Book Six. SONG OF THE THREE CHILDREN
All that you have brought upon us and all that you have done to us,
You have done injustice… Deliver us in your wonderful way.
SONG OF THE THREE CHILDREN,
Rachel Price THE EQUATORIAL
I AM FOREVER GETTING COMPLIMENTS on my spotless complexion, but let me tell you a little secret. It takes more work than anything in this world to keep yourself well preserved.
Jeez oh man, nothing like turning fifty to make you feel a hundred years old. Not that I was about to put candles on a cake and burn the place down. I got through that day without telling a soul. Now I’ve closed the bar and here I sit with my Lucky Strike and my sandal hanging off my toe and I can always look back on it as just one more day like any other. But it sure gives you something to compensate upon.
Did I ever think I would wind up here getting old? Not on your life. But here I am. I’ve walked off more marriages and close calls than you can shake a stick at, but never got out of the Dark Continent. I have settled down here and gotten to be such a stick-in-the-mud I don’t even like to go out! Last week I was forced to drive down to Brazzaville for the liquor order because I honestly could not find a driver trustworthy to come back with the liquor and car in one piece, but there was a flood on the way and two trees across the road, and when I finally got back here I kissed the floor of the bar. I did, I swear. Mostly I kissed it for still being there, since I still expect every plank of this place to be carried off by my own help during my absence. But so far, so good.
At least I can say that I’m a person who can look around and see what she’s accomplished in this world. Not to boast, hut I have created my own domain. I call the shots. There may be a few little faults in the plumbing and minor discrepancies among the staff, but I’m very confident of my service. I have a little sign in every room telling guests they are expected to complain at the office between the hours of nine and eleven A.M. daily. And do I hear a peep? No. I run a tight ship. That is one thing I have to be proud of. And number two, I’m making a killing. Three, there’s no time to get lonely. Like I said, same old face in the mirror, fifty years old and she doesn’t look a day over ninety. Ha, ha.
Do I ever think about the life I missed in the good old U.S.A.?
Practically every day, would be my answer. Oh, goodness, the parties, the cars, the music-the whole carefree American way of life. I’ve missed being a part of something you could really believe in. When we finally got TV here, for a long while they ran Dick Clark and the American Bandstand every afternoon at four o’clock. I’d lock up the bar, make myself a double Singapore Sling, settle down “with a paper fan and practically swoon with grief. I know how to do those hairstyles. I really could have been something in America.
Then why not go back? Well, now it’s too late, of course. I have responsibilities. First there was one husband and then another to tie me down, and then the Equatorial, which isn’t just a hotel, it’s like running a whole little country, where everybody wants to run off with a piece for themselves the minute you turn your back. The very idea of my things being scattered over hill and down dale through the jungle, my expensive French pressure cooker all charred to tarnation boiling manioc over some stinky fire, and my nice chrome countertops ending up as the roof of somebody’s shack? No thank you! I can’t bear the thought. You make something, seems like, and spend the rest of your days toiling so it won’t go all unraveled. One thing leads to another, then you’re mired in.
Years ago, when things first started going sour with Axelroot, that was probably when I should have gone home. I didn’t have anything invested in Africa yet but a little old apartment boudoir decorated to the best of my abilities in blush pink. Right then I could have tried to talk him into moving back to Texas, where he supposedly had some kind of ties, according to his passport, which turned out to be almost entirely false. Better yet, I could have gone by myself. Hell’s bells! I could have sashayed out the door without so much as a howdy-do, since technically speaking we were only married in the Biblical sense. Even back then I knew some gentlemen in high places that could have helped me scrounge up the plane fare, and then before you could say Jack Robinson Crusoe I’d have been back in Bethlehem, sharing a shack with Mother and Adah with my tail between my legs. Oh, sure, I’d have to hear them say I told you so about Axelroot. But I have swallowed my pride before, that’s for sure. I’ve done it so many times I am practically lined with my mistakes on the inside like a bad-wallpapered bathroom.
I had my bags packed more than once. But when push came to shove I was always afraid. Of “what? Well, it’s hard to explain. Scared I wouldn’t be able to fit back in is the long and short of it. I “was only nineteen or twenty at that time. My high school friends would still have been “whining over boyfriends and fighting for carhop jobs at the A amp;W Their idea of a dog-eat-dog world was Beauty School. And now here comes Rachel “with stained hair and one dead sister and a whole darn marriage behind her already, not to mention hell and high water. Not to mention the Congo. My long tramp through the mud left me tuckered out and just too worldly- wise to go along with the teen scene.
