Thursday, December 08, 2011

Chapter Thirty-Six: Losing

Chapter Thirty-Five can be found here.

“So you’re not worried by riding on the back with me driving?” Paul attached his camera bag to his backpack and handed it to Gillian, who was arranging bags on the rack over the rear wheel of Paul’s bike. “I mean, I never had all that moto training you non-teachers got.”
“I think I’ll chance it.” She started wrapping a large sheet of plastic over both of their packs, preparing to strap them down with bungee cords. “Besides, you can’t be that bad at this point.”
“Think we’ll get wet?” Paul looked at the plastic as he opened his tool kit, extracted a wrench, and went to work taking out the spark plug. “At least wait to tighten all that down. Leave space for the tools.”
Gilly stopped what she was doing, sat down, and watched as Paul cleaned the plug. “You haven’t been down there, haven’t seen what it’s like. I have. We have paved road nearly to Ghana, but just piste as we head west after that. And the last piste, when we turn south again, is pretty bad. If it rains, we’re gonna be stuck—that road turns into a river—and it’s gonna rain unless we make extraordinary good time.”
“Want to wait ‘til tomorrow, leave earlier?” The rains, they both knew, generally came in the later part of the day. Paul replaced the plug, tightened it, and ran a small metal bar over the spokes, listening for ones whose tings would be too low, showing they had become too loose.
“Naw, Stu’s expecting me, so we might as well go on. Plus, what’s to do around here?”
“Not much, any more.”
Paul, his contract up, had wandered back to Ouaga just a couple of days before. The city he had returned to oppressed him, just as the last time he’d been there. It seemed dead to him. Fortunately, he had run into Gilly, who was doing a third year extension of her Peace Corps service and who was looking to get south to visit Stu, who now had a contract at the Nazinga game park, collecting and analyzing elephant dung.
“You just remember to drive carefully.”
“I will, but I shouldn’t have to. Especially since I got my gris-gris.” He replaced the plug, tightened it back down, and reattached the wire.
            “Your gris-gris?” She turned and looked at him and laughed. “You have some sort of motorcycle gris-gris?”
“Yeah.” Paul laughed, slightly embarrassed. “Actually, it’s a hunter’s gris-gris, one meant for keeping the hunter out of reach of charging animals. Turns the hunter into a bat, I think.” He checked the tension of the chain and looked at the oil.
“Why the hell did you get that?”
“Down in Diabagou, you know, there really wasn’t much to do, once I realized that the project was going to be a washout. So, I spent my time learning moto mechanics and talking to people, looking into things like gris-gris. Things I had never bothered to find out about before.”
“Tell me: how exactly do you ‘look into’ gris-gris?”
“I asked the local gris-griseur to tell me about things. He showed me some of his charms, and explained how he came to be doing it—he almost died of a fever when he was a kid. When he recovered, people decided he was a gris-griseur—and he asked me what I needed. I couldn’t think of anything in particular but liked the idea of getting a charm made for me, so settled on something to protect me on the moto. The guy thought for a moment, then said the hunter’s protection should work.”
“What did he do? How did he make it?”
“He wouldn’t show me everything, but I had to give him a white chicken and a little bit of money. I’m not supposed to show anyone the charm, but it’s in my pocket.”
“Drive safely anyway, OK?” Paul grinned as he closed his tool box, stood, and placed it under the plastic that Gilly then secured with the bungee cords. They both grabbed up Peace Corps issue yellow, full-faced helmets and put them on. Gilly waited as Paul got on the bike and kick-started it. She climbed on behind; he shifted down into first and eased out the clutch.
Gilly proved to be a better passenger than anyone Paul had ridden with before. She should be, he told himself, after he accidentally rode off the pavement, onto the shoulder, and back up again—and she didn’t flinch. She had been the only member of their stage who had prior motorcycle experience, both as driver and passenger. He remembered vaguely her saying that she had had a motorcycle nut for a boyfriend at one time or another. He turned the throttle and accelerated down the paved road.
They made good time all the way to the turnoff close to the Ghana border. Paul, as they pulled to a stop to get something to drink, said that he thought they might get there before it rained. Gilly laughed at him as she dismounted and walked to the roadside bar a few feet away.
