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By Langston Hughes, Akiba Sullivan Harper
Hill and Wang Copyright © 1996 Ramona Bass and Arnold Rampersad
All rights reserved.
BODIES IN THE MOONLIGHT
SAILORS call it the Fever Coast — that two or three thousand miles of West Africa from Senegal to Luanda.
For four weeks now our ship had been anchored "in the stream" loading cocoa beans. There had been some mix-up in the schedule and the old man had no orders to move on. Six of our men had been sent ashore with tropic fever to the European hospital. The potatoes were running out and the captain no longer issued money to his mixed crew. The sun blazed by day and the moon shone at night and more men fell ill with the fever. Or developed venereal diseases. And there our steamer lay tossing wearily in the blue water, a half mile off the coast beyond the beating surf.
At eighteen when one is a rover, the world is wonderful — I was a messboy on my first trip to sea. I had thrown all my schoolbooks overboard and for several months I had not written to my parents. People I had known as a boy had not been kind to me, I thought, but now I was free. The sea had taken me like a mother and a freight ship named the West Illana had become my home.
The sun was setting, and the sea and sky were all stained with blood. With a wet cloth full of soap powder, I scoured the sink in my mess pantry, where I had just finished washing the dinner dishes. Then I went into the saloon and closed the portholes. The water was purple now and the sky blueviolet. The first stars popped out. The chief mate came down looking for his cap. It was on the deck under the table and he stooped to pick it up.
"Christ, mess, I'm tired o' this damn place," he said. Then, "Did ya leave any ginger cakes out for lunch tonight?"
"No," I replied. "The steward didn't gimme any."
"Lousy runt! Food must be gettin' low." I heard the chief mate going up the iron stairs to his room. I threw my white coat in a drawer of the buffet, carefully concealed a flat can of salmon in my shirt, and went on deck. It was dark.
"Goin' ashore?" the young Swede on watch at the gangplank called out.
"Sure," I replied.
"Well, I ain't. Them women over there's got me burnt up. You and Porto Rico better watch out!"
"You the one that oughta been careful," I laughed back. "Jesus, you're dumb! Porto Rico and I are in love."
"Yea, and with the same girl," said the Swede. "You had better watch out now."
I went on down the deck past the lighted ports of the engineers' rooms and around to the door of the officers' mess.
"Ain't you through yet?" I said.
"Hell, no! The damn bo'sun was late comin' to eat again but the way I told him about it, he won't be late no more." Porto Rico was washing knives and forks in a very dirty bucket of water. "Cabrón!" he said. "Just when I wanted to go ashore!" As though he didn't go ashore every night.
"I'm goin' on back aft. Hurry up and we'll catch the next boat when it comes out. I s'pose you gonna see her, too ... What you gonna take her tonight?"
"Hombre!" Then in a whisper, "Couldn't save a damn thing but a hunk o' bread today. Looks like to me in two weeks won't be nothin' to eat on this tank. Ain't much here now — but I got a bar o' soap to give that mutty boatman if he takes us ashore. I'm gonna ..."
The conversation died as the steward came down the corridor. He stepped into the galley where the Jamaican cooks were peeling potatoes. I went on back aft. Five bells.
FOR a cake of soap as payment we were paddled ashore. An African in a loincloth at either end, Porto Rico and I in the middle, we sat in a narrow little canoe so deep in water that one momentarily expected it to fill with the sea and sink. Under the stars. The ocean deep and evil. The lights of the West Illana at our stern. The palmfringed line of shore and the boom of surf ahead. Off on the edge of the water the moon rose round, golden, and lazy. The sky seemed heavy with its weight of stars and the sea deep and weary, lipping the sides of the little boat.
"Estoy cansado," said Porto Rico.
"I wish I was back in New York. I swear I do," I said. "Damn Nunuma."
But the excitement of landing in the surf loosened us from our momentary melancholy and we stood on the sand not far from the line of palm trees. The canoe and its two silent natives put to sea again. "Gimme a cigarette." Feet crossing the hard sand. "Gimme a cigarette." We were going to see Nunuma.
Nunuma — because I remember her I write this story. Because of her and the scar across my throat. At eighteen, women are strange bodies, strange, taunting, desirable bodies. Flesh and spirit. And the song is in the flesh even more than in the spirit.
We saw Nunuma the first day my "buddy" and I went ashore at Lonbar. A slender dark young girl, ripe breasts bare, a single strip of cloth about her body, squatted on her heels behind a pile of yams in the public square. There were many old women and young girls in the marketplace, but none other like Nunuma, delicate and lovely as a jungle flower, beautiful as a poem.
"Oh, you sweetie," said Porto Rico. "Some broad," said Mike from Newark. And the sailors bought all her yams.
That night when we came ashore again, a little barefoot boy, professional guide, showed Porto Rico and me to Nunuma's house — the usual native hut with its thatched roof and low eaves. She stood in the doorway, bright cloth about her body, face dusk-bronze in the moonlight. O, lovely flower growing too near the sea! Sailors must have passed her way before that night, but Nunuma had received none of them. "Me no like white sailor man," she explained later in her West African English. "He rough and mean."
