The Story of the Cannibal Woman

by Maryse Conde and Richard Philcox

Hardcover, 311 pages, Pocket Books, List Price: $24 | purchase

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The Story of the Cannibal Woman
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Maryse Conde and Richard Philcox

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Book Summary

Rendered frightened and penniless by her husband's mysterious violent death, Rosalie reluctantly taps her clairvoyant skills in order to support herself in post-apartheid South Africa, an endeavor during which she pursues answers. By the award-winning author of Who Slashed Celanire's Throat? 25,000 first printing.

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Excerpt: The Story Of The Cannibal Woman

Chapter One

Cape Town always slept in the same position, curled up in the muzzle of a gun. After hours of grim silence as heavy as a great fur coat of a former Soviet leader, the sound of engines began to sputter and roar throughout the city. In the distance, like the cries of cormorants, the horns of the first ferries split the clouds of mist grazing the sea as they left for Robben Island, once a concentration camp, now transformed into an international tourist attraction. Then the brakes of the overcrowded buses, arriving from the wretchedness of the shantytowns and converging on the splendors of the city center, screeched to a halt at the same stops. The feet of thousands of blacks in cheap shoes tramped toward the subaltern jobs that had always been their lot. All these sounds were preceded by the throbbing rounds of the police helicopters as their eyes pierced the dawn, searching to oust the criminals from their rat holes. For Cape Town at night oozed with all sorts of foulness and rottenness, a nightmare from which the city awoke completely drained, its storm channels churning bile and pus, its head of medlar trees and maritime pines bristling with fright.

Rosélie sat up in the bed she had now occupied alone for the past three months, curled up in a fetal position, her face hard against the wall, terrified by the void behind her back. I couldn't sleep last night. I can't sleep anymore. Did I grind my teeth? Sometimes they clatter together like logs of wood on the raging waters of a river. I bite my lips: they bleed. I moan. I loll and I moan.

She stumbled across to the dressing table, with its three opaque mirrors blurred in places by green spots drifting like water lilies on an Indian lake, and contemplated with a morose fascination her close-cropped hair, yellowing in patches, the charcoal lines on her forehead the color of burnt sienna, the bags of flabby skin under her slanting eyes, her mouth wedged between two deep furrows — in other words a ravaged face showing signs of an already long passage that had been rough, so rough. Only the skin was not in keeping with the rest. As silky as when her mama, Rose, used to eat her up with kisses as a child:

"What a velvety, satiny skin!"

In Guadeloupe one usually exclaimed: "A skin as soft as a sapodilla!" But Rose loathed these Creole clichés and insisted on giving her own personal touch to things. That's how she forged the absurd name of Rosélie. Daughter of Rose and Elie. She worshiped her husband and wanted the whole world to know it. How far away those years seemed, almost as if they had never existed. It's true what they say, childhood is a myth, fabricated by senile grown-ups. As for me, I never was a child.

All around her the furniture chosen by Stephen shook itself and gradually cast off the disturbing animal shapes it took on in the dark, night after night. It had been her obsession ever since that weekend she had spent with Stephen two years earlier in the Kwa Maritane game park, close to the capital of a former Bantustan, Sun City, transformed into an international holiday resort including casino and hotels for stars. She hadn't expected the animals, so harmless during those three days, dozing in the shade of the bushes in the immensity of the veldt, to come alive at night as wild beasts and charge straight at her. What did frighten her were the men. White men. Guides, game wardens, local visitors, foreign tourists. All wearing boots and safari hats, sporting double-barreled guns, playing in a Western without a hint of a bison or Indian now massacred or defeated, herded toothless into their reservations. Stephen, on the contrary, loved dressing up in a bush jacket and canvas shorts in camouflage, a flask clipped to his waist and sunglasses perched on his nose.

"You don't know how to enjoy yourself," he reprimanded her, manly grabbing the wheel of a Land Rover.

Not her fault if she suffered from the complex of a victim and identified with those who are hunted.

