are: man or tree or animal. Nommo means word. The rabbit has the life it has-not a rat life or mongoose life-because it is named rabbit, mvundla. A child is not alive, claims Nelson, until it is named. I told him this helped explain a mystery for me. My sister and I are identical twins, so how is it that from one single seed we have two such different lives? Now I know. Because I am named Adah and she is named Leah.
Nommo, I wrote down on the notebook I had opened out for us at our big table. Nommo ommon NoMmo, I wrote, wishing to learn this word forward and backward. Theoretically I was in the process of showing Nelson, at his urging, how to write a letter (ignoring the fact he would have no way to mail it). He enjoys my silent tutelage and asks for it often. But Nelson as a pupil is apt to turn teacher himself at the least provocation. And he seems to think his chatter improves our conversation, since I only write things on paper.
“NOMMO MVULA IS MY SISTER RACHEL?” I queried.
Ruth May, then, is Nommo Bandu, and Leah is Nommo Leba. And where does Nommo come from?
He pointed to his mouth. Nommo comes from the mouth, like water vapor, he said: a song, a poem, a scream, a prayer, a name, all these are nommo. Water itself is nommo, of the most important kind, it turns out. Water is the word of the ancestors given to us or withheld, depending on how well we treat them. The word of the ancestors is pulled into trees and men, Nelson explained, and this allows them, to stand and live as muntu.
A TREE IS ALSO MUNTU? I wrote. Quickly I drew stick man and stick tree side by side, to clarify. Our conversations are often mostly pictures and gestures. “A tree is a type of person?”
“Of course,” Nelson said. “Just look at them. They both have roots and a head.”
Nelson was puzzled by my failure to understand such a simple thing.
Then he asked, “You and your sister Leba, how do you mean you came from the same seed?”
Twins, I wrote. He didn’t recognize the word. I drew two identical girls side by side, which he found even more baffling, given that Leah and I-the beauty and the beast-were the twins under consideration. So then, since no one was around to watch us and Nelson seems incapable of embarrassment, I brought forth a shameless pantomime of a mother giving birth to one baby, then-oh my!- another. Twins. His eyes grew wide. “Baza!”
I nodded, thinking he was not the first to be amazed by this news about Leah and me. But it must have been more than that, because he leaped away from me with such haste that he knocked over his chair.
“Baza!” he repeated, pointing at me. He delicately touched my forehead and recoiled, as if my skin might burn him.
I scribbled with some defensiveness: You never saw twins?
He shook his head with conviction. “Any woman who has baza should take the two babies to the forest after they are born and leave them there. She takes them fast, right away. That is very very very necessary.”
“The ancestors and gods,” he stammered. “All gods. What god would not be furious at a mother who kept such babies? I think the whole village would be flooded or mostly everyone would die, if a mother kept her baza”
I looked around the room, saw no immediate evidence of catastrophe, and shrugged. I turned the page on our lesson in business correspondence, and began to work on an elaborate pencil drawing of Noah’s ark. After a while Nelson righted his chair and sat down approximately four feet away from me. He leaned very far over to try to peer at my picture.
THIS IS NOT ABOUT TWINS, I wrote across the top. Or who knows, maybe it is, I thought. All those paired-up bunnies and elephants.
“What happened to your village when your mother did not take you to the forest?”
I considered the year of my birth, and wrote: WE WON THE WAR. Then I proceeded to draw the outline of an exceptionally elegant giraffe. But Nelson glowered, still waiting for evidence that my birth had not brought down a plague upon my house. NO FLOODS. NO EPIDEMICS, I wrote. ALL IS WELL IN USA, WHERE MOTHERS KEEP THEIR BAZA EVERYDAY.
Nelson stared at me with such pure, annoyed skepticism I was tempted to doubt my own word. Hadn’t there been, say, a rash of hurricanes in the months after Leah and I were born? A bad winter nationwide for the flu? Who knew. I shrugged, and drew a second giraffe with a dramatic, Z-shaped crook to its neck. The benduka giraffe.
Nelson was not going to let me off. Clearly my twinhood was a danger to society. “Tata Jesus, what does he say?”
TOO MUCH, AS A RULE.
“What does he say to do when a woman has…” he hesitated over even saying the word in English.
I shrugged, but Nelson kept pushing me on this point. He would not believe that the Jesus Bible, with its absolutely prodigious abundance of words, gave no specific instructions to mothers of newborn twins. Finally I wrote: JESUS SAYS TO KEEP THEM, I GUESS.
Nelson became agitated again. “So you see, both wives of Tata Boanda go to the Jesus Church! And the Mama Lakanga! All these women and their friends and husbands! They think they will have twins again, and Tata Jesus will not make them leave the babies in the forest.”
This was fascinating news, and I queried him on the particulars. According to Nelson’s accounting, nearly half my father’s congregation were relatives of dead twins. It is an interesting precept on which to found a ministry: The First Evangelical Baptist Church of the Twin-Prone. I also learned from Nelson that we are hosting seven lepers every Sunday, plus two men who have done the thing that is permanently unforgiven by local gods-that is, to have accidentally killed a clansman or child. We seem to be the Church for the Lost of Cause, which is probably not so far afield from what Jesus himself was operating in his time.
This should not have been a great surprise. Anatole had already tried to explain to us the societal function of our church, during that fateful dinner that ended in a shattered plate. But the Reverend feels he is doing such a ripping job of clarifying all fine points of the Scripture to the heathen, he cannot imagine that he is still merely serving the purpose of cleaning up the streets, as it were.
Removing troublesome elements from the main ceremonial life of Kilanga. The Reverend failed to notice that every churchgoing family whose children were struck hard with the kakakaka quietly removed themselves back to ancestor worship, while a few of the heathen families that were hard hit quietly came and tried out Christianity. While it makes perfect sense to me, this pragmatic view of religion escapes the Reverend utterly. Each time a new convert limps through the door on a Sunday morning, he will boast over dinner that he is “really calling them home now, buddy. Finally attracting the attention of some of the local big shots.”
And so he continues ministering to the lepers and outcasts. By pure mistake, his implementation is sometimes more pure than his intentions. But mostly it is the other way around. Mostly he shouts, “Praise be!” while the back of his hand knocks you flat.
How did he come to pass, this nommo Nathan Price? I do wonder. In the beginning was the word, the war, the way of all flesh. The mother, the Father, the son who was not, the daughters who were too many. The twins who brought down the house, indeed. In the beginning was the word the herd the blurred the turd the debts incurred the theatrical absurd. Our Father has a bone to pick with this world, and oh, he picks it like a sore. Picks it with the Word. His punishment is the Word, and his deficiencies are failures of words- as when he grows impatient with translation and strikes out precariously on his own, telling parables in his wildly half-baked Kikongo. It is a dangerous thing, I now understand, to make mistakes with nommo in the Congo. If you assign the wrong names to things, you could make a chicken speak like a man. Make a machete rise up and dance.
We his daughters and wife are not innocent either. The players in his theater. We Prices are altogether thought to be peculiarly well-intentioned, and inane. I know this. Nelson would never come out and say as much. But he has always told me, when I ask, the words we get wrong. I can gather the rest. It is a special kind of person who will draw together a congregation, stand up before them with a proud, clear voice, and say words wrong, week after week.
Bandika, for example: to kill someone. If you spit it out too quickly, as the Reverend does, it means to pinch back a plant or deflower a virgin. What a surprise it must be to the Congolese to hear that brave David, who intended to smite the mighty Goliath, was actually jumping around pinching back plants, or worse.
Then there is batiza, Our Father’s fixed passion. Batiza pronounced with the tongue curled just so means “baptism.” Otherwise, it means “to terrify.” Nelson spent part of an afternoon demonstrating to me that fine linguistic difference while we scraped chicken manure from the nest boxes. No one has yet explained it to the Reverend. He is not of a mind to receive certain news. Perhaps he should clean more chicken houses.
SOMETIMES YOU JUST WANT to lay on down and look at the whole world sideways. Mama and I do. It feels nice. If I put my head on her, the sideways world moves up and down. She goes: hhh-huh. hhh-huh. She’s soft on her tummy and the bosoms part. When Father and Leah went away on the airplane we just needed to lay on down awhile.
Sometimes I tell her: Mommy Mommy. I just say that. Father isn’t listening so I can say it. Her real name is Mother and Misrus Price but her secret name to me is Mommy Mommy. He went away on the airplane and I said, “Mama, I hope he never comes back.” We cried then.
But I was sad and wanted Leah to come back because she’ll pick me up and carry me piggyback sometimes, when she’s not hollowing at me for being a pest. Everybody is nice sometimes and Baby Jesus says to love everybody no matter how you really do feel. Baby Jesus knows what I said about wishing Father would never come back anymore, and Father is the preacher. So God and them love him the best.
I dreamed I climbed away up to the top of the alligator pear tree and was a-looking down at all of them, the teeny little children with crooked cowboy legs and their big eyes looking up and the teeniest wrapped-up babies with little hands and faces that are just as fair till they get older and turn black, for it takes a spell I guess before God notices they are the Tribes of Ham. And the dirt-color houses all just the same as the dirt they’re sitting on. Mama says not a thing in the whole village that won’t melt in a good hard rain. And I could see Mommy Mommy, the top of her. I could see everything she was thinking, like Jesus does. She was thinking about animals.
Sometimes when you wake up you can’t tell if it was dreaming or real.
GOD WORKS, as is very well known, in mysterious ways. There is just nothing you can name that He won’t do, now and then. Oh, He will send down so much rain that all his little people are drinking from one another’s sewers and dying of the kakakaka.Then he will organize a drought to scorch out the yam and manioc fields, so whoever did not die of fever will double over from hunger. What next, you might ask? Why, a mystery, that’s what!
After the Independence cut off our stipend and all contacts with the larger world, it seems God’s plan called for Mother and Ruth May to fall sick nigh unto death. They grew flushed and spotted and thick-tongued and tired and slow-moving near unto the lower limit of-what is generally thought to constitute a living human body.
The Reverend seemed unconcerned about this. He forged ahead with his mission work, leaving his three older girls in charge of hearth and home for days on end while he sallied out to visit the unsaved, or to meet with Anatole about imposing Bible classes upon boys of tender years. Oh, that Bible, where every ass with a jawbone gets his day! (Anatole evidently was not keen on the plan.) Often the Reverend simply went out and walked along the river for hours, alone, trying out his sermons on the lilies of the field-who understand him about as well as his congregation and frankly are better listeners. All in all, being God’s sole and abandoned emissary to Kilanga was keeping Our Father very busy. If we plagued him with our worries about Mother, he merely snapped that she would heed God’s call soon enough, and get herself up and around. At night we overheard strange, tearful arguments, in which Mother spoke in a quiet, slurred, slow-motion voice, like a phonograph record on the wrong speed, outlining the possibilities for our family’s demise. In a small fraction of the time it took her to form her plea, Our Father irritably countered that the Lord operates in mysterious ways. As if she did not know.
Serious delirious imperious weary us deleterious ways. Our neighbors seemed fairly indifferent to our reduced circumstances, as they were occupied with their own. Leah’s friend Pascal was the only one who still came around occasionally, wanting Leah to come out and scout the bush for adventures with him. While we labored over changing beds or washing up dishes, Pascal would wait outside, teasing for our attention by shouting the handful of American phrases Leah had taught him: “Man-oh-man! Crazy!” It used to make us laugh, but now we cringed for having trained him in insolence.
Our childhood had passed over into history overnight. The transition was unnoticed by anyone but ourselves.
The matter of giving us each day our daily bread was clearly up to us girls to figure out, and the sheer work of it exhausted me. I often felt like taking to bed myself. My sisters were similarly affected: Rachel became hollow-eyed and careworn, sometimes combing her hair only once per day. Leah slowed from a run to a walk. We had not understood what our mother had gone through to get square meals on the table for the past year. Father still didn’t, as he thought nothing of leaving it in the charge of a cripple, a beauty queen, and a tomboy who approaches housework like a cat taking a bath.What a family unit we do make.
Sometimes in the middle of the night Leah would sit bolt upright in her bed, wanting to talk. I think she was frightened, but she frequently brought up her vexation with Mama Mwanza, who had spoken so matter-of-factly about having a strong husband at home. It troubled Leah that people thought our household deficient, not because our mother was parked at death’s door, but because we lacked a bakala mpandi-a strong man-to oversee us.
“Father doesn’t hunt or fish because he has a higher calling,” Leah argued from her cot, as if I might not have thought of this. “Can’t they see he works hard at his own profession?”
Had I felt like entering the discussion, I would have pointed out that to Mama Mwanza his profession probably resembles the game of “Mother May I?,” consisting of very long strings of nonsense words in a row.
It took less than a month for our household to fall into chaos. We had to endure Father’s escalating rage, when he returned home to find dinner no farther along than an unresolved argument over whether there are or are not worms in the flour, or any flour at all. After his displeasure had reached a certain point, the three of us rubbed our bruises and called ourselves to a womanly sort of meeting. At the great wooden table where we had spent many a tedious hour studying algebra and the Holy Roman Empire, we now sat down to take stock.
“First of all, we have to keep boiling the water, no matter what,” announced Rachel, our elder. “Write that down, Adah. If we don’t boil our water for thirty full minutes we’ll get plebiscites and what not.”
“Second of all, we have to figure out what to eat.”
On the pantry shelves in the kitchen house we still had some flour, sugar, Carnation milk powder, tea, five cans of sardines, and the Underdown prunes; I recorded all this in a column in my notebook. Wrote it, for the benefit of my sisters, left to right. Leah added to the list: mangoes, guavas, pineapples, and avocados, all of which came and went in mysterious seasons (not unlike the Lord’s ways) but at least did grow in our yard, free of charge. Bananas were so abundant around the village people stole them off each other’s trees in broad daylight. When Mama Mwanza’s children cut down a bunch from the Nguzas’ big garden, Mama Nguza picked up the ones they’d dropped and brought them over later. Thus emboldened, Leah and I cut down a bunch the size of Ruth May from behind Eeben Axelroot’s outhouse, while he was inside. Fruit, then, was one thing we could have without money. Oranges we had always bought at the marche, as they grew deep in the jungle and were difficult to find, but Leah claimed to know where to look. She appointed herself in charge of fruit gathering, not surprisingly, this being the category of housework that takes place farthest from a house. She pledged to collect palm nuts also, even though these taste to us exactly like candle wax, however much the Congolese children seem to prize them. Still, I wrote “Palm nuts” in my book, to prolong the list. The point of our exercise was to convince ourselves that the wolf was not actually at the back door but perhaps merely salivating at the edge of our yard.
Resting up between crucial observations, Rachel was studying the tails of her hair very closely for split ends. She resembled a cross-eyed rabbit. At the mention of palm nuts she whined, “But, you all, on a diet of just fruit we could plumb die or even get diarrhea.”
“Well, what else is free?” Leah asked.
“The chickens, of course,” Rachel said. “We can kill those.”
We couldn’t kill them all, Leah explained, because then we’d have no eggs for omelets-one of the few things -we knew how to cook. But if we let some of the hens brood, to increase our flock, we might get away with frying a rooster once a month or so. My sisters put me in charge of all chicken decisions, thinking me the least likely to act on a rash impulse that would cause regrets later. The rash-impulse portion of my brain was destroyed at birth. We did not discuss who would be in charge of killing the unfortunate roosters. In earlier times our mother did that, with a flourish. Back when she was a happier woman, she used to claim Father married her for the way she wrung a rooster’s neck. Our mother used to have mystery under her skin, and we paid not the slightest attention.
Next, Leah raised the difficult issue of Nelson: nearly half our eggs went to him for his pay. We discussed whether we needed Nelson more, or the eggs. There was not much now for him to cook. But he did haul our water and cut wood, and he elucidated for us the many daily mysteries of Kilanga. As I was not good at hauling water or cutting wood, I could not personally argue for a life without Nelson. My sisters, I think, had separate fears of their own. In secret ballot we voted unanimously to keep him.
“And I will bake the bread. Mother will show me how,” Rachel announced, as if that finally solved all our troubles.
Mother had wandered unnoticed into our meeting and was standing at the front window, looking out. She coughed, and we all three turned to regard her: Orleanna Price, former baker of our bread. Really she did not look like someone who could teach you how to button your shirt on straight. It’s a disturbing thing, after a decade of being told to tuck in shirttails and walk like a lady, to see your own mother unkempt. Feeling our silent disapproval, she turned to look at us. Her eyes had the plain blue look of a rainless sky. Empty.
“It’s okay, Mama,” Leah said. “You can go on and lie back down if you want to.” Leah had not called her “Mama” since we cut our first molars. Mama nee Orleanna came over and kissed us on the tops of our heads, then shuffled back to her deathbed.
Leah turned to Rachel and hissed, “You priss, you couldn’t even sift the flour!”
“Oh, the girl genius speaks,” Rachel said. “And may I ask why not?” I chewed on my pencil and witnessed the proceedings.
“No special reason,” Leah said, scratching her shaggy pixie haircut behind the ear. “I’m sure you won’t mind sticking your hand down in the flour bag with all those weevils and maggots in there.”
“There’s not always maggots in the flour.”
“No, you’re right. Sometimes the tarantulas eat them.”
I laughed out loud. Rachel got up and left the table.
Having broken my silence in Leah’s favor, though, I felt I had to scold her for the sake of balance. “IF WE DO NOT ALL HANG TOGETHER…” I wrote on my pad.
“I know. We’ll all hang separately. But Rachel needs to get off her high horse, too. She’s never lifted a finger around here and now all of a sudden she’s the Little Red Hen?”
True enough. Having Rachel in charge was very much as if Mrs. Donna Reed from television suddenly showed up to be your mother. It had to be an act. Soon she would take off her apron and turn into someone who didn’t give a hoot about your general welfare.
Poor tyrannical Rachel keeps trying to build a big-sister career upon a slim sixteen-month seniority, insisting that we respect her as our elder. But Leah and I have not thought of her in that way since the second grade, when we passed her up in the school spelling bee. Her downfall was the ridiculously easy word scheme.
AFTER THREE WEEKS of the doldrums I made Ruth May get out of bed. Just like that, I said, “Ruth May, honey, get up. Let’s go poke around outside awhile.” There wasn’t much to be done about Mother, but I’ve spent a lot of time in charge of Ruth May and I think I should know by now what’s good for her. She needed something to boss around. Our pets had mostly escaped by then, or been eaten up, as in the case of Methuselah, but the Congo still offered a wealth of God’s creatures to entertain us. I took Ruth May outside to get some sunshine on her. But she slumped wherever I put her, with no gumption in her at all. She acted like a monkey-sock doll that has been run through the machine.
“Where do you think Stuart Little’s gone to?” I asked her. I used that name just to please her, practically admitting it was her mongoose. She hadn’t captured it or taken any special care beyond naming it after an incorrect storybook animal, namely a mouse. But I couldn’t deny it followed her around.
“He ran off. I don’t care, either.”
“Look-a-here, Ruth May. Ant lions.”
In the long, strange drought we were having in place of last year’s rainy season, soft dust had spread across our yard in broad white patches. It was pocked all over with little funnel-shaped snares, where the ant lions lay buried at the bottom, waiting for some poor insect to stumble into the trap and get devoured. We had never actually seen the ant lions themselves, only their wicked handiwork. To amuse Ruth May I’d told her they looked like lions with six legs and were huge, as big as her left hand. I don’t really know what they look like, but given how things grow in the Congo, that size seemed possible. Back before she got sick, Ruth May thought she could lie on her belly and sing to lure them out: “Wicked bug, wicked bug, come out of your hole!” shouted in singsong for whole afternoons at a time, even though it never worked. Ruth May’s foremost personality trait was stick-to-it-iveness. But now when I suggested it, she merely turned her head to the side and laid it down in the dust.
