Strange flesh

In this shocking final installment from Russell Banks' new novel, Hannah meets Woodrow's family in their jungle village.

By Russell Banks
Published October 20, 2004 8:00PM (EDT)

In seconds, the path had joined a wider path, a trail, actually, that soon broadened and swept beneath a head-high, earthen trestle overgrown with ferns and tall grasses. As I passed beneath the bridgelike structure, I glanced up and saw the high palisade above it and realized that in my search for an entrance to the village I had simply walked across the top of it and had missed the gate entirely. I followed my lissome guide under the bridge and entered the village of Fuama.

It was a large, circular compound of ten or twelve daub-and-wattle, whitewashed, windowless huts, each with a single, low doorway facing a packed dirt yard the size of a basketball court. A crowd of people, which I recognized as the same crowd that had greeted us when we first stepped from the car, was loosely gathered around a fire pit. 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 but assumed was a soup or stew, made no doubt from the heads, hoofs, and innards of the beasts roasting on the fire. While the children mostly held hands and watched in silence from the edge of the crowd, men and women of all ages drank from gourds and soda pop bottles, laughing and talking excitedly with one another and every few seconds breaking into scraps of song. It was a party, a drunken celebration. Off to one side were the drummers -- four sweating, muscular, young men -- eyes closed, heads thrown back, as if each were chained to a private, throbbing world of sound. And there, behind the drummers, rising above the crowd on a dais at the entrance to a hut significantly larger than the others, stood a very tall, elderly man in a white, short-sleeved shirt and trousers, four older women in colorful wraps, and Woodrow.

Standing next to Woodrow and slightly behind him, yet making herself visible to the crowd, was a young woman with a thick, pouty upper lip. A naked baby was perched on her wide, outslung hip. The woman was very dark, almost plum colored, with glistening hair that was braided and coiled like a nest of black snakes and wore a bright yellow-and-white sash across her bare breasts. She stared at me unblinking. Everyone else seemed not even to notice my presence.

Woodrow, too, ignored me. Or perhaps he just hasn't noticed my arrival yet, I thought. Or maybe he didn't notice my absence in the first place.

I flipped a small, discreet wave in his direction. Over here, Woodrow! He saw me. I know he saw the tall white woman standing at the edge of the crowd. How could he have missed me, for heaven's sake? But he seemed to look right through my body, as if it were transparent, a pane of glass between him and his people.

I didn't know what to do. I turned to my guide, the boy who had brought me here, and said, "What should I do?"

He smiled sweetly and shrugged.

"Do you speak English?"

He nodded yes and said, as if reciting from a textbook, "I learn it at missionary school. I go to missionary school."

"Like Woodrow. Mr. Sundiata."


"What's your name?"

"Albert," he said. "I am Sundiata, too. Same like Woodrow. My father and Woodrow's brother the same-same."

"Should I go over there?" I asked. When I pointed towards Woodrow and the others on the dais, they were stepping down from the low platform and entering the hut, one by one.

Albert shrugged again. Smoke from the fire bit at my eyes, and my nostrils filled with the smell of roasting meat. The women in the crowd had resumed their high-pitched singing, and the drumming rose in volume with them. A wizened, toothless old man shoved a gourd in front of my face, and the vinegary smell of palm wine momentarily displaced the smoke and the aroma of the meat. I grabbed the gourd and took a sip from it and shivered from the sudden effect, felt my heart race, and found the courage to make my way quickly through the lively crowd towards the hut.

I passed through the low doorway and stood inside. It was dark, and I thought I was alone in the room. Tricked. A prisoner. The hut was stifling hot, the air heavy with the sour smell of human sweat. I stepped away from the entrance, let in a band of sunlight, and saw Woodrow seated on a low stool against the far wall. On either side of him, also on low stools, sat the tall, elderly man and the eldest of the four women. The others, including the young woman with the baby, lay on mats on the floor nearby, watching me.

"Woodrow, I hope -- "

"Please sit down," he said, cutting me off. "Welcome."

I looked around in the dimly lit space and followed the example of the other women and lay my long body down on a mat by the door. There was silence for a moment, an embarrassing, almost threatening silence, until finally Woodrow said, "This is my father, and this is my mother. They don't speak English, Hannah," he added.

