Book Five. EXODUS
… And ye shall carry up my bones
away hence with you. And they took their journey…
and encamped in the edge of the wilderness…
He took not away the pillar of cloud by day,
nor the pillar of fire by night.
SANDERLING ISLAND, GEORGIA
AS LONG AS I KEPT MOVING, my grief streamed out behind me like a swimmer’s long hair in water. I knew the weight was there but it didn’t touch me. Only when I stopped did the slick, dark stuff of it come floating around my face, catching my arms and throat till I began to drown. So I just didn’t stop.
The substance of grief is not imaginary. It’s as real as rope or the absence of air, and like both those things it can kill. My body understood there was no safe place for me to be.
A mother’s body remembers her babies-the folds of soft flesh, the softly furred scalp against her nose. Each child has its own entreaties to body and soul. It’s the last one, though, that overtakes you. I can’t dare say I loved the others less, but my first three were all babies at once, and motherhood dismayed me entirely. The twins came just as Rachel was learning to walk. What came next I hardly remember, whole years when I battled through every single day of grasping hands and mouths until I could fall into bed for a few short hours and dream of being eaten alive in small pieces. I counted to one hundred as I rocked, contriving the patience to get one down in order to take up another. One mouth closed on a spoon meant two crying empty, feathers flying, so I dashed back and forth like a mother bird, flouting nature’s maw with a brood too large. I couldn’t count on survival until all three of them could stand alone. Together they were my first issue. I took one deep breath for every step they took away from me. That’s how it is with the firstborn, no matter what kind of mother you are-rich, poor, frazzled half to death or sweetly content. A first child is your own best foot forward, and how you do cheer those little feet as they strike out. You examine every turn of flesh for precocity, and crow it to the world.
But the last one: the baby who trails her scent like a flag of surrender through your life when there will be no more coming after-oh, that’s love by a different name. She is the babe you hold in your arms for an hour after she’s gone to sleep. If you put her down in the crib, she might wake up changed and fly away. So instead you rock by the window, drinking the light from her skin, breathing her exhaled dreams. Your heart bays to the double crescent moons of closed lashes on her cheeks. She’s the one you can’t put down.
My baby, my blood, my honest truth: entreat me not to leave thee,for whither thou goest I will go. Where I lodge, we lodge together. Where I die, you’ll be buried at last.
By instinct rather than will, I stayed alive. I tried to flee from the grief. It wasn’t the spirit but just a body that moved me from one place to another. I watched my hands, heard my mouth give orders. Avoided corners and stillness. When I had to pause for breath I stood in the open, in the center of a room or out in the yard. The trees roared and danced as if they were on fire in the pouring rain, telling me to go on, go on. Once I’d moved our table outside, with my baby laid out upon it, I could see no sense in anything but to bring out the rest. Such a bewildering excess of things we had for one single family, and how useless it all seemed now. I carried out armloads of fabric and wood and metal put together in all their puzzling ways, and marveled that I’d ever felt comfort in having such things. I needed truth and light, to remember my baby’s laughter. This stuff cluttered my way. What relief, to place it in the hands of women who could carry off my burden. Their industrious need made me light-headed: my dresses would be curtains, and my curtains, dresses. My tea towel, a baby’s diaper. Empty food tins would be pounded into palm-oil lamps, toys, plowshares maybe-who could say? My household would pass through the great digestive tract of Kilanga and turn into sights unseen. It was a miracle to witness my own simple motion, amplified. As I gave it all up, the trees unrolled their tongues of flame and blazed in approval.
Motion became my whole purpose. When there was nothing left to move but myself, I walked to the end of our village and kept going, with a whole raft of children strung out behind me. Nothing to do but take my leave, Sala mbote! I went on foot because I still had feet to carry me.
Plain and simple, that was the source of our exodus: I had to keep moving. I didn’t set out to leave my husband. Anyone can see I should have, long before, but I never did know how. For women like me, it seems, it’s not ours to take charge of beginnings and endings. Not the marriage proposal, the summit conquered, the first shot fired, nor the last one either-the treaty at Appomattox, the knife in the heart. Let men write those stories. I can’t. I only know the middle ground where we live our lives. We whistle while Rome burns, or we scrub the floor, depending. Don’t dare presume there’s shame in the lot of a woman who carries on. On the day a committee of men decided to murder the fledgling Congo, what do you suppose Mama Mwanza was doing? Was it different, the day after? Of course not. Was she a fool, then, or the backbone of a history? When a government comes crashing down, it crushes those who were living under its roof. People like Mama Mwanza never knew the house was there at all. Independence is a complex word in a foreign tongue. To resist occupation, whether you’re a nation or merely a woman, you must understand the language of your enemy. Conquest and liberation and democracy and divorce are words that mean squat, basically, when you have hungry children and clothes to get out on the line and it looks like rain.
Maybe you still can’t understand why I stayed so long. I’ve nearly finished with my side of the story, and still I feel your small round eyes looking down on me. I wonder what you’ll name my sin: Complicity? Loyalty? Stupefaction? How can you tell the difference? Is my sin a failure of virtue, or of competence? I knew Rome was burning, but I had just enough water to scrub the floor, so I did what I could. My talents are different from those of the women who cleave and part from husbands nowadays-and my virtues probably unrecognizable. But look at old women and bear in mind we are another country. We married with simple hopes: enough to eat and children who might outlive us. My life was a business of growing where planted and making good on the debts life gathered onto me. Companionship and joy came unexpectedly, mostly in small, exploding moments when I was apart from my husband and children. A kiss of flesh-colored sunrise while I hung out the wash, a sigh of indigo birds exhaled from the grass. An okapi at the water. It didn’t occur to me to leave Nathan on account of unhappiness, any more than Tata Mwanza would have left his disfigured wife, though a more able woman might have grown more manioc and kept more of his children alive. Nathan was something that happened to us, as devastating in its way as the burning roof that fell on the family Mwanza; with our fate scarred by hell and brimstone we still had to track our course. And it happened finally by the grace of hell and brimstone that I had to keep moving. I moved, and he stood still.
But his kind will always lose in the end. I know this, and now I know why. “Whether it’s wife or nation they occupy, their mistake is the same: they stand still, and their stake moves underneath them. The Pharaoh died,says Exodus, and the children of Israel sighed by reason of their bondage. Chains rattle, rivers roll, animals startle and bolt, forests inspire and expand, babies stretch open-mouthed from the womb, new seedlings arch their necks and creep forward into the light. Even a language won’t stand still. A territory is only possessed for a moment in time. They stake everything on that moment, posing for photographs while planting the flag, casting themselves in bronze. Washington crossing the Delaware. The capture of Okinawa. They’re desperate to hang on.
But they can’t. Even before the flagpole begins to peel and splinter, the ground underneath arches and slides forward into its own new destiny. It may bear the marks of boots on its back, but those marks become the possessions of the land. What does Okinawa remember of its fall? Forbidden to make engines of war, Japan made automobiles instead, and won the world. It all moves on. The great Delaware rolls on, while Mr. Washington himself is no longer even what you’d call good compost. The Congo River, being of a different temperament, drowned most of its conquerors outright. In Congo a slashed jungle quickly becomes a field of flowers, and scars become the ornaments of a particular face. Call it oppression, complicity, stupefaction, call it what you like, it doesn’t matter. Africa swallowed the conqueror’s music and sang a new song of her own. If you are the eyes in the trees, watching us as we walk away from Kilanga, how will you make your judgment? Lord knows after thirty years I still crave your forgiveness, but who are you’? A small burial mound in the middle of Nathan’s garden, where vines and flowers have long since unrolled to feed insects and children. Is that what you are? Are you still my own flesh and blood, my last-born, or are you now the flesh of Africa? How can I tell the difference when the two rivers have run together so? Try to imagine what never happened: our family without Africa, or the Africa that would have been without us. Look at your sisters now. Lock, stock, and barrel, they’ve got their own three ways to live with our history. Some can find it. Many more never do. But which one among us is without sin? I can hardly think where to cast my stones, so I just go on keening for my own losses, trying to wear the marks of the boot on my back as gracefully as the Congo wears hers.
My little beast, my eyes, my favorite stolen egg. Listen. To live is to be marked. To live is to change, to acquire the words of a story, and that is the only celebration we mortals really know. In perfect stillness, frankly, I’ve only found sorrow.
What We Carried Out
BULUNGU, LATE RAINY SEASON 1961
WE ONLY TOOK what we could carry on our backs. Mother never once turned around to look over her shoulder. I don’t know what would have become of us if it hadn’t been for Mama Mwanza’s daughters, who came running after us, bringing oranges and a demijohn of water. They knew we’d get thirsty, even though the rain hammered our shirts to our backs and chilled us right through the skin, and being thirsty ever again seemed out of the question. Either we’d never known such rain, or we’d forgotten. In just the few hours since the storm broke, the parched road through our village had become a gushing stream of mud, blood-red, throbbing like an artery. We couldn’t walk in it at all, and could barely keep our footing on the grassy banks beside it. A day ago we’d have given up our teeth for a good rain, and now we gnashed them in frustration over the deluge. If only we’d had a boat, it seemed possible we could ride the waves straight to Leopoldville. That’s the Congo for you: famine or flood. It has been raining ever since.
Late that afternoon as we trudged along we spotted a bright bouquet of color up ahead, glowing dimly through the rain. Eventually I recognized the huge pink starburst across the rump of Mama Boanda. She, Mama Lo, and several others huddled together beside the road under elephant-ear leaves, waiting out a particularly fierce spell of the downpour. They motioned us into their shelter and we joined them, stupefied by the rain. It’s hard to believe any water on earth could be so unequivocal. I put out my hand and watched it disappear at the end of my arm. The noise on our heads was a white roar that drew us together in our small shelter of leaves. I let my mind drift into a pleasant nowhere as I breathed the manias’ peanut-and-manioc scent. The upright sprigs of Mama Boanda’s hair dripped from their ends, like a tiny garden of leaking hoses.
When it slowed back down to mere cloudburst, we set off together. The women carried leaf-wrapped packets of manioc and other things on their heads, food they were taking to their husbands in Bulungu, they said. A large political meeting was going on there. Mama Lo also had palm oil to sell in Bulungu. She balanced the immense rectangular can of oil on her head while she chatted with me, and looked so comfortable at it that I tried placing my plastic demijohn on my own head. To my great surprise I found I could keep it there as long as I had one hand on it. In all our time in the Congo I’d been awestruck by what the ladies could carry this way, but had never once tried it myself. What a revelation, that I could carry my own parcel like any woman here! After the first several miles I ceased to feel the weight on my head at all.
With no men around, everyone was surprisingly lighthearted. It was contagious somehow. We laughed at the unladylike ways we all sank into the mud. Every so often the women also sang together in little shouted bursts of call and response.Whenever I recognized the tune, I joined in. Father’s mission had been a success in at least one regard: the Congolese loved our music. They could work miracles with “Soldiers of the Cross” in their own language. Even that most doleful of Christian laments-”Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen”-sounded snappy and upbeat through these women’s windpipes as they sauntered along: “Nani oze mpasi zazol Nani oze mpasi!” We had seen trouble beyond compare, but in that moment as we marched along with rain streaming off the ends of our hair, it felt like we were out on a grand adventure together. Our own particular Price family sadness seemed to belong to another time that we didn’t need to think about anymore. Only once I realized I was looking around for Ruth May, wondering whether she was warm enough or needed my extra shirt. Then I thought with astonishment, Why, Ruth May is no longer with us! It seemed very simple. We were walking along this road, and she wasn’t with us.
My mind wandered around a great deal, until it found Anatole. I had peculiar thoughts weighing on me that I badly needed to tell him. That the inside of a green mamba’s mouth is pure sky-blue, for example. And that we’d strewn ashes on the floor like Daniel, capturing the six-toed footprints, which I had not mentioned to anybody. Anatole might not be safe in Kilanga, any more than we were. But perhaps nobody was safe, with so many things getting turned upside-down. What was the purpose of the political meeting in Bulungu? Who was the secretive man Adah had seen in Axelroot’s shack, laughing about orders from President Eisenhower? Did they truly mean to kill Lumumba? As we passed through the forest we heard gunfire in the distance, but none of the women spoke of it, so we didn’t either.
The road followed the Kwilu River upstream. I spent our year in Kilanga thinking of civilization as lying downstream from us, since that was the way the boats went to Banningville. But when Mother set out from the village on foot she’d asked some of our neighbors which way led to Leopoldville and they’d all agreed, upstream was the best.They said in two days we would get to Bulungu.There the path joined up with a larger road going west, overland, toward the capital. There would be trucks, the neighbor women said. Probably we could find a ride. Mother had asked the women, Did they ever take the road to Leopoldville? And they looked at each other, surprised at this odd question. No. The answer was no, they’d had no reason to go that way. But they were certain we would have a pleasant trip.
In fact our shoes filled with mud and our clothes turned to slime, and it was the farthest thing from pleasant. Mosquitoes that had lain dormant through the long drought now hatched and rose from the forest floor in clouds so thick they filled our mouths and nostrils. I learned to draw back my lips and breathe slowly through my teeth, so I wouldn’t choke on mosquitoes.When they’d covered our hands and faces with red welts they flew up our sleeves and needled our armpits. We scratched ourselves raw. There were always more mosquitoes rising up from the road like great columns of smoke, always moving ahead of us, and we dreaded them. But by putting one foot ahead of the other we traveled farther in one day than we ever had thought to go before.
Some time after dark we arrived in the small village of Kiala. Mama Boanda invited us to come to the house where her mother and father lived with two unmarried sisters, who appeared to be twenty years older than Mama Boanda. We couldn’t really get straight whether they were actually sisters, aunts, or what. But, oh, were we happy to come in out of the rain! Cows rescued from the slaughter could not have been happier. We squatted around the family’s large kettle and ate fufu and nsaki greens with our fingers. Mama Boanda’s ancient parents looked just alike, both of them tiny, bald, and perfectly toothless. The tata stared out the doorway with indifference, but the mama paid attention and nodded earnestly while Mama Boanda chattered on and on with a very long story. It was about us, we realized, since we heard the word nyoka-snake- many times, and also the word Jesus. When the story ended, the old woman studied my mother for a long time while she wrapped and rewrapped her faded blue pagne over her flat chest. After a time she sighed and went out into the rain, returning shortly with a hard-boiled egg. She presented it to my mother and motioned for us to eat it. Mother peeled the egg and we divided it, crumbling it carefully from hand to mouth while the others watched us closely, as if expecting immediate results. I have no idea whether this treasured egg was meant as a special cure for sorrow, or if they merely thought we needed the protein to sustain our dreadful journey.
We all shook from exhaustion.The rain and mud had made every mile into ten. Adah’s weak side was overtaken by convulsive trembling, and Rachel seemed to be in a trance. The old woman worried aloud to her daughter that the guests might die in her house; this kind of thing was felt to be bad luck. But she didn’t throw us out, and we were grateful. With slow, deliberate movements of her bone-thin arms, she plucked up sticks from a pile near the door and started a fire to warm us, right inside the hut. The smoke made it hard to breathe but did give us relief from the mosquitoes. We wrapped ourselves in the extra pagnes offered to us as blankets, and settled down on the floor to sleep among strangers.
The night was pitch-dark. I listened to the pounding rain on the thatch and the quiet drips that leaked through, and only then did I think of Father. “They say you thatched your roof and now you must not run out of your house if it rains. “Father was no longer with us. Father and Ruth May both, as simple as that. My mind ached like a broken bone as I struggled to stand in the new place I found myself. I wouldn’t see my baby sister again, this I knew. But I hadn’t yet considered the loss of my father. I’d walked in his footsteps my whole life, and now without warning my body had fallen in line behind my mother. A woman whose flank and jaw glinted hard as salt when she knelt around a fire with other women; whose pale eyes were fixed on a distance where he couldn’t follow. Father wouldn’t leave his post to come after us, that much was certain. He wasn’t capable of any action that might be seen as cowardice by his God. And no God, in any heart on this earth, was ever more on the lookout for human failing.
Out of the thunderous rain the words came to my ears in Anatole’s serene, particular voice: You must not run out of your house if it rains. Anatole translated the rage of a village into one quiet sentence that could pin a strong-willed man to the ground. It is surprising how my mother and father hardened so differently, when they turned to stone.
I imagined him still standing in our yard, frozen under the deluge, baptizing an endless circle of children, who would slip away and return with new faces requiring his blessing. I’d never understood the size of my father’s task in the world. The size, or the terrible extravagance. I fell in and out of sleep under a strange dream of awful weight that I had to move to free myself. A mountain of hard-boiled eggs that turned into children when my hands touched them, dark-eyed children whose faces begged me for a handful of powdered milk, my clothes, whatever I had. But I’ve brought nothing to give you, I told them, and my heart took me down like a lead weight, for no matter whether these words were true or false, they were terrible and wrong. Each time I drifted off I sank down again through the feverish damp scent and dark blue hopelessness of this awful dream. Finally I shuddered it off and lay sleepless, hugging around my shoulders a thin cotton cloth that smelled of sweat and smoke. With exhaustion for company, I listened to the pounding rain. I would walk in no one’s footsteps now. How could I follow my mother out of here now, and run away from -what we’d done? But after what we’d done, how could I stay?
We didn’t reach Bulungu on the second day, and on the third we came down with a fever. Our bodies finally surrendered to the overpowering assault of mosquitoes. For all these months I’d imagined malaria as a stealthy, secret enemy, but now that it was fully upon me it was as real as anything. I could feel the poison move through my bloodstream like thick, tainted honey. I pictured it as yellow in color. At first I was terrified, shaking with the cold and the panicky flight of my heart, which seemed to be drowning as the poison rose up in my chest. But even if I could have attached words to my terror, there was no one to hear them. The rain on our heads dashed all other sound. On and on we walked, straight through fatigue and far, far beyond it. In time I arrived at a strange, sluggish calm. I imagined honey-colored parasites celebrating in my golden-tinted organs as I alternately froze and burned. When I discovered my face was hot as a stove, I happily used it to warm my freezing hands. The rain turned to ice as it lashed my arms. The trees began to burn with a pinkish aura that soothed my eyes. I lost one of my shoes in the mud, and failed to care. Then I lost the other. My legs began to fold strangely under me. At some point I lay down in an irresistible hollow at the base of a tree and urged Mother and the others to go on without me.
I have no recollection of arriving in Bulungu. I’m told I was carried on a pallet by some men who met us coming out of the jungle from a camp where they made charcoal during the dry season. I owe them my life, and regret that I can’t recall a face or voice or even the rhythm of their step as they carried me. I worry that I might have been indecent to them, yelling insults as Ruth May sometimes did when she was delirious with malaria fever. I suppose I’ll never know.
Bulungu was a whirl of excitement, which I took in gradually, thinking it must be due to our arrival. That we were an unlikely cause for celebration didn’t occur to me, since I was surrounded by so many other entirely improbable things: men beating drums and dancing with the crowns of palm trees sprouting out of their heads, for example. Women with iridescent feathers on their heads and trailing down their spines. Eeben Axelroot’s airplane with coronas of flame dancing around the wings as it touched down on a field of waving pink grass. Later on, in the dark shelter of someone’s house where we were staying, I watched the man Axelroot bizarrely transformed. The Underwood devil’s horns glowed through his slicked-down hair, as he sat in front of the window facing my mother. A living tail crept like a secretive velvet snake through the rungs of the chair behind him. I couldn’t take my eyes off that sinister restlessness. He held the tail in his left hand, trying to quiet it down as he talked. Discussing Rachel. Mother’s profile in the window turned to salt crystal, reflecting all light.
Other people came and went through the darkness where I lay under thatch, sheltered in my cave of dreams and rain. Sometimes I recognized Grandfather Wharton by my bed, patiently waiting for me to take my turn. With a guilty shock I saw we were playing checkers and I wasn’t holding up my end. Grandfather told me in the most offhand manner that we’d both died.
My father came only once, with blue flames curling from his eyebrows and tongue: Many are the afflictions of the righteous: but the Lord delivereth him out of them all. The thin blue line of words rose straight up from his lips through the air. I watched, entranced. At the point where they touched the thatched ceiling, they became a line of ants. Morning and dusk and morning again I watched them trailing up to a hole in the peak of the roof, carrying their tiny burdens out into the light.
Nothing here has surprised me. Least of all, the presence of Anatole Ngemba. One morning he was here, and every day after that, holding a burning tin cup of bitter tea to my mouth and repeating my name: “Beene-beene.” The truest truth. For my whole sixteen years I’ve rarely thought I was worth much more than a distracted grumble from God. But now in my shelter of all things impossible, I drift in a warm bath of forgiveness, and it seems pointless to resist. I have no energy for improving myself. If Anatole can wrap all my rattlebone sins in a blanket and call me goodness itself, why then I’ll just believe him.
That is all I can offer by way of explaining our surprising courtship. As I wake up out of my months-long sleep, I find the course of my life has narrowed right down, and I feel myself rushing along it like a flood of rich, red mud. I believe I’m very happy.
I can’t say how many weeks we were here before Mother left, or how many have passed since. I’ve had the good fortune of shelter; this hut belongs to a pupil of Anatole’s, whose father lived here but is now deceased. Anatole left Kilanga soon after we did, and now spends a lot of time in neighboring villages, talking to people and organizing something large. He seems to have countless friends and resources in Bulungu, and I can stay here as long as I need to. But Mother couldn’t. Mother could hardly sit still.
The day she left stands out in my mind as a drenched, sunny morning. The rain was letting up, and Anatole thought I was well enough to leave my mosquito tent for a few hours. We would go as far as the Kwenge to say good-bye. Rachel had already flown away with her devil saviour, and I was nailed down in Bulungu, since my body was still sunk so deep in poison it couldn’t bear up to many more mosquito bites. But Mother and Adah were leaving. A commerfant had arrived by truck from Leopoldville, and in the rainy season that was a miracle not to be snubbed. He intended to return to the city with a cargo of bananas, and shook his stick fiercely at the Congolese women who tried to clamber onto his massively loaded truck for a ride. But perhaps, the commerfant decided, looking Mother up and down, avoiding her rigid blue gaze, perhaps he had room for the white woman. In the great green mountain of bananas he fixed a nest just big enough for Mother and one of her children. I thought Adah’s lameness and Mother’s desperation had purchased his sympathy. I didn’t know until later there were rumors of huge rewards for white women delivered safely to the embassy in Leopoldville.
The truck was orange. I do remember that. Anatole and I rode along as far as the river to see them off. I vaguely heard Anatole making promises to Mother on my behalf: he would get me well, he’d send me when I felt ready to go home. It seemed he was speaking of someone else, as surely as the man with horns had flown away with someone other than Rachel. As we all bobbed precariously on the mountain of bananas, I just stared at Mother and Adah, trying to memorize what remained of my family.
As soon as we arrived at the mucky bank of the Kwenge, we spotted a problem. The old flatbed ferryboat had been functional just the day before, the commerfant claimed, but now it bobbed listlessly on the opposite shore in spite of his piercing -whistles and waving arms. Two fishermen turned up in a dugout canoe and informed us the ferry was stranded with no power. This was normal, it seemed. Not insurmountable at any rate. Up came our truck’s hood and out came the battery, which the fishermen would carry across the Kwenge to the ferry-for a price, of course. The commerfant paid it, muttering curses that seemed too strong for the early hour, since this was surely only the first irritation of a very long trip. (Or the third, if you counted my mother and Adah as the first two.) It was explained to us that the ferryman would jerry-rig the battery to start his ferry’s engine and come back across to us. Then we could push the truck onto the ferry and reunite it with its battery again on the other side.
Right away, though, another problem. The immense truck battery was of an ancient type too large to be wedged down in the belly of the tiny canoe. After great discussion the fishermen found an answer: a pair of broad planks were set across the boat in a peculiar configuration that required the battery to ride on one side, with a counterweight on the other. There being no large rocks at hand, the fishermen eyed Adah and me. They decided either one of us would work for ballast, but feared Adah’s handicap would prevent her holding on, and if she fell in the river the precious battery would also be lost. Mother, looking straight ahead, agreed I was the stronger one. No one mentioned I was dizzy with malaria fever, nor did it occur to me to raise this as an excuse. Anatole held his tongue, in deference to my family. We’d lost so much already, who was he to tell us how to risk what was left?
I went in that canoe. I could tell the river was receding from its rainy-season flood by its peculiar rank smell and all the driftwood stranded along its banks. I marveled that I’d learned so much about Congolese rivers. I thought of my mother’s lifelong warning to us children whenever we entered a boat: if it overturns, grab hold for dear life! Yet Congolese pirogues are made of such dense wood if they capsize they sink like a rock. All these thoughts passed through me while the fishermen paddled urgently across the swift, boiling Kwenge. I clung to the rough plank, poised far out over the water, giving all my might to the service of balance. I don’t remember letting out my breath until we were safely across.
