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River Blindness

ISSUE:  Spring 2015

Ellen WeinsteinThat night Rachel and her grandmother ate dinner at a local restaurant, at a table in the backyard, which had an air of festivity—white lights strung along the fence and highlife pumping from the speakers in the corners. Groups of office workers and tourists and expats lounged in plastic chairs, talking and drinking. Rachel and her grandmother rarely dined out, and the act felt celebratory, although they were not celebrating. 

When they finished eating, Rachel’s grandmother drank a brandy and leaned back in her chair. “I’m sorry this has been so hard for you,” she said. 

“He was a hypocrite,” Rachel said. 

Her grandmother said yes, that seemed to be a prerequisite for everything these days. But they all had to find a way forward. “Otherwise you could spend the rest of your life trying to grind answers out of the dead.”

Earlier that day a letter had arrived. It detailed the discovery of Rachel’s grandfather’s body in the Volta region near the border of Togo. He had been in Ghana after all. Not roaming the Earth as they had imagined. 

For two years he had been missing, and in that time Rachel’s grandmother had started acting as if he were gone for good. She shut down the mission he had founded in the rural north and moved her granddaughter down to Accra, and enrolled her in a private American high school. When the letter confirming her husband’s death arrived, she cried, but not for long. She summarized the letter for Rachel in three impossible statements: His body had been found in a cave; he’d been stabbed; he was with a prostitute at the time of his death. She didn’t say how the police knew about the prostitute, and Rachel didn’t ask. The letter assured the family of the deceased that the regional police commander would do everything in his power to find the person or persons responsible.

Rachel’s grandmother ordered another brandy. She leaned a little too far forward and started talking about hunting hogs when she was a child in Texas—how when they got angry you could hear them popping their jaws. They were sharpening their cutters, but they would have been better off making a run for it, moving on to the next thing. What she was saying, she said, was of course Rachel was upset. But she didn’t have to go sharpening her teeth on people, picking fights she couldn’t win. “Think about your future. Choose your battles.” 

And thus, upon the advice of her grandmother, a few days later Rachel chose to battle a classmate. Vanessa was also a junior—a Garifuna from Honduras. Her father traded in agricultural commodities, and she had lived all over the world. She was popular and, Rachel had to admit, impossibly well-educated. In social studies Vanessa leaned forward in her chair and told the class about the IMF-funded landgrabs on the northern coast of Honduras. Women were losing their communal land rights. She had watched her mother on the phone with a sister, crying with rage. “It’s hard being both from and not from a place,” she said. “I feel helpless living abroad, but when I go back home I get treated like I’m something my mother picked up in the duty-free shop. I’m starting to understand what it means to be part of the diaspora. We are scattered.” Then she said she finally felt like she belonged somewhere. The school was an international place, and they were all in it together, learning how to be of use to their home communities. “I feel so lucky now.”

Rachel, who had woken up miserable and hating everything, and by midmorning was feeling even worse, pointed to the kente cloth on the girl’s head. “You know the Asante probably sold your ancestors into slavery.”

“You better watch it,” the teacher said.

“Did you learn that in Bible school?” Vanessa said, delivering the insult dispassionately, as if she felt obligated to keep up appearances. The look on her face was of genuine pity. 

After class Rachel cornered her and tried to punch her in the throat. A few years before on a road in the north, she had watched a man laid flat by a punch to the neck. He had folded like a ladder, raising a puff of dust as he hit the ground. She tried to muster the vitriol to replicate this, but the punch ended up being more of a light knuckle. 

Vanessa jumped back, a hand on her neck. “What the hell?”

“You don’t know shit,” Rachel said.

“I know you’re a freak. I know that boy you’re after is way out of your league.” 

His name was Gabriel. The idea of him had, day by day, been getting her through the school year. A teacher came running. Vanessa turned quickly and untouchably benevolent, saying she was fine, they had been messing around, and there was no need to write up the girl: no reason to get in the way of her education.