“What “was it like over there?” I could just heir them asking. What would I say? “Well, the ants nearly ate us alive. Everybody we knew kept turning up dead of one disease and another.The babies all got diarrhea and plumb dried up. When we got hungry we’d go shoot animals and strip off their hides.”
Let’s face it, I could never have been popular again at home. The people I’d always chummed around with “would stop speaking to you if they so much as suspected you’d ever gone joo behind a bush. If I wanted to fit in I’d have to pretend, and I’m no good at play-acting. Leah could always do that – she’d take the high road to please Father, or her teachers, or God, or maybe just to prove she could do it. And Adah of course play-acted at not talking for years and years, merely to be ornery. But if it was me, I’d never remember who I was trying to be. Before the day was out I’d forget, and blurt out my own true feelings.
This is off the subject but do you know who I always really felt for? Those soldier boys that went back to the States after Vietnam. I read about that. Everybody was crying, “Peace, brother! “And here they’d been in the jungle watching fungus eat up the dead bodies. I know just how they felt.
Personally, I didn’t need that. I’m the type of person where you just never look back. And I have become a success in my own right. I’ve had opportunities as a woman of the world. An ambassador’s wife-imagine that! Those girls back in Bethlehem must be getting old and gray, still loading their Maytags and running after their kids or even grandkids by now and still -wishing they were Brigitte Bardot, whereas I have actually been in the Foreign Service.
I never was able to have children. That is one thing I do regret. I have had very bad female problems on account of an infection I contracted from Eeben Axelroot. Like I said, I paid my price with him.
There is never a dull moment here at the Equatorial, though. Who needs children when you have monkeys rushing into the dining room to steal the very food off your guests’ plates! This has happened on more than one occasion. Among the variety of animals I keep in cages in the garden I have four monkeys and a bat-eared fox that will escape on the slightest pretense from the boy who cleans out the cages. Into the restaurant they’ll run screaming, the poor fox running for his life but the monkeys all too easily diverted by the sight of some fresh fruit. They’ll even pause to grab a bottle of beer and drink it down! One time I returned from a trip to the market to find my two vervet monkeys, Princess Grace and General Mills, teetering drunk on a table while a group of German coffee-plantation owners sang “Roll Out the Barrel!” Well, I’ll tell you. I tolerate just about any kind of good times my guests wish to have, since that’s how we keep our heads above the water in this business. But I made those German gentlemen pay for the damage.
Every so often a group of fellows will stop by in the afternoon on a sightseeing tour, and receive a mistaken impression of my establishment. This only happens with newcomers who are unfamiliar with the Equatorial. They take one look at me stretched out by the pool with all the keys on a chain around my neck, and one look at my pretty young cooks and chambermaids on their afternoon break, lounging against the patio wall between tie geraniums. And guess what: they’ll take me for the madam of a whorehouse! Believe you me, I give them a piece of my mind. If tliis looks like a house of prostitution to you, I tell them, that just shows the quality of your own moral fiber.
I have to admit, though, it’s funny in a certain way. I am no longer as young as I might have been, but if I do say so, I have never let myself go. I guess I should be flattered if some fellow peeks around the garden wall and thinks he spies Jezebel. Oh, if Father could see me now, wouldn’t he give me The Verse!
I’m afraid all those childhood lessons in holiness slid off me like hot butter off the griddle. I sometimes wonder if dear old Dad is turning in his grave (or whatever he’s in). I’m sure he expected me to grow up as a nice church lady with cute little hits, organizing good deeds. But sometimes life doesn’t give you all that many chances at being good. Not here, anyway. Even Father learned that one the hard way. He came on strong, thinking he’d save the children, and what does he do but lose his own? That’s the lesson, right there. If you take a bunch of practically grown, red-blooded daughters to Africa, don’t you think at least some of them are going to marry or what have you, and end up staying? You can’t just sashay into the jungle aiming to change it all over to the Christian style, without expecting the jungle to change you right back. Oh, I see it time and again with the gentlemen who come through here on business. Some fellow thinks he’s going to be the master of Africa and winds up with his nice European-tailored suit rumpled in a corner and his wits half cracked from the filaires itching under his skin. If it was as easy as they thought it was going to IF, why, they’d be done by now, and Africa would look just like America with more palm trees. Instead, most of it still looks exactly how it did a zillion years ago. Whereas, if you think about it, the Africans are running all over America right now, having riots for their civil rights and predominating the sports and popular-music industries.