Possibly I’ve imagined this; the whole episode seems impossibly strange. I mentioned it later and Anatole laughed at what he called my reconstructed history. He claims I rode inside the canoe, at my own request, because the weight of the oddly shaped battery tipped the boat dangerously. Yet the event keeps returning to me in my dreams exactly as I’ve described it, with all the same sights and smells occurring in sequence as I stretched my weight over the water. It’s hard for me to doubt this is how it happened. I can’t deny my brain was still muddled, though. I have only the haziest recollection of waving at my mother and sister in a rising cloud of diesel exhaust and mosquitoes as they began their slow, permanent exodus from the Congo. I wish I could remember their faces, Adah’s especially. Did she feel I’d helped to save her? Or was it just more of the same parceling out of fortunes that had brought us this far, to this place where our path would finally divide into two?
I’ve compensated by remembering everything about Anatole in the days that followed. The exact green taste of the concoctions he boiled to cure me; the temperature of his hand on my cheek. The stitched patterns of light through thatch when morning entered the darkness where we slept, I against one wall, he against the other. We shared the fellowship of orphans. I felt it acutely, like a deep hunger for protein, and despaired for the flat-dirt expanse between Anatole and me. I begged him closer, inch by inch, clinging to his hands when he brought the cup. Now the bitterness of quinine and sweetness of kissing are two tastes perfectly linked on my soft palate. I had never loved a man before, physically, and I’ve read enough of both Jane Eyre and Brenda Starr to know every first love is potent. But when I fell into mine, I was drugged with the exotic delirium of malaria, so mine is omnipotent. How can I ever love anyone now but Anatole? Who else could make the colors of the aurora borealis rise off my skin where he strokes my forearm? Or send needles of ice tinkling blue through my brain when he looks in my eyes? What else but this fever could commute my father’s ghost crying, “Jezebel!” into a curl of blue smoke drifting out through a small, bright hole in the thatch? Anatole banished the honey-colored ache of malaria and guilt from my blood. By Anatole I was shattered and assembled, by way of Anatole I am delivered not out of my life but through it.
Love changes everything. I never suspected it would be so. Requited love, I should say, for I’ve loved my father fiercely my whole life, and it changed nothing. But now, all around me, the flame trees have roused from their long, dry sleep into walls of scarlet blossom. Anatole moves through the dappled shade at the edges of my vision, wearing the silky pelt of a panther. I crave to feel that pelt against my neck. I crave it with a predator’s impatience, ignoring time, keening to the silence of owls. When he’s gone away for a night or two, my thirst is inconsolable. When he comes back, I drink every kiss down to its end and still my mouth aches like a dry cave.
Anatole didn’t take me: I chose him. Once, long ago, he forbade me to say out loud that I loved him. So I’ll invent my own ways to tell him what I long for, and what I can give. I grip his hands and don’t let go. And he stays, cultivating me like a small inheritance of land where his future resides.
Now we sleep together under the same mosquito net, chastely. I don’t mind saying I want more, but Anatole laughs and rubs his knuckles into my hair, pushes me playfully out of the bed. Tells me to go get my bow and hunt a bushbuck, if I want to kill something. The word bandika, for “kill with an arrow,” has two meanings, you see. He said it wasn’t the time for me to become his wife, in the sense used by the Congolese. I was still mourning, he said, still sick, still living partly in another place. Anatole is a patient farmer. He reminds me that our arrangement is not at all unusual; he’s known many men to take even ten-year-olds as brides. At sixteen I am worldly by some people’s standards, and by anyone’s I’m devoted. The fever in my bones has subsided and the air no longer dances with flames, but Anatole still comes to me at night in the pelt of a panther.
I’m well enough to travel now. It’s been true for a while, really, but it was easy for me stay on here with Anatole’s friends in Bulungu, and hard for us to speak of what comes next. Finally, this evening, he had to ask. He took my hand as we walked to the river, which surprised me, as he’s normally reticent to show affection in public. I suppose it wasn’t very public-the only people we could see were the fishermen mending their nets on the opposite shore. We stood watching them while the sunset painted the river with broad streaks of pink and orange. Islands of water hyacinths floated past in the drowsy current. I was thinking I’d never felt more content or known such beauty in all my life. And right then he said, “Beene, you’re well.You can go, you know. I promised your mother I would see that you get home safely.”
My heart stopped.”Where does she think home is?”
“Where you are happiest.”
“Where do you want me to go?”,
“Where you will be happy,” he said again, and so I told him where that place is. Nothing could be easier. I’ve thought about it long and hard and decided that if he will tolerate me as I am, I’ll decline to return to all familiar comforts in order to stay here.
It was an unusual proposal, by the standards of any culture. We stood on the bank of the Kwenge listing the things we’ll have to abandon or relinquish. It’s important information. For all I may be forsaking, he’s giving up a good deal more: the possibility of having more wives than one, for instance. And that’s only the beginning. Even now, I think Anatole’s friends doubt his sanity. My whiteness could bar him outright from many possibilities, maybe even survival, in the Congo. But Anatole had no choice. I took him and held on. There’s enough of my father in me that I had to stand my ground.
Rachel Price Axelroot
JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA 1962
VAANT so LIEF HET GOD die werddgehad, dat Hy sy eniggebore Seun 1 ‘ ‘ SeSee het, sodat elkeen wat in Homglo, nie verlore maggaan nie, maar die ewige lewe kan he.
How do you like that? Ha! That is John 3:16 in Afrikaans. For the last entire year I have worn my little white gloves and pillbox hat to the First Episcopal Church in Johannesburg and recited it right along with the best of them. And now one of my very close friends happens to be from Paris, France, and has taken me under her wings, so I can also go to the Catholic service with her and recite: Car Dieu a tant aime le monde qu’il a donne son Fils unique… In French, another words. I am fluent in three languages. I have not remained especially close with my sisters, but I dare say that for all their being gifted and what not, they can’t do a whole lot better than John 3:16 in three entire languages.
Maybe that won’t necessarily guarantee me a front-row seat in heaven, but considering what all I have had to put up with from Eeben Axelroot for the last year, just for starters, that ought to at least get me in the door. His gawking at other women when I am still so young and attractive myself, and with my nerves shot already, I might add, since I have been through so much. Not to mention his leaving me alone while he goes on all his trips, getting rich on one crackpot scheme after another that never did pan out. I put up with him out of gratitude, mainly. I guess trading away your prime of life is a fair price for somebody flying you out of that hellhole. He did save my life. I promised him I would testify to those very words: Rescued from imminent prospect of death. And I did, too, in a whole slew of forms, so we could collect the money from the U.S. Embassy. They had emergency money available to help their citizens in reaching safety after the Communist crisis with Lumumba and all of that hubbub. Axelroot even got himself a little medal of honor for heroic service, which he is very vain of and keeps in a special box in the bedroom. For that reason we couldn’t actually get legally married right away. The way he explained it was it wouldn’t look right for him to collect money on saving his own wife. That kind of thing you would just naturally be expected to do on your own, without getting paid for it or winning any medals of honor.
Well, dumb me, I believed him. But it turns out Axelroot could collect medals galore in the department of avoiding holy matrimony. He has a hundred and one reasons not to marry the cow so he can buy the milk for free.
But I didn’t think about that at the time, of course. Just imagine how it must have been for an impressionable young girl. There I was shivering in the rain, surrounded on every side by mud huts, mud roads, mud everything. People squatting in the mud, trying to cook over a fire in the pouring rain. Dogs going crazy, running through the mud. We walked practically halfway across the Congo. That was my chosen path to suffering, as our dear old dad would have put it, not that I had any choice. I got baptized by mud. I laid me down at night on filthy floors and prayed the Lord I wouldn’t wake up dead from a snakebite as I had just seen happen tragically to my own sister, knowing full well it could just as soon have been me. Words cannot describe my mental framework. When we finally got to that village and there was Mr. Axelroot in his sunglasses leaning against his airplane, all smirking and Sanforized in his broad-shouldered khaki uniform, I only had one thing to say: “Enough already. Get me out of here!” I didn’t care what kind of forms I had to sign. I would have signed a deal with the Devil himself. I swear I would have.
So that’s how it was for me, one day standing there up to my split ends in mud, and the next day strolling down the wide, sunny streets of Johannesburg, South Africa, among houses with nice green lawns and swimming pools and gobs of pretty flowers growing behind their lovely high walls with electric gates. Cars, even! Telephones! White people just everywhere you looked.
At that time Axelroot was just in the process of getting set up in Johannesburg. He has a brand-new position in the security division of the gold-mining industry, near the northern suburbs, where supposedly we are soon to be living in high style. Although after an entire year all his promises are starting to show the telltale signs of age. Not to mention our furniture, which every stick of it has all been previously owned.
When I first got to Johannesburg I stayed for a brief time with a very nice American couple, the Templetons. Mrs. Templeton had separate African maids for her cooking, cleaning, and laundry. I must have washed my hair fifty times in ten days, and used a clean towel each and every time! Oh, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. Just to be back with people who spoke the good old American language and understood the principle of a flush toilet.
Eeben’s and my house is not nearly so grand, of course, but we certainly get by, and I supply the woman’s touch. Axelroot did pretty well for himself as a pilot in the Congo, transporting perishable goods from the bush into the cities for retail sale, and he was also active in the diamond trade. He worked for the government, too, with his secret assignments and all, but he has never talked about it all that much since we started living together. Now that we have relations any old time we feel like it, which by the way I don’t think is the worst sin there is when there’s people getting hurt, cheated, or killed left and right in this world, well, now Mr. Axelroot doesn’t have to show off his big secrets to the Princess to get a kiss out of her. So now his number-one secret is: I need another beer! Which just goes to show you.
But I was determined right off the bat to make the best of my situation here in my new home of Johannesburg, South Africa. I just started going by the name Rachel Axelroot, and no one had to be the wiser, really. I’ve always made sure I go to church with the very best people, and we get invited to their parties. I insist on that. I have even learned to play bridge! It is my girlfriends here in Joburg that have taught me how to give parties, keep a close eye on the help, and just overall make the graceful transition to wifehood and adulteration. My girlfriends, plus my subscription to the Ladies’ Home Journal. Our magazines always arrive so late that we are one or two months out of style. We probably started painting our nails Immoral Coral after everybody sensible had already gone on to pink, but heck, at least we are all behind the times together. And the girls I associate with are very sophisticated in ways that you simply can’t learn from a magazine. Especially Robine, who is Catholic and from Paris, France, and will positively not eat dessert with the same fork she used at dinner. Her husband is the Attache to the Ambassador, so talk about good manners! Whenever we are invited to the better homes for dinner, I just keep my eye on Robine, because then you can’t go wrong.
We girls stick together like birds of a feather, and thank goodness for that, because the men are always off on one kind of business or another. In Axelroot’s case, as I have mentioned, it frequently turns out to be monkey business. For all I know, he’s off somewhere saving some other damsel in distress with the promise of marriage someday after he’s collected his reward money! That would be Axelroot all over, to turn up with an extra wife or two claiming that’s how they do it here. Maybe he’s been in Africa so long he has forgotten that we Christians have our own system of marriage, and it is called Monotony.
Well, I put up with him anyway. When I get out of bed every morning, at least I’m still alive and not dead like Ruth May. So I must have done something right. Sometimes you just have to save your neck and work out the details later. Like that little book said: Stick out your elbows, pick up your feet, and float along with the crowd! The last thing you want to do is get trampled to death.
As far as the actual day he flew me out of the Congo in his plane, it’s hard for me even to remember what I thought was going to happen next. I was so excited to be getting out of that horrid mud hole I couldn’t think straight. I’m sure I said good-bye to Mother and Adah and Leah, though I really don’t remember giving a second thought to when I would ever see them again, if ever. I must have been in an absolute daze.
It’s funny but I do recall just this one thing. Eeben’s plane was hundreds of feet up in the air already, way over the clouds, when I suddenly remembered my hope chest! All those pretty things I’d made-monogrammed towels, a tablecloth and matching napkins-it just didn’t seem right to be getting married without them. As befuddled as I was, I made him promise he’d go back someday and get those things from our house in Kilanga. Of course he hasn’t. I realize now it was just plain foolish of me to think he ever would.
I guess you might say my hopes never got off the ground.
EMORY UNIVERSITY, ATLANTA 1962
I TELL ALL THE TRUTH but tell it slant, says my friend Emily Dickinson. And really what choice do I have? I am a crooked little person, obsessed with balance.
I have decided to speak, so there is the possibility of telling. Speaking became a matter of self-defense, since Mother seems to have gone mute, and with no one to testify to my place in the world I found myself at the same precipice I teetered upon when entering the first grade: gifted, or special education with the ear-pulling Crawleys? Not that I would have minded the company of simple minds, but I needed to flee from Bethlehem, where the walls are made of eyes stacked in rows like bricks, and every breath of air has the sour taste of someone’s recent gossip. We arrived home to a very special heroes’ welcome: the town had been starving outright for good scuttlebutt. So hip hip hooray, welcome home the pitiful Prices! The astonishing, the bereft, bizarre, and homeless (for we could no longer live in a parsonage without a parson), tainted by darkest Africa and probably heathen, Orleanna and Adah, who have slunk back to town without their man, like a pair of rabid dalmations staggering home without their fire engine.
We were presumed insane. Mother took the diagnosis well. She moved our things out of storage into a plywood cabin on the piney outskirts of town, which she rented on the strength of a tiny legacy from Grandfather Wharton. She did not hook up the telephone. She took up a hoe instead, and began to put every square inch of her sandy two-acre rented lot under cultivation: peanuts, sweet potatoes, and four dozen kinds of flowers. She seemed determined to grow tragedy out of herself like a bad haircut. A neighbor down the road had a mean goose and hogs, whose manure Mother toted home daily like a good African in two balanced bushel pails. It would not have surprised me to see her put a third bucket on her head. By midsummer we could not see out the windows for the foxglove and the bachelor’s buttons. Mother said she aimed to set up a plank shack by the road and sell bouquets for three-fifty apiece. I wondered what Bethlehem would say about that. The minister’s wife gone barefoot to roadside commerce.
As earnestly as Mother had taken up seed catalogs, I took up the catalog of Emory University and studied my possibilities. Then I rode the Greyhound to Atlanta and limped into the admissions office. I was allowed to have an interview with a gentleman named Dr. Holden Remile, whose job I think was to discourage people such as myself from asking for interviews with people such as himself. His desk was immense.
I opened my mouth and waited for the sentence I hoped would arrive. “I need to go to your college here, sir. And when I am done with it, I will need to go to your medical school.”
Dr. Remile was quite shocked, whether by my deformity or my audacity I can’t say, but probably less shocked than I was by the sound of my own voice. He asked whether I had funds, whether I had high school transcripts, whether I had at least taken high school chemistry or advanced algebra. The only answer I had was “No, sir.” But I did mention I had read quite a few books.
“Do you know what calculus is, young lady?” he asked, in the manner of a person who is hiding something frightening in one of his hands. Having grown up around the hands of Reverend Price, I am fairly immune to such fright.
“Yes, sir,” I said. “It is the mathematics of change.”
His telephone rang. While I waited for him to have his conversation, I worked out in my head both the sum and the product of the numbers on the large numbered set of files on his bookshelf, which were all out of order, and made up an equation for righting them, which I wrote down for him on paper. I had to use algebra, though, not calculus. I also observed that his name, backward, was the French verb for wearing one’s clothes threadbare, so I told him that as well, with no offense intended as his clothes were fine.
Dr. Remile suddenly ascertained that I was due some government benefits, being the child of a veteran. He set me up for taking the entrance examinations, for which I returned to Atlanta one month later. I didn’t miss any of the questions in mathematics. On the verbal portion I missed four questions, all having to do with choosing a word in a series that doesn’t belong. I have always had trouble with that line of questioning. Given my own circumstances, I find that anything can turn out to belong nearly anywhere.
I had told the truth: I needed to go to his college. I needed to get out of Bethlehem, out of my skin, my skull, and the ghost of my family. It is not because I was ashamed of Mother-how could I, the village idiot, be ashamed of her? I somewhat enjoyed the company of her madness, and certainly I understood it. But Mother wanted to consume me like food. I needed my own room. I needed books, and for the first time in my life I needed schoolmasters who would tell me each day what to think about.
In organic chemistry, invertebrate zoology, and the inspired symmetry of Mendelian genetics, I have found a religion that serves. I recite the Periodic Table of Elements like a prayer; I take my examinations as Holy Communion, and the pass of the first semester was a sacrament. My mind is crowded with a forest of facts. Between the trees lie wide-open plains of despair. I skirt around them. I stick to the woods.
Since I can’t call her, I take the bus back on weekends. We drink tea and she shows me her flowers. The odd thing is when Father was around she never gardened at all. That was his domain, and he directed us all in the planting of useful foods, all to the Glory of God and so forth. We never had one flower in our yard the whole of my childhood. Not so much as a dandelion. Now Mother’s shack is the mere peak of a roof surrounded by a blaze of pinks, blues, oranges. You have to bend under a wild arch of cosmos when you come up the walk, and use your whole right arm to push the hollyhocks aside to get in the front door. It turns out Mother has an extraordinary talent for flowers. She was an entire botanical garden waiting to happen.
When I visit her we never talk much, and are both relieved by the silence, I think. There are only the two of us now, and I owe her my very life. She owes me nothing at all.Yet I have left her, and now she is sad. I’m not used to this. I have always been the one who sacrificed life and limb and half a brain to save the other half. My habit is to drag myself imperiously through a world that owes me unpayable debts. I have long relied on the comforts of martyrdom.
Now I owe a debt I cannot repay. She took hold of me with a fierce grip and pulled me through. Mother was going to drag me out of Africa if it was her last living act, and it very nearly was. This is how it happened: the commerfant whose truck showed up like a rusted-out angel in Bulungu promised us a ride to Leopoldville with his bananas, but he soon changed his mind and dumped us for more bananas. After a conference with some soldiers along the road, he became convinced that fruit was now bringing a higher price than white women in the city. So out we went.
We walked for two days without food. At night we crouched at the edge of the woods and covered ourselves with palm leaves so the soldiers wouldn’t spot us. Late on the second evening an army truck pulled up beside us, and a man threw us suddenly into the back, where we landed across laps helmets rifles. No doubt the soldiers planned to do us harm; I was numb with that expectation. But Mother’s milk-glass eyes frightened them. Plainly she was possessed of some fierce evil that would enter these men if they touched her, or me. Especially me. So they kept their distance from both of us. We bumped along silently in the back of the truck, passing through dozens of military roadblocks, and were turned over to the BelgianEmbassy, which took us in until someone could sort out what ought to be done with us.We spent nineteen days in the infirmary, swallowing a variety of specialized poisons, since we had intestinal parasites, fungus growing on our feet and forearms, and more than the usual degree of malaria.
Then, on a hospital plane full of UN workers and sick white people, we were transported through a long thrumming darkness, in which we slept the sleep of the dead. When the droning stopped we all sat up and blinked like disturbed corpses. There was light at the round windows. The belly of the plane groaned open and we were delivered abruptly into the benign spring air of Fort Benning, Georgia.
It is impossible to describe the shock of return. I recall that I stood for the longest time staring at a neatly painted yellow line on a neatly formed cement curb. Yellow yellow line line. I pondered the human industry, the paint, the cement truck and concrete forms, all the resources that had gone into that one curb. For what? I could not quite think of the answer. So that no car would park there? Are there so many cars that America must be divided into places with and places without them? Was it always so, or did they multiply vastly, along with telephones and new shoes and transistor radios and cellophane-wrapped tomatoes, in our absence?
Then I stared for a while at a traffic light, which was suspended elaborately on wires above the intersection. I couldn’t look at the cars themselves. My brain was roaring from all the color and orchestrated metal movement. From the open building behind me came a blast of neutral-smelling air and a high hum of fluorescent lights. Even though I was outdoors, I felt a peculiar confinement. One discarded magazine lay on the edge of the street, impossibly clean and unblemished. A breeze gently turned the pages for me, one at a time: here was a neatly coiffed white mother beside a huge white clothes dryer and a fat white child and a great mound of bright clean clothes that would be sufficient, it seemed to me, to clothe a whole village; here were a man and woman holding between them a Confederate flag on a vast lawn so flat and neatly trimmed their shadows stretched behind them for the length of a fallen tree; here was a blonde woman in a black dress and pearls and long red fingernails leaning over a blank white tablecloth toward a glass of wine; here was a child in many kinds of new clothes hugging a doll so clean and unrumpled it seemed not to belong to her; here was a woman in a coat and hat, hugging a bundle of argyle socks. The world seemed crowded and empty at the same time, devoid of smells, and extremely bright. I continued to stare at the traffic light, which glowed red. Suddenly a green arrow popped on, pointing left, and the row of cars like obedient animals all went left. I laughed out loud.
Mother, meanwhile, had moved on. She was walking in a trance toward a pay telephone. I hurried and caught up with her, a little timidly, because she had cut straight to the front of a long line of soldier boys waiting to call home. She demanded that someone give us the correct change to call Mississippi, which two boys did in such a hurry you would think Mother was their commanding officer. The unfamiliar American coins felt light in my hands. I passed them to Mother and she dialed some second cousins who promised to come collect us almost immediately, even though Mother had not spoken with them in nearly a decade. She still knew the telephone number by heart.
Tell all the truth but tell it slant. What secret is left in our family to tell? I may have to stop talking again, until I can be sure of what I know. I thought I had it settled long ago, you see. My hymn to God: Evol’s dog, dog ho! My hymn for love: Eros, eyesore! Oh, I knew it all, backward and forward. I learned the balance of power in one long Congolese night, when the driver ants came: the bang on the door, the dark hustle and burning feet, and last of all Adah dragging the permanent singsong of her body lejt… behind. Out into the moonlight where the ground boiled and there stood Mother like a tree rooted motionless in the middle of a storm. Mother staring at me, holding Ruth May in her arms, weighing the two of us against one another. The sweet intact child with golden ringlets and perfectly paired strong legs, or the dark mute adolescent dragging a stubborn, disjunct half-body. Which? After hesitating only a second, she chose to save perfection and leave the damaged. Everyone must choose.
Live was I ere I saw evil I wrote in my journal. Alive one moment, dead the next, because that is how my divided brain divined the world. There was room in Adah for nought but pure love and pure hate. Such a life is satisfying and deeply uncomplicated. Since then, my life has become much more difficult. Because later on, she chose me. In the end she could only carry one child alive out of Africa and I was that child. Would she rather have had Ruth May? Was I the booby prize? Does she look at me and despise her loss? Am I alive only because Ruth May is dead? What truth can I possibly tell?
Recently I rifled through the history of Our Father. An old trunk full of his things. I needed to find his military discharge papers, which would provide for me some benefits in the domain of college tuition. I found more than I was looking for. His medal is not, as we were always told, for heroic service. It is simply for having been wounded and having survived. For escaping from a jungle where all others marched to their deaths. No more than that. The conditions of his discharge were technically honorable, but unofficially they were: Cowardice, Guilt, and Disgrace. The Reverend the sole survivor in a company of dead men who have marched along beside him all his life since then. No wonder he could not flee from the same jungle twice. Mother told me a part of the story, and I realized I already knew the rest. Fate sentenced Our Father to pay for those lives with the remainder of his, and he has spent it posturing desperately beneath the eyes of a God who will not forgive a debt. This God worries me. Lately He has been looking in on me. My sleep is visited by Ruth May and the many other children who are buried near her. They cry out, “Mother May I?” and the mothers crawl forward on hands and knees, trying to eat the dirt from their babies’ fresh graves. The owls still croon and croon, and the air is thick with spirits. This is what I carried out of the Congo on my crooked little back. In our seventeen months in Kilanga, thirty-one children died, including Ruth May. Why not Adah? I can think of no answer that exonerates me.
Mother’s reasons for saving me were as complicated as fate itself, I suppose. Among other things, her alternatives were limited. Once she betrayed me, once she saved me. Fate did the same to Ruth May, in the opposite order. Every betrayal contains a perfect moment, a coin stamped heads or tails with salvation on the other side. Betrayal is a friend I have known a long time, a two-faced goddess looking forward and back with a clear, earnest suspicion of good fortune. I have always felt I would make a clear-eyed scientist, on account of it. As it turns out, though, betrayal can also breed penitents, shrewd minor politicians, and ghosts. Our family seems to have produced one of each.
Carry us, marry us, ferry us, bury us: those are our four ways to exodus, for now. Though, to tell the truth, none of us has yet safely made the crossing. Except for Ruth May, of course. We must wait to hear word from her.
I rode on the ferry. Until that morning when we all went to the riverbank, I still believed Mother would take Leah, not me. Leah who, even in her malarial stupor, rushed forward to crouch with the battery in the canoe and counter its odd tilt. I was outshone as usual by her heroism. But as we watched that pirogue drift away across the Kwenge, Mother gripped my hand so tightly I understood I had been chosen. She would drag me out of Africa if it was her last living act as a mother. I think probably it was.
