First Place | Fiction Writing Contest

51st New Millennium Award for Fiction

Laura Herbst of Portland, Oregon for “Little Ancestors”

Herbst will receive $1,000 and publication both online and in print.

 

Little Ancestors

Laura Herbst

 

Today, birthday thirteen, emotions ball up and end in t-i-o-n: like dejection, trepidation, frustration, adding up to a feeling of isolation to the point of exasperation! I try to stop thinking about Mama, about ever having a Mama. It’s night and hot, and I stick plastic thongs on my feet, pull a towel around me, and plunge into the dirt furrows. I need to go cool off. I grip the wire handle of a lantern; it sputters and shines the way through Bibabé’s field. I don’t expect Aunt Melba or Uncle Taft to remember what day it is; almost no one au village pays attention to a calendar. Still, I know it’s March 6, 1984, almost a year since Mama died, and I creep through the furrows, slowly now, careful where I put my toes because the little ancestors can trip you if you don’t watch out. And I do watch out, guided by the faint circle of the lantern’s light, nubs of millet stalk scraping my ankles.

No, Bibabé didn’t want me to know they were there, the wooden figures rising from her field as she cut away the wind-dried stalks and collected stubble for her cooking fire, as the furrows became so bare the dirt cracked in the sun and smelled like bad breath, as the harmattan blew and exposed the tops of what looked like heads. I’d point, saying – voilà, voilà – in awkward French. She’d say – what? what? – in her local Benga, as if there was nothing there. Maybe I tuckered her out. Maybe she felt sorry for me. Maybe I’ve learned to say lafia and nfá at the right moments. Because days ago she clicked her tongue: ma petite fille, she said, and even I could understand the exhausted patience in her voice as she admitted, finally, that the wooden statues with long arms, quiet slit mouths and steady eyes were like people who once lived, like her Mama, she said, and mine. Tchitcheri, she called them, the little ancestors.

So, tonight, I shuffle around the shoulders and fists popping from the village soil, knowing what they are as much as I can know. The hot night’s like smoke, hard to breathe. The mole crickets chirrup. The lantern bumps against my knee. I head away from our tents and the buzz of the shortwave. Away from Aunt saying, “The heathens must break….” And Uncle saying, “They must beg….” And he says how Mama didn’t pray and look what happened to her – back in North Carolina, the tumor in her liver. 

Then, I don’t hear them anymore.

I step on the flat boulder in the middle of Bibabé’s field and snuff my lantern. Up here on the rocks, there are no lights, no electricity, no signs, no cars like in Lomé, the city. No bustling shacks lit with oil lamps like in the marché in Dapaong. Uncle says to call folks here “bush people” because they live without radios or books, flashlights or lanterns, canned food or bottles of shampoo. I look up and see the moon, a single eye, barely open. The rickety limbs of the baobabs blot the stars. And when I look down, the bucket of water seems like a dark hole I might step into.

I unwrap my towel. No one can see me thanks to those bush people, who put up woven straw walls for our privacy. But I can see me, the new me. Little mounds, left and right. Titties. Balled up like my emotions. Which brings up another t-i-o-n: temptation.

Aunt’s told me, don’t touch any “protuberance of flesh” and especially not “down there.” So, standing on the rock, dipping the calabash, letting the cold water pour over my head, I keep my hands at my sides, fingers stiff like carrots or twigs of juju. I hear Aunt’s voice buzzing in my head and I say the assigned verse, Ecclesiastes. Sorrow is better than laughter. Sorrow is better than laughter. Cold, cold – the water slaps my sunburnt shoulders, tickles my barely-there titties. My toes grip the plastic of my thongs. The bush women carried this bucket up the cliff; is it their hands I feel in the water? The water that drips down my belly, slips into my derrière (the people here speak Benga and French), and I discover a curl of hair grown between my legs. I’m thirteen, thirteen — I could almost scream this out. But of course I keep quiet, absolutely quiet, as the moon winks and shadows breathe hot against my bare arms.  

#

Togo’s dry season drags on. The rooster stops crowing. The hens don’t bother to cluck. The ground crunches like potato chips under our feet. The little lizard carcass I’ve seen below my tent window become bones. Unhappiness, it seems, belongs to everyone. I can barely stand the way panties cling to my crotch, barely watch the sun rise over the cliffs yet again, spreading copper on the already brown huts, brown scraggly trees and brown patches of furrows where yams will grow someday again, they say. Will those furrows ever grow green again? Is this the End of the World?

