My small plane landed in the Ivory Coast in the middle of a foggy night. The air was so humid you could cut it with a knife. My friend Sharon and her French husband Pascal, with whom she had a mercurial relationship, met me at the mostly dark and empty airport, and we drove to a hotel situated in one of Abidjan’s many suburbs to rest before our long hot drive into the dusty interior.
Early the following morning I awoke to the sound of rain and looked out the window at the mottled dark water. I had slept well, our large circular-walled, earth and straw dwelling–floating on a platform in part of a giant lagoon–had been clean and cool. I looked out the window again, and noticed that the white hot African sun was already up and shining in a dull blue-grey sky. How odd. I thought. How could the sun be shining if it was raining?
Confused, I looked at the glistening lagoon water more closely and saw thousands of tiny, delicate silver fish in a feeding frenzy, jumping and flashing their way across the surface. The vast lagoon fluttered and pulsed for several minutes and then, just as quickly, returned to its earlier state of serenity.
“It’s like magic,” Sharon said, coming into my room, clapping her hands with delight.
Pascal, her roughly handsome French husband of only one year, was still in bed in the other room, half asleep. He stirred at the sound of her voice.
“Whaat?” he muttered.
“Get up,” she said to him abruptly, now aware that he had woken up. “It’s time to go.”
“Bien sûr, with you, it’s always time to go!” He sat up slowly, hair tousled, badly hungover and eyes red. He looked like a caged beast.
She regarded him with disgust. She’d discovered a few months into the marriage that he was a functional alcoholic, able to hide it during the day but most of the time in the evening so drunk that he became abusive. She had been about to leave him when she became pregnant, after which her emotional life see-sawed between thinking he would change as soon as the baby arrived, and feeling utterly trapped and hopeless.
“Come on, Pascal, we don’t want to be on those crummy roads in mid-day. You’re the one always complaining about the dust that gets into everything, so let’s leave early for once.” She turned and went into the bathroom.
The smell of perfume drifted into the room, rousing him from the bed. He walked into the bathroom and grabbed her breasts from behind.
“Pascal! Hurry up and get dressed!” Sharon, half-smiling, pushed him away impatiently as he tried to embrace her.
“Oui, ma petite salope,” he said, leaving and beginning to assemble his clothes. It was clear the battle of their wills was already beginning.
“Where do you think the boy is with our breakfast? These Africans are so stupid! You have to tell them the same thing ten times.” He shook his head in disbelief. “You know Trisha,” he said, turning to me, “if we French weren’t here the whole place would be lost, I swear.”
There was a knock on the door and Pascal watched as a young boy, about thirteen, carefully and slowly walked in with a very heavy breakfast tray.
“Well, it’s about time! I’m starving,” Pascal yelled. “Put the tray over there.”
He pointed to a small table near the bed and went back into the bathroom to shave. Sharon and I watched as the frightened boy put the tray onto a larger, wider table.
“The other is too small, madame,” he said shyly in his tribally accented sing-song French. Normally at home he spoke the language of his people, the Baule, one of the many tribes there..
“That’s fine, and thank you for bringing us this lovely breakfast. Bonjour.” Sharon smiled at him as the boy bowed solemnly and walked out.
Sharon had written to me that breakfast in Africa was always a simple one: fresh fruit, a roll, some juice and a pot of tea or coffee, with cream. The latter was the French influence, another example of one of the absurd legacies colonization had left behind. There weren’t a lot of dairy cows in this part of the world, not to mention dairies, but the country, having attempted to take on the appearance of the Western world under the not so benevolent guise of French culture, served in its hotels and restaurants a rather peculiar tasting cream. The French, having instituted this and other much larger ills, never could find the good spirit to accept the Africans’ attempts to graciously please, but rather were always heard to remark patronizingly that, “things were so much better in France.”
Sharon had told me that she and Pascal had fought over this attitude a lot while in Africa. For her, this was Africa and she wanted to see it so; it was most definitely not France…or America, for that matter. But Pascal felt it should be molded in France’s image, no matter what the cost. He came out of the bathroom and pointed at the tray. “See, I told you the little buggers are idiots. He didn’t even put it where I told him to.”
Sharon smiled a small, tight smile and shrugged. I stared woodenly at the wall trying to compose myself. When Sharon had asked me to visit, this wasn’t what I was expecting. As Pascal went back into the bathroom to finish shaving, Sharon whispered to me to interact with Pascal as little as possible during moments like these. It would help to reduce the level of stress since she knew by now that contradicting him would provoke an angry tirade. What had she gotten herself into? I wondered.
After breakfast we began the long drive back to their home in the hot and dusty interior. The interior, as recently as forty years ago, had still been covered in a vast and intricate rain forest, but post WWII greed had devastated the land in half that time. The extensive French logging had left behind no wild animals in the countryside, no flora of distinction either, only the sparse growth of new spindly trees and plants that could survive in what was now a depressing wasteland.
