The White Mary
By Kira Salak
Henry Holt and Company Copyright © 2008 Kira Salak
All rights reserved.
The black waters of Elobi Creek show no sign of a current. It is another dead waterway, Marika tells herself, one that will breed only mosquitoes and crocodiles. Another waterway that somehow reflects — in the darkness of the water, in its stillness — all of her failings. These waters, this breathless heat, seem to be waiting for a response from her, a call to action. But she has no answers. And if she's to be honest with herself, she never had any. Things will unravel. They will fall apart.
If she is to be honest with herself — and the pain from self-honesty, but the duty of it, too — she must admit that this time she seems to have started something that is beyond her ability to stop. It is as if the dominoes of her life have begun to fall, and she can only watch each moment disappearing in the futile fractions of a second. She is still looking for her ghost. Nearly three months spent in Papua New Guinea, and no sign of him. Does Robert Lewis know she has given up everything to find him? More to the point, would he care? She ought to go home. Go back. Call this for what it is: a failure.
Beauty intrudes upon her. Flocks of red and green parrots. Butterflies of blue and gold dancing over the black waters. Crowned pigeons with their regal headdresses of gray plumage. She would like to know this beauty, not just see it. In the same way, walking down a city street, she might gaze at the featureless crowds and catch sight of a face that awakens something vital in her. A longing, perhaps. A burst of compassion. She looks at the thick, ripe jungle around her: squat sago palms nesting beside the riverbanks; ancient trees rising toward darkening clouds. It should not be so hard, she tells herself, to know this beauty.
Thomas, the lanky young man driving their dugout canoe, stops the outboard motor. The intense heat never seems to bother him, his green T-shirt saturated, his exposed black skin glistening from sweat. He picks up his bow and a bamboo arrow ending in four prongs, and aims at a crowned pigeon. Releasing the arrow, he watches it cascade into the rain forest, just missing the bird. As the pigeon flees for the sky, Thomas speaks sharply in a tribal language, putting down the bow and starting up the outboard motor. The jungle didn't seem to notice. The butterflies continue whirling. The parrots chatter. A white cockatoo fluffs out its feathers and relaxes them. As the sun disappears behind a large gray cloud, Marika yanks down her hat's brim, staring into the tangled greenery around her. She wants a sign. She would like to know that all the events of her life have conspired to bring her to this exact instant in time, with nothing — none of it — being a mistake.
But this world of Papua New Guinea won't tell her anything. It will just burn her white skin a deeper red. It will suck all the remaining moisture from her, stinging her, biting her, keeping her from sound sleep. The jungle rises thick on either side of the narrowing waterway, interconnecting overhead as if she were entering the bowels of a giant green serpent. Miraculously — or so it seems to her — she actually arrives somewhere at the end of each day, alive.
And closer, she hopes, to Robert Lewis.
The sun becomes shrouded by gray clouds. Their canoe passes some reeds, and the screeches of grasshoppers ring in Marika's ears. She sits with her hips wedged between the narrow sides of the vessel, her feet resting in an inch of muddy water in the bottom of the hull. Her toes show the last traces of red nail polish she applied months ago, back when she still lived with Seb. During her worst, most unattractive times, she often imagines he can see her — like when she's squatting on muddy riverbanks brushing her teeth, or smearing bloody mosquitoes from her face. What would he think of her now? Her skin sunburned and sweat soaked, her nose peeling, her T-shirt filthy and torn. Surely his worst suspicions about this trip would be confirmed.
Marika pulls her hat's brim even lower. Rain falls, the heavy, cold drops shocking her skin. But rain is always welcome over sunlight, allowing her the rare chance to cool off. She never stops sweating otherwise, not even during the night. This world is sticky and sultry without respite.
Thomas stands behind her, manning the outboard of the canoe. The prow of the boat is carved in the shape of a crocodile head, and Marika likes to imagine him riding the very creature of creation. The locals believe that the earth was once completely covered with water. Then in boredom, or perhaps arrogance, a giant crocodile dived down to the bottom of the sea and returned with mud on its back — thus the world was formed. As Creator, the crocodile is the most feared animal in these parts. It is the king of the gods in a land where locals believe that every plant and animal, every stream and stone, contains spirits requiring near-constant propitiation. Even the missionaries' religions compete with the crocodile. Once, when beginning her search for Lewis, Marika saw a carving in a spirit house of Jesus himself riding on a crocodile's back.
"Missus," Thomas says. The canoe stops moving and butts against reeds. She looks back, seeing him pointing to a narrow corridor between a cluster of mangroves. "Tobo," he says.
