Salima on the Governors
"There is no story that is not true," said Uchendu, friend of Okonkwo --Chinua Achebe
SHE CAVED in her cheeks and sucked his middle digit, tightly enclosed in her lips. He called them the lips. The scorpion that had stung him in the fingertip was dark brown, so there was a question of whether it was the black species or the brown species, since they both vary in hue. The sting of a black scorpion would result in two days of misery and fever and his arm would swell like a Polish sausage. The sting of a brown one would hurt for three hours, then not even a swelling. Bad luck either way, just before his long agony of a drive to Lagos.
She took his other hand, put it under her blouse on her breast, and smiled at him with her eyes only. She could do that. She could do many such puny things that made him shake his head from side to side.
Her breasts were small. He understood it was a matter of fat. There just was not enough adipose tissue in the boondocks of the Igbo-land of eastern Nigeria. All women were like her, except the elephantine wives of the local "big man." He calculated that, here, the thickness of subcutaneous fat was directly related to the thickness of ones wallet. The reverse situation was found in his native Baltimore. The thought of Baltimore awoke an image of "shopping Colleen" shopping, and he shivered.
"It hurts so much?" Ngozi asked, releasing his finger from the wet cave of her mouth.
"Oh no, sweetheart." Jacob forced a smile back. "It just pulsates, as if you got a little electrical charge with each heart-beat." Jacob contemplated: what to bring her from Lagos? It shouldnt be a problem; she has nothing, zilch, nada. No jewelry; no clothes really, no books, nothing. He was actually grateful to that miniature lobster with the ugly stingers for these moments. No pain, no gain. He felt a pleasant sensation around his stomach.
Yeah, maybe hed bring her a nice watch, gold-plated and pretty, with a fancy band. No Patek Phillippe, mind you, but a reliable instrument. Or a gold necklace, fourteen karat. She would jump six feet; she would glow, blush. Well, he wouldnt see blushing on her dark face, but shed told him, during their intimate time, that she actually feels blushing. It could be felt, but remains invisible, just like a surge of sympathy or love--invisible on the outside.
Ngozi removed his unfortunate digit from her mouth, looked at it, and announced gravely, "You must eat onions." Pulling out his finger made a cheerful sound, like uncorking a bottle to begin a celebration. They smiled at each other, and she put her face close to his. He rubbed her unprotruding nose with his. "Like Eskimos greeting each other," he said.
"Yes, Eskimos. Inuit. These are people living far north, in the land of ice and snow. Very tough." He felt her nipple rising mightily--but the driver should be here any minute. He removed his hand. "You know how the Inuit call making love, in their language?"
"Do I live in a land of ice and snow, to know?"
"Well, they call it to laugh with a woman! How about that! To laugh with a woman."
She became serious, thinking, then her smile narrowed her eyes. "We have laughed," she exclaimed. "Jacob, we laughed; we laughed. So it is true!" She jumped up.
Just a touch of hysteria, Jacob thought, and realized he liked it that way. She had taught him contentment, step by step, each step just a small and simple joy, and he learned eventually, his knowledge of happiness increasing. She took from her snakeskin bag two mangos for him of the variety he preferred, small and yellow with a thin skin.
"I think the driver is here," she said. Her eyes always amused him. When she narrowed them, they acquired an oriental slant. Just pretty, if youd ask him. Painfully, he didnt want to go to Lagos. Nobody wants to go to goddamned Lagos!
He walked to the window, nodded, picked up his travel bag and, seeing a tear on her cheek, did not kiss her. "Three days." He raised his hand, made into a fist; revealed his teeth, dragged himself through the door and, without looking back, climbed into the back seat of the air-conditioned silent luxury of a Mercedes Benz 500 SL. He was not excited about this business trip, did not like to leave her with that teardrop descending on her cheek in pulses slower than his throbbing pangs, leaving a shiny path like a snail would rushing over ebony. Three days, he thought. The tear will dry sooner. His eyes began to fill.
