Robert Hellenga was educated at the University of Michigan and Princeton University. He is a professor at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, and the author of the novels The Sixteen Pleasures, The Fall of a Sparrow, Blues Lessons, Philosophy Made Simple, and The Italian Lover. Visit his Web site at www.roberthellenga.com.
Praise for Snakewoman of Little Egypt:
"Both thoughtful and action-packed...Readers will once again find great pleasure in Hellenga's intelligent, generous-hearted work."-Chicago Tribune
"A masterpiece. Thank you, Mr. Hellenga."-Washington Post Book World
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Snakewoman of Little EgyptA Novel
By ROBERT HELLENGA
BLOOMSBURYCopyright © 2010 Robert Hellenga
All right reserved.
Chapter OneRite of Passage
On his fortieth birthday—August 6, 1999—Jackson Carter Jones, associate professor of anthropology at Thomas Ford University in west central Illinois, ate a poached egg for breakfast and then sat outside on the deck. It had rained recently—twice—and the stream, Johnson Creek, which sometimes dried up at the end of the summer, was full. When it was full, it emptied into the Lakota River, which emptied into the Mississippi. He was trying to decide his own fate, take it into his own hands. He took a coin out of his pocket. A quarter. One of the new ones, Pennsylvania, the American eagle replaced by an allegorical female figure. He flipped it. It landed on the glass table top, bounced off onto the plank floor. The dog, a black lab with a little bit of Rottweiler showing in her broad chest, jumped. The coin rolled in a big circle, then a smaller circle, and finally fell through a crack in the deck onto the sand and grit below, where a big groundhog had made his den.
Jackson had Warren's .22, which he'd cleaned the night before. A box of .22 Longs sat next to an empty coffee cup on the table. He was waiting for the groundhog to appear (as he did every morning), but the groundhog was too canny for him. It always outwaited him, or took him by surprise. Took the dog, Maya, by surprise too.
In the old days Warren, the hired man he'd inherited from Claude Michaut, along with the house, had killed the groundhogs in a trap that chopped their heads right off. The trap was still up in the garage, but Jackson didn't know how to set it; and it was dangerous; and he didn't have the strength; and he didn't need the stress. He was still recovering from a bout of Lyme disease. More than a bout. In the last two years he'd been diagnosed with everything from AIDS and the Chinese flu and mad cow disease to giardia, lupus, sleeping sickness, schizophrenia, chronic fatigue syndrome, Parkinson's disease, MS, and White Shaker Dog Syndrome. By the time a doctor in Chicago figured out he had Lyme disease, he was presenting psychotic symptoms—confusion, short-term memory loss, disorientation, inability to recognize his car in the parking lot, religious hallucinations too, and ghosts from the past: his mother, his father, Warren, Claude; Mbuti friends from the Ituri Forest; his girlfriend, Sibaku, and their daughter, whom he'd never seen. Now, on the road to wellness—after a long course of intravenous Ceftriaxone (Rocephin)—the swelling in his joints was minimal and he could walk around without difficulty, once he managed to get out of bed in the morning, and he no longer had to leave written step-by-step instructions on his kitchen table explaining how to get through the day. No more visitors from his past life knocked on the door in his sleep. He was looking forward to the future for the first time in almost two years.
He looked through the cracks between the planks, looked in his pocket for another coin but didn't find one. He could have crawled under the deck. The quarter would have to be there, heads or tails, unless it had gone into the groundhog hole.
Heads meant he should go back to Africa, which still felt like home to him after thirteen years; tails he should get married and settle down right where he was, where he already had a house in the middle of eighty acres of timber, and a garage, with a little apartment over it. The apartment was empty now, since Warren's death. Warren had been a janitor in Davis Hall, which housed the anthropology and philosophy departments, when Claude came to TF. He'd accepted Claude's offer of free rent in exchange for looking after the property. He'd cut up firewood, stacked it, plowed the drive in winter with a little Case tractor with a blade bolted onto the front end, mowed the tall grass in summer and cut down the nettles on the other side of the stream and the poison ivy vines that grew as thick as your arm. He'd killed varmints, shot a deer every year and dressed it for Claude, paid the bills and the real estate taxes when Claude was gone. He'd stayed in the garage apartment even after he became head of custodial services for South Campus, and was living there when Jackson came back from Africa, alone, and discovered that Claude had left the house to him, though there were some legal difficulties because it had been difficult to prove that Claude was dead.
There were rumors, in fact, that Jackson had done away with Claude deep in the heart of the Ituri Forest. The rumors weren't true, of course—Claude had been like a father to Jackson—but it was impossible to stop them, and they created a certain mystique. His colleagues in the department joked about it—"Don't mess with Jackson"—but the important thing was that Warren hadn't believed the rumors; if he had, he might have killed Jackson. Instead he took it on himself to look after Jackson the way he'd looked after Claude.
