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Exiles


ISSUE:  Autumn 1997

The storm was bringing the leaves down. They had been coming down all week in swirls and clumps, slicing the air with their brittle tips. Sara watched them fall, heavy with rain. They whirled down out of the sky like drunken birds and slapped against the window where they stuck to the glass. The two large oaks in front of the house were filling up the lawn with sodden, brown leaves. John wouldn’t be back for another three weeks. She’d have to get rid of them herself, somehow.

Last year, their first year in this house, in this country, John had raked the leaves away himself. He’d worn his tattered Yale sweatshirt and brown corduroys and green rubber boots; his face had glistened in the murky light as he raked the leaves into large piles that, from a distance, looked like the mounded dirt in a graveyard. Sara had watched him from the warmth of the house, puzzled. Their neighbors would think he was their yard man, not an official at the embassy.

And she couldn’t do it alone, of course. All that raking and hauling away. Not with her back. And what’s more she didn’t have the strength somehow, the desire even, to do anything about them. She would just let them pile up and pile up. Maybe even until the house became buried under the weight of wet, dead leaves, and she would turn slowly with them into loam.

Behind her the kettle whistled. Sara shook herself from her trance and hurried to turn the gas off. That damn kettle. . . she hated its piercing shriek, but after she had scorched three, John insisted. He was afraid she would burn the house down with her carelessness. But it wasn’t carelessness, Sara had tried to tell him. It was something else. Some state she would get into where she would forget things. She sometimes came to in a room that she had not remembered entering. Or she would mouth her own name over and over to herself, move her lips in the same silent, mechanical way, breathing her name in an out, not sure if she was getting it right. But she didn’t dare tell John about those times. He thought she was all right now.

She drank a lot of tea to keep the chill away. Even with the heat on, the damp seemed to crawl in through the floorboards into her bones, into the marrow. No matter how many layers she wore in the house, she couldn’t seem to get warm. She poured the tea and carried it over to the window, cupping her hands around the glass. When the rain stopped—if it stopped—she would take the dogs out and walk them around the block. John had gotten them to keep her company during the day and when he was traveling. They slept on the floor of the bedroom at night and when John was gone Sara would listen for the reassuring sound of their breathing, like a wet heartbeat in the dark. They had gotten the dogs, brown and white spaniels, from a couple who were going back to England and didn’t want to subject the poor innocent beasts to the misery of the six month quarantine. Sara looked at them sleeping on the rug by the blackened fireplace, their heads flung out to the side, their hind legs twitching from some unfathomable dream. She thought about them living caged up in a kennel for half a year and shivered. She was glad John had taken them.

She sipped at her tea, now tepid. How long had she been standing there thinking about the dogs? She shook herself awake and tried to focus her thoughts. She thought of John sweltering in the equatorial heat of Indonesia. He’d be sitting all day in meetings, he said, listening to the cadence of foreign voices struggling with English, their words lilting and spinning like coins. There would be trips to various buildings and schools and hospitals, accompanied by smiling foreign diplomats. Sara tried to imagine John in that climate, the green heat, spongy like moss. One could lie down in that heat, she thought, and be buoyed up by its weight. Like in Trinidad.

John had taken her there after Nathan died, hoping to make her forget, hoping the balm of the tropics would heal her. Trinidad. Why had they gone there? There was a house, Sara remembered. A friend of John’s had a house there with a staff so they wouldn’t have to be bothered with cooking or the inconveniences ol a hotel. Yes, she remembered that. And what else? The pattering feet of the cook and the maid, like mice scurrying in the dark. Laughter in the kitchen, ringing laughter and singing, and warm brown hands handing her cups of tea. She had been numb then, everything numb. Food she couldn’t taste, but she could still see—a kaleidoscope, a swirling kaleidoscope of colors, and the sting of salt, and the sea that bathed her tired body like the waters in the womb. Yes, she remembered.