Jacob Dolan did not get into this predicament by his own will. It could be argued that the opposite of will brought him here. He was almost content to exist in his--or their--world in Ellicot, the sterilized, pretty green, benign suburb of Baltimore. The remote Abakaliki in Nigerian Biafra was not a different world for him but a different planet in the Milky Way. (It was Colleen whod asked him once why they named the galaxy after the candy bar.)
Yes, hed visited the tropics before, with Colleen, his girlfriend, but the resort in the Bahamas was, strictly speaking, only subtropical, and hardships lasted only half an hour. (In the tiki-bar by the kidney-pool, they ran out of crushed ice and had to use ice-cubes in the piña coladas.) So Jacob saw everything in Africa through glasses of his life-experiences, which were lenses thick and warped enough to provide bizarre distortions. It took him a month to throw the imaginary specs away and let his mind discover and wander on its own.
PAST ENUGU, Neiji, the fearless driver, accelerated. He drove in the oncoming lane often, increased speed through thickly populated villages, passed a lorry with the inscription "No Competition in Destiny," actually touching it, let the steering wheel go with both hands, to rest them a while, and more. Jacob decided not to pay him any attention. Interesting things, some even bizarre, could be seen through the tinted windows. The trucks were always painted with either celestial themes or gruesome images, and all had inscriptions in big letters: "Hosanna in the Highest," "Jesus is Good Athletics," "Stop; dont kiss," "Lazy man, no food for you. From Action Boy." A truck with "No Controversy. God is Motors" was parked by the sign "Illegal Storage of Oil," which was a four-by-two stand of sticks, shaded by palm fronds, selling six cans of motor oil. It stood next to "Oil Depot," a smaller stand, selling three cans of oil, which stood next to a seller of fried slices of yam.
They stopped there, stretched their legs, and Neiji bought fried yams. Jacob watched his weight. In vain. A tiny child, a naked girl, appeared as if from nowhere. With opened mouth, she stared at his belly. He returned the gaze at her protruding stomach. One belly of plenty, the other belly of kwashiorkor, but neither of them understood the etiologies, and therefore they smiled.
He was not a youngster anymore, his mother had been telling him for the last fifteen years. He was forming a second chin; there was a germ of a beer belly; and his problem hairline had started to recede by one centimeter every six months. But his hair did not show any silver streaking, and his teeth had not yet elongated. And he felt his heart to be unchanged, still immature, rejecting the reality of an inevitable process which had just about begun to pull over his face the mask of decrepitude. Watching certain members of his family, he became certain that aging is a premalignant disorder, complicated by mental deterioration of different forms. How unfortunate and ridiculous, he mused in his monologues to himself, that the heart remains so absurdly youthful within this landscape of destruction.
Ngozi possessed the attribute some self-proclaimed experts value the most in women--youth. That was a fact. And so she was beautiful--like puppies of all mammalian species are beautiful.
He was an only child. He suffered no unusual psychological deviations, and because he was a diligent pupil, an obedient boy, and his dad had been loaded, Jacob Dolan lacked nothing, at least nothing in the eyes of his peers and parents. At the persistent insistence of the old man, he had dropped a major in biology and switched to economics, which led to an MBA from St. Thomas College, in St. Paul. In the way of least resistance, he had agreed to a job in his fathers company, and hence the assignment in Nigeria.
There was a load of zinc in the ground here, and lead ore with silver, which could be mined easily. So far Jacob had dealt successfully with the local big-shots, mostly government people, intelligent highwaymen all. They were all delighted that he would contribute to their enrichment, invest heaps of pretty green American dollars into the local--their--economy, and enable imports of more Mercedeses and VCRs, PCs, RVs, XLTs, and one Harley Davidson Fatboy Anniversary Model with power package and porker pipes, pearl violet. A real looker. For the Commissioner of Education, who thought the bike would look nice against the background of the thatch-roofed mud huts of South Ezza, his native village, and who imagined his folks, either standing there at attention, or amazed, or keeling over in astonishment.