I especially wonder this as Uncle Taft reads from The Revelation — And I saw another mighty angel come down from heaven. As usual, it’s the four of us – Uncle Taft, Aunt Melba, my cousin Hank and me — sitting at the fold-up table under the baobabs, a Sunday morning. Uncle’s blue eye droops. “Hotter than the hinges of Hell,” he says, stopping in the middle of 10:1. He spits tobacco on the baobab trunk and his tongue wipes his lips. “Your turn.” He pushes the Book my way.

Aunt motions for me to pick it up. She’s swigging Pepto Bismal and rubs a poofed-out belly, irritated under the waistband of her stretch pants. Hank wipes the flies off his forehead and smells like the turd the flies think they landed on. I stick my wad of chewing gum under the table, swallow the lump of disconsolation in my throat, and read. Now this angel has fire for feet and declares the mystery of God should be finished. Yes, finish! – I think. Let’s get it over with! Sweat drips down my chest reminding me I finally have little titties, but who cares now?  I pause and look up, the village scorched. Grass roofs hang sad and dry. Goats lie on their backs, hooves up. The rocks of the distant cliffs are like hot pokers, glinting into the fire of sky. The world’s already burned.

In the distance, though — as the sun wallops whoever’s not under a tree, a roof or a tarp – women walk, jars of water atop their heads, sweat gleaming on their skin, feet white with savanna dust. Their feet tick-tock through the village like the hands of a clock – slow, steady. Tick-tock, tick-tock, water being delivered everywhere. Tick-tock, the blanket of dust and fire washed off.

Uncle grabs my hand and presses it against the gritty pages of the dust-sopped book.  “You do understand, don’t you?” he reminds, tapping the Bible. “They must learn our language, our stories.” 

It’s another morning. Here comes Bibabé, thudding into our camp. Because even though I’m not to speak their language, eat their food or go visiting under the mango tree, Bibabé doesn’t forget about us. She wears a pale skirt that cloaks her legs from ankle to hip, so it’s still a mystery to me how those clipping, plodding feet become such a still neck, how she advances without spilling a drop.

Nfá! Nfá! she calls out, swishing past my tent now, sweat dripping down her face, neck balancing the jar on her head.

Nfá! – I respond, forgetting Uncle’s rule. I crawl through the door flap, accidentally scraping my titties against the hard ground. I still forget they’re there. I bounce up, feeling another t-i-o-n, mortification, because I’m doing nothing while she’s climbed up the cliffs, while she’s carried that load on her head. I run ahead of Bibabé and squat beside our buckets, flipping the lid of the red one just in time. Bibabé, who’s standing now over the bucket, tips her jar and the perfectly aimed water swooshes past my nose.

Mobenga water is dark and smells like gunk caked between your toes, wind in the night, sticky vinyl seats in a 1968 Ford Pinto, green cash in the palm of your hand. I inhale the scents of the water, full of mud and so many things, and I remember Mama and me fixing a carburetor, spark plugs and paint on one of Daddy’s beat-ups, then selling her for seven hundred.

I close the lid of the bucket and stare up at Bibabé. The sunlight wets her face and the shiny scar on her chest, near the collarbone, where the Guinea worm erupted, the damaged skin flickering now like a badge that says, I have lived and am of this Earth. Badges glisten on her back, too, for her t-shirt is more holes than cloth. And as she plods through the camp, leaving, I study the knotty scars that sparkle through the frayed cloth. Whatever Uncle says, the bush people have their own sorts of cures, their own stories, and I wonder if they have something for a little white girl like me. Or maybe that’s just my desperation reaching the point of mystification.

#

In April, the pond below the cliff shrivels to a puddle. And the giant baobab that once looked like its bark dripped with fat now looks wrinkled and lean, like an old man; the balled, arthritic leaves drop.

Uncle slams his fist on the table. “Why don’t they come to me?” he growls, sweat dripping down his neck. The sun overhead flares, a burning ember in a white-ash sky.