As Pascal was driving, Sharon told me she hated these long trips from their home into the city for supplies. The sight of the bleak, decimated countryside speeding by always left her feeling empty and sad.
They’d had a whirlwind courtship. Willing to do anything to get away from New York and her dysfunctional family, Sharon had immediately said yes when Pascal proposed to her. Their differences were obvious, but that had been part of the attraction. And at the time, an exotic life in Francophone Africa had seemed so glamorous. But now Sharon was three months pregnant and the glamour was fading.
We had been on the road for about an hour when I noticed hundreds of tiny dark shapes grouped like bunches of grapes in the limbs of the tallest trees. They made odd, squeaking noises. Nearby was a small local market.
“Pascal, do you know what those birds are?” I asked.
“Sure,” he laughed, pulling over to the side of the road. “Get out and come with me. I’ll show you.”
We walked over to a tree and looked up. I let out a gasp. “My God, they’re bats!” I could see them hanging, upside down, thousands of shiny black eyes glittering in the sun.
Pascal laughed again. “Relax, they’re harmless enough. Did you know they are mammals? I think they are rather sweet. They like to eat fruit. There are hundreds of them all over this country. People from the bush like to eat them but they carry disease—really, really nasty disease. Come on, let’s go back to the car.”
“Would you mind if we visited that nearby market just for a little bit?” I asked.
He shrugged. “Okay. Why not?”
The market was in an abandoned concrete lot. Grass poked through all the cracks. Some of the women had set up small tables for their wares, while others had put down on the ground brightly colored pieces of African cloth upon which were large triangular heaps of ground spices and herbs, none of which I recognized. As I looked around, Pascal wandered off towards the section which was the meat market.
Even from a distance I could see that all sorts of live animals were bound or in cages and I couldn’t bear it. I turned away to stare at a table with many small bolts of African cloth and began to aimlessly sort through them, suddenly wishing we could be on our way again.
“Have you seen enough? Pascal had come up behind me. I turned around to see he was holding a cage with some kind of parrot in it.
“Oh!” I said, startled.
“I’m going to let him out once we are back at the house.” he said. “I can’t stand to see them caged.”
I looked at him in astonishment.
“Look, because I’m French I’m used to eating many things. I have no problem eating domestic animals, but I can’t stand it when they trap the wild ones and put them in cages. I can’t stand to see them lose their freedom. Their beautiful wildness…” his words trailed off as he stared down at the ground uncomfortably.
The awkward silence was broken by Sharon honking the horn, so we headed back toward the car.
“Not another bird Pascal! Oh Christ.” Sharon said impatiently as we got in. I sat stiffly in the back seat wishing I could teleport myself to another part of the country.
“Is it another fight you want?” Pascal said, his mood changing as he slammed the door shut.
“Pascal, stop it,” Sharon looked out the window in frustration, tears in her eyes, as the old Citroen lurched forward in a series of spasmodic jerks and then slowly began to gather speed.
Soon enough, with exquisite timing designed for maximum effect, Pascal started to shift the gears at the wrong moments on purpose just to annoy her. He grinned sadistically. The parrot squawked next to me in protest over the bumpy ride, and I couldn’t help but think what a strange, immature man-child Pascal was.
We passed some local women walking slowly down the road, babies balanced on their wide jelly hips, large tins of cooking oil on their heads. Those tins were heavy, and I marveled at the women’s sense of graceful balance. It was a tedious drive, and Pascal drove faster and faster to make up for the boredom. At one point, a herd of oxen exploded from the brush as the car rounded a curve on the road, and Pascal nearly crashed.
Sharon screamed and Pascal reflexively hit her across the chest, telling her to shut up. I felt like I was going to throw up. Part of me wanted to hurt Pascal in some terrible way, and part of me just wanted to suddenly get away from them.
We drove on in grim silence for another hour until the heat of the day forced us to stop for lunch at a little maquis on the edge of a scraggly forest. It was a small reed structure, with a woven grass roof.
As soon as we sat down, Pascal shouted for the waiter to bring several beers to go with the fiery hot chicken tagine the cook had made as the day’s “special,” that is, the only item on the menu. Tagines were big in Northern and Western Africa, and they ranged from being pleasantly spicy to hot as the devil’s own oven. Pascal said he loved these tagines but they gave Sharon the runs.
Sharon ate very little; beer and tagines weren’t good for her or the baby, but Pascal had insisted on stopping regardless.
Just before dusk, we had gotten to the outskirts of the town when Sharon badly needed to use the toilet. So we stopped, tired and dusty, at a souvenir shop about twenty minutes from their home. The proprietor, an old man dressed in robes and skullcap, was about to close up, but on seeing us arrive politely opened the door.