“You haven’t seen the road yet. Just you wait.”
“There are lots of bad roads up north. I doubt this can be much worse.” He followed her and sat down next to her. They ordered their drinks. “Washboard, sand… I’ve seen it all.”
Gilly laughed again as she poured a little bit of beer into her glass and sloshed it around, washing it out. “You ain’t seen nothing yet, my friend.”
Paul rinsed his own glass, filled it, and looked out over the road. “OK, OK… but you don’t mind if I reserve judgment, do you?”
“Be my guest.”
The first dirt road they took was wide and clear and recently graded, so there wasn’t even much washboard yet upon it. So easy was it that Paul paid little attention, and only a nudge from Gilly alerted him to the small road he’d been told to look for, almost just a path, leading off to the left.
It took them on a slightly uphill grade, and Paul could see constant signs of recent rains on it, a tremendous number of washouts and gullies. At some point, it had been dug out from the land around, or a large number of trucks had used it, for it was lower than the surrounding land. Also, it hadn’t ever been graded, so its edges were higher than its center. Paul was beginning to understand what Gilly had been talking about. He sped up, determined to get over as much of this as possible before the rains came.
And they were coming. He could see the clouds to the southwest, boiling, moving their way. In a while, he knew, the cool winds would come and swirl around them, raising dust and pulling up anything not tied down. The rains would follow in about fifteen minutes.
In Ouaga and north, the rain, though monumental while it was falling, was generally over in less than half an hour. They were further south, though, and the rain could last all evening. Paul found he couldn’t keep up the speed he was going, not with a passenger. The erratic surface was pushing him this way and that, and he was finding he frequently had to use his feet to keep them upright, something he could not do at much more than jogging speed.
They were still more than twenty kilometers from Nazinga when Gilly reached past him and pointed. Yes, there was the rain over there, only a few minutes away. Paul could see that the wind was blowing around him but, with boots, gloves, jean jacket, scarf, full-face helmet and goggles on, he couldn’t really feel it, though he could feel that he wasn’t sweating as much as usual.
The rain didn’t slam into them the way Paul was expecting, though it came down fast. The drops seemed huge to him, but they were falling straight, with little wind, which also surprised him, given the swirling gusts a few minutes earlier. Almost immediately, however, the piste became a stream and he couldn’t tell where the gullies were, so had to slow down even more, to little more than a walk, using his feet more and more to right them when the rear wheel started to slide.
He flipped on the headlight. The rain had brought darkness with it. They plodded on, Paul struggling with the bike, Gilly sitting still, never saying a word. Once, they ended up in water to their waists, which stalled the moto. They walked for a while, with Paul pushing the bike, neither taking off their helmets, for the rain still fell fast and the helmets were the only things keeping any part of them dry. Every few minutes, they would stop, and Paul would try the kick-starter again.
About twenty minutes later, the moto started. They got back on and moved again, though not much faster than when they’d walked.
All in all, those last twenty kilometers took them more than two hours.
By the time they arrived at the game park the rain was stopping and it was completely dark. Gilly pointed Paul toward the road to Stu’s house, which was visible, a hundred or so meters away. They pulled under the awning where Stu’s moto rested, got off Paul’s, released the bungee cords, and carried their stuff onto Stu’s porch.
The glow of a hurricane lamp had told them that someone was at home. They didn’t bother to knock but, after dropping their bags, just opened the door and walked in. Why not? Stu, after all, had been one of their stage mates. The lack of privacy they had had from each other during their training had carried over into service and beyond.
“Hullo.” Stu put down a book and stood. “Didn’t expect you folk, not right now!”
“Bit of rain stop us?” Gilly took off her helmet and shook her head to loosen her hair.
“Hope you’re not too surprised.” Paul took off his helmet, too, then rolled his jean jacket, completely soaked, from his back and arms. “And hope you’ve got a beer. That was hard.” He collapsed, still soggy, into a chair by Stu’s hand-made table.
“Uh, I hope you guys don’t mind, but could you get out of those clothes? You’re dripping on my stuff.”