MISSION NOTRE DAME DE DOULEUR 1964
LA DRAGUEUSE, the nuns call me here. The Mine Sweeper. And not because my habit drags the ground, either. I wear trousers underneath and tuck it up half the time just to move faster or climb up a tree with my bow to shoot a little meat, which I’d say they’re happy to have. But I can see in their eyes they think I have too much piss and vinegar for the present circumstances. Even Soeur Therese, who’s the closest thing I have to a friend here in the Grand Silence, has marked me as the black sheep in this snowy flock by insisting I wear all brown below the shoulders. She’s in charge of the hospital laundry and claims I’m a hopeless case where white is concerned.
“Liselin!” she scolds, holding up my scapular stained with the blood of something or other, some cat I have skinned.
“The monthly visit?” I’ll offer, and she doubles over, pink-faced, declaring me de trop.Yet I look around me and wonder how, in the present circumstances, any amount of piss and vinegar could possibly be enough.
Liselin is me: Soeur Liselin, a mercy case smuggled in under cover of darkness, given refuge for the indefinite term of my fiance’s imprisonment, tucked for the meantime into too much cloth and married to the Lord to conceal my maiden name. I hope He understands when I pray that our marriage won’t last forever. The sisters seem to forget I’m not one of them, even though they know how I came here. Therese makes me repeat the details while her gray eyes grow wide. Here she is, merely twenty years old and thousands of miles from the pastures of France, washing out the dressings of lepers and awful miscarriages, yet she’s electrified by my narrow escape. Or maybe that I shared it with Anatole. When we’re alone in the sweltering laundry room, she asks me how I know I’m in love.
“I must be. What else would make you stupid enough to put hundreds of people in danger?”
It’s true, I did that.When I finally woke up from my drugged stupor in Bulungu I could see what a burden I’d been, not just for the fufu and fish sauce I’d eaten day after day, but for being a foreigner in the eye of a storm. Mobutu’s army was known to be ruthless and unpredictable. Bulungu could be accused of anything for harboring me. Bulungu could also be burned to the ground for no reason at all. Everyone learned fast, the best strategy was to be invisible. Yet my presence was known throughout the region: I was a gaudy flag waving overhead during all those months of sickness and oblivion, just a girl in love, the center of my own universe. Finally, I sat up to see the sun still rose in the east, but everything else had changed. I begged Anatole to get me out to anyplace where I wouldn’t be a danger to others, but he wouldn’t send me alone. He insisted I had nothing to be ashamed of. He was risking his own pro-Lumumbist neck to stay near me, but many people were now taking risks for what they loved, he said, or simply for what they knew. Soon we’d go, he promised, and go together.
Plans were laid for us by friends, including some men from Kilanga I’d never dreamed would take such chances for Anatole. Tata Boanda, for one. Bright red trousers and all, he arrived late one night on foot, toting a suitcase on his head. He had money for us that he claimed was owed to my father, though this is doubtful. The suitcase was ours. In it were a dress and a coloring notebook of Ruth May’s, pieces of our hope chests, my bow and arrows. Someone in Kilanga saved these precious things for us. I suppose it’s also possible the women who went through our house didn’t want these
items, though the bow at least would have been valuable. A third possibility, then: dismayed by the failure of our Jesus to protect us, they opted to steer clear.
The news of Father wasn’t good. He was living alone. I hadn’t thought of this-who would cook for him? I’d never envisioned Father without women’s keeping. Now he was reported to be bearded, wild-haired, and struggling badly with malnutrition and parasites. Our house had burned, with the blame going either to Mother’s spirit or the mischief of village children, though Tata Boanda allowed it was probably Father trying to toast meat over a kerosene flame. Father ran off to a hut in the woods he was calling the New Church of Eternal Life, Jesus Is Bangala. As promising as that sounds, he wasn’t getting a lot of takers. People were waiting to see how well Jesus protected Tata Price, now that he had to get by the same as everyone without outside help from the airplane or even women. So far, Father seemed to be reaping no special advantages. Additionally, his church was too close to the cemetery.
Tata Boanda told me with sincere kindness that Ruth May was mourned in Kilanga.Tata Ndu threatened to exile Tata Kuvudundu for planting the snake in our chicken house, which he was known to have done, since Nelson pointed out the footprints to many witnesses. Kilanga had fallen on trouble of every kind. The pro-Lumumbists among Anatole’s schoolboys were having armed skirmishes with what was left of the National Army, now Mobutu’s army, farther south along the river. We were warned that travel anywhere would be difficult.
It was harder than that. Even though the rain had stopped, we could barely walk as far as the Kwenge. From there we planned to travel by ferry all the way to Stanleyville, where Lumumba still has enormous popular support. There was work to be done, and Anatole felt we could be safe there. The money Tata Boanda brought us was our salvation. It was a small amount, but in hard Belgian francs. Congolese currency had become useless overnight. With a million pink Congolese bills we couldn’t have bought our way onto the ferry.
Everything was like that: the ground shifted while we slept, and we woke up each day to terrible new surprises. In Stanleyville we quickly saw I was a liability, even more than in Bulungu. People were outraged by the sight of white skin, for reasons I had the sense to understand. They’d lost their hero to a bargain between the foreigners and Mobutu. Anatole wrapped me up in wax-print pagnes, hoping to disguise me as a Congolese matron while trying to keep me from staggering dazed in front of automobiles. I nearly swooned in the mill and flow of Stanleyville-people, cars, animals in the street, the austere gaze of windows in the tall concrete buildings. I hadn’t stepped out of the jungle since my trip with Father to Leopoldville, a year ago or a hundred, I couldn’t say.
Anatole lost no time arranging to get us out of the city. In the back of a friend’s truck, covered with manioc leaves, we left Stanleyville late at night and crossed over into the Central African Republic near Bangassou. I was delivered to this mission deep in the jungle, where, amidst the careful neutrality of the sisters, a rumpled novice named Soeur Liselin might pass a few months unnoticed. Without asking a single question, the Mother Superior invited Anatole and me to spend our last night together in my little blank room. My gratitude for her kindness has carried me a long way on a difficult road.
Therese leans close and looks up at me, her eyebrows tilting like the accents above her name. “Liselin, of what do you accuse yourself? Has he touched you everywhere?”
We expected to be parted for no more than six or eight weeks, while Anatole worked with the Lumumbists to reassemble their fallen leader’s plan for peace and prosperity. We were that naive. Anatole was detained by Mobutu’s police before he even made it back to Stanleyville. My beloved was interrogated to the tune of a broken rib, taken to Leopoldville, and imprisoned in the rat-infested courtyard of what was once a luxurious embassy. Our extended separation has so far improved my devotion to Anatole, my French grammar, and my ability to live with uncertainty. Finally, I’ve confided to Therese, I understand the subjunctive tense.
I shudder to think what Father would say to me here, skulking among a tribe of papist females. I pass the days as productively as I can: trying to stay clean, sharpen my aim, and keep my lip buttoned from Vespers till breakfast. Trying to learn the trick of what passes for patience. Every few weeks I get a letter from Leopoldville, which holds me on track. My heart races when I see the long blue envelope in a sister’s hand, delivered to me under her sleeve as if a man himself were inside. And, oh, he is! Still sweet and bitter and wise and, best of all, still alive. I squeal, I can’t help it, and run outside to the courtyard to taste him in private like a cat with a stolen pullet. I lean my face against the cool wall and kiss its old stones in praise of captivity, because it’s only my being here and his being in prison that saves us both for another chance at each other. I know he despises being useless, sitting still while war overtakes us. But if Anatole were free to do as he pleased right now, I know he’d be killed in the process. If captivity is damaging his spirit, I just hope for an intact body and will do what I can for the rest, later on.
The nuns spied me out there and told me I’m going to wear away their foundation. They are used to gunfire and leprosy but not true love.
Clearly I’m here to stay awhile, so Mother Marie-Pierre has put me to work in the clinic. If I can’t quite get the hang of poverty-chastity-and-obedience, I can learn instead about vermifuges, breech deliveries, arrow wounds, gangrene, and elephantiasis. Nearly all the patients are younger than me. Preventatives for old age are rampant here. Our supplies come from the French Catholic Relief, and sometimes just thin air. Once a messenger on a bicycle came teetering up the jungle path bringing us twelve vials of antivenin, individually wrapped in tissue inside a woman’s jewelry box-an astounding treasure whose history we couldn’t guess. The boy said it came from a doctor in Stanleyville who was being evacuated. I thought of the Belgian doctor who’d set Ruth May’s arm, and I decided to believe Ruth May herself was somehow involved in this gift. The sisters merely praised the Lord and proceeded to save a dozen people from snakebite; more than we’ve lost.
From talking with the patients I’ve gotten passably fluent in Lingala, which is spoken throughout northern Congo, in Leopoldville, and along most of the navigable rivers. If Anatole ever comes back for me, I’ll be ready to go most anywhere. But then a month will pass with no letter and I’m sure he’s slipped into death or recovered his clear ideals and the sense to steer clear of a badly misplaced white girl, he’s gone forever. As lost to me as my sister, oh, sweet Jesus, Ruth May. And Adah, Rachel, Mother, and Father, all gone as well. What’s the meaning of my still being here without name or passport, parroting “how-do-you-do” in Lingala? I am trying to get some kind of explanation from God, but none is forthcoming. At nights in the refectory we sit with our hands in our laps and stare at the radio, our small, harsh master. We hear one awful piece of news after another, with no power to act. The free Congo that so nearly came to pass is now going down. What can I do but throw my rosary against the wall of my cell and swear violence? The nuns are so patient. They’ve spent decades here prolonging the brief lives of the undernourished, accustomed completely to the tragedy playing out around us. But their unblinking eyes framed by their white starched wimples make me want to scream, “This is not God’s will be done!” How could anyone, even a God distracted by many other concerns, allow this to happen?
“Ce n’est pas a nous,” says Therese, not ours to question. As convincing as Methuselah shouting, Sister God is great! Shut the door!
“I’ve heard that before,” I tell her. “I’m sure the Congolese heard it every day for a hundred years while they had to forbear the Belgians. Now they finally get a fighting chance, and we’re sitting here watching it get born dead. Like that baby born blue out of that woman with tetanus this morning.”
“That is an awful comparison.”
“But it’s true!”
She sighs and repeats what she’s told me already. The sisters take no position in war, but must try to hold charity in their hearts even for the enemy.
“But who is the enemy? Just tell me that much, Therese. Which side are you trying not to hate, white men or Africa?”
She snaps a sheet open wide in her hands and takes the center with her teeth to fold it in half. Also, I think, to stop up her mouth.
“I’d fight alongside the Simbas if they’d let me,” I confessed to her once.
Therese has a way of looking at me sideways, and I wonder if she wasn’t too hasty in taking her vows. She’s attracted to mine sweeping. “You have a good aim and good nerves,” she allowed behind the sheet she was folding. “Go join them.”
“You think I’m joking.”
She stopped to look at me seriously. “Non, ce n’est pas me blague. But it’s not your place to fight with the Simbas, even if you were a man. You’re white. This is their war and whatever happens will happen.”
“It’s no more their war than it is God’s will be done. It’s the doing of the damned Belgians and Americans.”
“The Reverend Mother would wash your mouth with disinfectant.”
“The Reverend Mother has more pressing needs for her disinfectant.” And nowhere near enough, either, I thought. In the privacy of my little room I’ve damned many men to hell, President Eisen-hower, King Leopold, and my own father included. I damn them for throwing me into a war in which white skin comes down on the wrong side, pure and simple.
“If God is really taking a hand in things”, informed Therese, “he is bitterly mocking the hope of brotherly love. He is making sure that color will matter forever.” With no more to say between a devout farm girl and a mine sweeper, we folded our sheets and our different-colored habits.
The Simbas would shoot me on sight, it’s true. They’re an army of pure desperation and hate. Young Stanleyville boys and old village men, anyone who can find a gun or a machete, all banded together. They tie nkisis of leaves around their wrists and declare themselves impermeable to bullets, immune to death. And so they are, Anatole says, “For how can you kill what is already dead?” We’ve heard how they sharpened their teeth and stormed the invaders in northeastern Congo, feeding on nothing but rage.
Thirty whites killed in Stanley, two Americans among them-we heard that over the shortwave radio and knew what it meant. By nightfall the United Nations would launch their answer, an air and land attack. The Combined Forces, they’re calling this invading army: the U.S.,Belgium, and hired soldiers left over from the Bay of Pigs. Over the next weeks we heard a hundred more times about the whites killed by Simbas in Stanleyville. In three languages: Radio France, the BBC, and Mobutu’s Lingala newscasts from Leopoldville, the news was all one. Those thirty white people, rest their souls, have purchased an all-out invasion against the pro-Independents. How many Congolese were killed by the Belgians and labor and starvation, by the special police, and now by the UN soldiers, we will never know. They’ll go uncounted. Or count for nothing, if that is possible.
The night the helicopters came in, the vibrations pummeled us out of our beds. I thought the old stone convent was falling down. We ran outside with the wind from the blades tearing down on us from just above the trees, whipping our plain white nightgowns into a froth. The sisters registered their dismay, crossed themselves, and hurried back to bed. I couldn’t. I sat on the ground, hugging my knees, and started to cry, for the first time since time began, it seems. Crying with my mouth open, howling for Ruth May and the useless waste of our mistakes and all that’s going to happen now, everyone already dead and not yet dead, known or unknown to me, every Congolese child with no hope. I felt myself falling apart- that by morning I might be just bones melting into the moldy soil of the sisters’ vegetable garden. A pile of eggless, unmothering bones, nothing more: the future I once foretold.
To hold myself together I tried to cry for something more manageable. I settled on Anatole. Kneeling before our little statue of the Virgin with an eroded face I endeavored to pray for my future husband. For a chance. For happiness and love and, if you can’t pray for sex outright, the possibility of children. I found I could hardly remember Anatole s face, and couldn’t picture God at all. He just ended up looking like my father. I tried to imagine Jesus, then, in the body of Brother Fowles.Tata Bidibidi, with his kind, pretty wife and their precarious boat dispensing milk powder and quinine and love to children along the river. Attend to Creation, was his advice. Well, the palm trees in our courtyard were ripped and flattened from the wind of the helicopters, and looked far too defeated by war to accept my prayers. So I focused on the sturdy walls of the compound and prayed straight to the black stones. I implored them, “Please let there be sturdy walls like these around Anatole. Please let them hold up a roof that will keep this awful sky from falling on him.” I prayed to old black African stones unearthed from the old dark ground that has been here all along. One solid thing to believe in.
IF I’D KNOWN WHAT MARRIAGE was going to be like, well, heck, I probably would have tied all those hope-chest linens together into a rope and hung myself from a tree!
It isn’t living here in South Africa that I mind. It hardly even seems like a foreign country here. You can get absolutely anything you need in the stores: Breck Special Formulated Shampoo, Phillips’ milk of magnesia, Campbell’s tomato soup, honestly you name it! And the scenery is beautiful, especially taking the train down to the beach. My girlfriends and I love to pack up a picnic basket with champagne and Tobler biscuits (which actually are cookies, not biscuits-imagine my surprise when I bought some aiming to serve them with gravy!), and then we just head out to the countryside for a view of the green rolling hills. Of course you have to look the other way when the train goes by the townships, because those people don’t have any perspective of what good scenery is, that’s for sure. They will make their houses out of a piece of rusted tin or the side of a crate-and leave the writing part on the outside for all to see! But you just have to try and understand, they don’t have the same ethics as us.That is one part of living here. Being understanding of the differences.
Otherwise this country is much like you’d find anywhere. Even the weather is very typical. I have always felt that people in other countries just don’t have any idea that Africa could be this normal. The only bad thing is that with the equator being above us the change of seasons conies backwards, which does take some getting used to. But do I complain? Heck, no, I just slap up our Christmas tree in the middle of summer and sing “Deck the Halls” and have a martini on the patio and don’t give it another thought anymore. I am a very adaptable kind of person. I don’t even mind speaking Afrikaans to the maid, which is practically the same thing as English once you get the hang of it. As long as you’re just giving orders, anyway, which are more or less about the same in any language. And if you hear the word “Nuus” on the radio, for example, why, any fool can figure out that means “News.” So you just get up and switch over to the English station!
I have a good life, as far as the overall surroundings. I have put the past behind me and don’t even think about it. Do I have a family? I sometimes have to stop and ask myself. Do I have a mother, father, and sisters? Did I even come from anywhere? Because it doesn’t seem like it. It seems like I’m just right here and always was. I have a little tiny picture of my sisters and me cut out in a heart shape, which I happened to be wearing in a gold locket when I left our unfortunate circumstances in the Congo. Sometimes I get it out and stare at those teeny little sad white faces, trying to make out where I am in that picture. That’s the only time I ever think about Ruth May being dead. Which I’ve said was all because of Leah, but really, mainly, it’s probably Father’s fault because the rest of us just had to go along with whatever he said. If it was up to me, I would never have stepped foot in that snake-infected place. I would have sat home and let other people go be missionaries if they wanted to, bully for them! But the picture is so small I have to hold it practically at the end of my nose to make out who is who. It hurts my eyes to focus on it, so mostly it stays in the drawer.
Like I said, I am content with my present circumstances for the most part. My misery comes from a different concern: my marriage. There is just no word bad enough for Eeben Axelroot. Who has still
not made an honest woman out of me, I might add! He just treats me like his slave-girlfriend-housemaid, having a roll in the hay when he feels like it and then running off doing God knows what for months at a time, leaving me alone in my prime of life. But if I threaten to leave him, he calls me the poor little rich girl (which, if we actually were rich, would be a whole different story) and says I can’t leave him because no man we know around here could afford the upkeep! That is completely unfair. Everyone we know has a nicer house than us. He received a large sum for his service in the Congo, a decent nest egg you might say, but have I seen it? No, sir, and believe you me I looked under the mattress, because that is the kind of person he is. Actually, there’s a gun under there. He says he invested the money. He claims he’s gotten back involved with the diamond business in the Congo and has many foreign partners, but you still have to remind him to take a bath on any given day. So if he has foreign partners, I don’t think they are of a very high class. I told him so, too. Well, he raised up his head from his beer bottle just long enough to have a good laugh at my expense. He said, “Baby, your intellectual capacity is out of this world!” Meaning the vacuum of outer space, ha, ha. His favorite joke. He said my brain was such a blank slate he could tell me every state secret he knows and then march me straight down to the Damnistry International and not have a thing to worry about. He said the government should hire me to work for the other side. This is not lovey-dovey quarreling, mind you. He says these things and laughs in my face! Oh, I have cried till I threatened to ruin my own complexion, let me tell you.
But not anymore. I have abided my time and kept my eyes open, while in the meantime telling him off good in the bathroom mirror whenever I’m all alone and he’s not there, just like I used to do to Father. “You just wait,” I tell him. “I’ll show you whose mind is a blank slate!”
And now Rachel Price is about to have her day. I have a trick up my sleeve which I haven’t told a soul about, even though it’s the God’s honest truth and I know it: I have a good shot at the Ambassador.
Actually Daniel is the First Attache, but the French are all so much of a higher class, regardless of their position. Like I said, we meet the best people through the Templetons, who have divine shindigs. “Come over for drinks and a braai,” meaning a barbecue, is what we always say in Johannesburg. Those parties have a very international flair, what with the scotch whiskey, American LPs, and the embassy gossip. After that one time the Prime Minister got shot in the head, there was a big old crackdown on the blacks, which was absolutely necessary, but resulted in misunderstandings at many of the foreign embassies. The nation of France, especially, has gotten all high-and-mighty about threatening to remove their associations from South Africa. We’ve all been hearing for weeks now that Daniel is going to be reposted to Brazzaville. His little Frenchy wife Robine will never hack it, I can see that as plain as day. She’s well known for just as soon firing her maids as looking at them, and as far as she is concerned, everything that lies outside the civilized boundaries of Johannesburg is Darkest Africa. She and Daniel were already on the verge of a breakup, even if they didn’t know it. So I saw my opportunity, you might say. “She doesn’t know how lucky she is,” I whispered in his ear. “I’ll tell you a little secret. If it was me, I’d go with you in two shakes of a lamb’s tail.” This was two Saturdays ago, over at the Templetons’ when we were slow-dancing around the pool to “Big Girls Don’t Cry” by the Four Seasons. I happen to remember that was the song. Because just that very morning I’d found out about another one of Axelroot’s little piccadillies, but I’m a big girl so I just put my hair up, marched downtown, and bought me a brand-new siren-red bathing suit with a bare midriff. Keeping up the insurance is how I think of it. Like they say in the magazines, Just wear a smile and a Janzen! And that is exactly what I was doing two Saturdays ago at the Templetons’ party.
“After what all I lived through in the Congo,” I cooed to Daniel, “I could take Brazzaville and keep right on smiling.”
And guess what: that is just what I’m going to do! I might as well get started packing my bags and getting measured for a Dior gown.
After what I know about that man, I can wrap him around my little finger. And what he did to me, boy! A man only does that kind of thing when he has certain feelings. I can tell you with absolute pos-itivity that I am soon going to be Mrs. Daniel Attache-to-the-Ambassador DuPree. Eeben Axelroot will be high and dry with no one but the maid to pick up his socks. And Daniel, bless his heart, will never even know what hit him.
Leah Price Ngemba
BIKOKI STATION JANUARY 17,1965
IT CAN FEEL COLD HERE, in the early-morning haze of the dry season. Or maybe it’s just me. Maybe my blood’s gotten thin, a weakness Father used to accuse us of when we complained of the chill winters in north Georgia. Certainly there’s no winter here: the equator just about runs smack-dab through curbed. Anatole tells me I’m passing from the northern to the southern hemisphere whenever I go out to poke up the fire in the kitchen house, so I should consider myself worldly, even though it’s nearly impossible these days to leave the station.
The plain bitter truth is that this day chills me to the bone. I try not to pay attention to the month and date, but the blossoming poinsettias roar at me that it’s coming anyway, and on January 17 I’ll wake up too early, with an ache in my chest. Why did I have to crow, “Who’s brave enough to go out there with me?” Knowing her as I did, that she’d never stand to be called a coward by anyone, least of all her sister.
It’s a bleak anniversary in our household. I killed a snake this morning, just whacked it into pieces with my machete and flung all three of them up in the trees. It was the big black one that’s been hanging around the back door since the end of the rains. Anatole came out and clucked his tongue at my handiwork.
“That snake was not doing us any harm, Beene.”
“I’m sorry, but I woke up this morning craving an eye for an eye.”
“What does this mean?”
“It means that snake crossed my path on the wrong day.” “He was eating a lot of rats. Now they will be into your manioc.”
“Black rats or white ones? I’m not sure I can tell the difference.” He looked at me a long time, trying to work me out. Finally he asked, “Why do you think your sadness is so special? Children died every day in Kilanga.They are dying here and now”
“Oh, how could I forget, Anatole. She was just one of a million people who left the world that day, along with the great Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba. I’m sure in the long run Ruth May hardly mattered at all.”
He came to me and touched my hair, which has gotten rather shaggy. When I can remember to be a good Congolese wife, I tie it up in a headcloth. Anatole carefully wiped my eyes with the tail of his shirt. “Do you think I can’t remember Little Sister? She had the heart of a mongoose. Brave and clever. She was the chief of all children in Kilanga, including her big sisters.”
“Don’t talk about her. Just go to work. Wenda mbote!’ I took his hand away and glared at him. Don’t mention her and I won’t speak of your Lumumba shattered with machetes like this poor snake and thrown in pieces into an abandoned house in Elisabethville, with the blessings of my hateful homeland. I stomped off to the kitchen house, where I could hear the rats already at the manioc, rewarding my spite.
This is a day Anatole and I simply have to get through. I’ve heard people say grief brings you closer, but the griefs he and I carry are so different. Mine are white, no doubt, and American. I hold on to Ruth May while he and the rest of Congo secretly hold a national day of mourning for lost Independence. I can recall, years ago, watching Rachel cry real tears over a burn hole in her green dress while, just outside our door, completely naked children withered from the holes burning in their empty stomachs, and I seriously wondered if Rachel’s heart were the size of a thimble. I suppose that’s how he sees me today. Any other day I might pray, like my old friends the Benedictine sisters, to lose my self-will in the service of greater glory. But January 17, in my selfish heart, is Ruth May’s only.
Through a crack between the boards I watched him pick up his book bag and head off in his earnest, square-shouldered Anatole way down the road toward the school. Anatole, my first prayer to Creation answered. Both of us were spared, in body at least, by the stone walls of our different imprisonments, and altered in spirit, in ways we’re struggling to understand. I’ve lost all the words to my childhood prayers, so my head rings with its own Grand Silence. And Anatole has found new words for shaping belief.