Aunt sets the bottle of Pepto Bismal on the table. She squints toward Bibabé’s field. “It’s the dolls.” The veins in her forehead pulse. “The dolls make them turn from God.”

Uncle stands up, looking out over the field where the tchitcheri rise from the dirt.  “Bush people,” he moans. Curly dark hair spills over his eyes, one blue eye paired with a brown one, as happens sometimes in dogs and people. And he spits out tobacco, zinging the lizard that had been sunning near the table and now jumps into the air and skitters away.

#

No matter how much we go around the village, Uncle talking, me translating (because I’m the one who’s studied some French), there’s little interest in the “deal.” Uncle says he’ll dynamite a well for the women so they have water near their houses, free of Guinea worm. But first they must accept Jesus, come on Sundays to hear our stories, get their foreheads slapped with holiness.

Hearing about the deal makes Kombaté yawn; he’s crippled, a storyteller. Humped on the mango’s root, his leg crusty with broken and calloused skin, Kombaté listens to us and bows his head. Then he points to the far-off light in the north, the Sahara. “Always calling, never reached,” he says, yawning again. I don’t know how to translate that for Uncle. 

The chief is even less enthusiastic. Uncle says, “Jesus can be your Savior, too.” We’re sitting in the chief’s bamboo chairs, but when we open the Bible, the chief points to a picture of the crucified Jesus, the bloody hands, the thorns on the head, the ribs sticking out. 

“Son of God?” the chief wonders out loud, scratching his chin. He sends us off with two pots of tchakpa beer, a fanged smile and no word since. 

#

One particularly hot afternoon, everyone retreats to hut or tent. Sleep seems the only thing to do, and it’s a fitful, rotten sleep, with sweat running down my sides when I sit up. I wipe the gunk out of my eyes, zip open the door flap. The witch is still firing over Mobenga’s cliffs, chanting sleep! sleep! sleep! Except – there’s movement on the other side of the baobab. Is that Uncle? Yes, and he’s hurrying down the path now, curls bouncing in the belly of yellow sunlight. He stops on our side of that enormous baobab. He crouches, holds his chest and peers around the trunk. No one follows him. From under his shirt he pulls out a tchitcheri. The doll’s about two feet tall, its torso twisted to one side as if trying to get away.

Uncle steps into a crimp in the baobab trunk and comes out again, without the doll. As he scurries toward our camp, I pull my head back from the doorway and sit crisscross, applesauce. Consternation.

Doesn’t Uncle understand how dependent we are on the bush people? I chew my gum and pull the panties from my crotch. I consider telling Bibabé what happened to her doll. But, then, what will Uncle do with me? And Mama’s not here to help.

#

Another week. Nothing to do. It sounds easy to stay in the tents, in our little covers of shade. But we have no books to read (except the Bible and the dictionary, both full of those t-i-o-n words; Hank does not share his “secret” sci-fi stash). No yarn to knit. No games to play. No gardens to weed. No horseshoes. No television. No telephone. Our pens dry up, our pencils break; we lose words, missions, memories. Boredom sets in. When I go in the small hut with the hole dug down in the earth, I watch the worms vie for feces; they wriggle and squirm through the rich, wet dung from our canned food. Hell down there, that’s what I think. Hell up here, too. Hell to hear Bibabé’s feet splinter the ground, heavy water jug on her head. Hell to watch her pour the water yet again in our bucket, her feet clusters of callouses, the bones of her back, arms and neck curved so the water arcs from her head jar into the bucket. I’ve left the lid off the bucket so I won’t have to face her. Humiliation. I feel unable to tell her about the stolen tchitcheri. When Bibabé’s done and walks away, I study those scars on her back, those scars that mesmerize.

At least I’m careful with the water she brings. After I boil it, I use a funnel to store the water in used Evian bottles, the little 300 ml ones. When Bibabé brings half-buckets, instead of full buckets, I drink less. In the shower, I use spoonfuls to wash my hair.

One night, I hear rustling on the rocks, outside the shower. Goats, I think; they’ve come to drink the little water that trickles out of our shower. Standing on the rock, I pour just a cup of water over my shoulders. And my skin steams like hot animal breath. There’s something new and wild within, something perhaps sinful, or wonderful.