The little boy guide padded off down the grassy road, coin in hand. "Hello, kid." In a few minutes another girl appeared from somewhere, joined us, and we sat down together in front of the hut. We four. The other girl never told her name. She was solid and well-built, but not beautiful like Nunuma. There wasn't much to say. Hands touch. Lips touch. The moon burned. By and by we went into the hut ... In the morning Porto Rico and I gave each of the girls two shillings when we left.
WIDE and white and cool the dawn as the slender native canoe paddled us back to the ship an hour before breakfast. Wide and cool and green the morning sea as the white sun shot up. The West Illana lay solemnly at anchor. We paid the boatman and were about to climb the gangway stairs when a black girl ran down. "Get the hell off here!" It was the third mate's voice. "I should think the men would see enough o' you women on shore without bringing you on the damn ship. Don't lemme catch you here again," and he swore roundly several great seamen's oaths. The woman was very much frightened. She chattered to the boatmen as they paddled away and her hands trembled. She was fat. Her face was not beautiful like Nunuma's.
That day the sun boiled. The winches rattled with their loads of cocoa beans lifted from native boats. The Kru-boys chipped the deck. And two sailors fell ill with the fever. That night Porto Rico and I went to see Nunuma — and the other girl. Neither one of us cared about the name of the other girl. She was just a body — a used thing of the port towns.
Days, nights. Nights, days. The vast impersonal African sky, now full of stars, now white with sun. The West Illana quiet and sober. Cocoa beans all loaded. Six men with fever ashore in the hospital. No orders. The captain impatient. Mahogany logs to load in Grand-Bassam. Christ, when are we moving on? The chief cook sick with a disease of the whorehouses. Steward worried about the food running low. "Nobody but a fool goes to sea anyhow," says the bo'sun.
Porto Rico and I were ashore every night. Almost every afternoon between meals — ashore ... Nunuma. Nunuma ... Oh, mother of God! ... Sometimes I see her alone. Sometimes she and Porto Rico, I and the other girl are together. Sometimes she and Porto Rico alone are with each other ... Nunuma! Nunuma! ... I have given her the red slippers I bought in Dakar. Porto Rico has given her the Spanish shawl he picked up at Cádiz coming down. And now that we have no money we smuggle her stolen food from the ship's pantries. And Porto Rico gave her a string of beads.
He is my friend but I wish he wouldn't put his hands on Nunuma. Nunuma is beautiful and Porto Rico is not a man to know beauty. Besides he is jealous. One morning in the galley he asked me why I didn't fool with the other girl sometimes and leave him Nunuma alone. "You don't own the woman, do you?" I demanded. His large hands slowly clenched to fists and a sneer crossed his face. "Fight!" yelled the second cook. "Hell," I said, "we ain't gonna fight about a port-town girl." "No," he replied, and smiled.
"You bloody young niggers," said the old Jamaican baker.
Nunuma was beautiful. Nunuma's face was like a flower in the moonlight and her body soft and slender. At eighteen one has not known many soft bodies of women. One has not often kissed lips like the petals of pansies — unless one has been a sailor like Porto Rico. Porto Rico, hard, and rough, and strong, with a knowledge of women in half the port towns of the world. Porto Rico, who did not know that Nunuma's face was like a flower in the moonlight. Who did not care that her body was soft and tender. I wanted Porto Rico to keep his hands off Nunuma's body. He shouldn't touch her. He who had known so many dirty women ... Yet Porto Rico was my friend ... But Nunuma was beautiful. At eighteen one can go mad over the beauty of a woman. And forget a friend ... I believe I loved Nunuma.
FEET crossing the dry sand. We were going to see her. "Gimme a cigarette," I repeated. Feet crossing the dry sand carrying one to the line of palm trees, carrying one to the grassy roads running between the thatched huts. Native fires gleaming, sailors in white pants drinking palm wine and feeling the breasts of girls, laughing. Africans with bare black feet, single cloths about their bodies, walking under the moon. The ship's carpenter drunk beneath a mango tree.
"Say, mess, did you hear the news?" calls the young wireless-man and the super-cargo who are passing in the road. We stop. "No," says Porto Rico. "What is it?"
"Haul anchor tomorrow for Grand-Bassam. Old Man's glad as hell," says the wireless.
"Lord knows I am," adds the super-cargo. "Die before I'd make another trip down this coast."
Sailing in the morning ... Nunuma. Nunuma ... Grand-Bassam, Accra, Freetown, Cape Verde Islands, New York ... Nunuma! Nunuma! ... Sailing in the morning.
She is standing in her doorway, the Spanish shawl wrapped about her body instead of the customary bright cloth. Her lips are red and her face like a flower, dusk-dark in the moonlight. "'Lo kid," she smiles.
"You're vamping the boys tonight."
"Look just like Broadway."
"Me no like white sailor man."
Grotesque gifts to offer an African flower-girl — Porto Rico undoes his half loaf of bread and extends it awkwardly. I take a flat can of salmon from inside my shirt. We offer them both. She laughs and takes them inside the hut. Silence. When she comes out we sit down on the ground. And she is in the middle between we two men. The other girl is not there. Nunuma's body is slender and brown. She sings a tribal song about the moon. She points to the moon. Hands touch. Lips touch. A dusk-dark girl in the golden night, my buddy and I.
