Any of the stories about why we left could be true, but I gravitate toward the one about the middle-aged father threatening to drive the Jeep off a cliff. I don’t know whether he imagined his family in the vehicle with him. The little boys wouldn’t have been wearing seatbelts in 1979. The infant would have been crying in her mother’s weak arms.
Somewhere in rural Sierra Leone eight-foot-tall elephant grass brushes the sides of the Wagoneer as it stumbles over deep ruts on a snaking dirt road. Somewhere the rains have eroded the bridge over a creek, logs bound together with vines. Somewhere a man gets out of the 4x4 to communicate in broken Koronko with the other men gathered there, inspecting the damage. Somewhere there are army ants along the side of the road, two little boys following the soldiers as they march. Somewhere a petite, strawberry-blonde woman peers over their shoulders, her freckled arms and milk-white legs peeking out from a simple floral-patterned dress she sewed for herself.
My family divides itself: Before Africa and After Africa. My parents and brothers referred to our collective lives this way for as long as I can remember. There is nothing more to say about some things: That was before Africa.
I look through old family photographs and try to imagine knowing my mother before Africa, but the woman I have known for forty years has never been that girl in the Kodachrome prints: her cat eyeglasses, her teased hair, her skirts above the knee. She seems a stranger, but she isn’t supposed to.
Africa changed her. It changed all of us.
Somewhere Timothy sits cross-legged on a dirt floor and teaches a boy named Kabe how to play chess. Somewhere a dozen black boys play soccer with Matthew on the lawn at the top of the hill. Somewhere the game ends and they gather for pictures in kung fu poses, like Bruce Lee. Somewhere the older boys in the village build little cars with working wheels and radios with knobs that turn the dials, all out of reeds, and gift them to their American friends before they leave. Somewhere the barrels are stolen and don’t make it back on the boat from Sierra Leone, so all that are left of them are vivid color photographs, the boys proudly displaying their inventions.
For my parents and two older brothers, that time in Sierra Leone is a narrow volume in their histories. For me, it is myth and legend. Stored away in my study, behind protective vinyl sleeves, is the photographic evidence of our lives there. But it cannot account for all this lost time. For all these lost stories. For all this loss.
I keep trying to hold us together, but I never learned to tie knots and before long we scatter like those log bridges in the bush. The rainy season leaves us strewn through the mud, close enough to see how we once fit together but not close enough to carry us across.
Somewhere in Sierra Leone it’s Christmastime and a two-month old girl is feverish with malaria. Somewhere a mother lies on a braided rug on the concrete floor of a nursery, fighting fatigue, listening for her baby to seize and convulse. Somewhere an exhausted father oversleeps and misses his radio check in with the mission several villages away. Somewhere the baby’s big brothers still get Christmas presents.
Some strains of malaria can be carried in our bodies for decades. I have always imagined mine staying with me for my lifetime, as if Sierra Leone left its mark on my insides the way the smallpox vaccination left a speckled moon on my left upper arm.
Before the birth of my son I donated blood on a regular basis, one good habit I picked up from my father. Each time I’d visit the blood bank they would ask me again about my birth and early life: Where, exactly? When? For how long? They would walk away for a few minutes, refer to their maps, check the timeframe against their most updated records. They had to be sure.
Of course, they weren’t searching for malaria, they were searching for HIV. They were checking to see if my lifeline ran through their blood map. It never did.
During my pregnancy I stopped donating blood. The midwife took it anyhow, testing for a myriad of things that never appeared. None of the vials they drew could tell me what I really wanted to know: if he would feel the weight of their absence, if our stories would be smeared on him like bloody fingerprints.
Somewhere, the baby is eighteen, still skinny legs and big brown eyes. Somewhere she is stopped at a red light, a cigarette in her left hand. Somewhere all she can imagine is taking her foot off the brake and punching the gas. Somewhere she can see it all happening, a semi-truck slamming into her on the driver’s side, buckling the frame of her Volvo and ending all of it. Somewhere she hesitates and keeps her foot on the brake. A truck rushes through the light as it’s turning red and hers is turning green and she knows she’ll never get that chance again.
For years there were more of me out there, blurred mimeographed copies left behind each time my life took a turn. I could feel them wandering in every direction and it ached to lose them. I kept trying to hold them together, but I never learned to tie knots and before long they would slip their binds and wander away again. I cannot account for all these lost selves. For all these lost stories. For all this loss.
In recent years scientists have discovered that mothers’ bodies retain trace amounts of their children’s DNA for the rest of their lives. Women who have had multiple pregnancies can carry DNA from each of them, and there is a possibility that cells from one fetus may end up in the next one. And the next one. And the next one.
Sometimes I wonder if I don’t know my mother in those old photographs because, after carrying four of us in her womb, her DNA is shifted just enough that she is a different woman. A chimera. Or perhaps those echoes I felt walking away from me were my brothers, my mother, my father, all trapped inside me, pressed against one another and struggling to get out. Their pain imprinted on my insides, their stories spilling open as they made their escape.