That night the school phoned and reported Rachel’s sins. She was sitting with her grandmother at the table in their house, a small cement-block structure in Osu. They had finished dinner, and her grandmother was waiting for Roger, her new boyfriend, to stop by as he did every night. Her grandmother fielded the phone call with calm and then hung up and turned to Rachel. “What’s the matter with you? This is your one shot at college in the States.” She was frowning, but her tone was neutral and relaxed. She seemed done with caretaking in some fundamental way. Not indifferent, just done.

“I don’t like that school,” Rachel said. 

“I can tell,” her grandmother said. “One more year. Just hang tight.” 

Rachel wanted to say that even in towns in the north where children ran from her because they thought she was a ghost, she had belonged more freely than at this school. Instead she told a lie: “I have a boyfriend now.”

Her grandmother, looking surprised and pleased, asked his name. 

“I didn’t have to run after him like you run after Roger,” Rachel said.

“Ah,” said her grandmother, with a little internal smile that made Rachel’s stomach turn. “But Roger runs after me.”

As if they had summoned him out of the street, Roger appeared at the back door. “Hello ladies,” he said, with a big smile.

 He was a balding white USAID officer in his late forties, almost twenty years younger than Rachel’s grandmother. He seemed to have been stitched together, with long thin arms hanging off a fireplug body, a face sunburned pink despite more than a decade under the sub-Saharan African sun. Around Rachel he was nervous and annoyingly earnest. He fidgeted and asked relentless questions about her social life, or stood over her and made suggestions while she did her homework, or pestered her for ideas for weekend trips they might all take together.

“I’m going for a walk,” Rachel said, standing up.

“Now?” Roger asked, looking a little hurt. “Is that really a good idea?”

Her grandmother smiled up at Roger. “Don’t worry. She can handle herself.” It was more a dismissal than support.

For much of his life Rachel’s grandfather was a Texan Jew, son of the Reform rabbi in Galveston. He worked as a hydraulic engineer, his wife as a high school social studies teacher. They married young and a decade later had one daughter. In 1985, when she was nineteen, she and her boyfriend left their ten-month-old baby at home with her parents and went to a party. On the way home they were killed in a car crash. “Killed by a drunk driver,” Rachel’s grandfather would say—not, “Killed with your father in a car crash.” Not, “Your father was driving drunk.”

The death of his daughter destroyed him. “Destroyed us,” her grandmother said. When Rachel turned two, her grandfather decided to leave behind the relativity and liberalism of his father’s Judaism and settle in the moral certainty of evangelical Christianity. His wife followed him to the new religion—somewhat reluctantly, Rachel now suspected—and then to Ghana, where they established a ministry in a small town a dozen kilometers outside the northern capital of Tamale. 

They lived there peacefully enough. Her grandfather was often absent, traveling across West Africa, attending conferences, helping establish churches and Christian radio stations, consulting on sanitation and water systems. At home he could be difficult, getting into shouting matches with his wife or sinking into silences that lasted for days. But he was different with her, squatting beside her when he spoke, carrying her through the blinding afternoons on his shoulders, reading sonnets to her before bed, taking her out nights to show her the stars, teaching her basic hydraulics by the rain barrels, how to harness gravity to control water. She adored him. 

When she turned thirteen he began to change in inexplicable ways. He relinquished the idea of a 10,000-year-old Earth, announcing to a shocked wife and granddaughter that he had emerged from a decade-long fever, that the Earth was a billion years old and no single couple spawned the human race. There was no violation of a covenantal relationship with God, he said, no Fall. You couldn’t deny the suffering of the innocent. “Suffering,” he said, “has been woven into the fabric of the universe from the beginning of time.” 

Her grandmother was furious over his break with Christianity. She said if he had planned on mulling over why the innocent suffer, they might as well have stayed Jews. The reassertion of science in the household seemed to have freed the social studies teacher in her, and when her husband was gone she started sneaking Rachel off to eat guinea fowl with Peace Corps volunteers in Tamale. They attended concerts, a beauty-dance competition where a man rolled a condom onto a banana and the entire audience fell out of its chairs laughing. She started giving Rachel different kinds of books: histories of the missionary role in the slave trade and colonization of Africa, books with titles like The Black Man’s Burden: Africa and the Curse of The Nation-State—books that made Rachel wonder, although she never dared ask, if all she knew of her grandmother’s life as a missionary had been a lie.