“I’m too hot to sing.They never come out anyway.” I was determined to rile her up someway. If I couldn’t find any spark left in Ruth May, I was afraid I might panic, or cry.
“Hey, watch this,” I said. I found a column of ants running up a tree trunk and picked a couple out of the lineup. Bad luck for those poor ants, singled out while minding their own business amongst their brethren. Even an ant’s just got its own one life to live, and I did consider this briefly as I crouched down and dropped a partly squashed ant into an ant lion’s trap. They used to feed Christians to the lions, and now Adah uses that phrase ironically, referring to how I supposedly left her to be eaten up on the path. But Adah is no more Christian than an ant.
We squatted over the hole and waited. The ant struggled in the soft, sandy trap until a pair of pincers suddenly reached up and grabbed it, thrashed up a little dust, and pulled it under. Gone, just
“Don’t do any more of them, Leah,” Ruth May said. “The ant wasn’t bad.”
I felt embarrassed, being told insect morals by my baby sister. Usually cruelty inspired Ruth May no end, and I was just desperate to help her get her spirits back.
“Well, even wicked bugs have to eat,” I pointed out. “Everything has to eat something.” Even lions, I suppose.
I picked up Ruth May and dusted off her cheek. “Sit in the swing and I’ll comb out your pigtails,” I said. I’d been carrying the comb around in my back pocket for days, meaning to get to Ruth May’s hair. “After I get your braids fixed up I’ll push you awhile in the swing. Okay?”
Ruth May didn’t seem to have strong feelings one way or another. I sat her in the swing, which Nelson had helped us hang with a huge, oily rope he found on the riverbank. The seat was an old rectangular palm-oil drum. All the kids in the village used our swing. I beat some dust off the comb and began to tease out the yellow mass of knots her hair had turned into. I could hardly do it without hurting her, yet she hardly whined, which I took as a bad sign.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw Anatole half hidden in the cane thicket at the edge of our yard. He wasn’t cutting cane, since he doesn’t chew it-I think he’s a little vain of his strong white teeth with the handsome little gap in the center. But he was standing there watching us anyway, and I flushed red to think he might have seen me feeding the ant lions. It seemed very childish. In the light of day, almost everything we did in Kilanga seemed childish. Even Father’s walking the riverbank talking to himself, and our mother drifting around half dressed. Combing out Ruth May’s hair at least seemed motherly and practical, so I concentrated on that. In spite of myself I pictured a father with shiny black arms pulling fish from the river and a mother with dark, heavy breasts pounding manioc in a wooden trough. Then out of habit I fired off the Repentance Psalm: Have mercy upon me, O God, according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies. But I was unsure which commandment my thoughts had broken-Honor thy father and mother, or not coveting thy neighbor’s parents, or even something more vague about being true to your own race and kind.
Anatole started toward us. I waved and called to him, “Mbote, Anatole!”
“Mbote, Beene-beene,” he said. He has special names for each of my sisters and me, not the hurtful ones other people use, like Termite and Benduka, for Adah, which means Crooked Walker. Anatole wouldn’t tell us what his names meant. He tousled Ruth May’s head and shook my hand in the Congolese way, with his left hand clasping his right forearm. Father said this tradition was to show they aren’t hiding any weapon.
“What’s the news, sir?” I asked Anatole. This is what Father always said to him. In spite of how badly that first dinner had gone, Father relied greatly on Anatole and even looked forward to his visits, somewhat nervously, I think. Anatole always surprised us by knowing important news from the outside world-or from outside Kilanga, at least. We weren’t sure where he got his information, but it generally turned out to be true.
“A lot of news,” he said. “But first I have brought you a pig in a sack.”
I loved hearing Anatole speak English. His pronunciation sounded British and elegant, with “first” corning out as “fest,” and “brought” more like “brrote.” But it sounded Congolese in the way it rolled out with equal weight on every syllable-a pig in a sack-as if no single word wanted to take over the whole sentence.
“A poke,” I said. “Mother says that: Never buy a pig in a poke. I guess a poke is a sack.”
“Well, at any rate it’s not a pig, and you don’t have to buy it. If you guess what it is, then you may have it for your dinner.” On a string slung over his shoulder he had a brown cloth sack, which he handed to me. I closed my eyes and assessed its weight, bouncing it up and down a little. It was the size of a chicken but too heavy to be a bird. I held the bag up and examined the rounded bulge at its bottom. It had little points, possibly elbows.
“Umvundlal” I cried,jumping up and down like a child.This was jungle rabbit. Nelson could make a rabbit stew with mangwansi beans and mangoes that even Rachel couldn’t help eating, it was that good.
I’d guessed right: Anatole smiled his thrilling white smile. I can scarcely even remember how he first looked to us, when we were shocked by the scars across his face. Now I could only see Anatole the man, square-shouldered and narrow-hipped in his white shirt and black trousers, Anatole with his ready smile and lively walk. A man who was kind to us. His face has many other interesting features besides the scars, such as almond-shaped eyes and a finely pointed chin. I hadn’t realized how much I liked him.
“Did you kill it yourself?”
He held up both hands. “I would like to say yes, so you would think your friend Anatole is a good hunter. But, alas. A new pupil brought it this morning to pay for his schooling.”
I looked in the sack. There it was with its small, furry head curled unnaturally backward due to a broken neck. It had been trapped, not shot. I clasped the sack to my chest and looked up at Anatole sideways. “Would you really have taken it back if I hadn’t guessed right?”
He smiled. “I would have given you a lot of chances to guess right.”
“Well! Is that the kind of leniency you show your boys on their math and French in school? They must never learn anything!”
“Oh, no, miss! I crack their naughty heads with a stick and send them home in disgrace.”We both laughed. I knew better.
“Please come for dinner tonight, Anatole. With this rabbit we’ll have too much to eat.” In fact this lonely rabbit would make a small stew and we would still be hungry while we washed the dishes afterward-a feeling we were trying to get used to. But that was how people said thank you in Kilanga. I’d learned a few manners at least.
“Perhaps I will,” he said.
“We’ll make a stew,” I promised.
“Mangwansi beans are high in the marche,” he pointed out. “Because of the drought. All the gardens are drying up.”
“I happen to know who has some: Mama Nguza. She makes her kids haul water up from the creek to pour on her garden. Haven’t you seen it? It’s sensational.”
“No, I have not seen this sensation. I will have to make better friends with Tata Nguza.”
“I don’t know about him. He sure doesn’t talk to me. Nobody talks to me, Anatole.”
“It’s true! I don’t have a single solitary friend here but Nelson and Pascal, two little boys! And you. All the girls my age have their own babies and are too busy. And the men act like I’m a snake fixing to bite them.”
He shook his head, laughing.
“They do so, Anatole.Yesterday I was sitting in the weeds watching Tata Mwanza make fish traps, and when I stood up and asked him to show me how, he ran away and jumped in the water! I swear it!”
“Beene, you were naughty. Tata Mwanza could not be seen talking to a young woman, you know that. It would be a scandal.”
“Hmmph,” I said. Why was it scandalous for me to converse with any man in Kilanga old enough to have a whole seat in his pants, except for Anatole? But I didn’t ask. I didn’t “want to jinx our friendship. “What I do happen to know,” I said, being maybe a tiny bit coy, “is that a civet cat got all of the Nguzas’ hens last Sunday. So Mama Nguza will be in a mood to trade mangwansi beans for eggs, don’t you think?”
Anatole smiled enormously. “Clever girl.”
I smiled, too, but didn’t know what else to say after that. I felt embarrassed and returned to combing out Ruth May’s hair. “She appears to be a very glum little girl today,” Anatole said. “She’s been sick in bed for weeks. Mother has too. Didn’t you notice when you came by the other day how she was standing out on the porch just staring into space? Father says they’ll both be all right, but…” I shrugged. “It wouldn’t be the sleeping sickness, do you think?”
“I think no. Now is not the season for tsetse flies. There is hardly any sleeping sickness at all in Kilanga right now.”
“Well, that’s good, because what I’ve heard about sleeping sickness is you die of it,” I said, still combing, feeling like someone who’s been hypnotized into that one single motion. Sleeping in her braids for sweaty days and nights on end had creased Ruth May’s dark blond hair into shining waves like water. Anatole stared at it as I combed it down her back. His smile got lost somewhere in that quiet minute.
“There is news, Beene, since you asked for it. I’m afraid it is not very good. I came to talk to your father.”
“He’s not here. I can tell him whatever it is, though.”
I wondered if Anatole would consider me a sufficient messenger. I’d noticed Congolese men didn’t treat even their own wives and daughters as if they were very sensible or important. Though as far as I could see the wives and daughters did just about all the work.
But Anatole apparently felt I could be spoken to. “Do you know where Katanga Province is?”
“In the south,” I said. “Where all the diamond mines are.” I’d overheard talk of it when Mr. Axelroot flew Father and me back from Leopoldville. Evidently Mr. Axelroot went there often. So I was guessing, but I guessed with my father’s trademark confidence.
“Diamonds, yes,” Anatole said. “Also cobalt and copper and zinc. Everything my country has that your country wants.”
This made me feel edgy. “Did we do something bad?”
“Not you, Beene.”
Not me, not me! My heart rejoiced at that, though I couldn’t say why.
“But, yes, there is a bad business going on,” he said. “Do you know the name Moise Tshombe?”
I might have heard it, but -wasn’t sure. I started to nod, but then admitted, “No.” I decided right then to stop pretending I knew more than I did. I would be myself, Leah Price, eager to learn all there is to know. Watching my father, I’ve seen how you can’t learn anything when you’re trying to look like the smartest person in the room.
“Moise Tshombe is leader of the Lunda tribe. For all practical purpose he is leader of Katanga Province. And since a few days ago, leader of his own nation of Katanga. He declared it separate from the Republic of Congo.”
“Now he can make his own business with the Belgians and Americans, you see. With all his minerals. Some of your countrymen have given a lot of encouragement to his decision.”
“Why can’t they just make their deals with Lumumba? He’s the one that got elected. They ought to know that.”
“They know. But Lumumba is not eager to give away the store. His loyalty is with his countrymen. He believes in a unified Congo for the Congolese, and he knows that every Katanga diamond from the south can pay a teacher’s salary in Leopoldville, or feed a village ofWarega children in the north.”
I felt both embarrassed and confused. “Why would the businessmen take Congo’s diamonds away? And what are Americans doing down there anyhow? I thought the Congo belonged to Belgium. I mean before.”
Anatole frowned. “The Congo is the Congo’s and ever has been.”
“Well, I know that. But-”
“Open your eyes, Beene. Look at your neighbors. Did they ever belong to Belgium?” He pointed across our yard and through the trees toward Mama Mwanza’s house.. ‘
I’d said a stupid thing, and felt terrible. I looked, as he commanded: Mama Mwanza with her disfigured legs and her small, noble head both wrapped in bright yellow calico. In the hard-packed dirt she sat as if planted there, in front of a little fire that licked at her dented cooking can. She leaned back on her hands and raised her face to the sky, shouting her bidding, and a chorus of halfhearted answers came back from her boys inside the mud-thatch house. Near the open doorway, the two older daughters stood pounding manioc in the tall wooden mortar. As one girl raised her pounding club the other girl’s went down into the narrow hole-up and down, a perfect, even rhythm like the pumping of pistons. I’d watched them time and again, attracted so to that dance of straight backs and muscled black arms. I envied these daughters, who worked together in such perfect synchrony. It’s what Adah and I might have felt, if we hadn’t gotten all snared in the ropes of guilt and unfair advantage. Now our whole family was at odds, it seemed: Mother against Father, Rachel against both of them, Adah against the world, Ruth May pulling helplessly at anyone who came near, and me trying my best to stay on Father’s side.
We were tangled in such knots of resentment we hardly understood them.
“Two of her children died in the epidemic,” I said.
Of course he knew. Our village was small, and Anatole knew every child by name. “It’s a terrible shame,” I offered, inadequately. He merely agreed, “E-e.” “Children should never have to die.”
“No. But if they never did, children would not be so precious.” “Anatole! Would you say that if your own children died?” “Of course not. But it is true, nevertheless. Also if everyone lived to be old, then old age would not be such a treasure.” “But everybody wants to live a long time. It’s only fair.” “Fair to want, e-e. But not fair to get. Just think how it would be if all the great-grandparents still were walking around. The village would be crowded with cross old people arguing over who has the most ungrateful sons and aching bones, and always eating up the food before the children could get to the table.”
“It sounds like a church social back in Georgia,” I said. Anatole laughed.
Mama Mwanza shouted again and clapped her hands, bringing a reluctant son out of the house, dragging the flat, pinkish soles of his feet. Then I laughed, too, just because people young and old are more or less the same everywhere. I let myself breathe out, feeling less like one of Anatole’s schoolboys taking a scolding.
“Do you see that, Beene? That is Congo. Not minerals and glittering rocks with no hearts, these things that are traded behind our backs. The Congo is us.”
“Who owns it, do you suppose?” I did not hazard a guess.
“I am sorry to say, those men making their agreements in Katanga just now are accustomed to getting what they want.”
I drew the edge of the comb slowly down the center of Ruth May’s head, making a careful part. Father had said the slums outside Leopoldville would be set right by American aid, after Independence. Maybe I was foolish to believe him. There were shanties just as poor in Georgia, on the edge of Atlanta, where black and white divided, and that was smack in the middle of America.
“Can you just do that, -what they did down there? Announce your own country?” I asked.
“Prime Minister Lumumba says no, absolutely not. He has asked the United Nations to bring an army to restore unity.” “Is there going to be a war?”
“There is already a kind of war, I think. Moise Tshombe has Belgians and mercenary soldiers working for him. I don’t think they will leave without a fight. And Katanga is not the only place where they are throwing stones. There is a different war in Matadi, Thysville, Boende, Leopoldville. People are very angry at the Europeans. They are even hurting women and little children.”
“What are they so mad at the white people for?” Anatole sighed. “Those are big cities. Where the boa and the hen curl up together, there is only trouble. People have seen too much of the Europeans and all the things they had. They imagined after Independence life would immediately become fair.” “Can’t they be patient?”
“Could you be? If your belly was empty and you saw whole baskets of bread on the other side of a window, would you continue “waiting patiently, Beene? Or would you throw a rock?”
My belly is empty, I thought of telling Anatole. “I don’t know,” I confessed. I thought of the Underdowns’ home in Leopoldville with its Persian rugs and silver tea service and chocolate cookies, surrounded by miles of tin shanties and hunger. Perhaps there were boys stomping barefoot through that house right now, ransacking the near-empty pantry and setting fire to the curtains in a kitchen that still smelled of Mrs. Underdown’s disinfectant soap. I couldn’t say who was wrong or right. I did see what Anatole meant about the snakes and hens too close together in a place like that: you could trace the belly scales of hate, and come up howling. I glanced nervously at our own house, with no rugs or tea service, but how much did that matter? Would Jesus protect us? When He looked in our hearts to weigh our worth, would he find love for our Congolese neighbors, or disdain?
“Well, it’s the job of the United Nations to keep the peace,” I said. “When will they come?”
“That is what everybody would like to know. If they won’t come, the Prime Minister has threatened to ask Mr. Khrushchev for help.”
“Khrushchev,” I said, trying to cover my shock. “The Communists would help the Congo?”
“Oh, yes, I think they would.” Anatole eyed me strangely. “Beene, do you know what a Communist is?”
“I know they do not fear the Lord, and they think everybody should have the same…” I found I couldn’t complete my own sentence.
“The same kind of house, more or less,” Anatole finished for me. “That is about right.”
“Well, I want the United Nations to come right away, and fix it up so everything’s fair, this minute!”
Anatole laughed at me. “I think you are a very impatient girl, eager to grow up into an impatient woman.” I blushed.
“Don’t worry about Mr. Khrushchev. When Lumumba says he might get help from Russia, it is, what do you call this? trompe son monde, like the hen who puffs up her feathers like so, very big, to show the snake she is too big to eat.”
“A bluff,” I said, delighted. “Lumumba’s bluffing.”
“A bluff, exactly. I think Lumumba wants to be neutral, more than anything. More than he loves his very own life. He doesn’t want to give away our wealth, but he most especially does not want your country for an enemy.”
“He has a hard job,” I said.
“I can think of no person in all the world right now with a harder job.”
“Mr. Axelroot doesn’t think much of him,” I confessed. “He says Patrice Lumumba is trouble in a borrowed suit.”
Anatole leaned close to my ear. “Do you want to know a secret? I think Mr. Axelroot is trouble in his own stinking hat.” Oh, I laughed to hear that.
We stood awhile longer watching Mama Mwanza argue good-naturedly with her lazy son and take several broad swipes at him with her big cooking spoon. He jumped back, making exaggerated shouts. His sisters scolded him, too, laughing. I realized that Mama Mwanza had an extraordinarily pretty face, with wide-set eyes, a solemn mouth, and a high, rounded forehead under her kerchief. Her husband had taken no other wife, even after her terrible accident and the loss of their two youngest children. Their family had seen so much of hardship, yet it still seemed easy for them to laugh with each other. I envied them with an intensity near to love, and near to rage.
I told Anatole: “I saw Patrice Lumumba. Did you know that? In Leopoldville my father and I got to watch him give his inaugural speech.”
“Did you?” Anatole seemed impressed. “Well, then, you can make up your own mind. What did you think of our Prime Minister?”
It took me a moment’s pause to discover what I thought. Finally I said, “I didn’t understand everything. But he made me want to believe in every word. Even the ones I wasn’t sure of.”
“You understood well enough, then.”
“Anatole, is Katanga close to here?” He flipped his finger against my cheek. “Don’t worry, Beene. No one will be shooting at you. Go and cook your rabbit. I’ll come back when I can smell umvundla stew from my desk in the school-house. Sala mbote!”
“Wenda mbote!” I clasped my forearm and shook his hand. I called to his back as he walked away, “Thank you, Anatole.” I wasn’t just thanking him for the rabbit but also for telling me things. For the way he said, “Not you, Beene,” and “You understood well enough.”
He turned and walked backwards for a few bouncing steps. “Don’t forget to tell your father: Katanga has seceded.”
“I won’t possibly forget.”
I returned to Ruth May’s braids, but was very conscious of Anatole s broad shoulders and narrow waist, the triangle of white shirt moving away from us as he walked purposefully down the dirt road back to the village. I wish the people back home reading magazine stories about dancing cannibals could see something as ordinary as Anatole s clean white shirt and kind eyes, or Mama Mwanza with her children. If the word “Congo” makes people think of that big-lipped cannibal man in the cartoon, why, they’re just wrong about everything here from top to bottom. But how could you ever set them right? Since the day we arrived, Mother has nagged us to write letters home to our classmates at Bethlehem High, and not one of us has done it yet. We re still wondering, Where do you start? “This morning I got up…” I’d begin, but no, “This morning I pulled back the mosquito netting that’s tucked in tight around our beds because mosquitoes here give you malaria, a disease that runs in your blood which nearly everyone has anyway but they don’t go to the doctor for it because there are worse things like sleeping sickness or the kakakaka or that someone has put a kibaazu on them, and anyway there’s really no doctor nor money to pay one, so people just hope for the good luck of getting old because then they’ll be treasured, and meanwhile they go on with their business because they have children they love and songs to sing while they work, and…”
And you wouldn’t even get as far as breakfast before running out of paper. You’d have to explain the words, and then the words for the words.