His circumstances were as bizarre as mine, and very lucky-we agree on that. Most dissidents now are executed, or held under conditions that make them wish for execution. But Mobutu was just getting organized in ‘61, and still given to peculiar omissions. Anatole got to spend his days playing bottle-cap checkers with a pair of lackadaisical guards, who let him read and write anything as long as he didn’t escape. They liked Anatole, and apologized that they had to support their families on the handful of coins or rice they got when Mobutu’s deputies came by to count the prisoners each morning. After that he could organize lessons under the courtyard’s scabby mango, teaching literacy to any guard or fellow prisoner who felt like improving himself on a given day. The guards helped get books for Anatole, and went to a lot of trouble to get his letters posted to various countries. Right under Mobutu’s nose, he discovered the writings of the great African nationalist Kwame Nkrumah, and the poetry of a young doctor in Angola, Agostinho Neto, with whom he started up a correspondence.
Neto is about Anatole’s age, also educated by missionaries. He’d already gone abroad to study medicine and returned home to open a clinic, where his own people could get decent care, but it didn’t work out. A gang of white policemen dragged him out of his clinic one day, beat him half to death, and carted him off to prison. The crowds that turned up to demand his release got cut down like trees by machine-gun fire. Not only that, but the Portuguese army went out burning villages to the ground, to put a damper on Neto’s popularity.Yet, the minute he got out of prison, he started attracting droves of people to an opposition party in Angola. Anatole is encouraged by his example and talks about Neto a good deal, hoping to meet with him somehow, somewhere. I can’t feature it, when it’s too dangerous now for them even to continue writing letters.
Of course, Anatole’s most faithful prison correspondence was with a nun in Bangassou, which was a matter of great hilarity to his fellow prisoners. Sa planche de salut! they teased-his long plank to salvation-a slang expression meaning your last hope. Anatole still sometimes calls me his planche de salut. But by the time we were reunited last fall, I was unsure enough of God and too mad at everybody else to offer any kind of salvation. For sure, though, I’d had enough of poverty-chastity-obedience to trade it in on being Anatole’s wife. A medical evacuation Jeep got me through disguised as a corpse all the way to Bikoki, an old rubber plantation settlement outside of Coquilhatville. My sweetheart, released after three years without formal charges, was waiting here to raise the dead.
We chose Bikoki expecting to find people Anatole knew here, former friends and employers in the rubber trade, but most are dead now or have left the country. A surprise, though, was Aunt Elisabet, his mother’s youngest sister. She came looking for him here a decade ago. Anatole was already gone long before, but Elisabet took work at the mission station, had a child, and never left. It’s a great change for Anatole to have relatives and a wife, after his lifelong status as an orphan.
The mission is a ghost town now, and the agricultural station also nearly deserted. The Simbas have cleared the place of Europeans without ever setting foot here. The plantation is mostly rubble. (I imagine it dismantled by the whacked-off ghost hands of all those rubber workers.) The one building left standing contains the very library where Anatole, as a young household servant, taught himself to read and write English. At my request we were married in that room by the village chief, in i ceremony that was neither quite Christian nor Bantu. I asked for God’s blessing and carried red bougainvillea flowers for my mother. Aunt Elisabet draped around our shoulders the traditional marriage cloth called mole, a beautiful double-sized pagne that symbolizes the togetherness of marriage. It also works as a bedspread.
Since its heyday as a planter’s mansion, parts of the house had been used as an army bunker, a birthing hospital, and a goat barn. Now the plan was to use it for a school. The department chief in Coquilhatville admires Anatole, so turned a blind eye to his prison record and hired him as headmaster for the regional hole secondaire. We’re also trying to keep open the agricultural extension program, training former rubber workers to subsistence farming. And I volunteer at the clinic, where a Guinean doctor comes once a week from Coquilhatville to immunize and diagnose babies. In spite of all we’d been through, Anatole and I stood together last fall and declared the word Independence out loud. We said it with our eyes on the sky, as if it were some fabulous bird we could call down out of the air.
It’s taken a lot to dampen our hopes. But everything has turned around so fast, like a magician’s trick: foreign hands moved behind the curtain and one white King was replaced with another. Only the face that shows is black. Mobutu’s U.S. advisors even tried to hold elections here, but then got furious when the wrong person won- Antoine Gizenga, Lumumba’s lieutenant. So they marched the army into parliament and reorganized it once again in Mobutu’s favor.
“If the Americans mean to teach us about democracy, the lesson is quite remarkable,” Anatole observed.
“Breathtaking,” I agreed.
He says I have different personalities: that my Lingak is sweet and maternal, but in English I’m sarcastic. I told him, “That’s nothing-in French I’m a mine sweeper. Which personality annoys you the most?”
He kissed my forehead. “The most, I love my Beene.” His absolute truth. Is that what I am? When the neighbors or students ask me my nationality, I tell them I came from a country that no longer exists. They can believe it.
In the last months our government paychecks have dwindled from almost nothing to nothing. We tell our coworkers that a mere lack of funds mustn’t discourage our hopes. We know that to criticize Mobutu, even in private, is to risk having your head cracked open like a nut, which naturally would discourage one’s hopes entirely. We live on what we can find, and when we’re offered news of friends, we take a deep breath first. My old friend Pascal and two other former students of Anatole’s were murdered by the army on the road south of here. Pascal had a kilo of sugar cane and a defunct World War II handgun in his backpack. We heard about it on Christmas Day, when we had a visit from Fyntan and Celine Fowles.They’re now staying at Kikongo, the hospital mission on the Wamba they told us about. I rejoiced to see them, but any reunion brings awful news, and I cried myself to sleep when they left. I’d nearly forgotten Pascal, his wide-set eyes and insolent smile, and now he comes creeping around my dreams, throwing open windows faster than I can shut them. What little scrap of audacity caught the attention of an army officer on the road? What if I marked him with some English word I taught him, as stupidly as we doomed our parrot?
This is the kind of crazy dread we live with. Our neighbors are equally terrified of Mobutu’s soldiers and their opposition, the Simbas, whose reputation is stalking northern Congo like a lion itself. The Simbas’ anger against all foreigners is understandable, but increasingly their actions aren’t. We hear of atrocities on the shortwave, then hear them exaggerated on Mobutu’s official newscasts, and it’s hard to know what’s real. I think about food, mostly, and occupy my mind by watching children. I don’t really fear the Simbas, even though I’m white. Anatole is very well respected; my alliance with him will save me, or it won’t. Justice moves in mysterious ways.
Father is still carrying on with his tormented Jesus Is Bangala church.This was the Fowleses’ other awful news: Father had walked or hitchhiked all the way over to the Kikongo mission in an agitated state, bellowing that his guts were on fire with venom. He claimed he’d swallowed a live snake. The mission doctor gave him quinine and vermifuges, which would give pinworms a run for their money, but likely not a green mamba. Poor Father. Now he’s left Kilanga altogether, vanished into the forest, it seems, or melted under the rain. Sometimes at night I think about how he might be dead and I haven’t heard yet. It’s a hard thing to live with in the dark, and I lie awake cooking up plans to go hunt for him. But in daylight a wall of anger pushes me in a different direction, roaring that I must leave Father behind me. I couldn’t strike out on my own, and even with help it’s not worth the risk. I understand that he’s dangerous to me now.
Dangerous to many people, and always was, I guess. Fyntan and Celine must have been alarmed by our misguided outpost in Kilanga, where we slept in their same house, antagonized their former friends, even turned their parrot out to nature’s maw. And that mission doctor at Kikongo must have found Father a sight to behold: a wild-haired preacher with a snake in his belly. That doctor has stayed on with his family, in spite of the danger-they’re from someplace in the South, Fyntan thought, Georgia or Kentucky. I wish I could go visit them and talk in my own language, the English I knew before I grew thorns on my tongue.
It’s the only time I get homesick, when America lands on my doorstep in a missionary guise.There are others who didn’t go back, like me. But they seem so sure of being right here where they are, so rooted by faith-Fyntan Fowles, for one, and the strangers who turn up every so often to ask if I can help get a message through or keep a box of medicines safe till a boat is found to take it up river. I’ll happily invent a meal and make up a bed on the floor, just to hear the kindness in their stories. They’re so unlike Father. As I bear the emptiness of a life without his God, it’s a comfort to know these soft-spoken men who organize hospitals under thatched roofs, or stoop alongside village mamas to plant soybeans, or rig up electrical generators for a school.They’ve risked Mobutu and every imaginable parasite in the backwater places where children were left to die or endure when the Underdowns and their ilk fled the country. As Brother Fowles told us a long time ago: there are Christians, and there are Christians.
But visitors of any stripe are rare, and most days are exactly like the ones before. Funny to speak of boredom, I guess. If I’d tried in childhood to imagine my present life in the jungle, I’d have been struck numb with, the adventure of it. But instead I’m numb with the tedium of a hard life. We collapse into bed at night. I spend all day walking between the soybean fields, the kitchen house, the market, the clinic, and the nutrition class I teach at the agriculture school, wondering on any given day if I’ve given out more information than I’ve taken in. For sure that’s the direction the calorie count is going. We have manioc and yams to fill our bellies, but protein is scarcer than diamonds. I bargain high and low for an egg or beans, a precious chicken, some fresh river fish, or I’ll catch a ride into the Coquilhatville market to gaze at such treasures as tinned ham, for a king’s ransom. Sometimes I even manage to pay it! But Anatole has lost weight this winter and I’ve lost even more, eight kilos, so fast I’m a little scared. Probably I have whipworm again. I’m pretty sure I was pregnant at Christmastime, but now I’m sure I’m not, so there must have been a loss in there, but it’s easier not to mention it to Anatole. Easier not to count it, if that’s possible.
I’m losing my family, piece by piece. Father is lost, wherever he is. Rachel I could only despise more if I knew for sure which way to direct my ire, presumably South Africa, where I guess she’s finally hit paydirt with her exceeding whiteness and mercenary husband. I can’t reliably get a letter to Mother or Adah. Mobutu’s chief postal minister, a relative of Mobutu’s wife, stopped paying all the postal workers for the last year so he could use the money to build himself a mansion in Thysville. Now it takes a huge bribe or a personal contact to get mail out of the country, and the letters incoming I can only suppose are piling up somewhere in Leopoldville, being sniffed for money or valuables.
If people are shocked by these unexplained losses-the post, their salary, a friend walking home on the road-they don’t mention it. What do people here know but forbearance? They take one look at the expensive, foreign-made uniforms of Mobutu’s police and know to keep their thoughts to themselves.They know who stands behind Mobutu, and that in some place as far away as heaven, where the largest rules are made, white and black lives are different kinds of currencies. When thirty foreigners were killed in Stanleyville, each one was tied somehow to a solid exchange, a gold standard like the hard Belgian franc. But a Congolese life is like the useless Congolese bill, which you can pile by the fistful or the bucketful into a merchant’s hand, and still not purchase a single banana. It’s dawning on me that I live among men and women who’ve simply always understood their whole existence is worth less than a banana to most white people. I see it in their eyes when they glance up at me.
January is a hard, dry month and I’m lonely, I think. Lonely for others of my kind, whoever that might be. Sometimes I imagine leaving, going home to see Mother and Adah, at least, but the logistics of money and travel and a passport are too laborious even to imagine. My daydream gets as far as the front gate and ends right there, looking back at Anatole, who’s saying, Not you, Beene.
Tonight he’ll come home worried and exhausted. There’s hardly any way to keep the ecole secondaire open another term without funds, and parents are anxious that education is only putting their children at greater risk. The awful truth is they’re right. But he won’t talk about that. He’ll sneak up behind me in the kitchen house and throw an arm across my chest, making me scream and laugh at the same time. He’ll rub his knuckles into my hair and cry, “Wife, your face is as long as a crocodile’s!”
I’ll tell him it’s just as ugly, too, and my skin is about that scaly. I say these things so he’ll argue with me. I’m difficult in January. I know this. I need him to insist that I’m useful and good, that he wasn’t out of his mind to marry me, that my white skin is not the standard of offense. That I wasn’t part of every mistake that’s led us to right now, January 17, with all its sins and griefs to bear.
He reminded me once that the first green mamba was meant for him. He aroused Tata Kuvudundu’s anger by encouraging discussion about us, and white people in general. He blames his misjudgment of village politics. We all have that snake in our belly, I suppose, but Anatole can’t take mine. If I can’t yet mourn a million people who left this world in a single day, I’ll start with one, and move from there. I don’t have much left of my childhood beliefs I can love or trust, but I still know what justice is. As long as I’m carrying Ruth May piggyback through my days, “with her voice in my ear, I still have her with me.
EMORY HOSPITAL, ATLANTA CHRISTMAS, 1968
IAM LOSING MY SLANT. In medical school I have been befriended by an upstart neurologist, who believes I am acting out a great lifelong falsehood. Adah’s False Hood. In his opinion, an injury to the brain occurring is early as mine should have no lasting effects on physical mobility. He insists there should have been complete compensation in the undamaged part of my cerebral cortex, and that my dragging right side is merely holding on to a habit it learned in infancy. I scoffed at him, of course. I was unprepared to accept that my whole sense of Adah was founded on a misunderstanding between my body and my brain.
But the neurologist was persuasive, intimidatingly handsome, and the recipient of a fabulously coveted research grant. Mostly to prove him wrong, I submitted my body to an experimental program of his design. For six months he had me stop walking entirely, in order to clear my nervous pathways of so-called bad habits. Instead, I crawled. With the help of friends I rearranged my small apartment to accommodate a grown-up baby, and warily crept each morning from a mattress to my coffee maker and hotplate on the kitchen floor. I used only the lower half of the refrigerator. To preserve my dignity I went to work in a wheelchair. I was starting a rotation in pediatrics at the time-good luck, since children don’t tend to hold the crippled responsible for their infirmities, as grown-ups do. Adults listen to you with half an ear, -while the Biblical prescription “Physician, heal thyself!” rings in the other. But children, I found, were universally delighted by a doctor with wheels.
At home, while I set about memorizing the flaws in my carpet, my body learned to cross-coordinate. One day I felt the snap like a rubber band that drew my right leg up under me as my left arm moved forward. A week later I found I could easily balance on my hands and toes, push my rear end up into the air and fall over into a sit. Nobody was there to watch, praise be, as I spontaneously clapped my hands at the wonder of my accomplishment. Within a few weeks I had strength enough in both arms to pull myself up on the furniture, and from there I could release myself to a stand. Now, tentatively, I toddle in a straight line. I have taken each step in its turn. I was not learning it all over again but for the first time, apparently, since Mother claims I did none of these things as a baby. She insists I lay on my back for three years crying for Leah to stay close and play with me, until finally one day without prelude I rolled off the couch and limped after her. Mother says I never practiced anything but always watched Leah, letting her make the mistakes for both of us, until I was ready to do it myself with acceptable precision. Mother is kind to me, probably because I’ve stayed nearer at hand than her other children. But I disagree. I made plenty of my own mistakes. I just made them on the inside.
‘ It has taken me so long to believe I am saved. Not from crookedness; I am still to some extent crooked and always too slow. But saved from the abandonment I deserved. It has taken until tonight, in fact.
Leah is in Atlanta now, and that is part of the problem if not the whole of it. Leah with Anatole and their little son Pascal and another child well in progress. Leah majoring in Agronomics and all of them making a noble attempt to plant themselves on American soil. I can see it will not last. When I go with them to the grocery, they are boggled and frightened and secretly scornful, I think. Of course they are. I remember how it was at first: dazzling warehouses buzzing with light, where entire shelves boast nothing but hair spray, tooth-whitening cream, and foot powders. It is as if our Rachel had been left suddenly in charge of everything.
“What is that, Aunt Adah? And that?” their Pascal asks in his wide-eyed way, pointing through the aisles: a pink jar of cream for removing hair, a can of fragrance to spray on the carpet, stacks of lidded containers the same size as the jars we throw away each day.
“They’re things a person doesn’t really need.”
“But, Aunt Adah, how can there be so many kinds of things a person doesn’t really need?”
I can think of no honorable answer. Why must some of us deliberate between brands of toothpaste, while others deliberate between damp dirt and bone dust to quiet the fire of an empty stomach lining? There is nothing about the United States I can really explain to this child of another world. We leave that to Anatole, for he sees it all clearly in an instant. He laughs aloud at the nearly naked women on giant billboards, and befriends the bums who inhibit the street corners of Atlanta, asking them, detailed questions about where they sleep and how they kill their food. The answers are interesting. You might be surprised to know how many pigeons roosting in the eaves of Atlanta’s Public Library have ended up roasting over fires in Grant Park.
I find an extraordinary kindred spirit in Anatole. We are both marked, I suppose. Freaks at first sight, who have learned to take the world at face value. He was marked early on by his orphaned state, his displacement, his zealous skeptical mind, his aloneness. I have noticed that he, too, reads things backward: what the billboards are really selling, for example. Also where poverty comes from, and where it goes. I shall not covet my sister’s husband, but I shall know him, in my way, better. Anatole and I inhabit the same atmosphere of solitude. The difference between us is he would give up his right arm and leg for Leah, whereas I already did.
Will I lose myself entirely if I lose my limp?
How can I reasonably survive beyond the death of Ruth May and all those children? Will salvation be the death of me?
Here in the hospital I have too much time for questions like these. It occurs to me I have access to an infinite variety of narcotic drugs. Sleep is an absolute possibility. God can’t see you when you’re asleep, Ruth May used to insist. Evil peels no eye on sleep. Live!
They see a great deal of Mother. Mother last year gave up her floral hermitage in Bethlehem and moved to an apartment in Atlanta, having found a new church of sorts. She marches for civil rights. They pay her to work in an office, but I know she lives for the marches. She is very good at it, and impervious to danger. She came over to my apartment one night, having walked nearly a mile through tear gas, so that I could check her eyes for damage to the cornea. Her eyes were not even red. I think bullets would pass right through her.
It crosses my mind that I may need a religion. Although Mother has one now, and she still suffers. I believe she talks to Ruth May more or less constantly, begging forgiveness when no one is around.
Leah has one: her religion is the suffering.
Rachel doesn’t, and she is plainly the happiest of us all. Though it could be argued that she is, herself, her own brand of goddess.
I am sorry to say I do not see Leah and Anatole as much as I might. Being a medical student, of course, I have an inhuman schedule, and everyone makes allowances for that. Also I am in a different region of the university altogether from married student housing. They are making babies over there, while over here we merely save them.
It has been a difficult month: a rotation in neonatal intensive care. We lost two babies in the last week. And in this past day, Christmas Eve, while the clock made two complete rotations of its own, I watched over three tiny creatures whose lungs struggled like the flat, useless wings of butterflies prematurely emerged. Triplets. I considered Nelson’s view of what ought to be done with twins, and the dreadful consequences of ignoring that tradition. What we had here was worse: a triple calamity fallen on the house of these poor parents. I spoke with the father, a boy of sixteen or so, who gave the clear impression, through the use of the conditional tense when speaking of the parental care required for these damaged children, that he might not stick around. So a plague on the mother alone. While the machines hummed softly in our hospital and white-soled shoes whispered up and down the halls, a catastrophe was roaring down upon this child of a mother. This is her Christmas gift. She will be indentured forever. Never again will her life be free of travail and disappointment in her three blind mice. She may cut off their tails with a carving knife, this husbandless wife, whose school friends are still promenading through their girlhoods.
Who is to say she should not have run to the forest with her hair and umbilical cords flying, and knelt to deposit each of these three at the base of its own pine tree? Who will argue that my drips and incubators are really the wiser plan?
Who could blame Mother if she had chosen to leave me so?
After midnight I fell asleep on my cot in the interns’ lounge, but was battered by dreams. Entubed, damaged children of all colors danced on my head and arms and hands. Live or die, live or die? they chorused. Mother May We?
Africa has slipped the floor out from under my righteous house, my Adah moral code. How sure I always felt before, how smug, moving through a world that desired to cast me into the den of ear-pulling Crawleys. Adah the bridled entitled, Adah authorized to despise one and all. Now she must concede to those who think perhaps I should have been abandoned in the jungle at birth: well, they have a point. What I carried out of Congo on my crooked little back is a ferocious uncertainty about the worth of a life. And now I am becoming a doctor. How very sensible of me.
I struggled half awake and half asleep, and then suddenly, in the middle of my fevered, stolen nap, utterly awake. In dread, trembling. Lying on my side with my eyes open. I felt my cold hands. I was afraid. This is the new awful thing I cannot bear to feel. Afraid. This is my letter to the World That never wrote to Me-The simple news that Nature told-With tender Majesty. Her message is committed to hands I cannot see-For love of her, sweet countrymen, judge tenderly of Me!
In spite of myself I have loved the world a little, and may lose it.
I sat up on my cot, ran a hand through my damp, tangled hair, felt bruises all over my arms in the shape of small footprints.The second hand on the wall clock made its steady, ludicrous progress: stuff, sluff, sluff…
Afraid of what, exactly?
Suicidal idyll fratricidal. Afraid. That. Mother would choose Leah.
Perfect Leah with her adorable babe and husband. In a few hours it will be morning, they will dance around the tree with their little gifts from Mother, and they will stay, they will, after all. And the lure of grandsons will be too strong to resist, and Mother will be theirs. And then I will have to go to sleep. Sleep oh sleep thou certain knot of peace.
For many tedious seconds I sat on the edge of my cot, swallowing indecision and tears.Then I got up, wiped my face on the sleeve of my hospital coat, walked to the physicians’ lounge, and dialed the number I knew by heart. I called her. It was the dead-flat middle of the night. The night before Christmas and all through the house I am Adah who expects no gifts, Adah who does not need or care what others say. Yet I woke up my mother and finally asked her why she chose me, that day at the Kwenge River.
Mother hesitated, understanding that there were many wrong answers. I did not want to hear that the others could take care of themselves, nor that she felt she had no other choice.
Finally she said, “After Ruth May you were my youngest, Adah. When push comes to shove, a mother takes care of her children from the bottom up.”
That is the bedtime story my mother made up for me. It was not a question of my own worth at all. There is no worth. It was a question of position, and a mother’s need. After Ruth May, she needs me most.
I find this remarkably comforting. I have decided to live with it.
Leah Price Ngemba
You CAN’T GO TO LEOPOLDVILLE NOW, or to Stanleyville, Coquilhatville, or Elisabethville.The names of all those conquerors (and their ladies) have been erased from our map. For that matter you can’t even go to the Congo; it’s Zaire. We repeat these words is if we’re trying to memorize a false identity: I live in Kinshasa, Zaire. The places we’ve always used to position ourselves are suddenly unfamiliar – cities, villages, even rivers. Elisabet worries genuinely, in spite of our reassurances, that she and Anatole might have been assigned new first names, since theirs are European and “colonialist.” It wouldn’t surprise me, actually. Mobutu’s edicts are that far-reaching. The old couple next door seem to share her dread: they always forget and say “Leopoldville,” then cover their mouths with their hands as if they’ve let slip a treason.
In the evenings we quiz each other, searching out more and more obscure places on the map to trip each other up: Charlesville? Banningville? Djokupunda! Bandundu! The boys get them right more often than I do, mainly because they like to show off. Anatole never misses one, because his mind is that quick, and also I think the indigenous names mean more to him. They’re foreign to me, of course. After the boys are asleep I sit at the table in the flickering kerosene light, working my way slowly over the new map, feeling as if Father had found me out here to give me The Verse. We’re retraining our tongues to Mobutu’s great campaign of authenticite.
But what is authentic about it, I keep asking Anatole. Kinshasa’s main street is Boulevard the 30th of June, in memory of that great Independence Day carefully purchased by thousands of pebbles thrown into bowls and carried upriver. How authentic is that? What really became of that vote is another matter, not memorialized in any public place I can see. There is no Boulevard 17 Janvier Mort de Lumumba.
He points to the dirt path that runs between ours and our neighbors’ houses, down through a ditch where we clutch up our skirts and tiptoe over the sewage on oil drums to reach the main road. “This boulevard needs a name, Beene. Put a sign here.” Wise guy. He can’t wait to see if I’ll do it.
Our house is sturdy, with a concrete floor and a tin roof. We live in what would be called, in America, a slum, though here it’s an island of relative luxury in the outskirts of la cite, where the majority have a good deal less in the way of roofing, to say the least. Under our roof, we’re six: Anatole and me, our boys Pascal, Patrice, and the baby, Martin-Lothaire, and Aunt Elisabet, plus her daughter Christiane occasionally. After we came back from Atlanta we brought Elisabet down here from Bikoki, where things had gotten fairly desperate. I can’t say they’re any less desperate here, but she’s good company. I thought I’d learned resourcefulness, but Elisabet has given me a higher education in making soup out of stones. Mondek, she calls me, I’m her white daughter.Yet she’s hardly older than Anatole and looks just like him, minus the broad shoulders and narrow waist. (Her shape is somewhat the reverse.) With his same sweet patience, she works nonstop in our one-room house, singing in Lingala, her left hand always holding her outer pagne closed for modesty while her right does more alone than I could with three. She’s told me everything she can recall of her older sister, Anatole’s mother, and like a kid I make her repeat the stories. I’m hungry for any family I can get. I’m lucky if I hear from Mother and Adah twice a year. It’s not their fault. I know they’ve sent countless packages that are piled up somewhere in the great, crumbling postal edifice downtown. I expect the Minister of Post could build himself a second or third home out of undelivered boxes.