Tucked inside the straw-matted walls, I can only see up, where limbs of baobabs are silhouetted against the sky, their gnarled branches like the malnourished legs of Dapaong’s street beggars. The knobs in the branches are bony, scarred knees, and the clusters of twigs are toes rooting in the dying dust. I use the damp towel to sponge my hair. The lantern’s wire handle creaks; the kerosene poufs. A goat’s little hooves thump the ground outside.

But stepping off the rock and around the wall, I see it’s Marie, Bibabé’s daughter, not a goat. She’s spooning my wastewater into an empty can, perhaps one of our discarded cans. We can’t keep the children away from the garbage; Aunt’s tampon tubes become toy rocket launchers.

Qu’est-ce que tu fais? I ask, lifting the lantern.

In its yellow orb, Marie’s fingers grasp the night. Her legs spin. She runs away.

Qu’est-ce que tu fais? I shout, hoping to stop her. Does she really need that little bit of water or is she just playing?

She runs, the coffee tin balanced on her head so she doesn’t need hands. And I feel jealous; she has a mother.

“You look like a ghost too,” I shout, hurling the insult. Her blue shadow floats away seemingly without legs.

Trudging back to camp, the lantern sputtering, my fist tight around the handle, I want to believe Marie doesn’t need that little bit of water. I want to believe Bibabé doesn’t mind lugging water up the cliffs. Because I can’t give up my little refuge, I just can’t. 

#

From Kombaté, I’ve learned yovo (white person) also means cunning dog, and I feel every bit like a cunning dog when I stop, say Lafia, wave, sit on the roots of the mango that bubble up from the ground in bench-like forms. 

His bad leg curled around him, Kombaté settles on the root and he sticks the calabash under my nose.

“Go ahead,” he says. “Good for you.”

I check to see if Uncle’s coming down the path. Kombaté tips the calabash and I want to gain his good graces, his confidence, his bàn (knowledge) of how I might tell what Uncle did without bearing the consequences. And though it’s been a while, it’s not the first time I’ve tasted the millet beer. I’ve tasted it with Bibabé, after she’s made a batch. And Marie has taunted me, not satisfied until I could drink without spitting it out.

So, I take a swig and my throat burns. I cough. “The dolls…in the field?” I manage to croak out the words.

“What?” He takes back the calabash.

My lips tremble. “You know… those ancestors dolls.”

He downs another swig of tchakpa. “What?” 

I point toward Bibabé’s field.

He laughs and slaps his leg. Upturns the entire calabash. His throat knocks as he swallows. Then he takes the sleeve of his shirt and wipes his lips. “You have seen no such thing.” And he takes the pot resting on the root of the mango and pours another round. He pushes the calabash under my nose. 

I nod my head, push my bangs behind my ears. Shake a little as I sip the tchakpa, looking out for Uncle. “But I do see them, the tchitcheri.”

At the sound of the Benga word, he nods his head, pours a little tchakpa on the ground to nourish the ancestors. “Yes, voilà. But it’s you who need to watch out.”

And certainly that’s what I think, too, as he passes the calabash and I sip the forbidden drink.

“When you go back to camp, pay attention to the baobabs,” Kombaté switches from French to Benga now and then. He pets his damaged leg and pulls the peeling crust of its skin. I smell the marigold-scented rot of it. “The baobabs can trick you. They can make someone steal. Or betray their elders. Even fall in love.”

My face turns hot. “I won’t fall in love.” I say this adamantly, because what I want is to go back to North Carolina, sleep over at Roxanne’s house, eat popcorn, drink Cheerwine, and tell exaggerated stories about how I chased crocodiles in Africa and drank beer. But that’s not really the truth anymore. I know this when I eye Kombaté and he throws the petals of hide over his shoulder. I stare at the crimps of his flaking leg. I’ll never be a popular girl, like Robin or Stephanie – the thin girls at school who wore pink bikini tops and rode around in trucks with older guys, perfect smiles on their faces, perfect laughter rippling from their throats  – do cold sores ever mar those shimmering lips? Do they get toe jam? When they wake up in the morning, does their hair look bad? I’m not like those girls. When I see Kombaté creak upward, pulling his leg back with an unbelievable flexibility that makes the leg seem a superpower rather than an impediment, I know it’s the crusty things – his leg, the bark of the baobab — that have power and not the pretty things.