Ruth May remained listless while I explored my thoughts and finished up her braids. I knew I ought to have bathed her and washed her hair before combing it out, but the idea of lugging the big tub out and heating a dozen teakettles of water so she -wouldn’t get chilled-it was more than a day’s work, and now I had mangwansi beans to worry about and the skinning of a rabbit. That is surely childhood’s end, when you look at a thing like a rabbit needing skinned and have to say: “Nobody else is going to do this.” So no bath for Ruth May that day. I merely pushed her awhile in the swing as I’d promised, and she did kick her feet a little. Maybe it made her happy, I can’t say. I hope it did. Anatole’s words had pushed things around inside of me. It’s true that sickness and death make children more precious. I used to threaten Ruth May’s life so carelessly just to make her behave. Now I had to face the possibility that we really could lose her, and my heart felt like a soft, damaged place in my chest, like a bruise on a peach.
She flew forward and back and I watclhed her shadow in the white dust under the swing. Each time she: reached the top of her arc beneath the sun, her shadow legs were transformed into the thin, curved legs of an antelope, “with small rounded hooves at the bottom instead of feet. I was transfixed and horrified by the image of my sister with antelope legs. I knew it was only shadow and the angle of the sun, but still it’s frightening when things you love appear suddenly changed from what you have always known.
ALL THOSE BLACK FACES in the black night a-looking at me. They want me to come play. But you can’t say the words out loud at night. Mother May I? No you may not! Mama says no. Mama is here breathing. When we’re both asleep I hear her talk and that’s what she says: no no no no. But the lizards run away up the walls with the rest of her words, and I can’t hear.
Sometimes I wake up and: nobody. Outside there’s sunshine so I know it’s broad day, but everybody is gone and I’m sweating too much and can’t talk about it. Other times it is dark, and Mama and Father are saying secrets. Mama begs Father. She says they went after the white girls up in Stanleyville. They went in their houses and took everything they wanted to, the food and the radio batteries and all. And they made the missionaries stand naked on top of the roof without any clothes on, and then they shot two of them. Everybody is talking about it and Mama heard. In Stanleyville is where the doctor put a cast on my arm. Did he have to go on the roof of the hospital without any clothes? I never can stop thinking about the doctor with no clothes on. The lizards run away up the walls and take all the words I want to say. But Father says what the Bible says: The meek shall inherit. He started to pat his hand on Mama and she pushed him away. Hearken therefore unto the supplications of thy servant, that thine eyes may be open toward this house night and day.
Night and day and night and day. Jesus is looking right in the windows no matter what. He can see through the roof. He can see inside our heads, where we think the bad things. I tried not to think of the doctor with no clothes on with all of them up on the roof but he had that yellow hair on his arms. Rachel screamed and thrashed her white hair and sassed back at Father bad: “Who cares who cares who cares! Who is even going to know the difference if we scoot out of here and go back home where it’s safe?”
Father yelled, “God will know the difference!” And Rachel fell down hard before I even heard the sound of the wall and his hand. “God despises a coward who runs while others stand and suffer. “
Where will we be safe? When Mama raises her eyes up to him they are so cold there isn’t even any Mama home inside there, and she says, “Nathan Price, the meek shall inherit.You wait and see.”
I know the meek shall inherit and the last shall be first, but the Tribes of Ham were last. Now will they be first? I don’t know.
In our family, Mama comes last. Adah is next to last because her one whole side is bad, and then comes Mama last of all, because something in her is even worse hurt than what Adah’s got.
Nelson told me how to find a safe place. One time I woke up and there he was: Nelson.
Oh, is he mad because I tried to see him naked, I don’t know. My mouth couldn’t say any words. But there he was by the bed, and Mama gone from beside me.
He put his hand over my mouth, stooping down and nobody else there. Nobody else. Shhh, he said and put his hand. I thought he was going to hurt me, but instead he was my friend. Shhh, he said, and took his hand off my mouth and gave me a present. A bu, Bandu.Take this!
Bandu is my name. Nommo Bandu! It means the littlest one on the bottom. And it means the reason for everything. Nelson told me that.
What is it? I said, but not any words came out of my mouth. I looked inside my two hands, where he put it, and there was a tiny box like what matches come in. A matchbox. The matchbox had a picture of a lion on the outside and I thought there would be a tiny little lion inside to be my pet, like the mean ones that eat the ants only nicer. Stuart Lion. But no. Nelson opened it up and took out something, I couldn’t tell what. It looked like a piece of chicken bone with gristle and string all on it and sticky and something black. What was it, something that died? I was scared and started fixing to cry.
Nelson said, Don’t be scared. He said, this has been in the magic fire.You call this nkisi. He made me touch it and it didn’t burn me. Look, he said. He held it right up to my eye. There was a tiny hole in the side and a tiny peg that fit in the hole, tied with string. Put your spirit inside here, he said, here quick, blow in this hole. He opened up the peg and I blew in the little hole and quick he said my name Nommo Bandu Nommo Bandu Nommo Bandu! and shut up the hole -with the little peg and Now you are safe. He said now if anything happens to me, if I start fixing to die or something, hold on to this tight and bambula! Ruth May will disappear.
How do you know? But Nelson knows everything about dead people. His mama and father and brothers and baby sister are all dead on the bottom of the river.
I don’t want to disappear, I said.
But he said, Only if you are going to die. He said this way I won’t die, I will just disappear for a second and then I’ll turn up someplace else, where it’s safe. Instead of dead I’ll be safe. But first I have to think of that place every day, so my spirit will know where to run away to, when it’s time. You have to think of your safe place every day. Nelson’s face was bigger than a candle right in my face and I could hear the good way he smelled.That soap he uses for washing up and his clothes. All those smells were so loud in my ears. Nelson is my friend that showed me how to sing to the chickens. Bidumuka is the magic name of a chicken. Nobody else knows that, not even Leah or Father.
Nelson said, Don’t forget!
I put the matchbox with the lion picture on it, and the magic burned bones inside, I put it under my pillow. Nkisi. Sometimes I wake up and it is still there. If they come and try to make me go up on the roof naked I will just disappear, and turn up some whole other place. But first I have to think of where I will go. I can feel the box in my hand. My pillow is wet and the tiny little box is soft but I know what is inside. Secret. There is the window, and it’s daytime now and people in the other room talking and they don’t know? I have a secret. But Nelson has gone somewhere and his mama dead; I wonder where and I can’t remember the song we sang to the chickens.
RUTH MAY’S SICKNESS stayed with her, but Mother began pulling herself together. Seeing the two of them curled in the same bed, one slowly emerging and the other losing ground, put me back onto familiar, unpleasant thoughts of Adah and me in the womb. I have prayed a thousand times for God to tell me: Did I do that to Adah? If I showed her more kindness now, could I be forgiven for making her a cripple? But a debt of that size seems so impossible to pay back it is a dread thing even to start on.
Mother used her own reserves, without stealing the life out of Ruth May or anyone else. She seemed to draw strength right out of the muggy air. Sometimes I saw her sit on the side of the bed for a while before getting up, drawing in deep breaths through thin, pursed lips. She had her good and bad phases, but finally stopped sleepwalking once and for all. It happened rather suddenly one day, after Rachel burned up an egg omelet. She burned two in a row, to be exact-she had the fire in the stove stoked up way too high.The only way to get a slow heat for baking bread or cooking a tender thing like an omelet is to build up a big fire first with good, stout wood and then cook while the coals die slowly down. Rachel could never get the hang of that. She was trying to start the fire and cook all at once, which will never get you anywhere.You can’t keep a new fire low; it must grow or die. Nelson taught me that.
But Nelson had gone to get water before dark so Rachel was trying to cook all alone. It was her day in charge of dinner and she had failed to think ahead. Now I could hear her screaming vile things out there in the kitchen house. I went out to investigate and let her know we were hungry.
“I’ll hungry you,”she yelled, ‘Can’t you see I’ve only got two hands?”
I could. She was using both of them to gouge at the burned skillet with a wooden spatula of Nelson’s making. Her hair had come down from its French knot and stuck all over her face, and her good blouse was smeared with black ash. She looked like Cinderella in reverse, stepped out from her life at the ball for a day of misery among the ashes.
“You’ve built the fire up way too hot,” I told her.
“Go to hell, Leah just go straight, directly to hell.”
“I’m just trying to help. Look, see how the metal’s glowing red hot on top? When it gets like that you just have to wait and let it cool off. Then you can try again.”
Rachel blew out her breath hard. “Oh, whatever would I do without my child-progeny sister to tell me what to do.”
“Prodigy,” I corrected.
“Shut up, damn it! I wish you’d just shut up forever like your Goddamn deaf-mute genius twin!” She whirled around and threw the spatula, not missing my head by all that wide a margin. It banged loudly on the back door of the main house. I was shocked, not so much by her language but by the strength of that pitch. Usually Rachel threw underhanded and was no threat at all.
“Oh, P.S., Leah, there’s no more eggs,” she added with satisfaction. “For your information.”
“Well, we have to eat something. I guess we’ll just eat the burnt ones.”
“This! Oh I’m sure. I’d rather die than have to serve this to Father.” She made a horrible face at the pan and gave it a vicious shake. “This adventure in fine dining looks like it’s been drug through hell backwards.”
Rachel looked up at me and clapped her left hand over her mouth. I turned around. There was Mother in the doorway behind me, holding up the spatula.
“Rachel,” Mother said. “I believe you dropped this.”
We stood frozen before the altar of a red-hot cookstove. Rachel took the spatula without a word.
“Rachel, sugar, let me tell you something. I understand you’re miserable. But I’m afraid this is your penance for sixteen years of putting up your nose at my cooking. I want to see you bring.that mess in here and serve it up to your father and all the rest of us, including yourself. And I want to see you clean your own plate, without one word. Tomorrow I’ll start teaching you how to cook.”
Mother kept her promise. She’d gotten up changed from her month in bed. For one thing, she was now inclined to say whatever was on her mind right in front of God and everybody. Even Father. She didn’t speak to him directly; it was more like she was talking straight to God, or the air, or the lizards who’d paused halfway up the walls, and if Father should overhear her, that was his nickel. She declared she was taking us out of here as soon as she found the way to do it. She had even asked Eeben Axelroot flat out if he would take us. Not at the moment, was his reply, since he’d probably get shot down over Leopoldville with a planeload of white ladies, and he didn’t want to make that kind of headlines. But on another day he came back smiling sideways and confided to Mama that every man has his price. From the looks of Mama, she means to pay it.
I was shocked and frightened to see her flout Father’s authority, but truthfully, I could feel something similar moving around in my own heart. For the first time in my life I doubted his judgment. He’d made us stay here, when everybody from Nelson to the King of Belgium was saying white missionaries ought to go home. For us to be here now, each day, was Father’s decision and his alone. Yet he wasn’t providing for us, but only lashing out at us more and more. He wasn’t able to protect Mother and Ruth May from getting sick. If it’s all up to him to decide our fate, shouldn’t protection be part of the bargain?
I wanted to believe in him. We had much more of the Lord’s work to do here, that was plain. And ‘what better time to do it, Father had told me reasonably on the plane coming back from Leopoldville, than in the festive atmosphere of Independence, when all Congolese are free to learn from us and make their own choices? Father believes they will choose the Lord’s infinite love, and us, of course, as we are God’s special delegation to Kilanga. He says “we’re being brave and righteous. Bravery and righteousness-those are two things that cannot go unrewarded in the sight of the Lord. Father never doubts it, and I can see that for him it’s true. He’s lived all his days by the laws of Christ, standing up tall and starting to preach in tent revivals when he was hardly older than I am now, and for all that time people flocked to his word and his wisdom. He was brave in the war, I’m sure, for he won a Purple Heart. For Father, the Kingdom of the Lord is an uncomplicated place, where tall, handsome boys fight on the side that always wins. I suppose it resembles Killdeer, Mississippi, where Father grew up, and played the position of quarterback in high school. In that kind of a place it is even all right for people to knock into each other hard every once in a while, in a sportsmanlike way, leaving a few bruises in the service of the final score.
But where is the place for girls in that Kingdom? The rules don’t quite apply to us, nor protect us either. What do a girl’s bravery and righteousness count for, unless she is also pretty? Just try being the smartest and most Christian seventh-grade girl in Bethlehem, Georgia. Your classmates will smirk and call you a square. Call you worse, if you’re Adah.
All my life I’ve tried to set my shoes squarely into his footprints, believing if only I stayed close enough to him those same clean, simple laws would rule my life as well. That the Lord would see my goodness and fill me with light. Yet with each passing day I find myself farther away. There’s a great holy war going on in my father’s mind, in which we’re meant to duck and run and obey orders and fight for all the right things, but I can’t always make out the orders or even tell which side I am on exactly. I’m not even allowed to carry a gun. I’m a girl. He has no inkling.
If his decision to keep us here in the Congo wasn’t right, then what else might he be wrong about? It has opened up in my heart a sickening world of doubts and possibilities, where before I had only faith in my father and love for the Lord. Without that rock of certainty underfoot, the Congo is a fearsome place to have to sink or swim.
I WAS IN THE KITCHEN HOUSE slaving over a hot stove when everybody came running by. All the raggedy little children with the mothers right behind them, all hollering “Tata Bidibidi! Tata Bidibidi!” That means Mr. Bird, according to Leah, who ran right out to join them. If Mr. Bird-whosoever that might be-was going to put in an appearance, Leah sure wasn’t going to miss it. They were saying he’d come up the river in some kind of old boat and was down there unloading his family and what not.
Being the new Chef Boy-ar-dee of the Price family, I had no time for fun and games.The only way I’d ever find out what was up in Kilanga, nowadays, was if it passed by the door of our kitchen house.
Well, turns out I didn’t have to wait long, for they made straight for our doorstep! What to our wondering eyes should appear out there on the porch but a white man, very old and skinny, wearing a denim shirt so old you could practically see through it and a little wooden cross hanging on a leather string around his neck, the way the Congolese wear their evil-eye fetishes. He had a white beard and twinkly blue eyes, and all in all gave the impression of what Santa Claus would look like if he’d converted to Christian and gone without a good meal since last Christmas. When I got out to the porch he was already shaking hands with Mother and introducing his wife, a tall Congolese woman, and their children, who were variable in age and color but mostly were hiding behind the long colorful skirts of Mrs. Bird. Mother was confused, but she always has the good manners to be hospitalizing even to perfect strangers, so she asked them in and told me to run squeeze some orange juice. So back to the kitchen for Rachel the slave!
By the time I got back with a big dripping jar of orange juice and flopped down in a chair to rest, I’d already missed everything. I couldn’t say what or who they were, but yet here was Mother yakking it up with them like old home week. They sat in our living-room chairs asking about people in the village like they knew their way around. “Mama Mwanza, och, how is she? Mama Lo is still doing coiffure and pressing palm oil? Bless her heart, she must be a hundred and ten, and she never married at all-that just goes to show you. Now Mama Tataba, where is she? Ah, but Anatole! We had better go see him at once.” That kind of thing. Reverend Santa seemed like a kindly old man. The way he talked sounded part Yankee, part foreign, like one of those friendly Irish policemen in the old movies: “Och, mind you!”
Ruth May, who’d been up out of bed for a few days and seemed to be on the mend, was so enraptured with him she sat with her head practically leaning up against his worn-out trousers. The old man rested a hand on Ruth May’s head and listened very closely to everything Mother said, nodding thoughtfully in a way that was quite complimentary. His wife was approximately a hundred years younger than him and attractive in her own way, and was mostly quiet. But she could speak English perfectly. They asked how things -were going down at the church. Father was out somewhere looking for trouble as usual, and we hardly knew how to answer that question ourselves. Mother said, “Well, it’s difficult. Nathan’s very frustrated. It’s all so clear to him that the words of Jesus will bring grace to their lives. But people here have such different priorities from what we’re used to.”
“They are very religious people, you know,” the old man said. “For all that.”
“How do you mean?” Mother asked.
“Everything they do is with one eye to the spirit. When they plant their yams and manioc, they’re praying. When they harvest, they’re praying. Even when they conceive their children, I think they’re praying.”
Mother seemed very interested. But Leah crossed her arms and asked, “Do you mean praying to their own pagan gods?”
Reverend Santa smiled at Leah. “What do you imagine our God thinks of this little corner of His creation: the flowering trees in the forest, the birds, the drenching downpours, the heat of the sun-do you know what I’m talking about?”
“Oh, yes,” Leah said, straight-A pupil as always.
“And do you think God is pleased -with these things?”
“Oh, I think He glories in them!” she hastened to say.”I think he must be prouder of the Congo than just about any place He ever made.”
“I think so, too,” he said. “I think the Congolese have a world of God’s grace in their lives, along with a dose of hardship that can kill a person entirely. I happen to think they already knew how to make a joyful noise unto the Lord a long time ago.”
Leah leaned back in her chair, probably wondering -what Father would say to that. As if we didn’t know. He’d say the Irish and them are well known to be Catholic papists and worshipers of the false idols. The business about the flowers and little birdies just clinches the deal.
“Have you heard the songs they sing here in Kilanga?” he asked. “They’re very worshipful. It’s a grand way to begin a church service, singing a Congolese hymn to the rainfall on the seed yams. It’s quite easy to move from there to the parable of the mustard seed. Many parts of the Bible make good sense here, if only you change a few words.” He laughed. “And a lot of whole chapters, sure, you just have to throw away.”
“Well, it’s every bit God’s word, isn’t it?” Leah said.
“God’s word, brought to you by a crew of romantic idealists in a harsh desert culture eons ago, followed by a chain of translators two thousand years long.”
Leah stared at him.
“Darling, did you think God wrote it all down in the English of King James himself?”
“No, I guess not.”
“Think of all the duties that were perfectly obvious to Paul or Matthew in that old Arabian desert that are pure nonsense to us now. All that foot washing, for example. Was it really for God’s glory, or just to keep the sand out of the house?”
Leah sat narrow-eyed in her chair, for once stumped for the correct answer.
“Oh, and the camel.Was it a camel that could pass through the eye of a needle more easily than a rich man? Or a coarse piece of yarn? The Hebrew words are the same, but which one did they mean? If it’s a camel, the rich man might as well not even try. But if it’s the yarn, he might well succeed with a lot of effort, you see?” He leaned forward toward Leah with his hands on his knees. “Och, I shouldn’t be messing about with your thinking this way, with your father out in the garden. But I’ll tell you a secret. “When I want to take God at his word exactly, I take a peep out the window at His Creation. Because that, darling, He makes fresh for us every day, without a lot of dubious middle managers.”
Leah didn’t commit herself one way or the other. “The flowers and birds and all, you mean to say that’s your Gospel.”
“Ah, you’re thinking I’m a crazy old pagan for sure.” Old Tata Bird laughed heartily, fingering the cross around his neck (another warning sign of Catholic papism), and he didn’t sound repentant.
“No, I understand,” Mother said thoughtfully. She appeared to understand him so well she’d like to adopt him and have his mixed-race family move right in.
“You’ll have to forgive me. I’ve been here so long, I’ve come to love the people here and their ways of thinking.”
That goes without saying, I thought. Given his marital situation.
“Well, you must be famished!” Mother said suddenly, jumping up out of her chair. “Stay for dinner, at least. Nathan should be home soon. Do you actually live on that little boat?”
“We do, in fact. It’s a good home base for doing our work-a little collecting, a little nature study, a little ministry, a little public health and dispensing of the quinine. Our older children stay in
Leopoldville most of the year for their schooling, but they’ve come with us on a little holiday to visit the relatives.” He glanced at his wife, who smiled.