By some miracle, we did get a package at Easter time. The boys hooted and ran the length of our 17 Janvier lane brandishing their precious Mars bars. (Which, I heard Pascal boast to his friends, are manufactured on Mars.) I was tempted to do the same -with my own loot: five books in English! Also clothing, aspirin, antibiotics, hand lotion, thick cotton diapers, batteries for our radio, and long letters. I buried my face in the clothes for the scent of my mother, but of course they came from some American child who’s no kin to us. Mother does volunteer work in African relief. We’re her pet project, you could say.
In every package there’s one oddball thing from Adah, a sort of secret message is how I think of it. This time it was an old Saturday Evening Post she’d found in the bottom of Mother’s closet. I leafed through it, wondering, Did Adah want me to read about how Jimmy Stewart got his start, or to know that when a Philco moves in, your TV troubles move out? Then I found it, an article called “Will Africa Go Communist?”Adah retains her eagle eye for irony. It was all about how the U.S. ought to take better charge of the maverick Congo; the two photographs stopped my heart. In one, a young Joseph Mobutu looks out imploringly above a caption declaring his position in jeopardy. Next to him is a smiling, rather crafty-looking Patrice Lumumba, with a caption warning: “He may be on his way back!” The magazine is dated February 18, 1961. Lumumba was already a month dead, his body buried under a chicken coop in Shaba. And Mobutu, already well assured of his throne. I can picture the Georgia housewives shuddering at the Communist challenge, quickly turning the page on that black devil Lumumba with the pointed chin. But I was hardly any less in the dark, and I was in Bulungu, the very village where Lumumba had been captured. My sister married a man who may have assisted in his death-sentence transport to Shaba, though even Rachel will never know that for sure. We have in this story the ignorant, but no real innocents.
Adah wrote at the bottom of the page, “Remember ‘Devil One’ and ‘W I. Rogue?’ Our secret secrets?” She says there’s talk now of an investigation, that the Congress may look into past wrongdoing in the Congo or “any possible link between the CIA, Lumumba’s death, and the army coup that brought Mobutu to power.” Are they joking? Adah says no one is giving it any credence; here, no one has ever doubted it. It’s as if history can be no more than a mirror tipped up to show each of us exactly what we already knew. Now everyone’s pretending to set the record straight: they’ll have their hearings, while Mobutu makes a show of changing all European-sounding place names to indigenous ones, to rid us of the sound of foreign domination. And what will change? He’ll go on falling over his feet to make deals with the Americans, who still control all our cobalt and diamond mines. In return, every grant of foreign aid goes straight to Mobutu himself. We read he’s building himself an actual castle with spires and a moat near Brussels, to provide a respite, I guess, from his villas in Paris and Spain and Italy. When I open my door and look out, I see a thousand little plank-and-cardboard houses floating at every conceivable tilt on an endless ocean of dust. We hardly have a functional hospital in our borders, or a passable road outside Kinshasa. How can this be, a castle with spires and a moat? Why doesn’t the world just open its jaws like a whale and swallow this brazenness in one gulp? is the question I’d pose to Father these days. “Who gave him charge of the whole world? If you have insight, hear this: Can one who hates right govern?”Job 34:13, thank you very much.
The latest news from Mobutu is that he’s bringing two great American boxers, Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, to the stadium in Kinshasa. The announcement came on the radio this afternoon. I only listened with one ear because of a larger drama unfolding in our kitchen. I’d just put Martin down for a nap on his mat and was boiling the diapers while Elisabet crumbled a papery onion and hot pili-pili into a bowl. She fries this with mashed tomatoes into a thin red sauce for the manioc. That’s the principal trick of Congolese cooking: rubbing two leaves together to give color and taste to another day’s translucent, nutritionally blank ball of manioc.
The pot for boiling the manioc was waiting in line for the stove, after the diapers, and after that would come the big laundry kettle with the boys’ shirts and our household’s three sheets and two towels. Here in Kinshasa we have a “city kitchen,” with the stove right inside the house, but it’s only a little bottle-gas burner, maddeningly sluggish after my years of cooking over roaring wood fires. A lot of people in la cite do cook with wood, which they have to nibble secretively from each other’s houses at night, like termites.
This was supposed to be a payday for Anatole, and it the school there’s been talk about the supplementaire, meaning the possibility of the government’s starting back payments on the wages they’ve been stealing from all public schools for over a year. This “supplement” is supposed to be a sign of good faith, to forestall a nationwide strike of university students, but some students walked out anyway, and the signs of Mobutu’s faith so far have been expressed with nightsticks. I worry constantly about Anatole. Although I know his capacity for self-restraint in a dangerous moment is uncanny.
Elisabet and I knew there would be no supplement but were still greatly enjoying spending it at tomorrow’s market. “A kilo of fresh eels and two dozen eggs!” I proposed, and she laughed at me. My craving for protein drives me to a singlemindedness she calls my momfele-hungries.
“Better, ten kilos of rice and two bars of soap,” she said, which we do need badly, but I despaired for an imaginary windfall that would bring nothing but more white starch into this house.
“Nothing white,” I declared.
“Brown soap, then,” she offered. “Oh! And some nice pink papier hygienique!” she added fervently, and we both laughed at that pipe dream. The last roll of toilet paper we’d seen, in any color, came from Atlanta.
“At least some beans, Elisabet,” I whined. “Fresh green ones. Mangwami, like we used to have in the country.”
Pascal’s best friend, a hearty girl named Elevee, had wandered in and sat down at the table opposite Elisabet, but was uncharacteristically quiet
“What do you think?” Elisabet prodded her with the blunt end of her knife. “Tell Madame Ngemba she needs a new pagne with some color left in it. Tell her she is disgracing her sons with the washing rag she wears to the market.”
Elevee picked at the short sleeve of her school uniform, evidently not desiring to talk about fashion. Her very black skin looked ashy, and she had the tired slump to her shoulders I recognize in my boys when they’re getting hookworm. I carried the boiled diapers outside, washed my hands carefully with our sliver of soap, and interrupted the afternoon’s procession of cookpots to make Elevee a cup of tea.
Suddenly she reported with a blank face that she was leaving school.
“Oh, Elevee, you can’t,” I said. She’s a smart little girl, though this guarantees nothing, of course.
Elisabet simply asked her, “Why?”
“To work at night with Mother,” she said flatly. Meaning, to work as a prostitute.
“How old are you?” I demanded angrily. “Eleven? Ten? This is a crime, Elevee, you’re a child! There are laws to protect you from that kind of work. It’s horrible, you don’t know. You’ll be scared and hurt and could get terribly sick.”
Elisabet looked at me with dismay. “Mondele, don’t frighten her. They have to have the money.”
Of course that’s true. And of course there are no laws to protect children from prostitution. Elisabet’s daughter, Christiane, I’d guess to be seventeen, and I suspect she sometimes does night work in town, though we can’t talk about it.Whenever we hit rock bottom, Elisabet somehow discovers a little cash in her purse. I wish she wouldn’t. I just stared at Elevee, my son’s little friend with skinned knees and her two braids sticking out like handlebars: a prostitute. It dawned on me that her childishness would increase her value, for a while anyway. That made me want to scream. I shoved the manioc pot onto the stove, slopping water all over everywhere.
I survive here on outrage. Naturally I would. I grew up with my teeth clamped on a faith in the big -white man in power-God, the President, I don’t care who he is, he’d serve justice! Whereas no one here has ever had the faintest cause for such delusions. Sometimes I feel like the only person for miles around who hasn’t given up. Other than Anatole, who expresses his outrage in more productive ways.
We sat without speaking awhile, after Elevee’s announcement.The radio informed us the two American boxers would be paid five million American dollars each, from our treasury, for coming here. And it will cost that much again to provide high security and a festival air for the match. “All the world will respect the name of Zaire,” Mobutu declared in a brief taped interview at the end of the broadcast.
“Respect!” I practically spat on the floor, which would have horrified Elisabet more than the ill-considered use of twenty million dollars.
“Do you know what’s under the floor of that stadium?” I asked.
“No,” Elisabet said firmly, though I’m sure she does know. Hundreds of political prisoners, shackled. It’s one of Mobutu’s most notorious dungeons, and we’re all aware Anatole could end up there, any day. For what he teaches, for his belief in genuine independence, for his loyalty to the secret Parti Lumumbist Unifie, he could be brought down by one well-bribed informant.
“The prisoners might make a lot of noise during the boxing match,” Elevee suggested.
“Not improving the general respectability of Zaire,” I said.
“Likambo te” Elisabet shrugged. “Pascal and Patrice will be very excited. Mondele, just think, Muhammad Ali. He is a hero! Little boys in the streets will cheer for him.”
“No doubt,” I said. “People from the world over will come watch this great event, two black men knocking each other senseless for five million dollars apiece. And they’ll go away never knowing that in all of goddamned Zaire not one public employee outside the goddamned army has been paid in two years.”
For a woman to curse in Lingala is fairly abominable. Elisabet puts up with a lot from me. “Stanleyville,” she commanded, to change the subject.
“Kisangani,” I responded without enthusiasm. Elevee ran off to play “with Pascal, rather than be trapped into this drear exercise.
“Pare National Albert?”
“Pare de la Maiko.”
Neither of us knew or cared if I was right.
I’m learning that Elisabet’s sudden conversational turns are always for a good reason-usually someone’s safety, probably mine. I watch her in the marketplace, too, well aware that no schoolroom has ever taught me as much.The Congolese have an extra sense. A social sense, I would call it. It’s a way of knowing people at a glance, adding up the possibilities for exchange, and it’s as necessary as breathing. Survival is a continuous negotiation, as you have to barter covertly for every service the government pretends to provide, but actually doesn’t. How can I begin to describe the complexities of life here in a country whose leadership sets the standard for absolute corruption? You can’t even have a post office box in Kinshasa; the day after you rent it, the postmaster may sell your box to a higher bidder, who’ll throw your mail in the street as he walks out the door. The postmaster would argue, reasonably, he’s got no other way to support his family-his pay envelope arrives empty each week, with an official printed statement about emergency economic measures. The same argument is made by telephone operators, who’ll place a call outside the country for you only after you specify the location in Kinshasa where you’ll leave I’envdoppe containing your bribe. Same goes for the men who handle visas and passports. To an outsider it looks like chaos. It isn’t. It’s negotiation, infinitely ordered and endless.
As a white woman in Kinshasa I present possibilities, but even a black woman with my same purse and leather shoes would be approached on the street. It’s taking me forever to get used to this. Last week a young man walked up and asked me outright for three thousand zaires, and once again my jaw dropped.
“Mondele, he wasn’t asking for three thousand zaires,” Elisabet said quietly when we’d moved on to coveting the pineapples. He was opening the door for a transaction, she explained. He has something to offer, maybe inside information on black-market goods or the name of a telephone operator with unauthorized (therefore cheap) access to long distance. She’s explained this to me a dozen times, but it only sinks in as I come to see for myself what it is, this life. Anybody who needs anything in Kinshasa-a kidney-stone operation or a postage stamp-has to bargain for it, shrewdly. The Congolese are used to it and have developed a thousand shortcuts. They sum up prospects by studying each other’s clothing and disposition, and the bargaining process is well under way before they open their mouths to speak. If you’re deaf to this subtle conversation, it comes as a shock when the opening bid seems to be, “Madame, I request from you three thousand zaires.” I’ve heard foreign visitors complain that the Congolese are greedy, naive, and inefficient. They have no idea. The Congolese are skilled at survival and perceptive beyond belief, or else dead at an early age.Those are the choices.
I got some inkling of this from Anatole long ago, I suppose, when he explained why he translated Father’s sermons. It wasn’t evangelism.just full disclosure. Opening up the bargaining table to a would-be congregation. I multiplied my perception of Anatole’s intelligence by ten that day, and now looking back I have to do the same for everyone we knew. The children who hounded us daily for money and food weren’t dim-witted beggars; they were accustomed to the distribution of excess, and couldn’t fathom why we held ourselves apart. The chief who proposed to marry my sister surely didn’t dream Father would actually hand over his whining termite! I think Tata Ndu was gently suggesting we’d become a burden to his village in a time of near famine; that people here accommodate such burdens by rearranging families; and that if we found such an idea impossible we were perhaps better off somewhere else. Tata Ndu certainly had his arrogance in the ways of command, even calling down a vote in church to humiliate my father, but in matters of life and death, I can see now, he was almost incomprehensibly polite.
It’s a grief to see the best of Zairean genius and diplomacy spent on bare survival, while fortunes in diamonds and cobalt are slipped daily out from under our feet. “This is not a poor nation,” I remind my sons till they hear it in their sleep. “It is only a nation of poor.”
No paycheck tonight, of course, let alone the supplementaire. But Anatole came home excited about the general strike and spoke of it quietly through dinner, careful as always to use code words and false names. Any such knowledge could endanger the boys. Though I believe Pearl Harbor itself would have passed by them tonight, intent as they were on devouring the manioc. To make it last longer I pinched up little bites with my left hand while I nursed Martin on the right. With every gulp he drew, I felt more ravenous.
“One of these days,” I announced, “I am going to take my bow and sneak through the bars of the Residence” Mobutu’s Kinshasa mansion is surrounded by a park, where some zebras and one pitiful elephant paw at the grass.
Pascal was all for it. “Oh, Mama! Abattons I’elephant!”
Patrice soberly informed us he didn’t think an arrow could pierce an elephant’s hide.
Pascal was unconcerned. “Have you seen that thing? Mama’s arrow will knock it over,plaf! Kufwa!”
Elisabet asked thoughtfully, “Mondele, how would you cook an elephant?”
What we eat is manioc, manioc, manioc. Whether it’s tinted pink with a tomato skin or green with a leaf of cress, it’s still manioc. Rice and soy meal help when we can get them, to balance our amino acids and keep our muscle tissue from digesting itself in the process known picturesquely as kwashiorkor. When we first moved to Kilanga, I remember thinking the children must get plenty to eat because their bellies all bulged out. Now I know their abdominal muscles were too weak to hold their livers and intestines in place. I see signs of it in Patrice. Any food that reaches us in Kinshasa has to come over impossible roads in dilapidated trucks from the interior, so it costs too much even if you can find it. Sometimes Anatole reminds me of our long-ago conversation when I tried to explain how we grew food back home, in huge fields far from the people who eat it. Now I understand his dismay. It’s a bad idea, at least for Africa. This city is a foreigner’s premise of efficiency planted on this soil, and it’s a very bad idea. Living in it, no one could think otherwise. It’s a vast congregation of hunger, infectious disease, and desperation, masquerading as opportunity.
We can’t even grow any food of our own. I did try it, right at the metal flank of our back door, under the clothesline. Pascal and Patrice helped me scratch up a little plot that eventually produced a few bleak, dusty bouquets of spinach and beans, which were gobbled up one night by our neighbor’s goat. The children of that household looked so starved (as did the goat), I couldn’t regret this donation.
We, at least, have the option of leaving. In the back of my mind I think this-we could try again in Atlanta. And while we stay here for Anatole’s teaching and organizing, and live on the next-to-noth-ing that work earns, we still have a measure of privilege incomprehensible to our neighbors. I’ve taken my sons to the States for vaccinations that aren’t available anywhere in Zaire. I’ve seen them all born alive, and not one lost to smallpox or tuberculosis. We’re luckier than most. That’s what’s hardest to bear: the view out the window. La cite is a grim, dust-colored homeland, and I suffer nostalgia for our life in the interior. In Bikoki and Kilanga we could always pick something off a tree, at least. We never passed a day without seeing flowers. Epidemics sometimes devastated the village, but they always ended, not far from where they began.
I can have a good laugh at my former self, remembering how my sisters and I nervously made our list of prospects: oranges, flour, even eggs! At our low point as missionaries, we were still fabulously wealthy by the standards of Kilanga. No wonder any household item we carelessly left on our porch quietly found a new home in the night. No wonder the neighbor women frowned in our doorway when we pulled out the linings of our pockets as evidence of our poverty. Not another soul in town even had pockets. They must have felt exactly as I do now glaring at Mobutu on the doorstep of his fairy-tale palaces, shrugging, with his two hands thrust deep into the glittering loot of his mines.
“I thought you said the Congolese don’t believe in keeping riches to themselves,” I told Anatole once, inclined toward an argument.
But he just laughed. “Who, Mobutu? He is not even African now.” “Well, what is he, then?”
“He is the one wife belonging to many white men.” Anatole explained it this way: Like a princess in a story, Congo was born too rich for her own good, and attracted attention far and “wide from men “who desire to rob her blind. The United States has now become the husband of Zaire’s economy, and not a very nice one. Exploitive and condescending, in the name of steering her clear of the moral decline inevitable to her nature.
“Oh, I understand that kind of marriage all right,” I said. “I grew up witnessing one just like it.”
But it dawns on me now that, in the end, Mother carried every last one of our possessions outside as a farewell gift to Kilanga. There are wives, and then there are wives. My pagan mother alone among us understood redemption.
The rest of us are growing into it, I suppose. God grants us long enough lives to punish ourselves. Janvier 17, Mort de Lumumba and Ruth May, that’s still the bleak day at our house. Anatole and I grow wordless and stare into the distance at our own regrets, “which aren’t so far apart anymore. On January nights I’m visited by desperate dreams of stretching myself out over the water, reaching for balance. When I look back at the shore, a row of eggs become faces of hungry children, and then comes the fall into blue despair, where I have to move a mountain that crumbles in my hands. It’s a relief to wake up drenched in sweat and find Anatole’s body next to me. But even his devotion can’t keep this weight off my shoulders. “Have mercy upon me, O God, according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies,” I catch myself praying, before I’ve fully awakened to a world where I have no father, and can count on no tender mercies. Anatole says recurring dreams are common to those who’ve suffered seriously from malaria. When I’m nervous or sad I also fall prey to the awful itch from filaires, tiny parasites that crawl into your pores and cause a flare-up every so often. Africa has a thousand ways to get under your skin.
Our life here in Kinshasa contains more mercies than most can hope for. I haven’t yet had to bump off Mobutu’s elephant. I even got to bring home a nice fat paycheck, for a time. I signed on to an American payroll, rationalizing that I’d scatter dollars over the vendors in nay little corner of la cite, at least, as it’s certain no foreign relief will reach them any other way.
Mrs. Ngemba, English teacher, was my new identity. It chafed me as much as the Benedictine habit, as it turns out. I taught at a special school in the compound for Americans who came to work on the Inga-Shaba power line.This was the great nuptial gift from the U.S. to the Congo-financing the construction of the Inga-Shaba. It’s an enormous power line stretching across eleven hundred miles of jungle, connecting hydroelectric dams below Leopoldville to the distant southern mining region of Shaba. The project brought in Purdue engineers, crews of Texas roughnecks, and their families, who lived outside Leopoldville in a strange city called Little America. I rode the bus out there every morning to teach grammar and literature to the oddly unpoetic children of this endeavor. They were pale and displaced and complained of missing their dire-sounding TV shows, things with Vice and Cop and Jeopardy in their titles. They’d probably leave the Congo never knowing they’d been utterly surrounded by vice, cops, and the pure snake-infested jeopardy of a jungle. The compound was like a prison, all pavement and block, enclosed by razor wire. And like any prisoners, these kids fought with anything sharp they could find. They mocked my style of dress and called me “Mrs. Gumbo.” I pitied them, despised them, and silently willed them back home on the first boat. I got “warnings time and again, for “attitude” as the superintendent put it, but he tolerated me for want of a replacement. I quit at the end of the second term.
The place spooked me. I’d step up onto the bus at my street corner at the end of 17 Janvier, doze bumpily through half an hour of predawn, then open my eyes in another world. The compound had row after row of shining metal houses and dozens of liquor bars glittering at daybreak with an aura of fresh vomit and broken glass.
The bus would hiss to a stop just inside the gate for a bizarre shift change: we teachers and maids would step down, and the bus would take on the weary, disheveled whores. Congolese girls, with bleached orange hair and a crude phrase or two of English, and the straps of expensive American bras sliding down their shoulders from under skimpy blouses. I could just imagine them getting home, folding this uniform, and wrapping themselves in pagnes before going to the market. As we all stood blinking at each other, getting our bearings, the compound trucks would roar past us into the jungle, carrying crews of men who apparently (judging from the whores) never slept.
In the course of a year I watched these rough-and-ready foreigners go out to build thousands of miles of temporary roads for carting cable, machine tools, and sheet metal, past villagers who’ll live out their days without electricity, machine tools, or sheet metal.The Shaba Province, incidentally, roars with waterfalls, more than enough to generate its own electricity. But with all the power coming from the capital, the mines could be lit up by Mobutu’s own hand, and shut down at the first sign of popular rebellion. Katanga had once tried to secede, after all. At the time I was working there, we believed that was the justification for this strange project.
Since I quit, we’ve learned more, enough for me to curse my small contribution to the Inga-Shaba. It was not merely a misguided project; it was sinister. The power line was never meant to succeed at all. With no way to service a utility stretching across the heart of darkness, the engineers watched the monster’s tail crumble as fast as the front was erected. The whole of it was eventually picked clean in the way a forest tree gets gleaned by leaf-cutter ants: nuts, bolts, and anything that might serve for roofing material trailed off into the jungle. Anyone could have predicted that exact failure. But by loaning the Congo more than a billion dollars for the power line, the world Export-Import Bank assured a permanent debt that we’ll repay in cobalt and diamonds from now till the end of time. Or at least the end of Mobutu. It’s a popular game, wondering which will come first. With a foreign debt now in the billions, any hope that was left for our Independence is handcuffed in debtor’s prison. Now the black market is so much healthier than the legitimate economy I’ve seen people use zaires for repairing cracks in their walls. Foreign bootlegging of minerals is so thorough that our neighbor the French Congo, without a single diamond mine in its borders, is the world’s fifth-largest exporter of diamonds.
And whatever hasn’t left the country is in the King’s pantry. If my sister Rachel and Mr. William Shakespeare put their heads together to invent an extravagant despot, they couldn’t outdo Mobutu. Now he’s building a palace modeled on the one his friend the Shah has got in Iran. It’s in his native village of Gbadolite. They say he’s got fat peacocks strutting around in a courtyard, protected by high walls, pecking up grain from silver plates inscribed with Moorish designs.The gasoline generator that lights up the palace makes such a horrid bellowing, day and night, that all the monkeys have fled the vicinity. The air-conditioning has to run all the time so the jungle heat won’t damage the gold leaf on his chandeliers.
I can just imagine. Outside the palace walls, the women of Gbadolite are squatting in their yards, boiling manioc in salvaged hubcaps, and if you asked them the meaning of Independence they’d scowl and shake a stick at you. What a nuisance, they’d say. The towns all have new names, and if that weren’t enough to remember, now we’re supposed to call one another dtoyen.
In downtown Kinshasa, where a lot of the bars have television sets, Mobutu in his leopard-skin hat blinks on every evening at seven o’clock for the purpose of unifying our nation. “How many fathers?” he asks again and again in this recorded pageant, and his recorded audience responds, “One!”
“How many tribes? How many parties?” he continues. “How many masters?”
Each time his loyal congregation screams,”Mookoo! One!”
The image flickers and the citoyens drink their beer or go on about their business. Mobutu is speaking in his own tribal language. Most people out there can’t even understand.
Rachel Axelroot DuPree Fairley
THE EQUATORIAL JANUARY 1978
LISTEN, don’t believe in fairy tales! After that happy-ever-after wedding, they never tell you the rest of the story. Even if you get to marry the prince, you still wake up in the morning with your mouth tasting like drain cleaner and your hair all flat on one side.
That was poor little me, suddenly a diplomat’s wife on the edge of the forest prime evil, wearing my Dior gown and long black gloves to embassy parties in Brazzaville, French Congo.That was the fairy-tale part, and sure, it was fun while it lasted. I felt like a true-life Cinderella. My hair did just wonderfully in the humidity, and I had my own personal French hairdresser (or so he said, but I suspected him of being Belgian), who’d come to our home every Tuesday and Saturday. Life could not have been better. Never would anyone have believed that merely a few short years before I had been living with my family over on the other side of the river-me, the very self-same Rachel, slogging through the filth! Ready to sell my soul for a dry mohair sweater and a can of Final Net hairspray. Hoo, boy! I received quite an education about politics, as an embassy wife. The French Congo and the newly independent Republic of Congo are separated by one mere river and about a million miles of contemporaneous modern thinking. It’s because they tried to go and do it all for themselves over there, and don’t have the temperament. They’re still struggling to get decent telephone service. Whereas in my duration of diplomatic service in Brazzaville, French Congo, the worst I ever had to do was fuss at the servants to cut back the scraggly hibiscus on the lawn, and clean the mold off the crystal.
