Excerpts from "The White Mary"
by Kira Salak
Excerpt From Chapter 1
The black waters of Elobi Creek show no sign of a current. It is another dead waterway, Marika tells herself, one that will breed only mosquitoes and crocodiles. Another waterway that somehow reflects—in the darkness of the water, in its stillness—all of her failings. These waters, this breathless heat, seem to be waiting for a response from her, a call to action. But she has no answers. And if she’s to be honest with herself, she never had any. Things will unravel. They will fall apart.
If she is to be honest with herself—and the pain from self-honesty, but the duty of it, too—she must admit that this time she seems to have started something that is beyond her ability to stop. It is as if the dominoes of her life have begun to fall, and she can only watch each moment disappearing in the futile fractions of a second. She is still looking for her ghost. Nearly three months spent in Papua New Guinea, and no sign of him. Does Robert Lewis know she has given up everything to find him? More to the point, would he care? She ought to go home. Go back. Call this for what it is: a failure.
Beauty intrudes upon her. Flocks of red and green parrots. Butterflies of blue and gold dancing over the black waters. Crowned pigeons with their regal headdresses of gray plumage. She would like to know this beauty, not just see it. In the same way, walking down a city street, she might gaze at the featureless crowds and catch sight of a face that awakens something vital in her. A longing, perhaps. A burst of compassion. She looks at the thick, ripe jungle around her: squat sago palms nesting beside the riverbanks; ancient trees rising toward darkening clouds. It should not be so hard, she tells herself, to know this beauty.
Thomas, the lanky young man driving their dugout canoe, stops the outboard motor. The intense heat never seems to bother him, his green T-shirt saturated, his exposed black skin glistening from sweat. He picks up his bow and a bamboo arrow ending in four prongs, and aims at a crowned pigeon. Releasing the arrow, he watches it cascade into the rain forest, just missing the bird. As the pigeon flees for the sky, Thomas speaks sharply in a tribal language, putting down the bow and starting up the outboard motor. The jungle didn’t seem to notice. The butterflies continue whirling. The parrots chatter. A white cockatoo fluffs out its feathers and relaxes them. As the sun disappears behind a large gray cloud, Marika yanks down her hat’s brim, staring into the tangled greenery around her. She wants a sign. She would like to know that all the events of her life have conspired to bring her to this exact instant in time, with nothing—none of it—being a mistake.
But this world of Papua New Guinea won’t tell her anything. It will just burn her white skin a deeper red. It will suck all the remaining moisture from her, stinging her, biting her, keeping her from sound sleep. The jungle rises thick on either side of the narrowing waterway, interconnecting overhead as if she were entering the bowels of a giant green serpent. Miraculously—or so it seems to her—she actually arrives somewhere at the end of each day, alive.
And closer, she hopes, to Robert Lewis.
Excerpt From Chapter 10
“Where is your husband?” Tobo asks the white mary, chewing and spitting.
It is a question he has been wondering about since the woman first appeared in his village. White men, he has noticed, are usually married, but only to one wife at a time. Which makes no sense to Tobo. Who is a man supposed to lay with when his wife is heavy with child or sick? Or during her blood time? Two wives, at the very least, are necessary, though more than four can be costly. He, himself, has a very young wife and an older one, his third wife having died while trying to push out her baby. Tobo often tells his youngest wife to meet him in the yam garden for puspus, but she never gets big with child. He thinks it is the gods’ way of joking with him. They know how risky it is for a man to touch a woman, let alone get her bokis fluids on him after lying with her. Were it not for all the protection Tobo puts around his body, he would surely be poisoned by now. He has often wondered if the fluids from a white mary bokis are equally dangerous. Or even more so. It is a question that none of the white Jesus Men would answer for him.
Marika glances at Tobo, alarmed by the witch doctor’s question. In some countries, when a man asks her if she’s married, it means he’s trying to flirt with her. But Tobo has no prurient look in his expression, just curiosity.
She thinks about Seb. His bright brown eyes. The feel of his lips on her cheek. That last, lingering stare he gave her before she left him for good.
She feels a clench of pain. “I don’t have a husband,” she tells Tobo.
“Eh? Why not?”
“In America, some women don’t get married.”
Tobo is sure she’s a witch now. Only women who are hexed can’t get husbands. “This means you don’t have children?”
Tobo considers her answer. “What man allowed you to come alone to my country? Was it your father?”
Marika doesn’t know what to do with his question. “My father is dead,” she says, hoping that will satisfy him.
Tobo nods. Now he understands. The white mary has no husband or father to tell her what to do. It explains why she always has the lost look in her eyes.
“Is Robert Lewis your wantok?” he asks.
Marika wishes Tobo’s strange questions would end. She’s tired and hungry, and they have absolutely no food or drinking water. She pretends not to understand him.
“Is the white man Robert Lewis your wantok?” he asks again, insistent.