She explained quietly, “Tata Fowells is especially interested in the birds. He has classified many kinds in this region that were never known before by the Europeans.”
Tata Fa-wells? Where had I heard that name before? I was racking my brain, while Mother and the Mrs. began an oh-so-polite argument about whether the family would stay for dinner. Mother apparently forgot we didn’t have one decent thing fit to eat, and little did that family know what they were in for if they stayed. Tata Fowells, I kept turning that over. Meanwhile Adah pulled her chair up next to him and opened one of the old musty bird books she’d found in this house, which she adores to carry around.
“Och,” he cried happily, “I’d forgotten these books entirely. How wonderful you’re putting them to use. But you have to know, I’ve many better ones down on the boat.”
Adah looked like she would just love to run down there and read them all backwards right this minute. She was pointing out different pictures of long-tail squawk jays and what not, and he was so bubbling over with information that he probably failed to notice Adah can’t talk.
Oh! I suddenly thought to myself: Brother Fowlesl That Brother Fowles! The minister who had this mission before us and got kicked out for consorting with the natives too much. Well, I should say so! Now everything fell into place. But it was too late for me to say anything, having missed the introductions on account of being the maidservant. I just sat there, -while Adah got bird lessons and Leah cajoled the shy little Fowles children to come in off the porch and sit on the floor with her and Ruth May and read comic books with them.
Then suddenly the room went dark, for Father was at the door. We all froze, except for Brother Fowles, who jumped up and held out his hand to Father with the left hand clasping his forearm, secret handshake of the Congolese.
“Brother Price, at last,” he said. “I’ve held you in my prayers, and now I’ve had the blessing of meeting your lovely family. I am Brother Fowles, your predecessor in this mission. My wife, Celine. Our children.”
Father didn’t offer his hand. He was studying that big Catholic-looking cross around the neck, and probably thinking over all we’d heard about Brother Fowles going off the deep end, plus every curse word ever uttered by the parrot. Finally he did shake hands, but in a cool way, American style. “What brings you back here?”
“Ah, we were passing this way! We do most of our work downriver near the Kwa, but my wife’s parents are at Ganda.We thought we might look in on you and our other friends in Kilanga. Sure, we should pay our respects to Tata Ndu.”
You could see Father’s skin crawl when he heard the name of his archenemy, the chief. Spoken in aYank accent, to boot. But Father played the cool cat, not admitting what a miserable failure he had been so far at the Christianizing trade. “We’re just fine and dandy, thank you. And what work is it you do now?” He emphasized the now, as if to say, We know very well you got kicked out of preaching the Gospel.
“I rejoice in the work of the Lord,” said Brother Fowles. “I was just telling your wife, I do a little ministering. I study and classify the fauna. I observe a great deal, and probably offer very little salvation in the long run.”
“That is a pity,” Father declared. “Salvation is the way, the truth, and the light. For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved. And how then shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher?… As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things!’“
‘“Glad tidings of good things,’ that is precious work indeed,” said Brother Fowles. “Romans, chapter ten, verse fifteen.”
Wow. This Yank knew his Bible. Father took a little step backwards on that one.
“Certainly I do my best,” Father said quickly, to cover his shock.
“I take to heart the blessed words,’Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house. And they spake unto him the word of the Lord, and to all that were in his house.’“
Brother Fowles nodded carefully. “Paul and Silas to their jailer, yes, after the angels so considerately set them free with an earthquake. The Acts of the Apostles, chapter sixteen, is it? I’ve always been a little perplexed by the next verse, ‘And he took them the same hour of the night, and washed their stripes.’“
“The American Translation might clear that up for you. It says, ‘washed their wounds.’“ Father sounded like the know-it-all kid in class you just want to strangulate.
“It does, yes,” replied Brother Fowles, slowly. “And yet I wonder, who translated this? During my years here in the Congo I’ve heard so many errors of translation, even quite comical ones. So you’ll forgive me if I’m skeptical, Brother Price. Sometimes I ask myself: what if those stripes are not wounds at all, but something else? He was a prison guard; maybe he wore a striped shirt, like a referee. Did Paul and Silas do his laundry for him, as an act of humility? Or perhaps the meaning is more metaphorical: Did Paul and Silas reconcile the man’s doubts? Did they listen to his divided way of feeling about this new religion they were springing upon him all of a sudden?”
The little girl sitting on the floor with Ruth May said something in their language. Ruth May whispered, “Donald Duck and Snow White, they got married.”
Father stepped over the children and pulled up a chair, which he sat in backwards as he loves to do whenever he has a good Christian argument. He crossed his arms over the chair back and smirked his disapproval at Brother Fowles. “Sir, I offer you my condolences. Personally I’ve never been troubled by any such difficulties with interpreting God’s word.”
“Indeed, I see that,” Brother Fowles said. “But I assure you it is no trouble to me. It can be quite a grand way to pass an afternoon, really. Take for example your Romans, chapter ten. Let’s go back to that. The American Translation, if you prefer. A little farther on we find this promise: ‘If the first handful of dough is consecrated, the whole mass is, and if the root of a tree is consecrated, so are its branches. If some of the branches have been broken off, and you who were only a wild olive shoot have been grafted in, and made to share the richness of the olive’s root, you must not look down upon the branches. Remember that you do not support the root; the root supports you.’“
Father kind of sat there blinking, what with all the roots and shoots.
But old Santa’s eyes just twinkled; he was having a ball. “Brother Price,” he said, “don’t you sometimes think about this, as you share the food of your Congolese brethren and gladden your heart with their songs? Do you get the notion we are the branch that’s grafted on here, sharing in the richness of these African roots?”
Father replied, “You might look to verse twenty-eight there, sir. ‘From the point of view of the good news they are treated as enemies of God.’“
“Sure, and it continues: ‘but from the point of view of God’s choice, they are dear to him because of their forefathers.”
“Don’t be a fool, man!” Father cried. “That verse refers to the children of Israel.”
“Maybe so. But the image of the olive tree is a nice one, don’t you think?”
Father just squinted at him, like here was one tree he’d like to make into firewood.
Brother Fowles didn’t get the least bit steamed up, however. He said, “I’m a plain fool for the nature images in the Bible, Brother Price. That fond of it. I find it all so handy here, among these people who have such an intelligence and the great feeling for the living world around them.They’re very humble in their debts to nature. Do you know the hymn of the rain for the seed yams, Brother Price?”
“Hymns to their pagan gods and false idols? I’m afraid I haven’t got the time for dabbling in that kind of thing.”
“Well, you’re that busy I’m sure. But it’s interesting, just the same. In keeping with what you were quoting there in your Romans, chapter twelve.You remember the third verse, do you not?”
Father answered with his teeth showing: “For I say, through the grace given unto me, to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought…”
“… For as we have many members in one body, and all members have not the same office, so we, being many, are one body in Christ…”
“In Christ!” Father shouted, as if to say, “Bingo!”
“And every one, members one of another,” Brother Fowles went on to quote. “Having then gifts that differ according to the grace that is given to us, whether prophecy, or ministry, or he that teacheth. He that giveth, let him do it with simplicity… He that sheweth mercy, with cheerfulness. Let love be without dissimulation. Be kindly affectioned to one another with brotherly love.”
“Chapter twelve. Verse ten. Thank you, sir” Father was plainly ready to call a halt to this battle of the Bible verses. I’d bet he’d like to of given Brother Fowles The Verse to copy out for punishment. But then the old man would just stand there and rattle it off from memory with a few extra images of nature thrown in for free.
Father suddenly remembered he needed to stomp off and do some very important thing or another, and to make a long story short, they didn’t stay for dinner. They got the picture that they weren’t welcome in our house or the whole village probably, in Father’s humble opinion. And they were the type that seemed like they’d rather sit down and eat their own shoes before they’d put you out in any way. They told us they planned to spend the afternoon visiting a few old friends, but that they needed to be on up the river before nightfall.
We about had to tie ourselves to the chairs to keep from tagging after them. We were so curious about what they’d be saying to Tata Ndu and them.Jeepers! All this time we’ve been more or less thinking we were the one and only white people who ever set foot here. And all along, our neighbors had this whole friendship with Brother Fowles they’d just kept mum about. You always think you know more about their kind than they know about yours, which just goes to show you.
They came back before sundown and invited us to come see their boat before they shoved off, so Mother and my sisters and I trooped down to the riverbank. Brother Fowles had some more books he wanted to give Adah. That’s not the half of it, either. Mrs. Fowles kept bringing out more presents to give Mother: canned goods, milk powder, coffee, sugar, quinine pills, fruit cocktail, and so many other things it seemed like they really were Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus, after all. And yet their boat was hardly more than a little floating shack with a bright green tin roof. Inside, it had all the comforts, though: books, chairs, a gas stove, you name it.Their kids ran around and flopped on the chairs and played with stuff, giving no indication they thought it peculiar to reside on a body of water.
“Oh my stars, oh goodness, you’re too kind,” Mother kept saying, as Celine brought out one thing after another and put it into our hands. “Oh, I can’t thank you enough.”
I was of a mind to slip them a note, like a captivated spy girl in the movies: “Help! Get me out of here!” But that loaded-down little boat of theirs already looked like it was fixing to sink if you looked at it wrong. All the canned goods they gave us probably helped them stay afloat.
Mother was also taking stock of things. She asked, “How do you manage to stay so well supplied?”
“We have so many friends,” Celine said. “The Methodist Mission gets us milk powder and vitamins to distribute in the villages along the river. The tins of food and quinine pills come from the ABFMS.”
“We’re terribly interdenominational,” said Brother Fowles, laughing.”! even get a little stipend from the National Geographic Society.”
“The ABFMS?” Mother queried.
“American Baptist Foreign Mission Service,” he said. “They have a hospital mission up the Wamba River, have you not heard of it? That little outfit has done a world of good in the ways of guinea-worm cure, literacy, and human kindness. They’ve put old King Leopold’s ghost to shame, I would say. If such a thing is possible. It’s run by the wisest minister you’ll ever meet, a man named Wesley Green, and his wife, Jane.”
Brother Fowles added as an afterthought, “No offense to your husband, of course.”
“But we’re Baptists,” Mother said, sounding hurt. “And the Mission League cut off our stipend right before Independence!”
Mr. Fowles thought this over before offering, tactfully, “For certain, Mrs. Price, there are Christians and then there are Christians.”
“How far away is this mission? Do you get there on your boat?” Mother was eying the boat, the canned goods, and perhaps the whole of our future.
But both Brother and Mrs. Fowles laughed at that, shaking their heads like Mother had asked if they take their boat to the moon frequently to fetch green cheese.
“We can’t take this old bucket more than fifty miles down the Kwilu,” he explained. “You run into the rapids. But the good road from Leopoldville crosses the Wamba and reaches this river at Kikwit. Sometimes Brother Green comes up in his boat, hitches a ride on a truck and meets us at Kikwit. Or we go to the airfield at Masi Manimba to meet our packages. By the grace of God, we always seem to get whatever it is we really need to have.”
“We rely very much on our friends,” Celine added.
“Ah, yes,” her husband agreed. “And that means to get one good connection made, you have to understand the Kituba, the Lingala, the Bembe, Kunyi,Vili, Ndingi, and the bleeding talking drums.”
Celine laughed and said yes, that was true. The rest of us felt like fish out of water as usual. If Ruth May had been feeling up to snuff she’d have already climbed aboard and started jabbering with the Fowles children in probably all those languages plus French and Siamese. Which makes you wonder, are they really speaking real words, or do little kids just start out naturally understanding each other before the prime of life sets in? But Ruth May was not up to snuff, so she was being quiet, hanging on to Mother’s hand.
“They asked us to leave,” Mother said. “In no uncertain terms.
Really I think we should have, but it was Nathan’s decision to stay.”
“Sure there was quite a rush for the gate, after Independence,”
Brother Fowles agreed. “People left for a million reasons: common sense, lunacy, faintness of heart. And the rest of us stayed, for the very same reasons. Except for faintness of heart. No one can accuse us of that, can they, Mrs. Price?”
“Well…” Mother said uncertainly. I guess she hated to admit that if it was up to her we’d be hightailing it out of here like rabbits. Me too, and I don’t care who calls me yellow. Please help, I tried to say to Mrs. Fowles just with my eyes. Get us out of here! Send a bigger boat!
Finally Mother just sighed and said, “We hate to see you go.” I’m sure my sisters all agreed with that. Here we’d been feeling like the very last people on earth of the kind that use the English language and can openers, and once that little boat went put-put-put up the river we’d feel that way again.
“You could stay in Kilanga awhile,” Leah offered, though she didn’t tell them they could stay with us. And she didn’t say, You’d have some explaining to do to Father, who thinks you’re a bunch of backsliders. She didn’t have to. Those words were unspoken by all present.
“You’re very kind,” Celine said. “We need to go to my mother’s family. Their village is starting a soybean farm. We’ll be back this way after the end of the rainy season, and we will be sure to visit you again.”
Which, of course, could be any time from next July to the twelfth of never, as far as we knew. We just stood there getting more and more heartbroken as they gathered things up and counted their kids.
“I don’t mean to impose on you,” Mother said, “but Ruth May, my little one here-she’s had a high fever for more than a month. She seems to be getting the best of it now, but I’ve been so worried. Is there a doctor anywhere we could get to easily?”
Celine stepped over the side of the boat and put a hand on Ruth May’s head, then stooped down and looked in her eyes. “It could be malaria. Could be typhus. Not sleeping sickness, I don’t think. Let me get you something that might help.”
As she disappeared back into the boat, Brother Fowles confided to Mother in a low voice, “I wish we could do more for you. But the mission planes aren’t flying at all and the roads are anyone’s guess. Everything is at sixes and sevens. We’ll try to get word over to Brother Green about your little one, but there’s no saying what he could do, just now.” He looked at Ruth May, who seemed to have no inkling they were discussing the fate of her life. He asked carefully, “Do you think it’s a matter of great urgency?”
Mother bit her fingernail and studied Ruth May. “Brother Fowles, I have no earthly notion. I am a housewife from Georgia.” Just then Celine appeared with a small glass bottle of pink capsules. “Antibiotics,” she said. “If it’s typhus or cholera or any number of other things, these may help. If it’s malaria or sleeping sickness, I’m afraid they won’t. In any case we will pray for your Ruth.”
“Have you spoken with Tata Ndu?” Brother Fowles put in. “He is a man of surprising resources.”
“I’m afraid Nathan and Tata Ndu have locked horns. I’m not sure he would give us the time of day.” “You might be surprised,” he said.
They really were leaving, but Mother seemed just plain desperate to keep the conversation going. She asked Brother Fowles while he wound up some ropes and things on the deck, “Were you really on such good terms with Tata Ndu?”
He looked up, a little surprised. “I respect him, if that’s what you mean.”
“But as a Christian. Did you really get anywhere with him?” Brother Fowles stood up and scratched his head, making his white hair stand on end. The longer you watched that man doing things, the younger he looked. Finally he said, “As a Christian, I respect his judgments. He guides his village fairly, all things considered. We never could see eye to eye on the business of having four wives…”
“He has more than that now” Leah tattled.
“Aha. So you see, I was not a great influence in that department,” he said. “But each of those wives has profited from the teachings of Jesus, I can tell you. Tata Ndu and I spent many afternoons with a calabash of palm wine between us, debating the merits of treating a wife kindly. In my six years here I saw the practice of wife beating fall into great disfavor. Secret little altars to Tata Jesus appeared in most every kitchen, as a result.”
Leah tossed him the tie rope and helped him push the boat out of the shallow mud into deeper water. She just slogged right in up to her knees, blue jeans and all, without the slightest regard. Adah was clutching her new books about the ornithoptery of butterflies to her bosom, while Ruth May waved and called out weakly, “Wenda mbote! Wenda mbote!”
“Do you feel what you did was enough?” Mother asked Brother Fowles, as if it hadn’t sunk in that we’d already said good-bye here and this conversation was over-and-out.
Brother Fowles stood on the deck facing back, looking Mother over like he just didn’t know what to do about her. He shrugged finally. “We’re branches grafted on this good tree, Mrs. Price. The great root of Africa sustains us. I wish you wisdom and God’s mercy.”
“Thank you kindly,” she said.
They were pretty far out on the water when he perked up suddenly and shouted,”Oh, the parrot! Methuselah! How is he?”
We looked at each other, reluctant to end the visit on what you might call a sour note. It was Ruth May who hollered out in her puny little voice,”Bird heaven! He’s went to bird heaven, Mr. Fowles!”
“Ha! Best place for him, the little bastard!” cried Brother Fowles, which shocked the pants off us naturally.
Meanwhile, every child in the village had gathered around and was jumping in the mud of the riverbank. They’d all gotten presents too, I could see: packets of milk powder and such. But they were yelling so happily it seemed like they loved Brother Fowles for more reasons than just powdered milk. Like kids who only ever get socks for Christmas, but still believe with all their hearts in Santa.
Mother alone didn’t wave. She stood ankle-deep in the mud, like it was her job to bear witness as their boat shrank down to a speck on the shimmering water, and she didn’t move from her post till they were long out of sight.
To MARKET to market to buy a fat pig! Pigfat a buy! To market to market! But wherever you might look, no pigs now. Hardly even a dog worth the trouble and stove wood. Goats and sheep, none. Half-hour after daybreak the buzzards rise from the leafless billboard tree and flap away like the sound of old black satin dresses beat together. Meat market closed for the duration of this drought, no rain and still no rain. In the way of herbivores, nothing left here to kill.
July had brought us only the strange apparition of the family Fowles, and in its aftermath, the conviction in all our separate minds that their visit could only have been a dream. All minds except Father’s, that is, who frequently takes the name of Brother Fowles in vain, feeling certain now that all the stones in his path were laid by this deluded purveyor of Christian malpractice.
And August brought us no pleasant dreams at all. Ruth May’s condition pitched suddenly into decline, as inexplicably as it had earlier improved. Against all hope and Mrs. Fowles’s antibiotics faithfully delivered, the fever rose and rose. Ruth May fell back into bed with her hair plastered to her head in a dark sweat. Mother prayed to the small glass god with pink capsules in its belly.
The second half of August also brought us a special five-day Kilanga week, beginning and ending on market day, which did not contain a Sunday but left Sundays standing on either side of it like parentheses. That particular combination stands as one chance in seven, by the way. It should occur on average seven times per year, separated by intervals just slightly longer than that endured by Noah on his putative ark.
Was this blue-moon event special to our neighbors? Did they notice? I have no idea. Such was our fellowship with our fellow man in Kilanga. But in our household it passed as a bizarre somber holiday, for on each of those five days the village chief of Kilanga, Tata Ndu, came to our house. Udn Atat. He sent his sons ahead of him shouting and waving ceremonially preserved animal parts to announce his eminence.
On each occasion he brought a gift: first, fresh antelope meat wrapped in a bloody fold of cloth (how hungrily we swooned at the sight of that blood!). Day two: a neat spherical basket with a tight-fitting lid, filled with mangwansi beans. Third, a live grouse with its legs tied together; fourth, the soft, tanned pelt of an ant bear. And on the last day, a small carving of a pregnant woman made of pink ivory. Our Father eyed that little pink woman and became inspired to strike up a conversation with Tata Ndu on the subject of false idols. But up until day five-and ever afterward, on the whole-Our Father was delighted with this new attention from the chief. The Reverend cockadoodled about the house, did he. “Our Christian charity has come back to us sevenfold,” he declared, taking liberty with mathematics, gleefully slapping the thighs of his khaki pants. “Hot dog! Orleanna, didn’t I tell you Ndu would be on our side in the end?”