I always did bruise easily.
Somewhere in the village a newborn is stiff with tetanus and starving. Somewhere her mother walks between the tall grasses, climbing the hill to ask the white woman for help, but the antitoxin is at a clinic thirty miles away. Somewhere she is taught to express her breast milk into a jar and dribble the liquid between the baby’s stiff lips with a spoon. Somewhere, a week later, the nurses arrive for their monthly visit and administer the medicine. Somewhere that baby survives. Twelve have died before her. Somewhere a year later the white man snaps a picture as two thriving baby girls smile at each other, one who survived tetanus and the other with a bright pink vaccination scar on her chubby, pale arm.
For thirteen years they lived without me, and there was no reason to think I would ever join them. My father’s photography hobby brings them to life in little vignettes. After I arrived, and then our baby sister, their stories rolled off our tongues like fables. I know them as well as nursery rhymes and fairy tales, as well as the Bible stories I heard every Sunday. Jonah swallowed by his whale. Abraham nearly sacrificed Isaac. David killed Goliath and became king. Matthew tried to ride the merry-go-round with his older brother and fell off, breaking his leg. Timothy threw a fit in a restaurant so our father moved the Cadillac to a spot where they could watch him from their booth and strapped the toddler into his car seat to scream and pound his tiny angry fists and they ate their dinner in peace.
Of course, this was long before our father visualized taking the ‘76 Wagoneer off the road. That is one of the legends we weren’t told growing up. It slipped out later when our mother stopped pretending all fairy tales have happy endings.
When we returned to the States, our little sister joined us. After Africa. Together, she and I recorded new family fables. To our older brothers, my sister and I are the near strangers captured on film. We share a long volume of history that will never be a chapter in our brothers’ stories. Our legends don’t roll off their tongues like the books of the Bible, like the Ten Commandments, like John 3:16.
Somewhere, for the first and only time in her married life, the mother is not alone in her work: a man who speaks a little English is hired to prepare the fruit and wash the rice every morning, to help her bake the bread. Somewhere in Bendugu, a small man bent from childhood polio is hired to do the washing three days a week. He fills up giant wash tubs and scrubs the family’s clothes with a washboard, hangs them to dry under a tin roof where they won’t get torn off their clothespins during the rainy season. Somewhere the little boys sit at identical desks beneath a painting of a white Jesus, doing their daily lessons so as not to fall behind in school when the family returns to the States. Somewhere the mother rocks the baby, nursing her to sleep as the chair creaks. Somewhere the father sits in a quiet room with a microphone and tape recorder, practicing his Koronko by the flame of a kerosene lamp.
There’s a saying that motherhood is learning to live with your heart outside of your body. It seems impossible at first, but there he is: sleeping, crying, sitting, crawling, walking, laughing, running, jumping, shouting, singing, pushing, screaming. Somehow, I’m still upright. I’m still breathing. And now I understand how: I gave him my heart, but he left a few things behind. Rivers mapped across my skin where it stretched to hold him in. Seams stitched together after they cut me open to pull him out. And hidden deep inside where he will never find it and I will never lose it, a trace of him remains.
Somewhere he maneuvers the winding roads of the California Redwoods. Somewhere she wonders why she didn’t hit the gas at the stoplight a decade earlier. Somewhere she cries for the baby growing inside her, asks how something so innocent could deserve a mother so bruised and broken, caked in all those dirty fingerprints. Somewhere she takes off her seatbelt and opens the door of the Volkswagen, watches as the road races beneath her.
The man in the Jeep who tried to freeze time in his photographs. The woman with sage eyes and thin freckled arms. The boys who played chess and stalked insect soldiers and posed with wishful black belts in the grass, a saturated green. I keep trying to hold us all together. I can feel us wandering in every direction. Somehow, I must account for all of us.
Somewhere they hear it coming, like a train in the distance. Somewhere it rumbles closer, and the lightning sizzles and thunder rolls over the hill. Somewhere the rains come every day at four o’clock and the corrugated metal rooftops roar. Somewhere the torrents mask everything, even a baby’s cries. Somewhere a family learns to fall asleep despite the environmental violence. Somewhere, decades ago, the rainy season washes away their fingerprints.
It is impossible to hold us all together. We have wandered in every direction. I cannot keep us together because I never learned to tie knots and now we are buried in the burnt red clay, stamped beneath the bare feet of thousands of villagers who will only hear of us in fables.
The only ones I can hold together are me. My blurred copies, gathered up in my arms like the laundry hanging under the metal roof outside the cinderblock building we called home. We are too heavy to hold. I never learned to tie knots but now we are weaving together like macramé.
The baby shivering with malaria whimpers. The girl at the stoplight pounds her fists on the steering wheel. The shattered woman in the Redwoods is wailing. This mother holds all of us together. The elephant grass rustles but there is no trail of trampled blades. I leave no footprints to follow.