Public Key (Lxxviii)

My alarm went off. That hadn’t happened in a while.

I pulled myself together and splashed some water on my face, and before I knew it there was a knock at my door. I opened it to see her standing there, with her backpack on, looking in at me. She’d washed her face, I saw, and combed her hair. She looked about as respectable as a backpacker could.

Hopefully the people in Arabang’s village wouldn’t mind that I, y’know, didn’t.

Ready to walk? she asked.

Sure.

She took a step to the side, to give me room to pass.

We’re just going up to Konki, I said.

Yes?

There’s two ways to get there.

What are they?

I noticed she didn’t ask for my recommendation. Not when she could make the choice herself. Half of it, at least.

Actually, three, I said. One is taking the roads. One we go down to the river. The third we cut across the river.

Are they the same distance?

One and two are, yeah. The roads will be a little faster, but it’s… it’s not the same.

I know.

And the third way’s much faster. A quarter of the distance. But we have to cut across the river.

How wide is it?

A hundred feet, where it’s shallow.

I’ve never crossed a river like that before.

It doesn’t get old, I said, realizing that it didn’t.

Let’s take that way back, she said. And the road, to get there?

I didn’t like walking along the road. But if we cut through Moeaneng we’d only be on the A1 for a hundred yards. I could deal with that.

Just one thing, I said. Your backpack.

What?

Unless you want to take it swimming-

Can I leave it here?

Sure.

She shrugged it off and put it on the floor in front of her. It was half as big as she. She got to one knee before it, opened one pocket and another and took out this and that. I saw her remove a compass, a wallet, a multitool, a little doctor’s bag, and something I was pretty sure to be a stun gun. My face must have betrayed my curiosity over that latter.

No offense, she said.

No, of course.

I know I need it because I’ve used it.

I’m sorry to hear that.

She shrugged. Better that I had it. You should get one.

I reached into my pocket and pulled out my knife.

Thanks, but I’ll keep my Taser.

I laughed. And she smiled.

We didn’t talk much as we walked. I pointed out a few things, she asked me a few questions. She asked me to teach her a dozen common words in Sotho, which she picked up almost immediately. I waved at people as we walked through Moeaneng, gave a little bow if I was given one. She did the same.

I had walked the length of the world during time outside the law. Not once during that time had I walked with someone else. It was the strangest feeling, having a presence just beside me. It kept me from going off into my own thoughts. It kept me in the world.

We kept walking.

We came to Ha Konki, a small village surrounded by hills all terraced for crops. It was on the far side of the ox-bow from my house, just over a mile flies-the-crow. We’d walked five miles to get there, and gained and lost nearly a thousand feet of altitude. Welcome to the neighborhood.

There were maybe fifty rondavels in the village, a few square-walled buildings and one long large church. The village was close to empty, as most of the adults were out in the fields and most of the children were in class. Just like an American suburb at midday.

I walked us near to the church. It was quiet for a time, punctuated by a loud roll of laughter. Then the Grinch got a wonderful, awful idea. I motioned for Hannah to come with me, knocked thrice on the door.

Hello? a man’s voice asked.

I opened the door. I motioned behind my back for Hannah to follow me across the threshold. There was long room with an altar at one end, behind which stood a priest or a teacher or some combination thereof. In front of him were about twenty students, maybe ages twelve to fifteen. I heard a roll of giggles, much higher-pitched, coming from the next room. That must have been the class for the little kiddies, set upon their studies.

The students sat at low benches with high benches in front of them as desks. Most of the students were girls. I saw Arabang sitting in the second row. Every student was staring at us. Arabang was staring and smiling like a madwoman. Which, I was starting to gather, she kind of was.

I’m sorry, I said in Sotho. Could I borrow Arabang for a minute?

Once she had translated my request into English so the priest could understand, he nodded, star-eyed, and she got up and skipped out of class.

Man, I had always wanted to do that.

She spent the rest of the afternoon showing us the sights. We went out into the fields and met her father, her younger brothers and her older sisters. Their English wasn’t as good as Arabang’s. Neither was their Sotho. Hannah asked questions, they answered and asked some of their own, Arabang translated, I embarrassed her from time to time by correcting her grammar. Sometime after noon we all went in from the fields and joined them in their midday meal.

In the grand tradition of moms everywhere, Arabang’s mother apologized for not having set a better table for us. I hadn’t eaten all day, and was not prepared to complain. The look on Hannah’s face suggested she hadn’t really eaten in about half a year. We put ourselves to the meal with a gusto sufficient to embarrass both of us. You know, once we’d stopped eating.

I’ve been living out of my backpack, she said to me later. There’s only so much I can carry.

I’d have thought food would be a priority.

With a tent

Hard biscuits and oil, dried nuts and fruit. Granola, boxed cereal when I can’t find anything else. Smoked meat sometimes. If I know its clean.

