Gadpo gathered his red toga at the waist and ducked into his uncle's hut, a domed thorn-tree structure that incubated the clay-smelling air.
The old man had prepared bush tea, and for a long while after he set down their mugs, they sat in comfortable familiarity, sipping. Past Uncle Kuti's tinny veranda, the village of Winni settled in to wait out the afternoon's heat. Dogs sought the cool afforded them under porches.
"I'm moving to Kentucky," Gadpo said.
Uncle Kuti coughed. "But Nuri is with child, Rra."
Gadpo cocked a friendly eye.
That the old man had not immediately understood illustrated his shock, but soon Gadpo could sense recognition irrigating the furrows across his uncle's weathered face. They sat for a bit longer without speaking, his uncle's embarrassment thickening between them until both men were suppressing happy grins.
In time, with a lot of the graceful grunting of old men, Uncle Kuti leaned over and kissed Gadpo's head. "America is a good choice, nephew," he said. "A very good choice."
His blessing was given.
That evening, as night animated the bush with throaty squalls and explosive chirps, Gadpo gave his wife Nuri an Oh, Mma sort of look and informed her that their sponsors are called the Callahans, Debbie and Dan, and at Nashville International Airport, they will be holding a sign proclaiming as much.
That settled, Gadpo began staring wordlessly at the gathering stars.
They sat together for a long while under the thatched porch and swatted flies, for this is what you do before leaving home. This is soaking it in, breathing it in so that you take some of it away when you depart.
This went on until dusk.
Behind their home, past the cattle fields and cantaloupe patches, at the foot of The Auto Mechanics' Hill, the great orange sun floated atop the village of Winni, which seemed to Gadpo both familiar and foreign. It was and always would be a place where he knew most of the people, yes, but it never occurred to him how very much there always is to discover in your town.
What would they do with the old Super Lady Retail Clothiers? Oh, the adventure magazines in the Book Centre! There was just so much.
In time they breakfasted on eggs and tea.
Soon after, they drove their bicycles to Kenda Winni Medical Centre.
The examination was thorough. Fat and pink, the doctor smiled through his beard and put a stethoscope on their chests. He wore a serious, wrinkled face as he stuck syringes in their dusty arms. Lastly, in the manner of white people all over Earth, he smiled as he squeezed Gadpo's hand. "Yoew und the mizus seem fit enough to go, I tink. Und the little one, too, ya? Jos keep these papers wit' yoew." He then poked Gadpo in the chest with the rolled up documents. "Congratulations, Yonkee Tootle!"
Amid Mma Nuri's giggles, Gadpo squeezed the doctor's hand and congratulated him right back, thinking that if he himself was unsure as to why, then the doctor should feel free to make something up.
Back home, Mma Nuri rolled dried fish into their sleeping mats, and the sleeping mats into their tent.
That was it. Everything was set. Three days biking to Mostuki Air Field, then Africa would fall away beneath their little window, and American concrete would soon be rushing up to bark the aircraft's tires.
But the plane took off without them.
News reached the village of Winni that Rra Gadpo and Mma Nuri never reached the air field, would reach no further place at all, and a soul-deadening ache saturated the community.
Yet people got on.
You see, Gadpo was a monogamist. A curious trait. But not an outrageous one. Otherwise he was quite a regular fellow, mindful of not only what he said, but of the way he spoke to people, such that he could say unpleasant things in a soothing manner. He lived unobtrusively, ensuring that no one was dependant on him, nor he on anyone else-just in case of an event such as this.
Moreover, it was not as though the moon had just exploded: Several of Gadpo's generation had been slaughtered by the madmen who seem to take to power so readily in Africa, or else taken as slaves by various little countries struggling to maintain economic relations with America.
So yes, people got on. Gadpo would have had it no other way, and of course the ache lessened, and rightfully, happily, the couple was forgotten, but the old uncle kept the memory of them close, for the charm of boring, reliable people is no less great when they are missed, he thought. Theirs is a charm that sticks-they were inside his cheek like a sore, as they say in Winni.
He got older, his scabrous gray toes plowed the dust when he walked now. And he was getting forgetful, as was the right of a man his age, yet he thought of them every day. A little less with each one that passed, but every day.
It was a May morning, nine days and nine years after they'd left. Rumors stirred: a man that looked like Rra Gadpo had been seen near the border, and it turned out to be him. Bedraggled, but him.
