I opened Alice's envelope almost six months after it arrived.
It was smudged and crumpled, worn from its journey between her and me, half a world away. I kept it in the top drawer of my dresser because that was the drawer I seldom opened. There was a box of my mother's last leftover paperwork, her death certificate and the police report in a manilla envelope, shoved way into the back. A black velvet tray with my grandmother's jewelry, none of it nearly as expensive as what I'd received from Jasper over the years, but important nonetheless. The lingerie I'd worn underneath my wedding dress was folded in tissue paper along with the picture of Jasper and I, standing on the steps of City Hall, newly wed. Our marriage certificate from the entryway, which came down the day Jasper officially moved out, was folded carefully up beside them. I only went into the drawer to retrieve the deed to the house, the one on which Jasper had scrawled his name, signing it over to me. When my fingers brushed against the newest addition to my sort- of- forbidden collection, I couldn't help but poed at freshly healed wounds.
It had been almost a year since she left. A year since my marriage dissolved like sugar into warm water and a year since Edward became my hummingbird, flitting around my head in search of sweetness. A year of redefinition and something that felt nearly like redemption.
The glue cracked off in my hands when I pried open the envelope. Her letter wasn't even a letter, only a few pages torn from that pretty patterned journal she'd carried around with her. The first page was an entry from nearly five years ago, stuttered and disjointed as though she'd only written thoughts down when she had a moment to and put it away for later, the second written just before we all flew to that island.
I had half an hour before Edward was due home, and I don't know why I ever thought that would be enough time.
Asela, Ethiopia, 2009
He got here two days ago and he's already sick. What the fuck am I going to tell his parents?
It's malaria. Fuck fuck FUCK. He TOLD me he got his shots. PROMISED me, the lying fucking bastard. Part of me wants to just smother him with his pillow but he has fucking malaria and what does that say about me? Even when he's sick as fuck, he's still beautiful.
I can't believe how bad he's gotten, and so fast. We barely had a chance to say hello before it took him. He's been tossing and turning like he's trying to run somewhere. He has a new tattoo, a giant piano on his side but he's not even with it enough for me to ask him about it.
Why is he so fucking stubborn? He's fighting it with everything he has, a normal person would have just let go already. He's clinging on and it's not that I want him to die, it's that I can't stand to watch him suffer. He's been boiling hot for so long that I'm sure his insides have melted and I'm seriously starting to worry about brain damage. The fever is too strong for him.
I'm worried it might be too strong for me too.
It's been eight days and I haven't slept. I'm terrified that the moment I do will be the moment he chooses to let go.
How long do you wait before you put someone out of their misery? Isn't that just like murder? Is just thinking about it bad enough? I'm such a terrible person, but he reeks of death. He has one foot through that door already and a horrible part of me wants to just give him one final shove to get him through.
He can't even cry anymore, there's no water left in him. I do all the crying for us.
Everything I learned in med school is a lie, or useless.
I lay in his bed with him today. I don't give a fuck if I get it. I spent all afternoon watching the sun move across our legs and listening to his heartbeat. It's slow, but it's strong. When I finally got up to start a fire, his eyes were open and he was watching me, but he was hallucinating . . . which is always the final stage and I went outside to cry this time, in case he could see it.
He called me an angel. Asked me to put my halo back on.
He won't let go. Jesus christ, please just let go.
The fever broke this morning, but he's not conscious.
I'm afraid that the guy I knew left days ago and I missed it. That the fever has damaged him beyond repair. I have the same twelve lines of Bukowski stuck in my head and if he comes out of this intact, I swear I'll get it tattooed on my ribs.
He woke up today. Told me that I looked terrible. Asked for food and a shot of something strong.
Thank fucking god.
Madama, Niger, 2013
I lost Jubilee tonight. I lost Dayo.
I lost Edward.
His face, when she finally slipped away . . . I'll never forget his face. He was so angry with me, I've never seen him so mad and he was terrifying. He flipped the table and overturned the cot and then left me there with her in my lap, still warm but not breathing and her heart so silent I couldn't hear anything he yelled. He called me an idealist and a daydreamer. Accused me of pandering with death, of being the demon the locals all thought I was. Condemned me for forcing him to stand by and watch.
He'll never forgive me.
He told me not to do it. Told me to get her hydrated before we tried anything and he's always accused me of being too stubborn. All I did was prove him right. All I did was kill a beautiful, happy little girl because I wanted to be part of her family so bad. I thought that if I saved her they way they were used to, I'd finally be accepted. That they'd stop thinking of me as a witch.
Now, I'm worse than that.
I can hear them, the village, and I know they're coming for me, but I don't want to leave. I want them to burn me. I want them to cut me open and destroy me so that I'll only ever be here. I don't want to exist as another person, pretending that this part of me never happened so that no one will ever see me again without knowing what I did.
I want it inked into my skin. I want it gouged into my bones. I want it scarred into my face.
I cried for ten minutes before I could bring myself to breathe.
There were two photographs in the envelope.
