MY DEAR sister Ruth:
I write this letter to you in Sunday twilight shadow, standing at the
wood chopping block under my window. I know I am derelict, not writing, but the heat seeps into my brain, and I gear down expectations. One wakes each morning thinking: I will do this one thing today (whatever that might be)—a far cry from all the busy rushing about we are used to at home.
So what I will do is to write a bit, a few nights, and tacked end to end my bits can make a respectable letter. I suppose part of the idea is that nothing really happens here to make a letter that scintillates, so I am at a bit of a loss. I have not kept a journal, for that reason; maybe this will be something of a substitute.
The walls are plaster and a cool deep blue. In the worst of the heat—you know heat tolerance was never my strong point; you remember those vacations down south to visit Father’s old aunts and how I would sweat and whine, how the aunts had to keep ironing our organdies—I put my cheek against the blue of the wall and let the plaster’s coolness sink to the bone. I wonder how, considering that, I ever wound up here with the Peace Corps, in Africa, in a country whose name seems so provisional, generic, ad hoc: the Central African Republic. Last year I had never heard of here. Now I’m indispensable and wonder how I will ever leave.
Outside the window the twilight parade has begun. Every evening, just as it begins to cool slightly, just when the sun has sunk behind the hill west of the village (there is no word for hill or mountain in the Sango language—did I mention that?—though there are geological formations near here—upthrustings through the earth, cataclysmic-looking, wild—for which I know no better word), the animals come, in a fairytale trail, purposeful, wandering, out of the jungle: first goats, then pigs, then some small, hairy-snouted, round animal whose name I don’t know yet.
We toss out our day’s garbage, onto the bare dark dirt between this hut and the jungle—which begins with a passion just yards from my low compound wall. Mango peels. Skins of bananas. The rinds of the bleeding-flesh melons I love so desperately I wish I could send you a slice pressed between the pages of this letter. Cold rice. None of these can be kept because there is no refrigeration. The animals come, expecting a gorging, and are not disappointed. Food we have here, in great abundance, indeed.
They nibble and snarf, in their proper hierarchical order, as they trail through, and when the last little gray spiky ball of a creature comes through (is it some exotic sort of pig? I don’t know) there is just enough left to sate him (I imagine a small porker-burp as he trails off into the underbrush). The packed-down soil is swept clean magically till tomorrow, the sun is fully gone back of the western non-hill, and the shadows envelop us.
I have decided to read some Victorian things while I’m here, perhaps against my better judgment. (There is too much temptation, you see, to fall into a psychic quasi-para-neo-colonialism, we are treated with such odd reverence; I don’t want to risk or to reinforce that in myself.)
I read Mary Kingsley’s seven-hundred-odd pages of her adventures on the “dark continent”—which is on the contrary literally blindingly bright, most hours, for my light-sensitive blue Irish-ancestor eyes. She was rather superior, that one, if intrepid, slumming among the benighted savages. That took weeks and weeks—all these first weeks that you haven’t heard from me. I suppose I’ve been focusing all the while, trying to scope out the edges of what I see so I can write about all this to you. Now I’m preparing to read Eliot’s Middlemarch.
There are two other volunteers here with me, more your typical volunteers, in their twenties, fresh-faced, not long done with college. Dexter Eliot is the boy. No doubt he’ll have several remarks to make about the name on the spine when I start reading good George’s book. He’s well-read and will no doubt claim her as a relative, despite everything. He is a ready one with the quips. I have the sense he prepares them, to pull out of his sleeve to please me, like scarves or small rabbits, as if I were mother or teacher, not simply Aurelia, “the old one.” Mary Corning is the girl. I have to call them “boy” and “girl” because they seem that to me. They are each twenty-five or so. (I suppose I sound as if I were speaking of them as twins. I’m not.)
