The bus began to load. Snow was drifted in the shade as the sun did its best to deteriorate the icy, hard packs. The station was full of African men in used English clothing and shiny shoes. They looked as if they were going to work at low-paid jobs in early 20th century London. The barrel-shaped women were smiling and talking and seemed like flowers in primary colors intent upon brightening the lives of children.
He was the only white person around and he worshiped everything he saw. For no good reason, he thought about the time he took off his shoes and pissed on an electric fence. In his mind, he saw the psilocybin mushrooms growing in the cow dung as he urinated on the thin wire. That feeling somehow tapped into another day, somewhere along a jungle border, when he bit into the husk of a cashew and felt the white gluey drops of poison touch his lips and dribble into his mouth. A witch murderess had told him about the cashew oil and he was curious. On both occasions he was internally transported to the front of a large desk where the face of an old man looked down at him. The gigantic face was sour and the pursed lips asked, “Why?” He had no answer, which made him just like everyone else. Humans were pirates and cannibals fated to destroy their own lives. The whole process was better than a monster movie, but considerably more painful. Someone once told him that he needed to be thankful for pain. It was apparently like god’s breath blowing down upon him and sometimes, should he wander into a church, the roof might collapsed and deliver shards of stained glass directly into his head. In that event, the pain was meant to make him happy and wise.
He picked up his back pack and walked toward the bus. He thought about the bus and how it was sometimes attacked by barefoot men with blankets around their bodies and rags covering their faces. Their perfected trick was to pile large rocks on the narrow mountain road and when the bus stopped, they came out from the boulders, waving old pistols and rusty machetes. They would quickly surround the bus and howl for either blood or money. One day they would all be killed by an ex-Rhodesian army engineer who ran a line of short tubes packed with cartridges all along the sides of the bus, about two feet below the bottom of the windows. The bullets were .40 caliber Smith and Wesson. The engineer placed the tubes in a line, close together, and fitted them into a ribbon of plastic mesh and electrical wiring soldered to the primers of each bullet casing. The tube openings were concealed on the outside of the bus by a length of metal trim that was curved. A switch was mounted on the dashboard and when the highwaymen circled the bus, the driver flipped the switch and an electrical current ignited the primers: all at the same time. Everyone standing along the sides of the bus, with their misplaced expectations and angry faces, was cut almost in half as if a butcher from a mystical slaughterhouse had come to render his fair share of meat. But those kinds of details were still developing in the subatomic strata of the bus and unknown to the man as he boarded. There was no buzz saw built into the paneling and instead he took a seat next to a nun and turned his head to smile at the twenty or so other passengers traveling to the Catholic mission hospital.
He was taking a chance by heading into the mountains. Not because of the cut-throats and thieves, but rather the girl who was living at the mission. He was going uninvited. There was something about the way she acted when they passed in a hallway or sat in a conference room. The air surrounding them seemed humid. The weather signs of her body said she wanted him to come see her and when he thought about it, the weather often acted as a sort of invitation to do something. The RSVP cards were high, low, wet, cold, or maybe hot enough to burn your skin. She carried two passports and was Taiwanese, born in California. One of her eyes was grey and the other pale green and when he looked at her he thought about the marble game of keepsies and how it was his first effort at gambling for something of value.
Her name was Jaqueline. Everything about her was precise and inlaid, as if her father and mother had pieced her together with expensive components from one of the ancient dynasties of China where young women sat around carving on elephant tusks, jade rock, and pieces of black coral from the Java Sea.
On the bus trip the nun told him of an easier way to reach the mission. Instead of going all the way to the next town and changing buses, he could simply get out on the roadside and walk an hour or two into the hills. That sounded much better to him and so about mid-afternoon he came to the valley that would take him to the mission. The bus stopped and he made his way down to the river. There were cattle and goats grazing on sparse grass and he could see the herd boys in the distance. The snow was in larger piles, but again the sun was hot and he could see the little rivulets of ex-snow twisting down the slope. He found a spot to cross where the water was not too deep and when he made the other side he stopped and took off his boots and dried in the sun. From a small stream that fed the river, he took a cold drink of water. Without a watch, he guessed it was about 5:00 o’clock by the way the light was slanting. He figured that with luck, he was only an hour from the mission, but he really didn’t know because he had never been there.
After a while, a herd boy and a dog passed him with three cows and maybe ten goats. They were going in the opposite direction. He asked the boy about the mission and he pointed up the side of a hill. It was an easy climb and after an hour or so, the man reached the top. Just as the nun said, there was the village and the mission hospital. Unfortunately, it was on the other side of a steep gorge. People were moving around their huts and children were playing in the trees just in front of the hospital. The only light in the sky was the red glow of the sundown and the fading green-blue of the sky. He thought about either spending the night in the rocks or going down and then back up along the face of the gorge. In his backpack were a change of clothes, two bottles of wine, and a few hunks of cheese. He didn’t have a sleeping bag or a flashlight. He balanced everything in his mind and decided to go on. The sound of the girl’s voice welcoming him into her room echoed in his mind and he imagined them eating the cheese and drinking the wine. Who knows, maybe she had some pot. He could feel her warm body next to his as they talked about how wonderful life was in Africa.
The opposite face wall looked to be about 500 feet tall, but first he had to get down to the base of the cliff. There was no trail, just a mass of boulders and rocks. The earth had done something violent here a million years ago. He felt a kind of exhilarating fear as he contemplated the positions of the rocks and how he might weave his way down and then up. It was as if he were painting a large mural of himself upon the face of the gorge wall.