Her wantok—One Talk. Which is to say, someone who speaks her language, is a member of her tribe. As there are over seven hundred tribes in Papua New Guinea, she knows Tobo must think there are just as many in the United States, if not more.
“Yes,” she says at last. “Lewis is my wantok.”
“Does he have a wife in America?”
Marika sighs. What to say? Lewis, the famous war correspondent, was married once. He had girlfriends—lots of girlfriends. And a few longer relationships, nothing too serious. Some people called him a “womanizer.” Others said he was “fond of the ladies.”
“Lewis had women,” Marika says.
It is exciting news for Tobo: a white man with more than one wife. “How many wives did he have?”
“I don’t know.” Marika dips her hand in the water and washes off the clay on her cheeks.
“Do you also want to be Lewis’s wife?”
Marika stares at him, seeing a mysterious glint in the Anasi man’s eyes. When she was younger, and idolized Lewis, she would fantasize about him sometimes. It was just the sort of harmless thing young girls do, like obsessing about rock stars or actors.
When Marika doesn’t respond to Tobo’s question, he laughs, knowing it must be true. The white mary would like to be Lewis’s wife. Tobo is not surprised. If Lewis’s wives are in America, and if Lewis is here, then he will need puspus. Like any man.
Marika watches Tobo’s lips furl into a smile. Irritated, she throws down her water bottle and walks off.
They’ve been paddling for days across swamps, through mangroves. The whole time, the sun blazes in a sky without clouds. Marika finds the heat nearly unbearable. She hangs her billum bag over her head to try to protect her face. She slathers clay on her exposed skin, though sweat soon melts it from her body. The sunlight burns her relentlessly, cruelly, and her only means of cooling off is to continually throw water on her clothes.
But now a change: they enter a stream. Trees arc overhead, providing blessed shade as the swampland gives way to forest. Everything grows dim, the sun losing its dominion to giant fern trees and hardwoods which block out the sky. Marika still hasn’t seen any people, nor any trace of human passage, since leaving Krit village. She imagines herself and Tobo as First Man and Woman. All around them is unmolested jungle, resounding with bird calls and insect wails. Cockatoos and hornbills watch her fearlessly from the trees. Flocks of green and red parrots materialize from the forest only to resettle themselves and disappear again. The world has come alive with resplendent, surreal hues: neon-colored damselflies, butterflies with giant wings of blue satin. It is a glimmering, sultry place, everything reaching tentacles out, overtaking and wrapping and fondling.
Tobo uses his bow and arrows to shoot them food—ducks, usually, or crowned pigeons. Or he goes off into the jungle to hunt, returning with tree rats and possums. At dusk, he hacks away a clearing in the jungle, builds a fire, and puts up a couple of lean-tos. Burning betel nut palm leaves to keep the mosquitoes away, he shows Marika how to cut and clean animal carcasses and fasten them to spits. He must show her how to do everything. How to construct a pallet aboveground, away from the ants. How to bring smoking cinders with her into the jungle at night to keep mosquitoes from biting her when she goes pekpek. Slowly, the white mary learns.
They make gradual progress upriver, though to what end Marika doesn’t know. The more the river narrows, the more tedious the journey becomes, dead trees blocking their way and forcing them to stop. Usually, they can lift the canoe over the debris, but at times the route is so blocked by tangles of branches, or by the enormous trunks of ancient trees, that Tobo has to cut them a portaging route through the jungle.
At last, when their canoe butts against a high wall of logs, Tobo orders them out of the boat.
“Yumi go long bikbus,” he says.
They will head into the “big bush.”
It is what Marika has been fearing: leaving the waterways. At least with a river they have something to follow, with a beginning and ending. The jungle appears as a dark green void, without any landmarks, seemingly without end. If she ever emerges from it, she’ll be in the village where Lewis is supposed to be—or she might not ever get out.
“Are there any villages between here and Walwasi?” she asks Tobo.
“Nogat,” he says. Nothing.
Tobo makes no ceremony about entering the jungle. He simply removes their few belongings from the canoe, fills his billum bag with smoked meat and water gourds, and hacks a route into the jungle. Marika watches him, immobilized, as he swiftly, expertly, disappears into the rain forest.
Here is the moment, the precise point in time, that will define who she is. The moment of irreconcilability, when she must pick up her own billum bag, fill her own water bottle—hopelessly reeking of kerosene—and follow Tobo into the dim greenery. There seems to be nothing left behind her and, quite possibly, nothing waiting ahead. Her ex-boyfriend, Seb, used to tell her that every foolish choice a person makes is an attempt, however misguided, to find happiness.
Marika knows she could still go back. Tobo would gladly return her to civilization. He might even take her as far as the Sepik River, if she asked. Though Seb would consider that the “sensible” thing to do, he also knew the trademark stubbornness of her character that listens to no reason, heeds no warnings. It is the part of her that, ironically, Robert Lewis would have admired.
© 2008 Kira Salak, KiraSalak.com--all rights of reproduction in any form reserved