At the same time as her grandfather was rejecting the literal interpretation of Adam and Eve, he was growing increasingly obsessed with purity, as if by this alone he might still call himself a religious man. Rachel had just hit puberty, and he began to treat her changing body as if it were a badly wired appliance that might, at any moment, burst into flames—lecturing her on keeping her virginity and purity, insisting that she no longer walk the five feet across their tiny high-fenced courtyard to the washroom with only a wrap tied under her armpits. 

One day her grandfather left for a trip to Kumasi to look at a church he’d helped establish there. He said he would be gone a week, but he didn’t return for a month. When his wife demanded to know where he’d been, he replied that he’d gotten held up by business and “it’s really none of yours.” They began to argue. Rachel went outside to bathe. On the way back across the courtyard from the washroom she wore a white tank and wax cloth tied around her waist. Her grandfather was standing beside a rain barrel, a bowl in his hand, staring at her with an expression of fear and anger that was wholly new. 

“Granddaddy?” she said.

He reached down and filled the bowl with water. Then he said, “You should know that men’s animal drive for sex always wins in the end. Not African or Muslim men. Allmen. Lord knows you’ll learn it soon enough wearing that.” 

Rachel replied, bewildered, that she was sure she’d know danger when she saw it.

“Your mother thought that, too,” her grandfather said. “She ended up dead.” 

She left her grandmother and Roger holding hands in the kitchen. Outside the night was hot. Chop bars did a brisk trade with late diners, and couples and partygoers ate at folding tables or sitting on crates. She turned onto a quiet side street like her own, deserted and poorly lit, lined with cement houses, the occasional crack of bluish light edging a curtain. She had heard Gabriel’s father was preaching in a church somewhere in Osu, and as she walked she scanned the houses for one that might contain a congregation—might contain Gabriel sweating through an evening service, fighting to keep her out of his head. Around a corner somebody had scrawled “The resident is president”on a wall. A group of small boys paused their game of kick-the-can to let her pass. She killed a mosquito, and found blood on her arm and her palm. A malaria carrier? Was Roger right that she shouldn’t be out after dark? In the last couple of years, two dozen women had been raped and murdered in the streets of Accra. The police had proven so incompetent in solving the murders that there was talk that the government was somehow involved: the opposition party killing women to humiliate the president before the upcoming election, or the president’s wealthy wife, despite her work in women’s health, hiring killers to flex her political muscle. A woman who was silly enough to walk alone, people said, when she could take a tro-tro, silly enough to go out at night when she could go out during the day, was asking for trouble. The murdered women were all native Ghanaians, and Rachel was an obruni. She wondered if this fact had informed her grandmother’s apparent indifference to her walking out alone. Her grandmother had always insisted it was morally corrosive to accept things offered to you because you were white, but her grandmother seemed to be somebody else entirely now that her husband had been murdered. And there was that word again: “murder.” It was as if she had one day leaned on a wall in her house and fallen right through. She wanted to tell Gabriel. He should know that her grandfather was dead, that prayer hadn’t been enough. He should know that the things that happened to strangers could happen to you, too. 

It took her another half hour to locate a church among the houses. She sat down to wait for the service to be over. But when the door opened and the churchgoers poured out, Gabriel wasn’t among them. 

Gabriel was thin, everything about him fine-boned and contained except for his mouth, which was broad and tender, its corners extending well into his cheeks. He was often opening it when he shouldn’t be, constantly uncontrollably inappropriately cracking jokes, and this, along with his kindness, endeared him to people. He was truly kind to everyone, and to her when nobody else would be. 

They were the only missionary kids at the high school. They had arrived at the same time the previous year, and both were Americans who had spent almost their entire lives in West Africa. Rachel considered their similarities a sign, whereas she dismissed their differences—Gabriel was black and she was white, he appeared to still be a Christian, while she was obviously not—as either minor or temporary. But despite their kinship and displacement, Gabriel seemed content at the school. He was friends with all kinds of kids, and Rachel would often hear his barking laugh from around a corner or find him kicking a football with another boy along the tended lawns and brick pathways. 