“Oh, is it the end now, Nathan?” Mother asked. She was silent on the subject of Tata Ndu as a houseguest. We ate the meat all right and were glad to have it, but the trinkets she sequestered in her bedroom, out of sight. We were curious to inspect and handle these intriguing objects, especially the little pink madonna, but Mother felt we should not show excessive interest. In spite of Brother Fowles’s vouching for his character, Mother suspected these gifts from the chief were not without strings attached. And she was right, it turned out. Though it took us a month of Sundays to catch on.
At first we were simply flattered and astonished: Udn Atat walking right through the front door of our very house, standing a moment before the shrine of Rachel’s hand mirror-mirror on the
wall, then settling himself into our single good chair with arms. Enthroned there under his hat, he observed our household through his un-glasses and swished the animal-tail fly swatter that denoted his station in life. Whenever he took off his strange peaked hat, he revealed himself as a large, powerful man. His dark half-dome forehead aind gravely receding hairline emphasized a broad face, broad chest and shoulders, and enormously muscular arms. He pulled his colorful drape up under his armpits and crossed his arms over the front of his chest as a man only does when proud of his physique. Our Mother was not impressed. But she mustered manners enough to make orange juice, of which the chief was fond.
Our Father, who now made a point of being home to receive Tata Ndu, would pull up one of the other chairs, sit backward with his arms draped over the back, and talk Scripture. Tata Ndu would attempt to sway the conversation back around to village talk, or to the vague gossip we had all been hearing about the riots in Matadi and Stanleyville. But mainly he regaled Our Father with flattering observations, such as: “Tata Price, you have trap de jolies filles-too many pretty daughters,” or less pleasant but more truthful remarks such as: “You have much need of food, n’est-ce pas?” For his esoteric amusement he commanded the jolies filles (and we obliged) to line up in front of him in order of height. The tallest being Rachel, at five feet six inches and the full benefit of Miss America posture; the shortest being myself, two inches lesser than my twin on account of crookedness. (Ruth May, being delirious and prone, was exempt from the lineup.) Tata Ndu clucked his tongue and said we were all very thin. This caused Rachel to quiver with pride and stroll about the house preceded by her pelvis in the manner of a high-fashion model… She tended to show off excessively during these visits, rushing to help Mother out in ways she would not have dreamed of without an audience.
“Tata Ndu,” Mother hinted, “our youngest is burning up with fever. You’re a man of such importance I hope by coming here you aren’t exposing yourself to some dreadful contagion.” This was the nearest she could come to asking outright for help.
Tata Ndu’s attention then lapsed for a number of days, during which time we went to church, swallowed our weekly malaria pill, killed another hen from our dwindling flock, and stole turns sneaking into our parents’ bedroom to examinine the small carved woman’s genitalia.Then, after two Sundays had passed, he returned. This time his gifts were more personal: a pagne of beautifully dyed cloth, a carved wooden bracelet, and a small jar of a smelly waxy substance, whose purpose we declined to speculate on or discuss with Tata Ndu. Mother accepted these gifts with both hands, as is the custom here, and put them away without a word.
Nelson, as usual, was the one who finally took pity upon our benighted stupidity and told us what was up: kukwela. Tata Ndu wanted a wife.
“A wife” Mother said, staring at Nelson in the kitchen house exactly as I had seen her stare at the cobra that once turned up in there. I wondered whether she might actually grab a stick and whack Nelson behind the head, as she’d done to the snake.
“Yes, Mama Price,” he said tiredly, without a trace of apology. Nelson was used to our overreactions to what he felt were ordinary things, such as cobras in the kitchen. But his voice had a particularly authoritative ring when he said it, for he had his head stuck in the oven. Mother knelt beside him, helping to steady the heavy ash can while Nelson cleaned the ashes out of the cookstove. They both had their backs to the door, and did not know I was there.
“One of the girls, you mean,” Mother said. She pulled on the nape of Nelson’s T-shirt, extracting him from the stove so she might speak to him face to face. “You’re saying Tata Ndu wants to marry one of my daughters.”
“But, Nelson, he already has six or seven wives! Good Lord.” “Yes. Tata Ndu is very rich. He heard about Tata Price having no money now for food. He can see your children are thin and sick. But he knows it is not the way of Tata Price to take help from the Congolese. So he can bargain man to man. He can help your family by paying Tata Price some ivory and five or six goats and maybe a
little bit of cash to take the Mvula out of his house. Tata Ndu is a good chief, Mama Price.”
“He wants Rachel!”
“The Termite is the one he wants to buy, Mama Price. All those goats, and you won’t have to feed her anymore.”
“Oh, Nelson. Can you even imagine?”
Nelson squatted on his heels, his ashy eyelids blinking earnestly as he inspected Mother’s face.
Surprisingly, she started to laugh. Then, more surprisingly, Nelson began to laugh, too. He threw open his near-toothless mouth and howled alongside Mother, both of them with their hands on their thighs. I expect they were picturing Rachel wrapped in a. pagne trying to pound manioc.
Mother wiped her eyes. “Why on earth do you suppose he’d pick Rachel?” From her voice I could tell she was not smiling, even after all that laughter.
“He says the Mvula’s, strange color would cheer up his other wives.”
“Her color.” He rubbed at his own black forearm and then held up two ashy fingers, as if demonstrating how the ink in Rachel’s sad case had all come off. “She doesn’t have any proper skin, you know,” Nelson said, as if this were something anyone could say of a woman’s daughter without offending her. Then he leaned forward and ducked his head and shoulders far back into the stove for the rest of the ashes. He did not speak again until he emerged from the depths.
“People say maybe she was born too soon, before she got finished cooking. Is that true?” He looked at Mother’s belly inquiringly.
She just stared at him. “What do you mean, her color would cheer up his other wives?”
He looked at Mother in patient wonder, waiting for more of a question.
“Well, I just don’t understand. You make it sound like she’s an accessory he needs to go with his outfit.”
Nelson paused for a long time to wipe the ash from his face and puzzle over the metaphor of accessories and outfits. I stepped into the kitchen house to get a banana, knowing there would likely be nothing more to overhear. My mother and Nelson had reached the limits of mutual understanding.
HERE WAS OUR PROBLEM: Tata Ndu would be very offended if Father turned down his generous offer to marry Rachel. And it wasn’t just Tata Ndu involved. Whatever we might think of this imposing man in his pointed hat, he is a figurehead who represents the will of Kilanga. I believe this is why Brother Fowles said we should respect him, or at least pay attention, no matter how out-of-whack the chief might seem. He’s not just speaking for himself. Every few weeks Tata Ndu has meetings with his sous-chiefs, who have their own meetings with all the families. So by the time Tata Ndu gets around to saying something, you can be pretty sure the whole village is talking to you. Anatole has been explaining to me the native system of government. He says the business of throwing pebbles into bowls with the most pebbles winning an election-that was Belgium’s idea of fair play, but to people here it was peculiar.To the Congolese (including Anatole himself, he confessed) it seems odd that if one man gets fifty votes and the other gets forty-nine, the first one wins altogether and the second one plumb loses. That means almost half the people will be unhappy, and according to Anatole, in a village that’s left halfway unhappy you haven’t heard the end of it. There is sure to be trouble somewhere down the line.
The way it seems to work here is that you need one hundred percent. It takes a good while to get there.They talk and make deals and argue until they are pretty much all in agreement on what ought to be done, and then Tata Ndu makes sure it happens that way. If he does a good job, one of his sons will be chief after he dies.
If he does a bad job, the women will chase Tata Ndu out of town with big sticks and Kilanga will try out a new chief. So Tata Ndu is the voice of the people. And that voice was now telling us we’d be less of a burden to ourselves and others if we let him buy Rachel off our hands for some goats. It kind of put us on the spot.
Rachel went into a frenzy, and for once in my life I couldn’t blame her. I was very glad he hadn’t picked me. Mother crossed her heart to Rachel that we weren’t going to sell her, but reassurances of this kind are not the words you’re prepared to hear coming out of your mother’s mouth.The very thought of being married to Tata Ndu seemed to contaminate Rachel’s frame of mind, so that every ten minutes or so she’d stop whatever she was doing and scream with disgust. She demanded to Father’s face that we go home this instant before she had to bear one more day of humiliation. Father disciplined her with The Verse that ends on honoring thy father and mother, and no sooner had she finished it than Father smote her with it again! We’d run out of blank paper so she had to write out the hundred verses in a very tiny hand on the backs of old letters and envelopes left from when we were still getting mail. Adah and I took pity and secretly helped her some. We didn’t even charge her ten cents a verse, as we used to back home. For if we did, how would she pay?
We couldn’t refuse visits from the chief, no matter how we felt. But Rachel began to behave very oddly whenever he came to the house. Frankly, she was odd when he didn’t, too. She wore too many clothes at once, covering herself entirely and even wearing her raincoat indoors, as hot and dry as it was. She also did strange things with her hair. With Rachel, that is a deep-seated sign of trouble. There was nervous tension in our household, believe you me.
Ever since Independence we’d heard stories of violence between blacks and whites. Yet if we looked out our own window, here’s what we’d see: Mama Nguza and Mama Mwanza chatting in the road and two little boys stepping sideways trying to pee on each other. Everybody still poor as church mice, yet more or less content. The Independence seemed to have passed over our village, just as
the plague did on that long ago night in Egypt, sparing those who had the right symbol marked over their doorsills. Still, we didn’t know what the symbol was, or how we were spared. We barely knew what was going on in the first place, and now, if things had changed, we didn’t know what to believe or how to act. There was an unspoken feeling of danger, which we couldn’t discuss but felt we should be attending to at all times. Mother had little tolerance for Rachel’s tantrums. She told Rachel to straighten up because right now she had her hands full with Ruth May sick.
Ruth May was now getting rashes all over her back and was hot to the touch. Mother gave her cool sponge baths every hour or so. She spent most nights curled up at the foot of my parents’ iron double bed. Mother decided we should move Ruth May’s cot out into the main room so she could be with us in the daytime, where we could keep a closer eye. Rachel and I helped move it, while Adah rolled up the bedding. Our cots were made of iron pipes welded together, about as heavy as you’d think a bed could be. First we had to pull down all the mosquito netting from the frame. Then with a grand heave-ho we shoved the bed away from the wall. What we saw on the wall behind it made us stare. “What are those?” Rachel asked. “Buttons?” I guessed, for they were perfectly round and white. I
was thinking of our hope-chest projects. Whatever this was, it had
been Ruth May’s project for a very long time.
“Her malaria pills,” Mother said, and she was right. There must have been a hundred of them, all partly melted and stuck in long crooked rows behind where the bed had been.
Mother stood looking at them for a good long while. Then she left, and came back with a table knife. Carefully she pried the pills off the plaster wall, one by one, into her cupped hand. There were
sixty-one. Adah kept count, and wrote that number down. Exactly how many weeks we’d been in the Congo.
MAN ALIVE, I am all steamed up with no place to go. When Tata Ndu comes to our house, jeez oh man. I can’t even stand to look at him looking at me. I revert my eyes. Sometimes I do unladylike things like scratch myself and pretend I’m retarded. But I suppose he’d be just as happy to add a retarded wife to his collection; maybe he doesn’t have one yet. Jeepers.The very fact my parents even let him in the door! I refuse to give Father the pleasure of a reply whea he talks to me. Mother either, if I can help it. Ruth May is all she cares about: poor Ruth May this and Ruth May that! Well, jeez, maybe she is sick, but it’s no easy street for me either, being here and taking this guff. My family is thinking of everything but my personal safety.The instant we get back to Georgia I am filing for an adoption.
And if that wasn’t already the living end, now my knight in shining armor has arrived: Mr. Stinkpot Axelroot. He just showed up in the yard one day, right when Tata Ndu was coming up the steps in his stupid hat and his no-glass glasses, and the two of them had a word of exchange. After that Tata Ndu only stayed about ten minutes and then left. I was just getting going on my retarded-daughter presentation. Too bad!
Well, it turns out Father and Mr. Axelroot hatched up a plan to get me out of marrying Tata Ndu without hurting the whole village’s feelings. They’re setting it up to look like I was already promised in marriage to Eeben Axelroot! I about croaked. Mother says don’t let it get me down, it is only for appearance’s sake. But that means now he comes around the house all the time, Coo, and I
have to act engaged! And, naturally, we have to act like it out on the front porch so everybody can see. Sit out there and watch the grass dry up, is my social life at this point in time. Don’t let it get me down? Man, oh man! I always wanted to be the belle of the ball, but, jeepers, is this ever the wrong ball.
The very first time we were alone for ten seconds on the porch, believe it or not, Axelroot tried to get fresh. He put his arm on the back of my chair. I slapped him hard like Elizabeth Taylor in the Hot Tin Roof and I guess that showed him a thing or two. But then he laughed, if you can believe. Well! I reminded him this entire engagement was a lot of bunk and don’t you forget it. “Mr. Axelroot,” I said, “I will commiserate your presence on this porch with me but only as a public service to keep the peace in this village. And furthermore, it would help if you took a bath once every year or two.” I’m willing to be a philanderist for peace, but a lady can only go so far where perspiration odor is concerned. I kept thinking of Brigitte Bardot and all those soldiers.
So he behaves pretty well now. I just call him Axelroot. He calls me Princess, which really is maybe too much polish for the jalopy, but he means it in the right way, I think. He can be halfway decent if he tries. He actually did start taking baths and leaving his horrible hat at home, praise the Lord. Mother hates him as much as ever, and I guess I do too, but what am I supposed to do? I talk to him. As long as you’re sitting out there pretending to be engaged to somebody, you might as well pass the time. And his company does keep the children away. They don’t care for Axelroot. He smacks them. Well, all right, he shouldn’t, I know that! But at least I don’t have to be surrounded with little brats jumping up and pulling on my hair all the livelong day. Normally they clamber around me until I feel like Gulliver among the Lepidopterans.
My unspoken plan is that, if I can butter him up enough, maybe he’ll change his mind and fly us out of here. Mother already secretly offered him her wedding ring plus a thousand dollars, which supposedly we’d dig up after we got back to Georgia without Father or any visible means of self-support. Axelroot said, “Cash only, ladies,” he doesn’t take credit. But maybe he’ll take pity!
So I pass the time by telling him stories from home: the kids I knew back at Bethlehem High and things we used to do. It makes me homesick. But, oh boy, if those fast cheerleaders who teased me for being a preacher’s kid could see me now, practically engaged to an older man! He has been around the block, let me tell you, being born in South Africa and spending his youth here and there, partly even in Texas, from what I gather. His accent sounds normal. And he makes up these cockalamie stories to stand my hair on end about being a flying fighter. How he has shot very influential men in cold blood and dropped fire bombs from the air that can burn up a whole field of crops in ten seconds flat. He’s not just an errand boy flying missionaries around, no, sir! That’s only his cover, or so he informed me. He claims he’s actually a very important figure in the Congo at this moment of history. Sometimes he rattles off all these names of people I can never keep straight: CIA Deputy Chief, Congo Station Chief. He has code names for everybody. Big Shot is the Deputy Chief, and the Station Chief he calls Devil One. Oh, it’s all a game I’m sure. A man of his age might seem too old to be playing Zorro, but then consider the source.
I asked him, “If you’re such an important figure in the Congo, how come all we’ve seen you do is pay too-cheap prices for people’s stuff to sell in the city and come back with our powdered milk and comic books from Leopoldville?”
He says he hasn’t been at liberty to discuss his real work, but now he has U.S. protection and he can tell me a thing or two, so long as I keep it under my hat. Well, natch, even if it were true-who would I tell? An innocent teenager in the middle of God’s green hell with no telephone, and not on speaking terms with her parents? Although Father hasn’t noticed I’m not talking to him, as far as I can tell. Mother has, though. Sometimes she tries to get chummy and ask me a lot of personal questions. She’s hoping to find out,Who is the real Rachel Price?
But I won’t tell her. I prefer to remain anomalous.
AT NIGHT the lizards run up the walls and upside down over the bed looking down at me. They stick up there with their toes. Mice, too. They can talk to me. They said Tata Undo wants to marry Rachel. She did her hope chest already, so she can. But Tata Undo is a Congolese. Can they marry us? I don’t know. But I’d sure like to see Rachel in the white dress; she’ll be pretty. Then they said she was going to marry Mr. Axelroot instead, but he is mean. Sometimes I dream it is Father she’s marrying and I get mixed up and sad. Because then: where is Mama?
The lizards make a sound like a bird at night. In the dreams that I get to watch I can catch the lizards and they’re my pets. They stay right in my hand and don’t run off. When I wake up I don’t have them anymore and I’m sad. So I don’t wake up if I don’t have to.
I was in the dark in Mama’s room but now I’m out here. It’s bright and everybody talks and talks. I can’t say what I aim to. I miss my lizards at night, is what I want to say. They won’t come out in the bright and it hurts my eyes too. Mama puts the cold wet rag all over and then my eyes feel better, but she doesn’t look right. She’s all big, and everybody is.
Circus mission. That’s what they said. Tata Undo keeps on coming over. He is orange sometimes, his clothes. Black skin and an orange dress. It looks pretty. He told Father Rachel would have to have the circus mission where they cut her so she wouldn’t want to run around with people’s husbands. I can’t hear him when he talks French but Father told Mama about it at night. The circus mission.
He said they do it to all the girls here. Father said, Can’t you see how much work we must do? They are leading these female children like lambs to the slaughter. Mama said, Since when did he start to care about protecting young ladies. She said her first job was to take care of her own and if he was any kind of a father he would do the same.
Father said he was doing what he could and at least Mr. Axelroot was a better bargain. Mama had a conniption fit and ripped a sheet in two. She doesn’t like either one of them but they still have to come because Tata Undo is the chief of everything, and Mr. Axelroot is a bargain. But everybody keeps on having a conniption fit. Rachel especially.
Mama found the pills I stuck on the wall. They came out of my mouth. I couldn’t help it. They tasted too bad and they stick on the wall better after they go in your mouth. Mama got them all off with a knife and put them in a white teacup. I saw where she put it, on the shelf with the Bayer aspirins we ran out of. Rachel said, What are we going to do with those? and Mama said, Take them of course, Ruth May will have to and all the rest of us when we run out. But I don’t want to, they make me sick. Rachel said she won’t either. She got disgusted and said, Ye gads, like ABC gum, already been chewed. Rachel gets disgusted a right smart lot of the time. Mother said, Fine if you want to get sick like Ruth May go on ahead, make your own bed and then lie in it. So that’s what happened to me. I made my own bed and now I’m sick. I thought I was just too hot but she told Rachel I’m sick bad. Mama and Father talk about it sometimes and he says The Good Lord and she says A Doctor. They don’t agree with each other and I’m the reason.
I went to the doctor before in Stanleyville two times, when I broke my arm and when it was fixed. My cast got dirty. He cut it off with the biggest scissors that didn’t hurt. But now we can’t go because they are having big fights and making all the white people go naked in Stanleyville.They killed some. When we went up there the first time I saw those little dirty diamonds in a sack in the back of the airplane. Mr. Axelroot didn’t like to catch me spying on his stuff. While we were waiting for Father to come back from the barbershop Mr. Axelroot put his hands on me hard. He said, You tell anybody you saw diamonds in those bags your Mama and Daddy both will get sick and die. I didn’t know what the diamonds were till he said that. I didn’t tell. So I got sick instead of Mama and Daddy both. Mr. Axelroot still lives down at his shack and when he comes up here he looks at me to see if I told. He can see right inside like Jesus. He comes to our house and says he heard what all’s going on with Tata Undo wanting to get married to Rachel. All the people around here know about that. Father says white people have to stick together now so we have to be Mr. Axelroot’s friend. But I don’t want to. When we were waiting in the airplane, he put his hands on me hard.