From the very first moment I set foot in the Congo, I could see we were not in charge. We got swept up with those people that took us to the church for all their half-naked dancing and goat meat with the hair still on, and I said to myself: this little trip is going to be the ruin of the Price family as we know it. And, boy, was it ever. Father’s mistake, see, was to try to convert the whole entire shebang over into just his exact way of thinking. He always said, “Girls, you choose your path and stick to it and suffer your consequences!” Well. If he’s finally dead now and laid to rest in some African voodoo cemetery, or worse yet eaten up by the wild animals, well, amen. I guess that is about as consequential as it gets.
The way I see Africa, you don’t have to like it but you sure have to admit it’s out there. You have your way of thinking and it has its, and never the train ye shall meet! You just don’t let it influence your mind. If there’s ugly things going on out there, well, you put a good stout lock on your door and check it twice before you go to sleep. You focus on getting your own one little place set up perfect, as I have done, and you’ll see. Other people’s worries do not necessarily have to drag you down.
I amaze myself sometimes at what I have personally been through and still remain in one piece. Sometimes I really do think I owe the secret of my success to that little book I read long ago called How to Survive 101 Calamities. Simple remedies for dire situations, that’s the lesson. In a falling elevator, try to climb up on the person nearby so their body will cushion your landing. Or in a crowded theater when everybody’s hightailing it for the fire exit, stick your elbows hard into the ribs of your neighbors to wedge yourself in, then pick up your feet so you won’t get trampled. That is how people frequently lose their lives in a riot: somebody steps on your heel, then walks right up till you’re flat and they’re standing on you. That’s what you get for trying to stand on your own two feet-you end up getting crushed!
So that’s my advice. Let others do the pushing and shoving, and you just ride along. In the end, the neck you save will be your own. Perhaps I sound un-Christian, but let’s face it, when I step outside
my own little world at night and listen to the sounds out there in the dark, what I feel down in my bones is that this is not a Christian kind of place. This is darkest Africa, where life roars by you like a flood and you grab whatever looks like it will hold you up.
If you ask me, that’s how it is and ever shall be. You stick out your elbows, and hold yourself up.
SANZA POMBO, ANGOLA
ONCE UPON A TIME,” Anatole says in the dark, and I close my eyes and fly away on his stories. It’s almost a shock to be alone together in our bed, practically elderly, after almost thirty years of little elbows and heels and hungry mouths. When Taniel turned ten he abandoned us for a cot of his own, full of rocks that fall out of his pockets. Most boys his age still sleep on the pile of their families, but Taniel was adamant: “My brothers have beds to themselves!” (He doesn’t realize they’ve moved on from solitude-even Martin now at college has a girlfriend.) With his curly head cocked forward bent on keeping up and trying to eat the world in one bite, he takes my breath away. He’s so much like Ruth May.
And in our bed, which Anatole calls the New Republic of Connubia, my husband tells me the history of the world. Usually we start with five hundred years ago, when the Portuguese came poking the nose of their little wooden ship into the mouth of the Congo River. Anatole peers from side to side, pantomiming Portuguese astonishment.
“What did they see?” I always ask, though I already know. They saw Africans. Men and women black as night, strolling in bright sunlight along the riverbanks. But not naked-just the opposite! They wore hats, soft boots, and more layers of exotic skirts and tunics than would seem bearable in the climate. This is the truth. I’ve seen the drawings published by those first adventurers after they hurried back home to Europe. They reported that the Africans lived like kings, even wearing the fabrics of royalty: velvet, damask, and brocade. Their report was only off by a hair; the Kongo people made remarkable textiles by beating the fibrous bark of certain trees, or weaving thread from the raffia palm. From mahogany and ebony they made sculpture and furnished their homes. They smelted and forged iron ore into weapons, plowshares, flutes, and delicate jewelry. The Portuguese marveled at how efficiently the Kingdom of Kongo collected taxes and assembled its court and ministries.There was no written language, but an oral tradition so ardent that when the Catholic fathers fixed letters to the words of Kikongo, its poetry and stories poured into print with the force of a flood. The priests were dismayed to learn the Kongo already had their own Bible. They’d known it by heart for hundreds of years.