The big men treated Jacob with special concern for his well-being. They provided him with a government guest house with guards, armed heavily at all times, and coils of razor-wire on top of a ten-foot concrete wall that circled the house and a single dogon-yaru tree (with leaves so bitter that the native healers, medicine women and juju men, prescribe it against malaria, despite its uselessness). Jacob did not complain that the view from his window reminded him of a set from "Sing-Sing Story," because he was safe and comfortable beyond the wildest imagination of local citizens. About food he couldnt complain honestly, either, because its consumption made him lose weight painlessly, to retract the protuberance of his belly, to cause his facial skeleton to become defined, giving him a more youthful look. "Dont you think?" he asked Ngozi. She did not answer, only smiled.
"How is my body?" Come on!" he insisted.
"Okay," she whispered, looking away. It became their private joke: "How is my body?," loudly. "Okay," in a whisper, averting her eyes.
The meals were no joke, private or otherwise. They were served in an unchanging sequence of either pounded yam or garry, a mash made of cassava flour, with soups--soup, that is what the sauces were called: bitter leaf soup (bitter), abono soup (superslime with a pleasant taste), or ebosi soup (with dried catfish pounded to a powder), and, sometimes, coconut rice (his favorite) and very good salads. Jacob realized that here, on the Black Continent, one had to make one of two choices: either to favor the cardiovascular system and eat salads and suffer diarrhea, or to favor the gastrointestinal system, eating no raw vegetables and subsequently having civilized visits to the bathroom. He chose the former, with the inevitable results.
They had been on the way for a couple of hours. He thought about her. Ngozi means "blessed," but her Christian name, she confessed, was Hyacinthia. Too botanical for a Christian name, he told her. Was Colleen a Christian name? He and Colleen had been living together for a year now, but she threatened to move out, giving him some hope and expectation for ending the unchangeable routine of copulation every Wednesday, in the traditional position. He called it stille Nacht, heilige Nacht, after the Christmas carol. It did not become their private joke.
Colleen was, as she put it, "dead set against this stupid trip to Nigeria." But she lost to his father. Daddy had always been the boss, hands down.
"Dont worry," Jacob told Colleen. "It will not be like a safari, with a nightly two-inch slab of medium rare eland steak on the campfire, chased down by a papa doble, and a Wakamba maiden on the side."
"Excusez-moi. What the fuck are you talking about?" shed retorted. "All youll get there is the same sort of malaria. Get a grip, nut." He liked a couple of Colleens body parts, but her brain, the seat of the soul, had been his major grievance. She would be desperate here, would Colleen. No shopping. Period. And no soap operas, no estate sales, no stock market. Only the bush market.
HE LOVED THOSE. Bush markets were held on four market days of the week. Like bees to a beehive, the women of surrounding villages would congregate from all sides of the compass, buzzing with gossip, their goods balanced on their heads, walking like antelopes at an unchanging pace. These incredible athletes were sculptured as finely as Olympians, in colorful wrap-arounds that always came undone, most of them barefoot, all clean and fresh, erect, graceful and beauteous beings. They sold everything from dead horses to dried chameleons, wonderfully shaped and colored fruits of unknown species, like "purple testicles" (Jacobs name for them, Ngozis favorite)or melons the size of a wheelbarrow, from calabashes to Bohemian beads. Everything except the angelic children sleeping between the goods and produce.
"When I grow up," Jacob announced to Ngozi, "I wanna be a bush-market supervisor!" When she laughed she often put her hand over her mouth, as Japanese women do. At such times, when she held her hand over her mouth, he knew that life was good because it was so interesting. "Interesting," this very plain word, was in his mind all the time. Definitely an underused expression in Ellicot.
Interesting were his beloved treks through different villages around Abakaliki, where people already knew the strange onya acha, pale eyes. People everywhere out in the country smiled at him; they liked their white man. Young ones talked to him, showing off their "English," old men smiled widely, remembering "masters" and "father" and saluted--young women bent their knees, with arms extended down by their hips in a curtsy, and giggled. But grandmothers--they truly adored him, actually loved him, and when he would clown with them just a little they would disintegrate. Some wanted him to stay.
