Friday, December 09, 2011

Chapter Thirty-Eight: Returning

Chapter Thirty-Seven can be found here.

The paved road, Paul and Gilly found once they got to it on their way back from Nazinga, was blocked. A cordon of uniformed men stood on both sides of the tarmac, their guns held across their chests. Paul wished he had seen them earlier so they could have pulled off the road and avoided them by seeking out some of the myriad trails through the bush, but they only became visible after a last rise, and were now a mere twenty meters away. It wouldn’t be a good idea, so close, to turn around. Someone would come after them.
So he stopped, slowing as though nothing were wrong, putting his feet down some ten meters from the soldiers. He waited, Gilly patient on the back. The soldiers ignored them. Something going on down the road, they saw, had captured their attention.
“What do you think is happening?” Gilly leaned her helmet around his and spoke just loudly enough so that she could be heard over the idling engine.
“I don’t know.” Paul turned the key, killing the motor. “But I think we’d better just stay here and watch for a bit.” He waited until Gilly had gotten off the bike, then also dismounted, sliding the kickstand down as he did. They both lifted off their helmets and slipped their hands from their gloves.
Down the road to their right, they could see a larger mass of soldiers on the road itself, a few of them loading something or other onto the back of a pick-up. Beyond a thin cordon of soldiers that stretched along both sides of the road, a crowd of Africans was growing, especially down where the truck was. People were stretching, trying to see over the lines of guards, to see what was being loaded onto the truck.
Paul wheeled the bike into a bit of shade. They placed their helmets on the ground and sat on them to watch and wait. They both knew from long experience that, in a situation like this, it was safer for them to stay still and remain obvious. Anything else would attract attention and suspicion.
Soon, the pick-up, with a mass of soldiers walking in front of it and followed by a couple of larger military trucks loaded with troops, civilians walking along outside the cordon of guards, started slowly up the road toward them and, they guessed, eventually going on to Ouagadougou—though it would take them a couple of days or more, at that speed. Whatever had been loaded was now perpendicular in the back, rising higher than the cab by a meter or so. Part of it was flapping around as the truck bounced over holes in the road.
“My god, that’s a person.” Gilly noticed it first. She stood up and started to turn away.
“No, it can’t be.” Paul put his hand on her shoulder. What seemed to be arms were flapping too erratically. It had to be something else, perhaps a straw figure or something else meant to look human.
“It is, though. I know it is. You look at it. I don’t want to see any more.” She covered her mouth and continued turning away. Paul stared at the truck. Maybe his eyes weren’t as good as hers, he thought, or maybe she was just wrong. He had a suspicion, though, that she was right. Why else all of the soldiers along the road? What else would they be there for?
“Yeah, I see.… Now I can make out something.“ As he started to see more clearly, Paul wanted to look away, too, but could not. Gilly had gone around to the other side of the tree, and was resting her head against her hand upon its trunk. Paul kept talking, though he was sure she wasn’t listening. His voice was a monotone. “He’s dead, I think. He must be. I think they’ve tied him to a post, which they’ve stuck upright in the pick-up. It’s got to be someone connected with the coup.”
“I think you are right. Of course you are right.” Gilly had raised her head from the tree for a moment and was looking again at the truck, her eyes wide with horror and distaste. She paused for a moment, staring in spite of herself. “Oh, oh, Paul… I think I know who it is. I know who it is.”
The truck was getting closer, though it was hardly even moving at a walking pace, stuck as it was behind the unorganized, undisciplined mass of soldiers. Paul still couldn’t see what was on it that well, but could now make out that the body was of a light-skinned man, thin, with darker blotches on this face.
“It’s Pridi. That’s who you think. It’s Pridi.” Paul, too, could now see that it was the man who had once almost run him over, who been terrorizing Ouaga with impunity, off and on, since Sankara’s own coup years before.
“He must have been trying to get away, after the coup. He must have been running to Ghana.” Gilly sat back down on her helmet and lowered her head, looking only at the ground.
The mass of soldiers moving down the road between the rows of guards started to cheer, then took up a chant. It was impossible to understand. Neither Paul nor Gilly wanted to look more closely as the truck finally passed in front of them, but they found they could not keep their eyes away, so stood and looked with the rest of the crowd. The bloodied head bounced in a macabre nod and the arms continued to flap. Finally, it moved further down the road and dwindled back into a one with the truck. Once again they sat down on their helmets. Both of them stared at the ground, unwilling to look each other in the eye.
“Makes you feel sort of like a ghoul, looking at it, doesn’t it?”
Paul nodded. “I wanted to stop looking.”
“But you couldn’t, not any more than I.” Gilly got up and put her helmet back on. “Let’s go. I don’t think anyone is going to bother us. Let’s see if we can swing around on the pistes and get ahead of them.”