Impressed as they were with the Kingdom of Kongo, the Europeans were dismayed to find no commodity agriculture here. All food was consumed very near to where it was grown. And so no cities, no giant plantations, and no roads necessary for transporting produce from the one to the other. The kingdom was held together by thousands of miles of footpaths crossing the forest, with suspension bridges of woven vines swinging quietly over the rivers. I picture it as Anatole describes it: men and women in tiers of velvet skirts, walking noiselessly on a forest path. Sometimes, when I have relapses of my old demon, I lie in the crook of his arm and he comforts me this way, talking to me all night long to stave off the bad dreams. Quinine just barely keeps my malaria in check, and there are resistant strains here now. The fever dreams are always the same, the first warning that I’ll soon be knocked on my back. The old blue hopelessness invades my sleep and I’m crossing the river, looking back at the faces of children begging for food, “Cadeaux! Cadeaux!” But then I wake up in our nation of two, enclosed in our mosquito tent’s slanted planes lit silver by moonlight, and always think of Bulungu, where we first lay together like this. Anatole cradling me into forgiveness, while I rattled and shook with fever. Our marriage has been, for me, a very long convalescence.
Now they are walking home, Beene. With baskets of palm nuts and orchids from the forest. They’re singing. Songs about what?
Oh, everything. The colors of a fish. And how well behaved their children would be if they were all made of wax. I laugh. Who are they? How many? Just a woman and a man on the path. They are married. And their troublesome children aren’t with them? Not yet. They have only been married one week. Oh, I see. So they’re holding hands. Of course.
What does it look like there?
They are close to the river, in a forest that has never been cut down. These trees are a thousand years old. Lizards and little monkeys live their whole lives up above without coming down to the ground. Up in the roof of the world.
But down on the path where we are, it’s dark?
A nice darkness. The kind your eyes can grow to like. It’s mining, but the branches are so thick that only a little mist comes down. New mbika vines are curling up from the ground behind us, where the water pools in our footsteps.
What happens when we come to the river? We’ll cross it, of course.
I laugh. As easy as that! And what if the ferry is stuck without a battery on the other side?
In the Kingdom of Kongo, Beene, no batteries. No trucks, no roads. They declined to invent the wheel because it looked like nothing but trouble in this mud. For crossing the river they have bridges that stretch from one great greenheart tree to another on the opposite bank.
I can see this couple. I know they’re real, that they really lived. They climb up to a platform in the greenheart where the woman pauses for balance, bunches her long skirts into one hand, and prepares to walk out into the brighter light and rain. She touches her hair, which is braided in thick ropes and tied at the back of her neck with little bells. When she’s ready she steps out over the water on the swaying vine-bridge. My heart rushes and then settles into the rhythm of her footsteps along the swinging bridge.
“But what if it’s a huge river,” I asked him once-”like the Congo, which is much broader than the reach of any vine?”
“This is simple,” he said. “Such a river should not be crossed.”
If only a river could go uncrossed, and whatever lay on the other side could live as it pleased, unwitnessed and unchanged. But it didn’t happen that way. The Portuguese peered through the trees and saw that the well-dressed, articulate Kongo did not buy or sell or transport their crops, but merely lived in place and ate what they had, like the beasts of the forest. In spite of poetry and beautiful clothes, such people were surely not fully human-were primitive; that’s a word the Portuguese must have used, to salve their conscience for what was to come. Soon the priests were holding mass baptisms on shore and marching their converts onto ships bound for sugar plantations in Brazil, slaves to the higher god of commodity agriculture.
There is not justice in this world. Father, forgive me -wherever you are, but this world has brought one vile abomination after another down on the heads of the gentle, and I’ll not live to see the meek inherit anything. What there is in this world, I think, is a tendency for human errors to level themselves like water throughout their sphere of influence. That’s pretty much the whole of what I can say, looking back. There’s the possibility of balance. Unbearable burdens that the world somehow does bear with a certain grace.
For ten years now we’ve been living in Angola, on an agricultural station outside of Sanza Pombo. Before independence, the Portuguese had a palm-oil plantation here, cleared out of virgin jungle a half-century ago. Under the surviving oil palms we grow maize, yams, and soybeans, and raise pigs. Every year in the dry season, when travel is possible, our cooperative gains a few new families. Mostly young children and women with their pagnes in tatters, they come soundlessly out of the forest, landing here as lightly as weary butterflies after years of fleeing the war. At first they don’t speak at all. Then after a week or two the women usually begin to talk, very softly but without cease, until they’ve finished the accounting of places and people they’ve lost. Nearly always I learn they’ve made a circular migration in their lifetimes, first having fled their home villages for the city, bluntly facing starvation there, and now returning to this small, remote outpost, where they have some liope of feeding themselves. We manage to produce a little extra palm oil for sale in Luanda, but most of what we grow is consumed here.The cooperative owns a single vehicle, our old Land Rover (which has had such a life it would tell its own history of the “world if it could), but our rains start in September and the road doesn’t become passable again until April. Most of the year, we look at what we have and decide to get along.
