Me Tanner, You Jane

Page 9

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“Get my knife, Evan. And cut those reeds. They are hollow and we can breathe through them.”

I did, and they were, and we could and did. We crouched with our heads below the surface and breathed through the reeds, and I considered just how far I had come. Not too many days ago I had been in a coffin breathing through a metal tube, and now I was in a pool breathing through a hollow reed, and who could say what the future might hold.

Every once in a while I would come up to check on the flies, and for a long time they were still there, and then they weren’t. Plum straightened up and we looked at each other. We were wet and filthy and covered with fly bites.

“This pool,” I said.

“Filthy water.”

“But it kept us from getting eaten alive, which is probably what would have happened. They did a pretty good job on us as it was. How did you know to run for water?”

“It seemed the thing to do.”

“And how did you know that the water would be here? You ran straight toward it. And how did you know the reeds would be hollow?”

She straightened up, beamed. “I am African,” she said.

“So?”

“Certain knowledge is inborn, Evan.” She tilted her head. “This is my country, you see. I sense things. I am able to react intuitively. You, a white man, would not understand.”

I nodded at this. Plum started for the bank. I put a hand on her wrist, tugged. She started to say something. I shhhed her, pointed in the direction she was going, then led her carefully in the other direction to the bank. She scrambled out and collapsed on the bank. The crocodile she had almost bumped into went on sunning himself.

“We are very fortunate,” she said. “He was just a few yards from us. People are often eaten by crocodiles.”

“If not by flies.”

“I never considered that there might be a crocodile in the water.”

“Crocodiles. There are quite a few of them, actually.” I pointed some out. “All sizes,” I said.

“I led us into the middle of a crocodile pool.”

“Any port in a storm.”

“A pool of crocodiles-” She trembled. I put a wet arm around her. It didn’t do anything to stop the trembling. Then at once she straightened, narrowed her eyes.

“I am Welsh,” she said. “Well brought up young Welsh ladies know nothing of crocodiles.”

The flies didn’t turn out to be tsetse flies. Or, if they were, they were out of condition, because neither of us got sleeping sickness. It had occurred to me that we might. I spent a while wondering idly what would happen if we did. Would my lack of a sleep center change the form of the disease, or did it work upon another organ? Either way, I thought, we would very probably die of it. The poetic implications of the death by sleeping sickness of a hard-core insomniac were by no means lost on me. I did not, though, much appreciate them.

But all the flies gave us were fly bites. Which was enough. The bites were red and itched. I was afraid they might get infected. They didn’t, but they didn’t get better, either. Plum put wet mud on them to take the sting out. This was one of her less successful Afro bits. It didn’t work at all. We went on itching until we ran into a hunting party from one of the eastern tribes. One of their number gathered leaves from a shrub, boiled them, let the solution cool, and put it on our bites. They stopped itching immediately and healed completely in a matter of hours. It was damned impressive, really.

It was, I guess, two days after the treatment of the fly bites that Plum fell in the lion pit. There was really no way to avoid it. Whoever dug the thing concealed it perfectly, and Plum and I were walking along a path, and I was making little grabs at her body, and she was giggling happily and darting on ahead, and abruptly the earth opened up under her feet and she disappeared. I dashed forward and looked down, and the sight was reassuringly anticlimactic. The pit had been furnished with sharpened stakes, but they were literally few and far between, and Plum had fallen between a batch of them. And it wasn’t too deep, and she had landed without breaking anything, so she was all right. But she wasn’t happy.

I got her out and dusted her off and we pressed onward, a little less enthusiastically than before. It seemed that every day we were pressing on with a little less enthusiasm.

That night she lay in my arms and sighed. I told her she seemed a little weary.

“Sure I get weary,” she said, “wearing the same old dress. Really, Evan, I am beginning to despise my clothing. It is falling apart. And yours too, I think.”

“Yes.”

“I think it was a bad idea washing them in that stream. Next time we wash them it would be good to determine first if the water is clean, and if it has an odor.”

“Next time we’ll take a helicopter.”

She didn’t say anything. We lay there together in silence. Mosquitoes buzzed us and we waved them away. Earlier on, a wizened gap-toothed man had explained that we might keep mosquitoes away by putting carrion in the fire. They weren’t supposed to like this, for which I could scarcely blame them. The idea was that you carried around a little sack of spoiled flesh, and at night you kept throwing chunks of it into the fire. The mosquitoes would have had to be a lot worse before we tried this.

Plum did look weary. I dismissed feelings of lechery and turned on paternalism and gave her a passionless hug. “We should be at the mission soon,” I said.

“And then?”