"How far to his village?" she asks.
But Thomas doesn't move. A hornbill with a giant yellow beak flies above the jungle canopy, its wings making a sound like an approaching chopper. Marika knows choppers don't come this far into the jungle, though. Virtually nothing does. The malarial swamps plague any attempts at civilization. Mostly hunters pass through, their crude lean-tos appearing beside the creek every few miles. The more deadly it is for humans, the more rich the game. Wild pigs. Giant cassowary birds. The docile, helpless cuscus, a marsupial that can be plucked from the trees. To live out here, you'd have to be half crazy. Which is why she thinks she can find Lewis in such a place.
Thomas doesn't want to continue. He complains about what she paid him. Three hundred dollars isn't enough. He wants three hundred more. They're going to see Tobo, after all, and Tobo can use sorcery to curse him. He doesn't think the white woman knows the danger they could be in. Probably, they've already passed through several areas that Tobo has bewitched. Thomas touches the cross around his neck, wondering, as he has for many years, just how powerful the Jesus spirit is. The missionaries told him that Jesus is a king, a bigman among all big men, but Thomas has long had his doubts.
"Four hundred kina, Missus," he says. "I will take you there for four hundred more."
Once they'd left the outpost on the Sepik River for the interior, floating through the empty expanses of jungle, Marika expected to be asked for more money. It has happened to her all over the world. Thomas, missionary schooled and English speaking, understands this game and plays it well. She takes out the equivalent of two hundred dollars in kina bills. She puts it in his palm and turns back around.
"Four hundred, Missus," he says.
She just studies the chipped nail polish on her toes. The sun, catching a break between clouds, momentarily lights up a patch of black water beside her. Thomas has noticed that this white woman doesn't talk very much, and he assumes it's because she's angry with him. The white people always seem to be getting angry with him, though everyone knows that trip prices change.
Thomas sighs and yanks the outboard from the water, not wanting the blades to catch on any roots. Picking up his paddle, he propels the canoe through the narrow channel between the mangroves. The route hasn't been cut back recently, mangrove branches arcing before them. Marika constantly ducks to avoid being struck, while Thomas chops at the bushes with his machete, leaves and small branches raining upon her.
Hours pass in this way. To Marika, the mangroves seem neverending. Thomas stops periodically to bail water from the canoe and to recaulk cracks in the hull with balls of river clay. Marika can see nothing but the maze of bushes around her and the dark, anvil-like clouds in the north, heralding rain. As the channel widens into a small lagoon, she sits up, squinting into the half-light of approaching dusk. She sees a tiny village opposite them. A few huts sit on the edge of the lagoon, a cooking fire blazing beneath one of them. Several upright tree trunks, painted red and cut to different heights, line the shore like totem poles. Each is carved in the shape of a creature — not human, but not quite animal — and decorated with large tufts of cassowary feathers.
"Tobo lives there," Thomas says, pointing at the huts. "That is Anasi village."
"What are those posts for?" she asks.
Thomas squints at them. "It's witchcraft," he says, dismissing them with a wave of his hand. "Tobo is not a Christian."
"But what are they for?" she asks again.
Thomas laughs at her ignorance. "They are protection from demons, Missus," he says.
Marika knows the Anasi witch doctor is famous for his "powers." According to several missionaries she talked to, he's in great demand in the villages of the Sepik River region. His "powers" don't interest her, though; rather, Tobo travels widely and is said to have visited many of the villages in the interior. If anyone would know about Robert Lewis, Tobo might, so she's spent the past two weeks trying to reach him. Two weeks of traveling waterways so low from drought that fallen trees and limbs littered the route for miles. She and Thomas have used up entire afternoons chopping through the branches or pulling the heavy dugout canoe over them. It was day after day of such tedious travel in the undying heat, cutting, portaging, paddling through swamps, only to return each night to her tent reeking heavily of mildew and sweat.
Being in Papua New Guinea for nearly three months has begun to take its toll on Marika. It's been three months of enduring extreme humidity and heat. Of being protein-deprived, eating the tasteless, starchy food that villagers survive on. During that time, she's been spreading word up and down the Sepik River that she wants news of a white man named Robert Lewis. But news — if there is any — comes slowly in PNG and can take months to arrive. There are no phones, nothing but word-of-mouth to travel the vast distances. Little information has come but for a few dubious reports of white men seen in different villages, all of whom turned out to be missionaries. Lewis, though, is far from being a missionary. And the person who wrote about Lewis being alive in PNG — an elderly American pastor named John Wade who'd lived on the Fly River — died nearly half a year ago. No one else in the missionary outposts knows anything further, and Marika contacted every one of those outposts.