They call themselves Dex and Corning. They live on two sides of a hut whose wall-plaster is painted pink as gum-flesh. Mary Corning played rugby in school and has muscles, tanned, sinewy, formidable arms; I have no doubt she has been called a little dyke in her time and not liked it. My guess is that she is quite straight, and quite the romantic, and has her eye on Mr. Eliot…who in turn has his eye on himself and some memoir I think he may write about all this and publish on his return…. He is a natural beauty and seems to know it…yet I think he is unaware that Corning is breathy with longing for him.
Dexter Eliot teaches mathematics and science and English in the village school. Mary Corning had some sort of training in agriculture…about as much as I have had in medicine—which is to say, barely none—but we are the foreign experts here to give them our expertise.
Again, the heat. I had intended to write last night, but young Mr. Dexter E. came visiting just after dinner. Flirting, I think. Though I am I suppose technically a ghost, for a decade and a half now—the life expectancy here is forty-one—there is something attractive about being played to by such a young man—the toss of the forelock, the look from the innocent blue of the eyes underneath lids theatrically at half-mast, saying something like, “I know that you are a woman who’s lived”—even if it is only for his own ego’s sake.
In point of fact, he knows nothing about me except Lowell’s death. He seems fascinated by the notion that anyone should contract cancer in such a site as the arm. I guess I remember that reaction in myself at first when L’s doctor called me in. I recall thinking that cancer-death was a dark thing, that something as independent and exposed to air and light as an arm is ought to be invulnerable.
Somehow he was even more fascinated that after the amputation it was discovered that the damned thing had metastasized. “Dived deep and killed him,” said Dexter, with great relish at his own metaphor making. There was a disconnectedness to that that bothered me, a detachment, almost as if he had fallen in love with Lowell’s death and was not remembering that, here before him (the long brown hair Lowell loved gone to gray and cut short like an old woman’s), I was the widow who mourned him.
I am not sure what Dexter is doing here. I have the sense, simultaneously, that he cares about these people and that they are merely shiny dark mysteriously animated artifacts in the museum—or peepshow?—of his life. He does not believe in God, with that arrogant self-righteous passion of the young; he in fact does not seem to believe in death, at least for himself, though I think that he may fear death much more than most.
He is testing the limits of things, he thinks; actually, here in the jungle, he’s playing it safe. And yet what am I doing, that I have the right to be judging and criticizing? Escaping, mourning, remembering, making amends, learning, playing at doctoring something I can’t really name, marking time till I die?
Dexter Eliot brought in a bottle of brandy last night and we each had a couple. He got very talkative. All his talk is of things outside himself, the things he knows and wants to know (including everyone’s personal lives), to keep the talk away from the subject of himself. A peculiar arrogance, self-protection in the extreme.
He got to talking about an explorer—actually, more accurately, a hunter—named Frederick Selous, whose exploits he seems to have admired. He had had two brandies and felt impelled to rush back to his hut to bring over a book with a portrait of the man, who looked uncannily like Dexter himself: rather fair, handsomely even-featured, and posed in a nineteenth-century photographer’s studio—with a jungle backdrop and sitting on a fallen tree-trunk—with his rifle and an amused half-grin, half-smirk. Here was this young man, Dexter, idealist, ambassador of peace, going on and on to me about Selous’s amazing feat of the killing of seventy-eight elephants his first three years in Africa.
The contradiction was so great that I could not really say anything about it. I just listened. (The elephants are much reduced here, of course, though not gone; and there is a profusion of other wildlife. I suppose we are one of the world’s richer areas in that respect.) When he mentioned the elephants, my mind flashed quickly to Father’s chess set that he kept on the dining-room sideboard: do you remember? One set of chess pieces was tooth-colored ivory; one was stained red.
Do you remember that obnoxious boy-cousin visiting from St. Louis—whose name I can’t remember—telling us that “the pink team,” from king to pawn, had been colored with human blood, soaked in a vat full of natives’ blood that they gave willingly, freely, as if it were urine or sweat, and replaceable? He was a horrid boy. Stuffed his underwear into my pillowcase one night, as smelly as that. He probably became a lawyer.