And after that, at home in Georgetown, all those people coming with their condolences, but prying, curious to see how she would cope. She had greeted them all calmly; she made the right gestures, said the right words, and they had gone away, satisfied. But alone she curled up around her pain like a fist in her belly. That Nathan should have died! After all those years of trying, all the miscarriages. The doctors who said she could never have a child. She had stayed in bed the entire pregnancy, holding onto her belly like an egg, willing the child to survive. He had been their golden child, a miracle. She devoted herself solely to caring for him. Seven golden years she had him. And then nothing. A blackness leading into nowhere, a telescoping of time into years of emptiness.

John had asked to be posted at the embassy in The Hague. He thought a change would do her good. He was afraid she would never be all right again, not after coming home day after day and finding her sitting in the dark, the house rising up all around her silent like a tomb.

And John had been right, as he was always right. The change of environment was helping her to come back to life. The little challenges kept her occupied. Learning where to buy bread and vegetables, struggling to understand the gutteral, broken English of the sellers in the market. Her throat constricting each time in anxiety at the strangeness of the words she was required to speak in this foreign land. Just learning to pronounce the name of the street they lived on kept her mind churning, her tongue stumbling over the five syllables of Geertruidenbergweg. Even buying such simple things as bread and eggs, onions and peas required a concentration that kept the rest of her thoughts safely at bay. Eieren, she would stammer, blushing like a school girl at the man behind the dairy counter. Eieren and uien and erwten and brood. Such impossible sounding words for the most simple of life-sustaining foods. But she liked going out into the streets on market days, blending with the crowd, one more anonymous face in a foreign city where no one knew who she was or anything about her. She would glide among the Dutch housewives, stolid in their raincoats, intent on stretching every last guilder, a frosted blonde American secretly in their midst.

Elizabeth looked around Sara’s kitchen appreciatively. “Who cleans your house? It’s always so spotless! The girl who does mine is a disaster. She actually sweeps the dirt under the rugs instead of vacuuming it up. Can you imagine!”

Sara smiled weakly and poured more tea into Elizabeth’s cup. “I do it myself, actually. I’m here all day and I like to clean. It keeps my hands busy.”

Elizabeth laughed. She shook her head back and forth and clicked her tongue.”You Americans. Really!” Her gaze wandered over to the window.”But what about your garden? Surely you don’t do that yourself. I do a little bit with flowers, of course, bedding plants, a few herbs, but we have someone come in to do all the heavy work.”

Sara bit her lip. She wasn’t going to tell Elizabeth that John did their yard work. For some reason she felt embarrassed and then angry at her embarrassment. She gave a little laugh.”Well, actually, we don’t have anyone at the moment. I am getting a little worried about it. All these leaves. I’m afraid they’ll kill the grass if I don’t have them hauled away.”

Elizabeth’s face brightened. “I can send someone over to you.” She tapped her lacquered nails on the table.”You know, I don’t even know his name—he’s not our regular gardener—but I heard about him from Judy. He’s from Ghana or one of those countries, I can never remember. He showed up at Judy’s door one day asking if he could do some yard work—in French. I imagine he doesn’t speak any English. When he comes over to our place I just hand him the key to the shed. Anyway, Judy said he worked fast and seemed all right. So she sent him over to me. He’s doing our leaves this year. He comes over every other day. I hardly even know he’s there.” Elizabeth lowered her voice.”I think he’s living here illegally.”

Sara looked down at her watch. She wondered how long Elizabeth was planning to stay. “How are your boys?” she said finally, raising her head and framing her mouth into a smile.

“Fine. Fine.” Elizabeth said, waving her hand in front of her face. “Daniel adores his school. And the teachers are very pleased with his progress. Jonathan is playing football this year. Not your kind of football. Soccer.”

Sara’s eyes felt like little balls of glass. “Don’t you miss them? How can you send your little boy to boarding school when he’s only eight?”