By the time he reached the bottom it was dark and his breath had turned white from the decreasing temperature. The gibbous moon was just coming into view and slowly it filled the air with milky molecules and waves of thin cloth like the velvet capes of riders on black horses. There was no ambient light and the stars were bright enough to show him the way. He fell twice and cut his hands. There were night hunting king cobras around and he began to wonder if he was going to make it and then he started climbing. Some parts were steep and others were more like wide gaps in the earth where lava had flowed and there were hand holds of jagged rock and so he edged along and move upward. He stopped when he felt tired and he lost track of time. The stars seemed to be getting closer and the moon was wheeling away from him, enormous in the low southern sky. He could not tell where the top of the cliff was and then the moon disappeared in a rush of clouds and everything settled black. It started to mist. He actually welcomed the water and opened his mouth. His lips and tongue were burning and the mist partially quenched the fire. He took out his extra clothing and put it on. Fortunately he wore a water proof, high-tech jacket, yet he feared hypothermia and ran in place for a few moments. Visibility was almost nil and for the first time he imagined dying in the rocks. He could see the herd boys finding his body.
The almost total absence of light is something that few people every experience. There always seems to be ambient light from a computer or phone or light from the city that reaches into the countryside. We don’t rely upon the moon and stars so much anymore. We put our trust in flashlights and power grids. His mistake was now obvious as the clouds tightened above. He tried to adjust his eyes and he raised his hand directly in front of his face. He could just make out his palm and fingers, nothing more.
All of his concentration before had been upon the climb and seeing a way forward. Now he decided to shift his attention to his hearing. First there was the breathing and the heart, which combined into a sort of speedway. The rustling of his pack and jacket sounded as if someone was wadding up a cellophane wrapper. He kicked at a rock and heard it tumble and there was nothing pleasant about the gesture. Anger filled his mind, but then something else: he slowly began to recognize the occasional voice from above. He waited another lifetime and finally the clouds parted and the moon and stars returned. With sudden hope, he estimated he was only about 50 feet away from the ridge line. Unfortunately, it was almost sheer to the top. His cut hands hurt and he beat them against the face of the rock wall. For some reason causing pain often alleviated it. He recalled an old song about putting one foot in front of the other and slowly he began to climb. After a few minutes he came to a ledge and a vertical crack in the face of the gorge. Somewhere in the past, the mountain had shifted and left a fissure. It was like a three-sided chimney. The space was just big enough for him to become Santa Claus. He found jagged hand and foot holds. Slowly he began to lift himself toward the girl’s room. He could see white sheets on her bed, a pitcher of water on a table, and a wooden cross on the wall.
Time became a rock clock. With every inch he became weaker in the cold. His back was cramping and his arms felt numb. Finally, somewhere exceeding his ability to reason, he saw the edge of the gorge directly above his head. He threw his hands over the lip of the rock face and struggled to pull himself over the top. He was totally exhausted and rested for a few minutes and then began to crawl through a line of bushes. He found himself in a vegetable patch. There was a hut nearby and a woman sitting on a box in an open doorway smoking. She screamed when she saw him and he rolled over and closed his eyes.
When he opened them a man was standing over him. The man reached down and touched his shoulders. Another man came and they helped him to his feet. They wanted to know where he came from and how he had gotten into the vegetable garden. Was he a thief? Was he hungry?
Slowly they helped him to the mission hospital. He asked for Jaqueline and one of the nuns answered she was gone, but not to worry, they had a bed for him on one of the wards. They noticed his hands and told him he needed stitches. They woke the doctor and after his skin was closed they gave him a pain pill and the man fell into a bed beside a child with an ulcerated cheek.
In the morning they offered him a bath in a small tub. Afterward they gave him a warm breakfast. The sun was shining once again and he walked outside and down to a vast slope of grass that gently rolled toward the valley far below. He saw more snow-capped mountains in the distance. He thought about the night before and fell asleep. He woke to the honking of a land rover up on the road. He rose to a sitting position and saw the girl getting out of the vehicle and running down to where he rested. She had on a white down vest and black pants and yelled his name when she was halfway to him.
That night they made love after drinking the two bottles of wine, eating the cheese, and smoking a bowl of pot that she had stashed in her nightstand, the one with the pitcher of water. The sheets were starched white and the cross hung directly over the head of the bed. There was also a picture of a white Jesus looking down upon their thrashing. When he returned by bus to the capital, he had sex with a woman from South Africa. She was an artist, divorced from a liberal Cape Town lawyer, and with one child. Ten days later he came down with a dose of syphilis. He wondered who had given it to whom, but it really didn’t matter. He spoke to the artist and sent a letter up to the mission hospital marked attention Jaqueline. He apologized to both of them and said they should get a shot of penicillin as a precaution. For Jaqueline he added that since she was in a hospital already, it would not be much of a problem. The artist with the child didn’t seem too concerned, and that made him a bit suspicious, but she was older and told him this was not the first time she had gotten something from a bastard like him. They went to the health clinic arm-in-arm and later ate a nice lunch at a restaurant along the Orange River.
It got around town he had contracted syphilis and after the chancres disappeared there was a slight purple scar left at the tip of his penis. For years he dutifully showed women the purple blemish before they had sex and recounted his climb to the mission hospital and how chasing women was more than an act of attraction, it was, in fact, something of an adventure.