Marika puts on her long-sleeved shirt and covers all exposed skin with repellent, as the mosquitoes will soon be out in droves. They aren't lethargic in PNG. They dive for her skin like kamikazes, biting the instant after landing. She hates nothing as much as the mosquitoes, which force her to wear pants and a long-sleeved shirt at dusk, though such covering makes the heat virtually unbearable. She has noticed that PNG requires constant surrender and submission, the entire country designed to humble — even humiliate — her.
She hears the dull beatings of a wooden garamut drum. Some men and old women leave their huts to stand onshore, peering at her and Thomas in the rising darkness. The women wear only woven bark skirts. Some of the men wear ratty shorts and have smears of ochre paint on their cheeks. Each holds a bow and backward-barbed arrows — the sort used for human warfare. The missionaries like to insist that the tribes have all been tamed by Christianity, that cannibalism has ended, but Marika doesn't believe it. In a small, out-of-the-way village, she's glimpsed smoky skulls lying beside spirit effigies.
Marika doesn't expect the men to shoot their arrows. Her arrival, a blond- haired white woman in a dugout canoe, is surely more bizarre than threatening. The old women — clutching staffs, their breasts hanging flat against their chests — are an astounding sight; people in these parts almost never live past forty. Younger women crouch behind a nearby hut, watching her arrival with terrified eyes. Thomas stops paddling just before shore, and he speaks sharply to the Anasi men in Pidgin. She's learned enough of the language by now to understand that he's telling them that a wait meri, literally a "white mary," a white woman, is here to see Tobo. The men lower their bows. A boy runs into a nearby hut, and after a few minutes a new man emerges.
Marika sees his eyes first, which remain wholly fixed on her. She knows from his fierce presence that he must be Tobo, the famous witch doctor, long before Thomas confirms it. The man is covered in red ochre, his face painted to look like a skull, his white eyes glowing in the dusk light. Around his neck rests a half moon kina shell, the mother-of-pearl gleaming in the departing light. Large hoop earrings made from cassowary quills hang from his distended earlobes and graze the tops of his shoulders, a single bird claw jutting from a hole in each nostril. He wears a breechclout of long, rubbery tanket leaves, which swishes as he walks on flat, heavily calloused feet. Tobo strides to shore, an arresting certitude in each step, and stands there silently, arms crossed. He looks intently at Marika, as if expecting her.
Thomas refuses to paddle closer.
"Thomas," Marika says impatiently, "take me to shore."
"Tobo has great powers," he warns.
"You told me that already, back in Ambunti."
"Yes, I know. But ..." He fingers the cross around his neck, noticing that Tobo is now grinning and mimicking him. "Eh! Look at him!"
"Just take me to shore," Marika says. "Let's go."
Thomas sighs and makes a quick sweep with the paddle. The canoe shoots forward, the carved crocodile head ramming against the muddy bank. Marika rises and tries to balance herself in the unwieldy craft. She carefully tosses her backpack onto the ground. Getting a foot anchored, she leaps to shore, Thomas following reluctantly. Tobo eyes her all the while. His stare reminds her of the look a priest gave her once, when she was visiting a cathedral in Peru. There is the same intense, dignified aloofness. The quiet piety. The red ochre skull painted on his face disconcerts her, but only mildly. She has met many "sorcerers" like him, mostly in West Africa, in places like Benin and Mali, and she doesn't really believe in what they do. Her interest in animism has been mostly sentimental. She finds it colorful, titillating.
Compared to someone like Tobo, Marika imagines herself as hopelessly ordinary. No distinguishing features but for her job, which brings — or, at any rate, brought — her speaking gigs of all sorts around the United States, usually at journalism schools. After her series of magazine cover stories came out on the civil war in Liberia, winning several prestigious awards, she acquired a surprising amount of media attention and, more to her discomfort, fame. Hers was often the only name that came to mind when people thought of female war reporters. She'd been everywhere the boys had been, and then some. The usual dangerous places — the Somalias and Bosnias — but some uniquely awful places, too. Sierra Leone. Angola. Chechnya.
Women, Marika has come to understand, still aren't supposed to wander alone in places like Liberia or Papua New Guinea — though doing so feels no more extraordinary to her than what an auto mechanic or an accountant does. It's what she does because she's competent at it. She has an unusually high threshold for fear. She's willing and able to travel to uncomfortable, inhospitable places to get her stories. In her view, it's the only thing she's ever been good at: facing the unpleasant. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The White Mary by Kira Salak. Copyright © 2008 Kira Salak. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.