Two weeks before the letter arrived, back when she still called her grandfather missing and not dead, she and Gabriel sat out in the canteen after school and finished off a pineapple. Afterward Gabriel turned out his cheek to show Rachel a collection of shiny pink welts. “I’m allergic,” he said, “but I can’t stop eating them.” She laughed and said that she was like that with everything. His wiped his hands on his pants and started asking her questions about herself, her family, her life in the north. He could be very serious and still, and this was how he listened now, watching her with a focus that could have been his hands on her face. She told him how the church group in New Mexico that had supported her grandfather for as long as she could remember had cut its funding after he’d changed his views on creation, and how for a few years she didn’t know where the little money they had was coming from. She talked about Roger and her grandmother, how they were openly dating, even though her grandfather might return at any time—how they sat out nights on the patio, smoking and drinking and listening to Voice of America. Her grandmother never spoke about money, but ever since Roger had started hanging around there seemed to be enough of it. What would her grandfather say when he came back and found Roger there with them, found they no longer attended church?

Gabriel leaned in and said quietly, “You could pray for guidance and release. I’ll pray with you, if you like.”

She wanted to say yes, but instead she told him the truth. As a child she’d prayed for small things: her grandfather to return from a trip, her grandmother to heal from an illness. Her prayers were sometimes answered, but when she’d invited Jesus into her heart she had found Him otherwise occupied. By the time she was a teenager she knew in some fundamental way she would never feel Christ’s presence. She said the closest she had come was one day when she stood in the bush outside her town among the towering red termite hills, watching rain clouds gather in a massive sky. She sensed then that everything was infinitely bigger and more beautiful than she could comprehend and that she was part of that bigness. But even then she knew it wasn’t Jesus or the Holy Spirit or anything you could put a name to. It was just this huge hot wind blowing right through you as if you were an open door. 

Gabriel looked down at his hands and made a joke about her door not being a door, but ajar. 

“I just think everybody raised in the church will lose their faith at some point,” Rachel said. “It’s inevitable.”

He rubbed his cheek. “My mouth feels like I’ve been sucking on a live wire. I should have known better.” He seemed injured and nervous, but she sensed something underneath, hope or maybe desire. She leaned forward and kissed his mouth. He quickly pulled away.

“Yesterday I met a guy who thinks Tupac’s dead,” he said. Tupac was another thing they had in common, with each other and with everybody else in Ghana.

“Tupac is dead,” Rachel said. 

He was extracting himself and she couldn’t stop him—couldn’t tell him that he shouldn’t have dragged Tupac into it—that anybody she liked as much as she liked him had no right to negate the tragedy of Tupac’s death. “What’s wrong with you?” she said. “How do you listen to Tupac if you don’t know he’s dead?”

“He’s in Cuba with his mother,” Gabriel said energetically.

“Are you kidding me? The FBI had Tupac killed because his mother was a Panther. He’s not in Cuba with her, he’s dead. The only thing that’s left of Tupac comes through our speakers. That’s the beauty of it. We get what’s left of Tupac.” 

Gabriel squinted at her, looking miserable. “What if you’re no good for me?” he said. “I mean, you don’t even go to church.”

“Nobody here goes to church.”

He leaned in, as if to kiss her again. “I’m talking about you, Rachel. What if you’re no good for me?” 

She was sitting stung and silent when he raised a palm to the sky. She turned. Another student was walking toward them, a boy named Yuri.

“You ready?” he said to Gabriel. 

Yuri had never lived in the States, but he had an easy American drawl. Everybody at the school knew him. He was an embassy kid, the son of a Dutch diplomat and a Vietnamese novelist. It was rumored around school that his mother, the novelist, beat his father—that the family had been forced to transfer to West Africa after she had whipped him with a belt at a party for the president of Portugal. These rumors, like the birth myth of a young god, only raised Yuri’s standing in the school. The few words he’d spoken to Rachel seemed to be for the sole purpose of clarifying that a girl who’d never been to Europe—who knew only English and Gonja, a language spoken in a small rectangle of the rural Muslim north—was not worth his time or interest.