"We're sailing in the morning," I said.
"Yep, we haul anchor," added Porto Rico. "We leave."
"Mornin' go? In mornin' ship he go?" Nunuma's eyes grew wide in the moonlight. "Then you love me tonight," she said. "You love me tonight." And her lips were like flower petals. But she clasped her hands and the dark face looked into the moonlight. Her warm brown body sat between us. Her twin breasts pointed into the moonlight. Her slender feet in red slippers. Her eyes looking at the moon.
"You go back to the ship," said Porto Rico to me, "and get your sleep."
"No," I said.
"Go back to the ship, kid." He and I both rose. One can be a fool over a woman at eighteen.
"I won't go back! You can't make me!" My hand sought the claspknife in my pocket.
"Hijo de la ..." he began an oath in Spanish and his lips trembled.
Like a dart of moonlight, Nunuma ran, without a scream, into her hut.
"Keep your hands off her," I shouted. "Keep your damn dirty hands off her!"
Before my fingers could leave my pocket, something silver flashed in the pale light. A flood of oaths in English and Spanish drenched my ears. And a warm red fluid ran from my throat, stained and spread on the whiteness of my shirt, dripped on my suddenly weak and useless hands.
"Keep your hands ... off ... her," I stammered. "Keep your hands off ... Nunuma." And I fell face forward in the grass and dug my fingers in the earth and cried, "Keep your damn dirty hands off her," until the world lurched and grew dark. And all the stars fell down.
At sea in a bunk with a bandage about my neck. Porto Rico saying, "Jesus, kid, you know I didn't mean to do it. I was crazy, that's all." White caps of waves through the portholes. White blazing sun in the sky. Those things are almost forgotten now — but the scar, and the memory of Nunuma, make me write this story.CHAPTER 2
THE YOUNG GLORY OF HIM
SHE had written in her diary in a thin schoolgirl's hand: "Oh, the young glory of him! His name is Eric Gynt and he is the handsomest sailor on the ship. I met him yesterday. It was my first time out on deck because I had been seasick for four days since leaving New York. I was sitting in my deck chair reading Browning when all my college class-notes on 'The Ring and the Book' blew away. He was going to the bridge, but he ran and caught some of my papers for me. The others went into the sea. I didn't mind the loss of half my notes, though — because I met him. I must have been greatly confused, for all I could stammer was, 'Thank you very much.' And he went on up to the bridge. But this morning I met him again and he said, 'Good morning,' and I said, 'Good morning,' too."
We had been at sea ten days when I read this in her diary. Of course, I had no business reading her diary at all, but then I was cabin boy on the West Illana, New York to West Africa, and it was my duty to clean the passengers' rooms. But as the West Illana was essentially a freight ship, there were only four passengers aboard — a trader, the girl who kept the diary, and her parents — two well-meaning middle-aged New England missionaries. One morning the girl left her diary open on the little desk near her bunk and I read it. There wasn't much, because it began with her getting on the ship. And the book was new.
All the boys in the fo'c'sle, though, were already "wise" to her liking Eric. They had for three days now been teasing him about it. But I thought she was, like him, just passing the time away — until I read her diary. There in all seriousness she had written: "I want him to love me. I have been so lonesome all my life." And further down for July 2: "Suppose he really would love me. I always dreamed of being loved by a sailor. And he is truly wonderful! His hair is all golden and curly and he says he never loved any girl before. I told him I had never loved any boy either. And I told him about how I had been in a girls' school (church school, too), where I never saw any men ... I do love him! I do! I do!"
It was my duty to serve the meals to the officers and passengers — nine in all. That evening at dinner the girl wore a stiff white dress and a knitted scarf about her shoulders. Her name was Daisy Jones. With her thin body, sandy hair, dry little freckled face, and the spectacles she wore for reading, she looked thirty although she was only eighteen. At the fifth evening meal served at sea, I heard the two missionaries tell the captain all about their daughter. As I poured water and passed dishes between heads, I listened. For ten years the elderly couple had been stationed in Africa and only once in all this time had they returned to America to see Daisy. Her high-school and college years had been spent in a very Christian Methodist Seminary for girls. Now that she was graduated, they had returned for the graduation exercises and to take their daughter back with them. They didn't know her very well, they said. She had always been away from them, but they hoped to make a missionary of her, too. She seemed willing and meek. They smiled at the daughter across the table and she smiled back — a wan, strange little smile. The captain said, "Well, you're doing a good work." The trader agreed. Then the missionaries and the trader began a conversation concerning the necessity for more Christian Protestant missions along the Congo in order to combat the spread of Catholicism. I passed the bread pudding. The West Illana, the ship in which we all lived, pushed slowly and solemnly through the night. Six bells.
Excerpted from Short Stories by Langston Hughes, Akiba Sullivan Harper. Copyright © 1996 Ramona Bass and Arnold Rampersad. Excerpted by permission of Hill and Wang.
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