“Yeah, I guess we should.” Paul stood, too. “Otherwise, we might not manage to get to Ouaga for days.”
They got back on the bike. Gilly pointed out a dirt road leading vaguely north. They took it, took to the dirt, paralleling the road until they had passed well beyond the procession, which they could occasionally see in the distance, and could return to the pavement.
When they got to Ouaga, neither felt very sociable. The clerk at the Kilimanjaro, where they both had decided to stay, told them that a curfew had been put into force. They would have to be back in the hotel by nine. There would be no nights out, not for a while, at least. Gilly took her key and walked up to her room without a word about getting together later. Paul was just as happy to let her go. He liked her, but didn’t want to be with anyone, just then. He was sure she felt the same.
He dropped his bag off in his own room then, on foot, went looking for one of the few remaining of his favorite local bars.
The next day, as he was riding into the center of town in hopes of scoping out a new contract, perhaps a better one than he’d had with AfroProg, Paul saw Bakary walking along the road, a large bag, probably containing sculptures he wanted to sell, slung over his back.
Since early that morning, Paul had been toying with the idea of asking Bakary to paint an elephant on each side of his gas tank. He knew it was something the artist could do in a couple of minutes, though he would charge well for doing it. Paul kept thinking back to that encounter, now just three days old. He wanted to memorialize it.
“Hello, Bakary!” He pulled to a stop next to the man.
“Well, Paul!” Bakary set down his sack and held out his hand. Paul shook it.
“Can I give you a lift? Can I take you somewhere? I have a favor, no, two favors I want to ask of you.”
“Sure. Just help me tie this on the rack. I am going to the Hotel Independence.”
Paul turned off the bike, took the spare helmet off the rack and loosed the bungee cords strapped under it. As Bakary held the sack in place, Paul looped the cords around and attached them again. Bakary pushed the sack to see that it was secure, and nodded. Paul handed the helmet to Bakary and got back on the bike, Bakary climbing on behind him. Paul turned to make sure he had the strap tightened.
Once they had stopped at the hotel, Paul asked Bakary if he could do the painting. Bakary said, sure, he could do it the next day, and named a price. Paul nodded.
“There’s something else I would like to ask you, too.” For quite some time, a few years before, Paul had pestered Bakary to take him to the National Museum, to act as a guide, explaining the pieces that he knew so well, having once copied all of the major ones for the Frenchman who had been director. “Remember how you always told me that, one day, you would take me to the National Museum and tell me about the art there?”
Bakary looked at him, his expression unreadable. “Sure, Paul. I remember. Sure. We can go tomorrow while the paint dries on your bike. Is that OK with you?”
Paul nodded.
Paul arrived at Bakary’s house the next morning when the roads were still wet from an unusual early rain. He waited in the sitting room while a child fetched Bakary. The room, he noticed, was much like that of every other urban African room he had been in, with nothing to indicate the artist Bakary was. The chairs and couch had clearly been made by a local carpenter, as had the low coffee table. On a credenza evidently made by the same artisan sat a large cassette player, the centerpiece of the room. The walls were bare, the floor well-swept cement.
Bakary, when he entered the room, seemed unusually quiet, even more so than the day before. Perhaps the coup had depressed him, Paul thought. He had felt a new gloom, even greater than that which had descended on the town over the past months, in Ouaga since he had arrived. He had heard, the evening before, that people were severely grieved over the death of Sankara, and that his shallow grave had been found, and was already becoming something of a popular shrine. Someone even told him that people had thrust their arms in the ground, to take bloody soil from around his body.
Paul asked for a bucket of water and a rag, and cleaned the areas where the paintings would be on the gas tank while Bakary assembled paints and brushes. Soon, he was at work, drawing outlines quickly and confidently with a marker while Paul watched from a stool nearby.
“How is that?” He finished a tuft of grass near the elephant’s feet, stood, and looked at Paul.
“Great, that’s just great!” And it was. Paul just stared at it as Bakary continued, moving from marker to paint, then going around to start on the other side. The elephant’s trunk was up, but not as though in warning. Its mouth was slightly open and its ears were back, so Paul could imagine that it was about to pick some morsel and eat it. “That’s wonderful, Bakary, exactly right. Thank you.”
Bakary smiled at him briefly. He was already engrossed with the other side.
When, an hour or so later, they arrived at the museum, Bakary seemed almost reluctant to go in. They had arrived in a small town taxi, and Bakary had been silent throughout the ride. Paul now turned and looked at him.
“What’s wrong?”
“I don’t like this place. There’s something about it that makes me think of a jail, a jail for art.”
“You don’t come here very often, I take it.”
“I haven’t been here since I finished the copies I had been hired to make. I told myself I would never come again.”