Trekking is Igbo-English for a power walk. Jacob had to trek; he couldnt jog as he used to at home, because Ngozi told him that only thieves run here. "Besides, a rich man like you should hire a Fulani or a Hausa man to jog for you." She tried to sound serious.
Now, after three months, the little joyous moments revealed their cumulative effect and added to one large soft comforter of happiness. He wallowed under it with closed eyes and mouth stretched in a smile from ear to ear.
When Neiji, the stoic and driver, missed only by inches a rugged group of lepers begging with exaggerated grimaces, Jacob woke up from his daylight dreams. He asked Neiji how much longer this trip would be and received the assurance "six hours." Jacob translated that to "eight," which did not include the anticipated five or more army and police roadblocks. Neiji stopped for roasted corn on the cob on the border of Oguv State by a few mud huts under the sign "Welcome to Golden City Ososa." They had to stop once more near Agbor to add water to the radiator from a creek flowing between a two-room "Hotel Intercontinental" and a "Psychiatric and Orthopedic Traditional Hospital. Approved!" Then it was a long haul until darkness, until Lagos.
The city, with its evening traffic, was a deranged reinvention of Hell. There shouldnt be any confusion with purgatory; it was Hell. Old Hieronymus Bosch would delight at the recreation of his fantastical inferno. Dante was here.
But Neiji slapped on the roof of their vehicle a blue rotating light, courtesy of the State Government, and thus they managed to avoid many disasters and, finally, reached the enclave of the fat, rich and exuberant government employees--Victoria Island. Their final destination, the walled-in compound owned by the State Government, consisted of two structures: a two-storied house for the States guests and big-shots visiting Lagos and, next to it, the house for exclusive use of the Governor himself, when His Excellency visited the city from Abakaliki. The stark architecture fooled Jacob for a moment before the caretaker unlocked the several locks of the Governors domain. He entered such affluence as only the old boy himself, Abdulsalami Ububoy, would have dared to write a government check for. Hed ordered to have his Lagos residence provided to Jacob Dolan since he knew a thing or two about PR and investments.
Jacob collapsed on the bed and remained unconscious for eight hours, until a roosters shriek told him he was rested. The ubiquitous rooster rested then, too, and African street-sounds in many scales and keys penetrated to Jacob, tempting him like the wail of a Siren seducing an unfortunate navigator. He sat up on the bed and looked around. Bed, bed, as far as he could see, a sprawling affair the size of an airport, with a headboard that was not a board but a complex construction lacquered in mat ivory with imbedded mirrors, recesses, and drawers inlaid in gold, their corners rounded in silver. Hed spent the night on satin sheets between piles of silk-covered down pillows. He got up, stepped back. Yes, three to five adults could wallow in adult entertainment there, he thought. Easily.
Kelloggs cornflakes from Minnesota with Dutch condensed milk. "Peak" and Nescafé made in Switzerland were served to him by a pleasant boy with a deferential grin under the expressionless gaze of Abdulsalami himself from a larger-than-life framed color photograph. This stare was the only unpleasant part of the breakfast, since the good old Salami, before becoming a governor, used to be a police chief highly regarded for his interrogation techniques. So Jacob took his coffee outside, sat on a cinderblock, and bullshitted with a guard and Neiji, who peeked and poked into the motor of a brand-new Land Rover. From them he learned that a beach on the Atlantic Ocean was just a couple of blocks away--that way, the guard pointed his loaded zap-gun. In minutes Jacob had changed into a red Baltimore Orioles T-shirt and shorts, despite a warning by Ngozi that only schoolboys, not men, wore short pants in this land. And he was on his way.