Elizabeth raised her eyebrows delicately in surprise. “Yes, I miss them. Of course I do. But Martin and I agreed that both boys would go to public school. They can’t hang onto us forever. Or we to them. They need to grow up and be taught values. Everybody knows the British schools can do that better than parents. Believe me, if you had any of your own, you’d want them to have the best education possible. And boys! They’re. . . well, they can be a handful.”

Sara started. At the back door, peering through the glass, was a man, a black man. Then she remembered. The man from Ghana, the leaves. She opened the door, smiling to put him at ease. He stood on her back steps, stiffly erect, his face immobile, an ebony statue.

“I’m Mrs. Witworth,” Sara said. “Elizabeth, Mrs. Donaldson, told you about me? Yes, well, the leaves, you see, with my back I needed to have someone take the leaves away and my husband is—my husband is too busy to do it.” Sara looked at the man’s expressionless face. It probably wasn’t a good idea to tell him that John was out of the country. One never knew. Although he seemed all right.

He stood with his arms hanging loosely at his sides. He wore tattered denim pants and a faded plaid shirt. His hair was cut close to his skull and his face was black and shining with the mist that hung in the air. Blacker than she had ever seen before, like onyx. He looked young with his smooth skin, almost a child, but Sara sensed that he was older and that behind his eyes he kept things hidden. The man opened his mouth to speak.”La cle?”

Sara frowned. “Laclay? Oh, yes, of course, the key.” She found the key to the garden shed and handed it to him; he turned abruptly and walked to the back of the yard where the tools were kept, pulling out a rake and the wheelbarrow while Sara stood back inside the kitchen, watching him from behind the curtains so he couldn’t see her. He raked all morning without stopping, coaxing the wet leaves into big piles and then carting them off with the wheelbarrow out onto the street so the city could take them away. After three hours, he knocked at the backdoor again. When Sara opened it, he handed her the key. She looked past him into the yard. He’d gotten rid of most of the leaves on the lawn, but there were still the borders. “Demain. Je viendrai demain.”

He left then as softly as he had arrived. Sara clutched the warm key in her hand. How strange, she thought. I should at least try to find out what his name is, and what on earth am I supposed to pay him?

He came the next day and attacked the leaves with the same rhythmic vigor of the day before. His sleeves were rolled up and the muscles under his taut skin rippled as he worked. Sara watched him from the kitchen. She would ask him in for tea, she thought. After all, it was the only polite thing to do, but what would she say to him? Her French was terrible—she’d had a couple of semesters at Sweet Briar, but that was all. Perhaps not today, but tomorrow, she would ask him.

Everyday the wind brought more leaves swirling through the air to cover the ground, and the man from Ghana came to rake them away. Sara watched him from the window, biting her lip. When he came to the door for the fifth time to give her the key to the garden shed, she decided all in an instant.

“But you must come in for some tea,” she said, flustered, and then found she was blushing. “You do drink tea, don’t you?” Sara opened the door wider and gestured at the kitchen table.”Please,” she said. “Please let me get you some tea.” The man hesitated, looking around him uneasily. He stood in the doorway for a minute and then stepped inside and stood against the counter.

“Please, sit down,” Sara said, pulling out a chair. “Asseyez-vous. I’m sorry but my French is terrible.” She thought for a minute trying to remember.”Je ne parle pas beaucoup de français.”

The man sat down, smiling up at her with a strange twitch of his mouth.”That’s all right. I speak English.”

Sara looked at the man, startled. “But I thought. . . everyday you asked me for the key in French and you never said anything and I just assumed, naturally. . .”

The man smiled, then shrugged. “It’s easier this way. I can choose the people I wish to talk to.”

Sara eyes twitched and she nearly laughed out loud. How strange, she knew exactly what he felt. If only she could pull the same kind of trick, pretend she was mute or spoke only Russian. She turned away from him and busied herself with the tea things. She had some ginger cake leftover from several days ago. It was a little old, but she thought it would be all right. Or maybe he didn’t like ginger cake. All of a sudden she was nervous, and felt that it had been silly, impulsive, to invite this strange man into her kitchen to drink tea with her.