“Well, they’ll feed us. And it ought to be possible to get a bath and some fresh clothes.”

“And the latest word on Sheena.”

“That too.”

She looked up at me. Ever since the high grasses had begun giving way to jungle, her spirits had gradually dampened along with the terrain. No doubt the flies had had something to do with it, and the lion pit, and the unfortunate stream where we had washed our clothes.


She said, “Do you believe there is a Sheena?”

“Yes. Too many different tribesmen have described her. Too many people have reacted to her name.”

“Legends spread widely in this country, Evan.”

“I think there’s a girl to go with this one. Of course you have to expect a certain amount of distortion. The stories these people tell – after all, the tribes in this area are on the primitive side, and the white goddess bit lends itself to exaggeration. I wouldn’t be surprised if Sheena is your color or darker, with, say, prematurely gray hair. And if her whole movement, instead of being the wild terrorist gang we’ve heard described, isn’t just a new cult-religion.”

“But everyone has been so terrified.”

“Well, remember the watchamacallit? The Nishanti? The clowns beating bones on the ground in the cemetery?”

“Yes?”

“Well, imagine how terrifying a cult like that could be by the time the story got to be fifth or sixth hand. Or take it from another angle, imagine the story they’re telling about the corpse that walked out of its grave. Nothing like that has happened in almost two thousand years, and-”

“Evan?”

“What?”

“Shall we find your friends?”

“They’re not exactly my friends. I never met either of them before.”

“Then how will you know them?”

“They’re both tall,” I said. “And black.”

She looked at me.

“Hell,” I said. “I think we can assume that any two tall black men out here who speak English are odds-on to be Knanda Ndoro and Sam Bowman. And I’ve got a recognition signal to bounce off Bowman. He doesn’t know I exist, but when I give him the password he’ll know that he is to trust me.”

“A password. It sounds-”

“It sounds kind of Mickey Mouse,” I suggested.

“I do not understand.”

“It sounds cornball. Silly and, uh, oh, like something out of a crumby movie.”

“Mickey Mouse,” she said.

“Right.”

“I know that mouse from the movies. He can speak, but his dog cannot speak. I have never understood that.”

“Well, it’s too subtle for an African girl.”

Her hand moved quickly. “If I were Sheena,” she said, mock-savagely, “I would cut this off.”

“Don’t even talk like that.”

“But I am not Sheena,” she said, “and must think of something better to do. Help me think of something, Evan. Oh, Evan-”

Two nights later, as the sun was just dropping out of sight in the west, we came into view of the mission. We reached the top of a small rise and looked down across a few hundred yards of cleared fields to a trio of squat concrete-block buildings. The Père Julien Mission, staffed with Belgian priests and nuns and nurses. I planted my feet and looked across at the mission and felt like Balboa, silent upon a peak in Darien. Like Brigham Young, catching his first glimpse of Utah. Like Moses upon Mount Nebo. I searched for words appropriate to the occasion.

“That’s the place,” I said.

“Is that all?”

“What did you expect? Loew’s 83rd?”

“Pardon?”

“What I mean is that this isn’t so bad for the middle of the jungle. Three buildings, and they’re of pretty good size, and some plowed fields with things growing in them, and I suppose they’ve got some animals, probably chickens in that shed over on the left and maybe some goats or cows. After all, it’s been a while since we’ve seen anything you could call a building. Or anything you could call a meal, as far as that goes. I know it isn’t much when you’re used to a metropolis like Griggstown, but-”

“You are making fun of me.”

“A little bit.”

“But I did think it would be more, oh, I don’t know.”

I knew what she meant. We had been building the mission up in our minds to the point where it loomed as the end of the journey. In the course of the past two days we had run into perhaps a half dozen groups of natives, none of whom we could quite communicate with but all of whom kept pointing us toward the mission. We also managed to gather, between the grunts and ersatz-pidgin phrases, that (a) Sheena was in the area, (b) they would know of this in the mission, and (c) something very exciting was going to happen. So if they had scored the whole thing for a movie, there would have been this gradual drum roll picking up in volume and tempo until we reached that peak, and then the music would stop and the camera would move for a long shot of the mission, and there would be these three dumpy little blockhouses.

The closer we got to the mission, the more it reminded me of a movie set. I couldn’t avoid the feeling that these three buildings were false fronts with nothing behind them. The place was obviously not abandoned – a heap of weeds drying in the dying sun could not have been pulled more than a few hours ago. And yet there was a feeling of utter desolation.

“I’m afraid,” Plum said in a still small voice, changing once again from woman to child. And put her hand in mine, and held on tight.

I called out, “Hello!” I called out similar words and phrases in French and in Flemish.

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