The sand of the beach was the color of pewter; in the distance it disappeared into the grey haze, making it endless, with no horizon, part of the sky. The ocean was the hue of the beach, but not unfriendly in its grayness, since its hypnotic, repetitious coming and going made it alive. No beach-bums here, stretching their quadriceps; no flexors of biceps or sandy-haired stars of beach volleyball. This was a strand without surfboards, sailboards, boogie boards; no bikinis or monokinis were scrutinized under cabanas. The erotogenic smell of tanning lotion is unknown in West Africa.
Before Jacob could decide which way to go, a white-capped roller laid out on the sand a simple wooden statuette with two faces and no arms, its chalk paint almost washed away, still tied with a wire to a suggestion of a boat: the sacrificial juju for the goddess of the waters, of rivers and lakes. She is the only female deity, so secret that her image has remained unimagined. Jacob picked it up. He did not know that those who remove sacrificial objects from the waters or shores would meet bad luck, often very bad luck. He was innocent. He learned Africa slowly.
Jacob took a deep breath and stretched, and a strong feeling of freedom flooded him. The ocean did that to him. So he started to walk at an optimistic tempo. After a mile or so the shacks appeared, like a file of sand castles destroyed by a nasty child. It was a row of dwellings made of plastic sheets and tarps, cardboard, flattened aluminum cans, fragments of boards; driftwood seemed to be the favorite. Who lived in this habitat and how did they make their living? What were their rites of survival?
There was a campfire going in front of one; "Old Glory" fluttered in the wind above another shelter; a naked woman washed herself in front of another, while her neighbors, a whole family with an African dog, watched in apparent amazement the trekking of the white man. Onya acha--pale eyes, Oibo-Englishman, foda-father, massa-master, whitemon, white man--was walking the stretch that no sane person who had not been exiled here would walk or crawl.
Jacob came to a group of boys of the dangerous age, but could not avoid them. They all looked tough except for the yellow-haired albino, anyale, who squinted painfully in the bright light. The albino shaded his eyes with one hand to see the stranger better, then abruptly turned around, dashed forward, and bent to catch something on the sand. He did not succeed, crawled fast on all fours as if in derangement, and then his hand got hold of whatever was escaping him. Jacob, in an effort to show self-confidence and coolness, walked a few steps toward the albino.
"What you got, man. Show!" he said, trying to make his voice an octave deeper. The albino looked at him, surprised, his eyes jerking from left to right in rapid nystagmic movements. He held his fist tightly closed. Nobody moved. "Well, come on," Jacob insisted. The group tightened around him and the anyale. "Just wanna see what you caught."
The albino looked at his peers with questioning pale-blue eyes. Then he stretched his arm towards Jacob and opened his fist. In his palm lay a half-smoked joint of local ganja.
"Well. Sorry man. I thought youd caught a crab, or a sand louse or something." He felt like an imbecile and was sure he looked like one. Babbling, twaddling like this; what a dork.
"Salima is my name." They stopped, and she let go of his hand. Jacob Dolan studied her appearance with what he thought was a sympathetic smile. Events were happening too fast.
She wore a corset, a black corset--it couldnt have been anything else. She had an ankle-length skirt in a colorful print, like those made in Ghana, with lots of red. She was barefoot, with widely spaced, treefrog-like toes. She wore a short-haired chestnut brown wig with purple streaks.
She was dark, her pigmentation enhanced by living on the beach. Three parallel tribal scars decorated both her cheeks at no detriment to her exotic appearance. Over the melanin-loaded complexion she had applied, liberally, metallic black powdered galena, lead ore, around her eyes on both the upper and lower eyelids. She had layered purple pearl lipstick on her generous lower lip, only her lower lip, which gave her a resentful mien when she did not smile. And she smiled at Jacob so he could appreciate the shining steel crown on her front tooth. Her prominent sky-high cheekbones, a sculptors fantasy, dominated her face despite the distractions described above. Strangely, she grew a few coarse hairs on her chin, tightly coiled in the manner of a DNA helix.
