The Stranger [Fiction]
In this issue, we are featuring two longer works of fiction instead of the usual Far Flung and Boroughing sections. Our writers took the opportunity to respectively explore the exotic and the familiar, whether encountering an ancient tribe or taking a drive through an anonymous suburban neighborhood.
–Jeremy Liss, Creative Editor
By Ariella Pultman
Dr. Robert Burnsfield wiped the graying puffs of cloud from his glasses, noting that these were probably the last clouds of any sort he would see for quite some time. He pinched his fingers over his eyes to distract them from the solid yellow glints that had invaded his face, so unlike the light he was used to. He thought back—weeks and thousands of miles back— to the dimness of the small lamp that cowered in a corner of his desk, shrinking away slowly from the swamp of scattered papers guarded by towers of large books with unfriendly covers. He spent most of his days and nights with his spine curved over this desk, as water would fall over the London streets like the confectioner sugar and honey his mother used to drizzle on the cakes she would make every year for his birthday until the Great War began.
He fingered the roundness of the glass methodically through his dusty handkerchief and rubbed the cloth over his nose and cheeks. He looked down at the scratched watch on his wrist then peered up at the sun instead—no one used a watch to tell time around here— closing his eyes quickly as he felt his lids stain black and orange. The sun was nearly overhead. The Oba was approaching.
He could smell the pack of men before he saw them. Dried sweat and bare feet mixed with a trace of crushed fruit. Robert was well versed in the traditions of the Masobis. Having devoted the majority of his life to the study of Western Africa, he looked at approaching crowd of dark-skinned men and could break it down into parts, translate it like he would an algebraic equation (which he did for entertainment sometimes on lazy Saturday afternoons). He knew the Oba never went anywhere alone and was only seen in public wrapped in long coral cords with rectangular gold plates forming a necklace that curled around his waist. He noticed the alternating kola nuts and mudfish that rested idly on the Oba’s tiara-like headpiece. The mudfish were there to represent the Oba himself: creatures that lived both on land and in water and would lead the path to the spirit world, where the Oba was a god. The utter hugeness of this tiny figure obscured the sea of young, mostly bare-chested men surrounding him. A haze of calm was radiating from this man in rising circles, expanding and enveloping his entourage. The circles approached Robert but he gave them a sheepish sniffle and they bounced sharply, hovering a foot away from him.
A man to the Oba’s right stepped forward. He seemed older than the others with a bald chest and fat stomach.
“You are alone? Where is your other man?”
“What other man?”
“The man who translates. How do you speak?” The man’s belly button was feeding on the sticky air, sucking and wheezing as he spoke.
“Why have you come to us?” The Oba spoke now. His voice was a soft hollow crackle that pierced against the smoothness of his square-rounded face.
It was a fair question. He had spent weeks on the boat vomiting up his tea every evening before bed. Years locked up in an airless study. He decided to get right to the history, as he usually did. He’d leave his mother out for now. “Your artwork was stolen, taken apart and sent away. Decades ago. You wisely hid the rest of it. You know that I’m right. I want to see it. I want to show the world what the past held, what was too beautiful to be destroyed. Please.” The act of asking, the dregs of a question mark tied to the ends of his words, gave him courage. He opened up the large metal box he carried and held up a camera. “I would like you to take me there, if you would. I would like us to go together.”
He looked at these men as they studied the strange one-eyed object in his hand. He wanted to give a voice to the voiceless. That was the real answer. He couldn’t say this of course. That would be offensive. Racist, even.
He could hear the jungle up ahead, hissing as it swayed with life. It was singing to him. Not in whisper or the hesitant notes Englishmen were obligated to cough out at Christmas parties. This was a spiraling, howling roar that beckoned to him and cried into his ear until he blushed.
The Oba and his right-hand, belly button man were swallowed in deep conversation. Finally, the man came forward as the Oba stood back, smiling. The man approached Robert, scowling.
“I am Dwe.”