That chess set had been Father’s father’s. If you calculate when it might have been made, and think Selous was in Africa from the 1870s to the 90s, perhaps Selous’s sacrificed pachyderms gave their tusks so Father might teach us chess, which I detested anyway. The mere thought makes my eyebrows ache.
I am not sure what this Dexter Eliot finds so attractive in Frederick Selous. But his visiting rouses strange feelings in me. It makes me remember my loneliness, which I can forget when I am alone.
Dexter said, when he went back for the book with Selous’s picture, that Mary Corning stuck her head out of her door and asked where he was going. “Inviting herself, perhaps?” he said, rather cruelly.
I said we could certainly have asked her in. I said I thought she was quite a nice girl, very hardy and bright. We had had three brandies now.
“She has a mustache,” he said. “Have you ever noticed? When she stands in front of the light, you can see golden hairs out this far.” He put his own fingers up to his lips, halfway out to the tip of his nose.
“Oh, shush,” I said. I thought there was something odd, sensual, about the way he said “golden.”
“Her hands are so square,” Dexter said. “Like a man’s.”
I imagined this rugby gal slipping her perfectly nice, actually rather nunnish, square man-hands inside this arrogant gentleman’s bush-shorts’ button-fly. Excuse me, but I’ve noted already that I’d had three brandies. In my mind an imagined silhouette of the two of them was backlit by one of our odd cottage lanterns, its light glinting off her perfectly fine near-invisible mustache. I caught myself quickly, as if Dexter Eliot could read my thoughts, and made an interior sign of the cross, reviling my prurience.
“Go home, Dexter,” I said. “Morning comes early.” I added, “We have had too much to drink,” as if to explain away his unsolicited comments about Mary Corning, though perhaps more to explain my thoughts he had not seen.
I thought of the momentary flap in the village when I first arrived: an owl had landed on the roof of my hut the day I moved in, sober and spooky, and there was some serious discussion as to whether this meant I was a witch. Am I?
Well, this is getting to be a substantial letter, isn’t it? And yet I haven’t said anything.
A friend of mine from the sixties who went abroad for an extended period told me that on her return friends told her they’d kept her letters, and gave them back to her as a sort of journal. Perhaps if I read this sometime in the future I will be surprised at what I was thinking
The native men here wear amazing clothes: though the heat reaches a hundred and more—after all, this was once French Equatorial Africa—they insist on taking their rather substantial profits (from their peanut crops, mostly) and investing them in dark green or black polyester leisure suits such as you might have seen in America in the seventies. The sweat gleams on their brows and their arms, and their teeth gleam white in their dark faces. So handsome, so comic, so hot.
The other day I posed for a photograph with my sentinelle—I am essentially mandated by noblesse oblige or something similar to plow some of my enormous wage back into the local economy, to hire a sentinelle to guard my house for me, whether or not I feel the need of being guarded. My pay is so small, actually, but my sentinelle’s wage is a pittance, even here.
We stood by an unearthly huge bush with a gargantuan red flower next to our two faces, his dark and mine ever-pale. The next time I go into Bangui—the big city—I’ll have it developed and send you a copy. I’m sure it will be rather stunning.
His name is John Chrysostom, the saint’s name given him by a French missionary who was here several years ago and baptized him. My skin crawls at this. I think of the good sisters drilling us, back in school, in the necessity of praying for these poor heathen souls. Heathens, I think—and I do not mean atheists like Mr. Eliot—must be closer to God than such priests, who seem closer (to me) to US infantry patrol-leaders out toting up body-counts, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.
Mary Corning has been trying to be friendly to me, rather reticently, seeming to feel as if she were intruding on my “established” relationship with Dexter Eliot. I have an impulse to slap him. Her so-called mustache is quite nice, and I like to see her out playing these childish hand-clapping games with the children. She has strong shoulders and anti-gravity breasts. Her T-shirts tend to cling to her in the heat. Dexter must notice. And I suppose I am no more than an old voyeur, seeing the girl’s nipples rise against her cotton shirt and wishing Mr. Eliot might look that way at that moment and be delighted (and that he might blush in self-awareness, well-shamed for his crude comments).
