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Oct/Nov 2014 Fiction

Compositional

by Katherine Forbes Riley

Tapestry artwork by Susan Klebanoff

Tapestry artwork by Susan Klebanoff


i.

A bell-like note rang out as Lucien and Laurelie walked down the crowded sidewalk. Tall, bleached buildings flanked them, intense heat pulsing off their walls. Bodies pressed close, somber suits and white shirts dazzling against black hair and skin. It felt like New York soaked in a thousand straight years of sunlight.

Surely there were city noises, cars and foreign tongues, but in her mind there was nothing but the thud of the heat like a drum and the long clear tones—the first one from behind as they emerged from the Johannesburg train station into the blinding light, and then a second one, keeping pace with them, like a bird might.

"We're being tracked," Lucien murmured, as a third bird answered from down an alley on the opposite side of the street. His hands made fists in the straps of his pack, less in defense—their valuables were in travel wallets wrapped around their waists—than readiness.

The next high whistle made Laurelie's heart skip, for it came from somewhere ahead of them. She searched numberless flat gazes before meeting the fire-bright eyes of a man. He slipped through the crowd like fast water until he was upon her, and then he stopped and slowly turned, watching her pass.

Friend.

This was her first thought, inexplicably, for she had no doubt he was a predator even as she registered his affable smile. His limbs emerged hungry from frayed and faded clothing so old it looked like skin, so different from her crisp cargo pants, her hiking boots barely broken in, still smelling of leather and waterproofing polish. Seeing him, she felt like a new bag and wanted to rub dirt into her skin to mask its fatted shine.

The man was right beside her, so close she could see the life tumbling from his eyes. Then he was gone, melting into the crowd, and she and Lucien were walking faster, almost running, shoulders bumping, boots thumping as they rounded sharp street corners, following the map in Lucien's head to the Johannesburg bus station.

 

ii.

"...ya and they clotheslined me, holding hands like they do, making a net of their arms. Only I knocked one with my elbow and they all took off."

This was John, the wiry Dutchman, so tan as to be barely visible in the shade-drawn living room of the Zoo House. John was a long-term resident at the Zoo and seemed to work there as well; possibly he was also part owner. Whatever the case, he was a fixture there, usually found in the living room, beer in hand.

"They don't like that," agreed Simon, a fleshy but powerful looking Londoner with rosacea creeping like ivy over his face and neck. Simon had arrived the night before, but from the sound of it he had come through a lot, working as some kind of transporter moving unspecified goods between African countries. "A couple of months ago they got me coming out of the bank. I had six million kwacha in my bag to take up to Samfya. But I was wearing it in front, see, and I had my tire iron." He made a fist, held it up in front of his chest. "So this guy, he comes up behind me, wraps his arm around me and grabs hold of my bag. Well, I boinked him, didn't I? Broke it, I did. And do you know what he said? 'Awww, why did you do that?' he said to me!"

Laughter rang out around the darkened living room, but it sounded spiky, febrile. It was early evening, and a scattering of men were ranged about on dingy loungers. All long term residents like John or frequent visitors like Simon, they had just woken from a sort of vigilant nap they took every afternoon and were now talking idly about Lusaka, Zambia—more specifically, about the rampant muggings there. Lucien stood in the doorway listening, for Zambia was his final destination, although where exactly, he wasn't sure; the tribe on whom he would be gathering genomic data was small and moved around. Seeing the men rouse for more beer, he asked about getting to Mansa, where Laurelie could stay in a mission while he scouted around. The question bounced awhile with no takers before John finally shrugged and said he guessed he'd have to find a local bus or hitch because Lusaka was as far as the train went anymore. And Lusaka, they all agreed, was even dodgier than Jo'burg. It was the most dangerous town in Southern Africa right now.

Laurelie, who was listening out of sight behind the door, tried to imagine it. Bizarrely, after eight days here, she longed for an open threat. Maybe these men wouldn't harm you in the light, but they kept no promises after dark. Lucien kept saying, "Please Lars, stay out of their way," and he wouldn't leave her side once the sun went down and the drinking and one-upping began in earnest. Even in the evening, when there was a quickening in their eyes that hadn't yet hardened to a light of destruction, everything she said they ignored; they just looked at her until Lucien repeated it. And in the mornings, when they were so off in their own worlds even Lucien couldn't make them speak, they looked like if you startled them they'd put you down.

 

iii.

