Guest contributor: Thierry Kauffmann
categories: Cocktail Hour / Getting Outside
Claire and I made a tree with banana leaves. It stood in the middle of our hot living room. We could have asked for air conditioning– French speaking teachers were in demand, and we could have asked anything. Except snow. Although it was Christmas Eve, it wasn’t even raining outside our adobe house, lost in the jungle of Southern Cameroon. Ubiquitous, impenetrable, the jungle was like an ocean. It covered half the country. We heard it ended two hundred miles north. The next morning, we loaded the car and headed toward Douala, a major city on the Atlantic coast.
The road was leading to a bridge on the Lokundje river, in the southern region of Cameroon. It was the only road cutting through the jungle to reach the Atlantic coast at Kribi, a small port south of Douala. Shortly before we reached the bridge, at the entrance of Lolodorf, a dozen cars stood on the side of the road, their engines turned off. We pulled over and walked toward the bridge, slowly realizing that it was cut in two. Three hundred feet below, the remains of a car lay on the other side of the river.
Workers were lying rails on wood beams and fastening them with nails the size of baseball bats. I asked the crew if I could help. They looked at my arms. “You’ve done this before?” I shook my head. “Here, put these nails every ten feet along the rail in their anchor. Then let the man do his job.”
The foreman studied me. He wasn’t used to whites proposing their help. “You’re not with the other white folks.” He said.
I shook my head.
He said, “They think if they come near us, they become ill.”
I tried a joke: “They’re afraid they’ll become black.”
There was a pause. The foreman didn’t know how to take it.
I dug myself in deeper: “Which would be going back to their roots, for we were all Africans millions of years ago.”
The foreman kept silent. He pointed to a man listening to our conversation from a distance.
“Jean-Baptiste here, he’s my assistant. He can read the soul of people. He is wiser than his age.” The foreman and his assistant exchanged a few words in their native language.
“Jean-Baptiste says he has a message for you. He says you are a prophet. This is your gift. People await your blessing but you must not die. He says that is very important, you are not a messiah.”
The foreman looked at his assistant and motioned him to join us. “Remember, you cannot speak directly to him about this. He did this as good will. You must do something too.”
The assistant joined us and we started to talk. His calloused hands became animated as we began talking about his village, then mine. He had never been to France. I asked if I could write to him and send him pictures. He began reciting names, Milly, Giverny, Fontainebleau, Flaubert, Montaigne. His voice leaned on syllables, making them sing. Under his tongue words assembled in a slow melopee, a litany for a distant soil he might never know.
The people in the cars were watching the scene from a distance. The foreman walked to them, said, “You are waiting for the bridge to be repaired, or you can join us and give us a hand. Joseph Ngamba here walked all morning to attend the funeral of his grandson, Auguste. He needs our help. He says the soul of his grandson is still there, in the car, but not for long. He says he will pray for all those who help rebuild the bridge.” A number of others stepped forward. For hours, we labored in the heat. Hammers were raised and lowered in unison, tying steel and rosewood, until the last nail was in. Then the foreman walked with Joseph on the new born bridge, followed by the slow procession of cars.
Claire and I took with us two soldiers who were hitch-hiking, for the journey was long. We felt their presence could smooth things in the villages and unknown roads. Around us, the jungle, thick, impenetrable, loud, progressively made way for the savanna. We now could see miles away in all directions. The heat was dry, almost bearable.
One of the soldiers said: “When we go home, we hide our weapons. Because of the children. That’s all they want to see. They think we kill enemies all day long. That’s not at all who we are. We’re peaceful people. We just want to live and raise a family. We tell our children, a man with a gun, that’s not a soldier, that’s a thug. You want to know a soldier, look into his eyes. Look inside and you will see. Honor. Respect, honesty. If you don’t see that, leave.”