Alice and her tall, dark prince. Him scarred around the face and her sort of scarred everywhere else, standing in the brown grass with a big blue open sky behind them. She was in a piece of thin black fabric that wrapped around her body and trailed out behind her, face freshly scarred in a delicate tribal pattern around her eyes, her hair adorned with an elaborate headdress of golden chains that hung down around her cheeks. A million beaded necklaces looped around her neck and her arms were full to the elbows with bracelets. Dayo was naked except for a draped cloth around his waist, his night- sky skin painted with a milky way of white stars and his brilliant white smile . . . oh, his smile . . . made my heart ache and sing for her.
The other photo made my heart stop completely.
It was shot low to the ground, through the grass, capturing a hollow spot made by a giant lion. Its fur was the same tawny color of the grass, sleeping peacefully with a frantic mane of hair haloing its face and a tattooed boy sprawled up against him, sleeping just as soundly.
With hair to match.
Alice's familiar handwriting etched across the back:
I hope you know that I love you. And him. I hope you love me too.
I tucked the photo of Alice back into her letter, back into the envelope and back into the drawer I never opened. The photograph of Edward and his lion was going to hang in the front hallway, in that empty space my marriage certificate had left behind.
Hadley Hemingway is the flower to my honeybee. This story would not have been possible without her. I cannot even begin to express the amount of knowledge and empathy and hand holding she did during the final phases of this story. She held me together, held us all together, and I am forever grateful.
As for me? I'm a Peace Corps baby. My parents met and fell in love in the Sahara desert, and I can still hear it singing to me in my sleep. There is so much of me in this story, I still don't know where to draw the line.
Rest Your Head - The Good Life
Simple Math - Manchester Orchestra
The Other Way - Weezer
Skyscrapers - Ok Go
Tiny Vessels - Death Cab For Cutie
The Con - Tegan and Sara
Beat Your Heart Out - The Distillers
WTF - Ok Go
Stay Don't Go - Spoon
Albums I burned a hole through while writing this:
You Can Play These Songs With Chords - Death Cab For Cutie
( ) - Sigur Rós
Help Wanted Nights - The Good Life
Gimme Fiction - Spoon
I'm Having Fun Now - Jenny And Johnny
The Blue Colour Of The Sky - Ok Go
A little bit of Africa:
Kissi Pennies or 'Money with a Soul'
At the end of the 19th century, the so- called 'Kissi money' or 'Kissi penny' was introduced by the Kissi, Loma and Bandi peoples living in the border regions of nowadays Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. Its characteristic form is a twisted rod of iron with flattened ends: a flat, hoe- like spatula at one end and a sharpened 'T' at the other. Its length varies from 9 to over 15 inches, the longer ones representing a higher value. Larger 'denominations' also were created by
twisting several pieces together or bundling them and securing them with a cotton or leather strip. After being replaced by Western currencies, the use of Kissi money became virtually limited to ritual ceremonies, such as on the occasion of the return of young men and women from the bush schools or for sacrifices and divination ceremonies. It also serves for making
protective fetishes and to decorate the graves of old warriors. Still many people believe the old money to possess magical powers.
Hence, according to many tribal Liberians, the Kissi money still is 'money with a soul'.
Native to southern Africa, Devil's Claw (Harpagophytum procumbens) gets its name from the tiny hooks that cover its fruit. Historically, devil's claw has been used to treat pain, liver and kidney problems, fever, and malaria. It has also been used in ointments applied to the skin to heal sores, boils, and other skin problems. Devil's claw was introduced to Europe in the early 1900s, where the dried roots have been used to restore appetite, relieve heartburn, and reduce pain and inflammation. Use with caution. High dosages have been known to be lethal.
Facial/ Body Scarification
The process of African scarification involved puncturing 'or cutting' patterns and motifs into the epidermis of the skin. Different tools produced different types of scars, some subtle, others profound. Ash and certain organic saps might be added to a wound to make the scarring more
prominent and or embellished. In Africa, scarification served as a symbol of strength, fortitude and courage in both men and women. Scars were used to enhance beauty and society's admiration. Though scarification effects were highly valued, the procedure was slow and painful.
Beautiful and complex designs depended not only on the artist's skill, but also the person's
tolerance of pain. A woman's eagerness to tolerate pain was an indication of her emotional maturity and willingness to bear children. Often the first scars a young woman received were those on her abdomen, emphasizing the role of childbearing. Designs were added from youth
and continued through adulthood. Body and facial patterns made it possible to identity one tribal grouping from another.
Tea is huge in north Africa, too, where it has assumed a social significance that makes the English habit of taking tea at four o'clock look positively blasé. The north African tea ceremony is well known to be the oil in the cogs of commerce from Morocco to Egypt;; it spread along with the
Sahara's nomadic tribes from the Berbers in the northwest to the Tuareg in the Sahara, and if you ever try to buy a carpet in a carpet shop or a pair of slippers in a souq, you'll be offered tea.
It's an unavoidable part of life in desert Africa.