June 18, 2012 § 4 Comments
Today we offer you our third place winner. Tomorrow second place. Thanks to all who entered.
PAUL LIT THE EXTINGUISHER
By Liz Granger
Paul said this would happen. “Within two years.” He said that the messenger bird had called from his front yard last week. “Something was coming” for him.
Across the windswept family compound, people kneel in patches and cry. It’s cooler than I expected, this land. I look across the valley: I scan shoulder-to-shoulder and see only grass.
In which of these huts did his grandmother lock away the groundnuts for special occasions? In which hut did they rub him with goat dung, to keep the spirits away?
Who do these people think I am? Me and my white friend. It’s just us.
Someone fetches us. “Do you want to see him?” We follow this stranger across the dusty compound. We bow our heads into a round hut, cool like the inside of land. Cool like a body. Inside a few women guarded their name. An upturned globe of sorghum hung from the ceiling, drying.
The floor was knitted with elephant grass mats. Paul’s ex-wife kneeled in her yellow gomesi. She swayed with isolation. She touched her forehead to the mat. She grabbed our hands. “Do you want to see him?” she asked.
On the left, his box.
On the box, his graduation photo. I had asked about it two weeks ago, from his flat at Semuliki Wildlife Reserve. It hung above the peg strip, where he draped his field uniform and his nylon poncho. From his cot we watched that costumed portrait. We lay like two matchsticks in an empty case.
“Stay, gal,” he had said.
But I had work in Kampala, and family in America, and I couldn’t be dripping paraffin onto the furniture forever. Paul lit the room with candles. He stuck a candle to the fire extinguisher.
“We could tend a small farm,” he said. “We could export beer to South Sudan.”
Crews worked the narrow road to Paul’s house. At the choke point above his green valley in western Uganda, the vehicles (coming and going) waited in-a-line for the route staff to relocate the debris from its excavation – to clear the path, stone by stone. Half of my life could be this road I thought.
That visit, I scrubbed our tomatoes with a loofah gourd out back at the spigot, and the henna on my nails matched the secret fruit – that everyone thinks is a vegetable. Squatting back there, “the African way,” I thought what sacrifice is this?
I practiced local, flat-backed mopping, bent at the hip, pushing my rag over the glazed cement with both hands, like an angle, like a smooth sail across the floor. And one week later, Paul boarded his goddamn motorcycle and skidded across the rocks in the road.
That guy’s, Paul’s, head was “flattened like chapatti,” the stranger had said across the phone.
So my friend and I traveled to his village to say goodbye. And here, in his childhood hut, here is his ex-wife holding his graduation photo. The underbelly of my pain is gratitude.
I can’t tell you what the messenger bird called: the decision has been made.
Liz Granger freelances from Chicago. After a year of reporting on sanitary napkins in Uganda, she’s currently immersing herself in picnics, groundcherries, and Mysore.