The prospect of going back to Africa appealed to Jackson. He'd gone to the Congo when it was still Zaire, just as he was about to start his third year in graduate school. Some grant money had appeared out of nowhere, and Claude had tapped him to go along, probably because he spoke French and because he'd done well in Professor Steckley's two-semester Swahili course. Though there were others who had taken the course too and done just as well. Kingwana or "kitchen Swahili," a Bantu language, was the lingua franca in the Congo. The Negroes who lived along the edge of the Forest spoke it, and the polyglot Mbuti spoke it in the villages, though they spoke a dialect of their own among themselves in the Forest. Jackson wouldn't say he'd mastered this difficult dialect, but he'd learned it tolerably well in the four years he'd spent in the Forest. But what had given him the edge over the other graduate students was the fact that he played the harmonica, or the blues harp, at department parties, and Claude had got it into his head that Jackson was an ethnomusicologist who could help him record and preserve the Mbuti music.
Two and a half years after Claude's death Jackson had been arrested outside Étienne Rameau's huge mud mansion at Camp Rameau by two Bantu policemen. They'd been waiting for him to come out of the Forest for two months. Rumors of Claude's death had reached the authorities, and the authorities had done what authorities always do. But suspicion of murder? Assisted suicide, possibly, though Jackson didn't think the charge would have stuck in a court of law, and it hadn't come to that. He'd been taken to the American embassy at Kinshasa. No one wanted an international incident. Claude was not married but had an illegitimate daughter living in Lyon. It was the university—Thomas Ford University—that had wanted to know what had happened to Claude. Had he returned to France without telling anyone? Had something happened to him? No one, it turned out, had been inquiring after Jackson.
By the time Jackson was arrested his visa had long expired and none of his papers were in order. He didn't even have any papers, in fact. Not the kind of papers that the authorities wanted. Though he did manage to bring back Claude's notebooks, which Claude had given to him after Claude's first death in the Forest—before he was dead once and for all, absolutely and completely dead, as the Mbuti put it.
What had happened was, Jackson had gone native. He'd had a taste of something that he didn't think he could live without—ecstasy, or joy, or maybe simply a settled conviction of well-being, of being at home in the universe, of being where he belonged—though this settled conviction was punctuated by periods of incandescent ... He couldn't find the words. Perhaps Romain Rolland's oceanic feeling, though Freud had regarded this oceanic feeling as a delusion. Had what Jackson experienced been a delusion or an insight? A fantasy or a vision? But it wasn't like that at all, really. And how could an oceanic feeling be incandescent? He could still remember the feeling even if he couldn't name it. His body remembered. His skin remembered the overpowering moist heaviness of the gigantic trees; his eyes remembered the cool shadowy half-light that spooked the Negro villagers; his ears remembered the birdsong and the monkey chatter and the night sounds that might or might not be the cough of a leopard; his nose remembered the smell of the munu'asulu leaves used to wrap food to be cooked in the embers of a fire and the sweet body odor of the Mbuti men; his tongue remembered the bitterness of liko, brewed from berries and herbs, and the sharp tang of termites—an acquired taste—which provided the Mbuti, as it did our earliest hominid ancestors, with a rich supply of protein.
Living in the Garden of Eden. Not figuratively, but literally. That's what Claude had concluded, and that was what he wanted Jackson to convey to the learned world. But it was a huge job. Jackson would have to decipher Claude's baroque French handwriting, and then he'd have to edit what was essentially a collection of disjointed field notes. And there were other problems. He didn't want to make himself a laughingstock, or damage Claude's legacy.
Claude's reputation rested on a series of authoritative ethnographies, written in French and subsequently translated into all the major European languages, of the various "pygmy" peoples of central and western Africa—the Batwa, the Bayaka, the Bagyeli, and finally, the Bambuti. ("Ba" simply means "people.") But recently Claude's work had come under attack by other anthropologists: for understating serious problems, such as the persecution of old women for being witches or the unequal treatment of women in general, or for treating wife beatings, abuse of animals, and quarrels that escalated into violence in a tone of lighthearted amusement. What would happen now to Claude's legacy if his claim—which he had never published—to have located the Garden of Eden, right on the border between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, came to light?
Jackson's own more modest reputation rested on his book My Life as an Mbuti, which had drawn the ire of fellow anthropologists. Why? Because Jackson hadn't played by the rules. On the one hand, he'd been too involved with the natives to see them clearly; the book was too subjective. On the other hand, he'd made the cardinal mistake of the old anthropology by assuming that Mbuti culture enacted a set of values and norms and cognitive frameworks and then by reifying conceptually convenient binary oppositions instead of unpacking and problematizing them.