Downstairs, the iron gate, armed with bolts, bars, and padlocks in an endeavor to keep out the ever-growing numbers of increasingly brazen nocturnal aggressors, creaked open. Deogratias, the night watchman, refreshed by six hours of sleep, was going home. Half an hour later, the gate creaked again. The hollow cough of a chain smoker, oblivious to the TV campaigns warning of the dangers of smoking, signaled the arrival of Dido, the coloured woman who cooked and did the housework, more friend in fact than servant, although paid a monthly wage. Soon she would climb the stairs to the bedroom, and in between the same old worries about her sleepless nights, her trials and tribulations — husband carried off by a heart attack, a son by AIDS — she would relate the agonies of the city down to the last detail. And it seemed to Rosélie she was imitating Rose, her mother, who, Lent come rainy season, conversed every morning with Meynalda, her servant, once a young girl from Anse-Bertrand who had never married but had grown up to be an old spinster alongside her. Both recounted their dreams and consulted The Key to Your Dreams, which Meynalda had inherited from one of her mother's employers (cooks ran in the family), translated from the Portuguese with an index and explanation of two hundred and fifty dreams.

"The shock woke me up," mused Rose. "It was in the gray hours of the dawn. Like the Good Samaritan, I was sitting on the edge of a well. People were hurrying past and throwing rocks at me. Gradually I was covered in blood."

"Blood means victory," Meynalda reassured her.

Victory over what? Certainly not over life. She had never been able to come to terms with life. She had never been able to get a firm grip on the reins of that wretched Arab stallion that rears and bucks as it likes. After six years of being madly in love, Elie, her husband, joined the ranks of womanizers and squandered his wages as clerk of the court on those bòbò women in the Carénage district. He had a good excuse. As soon as she was married Rose began to grow plump, no, rather inflate, no, rather swell up, and any diet, however strict, including the latest prescribed by a Greek dietician who had cured American movie stars, did as much good as a Band-Aid on a wooden leg. She had always been a "handsome Negress." In Guadeloupe the expression means what it means. It means a black woman, neither red nor quadroon nor yellow of skin, but black, with a full head of hair and thirty-two pearly teeth, tall, and buxom. Elie had fought to marry her — for you know how men are in our islands. He was what you'd call a mulatto, light-skinned in any case, with hair he flattened, oiled, and pomaded, making him look like Rudolph Valentino without the sheikh's headdress. Folks say that Rose bewitched him with her enchanting mezzo-soprano voice, for with a little training she could have made it as a professional singer. She had murmured in his ear the famous refrain from Carmen, preferring French melodies, even Spanish, over the Creole songs she considered too vulgar:

L'amour est enfant de Bohême

Il n' a jamais, jamais connu de loi,

Si tu ne m'aimes pas, je t'aime,

Si je t'aime, prends garde à toi.

Then on the birth of her daughter at the age of twenty-six, a perfidious sickness spread triumphant. Fat unrelentingly slid its adipose tissues between her and affection, love, and sex, all those things that humans desperately need in order not to end up going mad. Gradually her precious organ was reduced incongruously to a pathetic mouse's squeak. One scorching-hot day in March her voice finally gave up with a squawk while she was singing Adios, pampas mias. For sixteen years she was condemned to a wheelchair and for twenty-three to her bed from which her flesh seeped out like the uncontrollable floodwaters of a river. When deliverance finally came at the age of sixty-five, Roro Désir, of Doratour the undertakers ("Give us your departed and you'll have no regrets"), made a coffin four meters by four. Some people are not blessed by good fortune. At their birth comets zigzag furiously across the sky, collide, crash, and straddle each other. As a result this cosmic disorder influences their destiny and nothing goes right for them.

At seven in the morning the sun was well in control and came knocking stubbornly on the thick wooden shutters. Dido pushed open the door and tenderly kissed Rosélie, then set down the tray containing the newspaper and the first cups of coffee on the dressing table. In a rustle of paper she opened the Cape Tribune and went through it page by page, licking her lips, exclaiming greedily whenever a crime was much too juicy, while sipping her brew of "bull's blood," the jet-black coffee that she flavored with vanilla sugar and lemon peel.