Gabriel glanced at Rachel. 

“Come on, man,” Yuri said. 

Gabriel stood up and said, “I’ll see you around.”

After that he avoided her, and she found herself obliged to stalk him across the school’s sprawling campus. The few times she caught sight of him, he was at the center of a group of boys with airs of worldly condescension as high and impenetrable as embassy walls.

After Rachel gave up looking for Gabriel’s father’s church, she returned to the quiet house. Her grandmother’s bedroom door was closed. She went to her room and lay down in the dark to listen to her tapes. The voice of the dead man moaned through the small speaker: “Show me some happiness again / I’m goin blind.” Then she wrote Gabriel a note. 

I’m sorry I scared you off. You can pray with me if you like, and do all kinds of other things too. You’ll see how good I am for you. 

The next morning, she slipped the square of paper into his desk in an empty homeroom. All day she searched but didn’t find him. After school, she returned home and climbed back into bed. The air was thick in her lungs, the chickens scratched in the trash heap outside the window. Soon her grandmother was outside, washing pots and singing to herself. Rachel closed her eyes. She woke disoriented, not knowing how much time had passed. Roger was in the doorway, smiling. “You have a visitor,” he said. “I didn’t catch his name. Yeti, maybe?” He chuckled at his joke, but stopped when she didn’t smile. “I think he’s from your school. Asian guy—tall.”

In the living room Yuri was lounging on the couch as if he owned it: eyes closed, arms behind his head, long legs extended. Roger had followed her into the living room and stood beside her, waiting for an introduction that Rachel didn’t give. But Yuri was good with adults, and within a minute he had Roger sitting beside him, talking about his work. They were trying to eradicate onchocerciasis, a parasitic cause of blindness that was spread by black flies breeding in rivers. Roger talked about some of the problems dealing with government, local people, and pharmaceutical companies, and Yuri nodded along beside him, as if he were well aware of the difficulties and couldn’t agree more. Rachel stood watching them. It was the first time she had heard details of Roger’s work and she found it surprisingly interesting. She asked if that was the disease that drove people to suicide from itching. 

“That’s a bit of a glamorization,” Roger said, looking pleased.

“You’d think they’d have a vaccine,” Yuri said. 

“You would,” Roger said. “Or better spraying of breeding sites. It’s the kind of thing that looks like it has a clear solution, but once you peel back the layers you find a whole mess of incentives, institutions, and beliefs driving the disease to be what it is.”

“Sounds like an excuse,” Rachel said. Various aid organizations had come and gone in the town where she’d grown up. They were like parasites, her grandfather had said. They fed off the town’s system, leaving only thirst and imbalance behind. 

Rachel’s grandmother called Roger into the kitchen—“let the kids alone”—and he reluctantly excused himself. Yuri rearranged his long limbs on the couch and gave her such an easy grin that she couldn’t help but feel a little flattered. She sat down in the chair across from him. 

 “I’ve got a message for you,” he said. “Gabriel wants to see you. He’s got something he needs to tell you.” 

Gabriel’s parents had a boat, Yuri said. The whole family was packing it in for good, heading up the river. Missionary style. He spoke slowly, as if he had been entrusted with the delivery of some precious, fragile thing. “You must think I’m lying. Look at this.” He jumped to his feet and dropped his pants. His briefs were stark and white, straight out of the package. A long thin slash ran up his thigh. “He sliced me open. He wanted me to drive in and pick you up. I said I wouldn’t and he got all worked up and started waving around his tent stakes.” He looked grave and ridiculous with his pants around his knees, the cut on his thigh pink and raw. 

She almost laughed. “Pull up your pants,” she said. 

He obeyed, doing up his belt. “You know how it is once Gabe gets going.” She didn’t know how it was when Gabe got going—Gabe all worked up, desperate to see her one last time. “Come on, Rachel,” Yuri said, hopeful, almost pleading. “I’ll take you to Gabe. You won’t regret it.”

It was enough to convince her. Anything would have been. 

