African Afternoon

Melissa Wiley

Fifteen minutes or so after our morning game drive, I was rinsing the butterscotch dust off my back with water heated by a clay oven that sat, like a squat ceramic Buddha, just twenty feet outside our tent. But the water ran only cold and shrill. Wrapping myself in an olive robe, I unzipped the mosquito netting and called out to a Masai, asking him to light a fire inside the Buddha's hollow belly. He sprang onto our porch, quick as a cat's tongue around a lizard. Inside his ear lobes were round lacunae, large as baboon fists, and I looked through them, watching elephant ears ripple in the far distance as we stood face to face, so close we could have kissed. Seeing his eyes follow mine through his ears' open cartilage, I apologized for bothering him for something so trivial, saying I'd taken many cold showers before.

But he only laughed, chirping, "Enjoy your life! I'll have it warm as toast in a minute," and ran off barefoot into the tall, tawny grasses.

Half an hour later, following the white stone pathway in my husband's long, rapier shadow to the mess tent, I observed a man with burnt umber skin and stormy jowls reading a newspaper before an unlit fire pit. His boomerang cheekbones looked capable of commanding a strong set of tusks were nature to metamorphose him into a bull elephant. When we said hello, he crossed his legs stiffly, like waterlogged tree roots. Affixing his gaze to the wrinkled newspaper print, he grunted a simian acknowledgement and then shook himself free of us while a colobus monkey crawled down the vanishing limbs of a desiccating baobab to survey the op-eds.

Solomon, the cook, tossed me a yellow Frisbee, a plastic spinning sun, as I walked toward the mess tent. I caught it between my thumb and forefinger and flung it back, almost toppling a sparkling glass of gin inside the open dumb waiter. I ran and scooped up the disc before Solomon could recover it and placed it atop the armoire beside an amethyst bowl, noticing he had laid out nine place settings instead of our usual five.

The sun sat high behind a cottony palisade of sleeping cirrus clouds, and the conjoined tables stood sulking inside the tent's shadow rather than outside, under the acacia tree, where we had eaten our midday meal the three days prior.

The camp's only other visitors, a middle-aged Swiss couple living in Oman, padded inside and asked Solomon for two Tusker beers. A flying beetle latched onto the hem of my shirt with a kinetic crunch, and my shriek cleaved a dense cloak of air hanging before the bookshelf. The four of us laughed, puncturing yet more holes in the atmosphere as we sat down at the end of the table closest to the tent's open flaps, outside which the man reading the newspaper now propped its stapled seam high on his knee, communing with nothing but the mute gray sky.

Frank, our guide, appeared inside with a face freshly abraded from strawberry scouring soap. He smiled at me and said my cheeks were flushed from the sun, claiming this boded well; Americans saw far too little sunlight as it was and I had been so pale when I arrived. I asked whom our guests would be, and he said Corina—I must have corresponded with her when I made our reservation; even as the tour company's president, she still did most of the grunt work, lovely, tireless woman that she was. He said this with such a sanguine sense of comprehensiveness that I didn't bother asking who would fill the three remaining seats. Solomon had made two vegetable quiches for lunch, which he was now rotating like sentient sundials, as well as an avocado and tomato salad. The joy the Masai had sparked inside me had now inflamed itself into a raging hunger. Frank had already made it clear, however, that Americans had poor manners as it was, so I restrained myself from asking when the empty seats would be filled and we could begin dividing the quiche. Instead, I sipped swinishly on an orange soda, letting its bubbles inflate my stomach with citrus-scented gas.

Not more than ten minutes later, a woman with enormous sagging breasts, and shining cinnamon hair pulled into a bun with lacquered chopsticks, invaded the camp. She looked as if she had just given birth. Her body carried all the weight of a recently expelled placenta, but I saw no newborn child wanting to suckle low on her abdomen. She wore heavily rimmed glasses and a wide-swinging cantaloupe dress. Frank kissed her moistly on each cheek, left then right, as if they were in France instead of sub-Saharan Africa, and the man reading the newspaper came to sit down beside me and stare dejectedly at his cutlery. I started to speak to him, but felt an invisible animus tighten his muscles where the tusks should have been and turned my attention across the table to the Swiss couple instead, who were joyously reenacting my shock at the beetle's attack.

Corina settled herself heavily into the chair beside the man, his newspaper falling off his lap, and whom I now assumed to be her husband, when two girls, perhaps twelve and fourteen, with legs like tall ponies and high, galloping laughter, trotted inside. Their skin was a vellum amalgam of both parents, and their faces shone like chocolate butter. As they cantered round the table, their father continued eyeing the dull sheen of his fork and sitting like a deaf stone within the stiff embrace of his chair's parallel arms. Meanwhile, Corina hefted her swollen limbs up and deluged the girls with a profusion of wet, snapping kisses, when they began speaking in faster and faster German, purging a tangled skein of words that had been clotting their throats for hours. A few minutes later, the older girl sat at the head of the table and her sister beside her. But they had now swept all the stray words out of their bodies like dead flies from a windowsill. There was nothing left to say, even to each other, for the rest of the meal.