It was a vicious pulchritude, Jacob thought, which would break the fragile mirrors in the suburb of Ellicot, and he knew hed never forget this visage above the endless neck and black corset. "How do you spell your name, Salima?"
"Yeah, how do you write it. You know, letter by letter."
"Oh. 1 spell S-L-I-C," she noted in satisfaction. Jacob recognized a gap in Western education that evoked a feeling of sympathy for the girl. They walked along the deserted shoreline talking, stopping here and there, Jacob picking up an odd shell of a mollusk off some flotsam. He asked most of the questions. She asked only two.
"You wanna fucky-fucky?" and "Can I go with you?" He answered no to both, trying not to sound abrupt, but she did not leave. She told him she was part Hausa and part Ibibio. Her Hausa father was a Muslim, so Salima had to go to the mosque. Her Ibibio ma was sort-of a Christian, so Salima had to go to sort-of a church. "No problem. I cherish one God. You cherish?"
"Yup, the same God," Jacob lied effortlessly, happy in a way to claim some common ground with her. He was not scared of her anymore.
"It is good," she smiled. "I like white man. Just like my grandfather. He loved his white master. He worked in a coal mine near Enugu. He liked to tell me about his master when I was a girl. Grandfathers name was Oko, but his massa could not remember the name or say it, so he called grandpa "Johnson."
"Johnson?" Jacob widened his eyes. "And Salima, have you known some white men, yourself?"
"Were they nice to you?"
"Yes, all very nice to Salima. But some of the married onya acha so strange; they just wanted to be held."
"Held? Like, in your arms?"
"In my arms. Hugged. Wanna me to show you?"
"Well, why do you think they wanted just a hug? The married ones?"
"Like a baby, holding tight, Yes?"
Jacob was deep in thought about the institution of white marriage, and so he did not notice the seventh wave, which flooded him knee-high and made Salima laugh in a guttural screech. Wild. He laughed too.
"Tell me, Salima. Why did you leave your folks and come to live here, in Lagos, such a strange place?"
"They did not like me in the village."
"I like you. So why wouldnt they like you?"
Salima did not answer. They walked side by side in silence for a long while. "They dont like me," she said in a muted voice, looking ahead, because I talked against what they were doing to lepers. It is against the law, anyway."
"I dont know. What happened to lepers?" Jacob said.
"Well, they do bad things to them They bury lepers. Alive. They do bad, bad things like in the old times. They carry sick people and sick children to evil forest to die." She became excited. "And you know, if some get well and come back, they put them back to the forest. That is how they are, like nothing changed. After a while she erupted, "My nene perished like that. She was still young."
"Yes, nene. Means moda of my moda. I only heard about her; she was young when they took her." Salima said nothing then, till the silence became too heavy.
A flock of plovers skipped just inches above the white crests of the waves in an effortless display of nonchalance, the same plovers that would skim the surf of the French Riviera. Horror stories again. Jacob was frightened by them. Poor kid, this girl. He could not think too much about these things.
"It is against the law; it is! At least they arent killing twins, like in the old, stupid times." She nodded her head in a kind of mechanical tic of frustration.
Jacob put his arm on the girls shoulder but removed it after a few seconds. "Then it is good you are here, Salima. Its good. Here on the beach. People must be nice to you, arent they? They help each other, dont they?"
"Yes, they do. Give me money, and I will help someone too. I will!"
All of a sudden the haze lifted, and the equatorial sun burned the beach like a blowtorch, causing a lapse in Jacobs concentration. Involuntarily, the governors bed appeared in front of his eyes. He opened wide on it with a remote control in his hands to increase the arctic winds from the silent, gold-plated air-conditioner made by Sharp, Inc., Japan. "Yes, yes!" he exclaimed. He was struck by an impulse, an idea, wild, but--he must give himself a few minutes to think it over. He should not rush. He doesnt want any complications.