“I think…,” I say. But I’m not sure what to say, and I giggle. Maybe I giggle because Kombaté’s leg is awful to see up close, awful and amazing. Maybe it’s a relief because now Uncle has an excuse believable to the bush people. The baobab made him steal the doll — so it’s not entirely our fault. I put my hand over my mouth, giggling. Then, gas pops out my back end. I burst out laughing. I set the calabash on my lap to steady it.

“That is the way, my child,” Kombaté curls his crooked hand in a gesture of encouragement. The corners of his mouth lift in something other than a smile. “We do not want to smell too good. Unattractive smells are useful.” He sniffs the air. “Smelling comme ça says to others, I am willing to not be too proper, to not be bound to this World only.” He sweeps his hand in a circle, indicating the village, the compound of round huts, their thatched roofs hanging down like hair. The eroded pockmarks in the adobe sometimes seem situated like eyes; the doorways open, gaping mouths, the women inside moving to and fro, tongues trying to speak. “Such smells tell the ancestors they can approach us.” He wipes his hands on his shirt, and he grabs the calabash and takes another swig.

I point at my derrière. “I think…the ancestors are coming.” 

He laughs, too, so I suppose my French isn’t all that bad. We sit on the roots of the mango, drinking the tchakpa, and every so often I look down the path to make sure Uncle isn’t coming. The beer tastes good and my head buzzes. Words stick to my tongue like chewed bits of cola nut, but my brain is alive with wings. I feel at one with the flies and the bees and the bats that swoop and linger in the mango branches so heavy now with fruit that a hard, green drupe knocks me in the head when I stand up. 

Heading back to camp, I wallow through the dried furrows and the cardboard-colored dust, go off the path, find the tchitcheri. Their rounded heads bob up, about a dozen of them dot the patch of ground near Bibabé’s concession, and I want to touch them, but I don’t. Maybe the tchitcheri are stepping into this world — their torsos twist out of the soil, some pointing left, right, straight up. I wipe the sour tchakpa off my lips. The strange little part-buried bodies, with blank heads (no noses, slit mouths), make me wonder. Each has the same face, but the bodies torque and bulge and break off in odd places. And amid the cracked furrows and the twisted baobabs and the mud-legged women, they say: 

“What you looking at? I belong here.” 

Or: “Don’t stare. Cover me up.” 

Or: “Nfá! I am beyond this Earth.” 

“How dare your Uncle take one of us!”

Their sassy talk reminds me of Mama. Uncle would never pray to her.

My lips tremble. “I hope you stay,” I tell the tchitcheri. “I hope Aunt and Uncle don’t take you out.” 

#

It’s May, and we’ve run out of water.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Aunt chides me. “Go see that bush woman. What’s her name? Find out what’s happened.” She has rollers in her hair, so it’s a good day for her.

I adjust the strap of my training bra. “Her name is Bee-ba-bay,” I say. Of course I’m tired of grown-ups’ problems. But some things a child has to do, even when a child knows better than to do them. So, I braid my hair into a pony tail and tie the end with an elastic band I keep on my wrist. Down the footpath I go, through the bare fields, which are singed dark in places as though the sun has come too close. 

I walk on, past the big baobab, the one I’ve discovered has a hollow trunk, a little room you can peer into. I want to go inside and snatch that tchitcheri and give it back to Bibabé. I walk around the trunk three times before I understand I’m too scared to go in there alone. Ahead, Bibabé’s cluster of huts settles under the shade of her mango tree. I clap at the entrance, the way the bush women do. It’s dark inside the hole, and a sweet smell wafts up from litter on the floor. I see through to the inner courtyard: no signs of Bibabé, her two young boys or Marie.

I turn. The cliffs hover in the distance, jutting out like bad teeth. Trudging along, passing one compound to the left and another to the right, I notice no one seems at home, and no children are about. Goats with bony hips scamper among the rocks and make me feel less lonely. I pass through the rock’s open fist, and at the edge, I roll up the bottoms of my silly tight jeans, exposing my silly pink ankles. Then I go down, hobble from rock to rock, follow the turns, the denim tight against my working knees. Through a narrow pass, I avoid looking into the dark ravine where bugs croon. I scoot my bottom across an outcropping and find the trail again. 