“Oh, sure.” Paul got up again, though it suddenly hurt, and grabbed their packs. “Damn. I can feel that ride.” Stu threw them a couple of towels and then fished a couple of bottles of So.B.Bra from the water-filled earthen jug next to the table. While they changed, he opened the bottles and asked for news.
“It looks like we’re the only ones left from our stage in country,” Gilly told him, as she toweled herself. “Jack’s in Ghana, and Syl’s back in Washington.”
“Too bad.” Stu handed her a bottle as soon as she’d shrugged on a tee shirt.
“The whole country is changing anyway. It’s not the place it was when we came.” Paul sat down again.
“Yeah, I know. Last time I was in Ouaga, I just hated it.”
“I did love what it was. Though it was a crazy town.”
“The Burkinabe don’t smile as much as they used to,” Gilly said, pulling another chair to the table. “It makes me sad.”
They drank their beers in silence for a few moments, all three lost in his or her own thoughts of the changes the last three years had seen. As Paul and Gilly were exhausted from the strain of those last twenty kilometers, little conversation ensued even as they finished their bottles of beer. They all went to sleep quite soon, each wishing their small reunion could have been a little more joyous.
Paul woke, as usual, at six o'clock. It is hard to sleep late in Africa, where activity begins with the sun and its heat soon makes repose impossible. Stu was already preparing coffee under the canvas awning that served as a porch for his tiny house. Somehow, he’d gotten hold of a number of fairly fresh bagettes. He was cutting them as Paul walked out to join him.
“Here,” he handed Paul a piece of the bread and pointed to a jar of raspberry jam, open and with a knife in it, on the table. “Gillian still asleep?”
“Yeah.” Paul started spreading jam on the bread, hoping that the water for coffee would be ready soon.
“I’ll try to keep the noise down, then.” Stu took the kettle off the burner and poured steaming water into two cups with coffee crystals at the bottom, passing one to Paul. “But I’ve got to be out of here in a few minutes, gotta talk to the boss before a staff meeting at seven.”
“I’m sure she’ll appreciate that. She never was an early riser.”
“Yeah, I remember.” Stu laughed. “We had an early Moré class together in stage. I don’t think she made breakfast before it even once.”
“She’ll be up soon.  But you get going.” 
Stu nodded. “As soon as I finish my coffee.”
Paul sipped from his own cup, his palms and forearms still remembering the shaking of the night before. “I think I’ll take a walk, once you are gone, before she gets up. Any elephants around? Anything I should particularly want to see?”
“Haven’t seen many elephants the last few days. There were about sixty close by last week, but they moved on. Keep your eyes open, though. You might see one.”
“I’ll take my cameras,” Paul pointed to the bag he kept them in, which still sat where he had dropped in last night with his other stuff, too tired to bring it on inside. “You never know.”
“Got a telephoto lens?”
“Naw, just stuff I’ve picked up, an old Leica M3 with a moldy 50 millimeter and a Yashica D twin lens.”
“Nice cameras, but they aren’t going to do you much good around here. You won’t get close enough to capture anything but gray lumps.”
“Well, I’ll do what I can.”
Stu got up, ready to leave for his meeting. Paul finished his coffee and picked up the rest of his bread, planning on eating it as he walked.
“See ya later, then.” Stu walked down the steps to where the motos sat.  Out of consideration for the sleeping Gilly, he pushed his bike a ways before starting it. Paul grabbed his camera bag and strolled in the opposite direction.
It was one of those beautiful, rainy-season mornings, so refreshing after torrential downpours like that of the night before. The leaves of the trees and plants still had water on them, and the ground was still quite moist. The air was cool, and smelled of soil and growth. Paul breathed it in deeply as he walked, munching his bread and looking around for elephants.
He walked down a path by a small lake, one side of which was forested, the other fronting an open area and the road they had come in on the night before. Figuring he would never see anything in the woods, Paul headed for the field, walking toward a small rise he’d spotted about half a kilometer away.
He finished his bread and pulled the cameras out of the bag, making sure they were loaded with film, and looped their straps over his neck. Rummaging around in the bag, he found his light meter, stopped for a moment, and determined what he thought would be the best general setting for the morning light. Because the ground was so soft, he had to follow a meandering path he almost stumbled across, but it did seem to be taking him closer to the rise.