A year ago I wouldn’t have seen the difference between her diet and mine. Now I saw that it was all the difference in the world. I said as much to Hannah. She said nothing. But she did that.

Their family rondavel was spacious, much larger than mine. Her parents shared a bed to one side of the room. Across the way were four beds, stacked on top of each other. Everything was made of wood, shaped by hand and then rubbed with oil until it glowed. Bright-colored tapestries hung from the walls. Even the quilts on the beds were rich with color.

And I thought I’d made my house a home, I said. At which Hannah and Arabang traded glances and smiled.

Hannah spent the afternoon talking to people, particularly the infirm who couldn’t go out into the fields. She was after all a medical woman. I helped to translate when it was necessary. It wasn’t much.

One guy, about my age, was laid up with a broken leg. He’d gotten it caught under a rock down by the river. A seventeen-year-old girl was having women’s issues which I was not permitted to overhear. A ten-year-old boy had a growth on his neck. Two people in the village were clearly autistic, a young boy and a thirty-year-old man. A woman about my age had recently died in childbirth, the baby had survived and was being raised on goat’s milk. A few people just liked to complain.

I saw that Hannah, who identified herself as a doctor-to-be, was asked far more questions than she gave. She gave a blister-pack of pills to the girl, ten pills out of a white jar to the man with the broken leg, and one large pill each to the complainers.

What were those drugs? I asked.

We walked slowly around the outskirts of the village. The sun was moving down the sky. I walked by her side, and we talked.

Nothing, she said. They’re from a pharmacy in Pretoria.

Aspirin?

Acetaminophen with codeine for the man with the broken leg. Naproxen sodium with pyrilamine for the girl with menstrual cramps. A multivitamin for the hypochondriacs. I always give them the biggest pill I can find, the psychological effect is stronger that way.

I had to smile at that.

So you just give out your pills? I asked.

No. I buy these so I can give them to people. It’s the least I can do. What you saw me give out, that was five euro worth of drugs. My father spends more than that every day to give himself an erection.

Sorry, she said, seeing my face. Medical school desensitizes you.

It was my turn not to have anything to say.

And for the boy? I asked.

Nothing I could do.

What do you mean?

She shrugged. I don’t know what’s wrong with him.

But you have a guess, I guessed.

I do.

Well?

He has cancer. He’s going to die.

That brought me up short. She looked tired, not

I shook my head. What would he need for a full diagnosis?

Health insurance.

Outside of that.

An appointment at a good hospital. Ladysmith I think is the closest. He’d need money to pay for it. And a way to get there and back. And it doesn’t mean anything unless he can afford the treatment.

Which he can’t.

So I don’t tell them, she said. Never. I let them live their lives as long as they can.

But if no one ever tells him-

When they start to die, they won’t need to be told.

We walked around the edge of the village. I was lost in thought. I can’t speak for her.

It’s nothing to Swazi, she said quietly.

No?

Nobody here has AIDS. Nobody. Not in the next village either. That’s unheard of in the sub-Saharan. In Lesotho? With forty percent?

What does it mean? I asked.

She gave a tired shrug. I don’t know how many people had asked her such a question. I could see she asked it of herself often enough.

We walked for a time in silence.

At length we walked back to the village. Arabang was waiting for us, along with a few of her friends. She had clearly taken a shine to Hannah. It was clearly returned. But Hannah was tired and so was I, too tired at least to keep up with a hyperkinetic fourteen-year-old. She took her aside for a few minutes, then said she was ready to go.

Where’s my money? Arabang asked me with mock seriousness.

What money? We didn’t have a lesson?

What do you call this? What do you call the language we’re speaking?

Fine, I said, realizing that I stood no chance of winning. Come by tomorrow, I’ll pay you then.

Pay me for today and for tomorrow.

Yes, milady, I said. She smiled at me, and went back to her friends. I pointed the way to Hannah, and we walked, side by side, down the hill and to the river.

What did you talk about with her? I asked.

With Arabang?

Yes.

Girl talk.

Uh huh?

Spying on you.

Uh huh.

I gave her a roll of condoms.

I swallowed my natural response – but she’s just a kid! – as being life-threateningly stupid. And I said so.

I was doing that a lot, saying whatever I was thinking. I guessed it was because of how long I’d spent by myself, with no reason to censor my thoughts. Or maybe it was just the way I talked when I was with this girl.

She’s precocious, she’s smart, she’s beautiful. That’s risky enough. But here, with infection rates… after Swazi…

Thank you, I said.

I didn’t do it for you.

No, but you did it for someone I care about. Thank you.

She thought on this for time.

You’re welcome, she said.

We made our way down to the river. We walked slowly, no doubt both thinking about the man with the broken leg. We made it to the edge of the river. And there we stopped.

How deep is it?

I shrugged. Here, probably about mid-chest.

How wide?

I pointed to the far shore.

How do we cross? she asked.