The old man and woman seemed to be examining me, but they said nothing, and their somber, inward expressions did not change. It was as if I were being tested, as if everyone knew what was expected of me and were merely waiting to see if I could figure it out on my own. If my ignorance or lack of imagination forced them to tell or show me what was expected, I'd have failed the test. They were an imposing, almost imperious group, but at the same time they were utterly ordinary-looking people. Commoners. Working people. It was the context, the social situation, not their appearance, that gave them their power over me.

Woodrow's father's skin was charcoal gray, his face crackled and broken horizontally and vertically with deep lines and crevices. His neck and arms had the diminished look of a man who'd once been unusually muscular and in old age had seen everything inside his skin, even the bones, shrink. His hair was speckled with gray and, except for a few thin tufts on his cheeks and chin, he was beardless. The old woman, Woodrow's mother, was very dark, like Woodrow, and small and round faced, with a receding chin, also like Woodrow. I could see him in her clearly. In twenty years, the son would look exactly like the mother.

I hadn't noticed, but Albert, my guide, had followed me inside the hut and was now squatting by the door. Woodrow rattled several quick sentences at him, and the boy leapt to his feet and went back outside, as if dismissed. We continued to sit in silence. I dared not break it. What would I say? Whatever words came from me, I was sure they and my voice would sound like my mother's -- that insecure, coy, jaunty banter she always fell back on when addressing black or working-class people, as exotic to her as the people of Fuama were to me. I waited for one of the Africans to speak, any of them, in any language, it didn't matter. I longed for the sound of human speech, regardless of whether I could understand it, as long as it wasn't me doing the talking.

Then suddenly Albert was back, lugging a basket filled with steaming chunks of what looked like roast pork and a handful of palm leaves, which he distributed to everyone, starting with Woodrow and his father. He placed the basket on the ground before Woodrow and disappeared again, returning at once with a large open gourd filled with a thick, gray stew. Woodrow gave him another order, and the boy left again, this time returning carrying a batch of pale Coke bottles filled with what I assumed was palm wine.

At the sight of the food and drink, Woodrow's father's expression had changed from unreadable impassivity to obvious delight, and he reached across Woodrow and with one hand grabbed a Coke bottle and with the other picked up his leaf and snatched a piece of the meat from the basket. He took a mouthful of the wine, mumbled what I took to be a quick prayer, and spat a bit of it onto the ground before him, then swallowed, smacking his lips with pleasure. He tore off a large piece of the meat with his teeth and, almost without chewing, swallowed it -- his eyes closed in bliss -- and then a second large mouthful, and a third, by which time the others had joined him, and the hut filled with the sounds of chewing, slurping, swallowing.

The young woman on the mat opposite me lay back and ate in a leisurely, luxurious way, as if at a Roman banquet, nursing her baby at the same time. She glanced over at me, smiled to herself through half closed eyes, casually passed a Coke bottle to me, then returned to eating. Woodrow's sister? His father's youngest wife? Or Woodrow's village wife and baby? I didn't know how to ask and was afraid of the answer. Flies buzzed in the darkness, cutting against the thick, muffled noise of the drums and singing outside. I took a small sip of the wine and as the others had done spat half into the dirt before swallowing. With leaf in hand I plucked a small piece of the pork from the basket. I glanced around and realized that everyone had ceased chewing and was watching me with friendly but inexplicable eagerness. And then, of course, it came to me. This was bush meat. The skinned beasts roasting on the fire were adult chimpanzees, their heads and hands and feet removed and boiled with their innards for stew, their cooked haunches, shoulders, ribs, and thickly muscled upper arms and legs cut into steaks and chops. It was bush meat -- a profoundly satisfying, probably intoxicating, delicacy to be savored in celebration of the return of Fuama's favorite son and the foreign woman who had agreed to become his wife.