“It’s very nice to meet—”
The group made its way through the trees. Four or five men, the Oba and Dwe, another four or five men. Then Robert. The ground was covered in a tangle of vines. Robert wanted to walk carefully—only small and slow steps—but the Masobis all skipped ahead like a strange combination of eager schoolchildren and fierce warriors covered in strips of paint.
The hours wore on. Robert was surprised as they moved deeper and farther into the jungle. He had expected there to be color everywhere: sitting very still in heavy patches and sinking densely into the petals of soft flowers. Then wildly leaping over leaves made of purple silk and trees that dripped and oozed pure music of yellow and silver from a thousand butterflies’ wings dotting their trunks.
Yet even though he was surrounded by mostly shades of pale brown and splotches of green, the beauty of it all—so simple, honest— fluttered over his salty eyelids in lazy jumps. He saw God here in this jungle, hunched over a rock and crouched inside the damp grass like a sleeping lion.
“It’s beautiful in here.” He tried telling the others, but there was no nodding, no turning of heads. There was no need to acknowledge it, they knew and he realized, letting it burn deep through his skin. Saying the words aloud could only take away from what was really there. Beauty. Truth. Settled into insects’ legs and sprinkled over the hairy heads of birds and men.
The jungle had Robert hypnotized. He experienced it with each of his senses in turn. Even taste, accidentally of course. He tripped on a small stone and fell down into the mud, licking the watery sludge and a few scattered leaves as he went. Convinced he had been poisoned and was about to die, he spent the next two miles in silent tears. It was only hours later, when Robert’s ears focused less on the buzzing of crickets and more on the low growls emanating from under his sweaty jacket— when his original hops had slumped into a steady trudge— that the spell lifted. He was relieved when the group finally stopped.
“Dinner,” Dwe announced.
Robert reached into his rucksack, extricating some dried sausages and pickled bacon and fishing around for a container of precious jam. He set his meager meal out on a tin plate and began to eat. It was only after he had swallowed half a sausage that he managed to look up at the rest of the party.
They had conjured up root vegetables from nowhere. The ground was littered with purple, gold, and beige skins. Were they magicians? A man stood over a fire stirring beans with glowing black eyes mixed into thick rice.
“What are you making?”
“Benachin,” the man said simply.
Robert noticed another fire to his left. Dwe was hunched over this small flame. He could smell red spices bleeding into each other. Tea, he realized. A wave of putrid homesickness slapped him in the stomach, sharp and potent like nausea.
Reading wasn’t for bedrooms, his mother used to say. It wasn’t for drooping eyes and a fading mind. Reading was a deliberate act and should be done in bright light, in public view.
They loved to read in the kitchen. Sometimes after dinner, she would pour out two steaming mugs of tea (even though mugs were so American) then gather him—all bony knees and shoulders—onto her lap and take out Kipling’s The Jungle Book. After reading about Rikki-Tikki the brave mongoose and perhaps a pack of wild elephants, she would close the book and point to the drips of homemade passion fruit sorbet that left stickiness in between their fingers or a chain of orange peel peeking out from the rim of the bin and say, look at us, Robby, we’re explorers, we’re kings. We bring treasures back from other lands and then we feast. She used to squeeze her mug between both hands as she said this like she was praying. But we aren’t kings, he would whisper inside his mind as he looked around at the dirty floors and gray-green walls of their boxed apartment. His mother always seemed to know when he was thinking things like this. Instead of leaking pink onto her pretty cheeks she would stare into his eyes.
“The Jungle Book is for adventure. Where miracles are so loud and dazzling you can’t help but grab onto them.” And then she would drain her cup.
The Oba was watching the thirst melting in Robert’s eyes.
He held out a cup of liquid red. “Would you like some?”
“No—no thank you.”