Holding the tea tray she turned toward the man with a bright, social smile on her face.”Well now, a little tea should warm us up on such a chilly day. I imagine that this weather must seem very cold to you compared to your own country. I always think of Africa as being hot, steamy jungles and parched savannah, that sort of thing. My husband’s in Indonesia right now and I keep imagining how he must be sweltering.” Sara bit her lip. She was babbling and she’d forgotten that she hadn’t wanted to tell him that she was alone in the house, that John was away. She poured tea for them both and handed the man his cup, nodding at the sugar bowl.”I didn’t know if you’d want sugar or lemon or milk, so I put everything out.”

The man poured milk into his tea and added several spoonfuls of sugar.

“My friend, Elizabeth, Mrs. Donaldson, you know the woman with the white brick house down the street, she says you’re from Ghana.”

The man smiled, his lips splitting open like a melon to reveal dazzling white teeth in his dark face.”Senegal. I’m from Senegal originally. I guess she got it confused. Some people here think all African countries are the same.”

“But your wonderful English, did you learn that in the schools there, or—?”

“I was in London for two years going to school. I studied engineering with the idea of going back home and helping my own people, but there’s no work there. I thought about going back to London, but I have a cousin here and he helped me get settled.”

“But surely you can find something better than leaf raking—not that it isn’t decent work and I don’t know what I would have done if you hadn’t shown up, but there must be some work in your own field.”

The man smiled. “I don’t have a residence permit—yet. So for now I’m taking whatever work I can get. Most of the money I earn I send back to my wife. Maybe later she’ll be able to join me with the children. We have two boys and a girl.”

Sara looked down at her hands. “It must be very hard for you to be without them,” she said finally, looking up and out the window toward the yard.

“It is. But it’s what I have to do. It’s the only way for us to survive right now.”

“I had a little boy,” Sara said softly. She bit her lip. In all the time they’d been living in Holland, she’d never told anyone that. She had grown tired of the pity on people’s faces, tired of their panicked glances and shuffling confusion. What do you say to a woman whose child has died? “I had a little boy,” she repeated, looking down at her hands again.”But he died. Two years ago.” She stared at her hands for a long time, at the soft blue veins under her skin, at her nails which were beginning to yellow and split. The sound of her own breathing mingled with the breath of the man across the table. As the silence lengthened she could hear the swell of blood in her ears, a rising ebb and flow that made her sick and dizzy, as if she were sitting in a small boat on a rising sea. When she raised her head, he was looking at her, right at her face, into her eyes, and she was glad that he at least had the strength not to turn away. “How did he die?”

Sara brought her hands up to her face and rubbed her eyes. “He got sick. Leukemia. We tried everything, my husband and I.We went to different doctors all over the country. He was our only son. Our only child.” Sara’s voice trailed off. Her breathing was coming faster and she suddenly wished she hadn’t said anything. It had been impulsive and foolish to unburden herself to a stranger like this. She had only meant to offer him tea.

The man had not taken his eyes from her face. He sat with his hands clasped in front of him on the table, his pink nails like petals on the dark wood.”What was his name?”

“Nathan.” Sara released the word in a sharp exhalation of air. It had been months since she’d said her son’s name out loud and now it hung between them like a bubble, iridescent and fragile in the still air.

After the man had gone, Sara realized with a start that she’d forgotten to ask him his name. She had been so caught up, hypnotized almost, in the strength she felt coming from his body, rising off his skin and into her blood. They had said little; he’d drunk several cups of sweet milky tea, she had paid him the amount he’d asked, and then he excused himself, slipping out the door and through the mist like a shadow.