“Do you want to not go? I don’t mind, but I do want to see the stuff, so I will go alone, if you want to leave, and go back to your house for the motorcycle later.”
“No, I told you I would go with you, and I will.”
They walked into the building. Paul paid the small admission price for both of them. Bakary led him around to the right, to the area where the masks and other objects he had copied were displayed. Paul walked into the room and started to work his way around it from the left, looking at the first item, a Yatenga Mossi mask from the north, from just south of the region where he had lived as a PCV.
As he was examining it, he realized that he was alone, that Bakary hadn’t continued on into the room with him. Instead, he was standing in the doorway, a look of horror on his face. Paul thought he might fall down.
“What’s wrong?” He quickly stepped over to him.
“We must leave.”
“Why? We just got here.”
“We must leave.” Bakary turned around and headed for the exit. Confused, Paul followed.
“We must go away from here.” Bakary walked quickly not even looking for a taxi. Paul struggled to keep up. They walked that way for about fifteen minutes before Paul had had enough. As they passed a small bar, he said, almost yelling, for Bakary didn’t seem to be paying attention, “Let’s stop. Let’s sit down for a moment. Drink something. Then I’ll find us a taxi.” At the table, he ordered a beer for himself and a soda for Bakary.
“No, a beer.”
Paul looked at Bakary, surprised. The sculptor rarely drank.
“What’s up, then? What did you see?”
“Paul, you know the copies I made?”
“Yes, I know about them.”
“They are there. They are hanging in the museum.”
Paul was confused. “What do you mean? I didn’t see anything but the displays, the old stuff.”
“That’s what I meant. It’s not the old stuff. It’s all the copies that I made.”
Paul stared at him, trying to put it together. “You mean, the man who contracted you to make copies, he took the real art home and left your copies in their places.”
Bakary nodded, a miserable look on his face. “And no one would notice but me. I did a good job.”
“A little too good.”
Again, Bakary nodded. Looking at him, Paul thought he was about to cry. Their beers came just then, fortunately, and they both drank quickly and deeply.
A few minutes later, after each had emptied his bottle, Bakary gently let Paul know that he needed to be alone. They took a taxi back to Bakary’s house, riding in silence, and Paul paid him for the paintings on the bike. Bakary disappeared inside as Paul wheeled it onto the street. He drove back into the center of town for another drink or two. He couldn’t think of anything else to do.
That evening, as he wandered from bar to bar seeking people he knew, he heard constant discussion of the coup, and felt a sadness in Ouaga that he had never experienced before. Few Burkinabe wanted to drink that night, so Paul sought out the Ghanaians he had known when he had first arrived in town. He found a few, but they were in no higher spirits.
It turned out that one of them, the woman who had been Fati’s best friend, had died the morning after the coup. A large, amiable woman who had once been a teacher in Ghana before having to leave because of her family’s political connections, only to become a Ouaga bargirl, she had been found dead, fully clothed, in the pool of the RAN hotel.
No one knew how she had gotten there or if it had anything to do with the coup.
Paul drank with them for a while, then moved on, looking for others he had known, seeking someone who could cheer him up.
Finally, he ran across the drummer from Mousa’s band. But he was told, on asking about the little guitarist, that Mousa had been arrested one time too many, and he, too, had died, just some weeks earlier in the Ouaga jail out by the road to Niamey.
It was time to leave Ouaga for good, he realized. Everyone he knew there seemed touched by death or corruption.
But where to go? He had no work, though he figured he could find another short-term contract pretty easily. He had plenty of money. Most of his Peace Corps readjustment allowance still remained, as did the greater part of his AfroProg salary.
He needed a new start, he decided: he would sell his moto and head down to the coast, spend some vacation time in Ghana. Everyone had told him life was great down there, especially now, when the country was a little more stable, economically and politically. Plus, he could then buy a bigger bike, perhaps one of those Tenerés that could take him through the desert.
Stumbling into another bar, drinking another beer, he began to plan a trip that would take him out of Burkina Faso, that would lead him to Accra, where he would start a new life. Learn a new area of Africa, he told himself.
The thing to do, he decided, was to get the bike to Boromo, for an living there had already made an offer on it, when Paul had seen him in Diabagou toward the end of his AfroProg contract. If he could cement the deal, he would take the bike on one last trip north to Ouahigouya. He would leave the bike there and make his way to Dori and Gorum-Gorum, would find a ride up into Mali from there, across the desert. Once he made it to the Niger River, he would pick up the riverboat—he’d liked that—one more time. Come down through Mopti and south, swinging through Ouahigouya to get the bike and deliver it or head right down to Bobo and worry about the moto later. It would be a last time touring through the Sahel and into the edge of the desert.
Yes, that was the thing to do, he told himself. That was the thing to do.

Chapter Thirty-Nine can be found here.

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