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Authors: Tania James

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BOOK: Aerogrammes
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Inside, the arena smells unpleasantly of wet wool. Mr. Benjamin keeps twisting around in his seat to take in the hundreds of spectators. “Sold out,” he enunciates to Imam, turning his hands upward. “No more tickets. None!”

Imam says, “Yes, splendid,” unable to remove his gaze from Zbyszko. He stands in the opposite corner of the ring, twisting his torso from side to side. He seems larger than in his pictures, his head so prominent and bald that his ears are reduced to small, pink cups. In the ring, Gama does one
bethak
after another, taking no notice of his opponent.

Finished with
bethaks
, Gama turns his back on Zbyszko and jogs in place, opening and closing his hands. Imam realizes that he is warming up more than usual, as if to keep his mind occupied. The day before, Gama looked up from his
chicken broth and said, “I heard he once squeezed a man unconscious.”

Imam dismissed this as nonsense, but they said nothing else for several minutes, picturing Zbyszko and his victim, limp as a pelt at his feet.

The bell clangs. Gama lunges, felling Zbyszko with a neat foot hook. He clamps Zbyszko with a half nelson, flings him over, and pins his shoulder to the mat. Zbyszko keeps his other shoulder raised as long as he can, quivering. Imam leans forward, wills the other shoulder to kiss the mat.

But now, a shock: Zbyszko wriggles out of Gama’s clutch.

Zbyszko then deploys a move so bizarre that Imam thinks it a practical joke. Without warning, Zbyszko falls to the mat on all fours. Like a farm animal.

Gama tries to push him over or pull him up by the waist, but Zbyszko bears down, muttering as if to brace himself against the hurled curses of the spectators. He will not move. Gama tries the wrist lock, the quarter nelson—every hold he can imagine—but Zbyszko will not be thrown; nor will he attempt a throw.

A tiresome hour passes, for the most part, in deadlock. People bark, pitch insults and peanut hulls, cursing Zybszko more than Gama, though neither is spared. Imam sits with his hand propped against his mouth, speechless. Even if he could be heard over the din, he wouldn’t know what to say.

At one point Gama’s hands fall to his sides. He looks helplessly at Imam, who shakes his head.

A crumpled wad of newspaper bounces off Zbyszko’s rounded back. Spectators thunder to the exits. The match is eventually stopped, and it is decided that both parties will wrestle again the following Saturday.


Imam opens the door to Gama’s bedroom. In all the weeks they have been staying in this house, he has never seen his brother’s room until now, the day before they are leaving. He enters to find a vast bed, Gama’s suitcase lying open upon it. On the nightstand is a glass of water, a few yellow wildflowers wilting over the rim. Imam stares at the sullen blooms, unable to imagine his brother bending to pick them.

Gama gets up suddenly from the window seat, as if caught in a private moment. He asks if Imam has packed.

“I was helping Ahmed,” Imam says. “His is the heaviest trunk.” The cook brought an endless supply of ghee and almonds, not knowing when they would return.

Imam runs a hand over the oak footboard and peers into the suitcase. Among the clothing, Gama has nested a trio of paper-wrapped soaps for their mother and a tin of Crawford’s biscuits in the shape of a barrel organ, with finely painted green wheels and a tiny monkey extending its hat. Mr. Benjamin procured the gifts for them. He has promised to send along their earnings once their bills are settled up, a promise that Gama doesn’t care enough about to question.

Wedged in between the gifts is the John Bull belt. Imam holds it up to his face. The leather is soft and pliant, the center plate broad and bordered in gold scrollwork. On the plate is a painting of a heavyset man wearing britches tucked into his boots and a black top hat. This, presumably, is John Bull, and peering from behind his ankles is a bulldog who shares his build. Englishmen and their dogs—Imam will never understand the attraction. There are a great many things he will never understand.

Gama was awarded the belt two days before, after showing up for the rematch only to learn that Zbyszko had fled the country. Gama won by forfeit. Only a handful of people clapped as Gama received the belt from the referee and raised
it limply over his head. He never even removed his turban and robe.