I shifted my staff to my left hand. Hold on to my arm, I said. Try not to get wet. Try not to get swept away.

If we do?

No use trying not to get wet. Pick a shore and swim for it.

Okay.

With that she turned and started taking off her clothing.

I turned myself, and followed her good example. I took off my sandals, my pants, my shirt, wrapped them all in my cloak. I didn’t really care if they got wet, though it was better if they didn’t. I was more concerned with them getting water-logged and washing away.

I turned back to look at her.

She was standing in front of me, her arms at her sides, looking at me as frankly as she always had. She held her clothing in a bundle above her left shoulder. She was in her panties and bra, and nothing else, out there in the world, under the sun.

I’m not going to try to be romantic about it. I saw her standing there and I basically blacked out. I turned away as fast as I could. It wasn’t fast enough. Up until then I’d thought of her as a mystery, a curiosity, a challenge, a friend. I’d managed not to think of her as a girl. That wasn’t an option any longer.

Shall we? she said.

Put your sandals back on, I said. For traction.

I heard her doing so. I didn’t dare look to confirm.

Then I saw her walking in front of me, heading into the river. Then I jerked my gaze upwards, and strode to catch up.

Slowly, I said. Take it slow! I had walked no more than a few feet before the water was at mid-thigh. I stood next to her, put her arm through mine, I was very glad the water was very cold, and in we went.

It was very different, crossing with two. I went slowly, using my staff as a brace whenever I could. Pretty quickly I saw that the water was deeper here than at the crossing I’d tried before. There was a time in the middle when we were all but swimming.

We must have been carried a hundred yards during our crossing. But we made it, and we kept our clothing dry above out heads. We came out on the bank next to a little creek that flowed down to feed the big river. Then I turned from her before I was able to see too much of her.

You can look at me, you know, she said.

I can?

I have a face, you can look at that.

I think you overestimate me.

I think you underestimate my Tazer.

I had to laugh at that. I turned and saw her bent forward, wiping the water from her body with her hands. Her underwear was white though dark from the water. Her legs were strong from the road and her whole body tanned from the African sun. Her hair had gotten pretty wet as well.

Don’t bother, I managed to say.

She looked up at me. Getting dry?

We’re just going to have to do it again.

We have to cross the river again?

On the other side of the hill. Might as well just walk it as we are, there’s nobody else around.

Nobody else around.

This is barren rock with water on three sides. It’s practically an island. And there’s nobody for a mile in any direction.

Tell me that this wasn’t all a ploy to see me in my underwear.

Yeah, because that’s making this all so much easier.

You are such an American, she said.

Nothing can absolve me of that.

Let’s get walking, she said, and started forward. Her hips swinging back and forth, and me very much an American.

We followed the path of a little stream up the hill, then followed the path of another down the other side. I fell once, and skinned my bare knee, which was clearly interpreted as the most poetic form of justice. We crossed the river again, this time at a crossing which I had taken several times before. I wrapped myself in my cloak, she pulled on her pants and shirt. Then we climbed the rocky hill-face up to the camp proper, and before we knew it we were standing in front of my hut.

I need a shower, she said, picking up her backpack. Then an hour in my hammock.

Of course, I said. Sorry about the adventure.

Thank you for the adventure, she said. Thanks for the day.

My pleasure, I said.

After I rest, want to have dinner together?

Sure, I said.

Are you going to cook me dinner again?

I grinned. No, you’re going to cook me dinner. But I’ve got some ingredients here that need cooking, you can use them.

Alright, she said. Picked up her backpack, and walked off.

I knew for a certainty that I wasn’t going to get anything done while I waited for her to return. Resigning myself to this, I went and took a shower, changed into clean clothes, and then just lay in my hammock as the sun dipped low in the sky.

She came back around twilight. Twilight was getting earlier, I saw. I built a fire, she browsed through my little pantry, we got to work on chopping and mixing and spicing. We drank pu-erh with camp whiskey, sauteed green beans and ramps and brown rice, then she made a dish of potatoes and lentils and carrots cooked with olive oil and chili and garam masala. It was one of the heaviest meals I’d seen made over a camp-fire. It left me nearly comatose. I’d never been happier.

I had a great day, I said.

Good.

And you’re leaving tomorrow, I said as I remembered.

Yes I am.

Where are you going?

Up the road. To talk to more people, to see more homes and lives.

How far up the road?

She shrugged.

You like the freedom, don’t you? I asked.

She nodded at me. I like my freedom.

I do too.

And yet you stay right here, don’t you?

I just looked at her.

You’re going to be here for a while

Of course. This is where I live.

In a week? she asked. In a month?

Yes. Yes I will.

She looked at me for quite some time. I returned her gaze. It was no hardship to do.

Okay, she said then. Okay.

Helped me clean up, then left me all alone.

 

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~ by davekov on 7 March 2011.

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