Rachel’s grandmother had gone out with Roger, so Rachel left her a note saying she was going for a ride with the friend Roger had met and would be back later that night. Outside Yuri’s black Land Rover was parked in front of the house. 

“I hit a guinea fowl on the way here,” he said. “It’s all over the tires.” He held open the passenger-side door for her and then climbed in the driver’s side. “Put on your belt,” he said. “Embassy policy.”

“So Dutch.” 

They headed east out of Accra and then onto the Tema Motorway toward the Volta region and the border and the limestone hills where her grandfather’s body had been found. The roadsides were lush and green in the early evening light. Long stretches of plains soon turned to tropical forest, and rolling green mountains appeared on the horizon. Cold air pumped into their laps from the dashboard, and Yuri played something electronic and European-sounding on the CD player. Rachel leaned her head back against the leather seat and listened, surprised by how much she liked it. At one point she said, “The land is so different here than in the North. We’d be driving through bushfires right now.”

“Smart people up there, burning their land.”

“They’re flushing out the grasscutters—” Rachel said.

But Yuri interrupted her: “I know.” 

She glanced over at his profile. He seemed uninterested, even smug. This was the version of Yuri she had somehow failed to remember when he was standing in her living room. They drove in silence, the road and mountains falling into shadows as the sun set behind them. Yuri steered smoothly around goats, chickens, the occasional child, a man on a bicycle balancing a two-by-four on his head. Everything outside seemed distant, like a TV playing with the sound off. Only the interior of the car seemed real, the cold air spewing from the dashboard and the steady beat of the music. They passed a church with a mural on its side of a yellow-haired Christ glowing in the dusk, surrounded by African children. What would Gabriel say? How did a black American kid in Africa as a missionary feel about a white Christ? She remembered her grandfather coming into her room loose and bright-eyed one night when she was ten or eleven and shocking her by recounting the three ways you could tell Jesus was Jewish: He went into his father’s line of work; he thought his mother was a virgin; his mother thought he was God. Now she wondered if her grandfather had been drinking.

“My grandfather died around here,” she said. “He was a minister.”

Yuri said he was sorry.

“They found his body in a cave near Hohoe. He was with a prostitute.” 

“Ironic,” Yuri said, steering smoothly around a large pothole. Then he made a joke about the wilds of Africa where you had to go to a whore-cave instead of a whorehouse. 

She wondered what would happen if she tried to hit him. Instead, she asked, “Have you ever been to Elmina?”

“The town?”

“The slave fort.”

He shrugged and said he’d been to one of them, he didn’t remember which.

She said in Elmina visitors could sit in the chapel where the slave traders sat with their wives and families, right over the dungeon where they kept men and women and children chained to the wall. “There’s a grate so the people in church can hear everything—the crying, the beatings.” 

“They beat them during church?” Yuri spoke lightly. It chilled her, his flirting. She reached out and turned down the AC. “I’m not making you hot?” he said with a grin.

“Fuck off.”

“A dirty girl.” He sounded approving. 

The sun had set. Yuri checked the odometer and then leaned forward, searching for a turnoff in the darkness. Soon they pulled onto a dirt road with potholes the size of barrels. He put the vehicle into four-wheel drive. “I don’t know how people get around in those tro-tros,” he said. “I could never go native like you and Gabe. How do you sleep without air-conditioning?” 

She didn’t answer. 

He said, “Gabriel lies awake all night touching himself to Christ’s brotherly love.”

She tried to summon the image of Gabriel greeting her with his big easy smile, coiling a rope by the river, washing down a deck.

 “I thought you’d like that,” Yuri said, sounding hurt. He pulled into a clearing and stopped the car. 

After the air-conditioned car ride, the night air felt like a sauna. A bright moon lit the forest around them—for this Rachel was grateful. Yuri had the only flashlight. 

“The boat’s over here,” he said. 

She followed him, reminding herself that she could walk back down the road to a house and ask to sleep on the floor, in the morning catch a ride with some NGO workers coming in from the east for a day of wine and Italian food in Accra. This possibility followed her as they made their way down the path to the river, where nothing was waiting for them: not Gabriel, not his parents, just a small boat with a motor on the back, a canopy over the steering wheel, and an empty deck. Somehow she was not surprised. 