Amid inquisitive cheers, and an uncle so happy he cried, Gadpo gathered friends, family, and anyone else who would listen. Milk was mixed with blood, boiled, and poured into cups.
Uncle Kuti stopped crying and sipped contentedly, smiling with the affable grin of a boy-a grin that many suspected was there because the old man was recently made wifeless by some thoughtful spirits who had taken on the form of hyenas.
Gadpo was equally wifeless.
This is the story Gadpo gave:
"The Namib (the grassy wastes outside the Namibian desert) was stricken that year," he said, the curious still gathering. "Having biked two days northwest, we arrived at the desert's edge. It was night. That is when it began. I thought at first I was just thirsty, but even then I sensed it was something more. The world felt strange. Nothing fit right. It was as if God were adjusting the Universe."
Brows crinkled in the growing crowd.
"On the only rise, the desert stretched from northwest to southeast. From our side of it, a lonely stork flew north. He did not notice us."
A wave of vaguely approving, confused nods rippled through the crowd.
"Nuri sensed it, too. We stood there for a half an hour, where the desert met the Namib. Just standing, not talking about it. But we were both sensing it, and in time we pulled out our tent, and we made it. I tell you it was pitiful, closer to collapse than Uncle Kuti after three tall mugs of beer."
Children giggled at this. Uncle Kuti shook his head. Hyenas howled their laughter in the distance.
"So we set up. And we covered the tent with sand to ensure that any slave traders going along The Edge would have no booty to take on their caravans. Inside, we began unloading the mats and the water from our packs. Our backs thanked us to be free of this burden. As we began filling our cups, a tremendous clap of thunder shook the sands. Nuri crouched. 'Was that a gun, Rra?' she whispers. I thought at first it was, too. 'Maybe, Mma' I say, because at first thunder seemed out of the question. It had been clear a few minutes ago. So clear, the stars seemed doubled. We crawled to the flap of the tent, and peeked out, and another tremendous crash filled our ears and rattled our bellies. We jumped back. When we returned to the door, we saw that there was a stark line across the western sky."
"What kind of stark line?" Uncle Kuti asked.
"Like a storm, uncle, which was why I said to myself, Calm down. The rainy season was still five months away, but there is nothing unnatural about storms popping up along The Edge. So I was able to quash my fears."
Uncle Kuti scrunched his nose to show his nephew that his story was not making a great deal of sense.
"Nuri said we must press on. I agreed. We were about to head out into that ocean of sand and heat when we realized we were making a mistake. If we pushed through the desert in a storm, our footprints would harden, and we would leave a path for the slave traders to follow. But the storm would also wash the sand off our tent. So we could not stay, either. We looked at each other and knew that we had but one choice-travel back southward until the storm passed."
"Good thinking," Uncle Kuti said.
"We refolded the tent and packed our supplies. Another clap of thunder seemed to fizzle midway through its bark. I looked back and was stunned and frozen. Stars were visible all the way down to the horizon. The storm front was gone."
A few faces showed disbelief.
Gadpo pressed on. "I lost my breath. My head swam. Everything that was unusual, everything that was strange, had seemed... possible. But this, I thought, this was not right. I looked up at Nuri, hoping for something friendly to see, wanting something to ground me to the planet, so that the world would not vanish or shift into anything more unreal."
"The world does not vanish," Uncle Kuti reminded him.
"True. But the world I turned around and saw made me wish that I could. The grasses fell down in circles away from us. They fell in every direction, as far as my eyes could see..."
"Well?" someone asked.
"I could not even budge. I felt like I were about to pass out. I could barely keep my feet as I looked back around saw that the storm front was back. That, and the grasses were rising back up. 'Oh my God,' I say. 'What's happening?'"
"The wind," Uncle Kuti suggests.
"Nuri said that, too. She said 'The wind is crazy tonight.' An ounce of sense returned to me then. I was able to blame the falling and rising grasses on the wind. Of course. It was simply the weather. So perhaps even the disappearing storm front could be explained. Maybe it was a illusion caused by the rise and fall of sloping land. Maybe what looked like a storm front was really a distant hill. Maybe a mirage.
"I took some of the load off Nuri's back. I felt much better once I was able to do this for her. It didn't hurt things, either, when I noticed campfire lights on the hill I had mistaken for a storm front. But still, there remained the question of what exactly it was we had been hearing. Very soon, it resounded again, and the answer came. The noises had been barking croaks... It was the Nommo!"