Well. That is all water under the bridge now. Diplomatic service or not, a man who leaves his wife for his mistress is no catch, I was sorry to find out. Well, live and learn. Like they always say, the rear-view mirror is twenty-twenty.
Remy, my third husband, was very devoted. He was an older man. My life has been 101 calamities with at least half of them in the marriage department, but finally I got lucky in love, with Remy Fairley. He at least had the decency to die and leave me the Equatorial.
With Remy resting in peace I was free to express my talents, and I have built this place up from what it was, let me tell you. The Equatorial is now the nicest hotel for businessmen along the whole northern route from Bra2zaville to Owando. We are about a hundred miles north of the city, which is considerably farther in kilometers, but still we get the tourist trade. There are always French and Germans and what not stopping in on their way up north to oversee one project or another, or just escaping from the city to see a little of true-life Africa before they finish up their foreign assignment in Brazzaville and go back home to their wives.They usually tend to be oil men or interpreners.
We’re on the premises of what was formerly a plantation, so the house is surrounded by lovely groves of orange trees and coconut palms. The mansion itself has been converted to twelve comfortable rooms of various sizes, all quite luxurious, with two full baths on each floor. The restaurant is in a large open portico on the ground floor shaded by bougainvilleas. There is nearly always a breeze. We recently put in a second small covered patio with a bar so that while my guests are enjoying a meal, their chauffeurs “will have a pleasant place to bide their time. The restaurant is for paying guests only, which is, needless to say, whites, since the Africans around here wouldn’t earn enough in a month to buy one of my prix-jixe dinners. But I certainly am not one to leave anyone sitting out in the rain! So I built them that shelter, so they wouldn’t be tempted to come in and hang about idly in the main bar. I’m famous for my love of animals, too, and have created quite a little menagerie in the compound between the garden and the restaurant for everyone’s amusement. Any time of day you can hear the parrots chattering in their cages. I taught them to say “Drink up now! Closing time!” in English, French, and Afrikaans, though I have to admit they’ve picked up a few depictable phrases from my guests, over the years. The clientele at the Equatorial is always the highest caliber but, nevertheless, they are men.
My proudest achievement is the swimming pool, patio, and gardens, which I put in entirely by myself. The pool took the most spectacular effort. I got it dug by paying a whole troop of local boys for each and every basket of earth they moved. And of course, watching like a hawk to be sure they didn’t stuff the bottom of the basket with leaves. It is hard work running a place like this, don’t you believe it. My help would rob me blind if I didn’t keep every single thing locked down, and punish the culprits with a firm hand. Most women would not last a week in my position. My secret is: I like it! I really do. In spite of everything, I stroll through the restaurant in my bikini with my platinum-blonde hair piled high, jingling my big bunch of keys, cheerfully encouraging my guests to drink their martinis and forget about their workaday cares back home. And I think: Finally, Rachel, this is your own little world. You can run it exactly however you please. Who needs a husband when I have more handsome gentlemen around than you can shake a stick at? And yet, if ever I don’t like the way someone behaves, out he goes! If I want chicken curry for dinner, I simply say to the cooks: Chicken curry! If I want more flowers, I snap my fingers and have them planted. Just like that. Oh, I work myself to the bone, keeping this business open seven days a week and the weekends. My rates might be a little higher than average, but my guests do not have a single complaint. Why should they go and get swindled at some other establishment when they can come here!
I will probably grow very rich and very old at the Equatorial before any member of my family ever visits me here. It’s true! They never have. Leah is right over there in Kinshasa, which is just a hop, skip, and jump away. When they had that fight down there with Muhammad Ali and George Foreman we had tons of tourists from that. They came over to Africa for the fight and then crossed the river and toured around in French Congo, since the roads and everything are so much nicer in general over here. I knew we’d get a slew of people, the minute they announced they were having that fight. I’ve always had a sixth sense for spotting a trend coming, and I was right on the ball. I finished up the second-floor bathroom I’d been having trouble with, and redecorated the bar with a boxing theme. I even went through hell and high water trying to get an authentic advertising poster from the fight, but sometimes you just have to make do with what you have. I got one of the boys to fashion little miniature boxing gloves out of dried plantain leaves sewn together, -which turned out very realistic, and had them dangling down from all the lights and fans. I hate to brag but if I do say so myself they were cute as a button.
I kept thinking, everyone is in such a festive mood, and Leah is just not that far away, in miles. Mother and Adah keep saying they might come over to visit, and if they could cross an entire ocean, you would think Leah could stoop to taking a bus. Plus, supposedly Father is still over there wandering about in the jungle, and honestly, what else does he have to do? He could get cleaned up and pay a visit on his eldest daughter. Oh, I dreamed of a true class reunion of our family. Just imagine all their faces, if they saw this place. Which, I might add, none of them came.
I suppose I should just give up, but in the back of my mind I still think about it. I picture myself taking Leah and Adah on the grand tour, sweeping my hand over the elegant mahogany paneling in the bar, Ta-dah! Or grandly opening the door to the upstairs bathrooms, which have mirrors edged in faux gold (I could afford real, but it would peel right off in this humidity!) and give the overall effect of appearing very continental, -with toilet and bidet. How astonished my sisters would be to see what all I have accomplished, starting with practically nothing. I don’t care if they’re gifted and know every word in the dictionary, they still have to give credit for hard work.
“Why, Rachel,” Leah would say, “you run this place with such genialness and vivacity! I never knew you had such an exemplary talent for the hospitality business!
“Adah would, of course, say something more droll, such as “Why, Rachel, your interest in personal hygiene has truly become a higher calling.”
If you ask me, that’s exactly why they don’t come-they’re afraid they would have to start respecting me finally. I’m sure they’d rather go on thinking they are the brains of the family and I am the dumb blonde. They have always been very high up on their horses, which is fine, although if you ask me they have shot their own career ladders in the foot. Adah evidently got famous for being a brain in college and going to medical school (Mother sent me newspaper clippings for Adah winning some prize practically every time she took a crap), and she could have done very well for herself as a lady doctor. But what I gather from what Mother writes me now is that she works night and day wearing a horrid white coat in some dreary big-deal place in Atlanta where they study disease organisms. Well, fine! I guess somebody has to do it!
Now, Leah, though. That one I will never understand. After all this time I can certainly work with the Africans as well as anybody can, mainly by not leading them into temptation. But to marry one? And have children? It doesn’t seem natural. I can’t see how those boys are any kin to me.
I wouldn’t say so to her face, of course. I swear I haven’t said a word in all these years. Not that it’s hard, since we don’t write all that often. She only sends Christmas cards, which generally get here just in the nick of time for Easter. I think the mailmen over in Zaire must be lazy or drunk half the time. And when I do get a letter, it’s always a great disappointment. Just: Oh how are you, I had another baby named whatsit or whosis. She could at least give them names in plain English, you would think. She never asks about the hotel at all.
We’re all keeping our hopes up for family relations, I guess, but our true family fell apart after Ruth May’s tragic death. You could spend your whole life feeling bad about it, and I get the idea Mother especially is still moping around. And Leah’s decided to pay for it by becoming the Bride of Africa. Adah, now she could probably get her a halfway decent boyfriend since she’s finally gotten her problem fixed, but no, she has to throw her prime of life down the test tube of a disease organism.
Well, that’s their decision. What happened to us in the Congo was simply the bad luck of two opposite worlds crashing into each other, causing tragedy. After something like that, you can only go your own way according to what’s in your heart. And in my family, all our hearts seem to have whole different things inside.
I ask myself, did I have anything to do with it? The answer is no. I’d made my mind up all along just to rise above it all. Keep my hair presentable and pretend I was elsewhere. Heck, wasn’t I the one hollering night and day that we were in danger? It’s true that when it happened I was the oldest one there, and I’m sure some people would say I should have been in charge. There was just a minute there where maybe I could have grabbed her, but it happened so fast. She never knew what hit her. And besides, you can’t possibly be in charge of people who will not give you the time of day, even in your own family. So I refuse to feel the slightest responsibility. I really do.
In the evenings here at the Equatorial I usually wind up the day by closing down the bar all by myself, sitting in the dark with my nightcap and one last cigarette, listening to the creepy sounds of a bar with no merriment left in it. There are creepy little things that get into the thatch of the roof, monkey squirrels or something, that you only notice at night. They scritch around and peep down at me with their beady little eyes till I just about lose my mind and scream, “Shut the hell up!” Sometimes I have to slip off my thongs to throw at them before they’ll pipe down. Better to keep this place filled up with businessmen and keep the liquor flowing, is what I always say. Honestly, there is no sense spending too much time alone in the dark.
Leah Price Ngemba
KINSHASA RAINY SEASON, 1981
ANATOLE is IN PRISON. Maybe for the last time. I get out of bed and put on my shoes and force myself to take care of the children. Outside the window the rain pours down on all the drenched, dark goats and bicycles and children, and I stand here appraising the end of the world. Wishing like hell we hadn’t come back from Atlanta. But we had to. A person like Anatole has so much to offer his country. Not, of course, in the present regime, whose single goal is to keep itself in power. Mobutu relies on the kind of men who are quick with guns and slow to ask questions. For now, the only honorable government work is the matter of bringing it down. So says Anatole. He’d rather be here, even in prison, than turning his back on an outrage. I know the dimensions of my husband’s honor, as well as I know the walls of this house. So I get up and put on my shoes and curse myself for wanting to leave in the first place. Now I’ve lost everything: the companionship of his ideals, and the secret escape I held in reserve, if my own failed completely. I always thought I could fly away home. Not now. Now I’ve pulled that ace out of the hole, taken a good look, and found that it’s useless to me, devalued over time. An old pink Congolese bill.
How did this happen? I’ve made three trips back now, more as a stranger each time. Did America shift under my feet, or did it stand still while I stomped along my road toward whatever I’m chasing, following a column of smoke through my own Exodus? On our first trip, America seemed possible for us. Anything did. I was pregnant with Patrice then-1968, it would have been. Pascal was almost three, picking up English like the smart little parrot he is. I studied agricultural engineering at Emory, and Anatole was in political science and geography. He was an astonishing student, absorbing everything in the books, then looking past them for things his teachers didn’t know. The public library he mistook for heaven. “Beene,” he whispered, “for everything that has ever come into my mind, there is already a book written about it.”
“Watch out,” I teased him. “Maybe there’s one in here about you.”
“Oh, I fear it! A complete history of my boyhood crimes.” He came to feel derelict about sleeping at night, for the sake of all the books he’d miss reading in those hours. He retained some reticence about speaking English, refusing for example ever to say the word sheet because to his ear it’s indistinguishable from shit, but he read with a kind of hunger I’d never witnessed. And I got to be with my family. Adah was well along in medical school then, so was terribly busy, but we practically lived with Mother. She was so good to us. Pascal prowled over her furniture and napped on her lap like a cat.
I went back the second time to recover from Martin’s birth, since I’d gotten dangerously anemic, and to get the boys their booster shots. Mother raised the money to fly us over. It was just the boys and me that time, and we stayed on longer than we’d planned, for the exquisite pleasure of enough food. Also to give Mother a chance to know her only grandchildren. She took us to the ocean, to a windswept place of sandy islands off the Georgia coast. The boys were wild “with all their half-composted discoveries and the long, open stretches for running. But it made me homesick. The shore smelled like the fish markets in Bikoki. I stood on the coast staring across an impossible quantity of emptiness toward Anatole, and whatever else I’d left behind in Africa.
It’s a funny thing to complain about, but most of America is perfectly devoid of smells. I must have noticed it before, but this last time back I felt it as an impairment. For weeks after we arrived I kept rubbing my eyes, thinking I was losing my sight or maybe my hearing. But it was the sense of smell that was gone. Even in the grocery store, surrounded in one aisle by more kinds of food than will ever be known in a Congolese lifetime, there was nothing on the air but a vague, disinfected emptiness. I mentioned this to Anatole, who’d long since taken note of it, of course. “The air is just blank in America,” I said. “You can’t ever smell what’s around you, unless you stick your nose right down into something.”
“Maybe that is why they don’t know about Mobutu,” he suggested.
Anatole earned a stipend from student teaching, an amount the other graduate students called a “pittance,” though it was much more than he and I had ever earned together in any year. We lived once again in married student housing, a plywood apartment complex set among pine trees, and the singular topic of conversation among our young neighbors was the inadequacy of these rattletrap tenements. To Anatole and me they seemed absurdly luxurious. Glass windows, with locks on every one and two on the door, when we didn’t have a single possession worth stealing. Running water, hot, right out of a tap in the kitchen, and another one only ten steps away in the bathroom!
The boys alternated between homesickness and frenzy. There were some American things they developed appetites for that alarmed me, and things they ignored, which alarmed me even more. For example, the way well-intentioned white people spoke to my trilingual children (they fluently interchange French, Lingala, and English, with a slight accent in each) by assaulting them with broad, loud baby talk. Anatole’s students did essentially the same, displaying a constant impulse to educate him about democracy and human rights-arrogant sophomores! With no notion of what their country is doing to his. Anatole told me these stories at night with a flat resignation, but I cursed and threw pillows and cried while he held me in the vast comfort of our married-student double bed.
The citizens of my homeland regarded my husband and children as primitives, or freaks. On the streets, from a distance, they’d scowl at us, thinking we were merely the scourge they already knew and loathed-the mixed-race couple, with mongrel children as advertisement of our sins. Drawing nearer they would always stare at Anatole as contempt gave way to bald shock. His warrior’s face with its expertly carved lines speaks its elegance in a language as foreign to them as Lingala.That book was closed. Even my mother’s friends, who really did try, asked me nothing of Anatole’s background or talents-only, in hushed tones when he left the room, “What happened to his face?”
Anatole claimed the stares didn’t bother him. He’d already spent so much of his life as an outsider. But I couldn’t stand the condescension. Anatole is an exquisitely beautiful and accomplished man in his own country, to those who appreciate intellect and honor. I already spent a whole childhood thinking I’d wrecked the life of my twin sister, dragged after me into the light. I can’t drag a husband and sons into a life where their beauty will blossom and wither in darkness.
So we came home. Here. To disaster. Anatole’s passport was confiscated at the airport. While Pascal and Patrice punched each other out of exhausted boredom and Martin leaned on me crying that his ears hurt, my husband was brought down without my notice. He was a wanted man in Zaire. I didn’t understand this at the time. Anatole told me it was a formality, and that he had to give our address in Kinshasa so they’d know where to bring his passport back to him the next day. I laughed, and said (in front of the officials!) that, given our government’s efficiency, it would be the next year. Then we crammed ourselves into a battered little Peugeot taxi that felt like home at last, and came to Elisabet’s house, to fall into sleep or the fitful wakefulness of jet lag. I had a thousand things on my mind: getting the boys into school, finding a place to live, exchanging the dollars from Mother at some Kinshasa bank that wouldn’t give us old zaires or counterfeit new ones, getting food so we wouldn’t overwhelm poor Elisabet. Not one of my thoughts was for my husband. We didn’t even sleep together, since Elisabet had borrowed the few small cots she could find.
It would have been our last chance. The casques-bleus came pounding on the door right at dawn. I wasn’t completely awake. Elisabet was still modestly wrapping her pagne as she stumbled to the door, and four men entered with such force they shoved her against the wall. Only Martin was really awake, with his huge black eyes on the guns in their belts.
Anatole behaved calmly, but his eyes were desperate when he looked at me. He mentioned names of people I should find right away-to help us get settled he said, though I knew what he meant-and an address that seemed to be backward.
“The boys,” I said, having no idea how I meant to finish the sentence.
“The boys love you more than their own eyes. Planche de salut.”
“They’re African, for always.You know.”
“Beene. Be kind to yourself.”
And he is gone. And I have no idea how to be kind to myself. Living, as a general enterprise, seems unkind beyond belief.
At least I know where he is, which Elisabet says is a blessing. I can’t agree with her. They took him immediately to Thysville, which is about a hundred kilometers south of Leopoldville over the best road in this nation, repaved recently with a grant of foreign aid. The prison is evidently that important. I had to go to eight different government offices to get information, submitting like an obedient dog to carry a different slip of onionskin paper from one office to the next, until I met my master with his chair tipped back and his boots on his desk. He was startled to see a white woman, and couldn’t decide whether to be deferential or contemptuous, so he alternated. He told me my husband would be in detention until formal charges were filed, which could take six months to a year. The charges are in the general nature of treason, which is to say anti-Mobutism, and the most likely sentence will be life imprisonment, though there are other possibilities.
“At Camp Hardy,” I said.
“Le Camp Ebeya,”he corrected me. Of course. Camp Hardy has been renamed, for authenticite.
I knew not to be encouraged about the so-called “other possibilities.” Camp Hardy happens to be where Lumumba was held, and beaten to within an inch of his life, before his death flight to Katanga. I wonder what comfort my husband will get from this bit of shared history. We’ve known several other people, including a fellow teacher of Anatole’s, who’ve been detained more recently at Camp Hardy. It’s considered a prolonged execution, principally through starvation. Our friend said there were long periods when he was given one banana every two days. Most of the cells are solitary, with no light or plumbing or even a hole in the floor. The buckets are not removed.
I was told I couldn’t visit until Anatole was formally charged. After that, it would depend on the charges. I glared at the empty blue helmet sitting on the desk, and then at my commandant’s uinprotected head, wishing I might cause it to explode with the force of my rage. When he had no more to tell me, I thanked him in my politest French, and left. Forgive me, O Heavenly Father, according to the multitude of thy mercies. I have lusted in my heart to break a man’s skull and scatter the stench of his brains across several people’s back yards.
At least he isn’t shackled under the stadium floor, Elisabet keeps saying, and I suppose even my broken heart can accept that as good fortune.
I’ve never known such loneliness.The boys are sad, of course, but Pascal and Patrice at fifteen and thirteen are nearly men, with men’s ways of coping. And Martin is so confused and needs such comfort he has nothing to give me.
We did find a house right away, recently vacated by a teacher’s family who’ve left for Angola. Its a long way from the center, in o›ne of the last little settlements on the road out toward the interior, so we have at least the relief of flowering trees and a yard for growing vegetables. But we’re far from Elisabet and Christiane, who work long hours cleaning a police station and attached government warehouse. I don’t have the solace of daily conversation. And even Elisabet isn’t truly a kindred spirit. She loves me but finds me baffling and unfeminine, and probably a troublemaker. She may lose her job because of familial association with treason.
I never bothered to notice before how thoroughly I’ve relied on Anatole to justify and absolve me here. For so many years now I’ve had the luxury of nearly forgetting I was white in a land of brown and black. I was Madame Ngemba, someone to commiserate with in the market over the price of fruit, the mother of children who sought mischief with theirs. Cloaked in my pagne and Anatole, I seemed to belong. Now, husbandless in this new neighborhood, my skin glows like a bare bulb. My neighbors are deferential and reserved. Day after day, if I ask directions or try to chat about the weather, they attempt nervously to answer me in halting English or French. Did they not notice I initiated the conversation in Lingala? Do they not hear me hollering over the fence at my sons every day in the habitual, maternal accents of a native-born fishwife? The sight of my foreign skin seems to freeze their sensibilities. In the local market, a bubble of stopped conversation moves with me as I walk. Everyone in this neighborhood knows what happened to Anatole, and I know they’re sympathetic-they all hate Mobutu as much, and wish they were half as brave. But they also have to take into account his pale-skinned wife. They know just one thing about foreigners, and that is everything we’ve ever done to them. I can’t possibly improve Anatole’s standing in their eyes. I must be the weakness that brought him down.
I can’t help thinking so myself. Where would he be now, if not for me? Dancing with disaster all the same, surely; he was a revolutionary before I met him. But maybe not caught. He wouldn’t have left the country twice, listening to my pleas of an aging mother and fantasies of beefsteak. Wouldn’t even have a passport, most likely. And that’s how they got him.
But then, where would his children be? This is what we mothers always come back to. How could he regret the marriage that brought Pascal, Patrice, and Martin-Lothaire onto the face of Africa? Our union has been difficult for both of us in the long run, but what union isn’t? Marriage is one long fit of compromise, deep and wide. There is always one agenda swallowing another, a squeaky wheel crying out. But hasn’t our life together meant more to the world than either of us could have meant alone?
These are the kinds of questions I use to drive myself to distraction, when the boys are out and I’m crazed with loneliness. I try to fill up the space with memories, try to recall his face when he first held Pascal. Remember making love in a thousand different darknesses, under a hundred different mosquito nets, remember his teeth on the flesh of my shoulder, gently, and his hand on my lips to quiet me when one of the boys was sleeping lightly next to us. I recall the muscles of his thighs and the scent of his hair. Eventually I haw to go outside and stare at my plump, checkered hens in the yard, trying to decide which one to kill for supper. In the end I can never take any of them, on account of the companionship I would lose.
One way of surviving heartache is to stay busy. Making something right in at least one tiny corner of the vast house of wrongs- I learned this from Anatole, or maybe from myself, the odd combination of my two parents. But now I’m afraid of running out of possibilities, with so many years left to go. I’ve already contacted all the people he advised me to find, to warn them, or for help. The backward address turned out after several mistakes to be the undersecretary to Etienne Tshisekedi, the one government minister who might help us, though his own position with Mobutu is now on the outs. And of course I’ve written to Mother’s friends. (At the “Damnistry International,” as Rachel probably still calls it.) I begged them to send telegrams on Anatole’s behalf, and they will, by the bushel. If Mobutu is capable of embarrassment at all, there’s a chance his sentence could be reduced from life to five years, or less. Meanwhile, Mother is raising money for a bribe that will get him some food, so five years and “life” won’t be the same sentence. I’ve gone down to the government offices to find out where the bribe should go when we have it ready. I’ve nagged about visitation and mail until they all know my face and don’t want to see it. I’ve done what I can, it seems, and now I have to do what I can’t. Wait.
By lamplight when the boys are asleep I write short letters to Anatole, reporting briefly on the boys and our health, and long letters to Adah about how I’m really faring. Neither of them will ever see my letters, probably, but it’s the writing I need, the pouring out. I tell Adah my sorrows. I get dramatic. It’s probably best that these words will end up suffocating in a pile, undelivered.
I might be envious of Adah now, with no attachments to tear her heart out. She doesn’t need children climbing up her legs or a husband kissing her forehead. Without all that, she’s safe. And Rachel, with the emotional complexities of a salt shaker. Now there’s a life. Sometimes I remember our hope chests and want to laugh, for how prophetic they were. Rachel fiercely putting in overtime, foreshadowing a marital track record distinguished for quantity if not quality. Ruth May exempt for all time. My own tablecloth, undertaken reluctantly but in the long run drawing out my most dedicated efforts. And Adah, crocheting black borders on napkins and tossing them to the wind.
But we’ve all ended up giving up body and soul to Africa, one way or another. Even Adah, who’s becoming an expert in tropical epidemiology and strange new viruses. Each of us got our heart buried in six feet of African dirt; we are all co-conspirators here. I mean, all of us, not just my family. So what do you do now? You get to find your own way to dig out a heart and shake it off and hold it up to the light again.
“Be kind to yourself,” he says softly in my ear, and I ask him, How is that possible? I rock back and forth on my chair like a baby, craving so many impossible things: justice, forgiveness, redemption. I crave to stop bearing all the wounds of this place on my own narrow body. But I also want to be a person who stays, who goes on feeling anguish where anguish is due. I want to belong somewhere, damn it. To scrub the hundred years’ war off this white skin till there’s nothing left and I can walk out among my neighbors wearing raw sinew and bone, like they do.
Most of all, my white skin craves to be touched and held by the one man on earth I know has forgiven me for it.
THE EQUATORIAL 1984
THIS WAS THE FIRST and the absolute last time I am going to participate within a reunion of my sisters. I’ve just returned from a rendezvous with Leah and Adah that was simply a sensational failure. Leah was the brainchild of the whole trip. She said the last month of waiting for her husband to get out of prison was going to kill her if she didn’t get out of there and do something. The last time he was getting let out, I guess they ended up making him stay another year at the last minute, which would be a disappointment, I’m sure. But really, if you commit a crime you have to pay the piper, what did she expect? Personally, I’ve had a few husbands that maybe weren’t the top of the line, but a criminal, I just can’t see. Well, each to his own, like they say. She’s extra lonely now since her two older boys are trying out school in Atlanta so they won’t get arrested, too, and the younger one is also staying there with Mother for the summer so Leah could be free to mastermind this trip. Which, to tell you the truth, she mostly just arranged for the sole purpose of getting a Land Rover from America to Kinshasa, where she and Anatole have the crackpot scheme of setting up a farm commune in the southern part and then going over to the Angola side as soon as it’s safe, which from what I hear is going to be no time this century. Besides, Angola is an extremely Communistic
nation if you ask me. But does Mother care about this? Her own daughter planning to move to a communistic nation where the roads are practically made of wall-to-wall land mines? Why no! She and her friends raised the money and bought a good Land Rover with a rebuilt engine in Atlanta. Which, by the way, Mother’s group has never raised one red cent for me, to help put in upstairs plumbing at the Equatorial, for example. But who’s complaining?