Laurelie spent her days in a corner of the backyard with her feet in a blue plastic baby pool and a tiny kitten curled on her knees. There were at least five of them, all mottled brown and dirty white, twining about the environs, their mother nowhere to be found. She nursed a packet of Simba beef crisp and a Coke, making them last; these and Black Label beer were the only things to eat or drink at the Zoo, besides which she craved the sugar and salt. Every hour or so she'd shift her chair, following the shade. The sun's rays stung like a slap. She read Henry Miller and wrote in her journal and thought about how strange it was that life just grew. Occasionally other hostelers wandered through. Every day a few left and more arrived, and most found their way down the narrow hall to the backyard at one time or another. Like Dudley, who sat on the stoop most every day humming tunelessly and chain-smoking. Laurelie had heard him tell his story a dozen times already, but even the first time, when he told it to her, it had a tired ring to it. He said he hadn't been home in a long time, used phrases like "expatriate" and "self-imposed exile" and "the only white South African against apartheid." He was tired looking, too, like he'd been mostly burned through, both his hair and skin going grey. Laurelie put him somewhere between 25 and 45; like most of the backpackers at the Zoo, his face was so sun-lined it was impossible to pinpoint his age any more precisely.

There weren't many women, although a British lady joined her in the pool for three days running. She sidled over like a secret and never gave her name. Laurelie almost wondered if she was a spy. In the dreamlike swelter of that South African backyard, everything resembled itself, but not quite. The grass was too green and thick-bladed, the sunlight too blisteringly bright, and the birdsong was basically psychedelic. The British lady smoked spliffs and talked, but it sound like code for something else, because it didn't make any sense. She told stories about traveling by herself through the homelands and about living with the Tutsis, but the way she interweaved them made it seem as if she'd done both at once, or possibly her mind was too fragmented to distinguish them. She never looked at Laurelie, never paused with the expectation of a response. It was like this was just her animal call, like they were two species sharing the same waterhole.

A few nights before, an American couple had arrived, fresh from the airport. They were older types, the kind with a carefully budgeted itinerary. Forgoing sleep to reset their internal clocks, they'd wandered around the hostel until dark. When they got to the yard, Laurelie heard them murmur, "Oh, this isn't so bad! So what if the beds aren't too clean and neither is the bathroom and the staff seems a little bit off. All we have to do is sleep here!" But the next morning they'd left without even making breakfast, and they never came back.

 

iv.

After their first night at the Zoo, Lucien and Laurelie took to locking their door with a second lock, a combination padlock Lucien bought at a hardware store the next day. The first night, reluctant to pay the two thousand rand—two hundred dollars!—the Zoo charged for an airport pickup, they'd instead taken a train to the city, then a bus to the suburbs, and then walked in the dark for two hours to the hostel. Upon reaching their room they'd dropped their packs and crashed, deaf to the partying going on outside their window, dead to the world until the sun dawned, too dazzling to sleep through. They made soporific love in it, feeling like they were floating, hearing their sweat drip with steady plops onto the floor. Too late they realized the door they'd locked the night before was partly open and their packs looked askew, overstuffed in some places, gaunt in others. But since they'd slept with their valuables, nothing important had been stolen, only their food and a pair of Laurelie's underwear. They decided not to tell anyone, because what would they do? They didn't know where else to go and anyway figured they'd be gone in another day or so, once they got what they needed for their journey north.

 

v.

The first morning they shared a granola bar the thief had missed and then went looking for a store. But the electricity wasn't working and neither was the phone, and apparently reception wasn't open yet because the hostel was dark and deserted. The only people they found awake were a woman pulling a mop like deadweight with a small child clinging to her calves. "Too far," she said curtly, and wouldn't say more, wouldn't even look at them until they stood there awhile, not knowing what else to do. Finally she made a sound like an angry chord and pulled an orange from her brightly patterned smock. Even at that distance it smelled strongly of its own juices, and immediately Laurelie's mouth began to water. The woman gave it to them and then pointed towards the living room with one deeply veined and very black hand. "Ask Rasta for a ride," she said. They thanked her gratefully, and in Laurelie's case, tearfully, a reaction the woman found completely baffling.

The living room was so dim and quiet they'd thought it empty, but people were sitting there. John was in his easy chair, and Caleb, the French guy, was coiled up on the couch, and there were others, faint as shadows, farther back. Even as they stared, a body rose at the far end of the room and started towards them. Its wind caused a subtle stirring, and from one corner a voice said, "Hey Rasta, how come the blacks here aren't friendly like in West Africa?" The voice was quiet, but deceptively so, and Rasta's dreads made a soft slapping sound as he replied, "Because South African minds are still imprisoned." Tedi was his real name, but everyone at the Zoo called him Rasta. Later he told Lucien he was a prince back in Ethiopia. He said he'd been traveling the world ever since his father died and left him large sums. Right now, for some reason, he was working at the Zoo. It was his job to ferry people around in the Zoo House van.

 

vi.