I broke my arm because I was spying and Mama told me not to. This time I got sick because Baby Jesus can see ever what I do and I wasn’t good. I tore up some of Adah’s pictures and I lied to Mama four times and I tried to see Nelson naked. And hit Leah on the leg with a stick and saw Mr. Axelroot’s diamonds. That is a lot of bad things. If I die I will disappear and I know where I’ll come back. I’ll be right up there in the tree, same color, same everything. I will look down on you. But you won’t see me.
SEVENTEEN! I am now one score and seven years old. Or so I thought, until Leah informed me that means twenty-seven. If God really aims to punish you, you’ll know it when He sends you not one but two sisters who are younger than you but already have memorized the entire dictionary. I just thank heavens that only one of them talks.
Not that I actually got a speck of attention on my birthday. Two birthdays now I have had in the Congo, and I thought the first one was the worst there could be. Last year on my birthday Mother at least did cry, and showed me the Angel Dream cake-mix box she brought over all the way from the Bethlehem Piggly Wiggly to help ease the burden of spending my tender teen years in a foreign land. I felt put out because I didn’t get any nice presents: no sweater set, no phonograph records-oh, I thought that day was the lowest a girl can go.
Boy oh boy. Never did I dream I’d be spending another birthday here, another August 20 in the exact same clothes and underwear as last year, all grown shabby, except for the Bobbie girdle I quit wearing right off the bat, this horrid sticky jungle being no place for Junior Figure Control. And now on top of everything, a birthday passed by with hardly anybody even noticing. “Oh, it’s August twentieth today, isn’t it?” I asked several times out loud, looking at my watch like there was something I needed to do. Adah, on account of keeping her backwards diary, is the only one that keeps a close track of what day it is. Her and Father, of course, who has his little church calendar for all his important appointments, in case he ever gets any. Leah just ignored me, sitting herself right down at Father’s desk to work on her teacher ‘s pet arithmetic program. Leah thinks she is all high and mighty ever since Anatole asked her to help teach some lessons at the school. Really, what a thing to get all jazzed up about. It is only math, the dullest bore in the entire world, and he only lets her teach the very littlest kids anyway. I wouldn’t do it even if Anatole paid me in greenback American dollars. I’d probably get highway hypnosis, watching the snot run down all those little snotroads from their noses to their lips.
So I asked Adah rather loudly, “Say, isn’t today’s date the twentieth of August?” She nodded that it was, and I looked around me in amazement, for there was my very own family, setting the breakfast table and making lesson plans and what not as if this were simply the next day after yesterday and not even anything as special as Thursdays back home in Bethlehem, which was always the day we had to set out the trash.
Mother did finally remember, as it happened. After breakfast she gave me a pair of her own earrings and a matching bracelet I had admired. It’s only cut glass, but a very pretty shade of green that happens to set off my hair and eyes. And since it was about the only jewelry I’d seen in an entire year, it could have been diamonds-I was that depraved. Anyway it was nice to have some small token. She’d wrapped it up in a piece of cloth and written on a card made from Adah’s notebook paper: For my beautiful firstborn child, all grown up. Sometimes Mother really does try. I gave her a kiss and thanked her. But then she had to go back to giving Ruth May her sponge baths, so that was the whole show. Ruth May’s fever shot up to a hundred and five, Adah got stung on the foot by a scorpion spider and had to soak it in cold water, and a mongoose got in the chicken house and ate some eggs, all on the same day: my birthday! And all of them just to detract attention away from me. Except, I guess, the mongoose.
TATA JESUS is BANGALA!” declares the Reverend every Sunday at the end of his sermon. More and more, mistrusting his interpreters, he tries to speak in Kikongo. He throws back his head and shouts these words to the sky, while his lambs sit scratching themselves in wonder. Bangala means something precious and dear. But the way he pronounces it, it means the poisonwood tree. Praise the Lord, hallelujah, my friends! for Jesus will make you itch like nobody’s business.
And while Our Father was preaching the gospel of poisonwood, his own daughter Ruth May rose from the dead. Our Father did not particularly notice. Perhaps he is unimpressed because he assumed all along this would happen. His confidence in the Lord is exceptional. Dog ho! Evol’s dog! The Lord, however, may or may not be aware that our mother assisted this miracle by forcing Ruth May to eat the same pills twice.
Sllip emas. There is no stepping in the same river twice. So say the Greek philosophers, and the crocodiles make sure. Ruth May is not the same Ruth May she was. Yam Htur. None of us is the same: Lehcar, Hael, Hada. Annaelro. Only Nahtan remains essentially himself, the same man however you look at him. The others of us have two sides. We go to bed ourselves and like poor Dr. Jekyll we wake up changed. Our mother, the recent agoraphobe, who kept us pumpkin-shelled indoors through all the months of rain and epidemic and Independence, has now turned on her protector: she eyes our house suspiciously, accuses it of being “cobwebby” and “strangling us with the heat.” She speaks of it as a thing with will and motive. Every afternoon she has us put on our coolest dresses and run away from our malignant house. Down the forest path we march, single file, to the stream for a picnic. When we run off and she thinks we cannot see her she sways in the clearing, gently, like a tree blown by wind. Despite the risk of hookworm, she removes her shoes.
And now rejoice, oh, ye faithful, for Ruth May has risen, but she has the naked stare of a zombie and has lost interest in being first or best at anything. Nelson will not go near her. This is his theory: the owl we held as a temporary captive memorized our floor plan so it could find its way back through a window and consume her soul.
My other sisters, in different ways, have become stricken with strange behavior regarding men. Rachel is hysterical and engaged. The engagement is feigned, but that does not keep her from spending hours at a time playing “Mirror Mirror on the Wall” in her new green glass earrings, then throwing tantrums of protest against her upcoming marriage.
And Leah, the tonier twin. Leah has come down with a devout interest in the French and Kikongo languages-specifically, in learning them from Anatole. In the mornings she teaches arithmetic to his younger pupils, and afterward spends many hours at his bright-white shirtsleeve conjugating the self-same reflexive verbs- I’homme se noie-which a year ago she declared pointless. Apparently reflexive verbs gain a new importance for certain girls at the age of fifteen. She is also being instructed in the art of bow hunting. Anatole gave her as a gift a small, highly functional bow and a quiver of arrows with red tail feathers-like the “Hope” in Miss Dickinson’s poem, and like the quite hopelessly dead Methuselah, our former parrot. Anatole, with his very own knife, slipped these gifts for Leah out of a branch of greenheart wood.
Here is my palindrome poem on the subject: Eros, eyesore.
Nelson, however, is cheered. He views Leah’s bow and arrows as a positive development in our household after so many other discouraging ones, such as the death, for all practical purposes, of Ruth May. Nelson has taken it upon himself to supervise Leah’s military education. He makes targets of leaves, and pins them to the trunk of the great mango at the edge of our yard. The targets grow smaller each day. They began with a giant elephant-ear leaf, like a big triangular apron flapping in the breeze, which was nearly impossible to miss. One at a time Leah sent her wobbling arrows through the slashed green margin. But she has worked her way steadily down, until she now aims at the round, shiny, thumb-sized leaflet of a guava. Nelson shows her how to stand, close one eye, and whack her arrow trembling into the heart of a leaf. She is a frighteningly good shot.
My hunt-goddess twin and I are now more distant kin than ever, I suppose, except in this one regard: she is beginning to be looked upon in our village as bizarre. At the least, direly unfeminine. If anything, I am now considered the more normal one. I am the benduka, the single word that describes me precisely: someone who is bent sideways and walks slowly. But for my twin who now teaches school and murders tree trunks I have heard various words applied by our neighbors, none with much fondness. The favored word, bdkala, covers quite a lot of ground, including a hot pepper, a bumpy sort of potato, and the male sexual organ.
Leah does not care. She claims that since Anatole gave her the bow, and since it was Anatole who requisitioned her to teach school, she must not be breaking any social customs. She fails to see that Anatole is breaking rules for her, and this will have consequences. Like an oblivious Hester Prynne she carries her letter, the green capital D of her bow slung over her shoulder. D for Dramatic, or Diana of the Hunt, or Devil Take Your Social Customs. Off with her bow to market she goes and even to church, although on Sundays she must leave the arrows behind. Even our mother, who is not on the best of terms with Jesus just now, still draws the line at marching into His house toting ammunition.
ANATOLE’S FACE IN PROFILE, with his down-slanted eye and high forehead, looks like a Pharaoh or a god in an Egyptian painting. His eyes are the darkest brown imaginable. Even the whites are not white, but a pale cream color. Sometimes we sit at the table under the trees outside the schoolhouse after the boys are finished with their school day. I study my French and try not to bother him too much while he prepares the next day’s lessons. Anatole s eyes rarely stray from his books, and I’ll admit I find myself thinking of excuses to interrupt his concentration. There are too many things I want to know. I want to know why he’s letting me teach in the school now, for instance. Is it because of Independence, or because of me? I want to ask him if all the stories we’re hearing are true: Matadi, Thysville, Stanleyville. A can trader passing through Kilanga on his way to Kikwit gave us terrifying reports of the slaughter in Stanleyville. He said Congolese boys wearing crowns of leaves around their heads were invulnerable to Belgian bullets, which passed through them and lodged in the walls behind them. He said he’d seen this with his own eyes. Anatole was standing right there but seemed to ignore the tales. Instead, he carefully examined and then purchased a pair of spectacles from the can trader. The spectacles have good lenses that magnify things: when I try them on, even French words look large and easy to read.They make Anatole look more intelligent, though somewhat less Egyptian.
Most of all I want to ask Anatole this one unaskable question: Does he hate me for being white?
Instead I asked, “Why do Nkondo and Gabriel hate me?”
Anatole gave me a surprised look over the horn rims and genuine lenses of his new glasses. “Nkondo and Gabriel, more than the others?” he said, slowly bringing his focus onto the present conversation, and me. “How can you tell?”
I blew air out through my lips like an exasperated horse. “Nkondo and Gabriel more than the others because they play their chairs like drums and drown me out when I try to explain long division.”
“They are naughty boys, then.”
Anatole and I both knew this was not exactly the case. Drumming on chairs might have been of no special consequence in a Bethlehem school where little boys acted up whenever they took a mind. But these boys’ families were scraping together extra food or cash for their sons to go to school, and no one ever forgot it. Going to school was a big decision. Anatole’s students were as earnest as the grave. Only when I tried to teach math, while Anatole was working with the older students, did they raise pandemonium.
“Okay, you’re right.They all hate me,” I whined.”‘! guess I’m not a good teacher.”
“You are a fine teacher. That isn’t the problem.”
“What is the problem?”
“Understand, first, you are a girl. These boys are not accustomed to obeying their own grandmothers. If long division is really so important to a young man’s success in the world, how could a pretty girl know about it? This is what they are thinking. And understand, second, you are white.”
What did he mean, pretty girl! “White,” I repeated. “Then they don’t think white people know about long division, either?”
“Secretly, most of them believe white people know how to turn the sun on and off and make the river flow backward. But officially, no. What they hear from their fathers these days is that now Independence is here and white people should not be in Congo telling us what to do.”
“They also think America and Belgium should give them a lot of money, I happen to know. Enough for everybody to have a radio or a car or something. Nelson told me that.”
“Yes, that is number three. They think you represent a greedy nation.”
I closed the book on French verbs for the day. “Anatole, that doesn’t make a bit of sense. They don’t want us to be friends, and they don’t respect us, and in Leopoldville they’re ransacking white people’s houses. But they want America to give them money.”
“Which part does not make sense to you?” “All of it.”
“Beene, think,” he said patiently, as if I were one of his schoolboys stumped on an easy problem. “When one of the fishermen, let’s say Tata Boanda, has good luck on the river and comes home with his boat loaded with fish, what does he do?”
“That doesn’t happen very often.”
“No, but you have seen it happen. What does he do?”
“He sings at the top of his lungs and everybody comes and he gives it all away.”
“Even to his enemies?”
“I guess.Yeah. I know Tata Boanda doesn’t like Tata Zinsana very much, and he gives Tata Zinsana’s wives the most.”
“All right. To me that makes sense. When someone has much more than he can use, it’s very reasonable to expect he will not keep it all himself.”
“But Tata Boanda has to give it away, because fish won’t keep. If you don’t get rid of it, it’s just going to rot and stink to high heaven.” Anatole smiled and pointed his finger at my nose. “That is just how a Congolese person thinks about money.”
“But if you keep on giving away every bit of extra you have, you’re never going to be rich.”
“That is probably true.”
“And everybody wants to be rich.”
“Is that so?”
“Sure. Nelson wants to save up for a wife.You probably do, too.” For some reason I couldn’t look at him when I said that.”Tata Ndu is so rich he has six wives, and everybody envies him.”
“Tata Ndu has a very hard job. He needs a lot of wives. But don’t be so sure everyone envies him. I myself do not want his job.” Anatole laughed. “Or his wives.”
“But don’t you want lots of money?”
“Beene, I spent many years working for the Belgians in the rubber plantation at Coquilhatville, and I saw rich men there. They were always unhappy and had very few children.”
“They probably would have been even more unhappy if they’d been poor,” I argued.
He laughed. “You might be right. Nevertheless, I did not learn to envy the rich man.”
“But you need some money,” I persisted. I do realize Jesus lived the life of poverty, but that was another place and time. A harsh desert culture, as Brother Fowles had said. “You need enough to pay for food and doctors and all.”
“All right then, some money,” he agreed. “One automobile and a radio for every village.Your country could give us that much, e-e?”
“Probably. I don’t think it would really make a dent. Back in Georgia everybody we knew had an automobile.”
“A bu, don’t tell stories. That is not possible.”
“Well, not everybody. I don’t mean babies and children. But every single family.”
“Yes, it is! Some families even have two!”
“What is the purpose of so many automobiles at the same time?”
“Well, because everybody has someplace to go every day. To work or to the store or something.”
“And why is nobody walking?”
“It’s not like here, Anatole. Everything’s farther apart. People live in big towns and cities. Bigger cities than Leopoldville, even.”
“Beene, you are lying to me. If everyone lived in a city they could never grow enough food.”
“Oh, they do that out in the country. In big, big fields. Peanuts and soybeans and corn, all that.The farmers grow it, then they put it on big trucks and take it all to the city, where people buy it from the store.”
“From the market.”
“No, it isn’t a bit like the market. It’s a great big house kind of thing, with bright lights and all these shelves inside. It’s open every day, and just one person sells all the different things.”
“One farmer has so many things?”
“No, not a farmer. A storekeeper buys it all from the farmers, and sells it to the city people.”
“And so you don’t even know whose fields this food came from? That sounds terrible. It could be poisoned!”
“It’s not bad, really. It works out.”
“How can there be enough food, Beene? If everyone lives in a city?”
“There just is.Things are different from here.”…
“What is so different?”
“Everything,” I said, intending to go on, but my tongue only licked the backs of my teeth, tasting the word everything. I stared at the edge of the clearing behind us, where the jungle closed us out with its great green wall of trees, bird calls, animals breathing, all as permanent as a heartbeat we heard in our sleep. Surrounding us was a thick, wet, living stand of trees and tall grasses stretching all the way across Congo. And we were nothing but little mice squirming through it in our dark little pathways. In Congo, it seems the land owns the people. How could I explain to Anatole about soybean fields where men sat in huge tractors like kings on thrones, taming the soil from one horizon to the other? It seemed like a memory trick or a bluegreen dream: impossible.
“At home,” I said, “we don’t have the jungle.”
“Then what is it you have?”
“Big fields, like a manioc garden as wide and long as the Kwilu. There used to be trees, I guess, but people cut them down.”
“And they did not grow back?”
“Our trees aren’t so vivacious as yours are. It’s taken Father and me the longest time just to figure out how things grow here. Remember when we first came and cleared out a patch for our garden? Now you can’t even see where it was. Everything grew like Topsy, and then died. The dirt turned into dead, red slop like rotten meat. Then vines grew all over it. We thought we were going to teach people here how to have crops like we have back home.”
He laughed. “Manioc fields as long and “wide as the Kwilu.”
“You don’t believe me, but it’s true! You can’t picture it because here, I guess, if you cut down enough jungle to plant fields that big, the rain would just turn it into a river of mud.”
“And then the drought would bake it.”
“Yes! And if you ever did get any crops, the roads would be washed out so you’d never get your stuff into town anyway.”
He clucked his tongue. “You must find the Congo a very uncooperative place.”
“You just can’t imagine how different it is from what we’re used to. At home we have cities and cars and things because nature is organized a whole different way.”
He listened with his head cocked to the side. “And still your father came here determined to plant his American garden in the Congo.”
“My father thinks the Congo is just lagging behind and he can help bring it up to snuff. Which is crazy. It’s like he’s trying to put rubber tires on a horse.”
Anatole raised his eyebrows. I don’t suppose he’s ever seen a horse. They can’t live in the Congo because of tsetse flies. I tried to think of some other work animal for my parable, but the Congo has none. Not even cows. The point I was trying to make was so true there was not even a good way to say it.
“On a goat,” I said finally. “Wheels on a goat. Or on a chicken, or a wife. My father’s idea of what will make things work better doesn’t fit anything here.”
“Ayi, Beene. That poor goat of your father’s is a very unhappy animal.”
And his wife! I thought. But I couldn’t help picturing a goat with big tires stuck in the mud, and it made me giggle.Then I felt stupid. I could never tell if Anatole respected me or just thought I was an amusing child.
“I oughtn’t to laugh at my father,” I said.
“No,” he said, touching his lips and rolling his eyes upward.
“I shouldn’t! It’s a sin.” Sin, sin, I felt drenched and sick of it. “I used to pray to God to make me just like him. Smart and righteous and adequate to His will,” I confessed. “Now I don’t even know what to wish for. I wish I were more like everybody else.”
He leaned forward and looked into my eyes. His finger moved from his lips toward my face and hovered, waiting for a place to plant its blessing. “Beene, if you were more like everybody else, you would not be so beene-beene.”
“I wish you’d tell me what that means, beene-beene. Don’t I have a right to know my own name?”
His hand dropped to the table. “I will tell you someday.”
If I never learned my French conjugations from Anatole, at least I would try to learn patience. “Can I ask you something else?”
He considered this request, his left hand still holding his place in his book. “Yes.”
“Why do you translate the sermons for my father? I know what you think of our mission here.”
“Well, I think I do. You came to dinner that time and explained how Tata Ndu doesn’t like so many people following Christian ways, instead of the old ways. I guess you probably think that, too, that the old ways were better. You don’t care for the way the Belgians did the elections, and I don’t think you’re even so sure about girls teaching school.”
“Beene, the Belgians did not come to me and ask, Anatole Ngemba, how shall we make the election? They merely said, ‘Kilanga, here are your votes. You may cast them in this calabash bowl or that calabash bowl, or toss them all in the river.’My job was to explain that choice.”
“Well, but still. I don’t think you’re very keen on what my father aims to accomplish here.”
“I don’t entirely know what he aims to accomplish here. Do you?”
“Tell the stories of Jesus, and God’s love. Bring them all to the Lord.”
“And if no one translated his sermons, how would he tell those stories?”
“That’s a good question. I guess he’d keep trying in French and Kikongo, but he gets those mixed up pretty bad. People probably never would get it straight what he was doing here exactly.”
“I think you are right. They might like your father more, if they couldn’t understand him, or they might like him less. It’s hard to say. But if they understand his words, they can make up their own minds.”