That night when she lay in bed listening to the steady rhythm of the dogs’ breathing, she thought about the man from Senegal. She wondered what his life was like, living without his wife and children, an illegal alien in a cold, northern country. Tomorrow when he came she would give him more money. A lot of money, enough so he could send for his family. Maybe she could even ask John to use his influence as an official to get him a residence permit. Sara closed her eyes, picturing the man’s face. She liked the dignity of his expression, the way he held his body carefully upright. She thought about how his forearms looked, glowing with sweat, muscles rippling under the bare skin. A warmth coursed through her body and Sara opened her eyes, startled. Was she attracted to this man? Was it his body she wanted, the feel of his arms around her waist, supporting her, keeping her thin frame from collapsing on itself. It didn’t seem possible. He couldn’t have been older than 25 or 26.She was almost twice his age, and yet she did not feel old at all, not at this moment, not when she closed her eyes and thought about the way the man’s shoulders had looked, moving under the thin cotton of his shirt. She would be 48 next month, old enough to be his mother, but she was not a mother, not anymore. What was she now except the shadow of a wife to John? She could count on both hands the number of times she and John had made love since Nathan’s death. For months afterward, she had slept in the guest room, unable to bear the comfort of John’s arms. She hadn’t wanted him to touch her, she hadn’t wanted anyone to touch her, in those first empty month’s when, at night, the house rose up silently around her like a tomb.

It hadn’t always been that way with John. He had been gentle and considerate of her from the very beginning. They had met when she was a junior at Sweet Briar and he had just graduated from law school in New Haven. He had courted her solemnly for almost two years, waiting for her to graduate from college, although she had been willing to throw her education away, just to be with him. Everyone had said it was a brilliant match. The beautiful daughter of a Virginia horse breeder and the handsome son of a prominent New England family who had made their money in banking. John had rejected the world of finance to work in government, and he was still of that breed of men who believed that politicians, given the right sense of balance and integrity, could perform good deeds for their country.

Sara had been inexperienced in sexual matters when she married John. She had had her share of kissing and petting in the back seats of cars, but John was her first lover, and she had fond memories of their first night together. But after months and years of trying to have a child, their love-making was no longer pleasurable and reassuring; it became a cruel joke as her barren body refused again and again to establish new life. With the birth of Nathan had come a sense of redemption, a feeling of being saved from the dank miasma of the abyss, but since his death she had cut herself off from her husband, withdrawing from the touch and smell of his skin, curling around her cold belly like the embryo of a fish.

Sara slipped out of bed and padded in her bare feet over the cold floor to the window. Light from the streetlamps and the moon illuminated the yard. The man from Senegal had raked away most of the leaves, but he would come back tomorrow and she would ask him his name and give him money for his family. She was hoping that when he thanked her he would shake her hand so she could feel the strength in his body, the shock and pleasure of human touch.

She waited all morning for him to come, pacing in the kitchen with a cup of tea, the dogs tracking her movements, anxious by this sudden display of restlessness. But he didn’t come, not that day or the next and Sara felt at first disappointment and then a slow creeping anger at what she came to see as his betrayal.

Two days before John was due home she walked to the mailbox in the driving rain and pulled out a folded note, a scrap of lined yellow paper, its ink smudged by the wet. She hurried back inside and stood in her kitchen, dripping onto the linoleum; she flipped the paper open. I couldn’t come back—have to keep moving or leave the country. Thank you for your kindness. Barou.

The name was smudged, and Sara ran her fingers over the smeared ink, mouthing it over and over. Barou. In its rhythm she tried to conjure up a picture of the man’s homeland, his origins, his family. She slipped the note in her pocket and put on the kettle for tea. In the still air of the kitchen, she said the name over and over to herself like a mantra, Barou. He had given her something, a look, the way he held his body, the strong tilt of his head, something she could grasp onto in the dark hours. She stared out the window at the gray rain. When it stopped she would take the dogs out, over to the park where she’d never been and run with them on the wet grass.

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