I only went because a friend of mine had recently died of his long illness and I was feeling at loose odds and ends. Geoffrey definitely was talking marriage, before he got so ill. He was just the nicest gentleman and very well to do. Geoffrey ran a touristic safari business in Kenya, which was how we met, in a very romantic way. But he caught something very bad over there in Nairobi, plus he was not all that young. Still, it shouldn’t have happened to a better man. Not to mention me turning forty last year, which was no picnic, but people always guess me not a day over thirty so who’s counting? Anyway I figured Leah and I could tell each other our troubles, since misery loves company, even though she has a husband that is still alive at least, which is more than I can say.
The game plan was for Adah to ride over on the boat to Spain with the Land Rover, and drive to West Africa. Adah driving, I just couldn’t picture. I still kept picturing her all crippled up, even though Mother had written me that no, Adah has truly had a miracle recovery. So we were all to meet up there in Senegal and travel around for a few weeks seeing the sights. Then Adah would fly home, and Leah and I would drive as far as Brazzaville together for safety’s sake, although if you ask me two women traveling alone are twice as much trouble as one. Especially my sister and me! We ended up not speaking through the whole entirety of Cameroon and most of Gabon. Anatole, fresh out of the hoosegow, met us in Brazzaville and they drove straight back home to Kinshasa. Boy, did she throw her arms around him at the ferry station, kissing right out in front of everybody, for a lot longer than you’d care to think. Then off they went holding hands like a pair of teenagers, yakety-yak, talking to each other in something Congolese.They did it expressly to exclude me from the conversation, I think. Which is not easy for someone who speaks three languages, as I do.
Good-bye and none too soon, is what I say. Leah was like a house on fire for the last hundred miles of the trip. She’d made a longdistance call from Libreville to make sure he was getting let out the next day for sure, and boy, did she make a beeline after that. She couldn’t even bother herself to come up and see the Equatorial- even though we were only half a day’s drive away! And me a bereaved widow, practically. I can’t forgive that in my own sister. She said she would only go if we went on down to Brazzaville first, and then brought Anatole with us. Well, I just couldn’t say yes or no to that right away, I had to think. It’s simply a far more delicate matter than she understands. We have a strict policy about who is allowed upstairs, and if you change it for one person then where does it end? I might have made an exception. But when I told her I had to think about it, Leah right away said, “Oh, no, don’t bother. You have your standards of white supremacy to uphold, don’t you?” and then climbed up on her high horse and stepped on the gas. So we just stopped talking, period. Believe me, we had a very long time to listen to the four-wheel-drive transmission and every bump in the road for the full length of two entire countries.
When it was finally over I was so happy to get back to my own home-sweet-home I had a double vodka tonic, kicked off my shoes, turned up the tape player and danced the Pony right in the middle of the restaurant. We had a whole group of cotton buyers from Paris, if I remember correctly. I declared to my guests: “Friends, there is nothing like your own family to make you appreciate strangers!”Then I kissed them all on their bald heads and gave them a round on the house.
The trouble with my family is that since we hardly ever see each other, we have plenty of time to forget how much personality conflict we all have when it comes right down to it. Leah and Adah and I started bickering practically the minute we met up in Senegal. We could never even agree on where to go or stay or what to eat. Whenever we found any place that was just the teeniest step above
horrid, Leah felt it was too expensive. She and Anatole evidently have chosen to live like paupers. And Adah, helpful as always, would chime in with the list of what disease organisms were likely to be present. We argued about positively everything: even communism! Which you would think there was nothing to argue about. I merely gave Leah the very sensible advice that she should think twice about going to Angola because the Marxists are taking it over.
“The Mbundu and the Kongo tribes have a long-standing civil war there, Rachel. Agostinho Neto led the Mbundu to victory, because he had the most popular support.”
“Well, for your information, Dr. Henry Kissinger himself says that Neto and them are followers of Karl Marx, and the other ones are pro-United States.”
“Imagine that,” Leah said. “The Mbundu and Kongo people have been at war with each other for the last six hundred years, and Dr. Henry Kissinger has at long last discovered the cause: the Kongo are pro-United States, and the Mbundu are followers of Karl Marx.”
“Hah!” Adah said. Her first actual unrehearsed syllable of the day. She talks now, but she still doesn’t exactly throw words away.
Adah was in the back, and Leah and me up front. I was doing most of the driving, since I’m used to it. I had to slow way down for a stop sign because the drivers in “West Africa were turning out to be as bad as the ones in Brazzaville. It was very hard to concentrate while my sisters were giving me a pop quiz on world democracy.
“You two can just go ahead and laugh,” I said. “But I read the papers. Ronald Reagan is keeping us safe from the socialistic dictators, and you should be grateful for it.”
“Socialistic dictators such as?”
“I don’t know. Karl Marx! Isn’t he still in charge of Russia?”
Adah was laughing so hard in the backseat I thought she was going to pee on herself.
“Oh, Rachel, Rachel,” Leah said. “Let me give you a teeny little lesson in political science. Democracy and dictatorship are political systems; they have to do with who participates in the leadership. Socialism and capitalism are economic systems. It has to do with who owns the wealth of your nation, and who gets to eat. Can you grasp that?”
“I never said I was the expert. I just said I read the papers.”
“Okay, let’s take Patrice Lumumba, for example. Former Prime Minister of the Congo, his party elected by popular vote. He was a socialist who believed in democracy. Then he was murdered, and the CIA replaced him with Mobutu, a capitalist who believes in dictatorship. In the Punch and Judy program of American history, that’s a happy ending.”
“Leah, for your information I am proud to be an American.”
Adah just snorted again, but Leah smacked her forehead. “How can you possibly say that? You haven’t set foot there for half your life!”
“I have retained my citizenship. I still put up the American flag in the bar and celebrate every single Fourth of July.”
“Impressive,” Adah said.
We were driving along the main dirt road that followed the coast toward Togo. There were long stretches of beach, with palm trees waving and little naked dark children against the white sand. It was like a picture postcard. I wished we could quit talking about ridiculous things and just enjoy ourselves. I don’t know why Leah has to nag and nag.
“For your information, Leah,” I informed her, just to kind of close things off, “your precious Lumumba would have taken over and been just as bad a dictator as any of them. If the CIA and them got rid of him, they did it for democracy. Everybody alive says that.”
“Everybody alive,” Adah said. “What did the dead ones say?”
“Now, look, Rachel,” Leah said. “You can get this. In a democracy, Lumumba should have been allowed to live longer than two months as head of state. The Congolese people would have gotten to see how they liked him, and if not, replaced him.”
Well, I just blew up at that. “These people here can’t decide anything for themselves! I swear, my kitchen help still can’t remember to use the omelet pan for an omelet! For God’s sakes, Leah, you should know as well as I do how they are.”
“Yes, Rachel, I believe I married one of them.”
I kept forgetting that. “Well, shut my mouth wide open.”
“As usual,” Adah said.
For the entire trip I think the three of us were all on speaking terms for only one complete afternoon. We’d got as far as Benin without killing each other, and Adah wanted to see the famous villages on stilts. But, wouldn’t you know, the road to that was washed out. Leah and I tried to explain to her how in Africa the roads are here today, gone tomorrow. You are constantly seeing signs such as, “If this sign is under water the road is impassable,” and so forth. That much we could agree on.
So we ended up going to the ancient palace at Abomey, instead, which was the only tourist attraction for hundreds of miles around. We followed our map to Abomey, and luckily the road to it was still there. We parked in the center of town, which had big jacaranda trees and was very quaint. It was a cinch to find the ancient palace because it was surrounded by huge red mud walls and had a very grand entryway. Snoozing on a bench in the entrance we found an English-speaking guide who agreed to wake up and take us through on a tour. He explained how in former centuries, before the arrival of the French, the Abomey kings had enormous palaces and very nice clothes. They recorded their history in fabulous tapestries that hung on the palace walls, and had skillful knives and swords and such, which they used to conquer the neighboring tribes and enslave them. Oh, they just killed people right and left, he claimed, and then they’d put the skulls of their favorite enemies into their household decor. It’s true! We saw every one of these things-the tapestries depicting violent acts and the swords and knives and even a throne with human skulls attached to the bottoms of all four legs, plated with bronze like keepsake baby shoes!
“Why, that’s just what I need for my lobby in the Equatorial,” I joked, although the idea of those things being the former actual heads of living people was a bit much for three o’clock in the afternoon.
This was no fairy-tale kingdom, let me tell you. They forced women into slave marriage with the King for the purpose of reproducing their babies at a high rate. One King would have, oh, fifty or a hundred wives, easy. More, if he was anything special. Or so the guide told us, maybe to impress us. To celebrate their occasions, he said, they’d just haul off and kill a bunch of their slaves, grind up all the blood and bones, and mix it up with mud for making more walls for their temples! And what’s worse, whenever a King died, forty of his wives would have to be killed and buried with him!
I had to stop the guide right there and ask him, “Now, would they be his favorite wives they’d bury with him, or the meanest ones, or what?”
The guide said he thought probably it would have been the prettiest ones. Well, I can just imagine that! The King gets sick, all the wives would be letting their hair go and eating sweets day and night to wreck their figures.
Even though Leah and I had been crabbing at each other all week, that afternoon in the palace at Abomey for some reason we all got quiet as dead bats. Now, I have been around: the racial rioting in South Africa, hosting embassy parties in Brazzaville, shopping in Paris and Brussels, the game animals in Kenya, I have seen it all. But that palace was something else. It gave me the heebie-jeebies. We walked through the narrow passages, admiring the artworks and shivering to see chunks of bone sticking out of the walls. Whatever we’d been fighting about seemed to fade for the moment with those dead remains all around us. I shook from head to toe, even though the day was quite warm.
Leah and Adah happened to be walking in front of me, probably to get away from the guide, because they like to have their own explanations for everything, and as I looked at them I was shocked to see how alike they were. They’d both bought wild-colored waxcloth shirts in the Senegal market, Adah to wear over her jeans and Leah to go with her long skirts (I personally see no need to go native, thanks very much, and will stick to my cotton knit), and Adah really doesn’t limp a bit anymore, like Mother said. Plus she talks, which just goes to show you her childhood was not entirely on the up-and-up. She’s exactly as tall as Leah now; too, which is simply unexplanatory. They hadn’t seen each other for years, and here they even showed up wearing the same hairstyle! Shoulder-length, pulled back, which is not even a regular fashion.
Suddenly I realized they were talking about Father.
“No, I’m sure it’s true,” Leah said. “I believe it was him. I think he really is dead.”
Well! This was news to me. I walked quickly to catch up, though I was still more or less of a third wheel. “You mean Father?” I asked. “Why didn’t you say something, for heaven’s sake.”
“I guess I’ve been waiting for the right time, when we could talk,” Leah said.
Well, what did she think we’d been doing for the last five days but talk. “No time like the present,” I said.
She seemed to mill it over, and then stated it all as a matter of fact. “He’s been up around Lusambo for the last five years, in one village and another. This past summer I ran into an agricultural agent who’s been working up there, and he said he very definitely knew of Father. And that he’s passed away.”
“Gosh, I didn’t even know he’d moved,” I said. “I figured he was still hanging around our old village all this time.”
“No, he’s made his way up the Kasai River over the years, not making too many friends from what I hear. He hasn’t been back to Kilanga, that much I know. We still have a lot of contact with Kilanga. Some of the people we knew are still there. An awful lot have died, too.”
“What do you mean? Who did we know?” I honestly couldn’t think of a soul. We left, Axelroot left. The Underdowns went all the way back to Belgium, and they weren’t even really there.
“Why don’t we talk about this later?” Leah said. “This place is already full of dead people.”
Well, I couldn’t argue with that. So we spent the rest of our paid-for tour in silence, walking through the ancient crumbling halls, trying not to look at the hunks of cream-colored bones in the walls.
“Those are pearls that were his eyes,” Adah said at one point, which is just the kind of thing she would say.
“Full fathom five thy father lies,” Leah said back to her.
What the heck that was about I just had to wonder. I sure didn’t see any pearls. Those two were always connected in their own weird, special way. Even when they can’t stand each other, they still always know what the other one’s talking about when nobody else does. But I didn’t let it bother me. I am certainly old enough to hold up my head and have my own personal adventures in life. I dreamed I toured the Ancient Palace of Abomey in my Maiden-form Bra!
Maybe once upon a time I was a little jealous of Leah and Adah, being twins. But no matter how much they might get to looking and sounding alike, as grown-ups, I could see they were still as different on the inside as night and day. And I am different too, not night or day either one but something else altogether, like the Fourth of July. So there we were: night, day, and the Fourth of July, and just for a moment there was a peace treaty.
But things fall apart, of course. With us they always do, sooner or later. We walked into the little town to get something cool to drink, and found a decent place where we could sit outside at a metal table watching the dogs and bicycles and hustle-bustle go by, everybody without exception carrying something on their heads. Except the dogs weren’t, of course. We had a few beers and it was pleasant. Leah continued her news report about the all-important boondocks village of our childhood fame, which in my opinion is better off to forget. I was waiting for the part about what Father died of. But it seemed impolite to push. So I took off my sunglasses and fanned myself with the map of West Africa.
Leah counted on her fingers: “Mama Mwanza is still going strong. Mama and Tata Nguza, both. Tata Boanda lost his elder wife but still has Eba. Tata Ndu’s son is chief. Not the oldest one, Gbenye-they ran him out of the village.”
“The one that stole your bushbuck,” Adah said.
“Yep, the one. He turned out to be the type to constantly pick a fight, is what I gather. Lousy for a chief. So it’s the second son, Kenge. I don’t remember him very well. Tata Ndu died of fever from a wound.”
“Too bad,” I said sarcastically. “My would-be husband.”
Adah said, “You could have done “worse, Rachel.”
“She did do worse,” Leah declared. Which I do not appreciate, and said so.
She just ignored me. “Nelson is married, can you believe it? With two daughters and three sons. Mama Lo is dead; they claimed she was a hundred and two but I doubt it. Tata Kuvudundu is gone, dead, a long time now. He lost a lot of respect over the… what he did with us.”
“The snake, you mean?” I asked.
She took a deep breath, looked up at the sky. “All of it.”
We waited, but Leah just drummed her fingers on the table and acted like that was the end of that. Then added, “Pascal is dead, of course. That’s been forever. He was killed by the blue-helmets on the road near Bulungu.” She was looking away from us, but I could see she had tears in her eyes! Yet I had to rack my brains to remember these people.
“Oh, Pascal, your son?”
Adah informed me I was an imbecile.
“Pascal our childhood friend, who my son is named after. He died eighteen years ago, right before my Pascal was born, when we were in Bikoki. I never told you, Rachel, because I somehow had the impression you wouldn’t care. It was when you were in Johannesburg.”
“Pascal our friend?” I thought and thought. “Oh. That little boy with the holes in his pants you ran around with?”
Leah nodded, and kept on staring out at the big jacaranda trees that shaded the street. They dropped their huge purple flowers every so often, one at a time, like ladies dropping their hankies to get your attention. I lit another cigarette. I had expected two cartons of Lucky Strikes to last me the whole trip, but, boy, what with all the nervous tension those suckers were gone. I dreaded to think about it. Here on the street there were plenty of grimy little boys who’d sell you cigarettes one at a time with brand names like Black Hat and Mr. Bones, just to remind you they had no filter tips and
tasted like burning tar and were going to kill you in a jiffy. African tobacco is not a pretty picture.
“So,” I finally said, nudging Leah. “Dear old Dad. What’s the scoop?”
She continued looking out at the street, where all kinds of people were going by. It was almost like she was waiting for somebody. Then she sighed, reached over and shook out one of my last precious cigarettes and lit up.
“This is going to make me sick,” she said.
“What, smoking? Or telling about Father?”
She kind of laughed. “Both. And the beer, too. I’m not used to this.” She took a puff, and then frowned at the Lucky Strike like it was something that might bite her. “You should hear how I get after the boys for doing this.”
“Oh… it’s kind of awful. He’d been up there for a while on the north bend of the Kasai, in the area where they grow coffee. He was still trying to baptize children, I know this for a fact. Fyntan and Celine Fowles get up that way every few years.”
“Brother Fowles” I said. “You still keep in touch with him? Jeez Louise, Leah. Old home week. And he still knows Father?”
“They actually never got a look at him. I guess Father had reached a certain point. He hid from strangers. But they always heard plenty of stories about the white witch doctor named Tata Prize. They got the impression from talking to people that he was really old. I mean old, with a long white beard.”
“Father? Now I can’t picture that, a beard,” I said. “How old would he be now, sixty?”
“Sixty-four,” Adah said. Even though she talked now, it was like she was still handing over her little written announcements on notebook paper.
“He’d gotten a very widespread reputation for turning himself into a crocodile and attacking children.”
“Now that I can picture,” I said, laughing. The Africans are very superstitious. One of my workers swears the head cook can turn himself into a monkey and steal things from the guest rooms. I believe it!
“Still trying to drag the horse to “water,” Adah said.
“So there was a really horrible incident on the river. A boat full of kids turned over by a croc, and all of them drowned or eaten or maimed. Father got the blame for it. Pretty much hung without a trial.”
“Oh,Jesus”I put my hand on my throat.”Actually hung?”
“No,” Leah said, looking irritated but getting tears in her eyes at the same time. “Not hung. Burned.”
I could see this was hard for Leah. I reached out and took hold of her hand. “Honey, I know,” I told her. “He was our daddy. I think you always put up with him better than any of us. But he was mean as a snake.There’s nothing he got that he didn’t deserve.”
She pulled her hand out of mine so she could wipe her eyes and blow her nose. “I know that!” She sounded mad. “The people in that village had asked him to leave a hundred times, go someplace else, but he’d always sneak back. He said he wasn’t going to go away till he’d taken every child in the village down to the river and dunked them under. Which just scared everybody to death. So after the drowning incident they’d had enough, and everybody grabbed sticks and took out after him. They may have just meant to chase him away again. But I imagine Father was belligerent about it.”
“Well, sure,” I said. “He was probably still preaching hell and brimstone over his shoulder while he ran! “Which is true.
“They surrounded him in an old coffee field and he climbed up on one of those rickety watchtowers left over from the colonial days. Do you know what I’m talking about? They call them tours de maitre.The boss towers, where in the old days the Belgian foreman would stand watching all the coffee pickers so he could single out which ones to whip at the end of the day.”
“And they burned him?”
“They set the tower on fire. I’m sure it went up like a box of matches. It would have been twenty-year-old jungle wood, left over from the Belgians.”;
“I’ll bet he preached the Gospel right to the very end,” I said.
“They said he waited till he was on fire before he jumped off. Nobody wanted to touch him, so they just left him there for the animals to drag off.”
I thought, Well, nobody around there’s going to be drinking any coffee for a while! But it seemed like the wrong moment for a joke. I ordered another round of Elephant beers and we sat pondering our different thoughts.
Then Adah got a very strange look and said, “He got The Verse.”
“Which one?” Leah asked.
“The last one. Old Testament. Second Maccabees 13:4: ‘But the King of Kings aroused the anger of Antiochus against the rascal.’“
“I don’t know it,” Leah said.
Adah closed her eyes and thought for a second and then quoted the whole thing out: ‘“The King of Kings aroused the anger of Antiochus against the rascal. And when Lysias informed him this man was to blame for all the trouble, he ordered them to put him to death in the way that is customary there. For there is a tower there seventy-five feet high, filled with ashes, and there they push a man guilty of sacrilege or notorious for other crimes to destruction. By such a fate it came to pass that the transgressor died, not even getting burial in the ground.’“
“Holy shit!”I declared.
“How come you know that verse?” Leah asked.
“I must have gotten that one fifty times. It’s the final ‘The Verse’ in the Old Testament, I’m trying to tell you. One-hundred-count from the end. If you include the Apocrypha, which of course he always did.”
“And what’s at the finish of it?” I asked. “The take-home lesson?”
“The closing statement of the Old Testament: ‘So this will be the end.’“
“So this will be the end,” Leah and I both repeated, in complete amazement. After that we were speechless for approximately one hour, while we listened to each other’s throat sounds every time we took a swallow of beer.And Leah smoked the last two Lucky Strikes in West Africa.
Finally she asked, “Why would he give you that verse so many times? I never got that one.” Which if you ask me is really not the point.
But Adah smiled, and answered like it mattered, “Why do you think, Leah? For being slow.”
After a while I smelled wood smoke. Some vendors were setting up to grill meat along the side of the street. I got up and bought some for everyone with my own money, so I wouldn’t have to hear Leah gripe that it was too expensive, or Adah telling us what exact germs were living on it. I got chicken on wooden skewers and brought it back to the table wrapped in wax paper.
“Eat up and be merry!” I said. “Cheers.”
“In memory of the Father,” Adah said. She and Leah looked at their shish kebabs, looked at each other, and had another one of their private little laughs.
“He was really his own man, you have to give him that,” Leah said, while we munched. “He was a history book all to himself. We used to get regular reports from Tata Boanda and the Fowleses, when he was still around Kilanga. I probably could have gone to see him, but I never got up the nerve.”
“Why not?” I asked her. “I would, just to tell him where to get off.”
“I guess I was scared of seeing him as a crazy person. The tales got wilder and wilder as the years went by.That he’d had five wives, who all left him, for example.”
“That’s a good one,” I said. “Father the Baptist Bigamist.”
“The Pentecostal Pentigamist,”Adah said.
“It was really the best way for him to go, you know? In a blaze of glory,” Leah said. “I’m sure he believed right up to the end that he was doing the right thing. He never did give up the ship.”
“It’s shocking he lasted as long is he did,”Adah said.
“Oh, true! That he didn’t die fifteen years ago of typhus or sleeping sickness or malaria or the combination. I’m sure his hygiene went to hell after Mother left him.”
Adah didn’t say anything to that. Being the doctor, of course, she would know all about tropical diseases and wouldn’t care for Leah sounding like the expert. That’s how it always is with us. Step too far one way or the other and you’ve got on your sister’s toes.
“For gosh sakes,” I said suddenly. “Did you write to Mother? About Father?”
“No. I thought Adah might want to tell her in person.”
Adah said carefully, “I think Mother has presumed him dead for a long time already.”
We finished our shish kebabs and talked about Mother, and I even got to tell a little about the Equatorial, and I thought for once in our lives we were going to finish out the afternoon acting like a decent family. But then, sure enough, Leah started in about Mobutu putting her husband in prison, how the army terrorizes everybody, what was happening with the latest payola schemes in Zaire, which between you and me is the only reason I have any customers at all on my side of the river, but I didn’t say so. Then she moved on to how the Portuguese and Belgians and Americans have wrecked poor Africa top to bottom.
“Leah, I am sick and tired of your sob story!” I practically shouted. I guess I’d had one too many, plus my cigarettes were gone, and it was hot. I’m so extremely fair the sun goes straight to my head. But really, after what we’d just seen in that palace: wife murdering and slave bones in the walls! These horrible things had nothing to do with us; it was all absolutely hundreds of years ago. The natives here were ready and waiting when the Portuguese showed up wanting to buy slaves, I pointed out. The King of Abomey was just delighted to find out he could trade fifteen of his former neighbors for one good Portuguese cannon.
But Leah always has an answer for everything, with vocabulary words in it, naturally. She said we couldn’t possibly understand what their social milieu was, before the Portuguese came. “This is sparse country,” she said. “It never could have supported a large population.”
“So?” I examined my nails, which were frankly in bad shape.
“So what looks like mass murder to us is probably misinterpreted ritual. They probably had ways of keeping their numbers in balance in times of famine. Maybe they thought the slaves were going to a better place.”
Adah chimed in: “A little ritual killing, a little infant mortality, just a few of the many healthy natural processes we don’t care to think about.” Her voice sounded surprisingly like Leah’s. Although I presume Adah was joking, whereas Leah never jokes.
Leah frowned at Adah, then at me, trying to decide which one of us was the true enemy. She decided on me. “You just can’t assume that what’s right or wrong for us is the same as what was right or wrong for them,” she said.
“Thou shalt not kill,” I replied. “That’s not just our way of thinking. It happens to be in the Bible.”
Leah and Adah smiled at each other.
“Right. Here’s to the Bible,” Leah said, clinking her bottle against mine.
“Tata Jesus is bangala!” Adah said, raising her bottle too. She and Leah looked at each other for a second, then both started laughing like hyenas.