But wouldnt it be fantastic for her to see the place--and then lie in the middle of the bed, exactly in the middle of the ivory white, sinful luxury, Salima on His Honors, His Celestial Excellencys bed. She is so unreal, exotic. He could then tell his story to Ngozi. She would laugh, wouldnt she? Maybe. It was not certain. Of course he would serve Salima some food, some drinks, show her around the place, too. She would have a story to tell on the beach. They would not believe her, as if shed gone to heaven. Yes, why not?
"Salima I have a plan. Listen." Jacob Dolan stopped and slowly, in a conspiratorial tone, explained his offer to take her to see the Governors place. At first hesitant, then bemused, she agreed and they were on their way off the beach. She followed a few steps behind him on the street, so several times he had to wait for her to catch up. When he gave a twenty-niara bill to a young beggar woman with a beautiful face and a naked baby covered with strange ulcers, Salima looked at him with a questioning expression that he could couldnt translate into English. A guard with a submachine gun let them into the compound with a transparently idiotic grin indicating his worldliness and, hey, understanding of these affairs.
The face of Salima beamed in bemused admiration when they entered the hallway of the Governors house. She bent and touched the custom lilac-scented carpet, touched the shining brass banister by the staircase, but mostly she admired a terra cotta vase with artificial flowers. "Beautiful, beautiful," she said, before she smelled them. They climbed the stairs up to where more silk and wire flowers were admired and smelled, where an aquarelle of an angel above an aquamarine aqua amazed her. Jacob unlocked the door of the Governors suite and motioned Salima in. She entered hesitantly and stopped. Then she did not say a word, and the smile disappeared from her face.
"How about that? Aint this an incredible place? Sit down please, here. Ill check His Excellencys kitchen." Salima remained standing, her arms crossed on her breasts as if she was cold. He took her hand and pulled her behind him.
"Come on. Lets see the fridge." He opened the Kenwood refrigerator, exposing the orgy of cheeses, sausages, French patés, and a jar of Iranian malosol caviar. (Unopened. He questioned if he might; he loved its silver-gray.) He looked at her face and knew he had made a mistake. "Say something please."
He took out a couple of bottles of fruit juice and closed the door on the luxuries, unimaginable by those who toil only to get food and use food only to sustain their life. She remained mute. Jacob tried to bemuse her by fidgeting with the remote control of the gold-plated air-conditioner, talking about nothing; finally he elicited a response, a nod, when he offered to get something to eat. He cut a piece of bread, spread a soft Camembert on it, and she wolfed it down in seconds. Then they sat without communication, like people in a doctors waiting room.
Well, he must do it. He did not expect the swiftness of her reaction when he suggested she might like to try the bed. Within the briefest of time she removed her only two pieces of clothing and lay naked on her belly in exactly the middle of the obscenely immense bed, her face buried into a pillow like a child. The sweat she had brought on her from outside made her glisten like a sea-lion. A masterpiece of polished ebony inlaid in ivory, so beautiful, so astonishingly beautiful, he whispered. She couldnt hear him.
"The pinnacle of aesthetics reached!" This time, she heard him mumble, and turned her head aside and her eyes asked him, "what now?" With no response coming, she ended the dream abruptly. With a rollover she was off the bed and into her skirt.
"Will you give me money?" She looked straight into his eyes. There was no begging in these, the first words shed uttered since shed entered the suite. He did not answer, still spellbound by the view of Salima on the governors bed. She stood waiting for an answer.
She turned away, went to the kitchen, and from the knife stand on the counter selected a long knife, curved, designed to carve meat. She held the knife in her right hand, firmly, with the blade upward. There was no rush in her movements. She approached him calmly, at a deliberate gait, knife in a firm grip, her arm slightly bent. Her face showed no emotion. Maybe there was a sadness around the eyes caked with metallic black powdered galenite; it was hard to say.
Jacob stared at the eyes and for a moment felt awe, then clearly defined dread, deep in his guts. His body became limp.
There are biochemical mechanisms triggered in the brain to allow death to proceed without a feeling of horror. Sometimes one even feels relief, resignation, and peace. Nothing is known, however, about the course of death and the workings of the mind in victims of a violent homicide.