I’m thinking: what a confusion! Doesn’t Uncle see how much work we are for Bibabé? And how little time the women have for Bible study? The women climb. They search the forest for dead wood. Their babies cry. Their pots gurgle with home-made peanut stew (smells like peanut butter) or nose-stinging tchakpa or a black paste that Kombaté tells me is moutarde. The moutarde will make any stew taste good, he says, even when all they have to put in a stew is leaves from the trees. I’m determined to tell Bibabé where the stolen doll is. Surely she can get it herself. She’s braver, stronger than a baobab. I throw back my silly braided pony tail. 

When I’m on flat land again, I breathe easy. I amble over the broken fields that smell like burnt toast. I ache for the green fields back home that swirl with Queen Anne’s lace, black-eyed Susan, and smell like licorice. Still, here in the grove, the shade of the mango trees is pleasant and I rest on the overgrown roots. The leaves are thick on these trees, despite the dry season, and the shade seems miraculous. Kicked-up dust coats my tongue. When I’ve rested, I climb up the bank, following the women’s footpath.

On the opposite ridge, three oxen stand, heads lowered, hip bones jutting out like European noses. Below, we see the same thing. The pond – it’s dried up!  Empty buckets and jars litter the cracked bottom, and women are hacking at it. Hoes, hands and old cans become shovels. The women dig and as they do, their children carry away putty-like mounds and throw the muck aside. A smell wafts up; the scent of the wet murky bottom is a relief. So I can understand why the oxen stumble down the embankment; so thin are their taut, thirsty bodies that I fear they might faint or collapse into the opened holes. 

Among the women below, Bibabé shouts: Ping! Pang! I can’t make out the words. The children tear the clothes off their bodies; they wave shirts, shorts and pagnes and drive the oxen away.

Bees swarm. The bees must want the water as much as the cattle do. But the children brandish their rags and split the bees into disorganized groups. Amid the whipping rags, I enter the commotion, pulling my shirt off, embarrassed of my training bra that has smiley faces on it. I fan the shirt over my head, my heart hammering against my ribs because I’m afraid to get stung.  I stumble, stop, crouch down to look into the hole that Bibabé has deepened. I whip the rag over me so no bee has a chance. Marie crouches next to me and she slips her sardine can under an oozing finger of mud. Drip, drop, and the can slowly fills. 

Bibabé digs deeper and the mud becomes wetter, darker. The thank-you-Jesus smell of the mud pinches my nose like pepper. Blackness bubbles up. Voilà! Voilà! Marie cries, skirt diapered to her hips now, taking the big jar on her head. Marie slips into the exposed goo, sinking to her knees. She scoops the muddy water into the jar. I twirl my shirt over her head.

When Marie climbs out of the hole, her legs slick, blackened, she grabs the whipping tail of my shirt and throws it back at my smiley faces. Yovo! Fantõme! Petite Blanche! – she hisses. I wish she’d learn my name. I put my shirt back on and grab the wad of gum in my mouth. I wonder if her name really is Marie. Or did the bush people just pick a name they thought I could remember?

Aiming the gross wad at her, I pause. Of course Bibabé would raise a daughter even braver than she is. Of course, they need that little bit of water. Of course, Bibabé minds lugging the water up the cliff. I put the gum back in my mouth. 

#

Rain’s coming, they say. But when I look out the door flap, the sun cuffs my cheeks. My skin itches, rough as lace. Scabs in my nose make my face feel tight. Cracks in my feet are big enough to slip in a cent francs coin. When clouds gather overhead, we get hopeful. Everyone does. But no rain falls. It’s the end of May, and nothing has changed — except me.

Aunt says not to use tampons because I’m a virgin, like Mary. She tapes a bandage to me.

“Your timing is terrible,” she says, later yanking the bloodied bandage off while I yelp. “Being a woman isn’t easy, you know.” 

I bury the soiled bandage in a hole outside of camp, wishing Mama were here. Hank watches from a distance, fingers pinching his nose. Will he ever, ever grow up?

I return to my tent and to Deuteronomy, the reading assignment. The Lord says I shall eat the baby that comes out from between my legs, a yoke or iron will clutch my neck, my scabs will never heal, my itches never stop. In Deuteronomy, God seems entranced with the fleshy details of what he might do to our bodies, and so am I: consumption, fever, inflammation, extreme burning, the sword, blasting, mildew, the botch of Egypt…. I flip the page.