“Jesus is poisonwood!” Leah said. “Here’s to the Minister of Poisonwood. And here’s to his five wives!”
Adah stopped laughing. “That was us.”
“Who?” I said. “What?”
“Nathan’s five legendary wives. They must have meant US.”
Leah stared at her. “You’re right.”
Like I said: night, day, and the Fourth of July. I don’t even try to understand.
ATLANTA JANUARY 1985
FULL FATHOM five thy father lies; Of his bones are coral made:
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
This is no mortal business.The man occupied us all in life and is still holding on to his claim. Now we will have to carry away his sea-changed parts rich and strange to our different quarters. Estranged, disarranged, we spend our darkest hours staring at those pearls, those coral bones. Is this the stuff I came from? How many of his sins belong also to me? How much of his punishment?
Rachel seems incapable of remorse, but she is not. She wears those pale white eyes around her neck so she can look in every direction and ward off the attack. Leah took it all-bones, teeth, scalp-and knitted herself something like a hair shirt. Mother’s fabrication is so elaborate I can hardly describe it. It occupies so much space in her house she must step carefully around it in the dark.
Having served enough time in Atlanta with her volunteer work, Mother has moved to the Georgia coast, to a hamlet of hoary little brick houses on Sanderling Island. But she carried the sunken treasure along to her little place by the shore. She stays outdoors a lot, I think to escape it. When I go to visit I always find her out in her walled garden with her hands sunk into the mulch, kneading the roots of her camellias. If she isn’t home, I walk down to the end of the historic cobbled street and find her standing on the sea wall in her raincoat and no shoes, glaring at the ocean. Orleanna and Africa at a standoff. The kids flying by on bicycles steer clear of this barefoot old woman in her plastic babushka, but I can tell you she is not deranged. My mother’s sanest position is to wear only the necessary parts of the outfit and leave off the rest. Shoes would interfere with her conversation, for she constantly addresses the ground under her feet. Asking forgiveness. Owning, disowning, recanting, recharting a hateful course of events to make sense of her complicity. We all are, I suppose. Trying to invent our version of the story. All human odes are essentially one. “My life: what I stole from history, and how I live with it.”
Personally I have stolen an arm and a leg. I am still Adah but you would hardly know me now, without my slant. I walk without any noticeable limp. Oddly enough, it has taken me years to accept my new position. I find I no longer have Ada, the mystery of coming and going. Along with my split-body drag I lost my ability to read in the old way. When I open a book, the words sort themselves into narrow-minded single file on the page; the mirror-image poems erase themselves half-formed in my mind. I miss those poems. Sometimes at night, in secret, I still limp purposefully around my apartment, like Mr. Hyde, trying to recover my old ways of seeing and thinking. Like Jekyll I crave that particular darkness curled up within me. Sometimes it almost comes. The books on the shelf rise up in solid lines of singing color, the world drops out, and its hidden shapes snap forward to meet my eyes. But it never lasts. By morning light, the books are all hunched together again with their spines turned out, fossilized, inanimate.
No one else misses Ada. Not even Mother. She seems thoroughly pleased to see the crumpled bird she delivered finally straighten up and fly right.
“But I liked how I was,” I tell her.
“Oh, Adah. I loved you too. I never thought less of you, but I wanted better for you.”
Don’t we have a cheerful, simple morality here in Western Civilization: expect perfection, and revile the missed mark! Adah the Poor Thing, hemiplegious egregious besiege us. Recently it has been decided, grudgingly, that dark skin or lameness may not be entirely one’s fault, but one still ought to show the good manners to act ashamed. When Jesus cured those crippled beggars, didn’t they always get up and dance off stage, jabbing their canes sideways and waggling their top hats? Hooray, all better now, hooray!
If you are whole, you will argue: Why wouldn’t they rejoice? Don’t the poor miserable buggers all want to be like me?
Not necessarily, no. The arrogance of the able-bodied is staggering. Yes, maybe we’d like to be able to get places quickly, and carry things in both hands, but only because we have to keep up with the rest of you, or get The Verse. We would rather be just like us, and have that be all right.
How can I explain that my two unmatched halves used to add up to more than one whole? In Congo I was one-half benduka the crooked walker, and one-half benduka, the sleek bird that dipped in and out of the banks with a crazy ungrace that took your breath. We both had our good points. Here there is no good name for my gift, so it died without a proper ceremony. I am now the good Dr. Price, seeing straight. Conceding to be in my right mind.
And how can I invent my version of the story, without my crooked vision? How is it right to slip free of an old skin and walk away from the scene of the crime? We came, we saw, we took away and we left behind, we must be allowed our anguish and our regrets. Mother keeps wanting to wash herself clean, but she clings to her clay and her dust. Mother is still ruthless. She claims I am her youngest now but she still is clutching her baby. She will put down that burden, I believe, on the day she hears forgiveness from Ruth May herself.
As soon as I came back, I drove down to see her.We sat together on her bony couch -with my photographs of Africa, picking through and laying them out, making a tidepool of shiny color among the seashells on her coffee table.
“Lean’s thin,” I reported, “but she still walks too fast.”
“How is Rachel holding up?”
That is a good question. “In spite of remarkable intervening circumstances,” I said, “if Rachel ever gets back to Bethlehem for a high school reunion she will win the prize for ‘Changed the Least.’“
Mother handled the photos with mostly casual interest, except for the ones that showed my sisters. Over these she paused, for an extremely long time, as if she were listening to small, silent confessions.
Finally I made mine. I told her he had died. She was strangely uncurious about the details, but I gave her most of them anyway.
She sat looking puzzled. “I have some pansies I need to set out,” she said then, and let the screen door bang as she walked out to the back porch. I followed, and found her in her old straw gardening hat, a trowel already in one hand and the flat of pansies balanced in the other. She ducked under the tangled honeysuckle toward the garden path, using her trowel like a machete to hack through some overgrown vines that crowded her jungly little porch. We marched purposefully down her little path to the lettuce bed by the gate, where she knelt in the leaf mold and began punching holes in the ground. I squatted nearby, watching. Her hat had a wide straw brim and a crown completely blown out, as if whatever was in her head had exploded many times.
“Leah says he would have wanted to go that way,” I said. “A blaze of glory.”
“I don’t give a damn what he would have wanted.”
“Oh,” I said. The damp ground soaked the knees of her jeans in large dark patches that spread like bloodstains as she worked.
“Are you sorry he’s dead?”
“Adah, what can it possibly mean to me now?”
Then what are you sorry about?
She lifted seedlings out of the flat, untangling their nets of tender white roots. Her bare hands worked them into the ground, prodding and gentling, as if putting to bed an endless supply of small children. She wiped the tears off both sides of her face with the back of her left hand, leaving dark lines of soil along her cheekbones. To live is to be marked, she said without speaking. To live is to change, to die one hundred deaths. I am a mother.You aren’t, he wasn’t.
“Do you want to forget?”
She paused her work, resting her trowel on her knee, and looked at me. “Are we allowed to remember?”
“Who’s to say we can’t?”.
“Not one woman in Bethlehem ever asked me how Ruth May died. Did you know that?”
“And all those people I worked with in Atlanta, on civil rights and African relief. We never once spoke of my having a crazy evangelist husband still in the Congo somewhere. People knew. But it was embarrassing to them. I guess they thought it was some awful reflection on me.”
“The sins of the father,” I said.
“The sins of the father are not discussed. That’s how it is.” She returned to her business of stabbing the earth.
I know she is right. Even the Congo has tried to slip out of her old flesh, to pretend it isn’t scarred. Congo was a woman in shadows, dark-hearted, moving to a drumbeat. Zaire is a tall young man tossing salt over his shoulder. All the old injuries have been renamed: Kinshasa, Kisangani.There was never a King Leopold, no brash Stanley, bury them, forget.You have nothing to lose but your chains.
But I don’t happen to agree. If chained is where you have been, your arms will always bear marks of the shackles. What you have to lose is your story, your own slant. You’ll look at the scars on your arms and see mere ugliness, or you’ll take great care to look away from them and see nothing. Either way, you have no words for the story of where you came from.
“I’ll discuss it,” I said. “I despised him. He was a despicable man.”
“Well, Adah.You could always call a spade a spade.”
“Do you know when I hated him the most? When he used to make fun of my books. My writing and reading. And when he hit any of us. You especially. I imagined getting the kerosene and burning him up in his bed. I only didn’t because you were in it too.”
She looked up at me from under her hat brim. Her eyes were a wide, hard, granite blue.
“It’s true,” I said. I pictured it clearly. I could smell the cold kerosene and feel it soaking the sheets. I still can.
Then why didn’t you? Both of us together.You might as well have.
Because then you would be free too. And I didn’t want that. I wanted you to remember what he did to us.
Tall and straight I may appear, but I will always be Ada inside. A crooked little person trying to tell the truth. The power is in the balance: we are our injuries, as much as we are our successes.
Leah Price Ngemba
KIMVULA DISTRICT, ZAIRE 1986
I HAVE FOUR SONS, all named for men we lost to war: Pascal, Patrice, Martin-Lothaire, and Nataniel.
‘Taniel is our miracle. He was born last year, a month early, after his long, bumpy upside-down ride in the Land Rover that moved our family from Kinshasa to the farm in Kimvula District. We were still ten kilometers from the village when my chronic backache spread to a deep, rock-hard contraction across my lower belly, and I understood with horror that I was in labor. I got out and walked very slowly behind the truck, to subdue my panic. Anatole must have been worried sick by my bizarre conduct, but it’s no use arguing with a woman in labor, so he got out and walked with me while the boys bickered over who would drive the truck. I can vaguely recall its twin red taillights ahead of us on the dark jungle road, bumping along tediously, and the false starts of an afternoon thundershower. After a while, without saying anything, I went to the side of the road and lay down on a pile of damp leaves between the tall, buttressed roots of a kapok tree. Anatole knelt next to my head and stroked my hair.
“You should get up. It’s dark and damp here, and our clever sons have gone off and left us.”
I raised my head and looked for the truck, which was indeed gone. There was something I needed to explain to Anatole, but I couldn’t be bothered with it at the peak of a contraction. Straight overhead was the tree, with its circle of limbs radiating out from the great, pale trunk. I counted my way around that circle of branches like numbers on the face of a clock, slowly, one deep breath for each number. Seventeen. A very long minute, maybe an hour. The contraction subsided.
“Anatole,” I said. “I mean to have this baby right here and now.” “Oh, Beene.You have never had any patience at all.” The boys drove on for some time before stopping and backing up, by the grace of God and Martin-Lothaire. He’d lost the argument about driving and was pouting out the back window when it dawned on him to shout for his brother to stop: “Wait, wait, Mama must be having the baby!”
Anatole threw things around madly in the truck before finding an elephant-grass mat and some shirts (at least we had with us everything we owned, and it was clean). He made me sit up so he could tuck these things under me. I don’t remember it. I only remember my thighs tensing and my pelvis arching forward with that sudden thunderous urge that is so much more powerful than any other human craving-the need to push. I heard a roar, which I suppose was me, and then Nataniel was here with us, bloodying a clean white shirt of Anatole’s and an old, soft pagne printed with yellow birds.
Anatole did a laughing, backward-hopping dance of congratulation. It wasn’t yet quite a year since his release from Camp Hardy, and he was sympathetic to his son’s eager escape from solitary confinement. But the baby was weak. Anatole immediately settled down to driving us anxiously through the dark while I curled around our suckling boy in the backseat, alarmed to see he wasn’t even that-he couldn’t nurse. By the time we arrived in Kimvula he felt feverish. From there he wasted very quickly to a lethargic little bundle of skin-covered bones and a gaunt, skin-covered skull. He didn’t even cry. The next many days and nights ran together for me because I was terrified to put him down at all, or even to fall asleep holding him, for fear he’d slip away. Anatole and I took turns rocking his limp little body, talking to him, trying to coax him into the world of the living. Martin insisted on taking his turn, too, rocking and whispering boy secrets into the little printed blanket. But Nataniel was hard to convince. Twice he stopped breathing altogether. Anatole blew into his mouth and massaged his chest until he gasped faintly and came back.
After a week he began to eat, and now seems to have no regrets about his decision to stay with us. But during that terrible first week of his life I was racked with the miseries of a weak, sore body and a lost soul. I could recollect having promised some God or other, more than once, that if I could only have Anatole back I would never ask for another thing on this earth. Now here I was, banging on heaven’s door again. A desolate banging, from a girl who could count the years since she felt any real presence on the other side of that door.
One night as I sat on the floor rocking, sleepless, deranged by exhaustion, cradling this innocent wreck of a baby, I just started to talk out loud. I talked to the fire: “Fire, fire, fire, please keep him warm, eat all the wood you need and I’ll get more but just don’t go out, keep this little body I already love so much from going cold!” I spoke in English, fairly certain I’d gone mad entirely. I spoke to the moon outside and the trees, to the sleeping bodies of Anatole and Patrice and Martin, and finally to the kettle of boiled, sterile water and tiny dropper I was using to keep the baby from dehydrating. Suddenly I had a fully formed memory of my mother kneeling and talking-praying, I believe-to a bottle of antibiotics when Ruth May was so sick. I could actually hear Mother’s breath and her words. I could picture her face very clearly, and feel her arms around me. Mother and I prayed together to whatever it is that we have. This was enough.
If God is someone who thinks of me at all, he must think of me as a mother. Scraping fiercely for food and shelter, mad entirely for love, by definition. My boys all cry,”Sala mbote!” as they run out the door, away from my shelter and advice but never escaping my love.
Pascal has gone farthest-for two years he’s been in Luanda, where he studies petroleum engineering and, I sincerely believe, chases girls. He reminds me so much of his namesake, my old friend, with similar wide-set eyes and the same cheerful question breaking like a fresh egg upon every new day: “Beta nki tutasala? What are we doing?”
Patrice is just the opposite: studious, sober, and an exact physical copy of his father. He wants to study government and be a Minister of Justice in a very different Africa from this one. I go weak in the knees with dread and admiration, watching him sharpen his hopes. But it’s Martin-Lothaire who’s turning out to be the darkest of my sons, in complexion and temperament. At twelve, he broods, and writes poetry in a journal like his father’s hero Agostinho Neto. He reminds me of his Aunt Adah.
Here in Kimvula District we’re working with farmers on a soybean project, trying to establish a cooperative-a tiny outpost of reasonable sustenance in the belly of Mobutu s beast. It’s futile, probably. If the government catches wind of any success here, the Minister of Agriculture will rob us out of existence. So we quietly plant our hopes out here in the jungle, just a few kilometers from the Angolan border, at the end of an awful road where Mobutu’s spies won’t often risk their fancy cars.
We count our small successes from day to day. Anatole has reorganized the secondary school, which had been in pure collapse for ten years-hardly a young adult in Kimvula village can read. I’m busy with my ravenous Taniel, who nurses night and day, riding in his sling on one side or the other so he won’t have to pause while I boil his diapers. Patrice and Martin have been commandeered by their father to teach French and mathematics respectively, even though this puts Martin in charge of children older than himself. Myself, I’m just happy to be living among fruit trees and cooking with wood again. I don’t mind the satisfying exhaustions of carrying wood and water. It’s the other exhaustion I hate, the endless news of Mobutu’s excesses and the costs of long-term deprivation. People here are instinctively more fearful and less generous than they were twenty years ago in Kilanga. Neighbor women do still come calling to offer little gifts, a hand of bananas or an orange for the baby to suck on and make us laugh at his puckery face. But their eyes narrow as they look around the room. Never having known a white person before, they assume I must know Mobutu and all important Americans personally. In spite of my protests, I think they worry I’ll report to someone that they had an orange to spare. There’s nothing like living as a refugee in one’s own country to turn a generous soul into a hard little fist. Zaireans are tired to death, you can see it anywhere you look.
Our house here is mud and thatch, plenty large, with two rooms and a kitchen shed. A happier place, for sure, than the tin-and-cement box that packaged us up with all our griefs in Kinshasa. There, the cranky indoor plumbing constantly grumbled at us like God to Noah, threatening the deluge, and Anatole swore if he lived through ten thousand mornings in Kinshasa he would never get used to defecating in the center of his home. Honestly, a latrine does seem like a return to civilization.
But our life in this village feels provisional. We have one foot over the border into the promised land, or possibly the grave. Our plan is to pack up our truck again and drive from here to Sanza Pombo, Angola, as soon as we possibly can.There we’ll keep our hands busy in a new, independent nation, whose hopes coincide with our own. We’ve been leaning toward Angola for ten years now-Anatole had a chance to serve in the new government there in 1975, right after the treaty that gave Neto the presidency. But Anatole wasn’t yet ready to abandon the Congo. And then Neto died, too young. In 1982 another invitation came from the second President, Jose dos Santos. Anatole was prevented from accepting that post by the inconvenience of living in a two-meter-square room with a bucket of his excrement for company in the Thysville penitentiary.
I don’t believe Anatole has many regrets, but he would have been proud to work with Neto or dos Santos. Thanks to those remarkable men, plus others uncounted who died on the way, Angola has wrested itself free of Portugal and still owns its diamonds and oil wells. The industry of Angolans doesn’t subsidize foreigners, or any castles “with moats, and their children are likely to get vaccinations and learn to read. They’re still desperately poor, of course. They kept their diamonds and oil at a horrific cost. None of us predicted “what came to pass there. Least of all Neto, the young doctor-poet who just meant to spare his people from the scarring diseases of smallpox and humiliation. He went to the U.S. looking for help and was shown the door. So he came home to try to knock down Portuguese rule on his own and create a people’s Angola. Then he got some attention from the Americans. For now he was a Communist devil.
Ten years ago, when Anatole received that first letter stamped with the new, official seal of the Presidency of Independent Angola, it looked like dreams could come true. After six hundred years of their own strife and a few centuries of Portuguese villainy, the warring tribes of Angola had finally agreed to a peace plan. Agostinho Neto was President, in an African nation truly free of foreign rule. We so nearly packed up and went, that very day. We were desperate to move our sons to a place where they could taste hope, at least, if not food.
But within two weeks of the peace agreement, the United States violated it. They airlifted a huge shipment of guns to an opposition leader, who vowed personally to murder Neto. On the day we heard this I sat sobbing in our kitchen, flattened with shame and rage. Patrice came and sat on the floor by my chair, patting my leg with a little boy’s solemn endurance. “Mama, Mama, ne pleure pas. Ce n’est pas de la faute de Grand-mere, Mama.” It didn’t even occur to him to connect me with American disgrace; he thought I was angry at Mother and Adah. He looked up at me with his narrow little face and almond eyes and there was his father years and years and years ago saying, “Not you,Beene.”
But who, if not me, and for how many generations must we be forgiven by our children? Murdering Lumumba, keeping Mobutu in power, starting it all over again in Angola-these sound like plots between men but they are betrayals, by men, of children. It’s thirty million dollars, Anatole told me recently, that the U.S. has now spent trying to bring down Angola’s sovereignty. Every dollar of it had to come from some person, a man or woman. How does this happen? They think of it as commerce, I suppose. A matter of hardware, the plastic explosives and land mines one needs to do the job. Or it’s a commerce of imagined dreads, the Bethlehem housewives somehow convinced that a distant, black Communist devil will cost them some quarter in their color-matched living rooms.
But what could it possibly have mattered to them that, after the broken treaty and Neto’s desperate plea for help, the Cubans were the only ones to answer it? We cheered, the boys and Anatole and our neighbors all jumping and screaming in our yard, when the radio said the planes had come into Luanda. There were teachers and nurses on board, with boxes of smallpox vaccine. We imagined them liberating Angola and marching right on up the Congo River to vaccinate us all!
Rachel informs me I’ve had my brains washed by a Communist plot. She’s exactly right. I’ve been won to the side of schoolteachers and nurses, and lost all allegiance to plastic explosives. No homeland I can claim as mine would blow up a struggling, distant country’s hydroelectric dams and water pipes, inventing darkness and dysentery in the service of its ideals, and bury mines in every Angolan road that connected food with a hungry child. We’ve watched this war with our hearts in our throats, knowing what there is to lose. Another Congo. Another wasted chance running like poisoned water under Africa, curling our souls into fists.
But with nothing else to hope for, we lean toward Angola, waiting, while the past grows heavy and our future narrows down to a crack in the door. We’re poised on the border with everything we might need for an eventual destiny assembled around us. We have cots, the table and chairs we acquired in Kinshasa, a collection of agriculture books and teaching tools from Bikoki, my ancient suitcase of family treasures salvaged from Kilanga. Anatole has even kept the globe I gave him for a wedding present, painted by my own hand on a calabash while the nuns prayed their novenas. Their
weird library had St. Exupery but nothing so secular as an atlas of the world, so I had to work from memory. Later my sons set upon it like apprentice palm readers, trying to divine the fate of their -world from the lengths and curves of its rivers. Miraculously it survives the humidity and our moves, with only a few unwarranted archipelagos of gray mold dotting its oceans. Anatole cherishes it, and the astonishing fact that I was the first to tell him the shape of our world. But when I see it on his table I’m taken aback by what I overlooked at age eighteen: the Caspian Sea, for example. The Urals, Balkans, Pyrenees-whole mountain ranges vanished under my negligence. But the Congo is exactly the right shape and size, in relation to Europe and the Americas. Already I was determined, I guess, to give Africa a fair shake.
We are all still the children we were, with plans we keep secret, even from ourselves. Anatole’s, I think, is to outlive Mobutu and come back here when we can stand on this soil and say “home” without the taste of gold-leaf chandeliers and starvation burning bitter on the backs of our tongues. And mine, I think, is to leave my house one day unmarked by whiteness and walk on a compassionate earth with Ruth May beside me, bearing me no grudge. Maybe I’ll never get over my grappling for balance, never stop believing life is going to be fair, the minute we can clear up all these mistakes of the temporarily misguided. Like the malaria I’ve never shaken off, it’s in my blood. I anticipate rewards for goodness, and wait for the ax of punishment to fall upon evil, in spite of the years I’ve rocked in this cradle of rewarded evils and murdered goodness. Just when I start to feel jaded to life as it is, I’ll suddenly wake up in a fever, look out at the world, and gasp at how much has gone wrong that I need to fix. I suppose I loved my father too much to escape being molded to at least some part of his vision.
But the practice of speaking a rich, tonal language to my neighbors has softened his voice in my ear. I hear the undertones now that shimmer under the surface of the words right and wrong. We used to be baffled by Kikongo words with so many different meanings: bangala, for most precious and most insufferable and also poison-wood. That one word brought down Father’s sermons every time, as he ended them all with the shout “Tata Jesus is bangalur.”
Way back then, while Rachel could pull words out of thin air to mean what she pleased, and Ruth May was inventing her own, Adah and I were trying to puzzle out how everything you thought you knew means something different in Africa. We worried over nzolo-it means dearly beloved; or a white grub used for fish bait; or a special fetish against dysentery; or little potatoes. Nzole is the double-sized pagne that wraps around two people at once. Finally I see how these things are related. In a marriage ceremony, husband and wife stand tightly bound by their nzole and hold one another to be the most precious: nzolani.As precious as the first potatoes of the season, small and sweet like Georgia peanuts. Precious as the fattest grubs turned up from the soil, which catch the largest fish. And the fetish most treasured by mothers, against dysentery, contains a particle of all the things invoked by the word nzolo: you must dig and dry the grub and potatoes, bind them with a thread from your wedding cloth, and have them blessed in a fire by the ttganga doctor. Only by life’s best things are your children protected-this much I surely believe. Each of my peanut-brown babies I call my nzolani, and said it with the taste of fish and fire and new potatoes in my mouth. There is no other possibility now.
“Everything you’re sure is right can be wrong in another place. Especially here” I say this frequently, while I’m boiling diapers in the kitchen house and having my imaginary arguments with an absent Rachel. (Which are not so different from arguments with Rachel in person.) She reminds me once again of the Communist threat. I walk outside to dump the water and wave at my neighbor, who’s boiling peanuts in a hubcap. Both of us cower at the sound of tires. It might be the black Mercedes of the casque-bleus, Mobutu’s deputies come to take our measly harvest to help finance another palace. And then it comes to me suddenly, from childhood, my first stammering definition of communism to Anatole: Thej do not fear the Lord, and they think everybody should have the same kind of house.
From where I’m standing, sister, it’s hard to fathom the threat.
I live in a tiny house piled high with boys, potatoes, fetishes and books of science, a wedding cloth, a disintegrating map of the world, an ancient leather suitcase of memories-a growing accumulation of past crowding out our ever-narrowing future. And our waiting is almost over. It’s taken ten years and seems like a miracle, but the Americans are losing in Angola. Their land mines are still all over the country, they take off the leg or the arm of a child every day, and I know what could happen to us if we travel those roads. But in my dreams I still have hope, and in life, no safe retreat. If I have to hop all the way on one foot, damn it, I’ll find a place I can claim as home.