He was paying more attention to the cameras, readying them, than he was to where he was going, but a movement off to the side of the little hill did catch his attention. Ha! Stu had been wrong. There was at least one elephant still around.
He scurried to the top of the hill, which rose about three meters above the field, high enough, he hoped, high enough to keep the elephant, which appeared to be heading just to the other side, from charging him.
He knew, from talking with Stu and others who had experience with elephants, that, most often, they merely shooed humans away by flapping their ears and raising their trunks. Scaring them, not chasing them. So, he wasn’t particularly frightened, just excited, as he stood atop the rise, trying to frame the moving animal in his viewfinder.
He clicked a picture with the Leica, then opened the top of the Yashica and looked down into it. By now, the elephant was quite close, nearly filling the frosted glass. He clicked, shut the top, and looked over at the elephant.
And turned and ran.
Without warning, the elephant had veered toward him and was now charging—straight up the little hill.
It moved quickly, much more so than he would have believed possible. The soil beneath him shook as it gathered speed. He turned and fled, its steps roaring over him from behind. He lost his sandals as he dashed down the other side of the hill and turned to sprint into the part of the field the elephant had come from, cameras and bag flapping from their straps, elephant right behind. Someone had told him that circling, rather than running straight, was best when an elephant was after one. He considered screaming, decided not, then decided in favor of it. It came out an odd, loud, scary moan and he clipped it off. Hearing it made it just too clear just how bad this situation was; it made him shudder even as he ran.
Once ten meters or so into the field, he tried to make a further quick turn to get around behind the elephant and back up the hill, but he slipped on the moist earth and fell.
Fell flat.
He felt hopeless, so very much more helpless than ever before he’d felt. As he went down, he twisted to look at the elephant and wondered what its feet were going to feel like, coming down on his head. He wondered if he would survive and doubted he would.
Looking back at the gray agent—of what? He thought of pain, not destruction—seemed preferable to him, certainly better than the terror of running. He felt less panic as he fell and twisted around, for he finally could see it. Before, as he’d been running, he’d had no idea how close it was, no idea if it were about to catch him, to crush him right then, or if he might have some slight moment more before the strike, the pain, and whatever might follow that.
The elephant, he saw as he slipped, was slowing. It was no longer running. It knew he was trapped.
As he went down, he decided to stay down. Scrambling about in a panic wasn't going to do him any good. Stay still, he told himself, face it. This may be very painful, but there's nothing at all you can do. Maybe the mud, he reasoned idiotically, would cushion the blows.
The elephant, even though just walking now, would be on top of him in seconds.
And it could have been.
But it decided, for some reason, not to be.
The elephant halted about five meters from him. It looked at him, first out of its right eye. Then it swung its head and looked at him from its left. He stared at its trunk, at the massive furrows between its eyes. It moved its head back, and looked at him once more out of the right eye. He saw that its tusks, both short, were of different lengths.
The elephant's ears, he noticed as he lay there in the mud, as they slowly flapped, providing the only real motion in the absurd tableau, had a series of healed gashes along their edges and holes torn clear through in places. Perhaps this elephant was old. But why, then, were its tusks so short? It swung its head again, for the other eye, and then back again. He stared at its skin, rough and dirty, wrinkled and gray, with occasional thick hairs upon it.
‘It's your move, elephant,’ he thought to it as it regarded him, as he stared back, ‘for I'm at your mercy. Please make it soon, whatever you do, for this lying here waiting is giving me too much time to think. I don’t want to imagine, any more, what it might feel like if you decide to do me in. And I do not even like these thoughts.’
The elephant did nothing. It merely swung its head, looking at him from one eye and then the other.
He hadn't moved, hadn't done anything but look back at the elephant for the minute or so since he'd fallen. Now, slowly, shrugging mentally, his brain racing, figuring he might as well, that he had nothing else to do and, certainly, nothing to lose, he slid the straps attached to his cameras and bag from around his neck. If the elephant gave him the chance, he decided, he would run once more. This time unencumbered.
By watching him and not attacking, the elephant was giving him hope. He wasn't going to let that die. If it only wanted to crush him, it would have already done so.  There must be something else, something else it wanted.