Gone, said Rasta of the van. It would be back, but he was vague about when. He said they could buy drinks and chips for a few rand in the kitchen—a euphonious term for the tiny dark closet with a two-burner camp stove, presently broken. There was a gas station that sold food down the road, but it was too far to walk, he assured them, echoing the lady with the mop.

They didn't see any choice. The van was gone, and their own food had been stolen, and they weren't at the point yet where beer and chips sounded any better than nothing. It took them an hour, although it felt longer; the Zoo was located deep in a wealthy suburb of Johannesburg that bore little resemblance to the Africa of their long imaginings. One long, wide, unvarying street, lushly manicured, tile roofs peeking out from tall gates topped with barbed wire. Expensive cars flashing past, black faces at the wheel, white ones in back. At the top of the second hill, their destination sprawled like a fortress, shimmering in the heat, huge and red, with a dozen gas pumps, barred windows, cameras and mirrors everywhere.

 

vii.

After that Lucien caught rides with Rasta as he ferried the other hostelers around for exorbitant prices. That's how the Zoo made its money, stripping travelers of their ready cash. Lucien rode for free, but it meant being gone a lot, keeping Rasta company. Not all Rasta's errands appeared officially Zoo-sanctioned, although he kept no secrets from John, who often came along. What they did on these side trips Lucien wasn't certain, except it involved a lot of driving and then him waiting in the van while Rasta and John went for a walk with someone somewhere. He saw another side of South Africa on these trips: ruined neighborhoods, sidewalks piled with trash, shanties of corrugated metal with open holes for windows, miles of them with no gaps in between and the only road in the one they were driving on, just a dirty gap beside a trash-strewn riverbank. Once he saw a dozen men walk past dressed in rags and armed with semi-automatics. Another time a Ford, a mini bus, and a pickup screeched to halt a hundred feet up the street. The hawkers who'd been standing there scattered as police officers grabbed their wares. One guy who'd been selling tomatoes from a trolley pushed it as he ran. The pickup took off after him, and the officers in the back leaned out and lifted it into the truck with practiced hands.

At least the rides gave Lucien the opportunity to talk to other travelers, among whom there was a tacit understanding of the necessity for information-sharing on a continent that functioned like a brain with a corpus colostomy. He'd come with a rough plan to hike and camp their way up to Mansa, a roomy six-month trip anchored only by the Wild Coast, the Kalahari, the Chimanimanis, and Victoria Falls. But now these were tiny points in a great blind space filled with trains that didn't run and buses that weren't marked and border crossings that required bribes and corners you'd get mugged on and rides you had to hitch and how the hell did a pregnant woman hike and camp, anyway?

Wherever they ended up, Rasta always stopped at a store—more often than not it was some kind of grocery, but the first day it was a hardware store for the lock, and the day Laurelie told him of her suspicions, it was a pharmacy for the test that confirmed them, and after that Rasta would usually go where he asked. Lucien was always home before dark. He'd go find Laurelie at the pool, and they'd head straight to their room and lock the door and unpack his purchases like presents, Laurelie exclaiming over all the useful things he'd thought of—Dried ginger! Hemorroid cream! Expandable shorts with a drawstring!—while he told her what he'd seen and heard that day. They'd eat whatever food they apportioned for dinner from their growing cache, caring little any more what it was so long as it was safe for the baby—this meant thoroughly cooked or if raw then peelable by their own fingers, and most things packaged overseas.

Bananas, avocados, mangoes, powdered milk, muesili, jerky, high protein energy bars, vitamins, support hose, a mosquito net, a sewing kit, a small flashlight with extra batteries, bottled water, water purification pills, rolls of toilet paper. Every night Lucien repacked his backpack and walked around with it for an hour to strengthen his muscles. Laurelie did the same, although she wouldn't be carrying as much as she'd planned. She discarded all the things she was now certain she wouldn't need, like her extra sweater and her tightest clothes and of course her birth control pills.

Cocooned in their room, they'd wait for the revelry to die down so they could sleep. Even as they talked of leaving, a kind of stasis grew: she wondered when her symptoms would start; he wondered if they'd gathered enough supplies, filled in enough gaps, considered all the ways in which their travel would be affected by the baby; she wondered when she'd start to show; he wondered if they should find a working phone and call the airline and go home.

 

viii.

Their last day at the Zoo, Lucien didn't come back. When it got dark, Laurelie went to their room and locked herself in. She sat on the bed and watched the door handle. Someone kept wriggling it. She jumped when it rattled hard, but Lucien whispered, "It's just me, Lars." He walked in sweaty and feral and empty-handed. He lay down with his eyes closed and wrapped his arms around her stomach and told her how Rasta and Caleb had left him behind. The room was dark, and a night breeze blew through. They must have dozed off because when she woke with a start, she didn't hear a sound.