He could not move, not even a finger. He felt short of breath. He could not move even his lips, which he wanted to move most of all, but his body felt like a foreign object, immovable, connected only to the dull pain around his stomach. He could take another breath. She was a pace away, now, knife in a firm grip, her gleaming topless torso tensely erect.
"You sweat like a Christmas goat," she said with a faint smile. "You sick?" She raised the knife in a motion suggestive of cutting. "Please, can I cut me a piece of bread for home? For dinner?" She adjusted the brown, purple-streaked wig and her smile widened to reveal the shiny stainless steel crown, which must have seemed like a shining beacon of hope to Jacob.
He made a sound. He could move his legs now. These legs had to carry him to the bathroom, urgently. He got up like an invalid, slowly, but made it there. Later he couldnt recall how hed managed. When Jacob Dolan came out, Salima was gone. He looked at the governors bed, and in the exact center of it he could still see a vacant mold of her empty imprint, just plain white, a white that seemed anemic to him.
He recovered. He did not change the sweat-soaked Baltimore Orioles T-shirt plastered on his belly but dashed out. Yes, she had passed through, the guard told him pointing his loaded zap-gun in the direction of the beach. The guard closed one eye and, lifting one corner of his mouth to suggest conspiracy, said in a loud whisper, "She is nice, massa. She fit you, massa." Jacob turned his eyes skyward and quietly howled, and then ran.
It was afternoon in the rainy season, the time of day when the sky turns West Africa heavy, hiding the sun, allowing it only to brighten the greyness into a borderless target the hue of faded apricot. It kills any breeze. After ten steps, droplets of Jacobs perspiration hit the red laterite ground; he felt a heated pressure behind his eyeballs, felt thickened mucus gathered in his throat, but also an unexpected exhilaration. His legs (the thighs) started to hurt to the point where pain becomes pleasurable. He settled into the moderate tempo of an overweight jogger who has high hopes. He found himself in the street that runs out of the country into the ocean of the world, the street of hopefuls.
The first smile he received was from a hopeful itinerant stitcher with his portable Chinese sewing machine. He ran past a vendor of smuggled cigarettes and shoelaces, past the child with the vacant face hoping to sell groundnuts, past the bright smile of the hope-filled feebleminded vagabond with dreadlocks. He looked into their eyes, returned their smiles, and knew theirs was not an ambition, not a reckless hopefulness, but a steady one, compulsory and essential to survival. He ran past the beggar-woman with the beautiful face and the naked baby with skin lesions resembling raspberries. She waved at him, an old pal, and beamed widely.
People stopped in surprise to watch the deranged adult pale-eyes, running, and in short pants like boys wear to school. Ngozi had told him that only thieves and robbers run here. He remembered her with a surge of longing now. He saw her long, long head, the half-inch-thick black helmet of hair without a ripple, nothing protruding, everything almost abstractly smooth, like an unopened black tulip, the rarest of the kind. Carissima. He increased his velocity involuntarily.
He caught up with Salima at the edge of the strand. He called her name, and she stopped. She seemed frightened to him, tightened her bold on the half-loaf of bread soft like Wonder Bread. "Dalo--Salima mmara ma," he thanked her in Igbo, breathing heavily, gasping for air, and without ceremony pressed a wad of fifty-niara banknotes into her hand. She looked at it for a while, put it on the bread, then lightly laid her free hand on his cheek.
Then she turned around and walked away. She seemed very small, like a child. She slowly dragged her bare feet with the treefrog-like toes into the afternoon mist, which softened her silhouette more and more till she disappeared into the void where the greyness of the beach fused with the fog of the sky to become endless. Jacob watched her, motionless, until suddenly his legs buckled under him, and he sank onto the sand.
"Africa," he whispered. He shook his head from side to side.
Jarda Cervenka won the Richard Sullivan Prize for Short Fiction for his The Revenge of Underwater Man.