The next day, a journalist called the house, wanting a comment on Percy Woodmore’s recent opinion in
Health & Strength
, which stated that Gama “showed a surprising ignorance of strategy” in the match against Zbyszko. The journalist also referred to rumors, hinted at in Woodmore’s piece, that Zbyszko had secretly agreed to flee the country if Gama paid him a percentage of his winnings. The journalist said, “Hello?” several times before Imam set the phone back on its hook.

Imam replaces the belt and peers around it. “You forgot the newspapers,” he says. “Everyone will want to see them.”

Gama shakes his head. “There’s no room.” He shuts and buckles the suitcase. Imam moves to help him, but Gama has already hefted the box in both hands, and eases it onto the floor, next to his battered leather valise.

He smooths down the bedspread and, with his back to Imam, casually asks if the newspapers have said anything about the John Bull Tournament.

“Just the usual nonsense,” Imam says.

“But someone called yesterday. You looked upset.”

“Oh, what does it matter.” Imam squints through the window, as if the sky has claimed all his attention. He can feel his brother’s eyes on him. “We are going home.”

“You aren’t telling me something.” When Imam doesn’t answer, Gama raises his voice. “I am not a child, Imam.”

Imam turns to face his brother, who stands rigid with irritation. “Some are saying that you paid Zbyszko to run away. They say that’s how you got the belt.”

Gama blinks as this news crashes over him. He takes a step back, his hand fumbling for the edge of the bed before he sits.
He has never looked more like a child, Imam thinks, even when he was a child.

“But who …,” Gama begins, then drops his gaze to the floor and does not speak for a long time.

“It’s just a rumor,” Imam says quickly. “A stupid rumor. Back home, you are a hero.” He tells of the telegram that just arrived from Mishra, reporting the top headline from
The Times of India:
GAMA THE GREATEST—INDIA WINS WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP
.

Gama gives a weak smile. “Is that what they’ve decided.”

“You have the belt to prove it,” Imam says. For a long moment, Gama looks over his shoulder at the suitcase but does not go near it. “It’s true—”

“No,
chotu
. I am just a pawn.”

He says this so softly he could be talking to himself, if not for that one tender word, which Imam has not heard from him in years. It is as if they are eight and twelve again, and Gama has set him apart from everyone else
—chotu
. Imam feels himself rising to the word. Inglorious as it is, this is something that for once only he can be. Only he knows to say nothing, to rest his hand at the back of his brother’s neck, to let his grip say everything, or simply:
Not to me
.

What to Do with Henry
• • •

Saffa couldn’t tell how long the chimpanzee had been hanging by its ankle from the
ndokuwuli
tree. There was a frailty to the thing, suspended but still. The chimpanzee had to be female, judging by the baby huddled directly beneath her, squeaking hoarsely and baring its teeth. Of baby chimpanzees, he had heard that they never left their mothers, dead or alive or hanging by a single limb.

The trap had been set by Saffa’s uncle, who owned the surrounding papaya trees and was fed up with marauding monkeys. He had sent Saffa to check the traps that morning, and at the time, Saffa was pleased to be dispatched on what he considered a man’s errand. He was seventeen, and when his father’s friends came by the house, they still sent him to the kiosk to bring them back cold drinks, as though he were a boy. If only he were on his bicycle right now, rather than here, a rack of bottled beers clinking in his wire basket.

Saffa glanced at the long, curled toes. According to the paramount chief, he wasn’t supposed to set eyes on a dead
chimpanzee, let alone kill it; the chimpanzee was a sacred animal, like the leopard and the bush cow, off-limits to hunters and farmers. But now what? He might have turned away and headed home and made himself forget everything were it not for the baby.

Saffa gathered the baby into his large, awkward hands, its terror reverberating through his palms. Its head was smaller than a mango, and its eyes were liquid and searching. He felt sorry for the orphaned thing, but ah!—a flash of hope. He knew exactly what to do with it.

He took the baby chimp to Nguebu Market. Sometimes Peace Corps people drifted through the market, their gazes casting about for souvenirs; they were known to pay high prices for baby chimps, which they liked to keep as pets. The Peace Corps people were built of a mystifying courage that made them unafraid of the animals those babies would become one day, wild and possessed of the strength of five men.