I looked long and hard at Anatole. “You respect my father, then.”
“What I respect is what I have seen. Nothing can stay the same, when somebody new walks into your house bringing gifts. Let’s say he has brought you a cooking pot. You already had a cooking pot you liked well enough, but maybe this new one is bigger. You’ll be very pleased, and gloat about it by giving the old one to your sister. Or maybe the new pot has a hole in the bottom. In that case you will thank your visitor very much, and when he is gone you’ll put it in the yard for feeding fish scales to the chickens.”
“So you’re just being polite. You don’t believe in Jesus Christ at all.”
He clicked his tongue. “What I believe in is not so important. I am a teacher. Do I believe in the multiplication tables? Do I believe in la languefrancaise, with its extra letters hanging onto every word like lazy children? No matter. People need to know what they are choosing. I’ve watched many white men come into our house, always bringing things we never saw before. Maybe scissors or medicine or a motor for a boat. Maybe books. Maybe a plan for digging up diamonds or growing rubber. Maybe stories about Jesus. Some of these things seem very handy, and some turn out to be not so handy. It is important to distinguish.”
“And if you didn’t translate the Bible stories, then people might sign up to be Christian for the wrong reasons. They’d figure our God gave us scissors and malaria pills so He’s the way to go.”
He smiled at me sideways. “This word beene-beene, you want to know what it means, then?”
“It means, as true as the truth can be.”
I felt a tingling blush in my cheeks, and the embarrassment made me blush more. I tried to think of something to say, but couldn’t. My eyes returned to French sentences I found I couldn’t translate.
“Anatole,” I said finally, “if you could have anything in the world, what would you want?”
Without hesitation he said, “To see a map of the whole world at once.”
“Really?You never have?”
“Not all of it at once. I can’t work out whether it’s a triangle, a circle, or a square.”
“It’s round,” I said, astonished. How could he not know? He’d gone to plantation schools and served in the houses of men who had shelves full of books. He spoke better English than Rachel. Yet he didn’t know the true shape of the world. “Not a circle, but like this,” I said, cupping my hands. “Round like a ball. Really you’ve never seen a globe?”
“I heard about a globe. A map on a ball. I wasn’t sure I understood it correctly because I couldn’t see how it would fit on a ball. Have you seen one?”
“Anatole, I have one. In America lots of people have them.”
He laughed. “For what? To help them decide where to drive the automobile?”
“I’m not joking. They’re in schoolrooms and everywhere. I’ve spent so much time staring at globes I could probably make one.”
He gave me a doubting look.
“I could. I mean it. You bring me a nice clean calabash and I’ll make you a globe of your own.”
“I would like that very much,” he said, speaking to me now as a grown-up friend, not a child. For the first time ever, I felt certain of it.
“You know what, I shouldn’t be teaching math. I should teach geography. I could tell your boys about the oceans and cities and all the wonders of the world!”
He smiled sadly. “Beene, they would not believe you.”
THE DAY AFTER. MY BIRTHDAY, Axelroot came over and we went for a walk. I more or less knew to expect him. His routine was to fly out to his mystery destination on Thursdays, come back Mondays, and come to our house on Tuesdays. So I’d put on my tulip-tailored poison-green suit, which has now officially faded to poison drab and lost two of its buttons. For the first half of last year I prayed for a full-length mirror, and the second half I praised the Lord we didn’t have one. Still, who cares if my suit wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t a date, just a make-believe date for appearances. I planned to walk with him around the village, and not a speck farther. I swore to Mother I would not set foot into the forest with him or anywhere out of sight. She says she doesn’t trust him as far as she could throw him, and believe you me from the look in her eye I think she could throw him pretty far. But he is polite and has cleaned up his style. Standing in the doorway waiting for me in his regulation Sanforized wash-and-wear khakis and pilot sunglasses, why, he very nearly almost looked handsome. If you could ignore the telltale signs that he is a certified creep.
So we strolled out into the unbearable heat of August twenty-first, Nineteen-thousand-and-sixty. Bugs buzzed so loud it hurt your ears, and tiny red birds perched on the ends of long grass stalks beside the road, all swaying this way and that. Outside our village the elephant grass grows so tall it meets above the road to make a shady tunnel. Sometimes you can start thinking the Congo is almost pretty. Almost. And then, don’t look now but a four-inch-long cockroach or something will scurry across the path in front of you. That is exactly what happened next, and Axelroot kind of jumped on it and smashed it. I couldn’t bear to look.The sound was bad enough, honestly. A cross between crackle and squish. But I suppose it was a civilrous gesture on his part.
“Well, I do have to say, it’s nice to be protected for a change,” I said. “Around my house if a giant cockroach turns up someone will either tame it for a pet or cook it for dinner.”
“You have an unusual family.”
“And how!” I said.”That is about the politest way you could put it.”
“I’ve been meaning to ask,” he said.”What happened to your sister?” “Which one? As far as I can tell they all three got dropped on their heads when they were babies.”
He laughed. “The one that limps,” he said. “Adah.”. “Oh, her. Hemiplegia. Half her brain got wrecked some way before she was born so the other half had to take over, and it makes her do certain things backwards.” I am used to having to give the scientific explanation for Adah.
“I see,” he said. “Are you aware that she spies on me?”
“She spies on everybody. Don’t take it personally. Staring at somebody without making a peep is her idea of a conversation.”
We strolled past Mama Mwanza’s and a bunch of other houses where mostly old men were sitting on buckets without a single tooth in their heads.We were also graced by the presence of little children running around totally naked except for a string of beads around their bellies. I ask you, why bother? They all ran out to the road to see how close they could get to us before they had to scream and run away. That is the favorite game. The women were all down at the manioc fields because it was still the end of the morning.
Axelroot took out a pack of Lucky Strikes from his shirt pocket and shook it sideways toward me. I laughed and started to remind him that I’m not old enough, but then realized, my gosh, I was seventeen years old. I could smoke if I wanted to-why ever not? Even some Baptists smoke on appropriate occasions. I took one.
“Thanks. You know I turned seventeen yesterday,” I told him, resting the cigarette lightly on my lips and pausing in the shade of a palm tree so he could light it for me.
“Congratulations,” he said, muffled through the cigarette he put in his own mouth. “I’d have taken you for older.”
That made me tingle, but not half as much as what happened next. Right there in the middle of the road he took the cigarette out of my mouth and put it in his, then struck a match on his thumbnail and lit the two of them together, exactly like Humphrey Bogart. Then, ever so gently, he put the lit cigarette back in my lips. It seemed almost like we had kissed. Chills ran down my back, but I couldn’t tell for sure if it was thrill chills or the creeps. Sometimes it is very hard to know the difference. I tried out holding the filter tip between my two fingers like the girls in magazine ads. So far so good with smoking, I thought. Then I drew in a breath, puckered my lips and puffed it out, and almost instantly I felt dizzy. I coughed a time or two, and Axelroot laughed.
“I haven’t smoked for a while,” I said.” You know. It’s hard for us to get things now.”
“I can get you all the American cigarettes you want. Just say the word.”
“Well, I wouldn’t actually say anything about it to my parents. They’re not big smokers.” But it dawned on me to wonder, How in the world would he get American cigarettes in a country where you can’t even buy toilet paper? “You know a lot of men in high places, don’t you?”
He laughed. “Princess, you don’t know the half of it.”
“I’m sure I don’t,” I said.
A bunch of the younger men were up on top of the church-schoolhouse patching the roof with palm leaves. Father must have organized this barnstorming party, I thought, and then I panicked: Oh Lordy! Here I was right out in broad daylight refreshing my taste with a Lucky Strike. But a quick glance around told me Father was nowhere to he seen, thank goodness. Just a bunch of men singing and blabbing in the Congo language and fixing a roof, that’s all it was.
Why fix the roof now? That was a good question. Last year around the time of my birthday it was pouring down rain every single afternoon, come heck or high river, but this summer, not a drop yet. Just the bugs screeching in the crackly dry grass and the air getting heavier and heavier on these muggy waiting-for-it days. The mugginess just made everybody itch for something, I think.
Just then a large group of women passed us coming back from their manioc field. Huge bundles of giant brown roots tied together with rope were balanced on their heads. The women moved slowly and gracefully putting one foot ahead of the other, and with their thin bodies all draped in colorful pagnes and their heads held so straight and high-honestly, though it is strange to say, they looked like fashion models. Maybe it has just been too long since I’ve seen a fashion magazine. But some of them here I guess are very pretty in their way. Axelroot seemed to think so. He gave them a little salute to the tip of his hat, which he probably forgot he wasn’t wearing. “Mbote a-akento akwa Kilanga. Benzika kooko.”
Every single one of them looked away from us, toward the ground. It was very strange.
“What in the world did you say to them?” I asked after they’d passed by.
“Hey there, ladies of Kilanga. Why don’t you cut me some slack for a change. That’s more or less what I said.” “Well, sir, they sure didn’t, did they?”
He laughed. “They just don’t want any trouble with jealous husbands.”
This is what I mean about Axelroot: you can’t for one minute let yourself forget he is a creep. Right there in front of me, his supposed fiancee, flirting with the entire female contribution of Kilanga. And the bit about jealous husbands, I’m sure. As far as we could see nobody in Kilanga liked Axelroot one iota-man or woman. Mother and Father had commented on this.The women seemed to despise him especially. Whenever he tried to make deals with them to fly their manioc and bananas to Stanleyville, I had personally seen them spit on his shoes.
“No great loss, believe me,” he said. “I prefer a-akento akwa Elisabethville.”
“And what is so special about women from Elisabethville?”
He tipped back his head, smiled, and blew smoke into the muggy sky. Today it really looked like it might rain at last, and felt like it too. The air felt like somebody’s hot breath all over your body, even under your clothes.
“Experience,” he said.
Well, I knew I had better change the train of this conversation. I took a nonchalant puff on my cigarette without breathing in very much. I still felt dizzy. “Where is Elisabethville, anyway?”
“Down south, Katanga Province. The new nation of Katanga, I should say. Did you know Katanga has seceded from the Congo?”
I sighed, feeling light-headed. “I’m just happy to know somebody has succeeded in something. Is that where you go on your trips?”
“Sometimes,” he said. “From now on, more than sometimes.”
“Oh, really.You have new orders from the commando, I suppose.”
“You have no idea,” he said again. I was getting a little tired of hearing how I had no idea. Honestly, did he think I was a child?
“I’m sure I don’t,” I said. We’d gotten to the edge of the village, past the chief’s house, where we were supposed to make a point of Tata Ndu seeing us together, which we both forgot about. Now we were out where there were no more huts and the tall elephant grass started to get tangled up with the edge of the jungle. I’d sworn I wouldn’t go past the end of the village, but it’s a woman’s provocative to change her mind. Axelroot just kept walking, and suddenly I didn’t care what happened next. I kept walking too. Maybe it was the cigarettes: I felt very rash. I would get him to fly us out of here by hook or by crook, is what I was thinking deep in my heart. It was cooler in the forest anyway, and very quiet. When you listened there were only bird sounds with silence in between, and those two sounds put together somehow seemed even quieter than no sound at all. It was very shadowy and nearly dark, even though it was the middle of the day. Axelroot stopped and put out his cigarette with his boot. He took mine from me, cupped rny chin in his hand, and started to kiss me. Oh, lordy! My first kiss, and I didn’t even get a chance to get ready for it. I didn’t and I did want him to do it.
Mostly I did. He tasted like tobacco and salt and the whole experience was very wet. Finally I pushed him away.
“That’s enough of that,” I said. “If we do anything, we should do it where people will see us, you know.”
“Well, well.” He was smiling, and ran the back of his hand along the side of my face. “I’d expect more modesty from a preacher’s daughter.”
“I’ll show you preacher’s daughter. Go to hell, Axelroot!” I turned around and started walking fast back toward the village. He caught up to me and put his arm on my shoulder to slow me back down to a stroll.
“Mustn’t let Tata Ndu see us having a lovers’ quarrel,” he said, leaning down into my face. I tossed my head so my hair flew right in his nosy mug. We were still in the forest anyways, nowhere near Tata Ndu’s house or anybody else’s.
“Come on,” he coaxed. “Give me a smile. One pretty smile and I’ll tell you the biggest damn secret in Africa.”
“Oh, I’m sure,” I said. But I was curious. I glanced at him. “So what’s the secret? Does my family get to go home?”
He laughed. “You still think you’re the epicenter of a continent, don’t you, Princess?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” I said. I would have to ask Leah if an episender sent out good things or bad. If a man you are supposedly engaged to calls you one, you ought to know.
He’d slowed me down till we were walking at an absolute snail’s pace. It made me nervous. But he was going to tell me his secret if I just waited. I could tell he was itching to, so I didn’t ask. I know a thing or two about men. Finally, here it came.”Somebody’s going to die,” he announced.
“Well, big surprise,” I said. “Somebody dies around here about every ten and a half seconds.” But of course I wondered: Who? I felt a little scared but still didn’t ask. We kept walking, step by step. I had to. He still had his arm around me. “Somebody that matters,” he said.
“Everybody matters,” I informed him. “In the eyes of our Lord Jesus Christ they do. Even the sparrows that fall out of their little nest and what not.”
He positively snorted at that. “Princess, you have much to learn. Alive, nobody matters much in the long run. But dead, some men matter more than others.”
I was sick of his guessing game. “All right then, who?”
He put his mouth so close to my ear I could feel his lips on my hair. He whispered,”Lumumba”
“Patrice Lumumba, the President?” I asked out loud, startled. “Or whatever he is? The one they elected?”
“As good as dead,” he said in a quiet, so-what voice that chilled my blood.
“Do you mean to tell me he’s sick or something?”
“I mean his number is up. He’s going to get it.”
“And how would you happen to know that?”
“I would happen to know that,” he said, mocking me, “because I’m in a position to know. Take my word for it, sister.Yesterday Big Shot sent a cable to Devil One with orders to replace the new Congolese government by force. I intercepted the news in code on my radio. My own orders will be coming before the end of the week, I guarantee you.”
Now that was so much bunk I am sure, because nobody in our village has a radio. But I let him go on talking in his little riddles if that was what buttered his toast. He said Devil One was supposed to get his so-called operatives to convince the army men to go against Lumumba. Supposedly this Devil One person was going to get one million dollars from the United States to pay soldiers to do that, go against the very person they all just elected. A million dollars! When we couldn’t even get fifty measly greenbacks a month for our bread and board. That was a likely story. I almost felt sorry for Axelroot, wanting so bad to impress me into kissing him again that he’d make up ridiculous stories. I may be a preacher’s daughter, but I know a thing or two. And one of them is, when men want to kiss you they act like they are just on the brink of doing something that’s going to change the whole wide world.
PRESENTIMENT-is that long Shadow-on the Lawn- Indicative that Suns go down- The Notice to the startled Grass That Darkness-is about to pass- Pity the poor dumb startled grass, I do. Ssap ot tuoba. I am fond of Miss Emily Dickinson: No snikddy lime, a contrary name with a delicious sourgreen taste. Reading her secrets and polite small cruelties of her heart, I believe she enjoyed taking the dumb grass by surprise, in her poem. Cumbered in her body, dressed in black, hunched over her secret notebook with window blinds shut against the happy careless people outside, she makes small scratching sounds with her pen, covering with nightfall all creatures that really should know what to expect by now, but don’t. She liked herself best in darkness, as do I.
In darkness when all cats are equally black, I move as gracefully as anyone. Benduka is the bent-sideways girl who walks slowly, but ben-duka is also the name of a fast-flying bird, the swallow with curved wings who darts crookedly quick through trees near the river. This bird I can follow. I am the smooth, elegant black cat who slips from the house as a liquid shadow after dark. Night is the time for seeing without being seen. With my own narrow shadow for a boat I navigate the streams of moonlight that run between shadow islands in the date-palm grove. Bats pierce the night with bell voices like knives. Bats stab! And owls call out to the bikinda, spirits of the dead. The owls, only hungry like everyone else, looking for souls to eat.
In the long perishing of children from kakakaka I saw the air change color: it was blue with bildla, the wailing for the dead. It came inside our house, where our mother stopped up her ears and her mouth. Bi la ye bandu! Bi la ye bandulWhy why why, they sang, the mothers -who staggered down our road behind small tightly wrapped corpses, mothers crazy-walking on their knees, with mouths open wide like a hole ripped in mosquito netting. That mouth hole! Jagged torn place in their spirits that lets the small flying agonies pass in and out. Mothers with eyes squeezed shut, dark cheek muscles tied in knots, heads thrashing from side to side as they passed. All this we saw from our windows. Two times I saw more. The Reverend forbade us to observe any ritual over which he was not asked to preside, but twice, at night, I slipped out to spy on the funerals. Inside a grove of trees the mothers threw themselves on mounds of dirt that covered their children. Crawled on their hands and knees, tried to eat the dirt from the graves. Other women had to pull them away. The owls croon and croon, and the air must be thick with the spirits of children dead.
Months have passed since then, and the Reverend has spoken with every mother who lost children. Some are pregnant again. He reports to his family after a long day’s work: these women don’t wish to speak of the dead. They will not say their children’s names. He has tried to explain how baptism-the batiza-would have changed everything. But the mothers tell him no, no, they had already tied the nkisi around the child’s neck or wrist, a fetish from the Nganga Kuvudundu to ward off evil. They were good mothers and did not neglect this protection, they tell the Reverend. Someone else just had a stronger evil. Our Father tries to make them understand the batiza is no fetish but a contract with Jesus Christ. If baptized, the children would be in heaven now.
And the mothers look at him slant-eyed. If my daughter were in heaven could she still watch the baby while I work in my manioc? Could she carry water for me? Would a son in heaven have wives to take care of me when I am old?
Our Father takes their ironical and self-interested tone to indicate a lack of genuine grief. His scientific conclusion: the Congolese do not become attached to their children as we Americans do. Oh, a man of the world is Our Father. He is writing a learned article on this subject for the Baptist scholars back home.
Outside the house of Toorlexa Nebee I peer through the window, reep I, yps a ma I, in darkness one small dark left eye at the glass. Banana leaves cover the dirty glass like papery window blinds leaving long narrow triangles for my eye. Toorlexa Nebee caught me near his latrine one afternoon, loitering he said, as if that stinking place were a coveted shelter and myself a supplicant to his excrement, and now he believes he has frightened me off for good. For good and evil. Now I go only at night when all is plainer: plain-lit shapes inside, his face and radio ringed with bright devil halos in kerosene-lantern light. The radio a live mass of wire oozing from his trunk, a seething congregation of snakes. He speaks through the snakes and he speaks unutterable things. Names in code. Some I understand: Eugor, I-W, W-I Rogue. A form of name that belongs to some form of a man. Between two leaves I finally saw W I. Rogue. He came in the airplane at dusk and stayed until morning, hidden in the house of Toorlexa. The two men drank whiskey from bottles and filled the room with a stratified lake of cigarette smoke in the flame-white light of night. They pronounced a litany of names to the mass of snakes. Other names they spoke aloud to each other.
Always they say: as good as dead. Patrice Lumumba.Tlie voice on the radio said it many times. But the name the two men spoke out loud to each other was The President. Not Lumumba. President: Eisenhower,We Like Ike. Eki Ekil Ew.The King of America wants a tall, thin man in the Congo to be dead. Too many pebbles cast for the bottle.The bottle must be broken.
My knees plunged, a rush of hot blood made me fall. A faintness of the body is my familiar, but not the sudden, evil faint of a body infected by horrible surprise. By this secret: the smiling bald man with the grandfather face has another face. It can speak through snakes and order that a president far away, after all those pebbles were carried upriver in precious canoes that did not tip over, this President Lumumba shall be killed.