“Thank you so much,” Sharon said, as he let us in with a benign wave of his hand while Pascal waited in the car, radio blasting.
Three young boys nodded to us as we walked by, and one of them pointed to the little space where the toilet was. I stayed and looked around the shop.
When Sharon came back into the room, she and I looked at the shop more carefully. On the walls were hung all sorts of woven cloth, and the tables were filled with carved pieces of wood and ivory.
“May we touch them?” I asked the old man with interest. “There are some very unusual pieces here.” He nodded, pleased at the potential for a lucky sale at the end of the day.
I hadn’t bought anything as a memento since my arrival in Africa. My apartment was so European that I suddenly felt it was time to take something African—something very African—home with me.
In the far corner of the dim room there was a single wooden statue that caught my eye.
“Oh, that’s so beautiful. Is it for sale?” I turned to the old man, who was watching us. “That, madame, is a statue of a griot, playing an instrument called a kora. It was made by one of our best carvers, who was from the eastern part of here. It is the most powerful statue in the shop. And you know,” he said winking at me, “we do not choose them, they choose us.”
“What is a griot?” I asked.
Solemnly gathering his robes about him, the old man sat down and collected his thoughts. The young boys hung about the doorway. “Well, a griot is a difficult concept to explain to someone who is not African. A griot is many things: he is the village musician, a traveler, the local doctor, the wise man, the keeper of history and stories, in short, he is the bridge and conduit between us and the spirit world. He is very powerful, a leader and an advisor, indeed, the most powerful presence in the community.”
“That’s absolutely wonderful!” Sharon was excited. “Are they still around?”
The old man smiled. “Oh yes. My brother is one. That is his son.” He pointed to the young boy who had shown her where the toilet was.
She looked at the old man earnestly. “I would like to buy this statue for my friend here, if you will sell it to me. I assure you it will have an honored place in her home.”
He nodded. “You must understand that the money is secondary. It is the choice that is important. However, if you have 250 CFA, it is yours.”
Sharon figured this out to be roughly 40 US dollars and was astounded. A statue such as this one was priceless in her estimation. She smiled. “That’s a deal. Let me go out to the car. I don’t have any money on me.”
She turned to leave as the door banged open. Pascal came striding in angrily and grabbed her arm. “What the hell have you both been doing? I’ve been waiting in that damn car for half an hour!”
Sharon jerked her arm away, embarrassed. “I’m buying a very special statue for Trisha, Pascal. I want her to have a wonderful memory of her visit here.”
“What are you talking about? This place is filled with junk. Don’t buy anything from these people—they’ll cheat you first chance they get!” He grabbed her arm again and began pulling her outside.
One of the boys stepped forward and said politely, “Mister, there is no need to be angry with her.”
Pascal turned and gave him a shove. “Listen you black bastard, mind your own business. You people work for me in this town and I won’t have you telling me what to do with my wife!”
The other boys gathered around and the shouting began.
“Who do you think you are, you French shit, go back to France!”
“Your mother’s a whore, you dumb ape!”
“How dare you? You French are all the same—stupid big noses!”
“Stop it, stop it, Pascal! What are you doing?” Sharon shouted. “These people are decent people—leave them alone!”
Pascal turned sharply and slapped her. “How dare you contradict me in front of them! Don’t you know it will be all over town tomorrow? I’ll lose the respect of my workers. Go get in the car.” He made a move towards one of the boys. Sharon began to cry. “No! STOP IT, I said!”
He turned on her in a fury. “GO GET IN THE CAR, NOW! NOW!”
She shook her head and ran back into the shop. Pascal’s face turned bright red.
The boys who had gone inside while he was shouting at her now came charging out with blocks of wood and spears. The old man stood in the doorway calling for them to come back. Pascal took one look at their angry faces and weapons and headed for the car.
“Walk home, you bitch,” he screamed out the window as the car left in a hail of stones. Sharon sat in the shop sobbing. “I’m so sorry, so sorry. Please forgive me. He has a kind of sickness.” The old man put his hand gently on her back. “You may stay with us if you like.”
She sobbed further at this offer of kindness. “Oh, you’re so kind, but we must go home before it gets too dark. If the boys could help show us the way through the forest…”
She looked up at him. “I have a favor to ask of you. If you don’t mind, I have a little money of my own at home and would very much like to have the griot statue for my friend. It is very special to me…could we take it with us and I’ll pay your nephew the money when we arrive?”
I listened in amazement to the trusting arrangements Sharon was making with the shopkeeper. They still did things the old way here, it seemed.
“Yes, madame.” He smiled. “You are a good woman in an unfortunate circumstance…” He carefully handed her the statue and began to lock up.”Here, take these candles in case you get home and find your electricity is sleeping too.” He laughed good-naturedly. “Good bye.”
