That morning the world was nothing but water: angry, white capped, gray. All signs of land had disappeared. Even the floating islands. A chill wind blew. On our way to the market town of Mopti, from Kabara, the port of Timbuktu, I shivered beneath the blanket I shared with Margaret, our tour leader, while we huddled in the prow of the motorized pirogue.
Adele, a corpulent woman in her late sixties, one of twelve tourists aboard, was seated on the bench behind me. “Fifteen years ago I opened a hair salon in San Diego. It was the smartest move I ever made,” she began. I turned to look at her and wondered how she could think about a hair salon in the middle of the Niger River where, the day before, we had spotted hippos lounging at the water’s edge or resting their square-jawed heads on the surface of the water.
We had seen fishing boats with beautiful patchwork sails made from rice sacks, and near-naked fishermen setting traps and casting nets. We had gone ashore in bright sunshine to see a settlement of nomads, then mud villages where Songhai farmers, Bozo fishers, and Fulani herders lived.
Money! She’s talking about money in the middle of the Niger River!
In a Bozo settlement, tall lanky men slapped their thighs and doubled over in loud, raucous laughter while pointing at Adele and the other obese women in our group.
Along the sandy banks, we had seen termite mounds taller than houses, thorn scrub, Diospyros trees, fields of spiky stalks where millet was harvested, and fields of calabashes. We had seen carmine bee-eaters, pied kingfishers. On a floating island where weavers had woven nests in the reeds, we had seen a fisher eagle. We had heard the piercing shrieks of blacksmith plovers.
Adele’s chatter about her hair salon and how much it had cost her to open it tore the fabric of my thoughts. Money! She’s talking about money in the middle of the Niger River!
Recalling all we had seen the day before helped me control my anger.
Margaret had pointed out Calotrope, a plant of the milkweed family with sap deadly to humans that cows eat in the dry season. I had asked why dead cows along the bank were so evenly spaced. Guiere, our native guide, told me they were victims of hyenas, disease, or old age, which didn’t answer my question but I didn’t press him. At night, we had camped out in tents on the shore under the pearly luster of the moonlit sky.
This memory game reminded me of a game I played when I was a child. Unable to fall asleep at night in my grandmother’s bedroom, I would remember in painstaking detail every piece of furniture, every object d’art, every framed photograph in her crowded living room. This helped me forget how frightened I was when my father left my mother and me, and we had moved in with my grandmother.
It was so much easier to be angry at Adele and blame her for spoiling my experience than it was to admit I was afraid. But afraid of what? The pirogue seemed sturdy enough. I wasn’t afraid it would capsize or sink. I wasn’t afraid of drowning.
That morning when we awoke, the air had cooled but it wasn’t until we were out on the river that the cold wind and waves assaulted us. In a matter of hours, the Niger had changed dramatically.
What was it about this stretch of water that denied the very existence of land? Any shore, even a shore with decaying cow corpses would have been a relief. The water swallowed some of Adele’s words. How did it decide which ones? There were times when I swear that water was filled with something nameless and invisible that followed us like a malevolent spirit, as formless as my fear.
“Where are we?” I managed to ask, relieved to hear the sound of my voice, no matter how small.
Gazing into the grayness, Margaret said, dully, “Lake Debo.”
“Lake Debo?” I repeated. But she didn’t answer.
A lake? How could this be a lake? I recalled crossing the Atlantic from New York to Casablanca, years ago, aboard a Yugoslav freighter. I loved being on the water; I didn’t want that journey to end. This lake seemed larger than the Atlantic. Weren’t lakes surrounded by land? Why couldn’t I ask?
I looked over at Margaret. She seemed so distant. So unreachable. I imagined the flask in her hand under the blanket. It was never too early for her to take a swig.
If only there were a dictionary aboard, I thought, I could look up the word “lake.” The sight of words would comfort me. The orderly rhythm of lines. The shapeliness of letters. The white spaces on the page.
If only Caroline were sitting beside me; Caroline, a spry Canadian journalist of seventy-four who, like me, was here on assignment for a national magazine. Unfortunately, she was sitting in the rear of the pirogue. Caroline was married to the oldest quadriplegic in Canada and had whispered to me that they still had great oral sex. The others mockingly called her “The Butterfly,” jealous of her slender figure, her nimble steps.
I had little tolerance for my other companions, who were not the seasoned adventurers I had expected. Instead, they were wealthy retired people, who had traveled frequently on costly tours like this one, snapping pictures non-stop for their families back home. Even when witch doctors chased them through the fetish market in Bamako, they kept taking pictures though Margaret had told them they had to ask permission first. The witch doctors would have smashed their cameras had not her local staff intervened.
These tourists were game to camp out so long as the boys, (as they called them), piloted the pirogue, pitched the tents, cooked the food, uncorked the vintage wines, and drove the jeeps that carried us over miles and miles of empty roads. I had been astonished to hear Adele say she had toured one-hundred-and-thirty-five countries. I didn’t know how many countries there were but I knew I had seen no where near that number. How could I expect these tourists to understand my penchant for traveling alone on public transport, eating food at local markets, sleeping in cheap hotels?
I wondered about myself. Where was that brave traveler now? Had she stayed home? Without Caroline to hold my hand, what could I do to keep myself together? I felt the heavy dark clouds closing in on me. In vain, I scanned the grayness for a line dividing lake and sky. The fear of losing myself in the water’s hypnotic pull snapped me back to Adele’s voice. “All my life, my mother was my closest friend. We went everywhere together.” Whatever else she said about her mother is lost to me now. But I recall turning towards her, wanting to shake her and shout, For god’s sake, shut up!
For the first time, I noticed her blue eye shadow, as she launched into a tale about the man she dated for eighteen years. “I married him only after my mother died. I needed a companion,” she said, “but he will never replace my mother.”
I could imagine her at dawn, sitting up in the sleeping bag in her tent on the sandy shore, unzipping her make-up case, pulling out her mirror, applying blue shadow with a brush to hide the purple veins that streaked her heavy lids. I felt a twinge of pity for her. Was Adele afraid too? Is that why she was talking so much? Suddenly, despite the strong wind whipping the waves, the cold spray flying in my face, I wanted to say something to calm her, but what could I say when I couldn’t even calm myself?
Roberta Allen is the author of eight books, including Certain People (Coffee House Press). A new edition of her novel, The Dreaming Girl, will be published by Ellipsis Press in fall 2011. Since 1991, she has taught private writing workshops. Recently, she has completed a new story collection and is working on her version of a memoir. A visual artist as well, with work in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, she has exhibited worldwide. She can be found at RobertaAllen.com
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