The elephant continued its contemplation of him for the eternity of a moment more, then turned slowly to its left, to face the hill instead of him though turning its head back to watch him, still. It had its tail, now, toward the pond he had walked around earlier.
‘If what you're doing is offering me a chance, elephant,’ he thought to it, ‘I'm certainly going to take it.’
So, scrambling, he was up, dashing madly toward the pond. He stopped when he reached the side of it and almost collapsed. He turned to look for the elephant, out of breath, unable to run further and curious as to why it had let him go, as he was curious as to why it had chased him in the first place.  He didn’t feel scared any longer, but he realized he was shaking.
It had turned back to where he’d lain, had stepped over to the equipment he'd abandoned. One piece at a time, it brought the cameras to its mouth with its trunk, tasting and dropping each in its turn. Then it took the camera bag by its strap and, lifting it high over its head, twirled the bag through the air. Film canisters, filters, and odds-and-ends of paper flew from it before the elephant let go, sending the bag on an arcing course out over the field.
The elephant turned away from him, walked a few meters on, and then looked back. Slowly, it reached down with its trunk and snatched up some grass from the edge of the field. Unconcerned, it ate the grass. Finally, it headed back to the woods.
After a few minutes just standing there and looking after the elephant, Paul gathered up as many of his things as he could and carried them back to Stu’s house. As far as he could tell, none of his cameras was broken—the ground, after all, was soft—but he didn't have the heart to check carefully.
At the house, he examined himself in Stu’s small mirror, finding he was bleeding from a couple of scrapes on his face. He didn't remember getting them. His right side was a solid streak of mud, down arm, trunk and leg.
The clock by Stu’s bed said it was now a couple of minutes before seven. He didn’t bother to change clothes but walked outside to the porch, heated the water back up, mixed more coffee, sat down, picked up Stu’s transistor radio, adjusted the dial to the BBC for the hourly news, and tried to prepare once more to watch the day begin.
Irrationally, right then, he desperately wanted to hear about things happening elsewhere. He didn't want to have to think, certainly not about what had happened to him. The world, he told himself, was more important than what had happened to him, to one single person in southern Burkina Faso.
His hands didn't shake, not then. Not anymore. It now seemed as if the chase and fall had been merely a dream, or as though they could be of no importance, no impact. It was over, after all; he was safe.
His hands shook again later, though, after Gilly awoke and saw him sitting there, still bleeding, still covered in mud. She shrieked and asked what had happened. He told her, she looking at him, almost unbelieving. When he was done telling her about it, she fetched a bucket of water for him to wash with. Still in a dream state, he bathed from the bucket and put on dry clothes. He felt cold, but his denim jacket was still soaked from the night before. Gilly rummaged around and found a thin blanket which he wrapped around him. It was then that his hands started shaking, his teeth chattering.
They sat quietly, just looking out at the woods beyond Stu’s house, for more than an hour. Paul was trying to sort through what had happened to him and Gilly, with the empathy that had always been her strong point, was merely waiting to see if he wanted to talk more. If he could sort it out enough to put it into more words.
Stu returned soon after, as pale, Gilly later said, as Paul had been, and neither was a pale man. He sat down and, before either of the others could speak, started talking.
“You’re not going to believe this.” He shook his head. “I can’t really believe it.”
“What?” Paul didn’t even look up.
“Something happened to Paul that you won’t believe, either.” Gilly spoke gently, hoping Stu would delay telling them his news, for Paul, she knew, was still in a bit of a state of shock, and she hoped he would talk about it, bring it out and get over it.
“It’ll wait.” Stu brushed her words aside. “We got a call from Ouaga while I was in the office. There's been a coup.”
“What?” Paul looked up, and spoke at the same time as Gilly.
“They’ve killed Sankara. Blaise Compaoré’s men went to the presidential residence. Sankara saw them and, according to what we were told, walked up to them, saying ‘I’m the one you want. Don’t hurt anyone else.’” He stopped for a moment. “And they shot him.
“Now,” Stu looked at the two of them, “what’s your story?”

Chapter Thirty-Seven can be found here.

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