“Take off your shoes,” Yuri said.

She paused. She’d ridden in on her own fantasy and insolence, yet it was still there, this ache and pop in her jaw, the need to crack a stone in her teeth, bend the night to her will. She slipped off her shoes and stepped onto the boat. The deck was cool under her bare feet. A fish broke the surface of the river. Yuri climbed in behind her, pulled a key from his pocket, and turned on the ignition. The engine coughed a couple of times, roared awake, and they pulled into the river. 

She sat on a bench behind Yuri at the helm and watched the black water and shadow forest running along the banks. The air was fresh on her face, the moonlight broke before them on the water. The roar of the boat was comforting, like the noise of a fan. It was a very nice boat, she thought, to be sitting there by itself along the shore. He must pay somebody to guard it. Then Yuri pulled to a stop in the middle of the river and turned off the motor. He got out of the seat and sat down beside her on the bench. “Hello,” he said, smug and expectant. She briefly considered trying to knock him into the water.

“Tell me, Yuri,” she said. “How’d you get the cut?”

“Some Swede with a broken bottle. At a bar by your house.”

“You’re such a liar,” she said.

Ah, he said with a smile, but wasn’t that the fun of it? Then he leaned in, placed his teeth on her neck and ran his tongue along her skin. Her heart dropped into her crotch, a sensation so startling it took her a moment to realize it was fear and not desire. 

“Stop,” she said, moving down to the end of the bench. He stared at her, uncomprehending, and then slid down after her and put an arm around her waist. She switched to the bench across from him.

He seemed genuinely shocked. “Come on,” he said. 

“Come on, what?”

“Don’t tell me you don’t want this.”

“I don’t want this.”

“But I read your note,” he said, aggrieved, as if his feelings had been hurt. “I know what you want.”

Gabriel is waiting popped into her head. But Gabriel was gone. She saw him with his family across rivers and borders, past the throngs of men, the soldiers with guns, the women selling egg sandwiches and cassava, through dusty towns with women working and men drinking in the heat, through the cities, with the men in suits in air-conditioned buildings, on phones with the Europeans, driven by his faith away from her, by the hand of the man-god Jesus Christ. Maybe, she thought, he was gone for good. Or maybe he would be at school on Monday—and maybe she wouldn’t. 

Yuri patted the seat between them as if she were a dog he was coaxing onto a couch. She shook her head. 

“What the hell?” The swiftness of his outrage made her queasy. She wondered if she were seasick—if from now on she would be one of those people who could never travel by boat. “Why would you play with me?” he said. “You can’t change your mind now. You know how much work I put into getting us here—into this?” For the second time that day, he unzipped his pants.

Her grandfather had talked about a man’s animal drive for sex, but there was no sex here: This boy wanted to crush her. Anger filled her, so high and clear it could have been grace. This was what she had come for, this anger. 

“I know how you got that cut,” she said. “I heard your mother beats the shit out of your father—that he’s asking for it.”

He said at least he had parents, you little bitch. And she said she had parents, too, she remembered hacking her way out of her father’s skull, and his parents were the little bitches. She said, “Go fuck yourself, you son of two little bitches.”

He was still for a moment, and then he lunged at her. She scrambled up and over the rail and dove into the black water. The river closed around her, water filling her mouth and nose and clothes. She headed in the direction that she thought was shore. Then she surfaced for air and rolled back to look at the boat. Yuri knelt on the bench, his hands on the rail. “Jesus Christ, Rachel,” he shouted. “There’re crocs in there.” 