The priest came this morning and we had mass. This area being French, many natives are Catholic. The intermingling of the sensuousness of Catholicism and African-ness is appallingly lush. The Gospel was about Jesus at the start of his ministry, when the Nazarenes saw him as merely a neighbor, an apprentice carpenter, someone whose parents, whose childhood foibles and escapades they knew, and pooh-poohed him. I remember this part.
But I did not remember the part where it says something like because the people did not have enough faith, Jesus could not work many miracles there. That struck me: Jesus could not work many miracles. What then can be expected of us mere mortals? I wonder about faith and miracles: is it a miracle that I am here at all, is it an act of faith? What am I meant to do?
What do I do, you ask? This afternoon I dispensed vitamin tablets sent by pharmaceutical companies in many thousands of tiny sample packs that the people love to open, as if each were a magic pod, and dressed some children’s sores, and started a woman (who had badly burned her hand cooking cassava) on a course of antibiotics, also sent in small single-dose vials by companies back home. I hope they are not discards the FDA has just proven to be ineffective—or, worse, dangerous. It has happened. Do you remember when Dalkon Shields were under such attack and we were sending them to the Third World by the ton? Perforating the wombs of the poor in the name of compassion.
Mary Corning and I walked outside the village last night, Chrysostom trailing close behind, pretending discreetly not to listen to our conversation or to care. He carried a large stick to chase away snakes, having failed to dissuade us from our intent to go meandering.
We were heading for the hill (for which, I repeat, there is no word in Sango, as if it were not there, as if it were illusion). I wanted to climb it and see what the African stars look like. We are so thoroughly fenced-in and roofed-over with trees that I never see the stars. I imagine the constellations here are ones I have never seen, and in my naïveté I go further, thinking that when I see them I’ll know what they are, as if the connecting lines of star charts would be drawn on the black sky and I would see mythic figures there. There are ways in which this experience makes one feel like a child.
We were walking along in bright moonlight, the hill ahead down a straight path. Mary Corning had just been telling me that she hoped to go to graduate school on her return to the US, and now she was asking me whether I thought Dexter Eliot was handsome, whether I thought he was shallow, whether I thought he was sincere.
I said yes, yes, and yes. She laughed. “Clearly handsome, a shallow sincerity,” I said. She laughed again, hearty and friendly. She said she had noticed that he visited with me. She did not say she felt left out. She did not say she lay in her cot at night thinking of him. I did not volunteer prying questions.
Suddenly, out of the trees, just yards in front of us, a low shadow leapt into the path. Chrysostom made a sound like chsss at the back of his throat. Mary Corning’s eyes turned to me, mine to her. It was a leopard. We could see the spots in the moonlight, amazing and rich. We were frozen.
There is something about mortal danger that sets the senses coursing: I was observing the beauty, the sheen of the moonlight, on the great cat’s silken fur—the light itself like thin milk or the inside of an ocean shell, the stark definition of the small hairs of the fur breaking the smoothness. It was amazing to be able to see that from such a distance, almost as though it were the last thing I would ever see, and I wanted to take it all in, as if the nearness of death had made my eyes sharp as that very feline’s. Those leopard eyes were fixed on us, hypnotic, lit.
Suddenly its muscles rippled beneath that fur and it was gone again, silently, into the dense trees.
Chsss, said John Chrysostom once more.
“I think we’ll go back,” I said to him, amazed at the calm in my own voice, amazed that I had a voice. We turned, as one.
“I say please do not come but you want to come so we come,” Chrysostom said to me in the most peculiar tone of voice. “You my mistress, smart woman, my job to protect you.”
“Oh, John,” was all I could say. My mind raced. I thought: what must I be thinking, here in the jungle, imagining there were not creatures out here in the night? I had not heard of anyone encountering a big cat. I don’t know what I thought: that they followed a schedule, were tamed, what?