We’re not far from the border, and the people of this region look and speak so much as they did in Kilanga I was dumbstruck when we first came here by a sense of childhood returned. I kept expecting someone I knew to come around the corner: Mama Mwanza, Nelson, Tata Boanda in his red trousers, or most eerily, my father. Obviously, the boundary between Congo and Angola is nothing but a line on a map-the Belgians and Portuguese drawing their lots. The ancient Kongo used to stretch across all of central Africa. As a nation it fell, when a million of its healthiest citizens were sold into slavery, but its language and traditions did not. I wake up to the same bubbling mbote! shouted outside the open window of our station house. The women wrap and rewrap their pagnes in the same way, and press the palm-oil harvest in the same kind of contraption that Mama Lo used. Often I hear ghosts: the upward slant of Pascal’s voice in the question Beta nki tutasala? What are we doing?
I don’t hear it often, though. In our village there are very few boys of an age to climb trees for birds’ nests, or girls stomping self-importantly down the road with a sibling clutched sideways like an oversized rag doll. I notice their absence everywhere. The war cost most of its lives among children under ten. That great, quiet void is moving slowly upward through us. A war leaves holes in so much more than the dams and roads that can be rebuilt. I teach classes in nutrition, sanitation, and soybeans, to women who respectfully call me Mania Ngemba and ignore nine-tenths of what I tell them. Our hardest task is teaching people to count on a future: to plant citrus trees, and compost their wastes for fertilizer. This confused me at first. Why should anyone resist something so obvious as planting a fruit tree or improving the soil? But for those who’ve lived as refugees longer than memory, learning to believe in the nutrient cycle requires something close to a religious conversion.
I ought to understand. I’ve been as transient in my adult life as anyone in our cooperative. And only now, after working this same land for ten years, am I coming to understand the length and breadth of outsiders’ failure to impose themselves on Africa. This is not Brussels or Moscow or Macon, Georgia. This is famine or flood.You can’t teach a thing until you’ve learned that. The tropics will intoxicate you with the sweetness of frangipani flowers and lay you down with the sting of a viper, with hardly room to breathe in between. It’s a great shock to souls gently reared in places of moderate clime, hope, and dread.
The Portuguese were so shocked, evidently, that they stripped the gentle Kongo and chained them down in rows, in the dark, for the passage. Condemned for their lack of cash crops. The Europeans couldn’t imagine a reasonable society failing to take that step, and it’s hard for us to imagine even now. In a temperate zone it’s the most natural thing in the world, right as rain, to grow fields of waving grain. To grow them year after year without dread of flood or plague, in soil that offers up green stems that bend to the scythe again and again, bread from a bottomless basket. Christians could invent and believe in the parable of the loaves and fishes, for their farmers can trust in abundance, and ship it to burgeoning cities, where people can afford to spend their lives hardly noticing, or caring, that a seed produces a plant.
Here you know what a seed is for, or you starve. A jungle yields no abundance to feed the multitudes, and supports no leisure class. The soils are fragile red laterite and the rain is savage. Clearing a rain forest to plant annuals is like stripping an animal first of its fur, then its skin. The land howls. Annual crops fly on a wing and a prayer. And even if you manage to get a harvest, why, you need roads to take it out! Take one trip overland here and you’ll know forever that a road in the jungle is a sweet, flat, impossible dream. The soil falls apart. The earth melts into red gashes like the mouths of whales. Fungi and vines throw a blanket over the face of the dead land. It’s simple, really. Central Africa is a rowdy society of flora and fauna that have managed to balance together on a trembling geologic plate for ten million years: when you clear off part of the plate, the whole slides into ruin. Stop clearing, and the balance slowly returns. Maybe in the long run people will persist happily here only if they return to the ways of the ancient Kongo, traveling by foot, growing their food near at hand, using their own tools and cloth near the site of production. I don’t know. To be here without doing everything wrong requires a new agriculture, a. new sort of planning, a new religion. I am the un-missionary, as Adah would say, beginning each day on my knees, asking to be converted. Forgive me, Africa, according to the multitudes of thy mercies.
