"The Darling": Lost in the jungle

As the 20th century melts away (along with the 19th and 18th), Hannah finally reaches the village of Woodrow's ancestors. It isn't quite what she was expecting.


Russell Banks
October 19, 2004 12:00AM (UTC)

Before long, we passed beyond the villages and small farms into a region that was even less populated. Here the isolated roadside settlements, small clusters of daub-and-wattle huts with thatched roofs, looking more like family encampments than communities, were separated from one another by dark green jungle too thick with trees, vines, head-high ferns, and flowering bushes for any earthbound animal to penetrate. Snakes, lizards, and insects might make their way unimpeded along the ground, but otherwise it was strictly parrots and arboreal animals like monkeys and tree sloths that ruled. When suddenly a human being appeared -- a man with a machete or a woman and her baby -- it was as if he or she were emerging from a wall of green water, stepping gracefully from the jungle onto the road ahead, usually carrying a large bundle of cut sticks or a gunny sack stuffed with groundnuts.

The sky, floating overhead, was a creamy ribbon. Here below, the road was its shadow, growing rougher as it narrowed, with deep pits, potholes, and corrugated ruts carved in the red dirt by the morning and evening daily downpours -- not by motor vehicles, surely, for there were no tire tracks anymore, save ours. To avoid the holes and ruts, Satterthwaite drove more slowly and elaborately now, cutting from one side of the road to the other as if on an obstacle course. Every few hundred yards we passed people walking towards us and away, always walking, never just standing, never idly waiting, men, women, and children and sometimes elderly people, all of them walking with bundles on their heads and in their arms -- sugarcane stalks, firewood, baskets and swollen burlap bags and large and small babies strapped to their mothers' backs or clinging to their hips -- everyone, regardless of the burden, moving along with a lovely, easeful, straight-backed carriage. They wore loose clothing, brightly colored, traditional, topless and over-the-shoulder wraps on the women, the men usually shirtless in baggy shorts or trousers, battered straw hats or sometimes baseball caps on their heads, most of them barefoot or in broken-backed sneakers worn as slippers.

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We slowly drew abreast of them and passed by. The people turned and looked at us. A Mercedes sedan carrying a white woman accompanied by two black Africans in Western city clothes way out here in the bush had to be an unusual sight, extraterrestrial, almost; yet the expressions on the native people's faces remained unchanged, placid and incurious -- as impenetrable as the jungle itself. At least to me they were. I could not know how, or even if, Woodrow and Satterthwaite read them.

By this time, after nearly six months in Africa, I had learned the names of some of the trees and flowers, although it was difficult way out here to separate and identify individuals from the tangled, green throng. As we passed strangler figs and huge cotton trees with gray, winglike extensions at the ground, I named them to myself. For miles we drove alongside a closed palisade of thick bamboo, then a grove of ferns high as a house, and everywhere liana vines, blooming epiphytes, wild coffee plants, aloes. Swatches of frangipani and oleander blossoms tumbled to the roadside. Among the fan-shaped traveler's-trees and papaws and in thickets of the malagueta pepper plants that so excited the early English traders that for a century they called this place the Pepper Coast, I saw black hornbills pecking for seeds with their ax-like beaks, and dusky plovers and parrots. And wherever there was standing water, usually a pool covered with water lilies or a shining green swamp, I saw kingfishers in flocks, egrets, and herons.

This inland territory, the bush, was ancient. Primeval. From before the Fall, it seemed. Here the needs of nature and humanity were collaborative and far more peacefully meshed than back along the coastal region, where Monrovia, the capital, and the other, smaller cities of Liberia -- with their modern industrial spoilage and smoke-spewing cars and diesel trucks and buses -- waged warfare against the jungle that surrounded them. Down there, from the border with Côte d'Ivoire in the east to the border with Sierra Leone in the west, human beings and their machines were chewing their way inland, greedily devouring the land and everything on it.

It was like that all over equatorial Africa then, especially on the coast, and is even worse now; but in the mid-1970s, when this journey took place, the upland region of Liberia still remained essentially untouched by industry and technology, by modernity; and as we moved farther and farther away from the coast and the plantations on the lower plateau, I felt myself steadily slipping backwards in time. The twentieth century disappeared behind us, then the nineteenth was gone, the eighteenth, and the seventeenth. Lost to my mind were the crowded, rapidly swelling coastal cities, the rubber plantations, the railroad lines, even the roads that had spread inland from the seaside trading stations built first by Europeans and then Americans. The iron mines hadn't yet been established, the gigantic mahogany and cotton trees still loomed overhead, blocking out the sun, and diamonds hadn't been uncovered and sold for guns. Chimpanzees hadn't been captured, caged, and bred for the development of multibillion-dollar drugs. They and all the other now-decimated species were still out there in the jungle, abundant, invisible, silent, watching us pass. This, I thought, is as close as I will ever get to West Africa as it was when the first Europeans arrived.