As if reading my thoughts, he said, “You not hear of big cat because everyone know, stay in village.” He seemed to have no real opinion as to whether I was intrepid or hopelessly stupid. He just did his job.
There are refugees here, from all sides, and they seem to have been torn loose from their cultures in a raw way that leaves a keloid scar: they won’t get their cultures back. Only the nomads seem to have a sense of themselves as a people. They come through herding their skinny goats, and they move on.
I had a gift from a little girl today, a village girl whose mother I treated for milk fever. She brought me a collage, pasted on a piece of strange paper with some published text in French on its reverse.
The little girl had made a drawing of a woman’s face, at the center—literally I suppose a “bust,” because she had drawn great maternal breasts there, with inky black areolas. The woman was surrounded by butterfly wings glued in an intricate pattern. I wasn’t sure who it represented. The butterfly wings were every color—this place is a butterfly maven’s dream—from deep gold to sky blue and bright scarlet, in intricate patterns. The effect was amazing.
She pointed over her shoulder, out the door, to the open place—just packed dirt, not exactly a village square—where the priest had set up two days ago for mass. “Holy God,” she said, with her wonderful somber onyx vowels.
I thought of three pictures the priest had set about on chairs, as if to create a feeling of church: A sentimental pastel greeting-card type of painting of the Blessed Virgin Mary. A reproduction of a Greek icon showing Christ as a pelican, feeding the world from the blood of his breast. A dove in quilt-batting-like clouds.
“Mother Mary?” I suggested.
She frowned, as if I were dense. “Holy God,” she corrected me.
Each word sounded as if it were played on some wonderful flute made of fragrant dark African wood. I had no reply. I thought that perhaps she was right, and that God might be more like a woman—dark-nippled and nursing, unable (because of the rules he had made at the outset) to hold back the horrors that life brought, but never deserting. Much smaller and weaker than damned Michelangelo’s phallic and massive-thighed God.
I thought that if we could see through things, God might wear a multi-hued crazy corolla of butterflies.
I hugged her a bit, not too much. I could feel her small bones in her cool dark little-girl body, tight and resisting. My American arm spanned her small frame from shoulder to buttocks: her shoulders were birdlike, her buttocks surprisingly round. I nodded, to answer her, and to agree, “Holy God.” I could hear somber onyx, as if I were catching the accent, a viral vowel-torque.
This afternoon another child, her friend, brought me her blind uncle, leading him, pulling him, to my hut. He had not seen anything since his youth. He has what they call river blindness, which comes from mosquitoes and flies that breed in open sewers, or rivers with excrement.
She said, “Miss make him see?”
I said, no, I could not. But I felt I had to do something. So I gave her a pair of red earrings that I’ll never wear again, small smooth shells like babies’ toenails set in flower shapes. I clipped them on her earlobes and let her look in my mirror. She held her flowered earlobes between her thumbs and forefingers reverently, as if she had just grown them. She was ecstatic; she was disbelieving that I should this easily give her such treasures. I pressed my thumbs lightly but reverently on the man’s mostly closed eyelids. I said, “Holy God,” and I thought again that my vowels came from the morning girl. Even if this girl did not understand my helpless, wordless immersion in mystery, she could see the no shake of my head. “I cannot do miracles,” I said.
Outside, John Chrysostom was squatting, laying smooth sticks with holes drilled in them out in neat groups of four. This is some sort of divining. He says it can tell the cause of a misfortune. I asked what was wrong. He said he did not know, but that there were spirits in turmoil. He felt it. After he did his divining, he said, he knew no more. Sometimes, he says, it works, sometimes not.
Dexter brought me a copy of E Le Songo, the government paper, today, not fresh, but not accurate when it is fresh anyway. Jean-Bédel Bokassa: do you know that name? I think of where we were in 1972 when he became president-for-life: I was baking lemon pies for Lowell and taking Stuart to baseball practice at Our Lady of Lourdes Elementary and I was in the process of weaning Janelle. I was not paying much attention to the politics here. But I recall his name vaguely.