Corina then expatiated on the First World infrastructure of Zanzibar, where she lived, while Solomon's gentle, weathered hands served us quiche and salad.

Frank, seeing that our end of the table, usually bloated with laughing chatter, had preserved an unnatural silence for several minutes, asked why we were not going to Zanzibar. When I said that we didn't have the time, he threw his arms extravagantly up into the air, exclaiming that Americans had no concept of relaxation. Work and money, relentless pursuit of happiness that came to nothing but misery—that was all we knew. He then announced that our next game drive would commence half an hour after lunch. Weary from a night of broken sleep, I said I thought I would bow out; it was our last day and I would be more than happy to nap and play cribbage with Solomon.

Frank was aghast. "You overpay one of your substandard American airlines who knows how many thousands of dollars, and then you don't avail yourself of what is right here in front of you, free-roaming animal life that you can only preserve in some sickly test tube of a zoo? Let's not even start on your education system, the worst in the so-called developed world. OK Melissa, I'll give you an hour and fifteen minutes to sleep, enough for a full REM cycle, but then I really must insist. I'll have Solomon pack us some hors d'oeuvres—some simple canapés; I know that appetite by now—and chairs, and we'll all enjoy a sundowner together." Corina howled with all her bosom, until her laughter sounded like hard pellets of offal flung against a steel gun rack. I reluctantly assented and Frank bowed his paternal approval.

Still convulsing with mirth, Corina said that now we had brought sundowners into it she must join us. Her family would be staying the night at the camp anyway; the roads to Arusha were too wretched to make the drive any sooner than necessary. But Frank angled his spiny wrist at her chin in terse refusal. "I'm sorry, Corina, but you know we have an open jeep and the lions will see the children as prey. Lions and little people do not mix." My eyes wandered over to the oldest girl. Her budding breasts stood high and helpless in her white cotton blouse as she stared wanly into her plate of browning avocados. She was only three or four inches shorter than me and several taller than the Swiss woman, but she still had the sheen of the egg about her, as if Corina had just yesterday expelled a virginal young woman with mahogany skin and equine legs, fluent in both German and English and not fond of avocados, rather than a mere baby. The girl caught my gaze, turned her eyes back to the table's striated fawn tissue, and fell deeper inside her own inner galaxy, spinning ambient light out all her pores. Unlike her sister, whose cheeks were still bloated with breast milk, this girl seemed, at thirteen or fourteen, ripe for sex, and the lions would know as much. They would let her pass. Frank was wrong; she wasn't a child, but I was pleased to have a pretext for preserving our intimate party of the past three days and its happenstantial harmony all the same, and thought I saw the selfsame relief on the Swiss couple's creased and smiling faces.

They were the first to back their chairs out from the table, thanking Solomon for the meal. The woman softly squeezed my shoulder as she sidled past, saying she would see me in exactly an hour and fifteen minutes and drag me out of the tent like a lion if she didn't. I laughed and promised I would be there. I would enter the open jeep like a womb, letting the amber autumn air bathe my face as my eyes grazed nodding zebras in the distance and my arms dragged listlessly over the white-blonde chaffs. My husband and I traced our way back to our tent, where we lay down like dying animals on our hard, ample bed, keeping our canvas windows open, letting the trees' shadows deliquesce across the surface of our smooth cement porch.

From the mess tent, Corina's pterodactyl laughter bubbled up higher and higher against the sky's distended dome, scaring any specter of sleep away. But by the time we drank our sundowner at 6:30 that evening, standing in the bush against an aubergine sky, I was wider awake than I had ever been before. His American aversions loosened from two gin and tonics, Frank hung close to me and breathily named constellations that would be invisible in the Northern Hemisphere. He said that, at times, he felt he was missing something of life, the phantasmagoria of a city, of Cape Town, or London, or Zurich; he loved the opera, he whispered, and French wine, and silk ties. He wanted to buy a woman wearing a suit perfume in the spring. But this vast, living emptiness never left you feeling empty, he slurred through a mélange of vaporous memories. This beauty, we agreed as the day died out of the heavens, outlasted all.


About the Author

Melissa Wiley is a freelance culture and food writer living in Chicago who seizes every opportunity to walk barefoot with half-painted toenails through airport security and stammer in pidgin tongues. When writing in full-throttle English, she often invokes the memory of her parents, her kinship with the Island of Misfit Toys, and the beauty of caterpillars. Her creative nonfiction has been published in a number of literary magazines.