They all had it, she thought, this hypocrisy. Let Yuri go home and explain this to her grandmother and Roger. Then she imagined the giant reptile steering through the dark water below her, preparing to clamp its jaws around her legs and drag her under, and lost her breath. She broke into a crawl, her shirt ballooning around her. Behind her the boat’s motor roared awake. But before he could reach her, she was out of the water and into the woods, running painfully in her bare feet. Soon she reached the dirt road they had driven in on—the road Yuri would be returning on, searching for her in the shadows. She kept her eyes on the ground, avoiding stones, trying not to think about hookworms burrowing into her feet or all the things she could have caught swimming in an unknown river—schistosomiasis from the river snails, river blindness. Farther down the road she found a shack set back in the trees—an old wooden structure the size of a small latrine, the kind of thing that might collapse at any moment. But Yuri would be coming soon.

Inside, she sat down in the far corner, leaned her head against the spongy wall, and closed her eyes. The shack was damp and smelled of rotting wood. Insects hummed and clicked around her head, blood pounded in her ears. By now Yuri was rolling through the night in his massive car. She would wait for him to pass and then walk down the road until she found somewhere with a phone, a ride home. And tomorrow, when she was dry and clear-thinking, she would get a shovel, a pickax, a pair of scissors, and dismember him at the embassy gates. She closed her eyes and tried to breathe, sinking, finally, into an opaque humming space where time was elastic, so when she opened her eyes again she wasn’t sure how long she had been there or if Yuri had already gone. Her head ached and she itched all over. A cockroach hit the wall above her and dropped into her lap. She brushed it away, shifting to stand up, but a slight movement by the door stopped her. A dark hose lay coiled between her and the door. It raised its head. Not a hose, but a snake: thin, black, and flat-headed, its silver underbelly glowing faintly in the light. A black mamba. It opened its mouth and hissed. 

Rachel held her breath and eased her head back against the wall. And there she waited. The snake stayed resting with its head tucked out of sight, a venomous black coil between her and the world. A band of white gray moonlight crawled across the floorboards and climbed the wall. Her body ached, the left side of her face went numb. The snake slept, and along with it the world slept, too: Gabriel on a thin mattress on a floor; Yuri, having rolled through the silent electronic gates, asleep now in his bed with the imported sheets, in the big walled house that from the outside could have been any embassy house, elegant and fortressed. All over Ghana people slept on mats under trees, on streets and in fields, in mansions, in shacks, on beaches, the bones of the dead sleeping now in their graves, her grandfather’s bones among them. Her grandfather had followed some woman up the path, past the goats and old men on mats, into the mountains, entering the cave on his hands and knees, into darkness. She didn’t know what drove him there to pay for sex with a stranger, but she could imagine now it was a nondecision, a series of events that led you somewhere—that gave you schisto or river blindness or trapped you in a shack with a snake. And then she was a child again, watching her grandfather sleeping on the mat in the shade, waiting for that moment when he opened his eyes and saw her—when he lifted his great lion head and said with a gruffness that barely contained his joy, “You been watching me this whole time?” She no longer had to forgive him all those estranged days that came after, the days he hadn’t known or seen her. The grandfather she had loved was with her, loving her back with his big aching love, telling her that even the stranger he had become would not have wished for her to suffer this. 

She didn’t know how long she stayed there, waiting to be freed, praying to the childhood Christ, the one who would never walk beside her. She was pinned awake, nailed to the moment. Mosquitos fed on her neck, her clothes soaked through and stuck to her skin. The morning came slowly, the dusky gray of dawn seeping into the shack, exposing the rotting walls and floor and the snake. The marching-band racket of birds began, all drums and whistles. The snake uncoiled and slid out the door. 

The following twelve hours Rachel would spend getting home, by foot and car and tro-tro. On Monday she would return to school with her grandmother and Roger in tow, where they would meet with the school counselor who would tell her to “let it go” and focus on getting into college. Her grandmother—turning out to have even less stomach for involving herself than Rachel had imagined—would agree, leaving only Roger to insist that the boy should be punished, expelled, prosecuted: Roger, in all his eagerness and shame that he had not caught on to Yuri when he’d had the chance, now the self-appointed keeper of her purity. But there in the shack Rachel could imagine none of this. She pushed herself off the floor. She was bone-tired, shot through with a dampness that was already swelling into a great sloshing discontent and the unmistakable desire—there was no other way to describe it—to sharpen her teeth on somebody. And it would be a long time coming before she lost that particular urge. 


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