The terrain changed again. Hills, almost mountains, sparse vegetation, few trees, lush green was replaced with pale yellow. We traversed a few wildfires, slept in a reservation. The next morning we were at Kusseri, on the bridge leading into N’Djamena. We drove down a small hill, and arrived downtown. It wasn’t Paris, but it looked close enough. Still no snow, no Christmas trees, but the coffee felt familiar, an island of Frenchness away from home.
I hear music in my head, all the time. My thoughts are sound. This is how I comprehend the world, how I communicate with it, and hear its creed. While we sat and drank our coffee, I started hearing sounds from the nearby streets. Instead of the careless din of a city, the rich polyphony of voices that wakes us up in the morning, people spoke with restraint. The terrace where we sat, was empty. A silence fell, the silence that precedes an eclipse, or a duel. The war was over. But I could feel its presence, lingering murder. We were anxious to leave.
Without a word we hurried to our car, a Lada four wheel drive, cheap, Russian-made. We were going home. I kept my eyes on the road, trying to be invisible. One mile until the bridge to Kusseri and the border with Cameroon. I heard the screeching sound of a mass of steel grinding to a halt.
The man had said, Do not die.
The tank appeared on top of the hill, and turned abruptly, its driver surprised by the steep sharp curve. I remember his eyes, white, whiter than the sun, as the tank abruptly stopped. It was coming out from behind a small hill along the road leading into N’Djamena. Its driver was caught unprepared by the steepness of the slope, and in his haste, he had not told his partner, sitting in the cupola, to aim at us. I just drove, keeping the opposite direction on the red dirt road, which was plowed with crevices from the last rain season. The tank men were communicating, I knew, because the tank began to pivot, and its gun was now facing Claire and me in the Lada.
I knew if I stopped, I would die. I had seen this in his eyes: murder, rage, fear. I was unarmed, and of course so was Claire, nothing more threatening than a math teacher. There were houses behind us. Nothing would remain if he pulled the trigger. I kept driving to disengage, show him his mistake. Surely if I kept driving, he would give up. Instead, the unthinkable was happening.
I saw the cannon turn and follow us. Instantly everything around me became loud. I heard crickets move like rocks. Inside me, was chaos. Like a stalled engine, time moved by spurts. Each second asked the question “Are you alive?” and the same answer rushed out of my silent lungs, the same scream. I was re-created, forged out of melting iron, brought back to life, a spark under the hammer of a tireless blacksmith.
“Light takes an infinite amount of time to come out of a black hole.” Roger Penrose explained, drawing a diagram on his napkin. We were seated on the steps of the Palazzio Vechio in Firenze, outside the main hall where the conference on gravitation was taking place. “When you cross the horizon, when you get past that point, space and time are exchanged. The center of the black hole is no longer a place, it is a time, a future, your future. It is in that sense that your fate is unavoidable.”
Roger put his pen down. “But to anyone watching from a safe distance, you never crossed the horizon. They see you slowing down until you become motionless. Until the end of times, they see that image. They will never know you died, crushed by the tidal forces of the dark star.”
My eyes showed no fear, for this is what he was looking for. He needed to see fear in my eyes, so he could fire his weapon. My eyes showed no question, no doubt. All he could see was the surface of a lake, without ripples. In his world, I died, in mine, I lived.
He never ceased to watch and hold, hold his fire, hold his fear, or his desire to kill, his rage at being surprised, his incredulous acknowledgement that we, had become mirrors, twins, brothers of a doomed kind.
How we end, is the crucial question. How to break the cycle of fear, without blood. This is how life gets squeezed out of nothingness.
We were crossing on the same road. I could see the gunner trying to keep up with the widening angle between his tank and me. When we crossed, he looked stunned, powerless. For he knew his gun could not turn enough. He yelled at his driver, telling his men to come out. But it was too late. we were gone.
The sun was coming down on the savanna somewhere south of Kusseri when I pulled on the brake and stepped out of the car. I watched herons fly low above the reeds. The song of Yellow Sunbirds and Green-breasted Bush-Shrikes brought me back to life. In the blue light of the nascent sky, we lay on our backs and hugged the stars.