In 1977—having declared himself emperor and the republic an empire—he held a coronation, a twenty-some million-dollar affair, where he had himself crowned with a two-thousand-diamond crown. I was not among those invited, and did not take notice. Two years later I understand he ordered all schoolchildren to wear uniforms made in a factory owned by his family, and there were riots, in which hundreds were put in jail and at least a hundred students executed.
I didn’t know that, because I was busy with Stu’s college graduation and Janelle’s broken foot. Bokassa left the country but was tricked—in ’86—into coming back, having been told he would be welcomed as a hero. Instead he was condemned to death—as Lowell was, that year, and so I was absorbed in Lowell’s dying.
That sentence—in part for the murder of all those student protesters—later was commuted to life imprisonment. E Le Songo likes to carry Bokassa-bashing articles, as if to indicate that things are fully under control. They are not. This is all I can say about politics. Everywhere, chaos, and what else is new.
Dex was over again to my cottage for a chat. The subject of his monologue segued from Selous to elephants. Did I know that a piano-key maker in America had once actually contracted anthrax from inhaling dust off the ivory he was shaping into keys for a baby grand? No, I did not. Did I know that elephants, freshly tied up in captivity, will commit suicide, wrapping the rope or chain round and round a tree, then throwing themselves forward, to choke to death? No, I did not. Did I know the folk saying that an elephant pierced by arrows can eat olive blossoms or drink olive oil and then just shake the arrows out? Had I heard the story about the troop of young “tamed” elephants—working beasts—who wanted to steal bananas and so stuffed mud into the bells they wore about their necks so they could steal silently and successfully? Had I heard that elephants cry, in profound grief and sorrow? I had not.
I said, “How many elephants did your friend Freddy kill?”
“Touché,” he said. He sat silently, something I have not seen him do. “You think I’m an upstart,” he said.
“I think you’re very young,” I said.
“Corning said you saw a leopard,” he said. I did not ask him whether he watched her mustache while she said it.
“We did,” I said. “Saw it like I’d never seen anything, every hair vivid as my own mortality.”
“I would like to be wise,” Dexter said, very quietly, and it was not a non sequitur.
“Don’t suggest that I am,” I said. “I can’t think of anything stupider than putting myself and Corning in harm’s way like that.”
“Harm’s way,” he echoed.
“Foolish risk,” I said, in an echoing tone, as if we two were praying a litany.
He sat quietly. I imagined that what he was not thinking—working hard not to think—was that his visits to me were to protect him from developing feelings for Mary Corning, a fine ripe young woman right there on the other side of his wall. He was not thinking, really, of our might-have-been-deaths, of the lunge of the leopard, though in some sense he must have been.
I should sign off now. What extremes: no letter for such a long time, and then all this!
Your sister Aurelia
I must write a P.S.
I delivered a nomad woman—so thin! probably twenty years old, but with a face like the ages—of triplets today, God bless us all. The babies—two girls and a boy—were premature. They weighed something under two pounds each: I hefted them, swaddled tight, in my hand, and thought they felt like a loaf of bread each.
The woman is fine, though we need to feed her. The babies: I have no notion what will happen to them. We’re keeping them warm, but that’s all we can do.
This is two Sundays in a row we have had mass here. Unusual. There was a reading from Amos. The tone is so interesting. He tells that he has come into this new life—a prophet, indeed!—without preparation, unwilling, devoid of experience for the job, dragging his heels all the way.
“I was a shepherd and a pruner of sycamores,” the prophet Amos says, in a voice that sounds to me like some Jewish comedian doing a sad-sack-at-the-mercy-of-fate persona. And then I find myself in this gig….
Moi aussi, I think. Nothing prepares us for anything.
The nomad babies continue to struggle. It is hard to say what will happen. The priest wants to baptize them. He will be here overnight and has asked the mother’s permission. There is much gesticulation and sign language about the issue: what will this mean? Can he save them? By that she means something different from what he means.