I slowly returned the chunk of meat to the basket, wiped my hand on my dress, and stood up. "Woodrow, I ... I'm sorry," I said. "But I can't." His face froze. The others simply stared at me, uncomprehending, confused, as if they and not I had made the terrible mistake. I knew that it was an insult to them, an unforgivable breach of decorum, and Woodrow was being humiliated before his people. But I could no more eat the flesh of that animal than if it had been human flesh. I'm not in the slightest fastidious about what I eat, and have devoured the bodies of animals all my life without a tinge of guilt or revulsion. I've eaten snakes and insects, badgers, woodchucks, bison, and ostrich. I could have eaten dog or cat or rat, even, if that were traditional and were expected of me as a way of honoring the hospitality of family and tribe. But not chimpanzee. Not an animal so close to human as to expect from it mother-love and grief, pride and shame, fear of abandonment and betrayal, even speech and song.

I turned and left the hut and made my way back through the crowd to the gate, where I retraced the path back to the palisade, where Albert had first found me. No one tried to stop me from leaving the village, and no one followed me. I was alone again, and familiar to myself again. My thoughts were mine again -- safe, known, fixed.

From the palisade I slowly, carefully, walked back along the path through the jungle to the riverbank, where down by the river Satterthwaite leaned against the hood of the Mercedes, smoking a cigarette and chatting with a teenaged boy, one of the crew that had pulled the car across on the raft. The raft, I saw, was halfway across the river, empty, on its way back or over, I couldn't tell. Satterthwaite looked up and smiled pleasantly, as if he'd known I'd arrive like this, a woman alone and angry and frightened and glad to be back at the car, and he knew exactly how to make me feel better.

"You finish, Miz Hannah?" he said.

"Give me a hand," I said and started down the steep embankment towards him. He came forward and, just as I was about to slip and fall, grabbed my arm, righting and easing me to level ground, reeling me in like a kite. "Thanks."

"No trouble," he said and flipped his cigarette into the brown river water and swung open the rear door of the car. As I passed him, he placed one hand over his crotch, looked down at it, then at me. I stopped, halfway into the car, halfway out, and returned his look. He said, "Anyt'ing I can do to make you a little more comf 'table? Gonna take a while before Mr. Sundiata turn up. Be dark soon, y' know." His smooth, dry, hairless face was close to mine, and his breath smelled strongly of palm wine. I'd never been this close to him before and saw for the first time that he was a very young man, much younger than I'd thought, probably not yet twenty, and reckless and naive and dangerously curious. Dangerous to me, possibly, but definitely dangerous to himself. I slipped past him and sat down in the welcoming shade of the leather-upholstered interior. I reached out and touched his wrist with my fingertips and said, "Can you find me something to drink? Beer would be nice. Or some of that palm wine you've been drinking. And some fruit to eat?"

He smiled broadly -- beautiful teeth, I noticed, also for the first time. "Not a problem," he said and went to the boy, spoke quietly to him, and handed him some coins. The boy ran along a riverside path I'd not known was there, in seconds disappearing from sight and taking the path with him. Satterthwaite strolled back to the car and said, "Want the air-conditioner? Can turn it on if you like. We got plenty of gasoline still."

"Yes, that would be nice," I said and closed the car door. He slid into the front, turned on the engine and the air-conditioner, then slung his arm over the seat back and looked at me with -- oh my, yes -- a handsome, elegantly formed, young man's look of lust. The dark, leathery interior of the car smelled like ripe peaches. I leaned back in the seat and let the cooled air flow over me. It pleased the skin of my face and neck, my bare arms, a breath from the arctic blowing across my legs, and I drew my mud-spattered dress up a few inches to my knees and closed my eyes.

"When the boy come back wit' the wine and fruits, I can make him go 'way." He spoke in a voice that was barely more than a whisper, as if reluctant to wake me from my reverie.

"Fine," I said. And after a few seconds, "When do you think Mr. Sundiata will come back?"

"Oh ... not till long time. If him not come before dark, then not till mornin'."

We both spoke very slowly, as if under water. "He won't come looking for me?"

"Naw. He gots him a heap of fam'ly bus'ness to settle first."

"All right, then. I can wait."

"Me, too. Us two can wait together." He extended his pack of cigarettes, I took one, and he lighted it with a flip of his heavy, chromium Zippo.

I cleansed my mouth with smoke, and thought, So this is how it's going to be, married to Woodrow.

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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