"What was that?" she asked.

His eyes flew open. "You heard it, too?"

Whatever it was—a door slam, a dream—didn't repeat, but something else, a low moaning, did. It came and went. It could have been the wind. The rest of the hostel never stirred, but they couldn't sleep for it, not until they'd made sure. The front door was open, but they had to prop the security gate open with a rock. They walked down the sidewalk waving their new flashlight, hearing nothing but an owl—

"Caaalllleeeb."

"That's Rasta," Lucien said. He jogged ahead, and in a moment was bending and there was Rasta on the sidewalk in a crumpled heap, a dark line trailing from him like an electrical cord.

"Is that blood?"

Fear is terrible when it hits. Laurelie stepped back and clutched herself, thinking he would die right in front of her. But as Lucien inspected him, carefully shifting his limbs, trying to find the source of the blood, Rasta's groans were more terrible still. When he thrashed and scraped his cheek on concrete, she knelt and took his head in her lap. He'd been shot high on the thigh; black blood trickled from a hole the size of a fingertip, and there was another large hole on the other side. Lucien took off his shirt and wrapped it around the wounds, then stood and trotted to the nearest gate, pounded on it until he located the call button. "Help," he said into it, "Please help."

"Try 'Fire,'" said Laurelie, after the fifth or six gate, remembering with panicked clarity a psychological study that showed no one ever answered to help, only fire.

"Water," said Rasta, his mouth cracking like stone, his voice trailing off in a croak.

 

ix.

"Took a taxi. Driver shot me. Do that here. Drop you, and when you pay, they pull a gun." Rasta's head twitched in faint disgust. He'd roused a little with the water Lucien had given him, but now his eyes were closed again.

"He needs a hospital," Lucien said worriedly.

As if in answer, the gate next to them began to open. A sleek, black car crept down the drive, barely making a sound. Upon reaching the curb, it stopped. The driver stared straight ahead, but after a moment the back window slid down. A fat man in a bathrobe looked at them. He had no shirt on. They could see the great white mound of his stomach through his open lapels. "You're making a lot of noise," he said.

Lucien half rose but changed his mind when the man started to roll up the window. "We need an ambulance," he said, sinking back on his heels.

The man looked at Rasta and then away. "What's he doing here?" he said.

A beat passed.

"He works at the hostel next door to you," Lucien said, frowning.

The man frowned back.

"We've been staying there," said Laurelie, suddenly afraid. "We're Americans."

The man didn't reply, but the silence changed, opened up again.

"Will you please call an ambulance?" Lucien asked, tightly polite.

The man pursed his lips. "From the house," he said. He rolled up the window and the gate closed behind the car as driver smoothly backed it up the drive.

 

x.

"How long do you think it's been?"

"Maybe 45 minutes."

"Do you think he called?"

"I don't know."

Rasta shivered. His skin was cold. They tucked their bodies around him.

 

xi.

Another hour, maybe, before the gate opened again. Lucien stood, angry-faced, watching the car approach. It came through the gate fast, but when it paused at the juncture of the drive and the street, the driver looked over at them. He nodded. The backseat was empty.

 

xii.

The ambulance guys were a little rough, Lucian thought, but he found no fault with the emergency procedures they performed. "He'll be okay," he said after they left. "He'll be alright," he repeated, more to himself than Laurelie.

 

xiii.

Maybe it was because it was morning, or maybe because they'd been practicing, but the weight felt easier to bear, like it was heavy and at the same time light. They'd keep going, they decided, until it was only heavy.

On their way to the bus stop, they ran into the man from the night before. Today he was dressed, standing on his lawn behind the gate with a woman. He looked away as they passed, but the woman said, "Do blacks really live there, too?"

They got off at a mall on the outskirts of the city where Dudley said they could buy pula with their remaining rand. He wouldn't come because he said they all knew him there. After crossing the street and rounding the corner, they saw what he meant: vendors, all men in brightly colored ski hats despite the heat, lined the lawn in front of the mall. They were laughing and gesticulating. Some held hands. Walking past was like running a gauntlet, but a friendly one. Inside the mall all the stores were closed except for the camp store. They bought pula and two spoons from the guy in there and then walked back to the bus stop.

They waited a long time. The heat was intense. Neither of them felt a need to speak. A guy in a ripped white t-shirt and jumper walked by after a while, carrying a boom box. Maybe he was a vendor on his way to work, but before he rounded the corner, he set down the box and danced on the thick-bladed grass in that blistering heat. His feet rode a many-layered house beat; his body harnessed its changes. Laurelie hoped he wouldn't notice them watching and at the same time wanted him to. It felt like an unconsciousness, like being in a womb. They knew how they'd get to Gaborone, and that was a start, and it was an end, too.

 

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