Every morning therefore Rosélie wallowed in happiness at being served in bed like a sultana in a harem or a princess in a fairy tale:

"You can't call that coffee," she loved to grumble. "All that stuff you put in it loses the real taste, takes out the bitterness."

Raised on watered-down coffee, she then added:

"So I would like it less strong."

Used to her complaints, Dido made no reply and folded the paper. She was now ready for the day, cheered up by the coffee and her fill of horrors. A father had raped his daughter; a brother his younger sister; some intruders a chubby eight-month-old baby in its stroller. A man had slit his concubine's throat. Masked thieves had robbed four streets of houses. Dido tied a beige scarf around her salt-and-pepper mane of hair and slipped on a pair of shapeless gray overalls. But her mauve flowery skirt flared out a good ten inches underneath, her eyelids were daubed mauve and green, and her mouth dribbled with red lipstick. She looked like a transvestite, a drag queen! Out of the two women she was the one who corresponded most to people's idea of a pythoness, a sorceress, a soothsayer, or a healer, call her what you like.

"Rosélie Thibaudin, medium. A cure for the incurable," proclaimed the rainbow-colored cards printed at a discount on Kloof Street and distributed to the neighborhood shops.

Dido got the idea after cogitating furiously for a week. Once Stephen was gone, Rosélie was left without any means. All she knew how to do was paint. Painting is not like music, playing the piano, the violin, or the clarinet. A pianist, a violinist, a clarinetist can always give lessons to children and get paid by the hour. Painting is like literature. No immediate gain or utility. If the cards had read "Rosélie Thibaudin, painter" or "Rosélie Thibaudin, writer," nobody would have taken any notice. Whereas now the customers flocked in. She chose fifteen who seemed reliable. In order to make a good impression she had emptied the shelves of a nook upstairs and called it her consultation room. She had decorated it with an effigy of Erzulie Dantor, purchased during a voodoo exhibit in New York; an African fertility doll in dark wood, a souvenir of her six years spent at N'Dossou; and a reproduction by Jerome Bosch, one of her favorite painters. She had also hung one of her compositions on the wall. A pastel drawing without a title. She had great difficulties finding a title. She classified her canvases 1, 2, 3, 4 or A, B, C, D, leaving Stephen to find a name, something his imagination excelled at. During her séances she lit candles and perfumed the room with incense. Sometimes she topped off the atmosphere with a disc of Zen music bought in the Mitsukoshi department store in Tokyo. There are no inferior jobs. What could she have done besides being a medium? At least Stephen had bought the house in both their names, so nobody could evict her. She had disgraced the whole neighborhood. Imagine a Negress living on Faure Street! Parading on the wrought-iron balcony of a Victorian house, taking her meals on the patio between the traveler's tree and the bougainvillea, and luring a procession of clients of her color with her dubious commerce. As far as they could remember, pre- or post-apartheid, the only blacks spotted this side of Table Mountain were domestics. A few years earlier, when she had climbed out of the mover's truck with her white man, the neighbors had already been scandalized. They had found out that this newcomer, Stephen Stewart, was not one of their own. His father was English. His parents had divorced. His French mother had raised him over in France in Verberie. In a certain respect this aspect of his heredity explained their outrage. The French have tainted tastes, for their blood is tainted and over half are mongrels. All nature of people have climbed over their borders, pitched camp, and settled down in their midst.

Dido set down her cup and, looking important, exclaimed:

"I've found a client for you. A good one! He's French-speaking from one of those countries, Congo, Burundi, or Rwanda, in any case one of the three. His name's Faustin Rumiya or Roumaya or Roumimaya! You know me, I'm not much good with names. He's some important guy who got on the wrong side of his government. He is suspicious of everything and everyone. So for his first consultation you'll have to come to my place."

