The highway, a graded red clay road raised right on top of itself, went north into the interior, through the bush—around armed checkpoints, beyond the Africa of hotel bars and jelly cocos, into an immensity.
Red dust settled in the wake of the four cars speeding along.
Three hours later we turned down a road to a little village snowbound in noon heat. A stand of old trees and some wooden shacks made a center square. Then the land fell away, branches scraped the sides of the car and the road disappeared. We stopped and got out, the Africans replacing kufis and throwing sleeves of kaftans over their shoulders. Someone pointed to a thicket, and we clambered down an embankment into a gulley of thorn bushes and entered a low, red mud hut.
A figure naked to the waste was squatting on the floor, staring into a little pink plastic mirror with a cocoon bound to the front. Then he was staring into my face. Then the mirror. Back and forth—drinking clear liquid (African gin) from a scarred glass. As I squatted down and looked into his eyes, vaguely aware of the impertinence, something crawled out from behind his
expression, flickered there for an instant and was gone. Then he was all lines, the geometry of indifference.
At the center of the hut an altar of mud and feathers and wax and bones picked at your attention.
The Nigerians, long black hands floating in front of them, sat on a low bench against the wall, impatient to find out what had happened to their shipment of heroin. And all around the hut children jostled for position in little windows, their blank, smooth faces revealing nothing.
The marabout, an oracle, tossed a handful of cowrie shells in a metal pan, considered their arrangement and tossed them again. Then he began to speak.
After a moment, one of the Nigerians interrupted. “The bag,” he said, gently.
The marabout murmured something.
“The bag!” A Nigerian with designer sunglasses shouted in English.
The marabout repeated himself.
An explosion of voices ensued. “The bag, the bag!” everyone shouted.
The marabout spoke a different dialect of Yoruba. People shouted in French, in English.
In the midst of this, an image of the airport terminal rose up in my mind: Shaky, hand-held shot of shoes, suitcases—the frantic search for the bag. Standing in a phone booth, chopping the air with my hand, talking, talking, muffled by glass….
Suddenly the events of my life were so strange, all I could do was register the details, camera-like—the facts: I am in a hut in a village somewhere along the Nigerian border. I am thirty-one years old. (I’m sorry, L; I didn’t mean it to come to this.)