The road, barely a grassy trail now and no wider than the car, led to the edge of a slow-moving, brown river. A large raft made of cut poles lashed together with vines was waiting at the bank and the half-dozen men beside it, barefoot and wearing loose shorts, watched us approach as if expecting our arrival. The river was not wide -- a boy could toss a ball to a boy on the other side -- and a thick vine tied to a tree on both banks crossed the river just above the sluggish surface of the water.

"Beyond this river is my village," Woodrow said. "Fuama."

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These were the first words he had spoken to me since I'd stepped from the car nearly two hours earlier and had been overcome by ... what? A vision? A seizure. If I don't know what to call it now, I certainly didn't at the time. It had been a sudden, thoroughgoing confusion of needs and desires, I knew that much, even when it was happening, and little else. But looking back these many years later, I see it more clearly now, and if it was a vision, then it must have been the felt aftereffect of a collision between two conflicted desires that had been germinating in my subconscious for months. One desire had been generated by the woman named Hannah Musgrave, who wanted to become wholly herself again, free to go back to her parents and homeland; the other by the woman named Dawn Carrington, who also wanted to become wholly herself, but hoped in the process to disappear from her pursuers safely into Africa. My decision to marry Woodrow was turning both women -- the lost but still loving daughter and the fugitive revolutionary -- into a bourgeois African man's loving American wife. It had set Hannah's and Dawn's opposing desires on a collision course. If I married Woodrow, Hannah would never go home again, and Dawn would not disappear into Africa. It would be as if neither woman had ever existed, as if both had been from the beginning nothing more than fictions. In deciding to marry Woodrow, I was deciding to abandon my dream of assuming the identity I had been given in childhood and youth, as well as the identity I had replaced it with.

I glimpsed that fact that day, and it terrified me, and when I fled from the safety and comfort of the ministry car and embraced that poor, pathetic, female goat, it was not to comfort her, but somehow to induce her to comfort me. To help me believe that what I saw coming towards me would not arrive.

The car coasted from the road onto the raft and stopped. To the man in charge Satterthwaite spoke a few words in the man's language and dropped a coin into his hand. Satterthwaite closed the window and let the motor and air-conditioner continue to purr, as the crew of muscular men, like a team in a tug-of-war, somberly, rhythmically pulled on the thick vine and drew us slowly across the river, where I saw gathered on the farther bank a large, rapidly growing crowd of naked and near-naked men, women, and children. They were a somber group, like a photo from an old National Geographic, the women with large, pendulous breasts, the men with tightly muscled arms and chests, the children with round bellies and protruding navels -- a passive, yet withheld and slightly suspicious-looking crowd, as if waiting for us to make our intentions clear, not exactly welcoming, and not in the slightest ceremonial.

I suppose I expected feathers and masks and drums, elaborate headdresses, leopard-skin capes, and woven breastplates, not, as they seemed, a loose collection of poverty-stricken hunters-gatherers. Woodrow's people. His family. Soon to be mine.

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Satterthwaite drove the Mercedes slowly from the raft and onto the mudded clearing, parting the crowd, and shut off the motor.

"End of the road," Woodrow said and chuckled. He put his pith helmet on and, checking himself in the rear-view mirror, squared it. "End of the road," Satterthwaite repeated, and he, too, chuckled. He stepped from the car and opened my door for me to exit, then jumped to Woodrow's door.

Immediately, as soon as we were out of the car, the people surrounded us, all of them talking at once in loud voices pitched at the same high, flattened tone, their rapid-fire cries, calls, and speeches directed entirely at Woodrow, who shook hands with the men like a visiting plenipotentiary, smiled and nodded politely to the women and children, but said nothing in response to anyone and did nothing to present or even to acknowledge me. Satterthwaite, leaning against the hood, arms folded across his chest, waited by the car and with a sly smile on his face watched Woodrow and me in our city shoes and clothes make our awkward way up the slippery embankment.

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Woodrow reached the top of the bank before the rest of us and without a pause plunged into the forest there. The crowd, focused entirely on Woodrow -- their village champion returned from a far country in triumph -- followed him, and I followed them, more or less ignored, except for the smallest children, the babies, who stared at me with wonderment and a shadow of worry on their brown faces, until their mothers caught them looking and turned them around, shifting them to where they couldn't see me anymore or else covered their faces with a flattened hand or a large leaf torn from a nearby tree.

