By Sarah J Hart
We lived on a bluff overlooking the Epulu River. From the back side of the compound one could see the expanse of it – wide and silvery, cut with brown. As it flowed west, water and sky drew together, like two fingers of the same hand, pressing between them the thick rope of forest that was the far bank.
In the rainy season the water rose and the river was swift, quiet, and dark. It was cold then as well, and the edges slurry with sticks and leaves. If we bathed in it at all we did so gingerly, not venturing past the eddying shelter at base of the Mbau tree. Just beyond, the bottom dropped off abruptly and the river closed muscular arms around anything that slipped in too far. We’d all heard stories of those who had not escaped.
But in the dry season, the river was irresistible. It threaded between the rocks that broke through the surface, and sparkled and danced and filled the air with an insistent whisper. In the heat of the afternoons the parcel would empty of people and we would go down to the river to play. Even after I had taken to hiding, even then, the river still drew me.
The reason I hid – disappearing to the room I shared with my sister and reading for long hours – is that it had all become so very awkward. I was no longer comfortable in Congo. An unrelenting self-consciousness and combination of shame and resentment burdened me and I could no more escape it than I could the pallor of my skin. It was worst with the BaMbuti, especially those who had known me since I was a baby, and those I called my friends. Now, at the frayed end of childhood, our differences asserted themselves as clearly as the contours of a body under thin clothes.
For one, I had grown so big. I towered over the other children and was already eye-to-eye with the men. Some of that was genetic. The BaMbuti are tiny people, and I came from sturdy Germanic stock; the bones of my arms were bigger than those of their thighs. But it was also because I was well-fed. There had been a time when I ate with the other kids – gathered with them around the pot the women would leave for us in the kitchen, scooping food up with our fingers, squabbling over bits of meat if there were any, and accusing one another of taking more than was fair. Then, gradually, it happened that I could think only of how many of us there were and how limited the contents of that one pot. My parents and their guests ate at a table in the baraza. I was welcome to join them; my friends were not. So now, three times a day, I slunk away and ate platefuls. My friends never mentioned it, which of course increased the strain.
Also, I’d become clumsy and slow. Our games included chores now – gathering wood, washing clothes, fetching water – the stuff of adulthood for young women in rural Congo. My friends became skilled and graceful; I did not. They could balance pots of water on their heads without using their hands, only their necks moving, subtly adjusting to the shifting weight in a sort of sinuous dance. When I carried water I gripped the pot with both hands and even so water splashed out in sheets. My friends could pound manioc two people at the same mortar and keep in perfect harmony. I was prone to misaiming, often slamming the pestle onto the edge and once knocking the whole thing over, wasting the white flour into the dirt.
In the forest our differences were even more conspicuous. Where the BaMbuti were sure-footed, flickering across the ground and through the understory as fluidly as sunlight, I tripped. When they sang, I choked on silence. When they danced, I sat still, feeling thick. Men had started to watch my friends. This was mostly awful, hinting at dark things, but it was also another reminder of our diverging lives. I knew that if I ventured into the dance I would be watched too, but not at all in the same way. I longed, at least, also to be mocked. Teasing would have included me as an equal. Instead, my blunders elicited polite silence and averted eyes, as searing as a spotlight.
But in the river, there was reprieve. There, I felt neither at a physical disadvantage nor guilty of undeserved privilege.
My sister and I knew how to swim. Our BaMbuti friends did not. The BaMbuti approached the river with caution, no matter the season, because the river was a place of crocodiles, water snakes, and the wicked spirits called chetani. When we played in the river we often pretended that I was the crocodile or the chetani. I would lurk underwater and grab at ankles. Sometimes I’d pull my victims just a little bit into the deep part, where the current started to tug. They would scream, and scramble away from me. I would pretend to lose my grip, and they would make it back to safety.
Just above our swimming hole there was a rock shelf that extended out to middle of the river. In the dry season the water was so low that even in the deepest parts it came only to my chest. It was possible to make ones way up and out along the shelf to a series of rock islands in the middle of the river. I had been out several times. It was difficult going – one had to search for every step, lean against the current, and maneuver over slick rocks. The challenge is what made it fun and in the end one emerged, triumphant, on the hot stones.
One sun-saturated afternoon, when none of the usual games appealed, I proposed that we all go out to the islands.