But what really frosted his critics was that My Life as an Mbuti had been a national best seller and that in it Jackson had revealed what many anthropologists regarded as a dirty little secret that ought to be kept a secret: he'd slept with the natives. One of the natives. Sibaku, daughter of Asumali, the great storyteller, and Makela, who supervised the elima.
If you'd asked Jackson who the president of the United States was when he came out of the Forest, he wouldn't have been able to tell you, wouldn't have known that Reagan had defeated Mondale in a landslide, or that Gorbachev was the new leader of the Soviet Union or that Indira Gandhi had been assassinated by one of her bodyguards, or that the Challenger had exploded off the coast of Florida after one of the O-ring seals failed at liftoff.
He had applied for a visa to return to Africa shortly after his return to the States—he wanted to see Sibaku, and he wanted to see his daughter—but his request had been denied. He hadn't been able to produce a notarized letter from a host or friend in what was then Zaire, and with Claude dead and Camp Rameau abandoned, he wasn't likely to get one. He'd been persona non grata, and neither the State Department nor Mobutu's government was interested in having him return. But Mobutu's government had been overthrown in :997 by Laurent-Desire Kabila and had become the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Kabila, a man with a reputation for burning his critics alive at the stake, was promising reforms, but the borders with Uganda and Rwanda were too unstable. Travel warnings had been issued. A cease-fire had been signed in July between Kabila and the Uganda- and Rwanda-backed rebels, but there was no question of trying to get across the border from Uganda or Rwanda. Or from Sudan. If he got someone to ferry him across the Congo River from the Republic of Congo in the west, where would he be? Five hundred miles from where he wanted to be. He could imagine surviving for a week in the heart of the Forest itself, living on nuts and tubers, mushrooms and honey, but not the five or six weeks it would take to reach the Epulu River, if he could find his way, which was doubtful. Besides, he didn't think he could get from Brazzaville to Stanleyville without papers.
His daughter. He knew it was a daughter because of the last letter he had received from Étienne Rameau, but he didn't know her name. The letter he sent to Étienne to read to Sibaku came back five months later stamped DÉCÉDÉ. Étienne, not Sibaku.
He couldn't make contact because none of the Mbuti could read or write, and they didn't have addresses. He couldn't call up a friend, because there were no telephones in the Forest.
He told himself that it was too complicated. But his daughter had come to him in his sleep. In his dreams she looked like her mother. Four feet tall. Bronze. Anthropologists often sleep with the natives, but they never talk about it. It was unprofessional. Regrettable. Always a mistake. That was the official line. But Sibaku had been a museka—ready for sex but not yet married—and could sleep with anyone she liked without being reproached, as long as her lover made appropriate gifts to her father, which Jackson was happy to do, presenting the old man with his second-best knife, a C harmonica, and a pocket compass. The Mbuti practiced exogamy, and Jackson was the only one in the whole band who could have married her.
He wasn't worried about his daughter. She'd be taken care of—mothered, fathered, uncled, aunted, cousined, loved. Soon it would be time for her elima, time for her to become a woman.
In his dreams she was not unhappy. He didn't have to worry about her. But she worried about him. Was he happy? Did he have enough to eat? Did the forest where he lived give him what he needed? Did the molimo come to wake up the forest where he lived? In his dreams he could hear the molimo (grunting, growling, singing, whistling, farting), waking him up just as his alarm went off.
But was getting married in the United States any less complicated than going back to Africa? And would marriage offer what he was looking for? And whom would he marry?
Actually there was no shortage of single women on campus, attractive women his age who'd pursued careers instead of marriage and family, who'd written books and secured grants and received awards and done all sorts of remarkable things, and who were ready to settle into companionable marriages. He'd enjoyed non-dangerous liaisons with a number of them, before the Lyme disease, and his old pal Claire Reynolds was bringing another one over tonight. Claire, whom he'd expected to marry back in his early days at TF, had married a priest instead, an Episcopal priest, and had lived the sort of life Jackson had expected to lead himself, at least at the time, in an old balloon-framed Victorian monster with a porte cochere, two children, a dog. Well, he had a dog: Maya. Claire was always fixing him up. She saw her role as looking after Jackson. As an adult might look after a grown-up-but-not-quite-responsible child. She wanted him to live the life she was living and was always inviting him to this or that special service at Grace Episcopal Church.
Excerpted from Snakewoman of Little Egypt by ROBERT HELLENGA Copyright © 2010 by Robert Hellenga. Excerpted by permission of BLOOMSBURY. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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