We had the baptism yesterday morning. The priest said he needed names. One of the women suggested that they name the babies after the Americans. This was exotic, exciting. The loaf-of-bread triplets, these struggling, sucked-cheek near-bald pale-brown babies became Aurelia (the firstborn was named for me), Dexter, and Mary.
In early afternoon, they all died, snuff, snuff, snuff, in a row. My chest felt hollow. There wasn’t a lot anyone could say.
We decided to meet for dinner at Corning’s. She broke open two tins of smoked oysters she’d brought. Dex was astonished. He said he had not imagined that she would be such a hedonist. He said it admiringly. I said I for one was not surprised. We had some heavy bread, and I thought of the babies as I lifted the loaf to cut it. We had green mango slices. We drank some brandy. We all kept thinking of the babies. We broke up early.
I went back to my hut, and I had a sense of déjà vu: something wrong, though I could not tell what. It was the feeling I had when Lowell and I lived on Tamarind Street—do you remember?—that time I came home at night to find the louvers on the glass doors broken and the porch light out, and we found out afterward from the police that my panic had protected me: the burglar was in the house, in the dark, and he had had a gun, and I would certainly have been killed if I’d gone in.
Tonight there was nothing I could point to—no broken louvers, and only the usual darkness—but I knew immediately there was danger. I caught it then in the corner of my eye as I entered: a cobra, poised high, in silhouette, the unmistakable shape of his fanned or winged head simultaneously cliché and terrifying in the darkness. (After all, I had never seen a cobra except in a picture, and did not expect one here…any more than I had been prepared for the leopard. Aurelia thinks she’s in suburbia, doesn’t she still?)
I cried out for my sentinelle, and he ran immediately for all of the villagers. Snakes rarely break through the protections around the village, though they’re everywhere in the jungle, of course. There are fences and barriers, and I suppose everyone is quietly on the alert. So there have been no snakes since I’ve been here. I thought of the owl on my roof when I came. I had no time to think what that meant before all of the villagers came rushing, bats and brooms and every sort of mallet and spear, into my house, cornered the thing in my shower, and beat it to death.
Then it was quiet.
Corning, who had come up behind me, said, “Some days are more eventful than others.” I sighed, a small sigh like the soughing of moon-shot wind over our heads through the high forest canopy, over the cobra, over the leopard, over the dead nomad babies. She said, “Want to sleep at my place?”
They had taken the snake away. I don’t even know what color a cobra is, since I only got to see the shadow, and when they were done with it, there was nothing but pulp. John Chrysostom and two women had washed down the shower stall. There was no reason not to go to bed as usual, checking around a bit more first, of course. I did not feel like sleeping immediately. I thought I’d read in Middlemarch.
“No, thanks,” I said.
Dexter came over from talking to one of the villagers. “He says that in Sango, the word for a multiple birth means ‘children of the snake.’”
I was momentarily confused as to the import of this. “Does this mean that they think I’m bad luck? As in, a witch? Was that snake planted by someone to frighten me off?”
“No, no,” he said. “It was just a regular, self-animating old garden-variety cobra.”
We dispersed, and I read, and I turned out the light. I reimagined the curved, lethal shape of the cobra against the thin moonlight that came in through the window. I thought of how nothing actually happens here, just almost happens…but then I thought: that is the way of the world.
As I drifted to sleep, I imagined the shape of the cobra against the dark, first as an elephant’s trunk, reaching up from some underworld, then as Lowell’s arm. His hand was relaxed and extended.
I thought of Corning and Dex in their hut. The night was hotter than usual. I imagined them pressing their cheeks hard against the rose-colored plaster, for coolness, until they melted right through to each other. I thought I was Deborah Kerr in The King and I, singing, “Hello, Young Lovers.” I was singing: I’ve had a love of my own like yours; I’ve had a love of my own.
Tomorrow, Holy God knows what will happen. Or maybe not even he knows, or she.
Best regards, all hope,
Your sister Aurelia
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.