Saffa set up a stool beside the other vendors who lined Mahei Boima Road, which was so choked with commerce that hardly a bicycle could pass. People forged their way through on foot: a woman with a plate of pineapple on her head, a boy with a tower of twelve plastic buckets balanced on his own. Saffa put the baby in a cardboard box and waited. He tried to appear cool against the questioning eyes of the vendors, tried to ignore the mewling sound that the baby had begun to make. He fixed a careless gaze on the rice seller across from him, whose own baby straddled her back within a red wrap, perhaps the same placid position in which the baby chimp had been before its mother took one wrong step and flew into the sky.


A half hour later, a pair of tourists made their way down the road, a white woman behind sunglasses and a golden little girl in a frothy Western dress, with the dark braids of a local. The little girl held the white woman’s hand and trailed behind. He watched their twined fingers, the dark and light of them.

The white woman stopped before the cardboard box. In her, Saffa saw the yawning unhappiness of rich people, a kind of boredom with life that had brought her here, along with so many other tourists, to give color to her life. But Saffa did not fawn and pander like the handicraft people when they dealt with tourists. He remained on the stool, pinching the calluses at the base of his fingers.

When the white woman peered into the box, the baby chimp raised its hands to her. Saffa said, “He want you to carry him.”

The woman glanced at Saffa, obviously surprised that he knew English. She had no idea that he had been the smartest of his form-five class, that he had taught himself English from movies. He spoke a few words of Krio to the little girl, which made her smile. Somewhat relaxed, the woman picked up the baby chimp, and it sat quietly in the crook of her arm.

He could see how human the chimp looked to the white woman. The color of its face was nearly as pink as her own, though most likely its skin would later darken like its mother’s. Saffa did not mention the mother. He said that he had found the baby in a forest, abandoned.

Not only did Saffa know English words; he also knew English numbers, and refused to go below thirty-five dollars for the chimp. After paying him, the white woman removed the shawl from her shoulders and wrapped the baby inside it, oblivious to those who stared at her. She took the little girl
by the hand, and together they made their way through the crowd. Saffa watched this strange little trio, pleased by the sale and yet reluctant to look away, curious as to what would become of them.

• • •

The woman who bought the chimpanzee was named Pearl Groves, and she was no idiot. She could smell the lies rolling off that poacher as strongly as his sweat, a nose for deceit that she’d acquired much too late in her marriage.

Pearl’s husband was a noted herpetologist who had visited western Cameroon in 1969 to research the Hairy Frog,
Trichobatrachus robustus
, whose males were not in fact hairy but covered with tiny, cilia-like extensions of skin, allowing them more surface area through which to breathe. His love affair with the Hairy Frog had lasted for months, permeating their breakfast conversation and even surfacing, embarrassingly, at some dinner parties. Pearl found it hard to be inquisitive on the subject. She had never shared her husband’s love for amphibians but contented herself with the idea that their marriage was like a frozen dinner, compartmentalized but complementary.

Six years after her husband ended his research trips, a letter followed. Pearl was gentle with the paper, torn along one corner, as fragile and baffling as a salvaged treasure map. The letter was written by an NGO worker in Sierra Leone, on behalf of an old woman whose daughter had died of malaria, leaving her with a granddaughter whose education and care she could not shoulder. Along with the letter came a small black-and-white photograph of a child with the eyes and dimples and mouth of Pearl’s husband. On the back of the photograph was written:
Neneh, daughter of Mr. Groves
.

Pearl was sixty years old, a retired schoolteacher who had never wanted children. Neither had her husband. People assumed that this was because Pearl considered her students her children, a pleasant lie to which she sometimes resorted, but in reality, she couldn’t see how children fit into the frozen dinner of her marriage. And as far as an extramarital affair was concerned, she had presumed that her husband had passed the window of foolish opportunity. A part of her eyed him with wonder, searching for the rogue within, the simmering of lust. But at sixty-four, he had a belly that sagged over his belt; he mumbled nonsense in his sleep. Sometimes, if he was especially riveted by
The $10,000 Pyramid
while brushing his teeth, he would continue to brush, like a machine, until the foam streamed down his chin as he yelled, “Things that bite! THINGS THAT BITE!” And now, reading and rereading the letter, she kept wondering if it all would have been different had she just gone to Cameroon with her husband, had she just pretended to love those disgusting frogs.

BOOK: Aerogrammes
3.22Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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