Night fell. Robert watched these bare-chested men collapse against trees and seep into rocks painted in black, red, white geometric faces. Face pressed up against face, Robert could barely distinguish what was earth and what man. Lost in the process, he was too embarrassed to unroll his sleeping bag. He curled himself up, shivering. He knew he wouldn’t be able to sleep. He stood up and walked towards the glowing embers of the tea-fire. The Oba’s face was etched in the gloom of the fire pit. He heard Oba’s muffled voice dictating the day’s events. Dwe was writing it all down. The snake they’d encountered and killed. The number of miles they’d traveled. Robert’s brief encounter with the mud.
“I don’t understand,” Robert found himself saying, “What about the oral tradition?”
The Oba turned. “What do you mean?”
“You know, mouths pushed against ears. Bodies shaking out stories. Everyone together, not elbowing and shoving to get a look at one paper but filling in the holes of their neighbors’ words, smoothing them in like clay.”
“Have you considered that perhaps bodies and minds and eyes and ears all have a role. Would you so insult one part, Doctor, pour on it a hot thick shame, take away his job?” Dwe was spitting inside his words.
Robert winced at the word, “doctor”. The steaming shame didn’t bother him. His mother dreamed of him becoming a professor, and he thought he wanted it too, until he got to Oxford and saw the types of students he would one day teach. He felt suffocated by them, with their shiny new typewriters and servants who came to university with them to fasten their cufflinks and smooth down their sleeves. Robert was capable of dressing himself, he didn’t want to be treated like some doll. But whenever anyone asked him if he was American he wanted to crumble into the ancient bricks surrounding him.
As the night spilled away, sunlight was breathed slowly in through cracks in the leaves overhead. The light and shadow danced together, waltzing through the mossy trunks and over rocky soil, kissing tiny monkeys and lizards in turn, gently.
They passed through the morning in silence. Robert stopped to sketch some pink-orange flowers covered in spikes that jutted out from a bush. The others stopped too, but only for a brief moment spent glaring at him.
They reached a narrow river. Robert couldn’t find the name of it on his map. As if it didn’t exist at all, no recognition from the outside world. The Western world at least.
“Where is this river?” He asked the man in front of him, waving his arms in messy, savage motions and pointing vaguely in the direction of the map, the water, then back to the map again.
“I don’t know,” the man barked.
“But then how do we know that it’s here?”
“What kind of question is that? Don’t you see it winking at you? Of course it is here.”
He was right. The water was winking at Robert, and he stared back through the chunks of mud as the bluish sunlight glistened so his reflection bounced in the water: distorted, but there.
It only took another three hours. The same amount of time it had taken his mother on her deathbed after her last heart episode. He had known then. And he knew now. He knew what was inside, buried deep underneath the fleshy naked earth. He thought of the heads he used to examine when he would visit the British Museum. They mostly represented dead Obas. Here too would be rows of heads, only instead of lined up neatly in chronological order they’d all be heaped together and dirty from years spent under the earth. Then again, perhaps they would find only layers of dust or nothing at all.
Two muscular men began to dig. Robert wanted to meet the Oba’s eyes. He thought back to the story of Oba Esigie, a successful trader with the 16th Century Portuguese aided by the sage advice of his mother. To honor her, Oba Esigie created the position of “Queen Mother” and had an oval sculpture with a strong gaze and tiny curls made of her face. Robert wanted the Oba to be thinking of this story now with him. But the Oba was straightening his skirts, sweeping dirt from his knees. But there was Dwe. Looking at Robert he reached up, lightly touching his head.
Robert turned to laugh at the jungle. There she was, an overflowing jumble, a Queen of Mess. The mountains up ahead offered taunting smiles, looking down at them all. But they’d never reach the sky, Robert knew, they were only blocks of empty shadow.
The Oba tapped Dwe on the arm and Dwe exhaled in Robert’s face.
“We are here,” Dwe said and his skin sparkled as if a thousand tiny raindrops had fallen onto his fat stomach and thighs.
Robert picked at some dirt caked under his fingernails and opened his mouth for the first time.
ARIELLA PULTMAN is a junior in Barnard College. She can be reached at [email protected] Photo by Flickr user Hindrick S.