The three boys guided us onto a narrow path that wound through the underbrush. In this hemisphere the sun just faded away at sunset, the sky going from blue-grey to grey to black, leaving an upside down moon to burn its faint light through the starry night sky. As we walked, the moon rose, making it easy for us to see the way.
The local boy, whose name was Kore, introduced his two friends to us. One was from Mali and the other, Burkina Faso. The boy from Mali spoke some English. Sharon began to speak to him but stopped when the others looked uncomfortable, not understanding.
“May we rest a little?” she asked in French. “I’m not feeling very well.” We had only been walking for about 15 minutes.
Kore, trying to be cheerful, said, “Don’t worry, madame, we have another few minutes and then you are home.”
Two of the boys carefully helped her walk, while Kore carried the beloved statue. In a few minutes we were there; Kore had been right after all. The house was in total darkness but Pascal’s car was there. He’d set the parrot free; its cage was empty.
I wasn’t sure how much time had gone by except that the moon had moved a great distance across the sky and a new group of insects and birds had joined the night’s chorus. Sharon lit two large candles the old man had given her.
Their light gave everyone’s face a warm glow as Sharon quickly ran inside for the money and came out again. We said goodbye and went inside. The floor felt damp. As we tried to quietly navigate our way inside the dark house with the candlelight, Pascal came lurching out of the bedroom towards Sharon. It was clear he’d been drinking.
“Don’t you ever speak up to me like that again in public, you hear?” he shouted, punching her in the eye.
“Hey, Pascal! Knock it off—what are you doing? Are you crazy?” I shouted at him.
He turned and came over to me, ready to hit me. I quickly pushed him against the wall and put my face up to his. “You lay a hand on me, you bastard, and I’ll have the police here and you in jail so fast you won’t know what’s happened! I’m not married to you!”
He backed off but not before saying in a slur, “Yeah? Well, you’re out of here now. Right now. I don’t care if the fuckin’ jackals eat you.”
Sharon shouted, “She can go tomorrow. There is no place for her to go to now.”
They fought until he backed down and stormed away into the bedroom. “I’m very sorry,” Sharon said, embarrassed. She began to compulsively straighten the room as if ordering it would somehow settle her emotions.
“What do you do now?” I asked.
“Not to worry, I’ll get through this. You can use the guest room” she said pointing towards a door adjacent to the one Pascal had disappeared into.
“What about you?”
“I’ll be fine here” she said, preparing the couch for herself. She turned to me. “I know you’ve seen his bad side but he works very hard to make a home for us. He is a very insecure man, but he does love me.”
Deeply upset, all I could do was shrug and go into the guest bedroom and lock the door, putting the statue on the dresser. How can she stay with him? I wondered. It must be the sex. Probably volcanic! What else could it be? Her parents were drunks, and now she’s married one…
When morning came Pascal had gone to work. I had planned on staying a week but under the circumstances it was obviously impossible.
“Please come with me now,” I begged Sharon, who was standing over the kitchen sink washing her hands again and again until they were red and raw. I felt badly for that new baby. “Stop punishing yourself. I could get you back to New York, and your family could get a restraining order against him. I’d be willing to testify to what I saw. Please.”
She just stared at me.
“Sharon, I understand your fear, but we could head towards the Mali border and fly out from there. He would assume we went to the big airport at Abidjan and by the time he realizes we’re not there it will be too late.” I grabbed her arm. “I know we can do this. I know we can!”
“I’m so sorry,” she said, “You don’t understand. I just can’t. It would kill him. Don’t you see? He rescues birds, but I rescued him.”
“Maybe,” I said slowly. “But who will rescue you?”
She shook her head. “This is my life now. This is what I have chosen.”
We looked at one another for a minute, both caught in an awareness of the futility, and then hugged. I said goodbye, anxiously wondering if her poor baby would even make it out of the womb.
She stood in the doorway, sadly waving as the taxi drove me to the local airport with the statue strapped to my back. Little did I know then but on the road to the airport, we would accidentally stumble across a secretive griot from a northern village who controlled all further access to the road my taxi was on. But upon seeing the statue on my back, he allowed me to pass further onto a road where very few foreigners could go and which got me to my flight on time.
I never saw her again. I continued to travel, and in the ensuing years, all attempts by me and others to reach Sharon went unanswered. Eventually I heard from her brother that she’d called to say she’d finally left Pascal at last and vanished into one of the many swirling cities of West Africa with her teenage daughter. So that baby had made it out alive after all, I thought. As for the griot statue, to this very day it sits on the top of my desk, commanding it really, looking down in smug admonishment, because it took so long for me to tell this tale.
Karen Petersen has traveled the world extensively, publishing both nationally and internationally in a variety of publications. Last year, she was the first person in the history of the Pushcart Prize to receive five nominations in the categories of short story, poetry, and flash.