Later, I slip my panties down and look at the hair between my legs, the slit suggested beneath. 

#

The clouds have roiled and rolled by — and still no rain.

We’re under the tarp reading Job, who, Uncle says, is like him, without fault, when Bibabé plods into our camp, no jar on her head. Surprise: Bibabé stops at the tarp and steps under. Uncle stands up. They eye each other. They make hand gestures. Bibabé apparently has learned some English. And Uncle can’t hide that he’s learned some Benga and French.

“Pray. Pray,” he admonishes her. His curls droop with sweat. His arms flail.

She calls him a coconut, gently padding her hands in the air as if she’s wrapping her fingers around the husky form of his head.

“Only Jesus can save you,” he says.

Still, a deal is struck: Uncle will go to Dapaong and buy a load of town water. A truck will deposit the barrels below the cliff. Then, Bibabé will carry the water up, jarful by jarful, and for every three jars she brings to us, she can keep one for herself, or maybe two. 

They’re still haggling over the price when I notice Marie milling about that old tricky baobab that the villagers say God pulled out and slammed back upside-down, wayward roots poking up. I scuffle down the path and walk right up to her. “I have blood now.”

She laughs, her bare toes scratching the dirt. “Good. Yovo will have babies,” she says in her mix of French and Benga. “Why don’t you find a village husband and have pretty babies, with black and white skin, very nice, you know?”

My belly sinks. I don’t want to have babies. I don’t want any more stuff coming out. I pinch my legs together. Trepidation.

“Hah!” Marie says, eyes sparkling. “Do not be afraid. We are women, now.”

I laugh, nervously.

She crouches into the crook of the baobab trunk and she pulls out the tchitcheri doll. It’s hanging in her arm. She smiles, as if she’s known for awhile it’s been there, and the angled bones of her face and the slashes across her cheeks look beautiful. Adjusting the crown of yellowed cloth on her head, she sets the doll on top. “Ah, look what I found!” She laughs, turns, skips down the path to Bibabé’s field, the head of the tchitcheri bobbing up and down; a comic relief seems to come over its face as she runs. I think about Mama, her laughing, too.

Morning, and the sun blisters our skin. Uncle and I pick our way down the rocks, heading for the truck stop. We amble by Moba huts, the night-like green of the mango grove, the pond bottom where women bustle over the dug-out holes. We follow a path lined with kapok trees whose leaves have long ago fallen and join a group of villagers waiting on the roadside. The sun beats on us, white skin and black skin. A bush man offers Uncle a smoke on his lit Marlboro, and Uncle takes it to his lips. 

The truck for Dapaong arrives, screeching to a stop. 

The driver jumps from his seat. “Yovos!” he declares, pointing at us. “You pay double.” He motions for the others to file into the back: two hundred fifty francs each. 

I’m afraid Uncle will refuse or argue, but he lines up, hands the driver two five hundred franc bills.

The driver smiles; the gold tooth in his mouth glints. He pockets the money and waves us on board. “Hurry, hurry. Time is money, n’est-ce pas, Yovo?”

Inside, the truck is dark, rank, people squished inside like sardines in the can. We lean against other bodies. Or is it they lean against us? We’re part of this humanity. We tie bandanas over our mouths, and the others tie their cloths. The bandanas shut out the road dust but not the cinnamon-mint smell of people who eat differently than we do. I close my eyes, sway as we tumble into and out of ruts; we’re held by other bodies, a comfort suddenly to be so close. The tires bump over washboards, and we shake together. I grab Uncle’s hand. The tires swish in sand pits; we shake apart. The driver cries and slaps on the brakes; we’re pitched to one side of the truck. Together we lurch over the side of the mountain. We smell burning. We click our tongues. We fly through the air. The driver’s high-pitched cries warn that something’s wrong. 

We’re a jumble of arms and legs and breathing faces, smashed into one another, and the warm wetness down my legs tells me I just peed, or someone else did. But no matter, because we’re bucking down the side of the mountain, the driver’s yanking the wheel this way and that, and ladies are screaming and Uncle is sticking his fist in the air, waving his arm as though he’s trying to find the divine signal: “Lord, Mercy,” he shouts. “Mercy, Lord.” Maybe I’m screaming: “Mama, Mama.” And then: we’re sailing across the flatland along the road, the wind rushing past our ears. We find our footing, our elbows; they laugh under their cloths. For, we’re down the mountain. 