I crept to my bed and wrote what I had seen and heard, then wrote the ending backward. Stared at the words in my notebook, my captive poem: Redrum sekil oh weki ekil ew.
By morning it had lost the power to shock. Really, in daylight, where is the surprise of this? How is it different from Grandfather God sending the African children to hell for being born too far from a Baptist Church? I should like to stand up in Sunday school now and ask: May Africa talk back? Might those pagan babies send us to hell for living too far from a jungle? Because we have not tasted the sacrament of palm nuts? Or. Might the tall, thin man rise up and declare: We don’t like Ike. So sorry, but Ike should perhaps be killed now with a poisoned arrow. Oh, the magazines would have something to say about that all right. What sort of man would wish to murder the president of another land? None but a barbarian. A man with a bone in his hair.
I want to see no more but go back anyway, called back one-track jet-black Ada, damn mad Ada. Ada who swears to wear black and scratch out dreadful poems. Ha! I want to make the shadow pass over all the clean, startled faces, all those who believe in president grandfathers. Starting with Leah.
Called back among the banana leaves that do not speak in the silent night, I listen. Joe from Paris coming, the radio says. Joe from Paris has made a poison that will seem to be a Congolese disease, a mere African death for Lumumba. W. I. Rogue says they will put it in his toothpaste. Toorlexa laughs and laughs, for here they do not use toothbrushes. They chew the muteete grass to clean their teeth. Toorlexa grows angry then. He has lived here ten years and knows more, he says. He should be running the show, he says. And I wonder, what is the show?
Through triangles between quiet banana leaves I saw flame-haloed faces laugh at the promise of death everlasting. Presentiment that long shadow passes over, and we are the starded grass.
THIS AWFUL NIGHT is the worst we’ve ever known: the nsongonya. They came on us like a nightmare. Nelson bang-bang-banging on the back door got tangled up with my sleep, so that, even after I was awake, the next hours had the unsteady presence of a dream. Before I even knew where I was, I found myself pulled along by somebody’s hand in the dark and a horrible fiery sting sloshing up my calves. We were wading through very hot water, I thought, but it couldn’t be water, so I tried to ask the name of the burning liquid that had flooded our house-no, for we were already outside-that had flooded the whole world?
“Nsongonya,” they kept shouting, “Lesfourmis! Un corps d’armee!” Ants. We were walking on, surrounded, enclosed, enveloped, being eaten by ants. Every surface was covered and boiling, and the path like black flowing lava in the moonlight. Dark, bulbous tree trunks seethed and bulged. The grass had become a field of dark daggers standing upright, churning and crumpling in on themselves. We walked on ants and ran on them, releasing their vinegary smell to the weird, quiet night. Hardly anyone spoke. We just ran as fast as we could alongside our neighbors. Adults carried babies and goats; children carried pots of food and dogs and younger brothers and sisters, the whole village of Kilanga. I thought of Mama Mwanza: would her sluggish sons carry her? Crowded together we moved down the road like a rushing stream, ran till we reached the river, and there we stopped. All of us shifting from foot to foot, slapping, some people moaning in pain but only the babies shrieking
and wailing out loud. Strong men sloshed in slow motion through waist-deep water, dragging their boats, while the rest of us waited our turn to get in someone’s canoe.
“Beene, where is your family?”
I jumped. The person beside me was Anatole.
“I don’t know. I don’t really know where anybody is, I just ran.” I was still waking up and it struck me now with force that I should have been looking out for my family. I’d thought to worry about Mama Mwanza but not my own crippled twin. A moan rose out of me: “Oh, God!”
“What is it?”
“I don’t know where they are. Oh, dear God. Adah will get eaten alive. Adah and Ruth May.”
His hand touched mine in the dark. “I’ll find them. Stay here until I come back for you.”
He spoke softly to someone next to me, then disappeared. It seemed impossible to stand still where the ground was black with ants, but there was nowhere else to go. How could I leave Adah behind again? Once in the womb, once to the lion, and now like Simon Peter I had denied her for the third time. I looked for her, or Mother or anyone, but only saw other mothers running into the water with small, sobbing children, trying to splash and rub their arms and legs and faces clean of ants. A few old people had waded out neck-deep. Far out in the river I could see the half-white, half-black head of balding old Mama Lalaba, who must have decided crocodiles were preferable to death by nsongonya. The rest of us waited in the shallows, -where the water’s slick shine was veiled with a dark lace of floating ants. Father forgive me according unto the multitude of thy mercies. I have done everything so wrong, and now there will be no escape for any of us. An enormous moon trembled on the dark face of the Kwilu River. I stared hard at the ballooning pink reflection, believing this might be the last thing I would look upon before my eyes were chewed out of my skull. Though I didn’t deserve it, I wanted to rise to heaven remembering something of beauty from the Congo.
I THOUGHT I HAD DIED and gone to hell. But it’s worse than that- I’m alive in hell.
While everybody was running from the house, I cast around in a frenzy trying to think what to save. It was so dark I could hardly see, but I had a very clear presence of mind. I only had time to save one precious thing. Something from home. Not my clothes, there wasn’t time, and not the Bible-it didn’t seem worth saving at that moment, so help me God. It had to be my mirror. Mother was screaming us out the door with the very force of her lungs, but I turned around and shoved straight past her and went back, knowing what I had to do. I grabbed my mirror. Simply broke the frame Nelson had made for it and tore it right down from the wall. Then I ran as fast as my legs would carry me.
Out in the road it was a melee of shoving, strangers touching and shoving at me. The night of ten thousand smells. The bugs were all over me, eating my skin, starting at my ankles and crawling up under my pajamas till they would end up only God knows where. Father was somewhere nearby, because I could hear him yelling about Moses and the Egyptians and the river running with blood and what not. I clasped my mirror to my chest so it wouldn’t get lost or broken.
We were running for the river. At first I didn’t know why or where, but it didn’t matter. You couldn’t go anywhere else because the crowd just forced you along. It caused me to recall something I’d read once: if ever you’re in a crowded theater and there’s a fire, you should stick out your elbows and raise up your feet. How to Survive 101 Calamities was the name of the book, which covered what to do in any dire situation-falling elevators, train wrecks, theater fires exetera. And thank goodness I’d read it because now I was in a jam and knew just what to do! I stuck my elbows very hard into the ribs of the people who were crushing in around me, and kind of wedged myself in. Then I just more or less picked up my feet and it worked like a charm. Instead of getting trampled I simply floated like a stick in a river, carried along on everyone else’s power.
But as soon as we reached the river my world came crashing down. The rush came to a standstill, yet the ants were still swarming everywhere. The minute I stood up on the riverbank I got covered with them again, positively crawling. I couldn’t bear it another second and wished I would die. They were in my hair. Never in my innocent childhood did I prepare for being in the Congo one dark night with ants tearing at my scalp. I might as well be cooked in a cannibal pot. My life has come to this.
It took me a moment to realize people were climbing into boats and escaping! I screamed to be put in a boat, but they all ignored me. No matter how hard I screamed. Father was over yonder trying to get people to pray for salvation, and no one listening to him either. Then I spotted Mama Mwanza being carried on her husband’s back toward the boats. They went right past me! She did deserve help, poor thing, but I personally have a delicate constitution.
I waded out after her and tried to get into their family’s boat. All the Mwanza children were still clambering in, and since I am their neighbor I thought surely they would want me with them, but I was suddenly thrown back by someone’s arm across my face. Slam bang, thank you very much! I was thrown right into the mud. Before I even realized what had happened, my precious mirror had slipped from my hand and cracked against the side of the boat. I scooped it up quickly from the river’s edge, but as I stood up the pieces slid apart and fell like knives into the mud. I stood watching in shock as the boat sloshed away from the shore. They left me. And my mirror, strewn all around, reflecting moonlight in crazy shapes. Just left me flat, in the middle of all that bad luck and broken sky.
EVERYBODY WAS WHOOPING and hollowing and I kicked my legs to get down but I couldn’t because Mama had a hold of me so tight it was hurting my arm. Hush, little baby! Hush! She was running along, so it kind of bounced when she said it. She used to sing me: Hush, little baby! Mama’s going to buy you a looking glass!
She was going to buy me every single thing, even if it all got broke or turned out wrong.
When we got down there where everybody was she put me over her shoulder and stepped in the boat sideways with somebody’s hands holding me up and the boat was wobbly. We sat down. She made me get down. It hurt, the little ants were biting us all over bad and it burned. That time Leah fed one to the ant lion, Jesus saw that. Now his friends are all coming back to eat us up.
Then we saw Adah. Mama reached out to her and started to cry and talk loud, like crying-talking, and then somebody else had a hold of me. It was somebody Congolese and not even Mama anymore, so I cried too. Who will buy me a looking glass that gets broke and a mockingbird that won’t sing? I kicked and kicked but he wouldn’t put me down. I heard babies crying and women crying and I couldn’t turn my head around to see. I was going away from Mama is all I knew.
Nelson says to think of a good place to go, so when it comes time to die I won’t, I’ll disappear and go to that place. He said think of that place every day and night so my spirit will know the way. But I hadn’t been. I knew where was safe, but after I got better I forgot to think about it anymore. But when Mama ran down the road with me I saw everybody was going to die. The whole world a-crying and yelling bad. So much noise. I put my fingers in my ears and tried to think of the safest place.
I know what it is: it’s a green mamba snake away up in the tree. You don’t have to be afraid of them anymore because you are one. They lie so still on the tree branch; they are the same everything as the tree. You could be right next to one and not even know. It’s so quiet there. That’s just exactly what I want to go and be, when I have to disappear. Your eyes will be little and round but you are so far up there you can look down and see the whole world, Mama and everybody. The tribes of Ham, Shem, and Japheth all together. Finally you are the highest one of all.
LIVE WAS I ere I saw evil. Now I am on the other side of that night and can tell the story, so perhaps I am still alive, though I feel no sign of it. And perhaps it was not evil I saw but merely the way of all hearts when fear has stripped off the husk of kind pretensions. Is it evil to look at your child, then heft something else in your arms and turn away?
Nod, nab, abandon.
Mother, I can read you backward and forward.
Live was I ere I saw evil.
I should have been devoured in my bed, for all I seem to be worth. In one moment alive, and in the next left behind. Tugged from our beds by something or someone, the ruckus, banging and shouting outside, my sisters leaped up screaming and were gone. I could not make a sound for the ants at my throat. I dragged myself out to moonlight and found a nightmare vision of dark red, boiling ground. Nothing stood still, no man or beast, not even the grass that writhed beneath the shadow, dark and ravenous. Not even the startled grass.
Only my mother stood still.There she was, planted before me in the path, rising on thin legs out of the rootless devouring earth. In her arms, crosswise like a load of kindling, Ruth May.
I spoke out loud, the only time: help me.
“Your father…” she said. “I think he must have gone on ahead with Rachel. I wish he’d waited, honey, he’d carry you but Rachel was… I don’t know how she’ll get through this. Leah will, Leah can take care of herself.”!
She can you can’t you can’t!
I spoke again: Please.
She studied me for a moment, weighing my life. Then nodded, shifted the load in her arms, turned away.
“Come on!” she commanded over her shoulder. I tried to stay close behind her, but even under the weight of Ruth May she was sinuous and quick in the crowd. My heels were nipped from behind by other feet. Stepped on, though I felt it vaguely, already numb from the burning ants. I knew when I went down. Someone’s bare foot was on my calf and then my back, and I was being trampled. A crush of feet on my chest. I rolled over again and again, covering my head with my arms. I found my way to my elbows and raised myself up, grabbing with my strong left hand at legs that dragged me forward. Ants on my earlobes, my tongue, my eyelids. I heard myself crying out loud-such a strange noise, as if it came from my hair and fingernails, and again and again I came up. Once I looked for my mother and saw her, far ahead. I followed, bent on my own rhythm. Curved into the permanent song of my body: left… behind.
I did not know who it was that lifted me over the crowd and set me down into the canoe with my mother. I had to turn quickly to see him as he retreated. It was Anatole. We crossed the river together, mother and daughter, facing each other, low in the boat’s quiet center. She tried to hold my hands but could not. For the breadth of a river we stared without speaking.
That night I could still wonder why she did not help me. Live was I ere I saw evil. Now I do not wonder at all. That night marks my life’s dark center, the moment when growing up ended and the long downward slope toward death began. The wonder to me now is that I thought myself worth saving. But I did. I did, oho, did I! I reached out and clung for life with my good left hand like a claw, grasping at moving legs to raise myself from the dirt. Desperate to save myself in a river of people saving themselves. And if they chanced to look down and see me struggling underneath them, they saw that even the crooked girl believed her own life was precious. That is what it means to be a beast in the kingdom.
SUDDENLY THEN I was pushed from behind and pulled by other hands into a boat and we were on the water, crossing to safety. Anatole clambered in behind me. I was stunned to see he had Ruth May over his shoulder, like a fresh-killed antelope.
“Is she okay?”
“She is sleeping, I think. Twenty seconds ago she was screaming. Your mother and Adah have gone ahead with Tata Boanda,” he said.
“Praise God. Adah’s all right?”
“Adah is safe. Rachel is a demon. And your father is giving a sermon about Pharaoh’s army and the plagues. Everyone is all right.”
I squatted low with my chin on my knees and watched my bare feet change slowly from dark auburn, to speckled, to white as the ants dispersed and forayed out into the bottom of the canoe. I could hardly feel the pain now-the feet I gazed at seemed to be someone else’s. I gripped both sides of the boat, suddenly fearing I might vomit or pass out. When I could hold my head up again, I asked Anatole quietly, “Do you think this is the hand of God?”
He didn’t answer. Ruth May whimpered in her sleep. I waited so long for his answer I finally decided he hadn’t heard me.
And then he simply said, “No.”
“The world can always give you reasons. No rain, not enough for the ants to eat. Something like that. Nsongonya are always moving anyway, it is their nature. Whether God cares or not.” He sounded bitter against God. Bitter with reason. The night felt like a dream rushing past me too fast, like a stream in flood, and in this uncontrollable dream Anatole was the one person who cared enough to help me. God didn’t. I tried to see through the thick darkness that clung to the river, searching out the opposite shore.
“God hates us,” I said.
“Don’t blame God for what ants have to do. We all get hungry. Congolese people are not so different from Congolese ants.”
“They have to swarm over a village and eat other people alive?”
“When they are pushed down long enough they will rise up. If they bite you, they are trying to fix things in the only way they know.”
The boat was crammed with people, but in the dark I couldn’t recognize their hunched backs. Anatole and I were speaking English, and it seemed no one else was there.
“What does that mean? That you think it’s right to hurt people?”
“You know me as a man. I don’t have to tell you what I am.”
What I knew was that Anatole had helped us in more ways than my family could even keep track of. My sister was now sleeping on his shoulder.
“But you believe in what they’re doing to the whites, even if you won’t do it yourself. You’re saying you’re a revolutionary like the Jeune Mou Pro!’
The dark, strong arms of a stranger paddled us forward while I shuddered with cold dread. It occurred to me that I feared Anatole’s anger more than anything.
“Things are not so simple as you think,” he finally said, sounding neither angry nor especially kind. “This is not a time to explain the history of Congolese revolutionary movements.”
“Adah says President Eisenhower has sent orders to kill Lumumba,” I confessed suddenly. After holding in this rank mouthful of words for many days, I spilled them out into our ant-infested boat. “She heard it on Axelroot’s radio. She says he’s a mercenary killer working for the Americans.”
I waited for Anatole to make any response at all to this-but he didn’t. A coldness like water swelled inside my stomach. It couldn’t possibly be true, yet Adah has always had the power to know things I don’t. She showed me the conversation between Axelroot and another man, written down in her journal. Since then I’ve had no clear view of safety. Where is the easy land of ice-cream cones and new Keds sneakers and We Like Ike, the country where I thought I knew the rules.Where is the place I can go home to? “Is it true, Anatole?”
The water moved under us and away, a cold, rhythmic rush. “I told you, this is not a time to talk.”
“I don’t care! We’re all going to die anyway, so I’ll talk if I please.”
If he was even still listening, he must have considered me a tedious child. But I had so much fright in me I couldn’t stop it from coming out. I longed for him to shush me, just tell me to be still
and that I was good.
“I want to be righteous, Anatole. To know right from wrong, that’s all. I want to live the right way and be redeemed.” I was trembling so hard I feared my bones might break. No word.
I shouted to make him hear. “Don’t you believe me? When I walk through the valley of the shadow the Lord is supposed to be with me, and he’s not! Do you see him here in this boat?”
The man or large woman whose back I’d been leaning against shifted slightly, then settled lower. I vowed not to speak another word.
But Anatole said suddenly, “Don’t expect God’s protection in places beyond God’s dominion. It will only make you feel punished. I’m warning you.When things go badly, you will blame yourself”
“What are you telling me?”
“I am telling you what I’m telling you. Don’t try to make life a mathematics problem with yourself in the center and everything coming out equal. When you are good, bad things can still happen. And if you are bad, you can still be lucky.”
I could see what he thought: that my faith injustice was childish, no more useful here than tires on a horse. I felt the breath of God grow cold on my skin. “We never should have come here,” I said. “We’re just fools that have gotten by so far on dumb luck. That’s what you think, isn’t it?”
“I will not answer that.”
“Then you mean no. We shouldn’t have come.”
“No, you shouldn’t. But you are here, so yes, you should be here. There are more words in the world than no and yes.”
“You’re the only one here who’ll even talk to us, Anatole! Nobody else cares about us, Anatole!”
“Tata Boanda is carrying your mother and sister in his boat. Tata Lekulu is rowing his boat with leaves stuffed in his ears while your father lectures him on loving the Lord. Nevertheless, Tata Lekulu is carrying him to safety. Did you know, Mama Mwanza sometimes puts eggs from her own chickens under your hens when you aren’t looking? How can you say no one cares about you?”
“Mama Mwanza does that? How do you know?”
He didn’t say. I was stupid not to have figured it out. Nelson sometimes found oranges and manioc and even meat in our kitchen house when nothing was there the night before. I suppose we believed so hard in God’s providence that we just accepted miracles in our favor.
“You shouldn’t have come here, Beene, but you are here and nobody in Kilanga wants you to starve. They understand that white people make very troublesome ghosts.”
I pictured myself a ghost: bones and teeth. Rachel a ghost with long white hair; Adah a silent, staring ghost. Ruth May a tree-climbing ghost, the squeeze of a small hand on your arm. My father was not a ghost; he was God with his back turned, hands clasped behind him and fierce eyes on the clouds. God had turned his back and was walking away.
Quietly I began to cry, and everything inside me came out through my eyes. “Anatole, Anatole,” I whispered. “I’m scared to death of what’s happening and nobody here will talk to me. You’re the only one.” I repeated his name because it took the place of prayer. Anatole s name anchored me to the earth, the water, the skin that held me in like ajar of water. I was a ghost in ajar. “I love you, Anatole.”
“Leah! Don’t ever say that again.”
I never will.
We arrived at the opposite shore. Someone’s rescued hen fluttered up to the bow of our boat and strutted placidly along the gunwale, its delicate wattles shaking as it plucked up ants. For the first time that night, I thought of our poor chickens shut up for the night in their coop. I pictured their bones laid clean and white in a pile on top of the eggs.
Two days later, when the rebel army of tiny soldiers had passed through Kilanga and we could go home again, that is exactly how we found our hens. I was surprised that their dislocated skeletons looked just the way I’d imagined them. This is what I must have learned, the night God turned his back on me: how to foretell the future in chicken bones.