It was very hot, and the ground was wet and muddy, and the path was narrow and half-covered with wet, overhanging ferns and bushes. I had difficulty keeping pace with the others and at one point, hurrying to catch up, slipped and fell, smearing my dress, hands, and lower legs with red mud. I blurted, "Shit!" but no one looked back. No one paid me the slightest attention. To everyone, it seemed, except for the babies, who'd been all but blindfolded by their mothers, I was practically invisible. Which, before I arrived there, may well have been what I wanted. I wanted to see them but didn't want them to see me. It was not, however, what I'd expected. And now that it was happening, it made no sense to me. Some welcoming party, I thought.

Soon the others had gotten so far ahead that I couldn't see them anymore, and then I couldn't hear their chatter and ululating calls to one another. I was alone and damned near lost in the middle of the jungle, and I was growing angry. Furious.

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I felt like Katharine Hepburn in The African Queen and almost laughed out loud at the thought. Woodrow in his pith helmet and eyeglasses as Bogie? But I slipped and skidded and stumbled on, and after a while, a half-hour or so, the path brought me face to face with a palisade nearly eight feet high, made of thick poles roughly cut and peeled and lashed together with vines. The path split right and left alongside the wall, with no indication of which way led to the entrance to the village. I could see on the farther side of the wall thatched roofs like conical hats and the green leafy tops of fruit trees and caught the aroma of wood smoke and roasting meat.

I chose to go left and, like a princess locked out of her castle, made my way along the wall, looking for the drawbridge or gate, a doorway, a hole in the wall, a tunnel -- any way in. I heard drumming, high, thin, rapid-fire patters at first, then a heavy bass drum joined in, and the click of sticks on a log, and singing -- those high-pitched female ululations orchestrated cleanly into a chorus now. The sun shone aslant in the sky, behind the trees, but it was still very hot and humid, and I was sweating and muddy. The mud had a cold, metallic stink to it. I took off my shoes, and carrying them like pathetic gifts, one in each hand, walked along the path barefoot, whimpering with frustration and anger and confusion. Where was the damned gate? Where had everyone gone? What was going on in there? Why hadn't Woodrow or someone, anyone, stayed back to lead me into the village? It was turning into one of those awful dreams of rejection and repressed rage that you think will never end. When, after walking for what seemed like hours but could not have been more than twenty minutes, I realized that I had actually walked full circle around the village without having come to a door or a gate and had arrived back where I had started, and I was suddenly afraid.

There must have been something important said or done back at the car that I utterly missed, I thought. I'd been distracted, confused, when we came to the river, not paying attention. Back there, when we crossed the river, a gesture, some sort of instruction or lead, must have been given to me by Woodrow or Satterthwaite or by one of the people who greeted us, something that would have told me what to say and do when we arrived and thus, as a result of my not having said or done it, would explain what was happening to me now. I must have unintentionally insulted Woodrow or his people. Perhaps I offended one of their ancestors or broke one of their taboos. Good Lord, I thought, this is Alice's Wonderland -- the rules are different here, and I haven't a clue as to what they are, and everything I do is wrong!

Barefoot and muddy, sweating and scared, my shoes in my hands, my hair damp and in stringy tangles, I grimaced and began half to laugh over my plight and half to cry. I felt like a traveler from another planet whose compatriots had left for home too soon. A shadow crossed mine, and when I turned there was a slender boy of fourteen or fifteen standing beside me. He was silent and motionless, as if he'd been transported there by magic. Shirtless and barefoot, wearing little more than a loincloth, he was a pretty, almost girlish-looking boy who smiled slightly and gestured for me to follow him. Turning, he walked gracefully downhill a short ways, looked back once to be sure that I was coming along behind, then stepped into the bushes and disappeared into the bright greenery, and when I arrived at the place where he'd become invisible, I saw a narrow footpath and took it.

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Coming Wednesday: Two large, skinned, piglike carcasses, headless and without hoofs, were slung across the red coals alongside a fifty-gallon drum whose steaming contents I could not see.


Russell Banks

Russell Banks is the author of "Cloudsplitter," "Rule of the Bone," "The Sweet Hereafter" and other novels, short stories and poetry. He has won numerous awards and prizes for his work, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowships, the O. Henry and Best American Short Story Award, the John Dos Passos Award and the Literature Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

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