If I could reach backward somehow to give Father just one gift, it would be the simple human relief of knowing you’ve done wrong, and living through it. Poor Father, who was just one of a million men who never did catch on. He stamped me with a belief injustice, then drenched me in culpability, and I wouldn’t wish such torment even on a mosquito. But that exacting, tyrannical God of his has left me for good. I don’t quite know how to name what crept in to take his place. Some kin to the passion of Brother Fowles, I guess, who advised me to trust in Creation, which is made fresh daily and doesn’t suffer in translation. This God does not work in especially mysterious ways. The sun here rises and sets at six exactly. A caterpillar becomes a butterfly, a bird raises its brood in the forest, and a greenheart tree will only grow from a greenheart seed. He brings drought sometimes, followed by torrential rains, and if these things aren’t always what I had in mind, they aren’t my punishment either. They’re rewards, let’s say, for the patience of a seed. The sins of my fathers are not insignificant. But we keep moving on. As Mother used to say, not a thing stands still but sticks in the mud. I move my hands by day, and by night, when my fever dreams come back and the river is miles below me, I stretch out over the water, making that endless crossing, reaching for balance. I long to wake up, and then I do. I wake up in love, and work my skin to darkness under the equatorial sun. I look at my four boys, who are the colors of silt, loam, dust, and clay, an infinite palette for children of their own, and I understand that time erases whiteness altogether.
A TOAD CAN DIE OF LIGHT! Emily warned us, as she peered out at the street from between her drawn curtains. Death is the common right of Toads and Men. Why swagger, then?
My colleagues in medical school accused me of cynicism but they had no idea. I am a babe in the woods, abandoned at the foot of a tree. On the day I swore to uphold the Hippocratic oath, the small hairs on the back of my neck stood up as I waited for lightning to strike. Who was I, vowing calmly among all these necktied young men to steal life out of nature’s jaws, every old time we got half a chance and a paycheck? That oath never felt safe to me, hanging around my neck with the stethoscope, not for a minute. I could not accept the contract: that every child born human upon this earth comes with a guarantee of perfect health and old age clutched in its small fist.
The loss of a life: unwelcome. Immoral? I don’t know. Depends perhaps on where you are, and what sort of death. Hereabouts, where we sit among such piles of leftover protein we press it into cakes for the pets, who usefully guard our empty chairs; here where we pay soothsayers and acrobats to help lose our weight, then yes, for a child to die from hunger is immoral. But this is just one place. I’m afraid I have seen a world.
In the world, the carrying capacity for humans is limited. History holds all things in the balance, including large hopes and short lives. When Albert Schweitzer walked into the jungle, bless his heart, he carried antibacterials and a potent, altogether new conviction that no one should die young. He meant to save every child, thinking Africa would then learn how to have fewer children. But when families have spent a million years making nine in the hope of saving one, they cannot stop making nine. Culture is a slingshot moved by the force of its past. When the strap lets go, what flies forward will not be family planning, it will be the small, hard head of a child. Overpopulation has deforested three-quarters of Africa, yielding drought, famine, and the probable extinction of all animals most beloved by children and zoos.The competition for resources intensifies, and burgeoning tribes itch to kill each other. For every life saved by vaccination or food relief, one is lost to starvation or war. Poor Africa. No other continent has endured such an unspeakably bizarre combination of foreign thievery and foreign goodwill. Out of sympathy for the Devil and Africa, I left the healing profession. I became a witch doctor. My church is the Great Rift Valley that lies along the eastern boundary of Congo. I do not go there. I merely study the congregation.
This is the story I believe in: When God was a child, the Rift Valley cradled a caldron of bare necessities, and out of it walked the first humans upright on two legs. With their hands free, they took up tools and beat from the bush their own food and shelter and their own fine business of right and wrong. They made voodoo, the earth’s oldest religion. They engaged a powerful affinity with their habitat and their food chain. They worshiped everything living and everything dead, for voodoo embraces death as its company, not its enemy. It honors the balance between loss and salvation. This is what Nelson tried to explain to me once, while we scraped manure from the chicken coop. I could not understand how muntu could refer to a living person or a dead one with equal precision, but Nelson just shrugged.”All that is being here.”