People crossed themselves and said, "Wapee wapee-ya Nommo!"
Most, however looked skeptical. No one survives an encounter with the Nommo - the giant frog from the sand. It drags you off to its lair and eats every delicious bite of you.
"I went ahead and took all of the load off Nuri's back, in shock, as it spit fire at her head. She turned, and didn't seem worried, or even concerned - only surprised - as she looked at me, holding the left side of her head with her hand. When she dropped her hand, she dropped a piece of skull. Blood poured from the wound, hitting the ground before she did. 'Nuri! Oh, God, Nuri!' I scream.
"As I bent to help her, the sky lit up as if it were day. Even in the chaos, I ducked at this. The light went out and another bark of fire made me dive. I crouched and covered my head. But almost at once, the shock wore off and I was reminded of Nuri. The horror of impossible sadness froze me. Nuri was dead."
The women in the audience wailed. The men looked at their feet, and rubbed their eyes.
Gadpo continued, "The sky lit up again, and for some reason I stood up, holding my beautiful wife, to see this beast. Even as he crouched to spit more fire, I could not move nor react, nor even flinch. Then suddenly it felt as though someone had jabbed through my collarbone with a red-hot poker. It hurt like a thousand fiery snakebites. It hurt in ways that I had no idea was possible. Finally, I was able to move, but it was only to collapse to my knees and die."
Uncle Kuti looked incredulously at his nephew. "I see that you are still alive, Gadpo."
"Yes, uncle," said Gadpo.
Everyone in Winni was now gathered. Uncle Kuti puffed a cigarette. He swatted a mosquito.
"Gadpo, I'm afraid your story is missing some parts."
"Sorry, Uncle. You are right. The story is missing parts, because my memory of it is missing parts. After the Nommo approached, I died, and woke up in a metal hut, colored aquamarine, and the Nommo gave us bottomless banana beers in mugs made of the same aquamarine metal. Then the Nommo explained a few things to Nuri and I."
"You're skipping around too much!" said Uncle Kuti. "So Nuri was not dead?"
"No, nor is she dead now," Gadpo said.
"Then where is she?"
"I'm getting to that," Gadpo told him. "Now where was I?"
"The Nommo explained something to you and Nuri."
"Yes. The Nommo explained that he had not really healed us, just gave us another version of ourselves. It said we had both been selected as examples from our planet to be ambassadors, as were all of the Nommo's 'victims,' but that only one of us was needed."
At this, many nodded curtly and left. Uncle Kuti was among them.
Later, in Uncle Kuti's hut:
"So you came, and Nuri stayed," the old man said, shaking his head. "Because of the child, I suppose. Because, for your little one, this would be a good life. Beyond even an American life."
"Gadpo, my beloved nephew, you are a goddamned liar."
"It is preposterous!" Uncle Kuti growled. "You should be ashamed."
"Then I should go back out there and tell them the truth?"
"What is the truth, Gadpo?"
"A slave-trader caught us," said Gadpo.
The uncle melted a bit. Together they sat. "Yea, Rra?"
"Yes, uncle. He cut out my unborn son when he found out Nuri was pregnant."
Gadpo swallowed. "And I worked twenty hours a day for the man who had done this to her," he said. "Believe, Rra, I was sick to my stomach everyday, because I was grateful to this man, grateful that he had not killed me, too. For almost ten years I endured this hell."
Uncle Kuti sucked his tongue. The weathered old man got up slowly, and refilled his bush tea. He then sat back down and lit an Egyptian cigarette. Puffing, he tapped his nephew on the chin and said, "Oh, Rra. My beloved nephew. You are a good man, and you did a good thing, making up that ridiculous story."
Gadpo excused himself with a hug for his uncle. He walked out of the hut, smiling in the dusky light of a magnificent African morning, awash in the sounds of this most wonderful continent, this most impressive little planet.
In Africa, he thought, melancholies gather in great herds, and here there are sorrows on a scale to suggest humanity's very capacity for joy had long ago abandoned the heat and the toothy game for wetter, more be-freckled climes.
But in African heat your soul untangles, and your priorities arrange themselves into their natural ranks.
The psyche smoothes out and repairs itself.
He sipped banana beer from an aquamarine metal mug, the same one he had been sipping from for nearly a decade.
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, Thomas Head. All rights reserved