It was the height of the dry season and the water was like a warm embrace. At first, there was lots of hilarity. We were thrilled to be doing something new and a little bit dangerous. Mafoliki and Mado, the smallest in our group, were submerged to their shoulders. This made them buoyant and they kept losing their footing. But I trailed behind, bracing against the rocks, and propped them up until they could catch purchase again. We pushed on, and we made progress.
I was so absorbed in keeping track of both myself and of the bodies in front of me that for a long while I did not check our course. When finally I did, the soft wall of forest on the far bank looked surprisingly close. I could see distinctly the silkiness of the new Mbau leaves. We were near the middle of river, but the rock islands were still far upstream. Clearly, we had moved more sideways than forward. The current out here was very strong, and the edge of the rock shelf was close at our heels.
I think it was Lotina who went down first. Poor Lotina. She had an extended belly and her sparse hair was orange from what I’d been told was malnutrition. Her father, Pita, had a bad stutter. But Lotina had golden skin and a way of looking up from under drawn brows that was both knowing and vulnerable. There was something alluring about Lotina, and even then the boys could not leave her alone.
I saw her head disappear and I followed, catching her by the arm before she passed me. But as I hauled her up and pushed her forward, I felt another body slide past me. That was Mafoliki. Mafoliki had a secure place among my sister’s closest friends. Her father had worked with my mother on botanical research and when he died and Mafoliki’s mother left abruptly, it was understood that Mafoliki would not go wanting. Despite that there was something chronically needy about Mafoliki. She was raised by her grandmother and great grandmother – one of whom was a leper and the other brooding, prone to fury. Mafoliki had been raised on charity. She was quick to aggression and had a tendency to grip hard onto any advantage.
I turned and grabbed Mafoliki and pushed her up onto the ledge. Water streamed from her face, catching in her eyelashes. Her eyes and her mouth were wide open and she was mute for a spilt-second before she gasped.
I don’t know how many more bodies I pulled from the river’s hold. It felt like a dozen but was maybe only two, or three. I shoved them forward and the three other strong ones in our group – my sister Bekah, Tubaba, who was Mbuti but older than I was, and my sister’s best friend, Amboko, who was only half Mbuti – then clung to them until they found a safe foothold. But we had lost ground. I felt my foot slip at the edge of the rock shelf, and the emptiness behind it. A body moved past me. Perhaps it was Mafoliki again. Or perhaps Lotina, or Mado. I could not tell. It moved past me, and over the ledge.
To save this body meant that I’d have to go over the edge completely. I’d have to relinquish my grasp on solid stone and in the chasm of water find this small body spinning away. I’d have to hold on to it, and then somehow swim back. If I did not, this person would drown. And even so I might fail. I saw my life before me: someone who had let a child drown; someone who had caused another to die.
I plunged over the side, angling downward, my arms spread wide. I remember the nothingness below, and the inexorable sweep of the current. I remember my hand closing over an arm, and I remember kicking with more strength than I knew I had. I remember the touch of rock again below my foot, the ache in my shin, and scrabbling for a handhold. I remember pulling that body forward and others’ hands hauling it from me.
I dont remember how – my memory is blank in those next minutes – but somehow we managed to back out of that channel where the current was so intense. We inched our way along the shelf back toward shore, to where the river was just a languid swirl. We waded out and climbed onto the bank. In the sunshine, on the other side of the bamboo screen that shielded the swimming hole from view, we sat on the ground and for some time we were quiet.
A few weeks later I went downstream by myself. This was a first. I’d never gone downstream before because the fear that I’d not be able to make my way back up was ingrained in my mind. Downstream, if one was swept away, that was it.
But on that afternoon I surrendered to the river and let it take me. And, as it turned out, there was another shallow area, a shelf of rock, not so far from our swimming hole. I bumped and glided along it, all my attention devoted to being soft at point of contact with stone. I folded, rolled, and slid, merging as completely as I could with the flow of the water..
At one point I stopped and I hung on to the stone I’d just slipped over. The river flooded over me. It poured over my body, flowed through my hair, streamed across my face. That night, lying in bed under the mosquito net next to my sister, I closed my eyes and the physical sensation of the river swooshed over me again, as vividly as if I was still in it.
Soon after this, I left home. I left the parcel that was like an island in the forest, left the small town where I’d lived so uneasily, left the BaMbuti who had shaped my life. I left Congo, and came to the United States for boarding school. I was so eager to leave – so eager to let go, and swim free into open water.