God is everything, then. God is a virus. Believe that, when you get a cold. God is an ant. Believe that, too, for driver ants are possessed, collectively, of the size and influence of a Biblical plague. They pass through forest and valley in columns a hundred meters across and many miles long, eating their way across Africa. Animal an000000d vegetable they take, mineral they leave behind. This is what we learned in Kilanga: move out of the way and praise God for the housecleaning. In a few days the dark brigade will have passed on through-those ants can’t stop moving. You return to find your houses combed spotless of spoiled crumbs, your bedding free of lice, your woodlots cleansed of night soil, your hen coops rid of chicken mites. If by chance a baby was left behind in a crib, or a leopard in a cage, it would be a skeleton without marrow, clean as a whistle. But for those prepared to move aside for a larger passage, it works. Loss and salvation.
Africa has a thousand ways of cleansing itself. Driver ants, Ebola virus, acquired immune deficiency syndrome: all these are brooms devised by nature to sweep a small clearing very well. Not one of them can cross a river by itself. And none can survive past the death of its host. A parasite of humans that extinguished us altogether, you see, would quickly be laid to rest in human graves. So the race between predator and prey remains exquisitely neck and neck.
As a teenager reading African parasitology books in the medical library, I was boggled by the array of creatures equipped to take root upon a human body. I’m boggled still, but with a finer appreciation for the partnership. Back then I was still a bit appalled that God would set down his barefoot boy and girl dollies into an Eden where, presumably, He had just turned loose elephantiasis and microbes that eat the human cornea. Now I understand, God is not just rooting for the dollies. We and our vermin all blossomed together out of the same humid soil in the Great Rift Valley, and so far no one is really winning. Five million years is a long partnership. If you could for a moment rise up out of your own beloved skin and appraise ant, human, and virus as equally resourceful beings, you might admire the accord they have all struck in Africa.
Back in your skin, of course, you’ll shriek for a cure. But remember: air travel, roads, cities, prostitution, the congregation of people for efficient commerce-these are gifts of godspeed to the virus. Gifts of the foreign magi, brought from afar. In the service of saving Africa’s babies and extracting its mineral soul, the West has built a path to its own door and thrown it wide for the plague.
A toad can die of light! Death is the common right of toads and men. Why swagger, then? My colleagues accuse me of cynicism, but I am simply a victim of poetry. I have committed to memory the common rights of toads and men. I could not swagger if I tried. I don’t have the legs for it.
My work is to discover the life histories of viruses, and I seem to be very good at it. I don’t think of the viruses as my work, actually. I think of them as my relations. I don’t have cats or children, I have viruses. I visit them daily in their spacious glass dishes, and like any good mother I cajole, I celebrate when they reproduce, and I take special note when they behave oddly. I think about them when I am not with them. I have made important discoveries about the AIDS and Ebola viruses. As a consequence, I must sometimes appear at public functions where I am lauded as a saviour of the public health. This startles me. I am nothing of the kind. Certainly I’m no mad exterminator bent on killing devil microbes; on the contrary, I admire them. That is the secret of my success.
My life is satisfying and ordinary. I work a great deal, and visit my mother on Sanderling Island once a month. I enjoy my time there, which we mostly pass without speaking. Mother lets me be. We take long walks on the beach, where she watches those namesake shore-birds, the sanderlings, leaving no stone unturned. Sometimes in mid-January when she seems restless we’ll take the ferry and drive up the coast highway, passing through the miles of flat, uninhabited palmetto scrub and the occasional stick shack, where old, dark women sit weaving beautiful sweetgrass baskets. Late in the evening we will sometimes pull into the dirt parking lot of a clapboard praise house and listen to old, dark Gullah hymns rising out the windows. We never go inside. We know our place. Mother keeps her head turned the “whole time toward Africa, with her eye on the ocean, as if she expects it might suddenly drain away.
But on most of my visits we go nowhere. We sit on her porch, or I watch while she works her small jungle, snapping off dead leaves, forking rotted manure into her camellias, talking under her breath. Her apartment is the ground floor of one of those century-old brick boxes with earthquake bolts, remarkable pieces of giant hardware that run right through the building from east to west, capped off on the outside with iron washers the size of end tables. I think of them as running through Mother too. It would take something on this order, really, to hold her together.