Didn’t you feel the divine intervention? – they murmur. 

Yes, yes – several nod their heads.

Hardship and happiness ride in the same truck! — an old woman laughs.

I can make out their mix of Benga, Moba and French words. They applaud, as though we wouldn’t have made it down the mountain without the help of the rosary, the tchitcheri, the ancestors, the cross one woman has tied to her neck, the magic pouch under the old lady’s skirt, which she pats contentedly, the wishes and fears moaned at just the right time. And of course the presence of the white man, the preacher, seemed to suddenly be useful. Some of the riders shake my Uncle’s hand. For a moment, I don’t feel ashamed of my confused, sunburnt, orphaned, unbelieving, believing, scared, relieved, alive self. I feel natural, a part of this world. 

At the edge of the marché in Dapaong, we untie our bandanas and breathe. We file off the back of the truck, cranking our necks, rubbing our bruised arms. Smiles beam across our faces. We’re thrilled to have survived and also selfishly thrilled to part from our once-intimate traveling partners. 

Au revoir,” a man waves to us, as he steps into the dusty aisles of Dapaong’s marché.

Bonne chance,” a woman smiles, as she wipes the drippings off her leg that might be from me.

I look up at Uncle. He’s rubbing his knuckles, as if all the luck in the world were hidden there. “Thank the Lord I was there. Or that truck would have crashed.”

I take his hand. Perhaps if the bush people can forgive us, I can forgive us too.

#

I’m back from drinking tchakpa, and Uncle is rummaging through my tent. ‘Where is it?” he’s muttering.

“What?” I ask. “What you looking for?”

“Did you take it back?” His blue eye turns gray. 

“What?” I ask again, feigning ignorance, shrugging my shoulders like Bibabé did. 

#

A starry night. The ground under me trembles. Maybe it’s the heat from the day. Maybe it’s the tchitcheri shaking, climbing out of their holes. Maybe it’s me, rushing to meet them. I quicken my step through the furrows. 

In the shower, I throw the towel over the matted straw. Step on the rock. Grasp the calabash. The water shimmers in the bucket. Bibabé’s water – because it’s her plodding feet, her sweat-glistened neck, her scars, cures and stories that I see shimmering in the water. I splash it across my shoulders. “Sorrow is better than laughter? Sorrow is better than laughter?” I recite, fingers stiff at my sides. But the words come out like questions, and the water trickling down my body is its own God now. Goosebumps rise, nipples sprout, breath steams. The fingers at my sides snap. The carrots and the twigs of juju become hands, and I touch my little mounds of titties, my little mound of hair. Ah! This is my furrow now. Overhead the twisted, tortured shapes of the baobabs move. The startled moon, round and white, watches from above. 




 

 


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Laura Herbst has finished her debut novel, set in Togo, and is seeking representation. She has been awarded the Kay Snow Award and the Doris Betts Fiction Prize, and her stories have appeared in The Sun, The Tishman Review, F(r)iction, North Carolina Literary Review, and upcoming in The Timberline Review.

Little Ancestors © 2021 Laura Herbst
• • • Thanks for Reading • • •
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6 thoughts on “”

  1. Lisa: This story is magnificent! I don’t know what else to say. I will read it again this evening as it’s so reach with local detail and more information about what it means to be a human being than I thought could be backed in one story! I hope you are writing a full-length book as I would drop everything to read it. Sincerely, Barbara Regenspan in Ithaca, NY

  2. What a beautiful, moving story! I love the sense of place, the significant details. And the growth of the young protagonist was wonderfully told, from her ear-catching voice at the beginning to her search for love & connection, and finally, to the telling changes in the closing scene. I’m looking forward to more from Laura Herbst.

  3. laura, totally every word wonderful. I remember an earlier version you read us in North Carolina. Beautifully expanded. What a story! What a life! congratulations. ruth moose

  4. I read this story one day and found myself carrying so many beautiful pieces of it with me the next. I found myself grateful for what is most precious in life and aware of our common humanity and potential for basic goodness and resilience every time I drank or used water.

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