She inhabits her world, waiting for forgiveness, while her children are planted in or upon the four different nations that have claimed us. “Lock, stock, and barrel,” she calls us. Rachel is clearly the one with locks on every possible route to defenestration. And Leah barrels forward, setting everything straight. So I am the one who quietly takes stock, I suppose. Believing in all things equally. Believing fundamentally in the right of a plant or a virus to rule the earth. Mother says I have no heart for my own kind. She doesn’t know. I have too much. I know what we have done, and what we deserve.
She still suffers from the effects of several diseases she contracted in the Congo, including schistosomiasis, Guinea worms, and probably tuberculosis. When she sticks out her tongue and allows me to treat her small maladies, I can see that every one of her organs has been compromised in some way. But as the years pass and she bends over more and more, she seems to survive in her narrowing space. She never married again. If anyone asks, she says, “Nathan Price was all the marriage I needed.” I can see this is true. Her body was locked up tight, years ago, by the boundaries of her costly liberty.
I have not married either, for different reasons. The famous upstart neurologist wanted to be my lover, it turned out, and actually won me to his bed for a time. But slowly it dawned upon my love-drunk skull: he had only welcomed me there after devising his program to make me whole! He was the first of several men to suffer the ice storms of Adah, I’m afraid.
This is my test: I imagine them back there in the moonlight with the ground all around us boiling with ants. Now, which one, the crooked walker, or the darling perfection? I know how they would choose. Any man who admires my body now is a traitor to the previous Adah. So there you are.
Sometimes I play chess with one of my colleagues, an anchorite like myself, who suffers from post-polio syndrome. We can pass whole evenings without need for any sentence longer than “Checkmate.” Sometimes we go out to a restaurant in the Atlanta Underground, or see a film at a theater that accommodates his wheelchair. But the racket always overwhelms us. Eros is not so much an eyesore, it turns out, as just too much noise. Afterward we always have to drive out of town toward Sandy Springs or the Chattahoochee, anywhere that is flat and blank and we can park the car in a red dirt road between peanut fields and let moonlight and silence reclaim us. Then I go home by myself and write poems at my kitchen table, like William Carlos Williams. I write about lost sisters and the Great Rift Valley and my barefoot mother glaring at the ocean. All the noise in my brain. I clamp it to the page so it will be still.
I still love to read, of course. I read differently now that I am in my right mind, but I return to old friends. No Snickidy Lime: “This is my letter to the World That never wrote to Me-” What more satisfying lines for a brooding adolescent? But I only saw half, and ignored the other side of the poem: “The simple News that Nature told-With tender Majesty.”At Mother’s house I recently found my dusty Complete Emily Dickinson with its margins littered shockingly by my old palindromes: Evil deed live! croaked that other Adah, and I wonder, Which evil was it, exactly?
Such childhood energy I spent on feeling betrayed. By the world in general, Leah in particular. Betrayal bent me in one direction while guilt bent her the other way. We constructed our lives around a misunderstanding, and if ever I tried to pull it out and fix it now I would fall down flat. Misunderstanding is my cornerstone. It’s everyone’s, come to think of it. Illusions mistaken for truth are the pavement under our feet.They are what we call civilization.
Lately I’ve started collecting old books that are famous for their misprints. There’s a world of irony in it. Bibles, in particular. I’ve never actually seen any of these in original editions, but back in the days when print was scarce, only one printing of the Bible was widespread at any given time, and people knew it by heart. Its mistakes became celebrated. In 1823 when the Old Testament appeared with the verse “And Rebekah arose with her camels”-instead of damsels-it was known as the Camel’s Bible. In 1804, the Lions Bible had sons coming forth from lions instead of loins, and in the Murderers’ Bible of 1801, the complainers in Jude 16 did not murmur, they murdered. In the Standing Fishes Bible, the fishermen must have looked on in such surprise when “the fish stood on the shore all the way from Engedi to Eneglaim.” There are dozens of these: the Treacle Bible, the Bear Bible, the Bug Bible, the Vinegar Bible. In the Sin-On Bible, John 5:14 exhorted the believers not to “sin no more,” but to “sin on more!” Evol’s dog! Dog ho!
I can’t resist these precious Gospels. They lead me to wonder what Bible my father wrote in Africa. We came in stamped with such errors we can never know which ones made a lasting impression. I wonder if they still think of him standing tall before his congregation shouting,”Tata Jesus is bangala!”
I do. I think of him exactly that way. We are the balance of our damage and our transgressions. He was my father. I own half his genes, and all of his history. Believe this: the mistakes are part of the story. I am born of a man who believed he could tell nothing but the truth, while he set down for all time the Poisonwood Bible.