Yet another immigrant story! In this country everyone's got one up his sleeve; some are comical, others ridiculous or grotesque, each one more unlikely than the next. Deogratias the night watchman introduced himself as a former professor of political science from the state university in Rwanda. A miraculous survivor of the genocide in which his papa, his mama, his pregnant wife, and their three daughters had all perished. In fact, this lie might very well be true given his solemn expression, his liking for Greek and Latin words and overelaborate speeches. Zacharie the vegetable seller: PhD from Congo Brazza who had fled the civil war with his wife and seven children. Goretta the hairdresser, specializing in braids and weaving, was in fact the lead dancer in a traditional troupe from Zimbabwe. Warned beforehand by her lover, a minister who was crazy about her body, she had hid under a truck tarpaulin and traveled miles of laterite to escape the firing squad. What crime had she committed? We will never know. Rosélie inquired nonchalantly what this one was suffering from.

"He can't sleep!"

She had treated a good many cases of this sort. The ability to sleep, contrary to reason, is a faculty most unfairly meted out. For the slightest reason humans lose their sleep and agonize all night long, their eyes riveted on the hands of a clock. She walked over to the bathroom.

Her first appointment was at nine. She noted down everything in a spiral notebook in South Sea Blue, an ink she had been particularly fond of since school.

Patient No. 3

Népoçumène Gbikpi

Age: 34

Nationality: Beninese

Profession: Engineer

Here was a tragic story that resembled her own. Népoçumène, a telecommunications engineer, had been away on business in Port Elizabeth. On his return home he had stumbled on his wife's lifeless body lying in a pool of blood at the door of their apartment. Perhaps raped. Murdered for a wretched handful of rand the couple kept deep in a chest of drawers.

As for Stephen, he had been working on his latest passion: a critical study of Yeats. At midnight he had gone out to the corner Pick 'n Pay store to buy a packet of Rothmans light in the red pack. Some thugs had murdered him for his wallet.

For some reason or other this version of the facts did not satisfy the police. In fact, Stephen's wallet had never left his back pocket. It had remained intact. There was no question of robbery.

"Perhaps the thieves had been disturbed before grabbing the wallet."

"Disturbed by whom?"

"Security guards. Pick 'n Pay customers. Other thieves. I don't know. Who's leading the investigation?"

"According to the cashier, Mr. Stewart did not enter the Pick 'n Pay. He was killed at the other end of the sidewalk."

Inspector Lewis Sithole, with the surprising slit eyes of an Asian, nodded his head. His opinion was that Mr. Stewart had not gone to the Pick 'n Pay to buy cigarettes but to meet somebody.

Who? What an imagination!

"Try to recall," he insisted, "whether you heard the telephone ring."

She had been asleep in the bedroom under the roof. Her studio occupied the entire second floor. They had taken down the inside walls to allow for more space and air. Stephen's study opened out onto the traveler's tree on the ground floor. In other words they were at opposite ends of the house. And then let's keep up with the times! Nowadays everyone has a cell phone. Stephen's didn't ring, it vibrated. Even if she had strained her ears, she wouldn't have heard anything.

And precisely, Inspector Sithole inquired, where was this cell phone?

The hospital hadn't given it back.

"Find it," he ordered. "It's an important piece of evidence!"

This was the second time a man had abandoned Rosélie with so little consideration. Twenty years ago, her flesh was still palatable! In despair she had resorted to another stratagem. The oldest profession in the world, so they say. It's not with a glad heart that a woman sells her body. She really must have nothing else up her sleeve. However much she tells herself and takes comfort in the feminists' point of view that even a legitimate wife, who has been blessed in white by the mayor and the priest and wears a ring on her finger, is nothing but a prostitute, something holds her back. In this case, however, Rosélie had no choice. Besides, it wasn't complicated: all you had to do was sit with your legs crossed at the Saigon bar along the seafront in N'Dossou. From six in the evening customers swarmed in like flies on a baby's eyes in Kaolack, Senegal. Tran Anh, the owner, was a Vietnamese whose hatred of communism had landed him in this corner of central Africa. He lived with Ana, a Fulani from Niger, driven by poverty to the same corner. The two of them had produced four boys with uncircumcised willies — much to their Muslim mother's grief — who squabbled naked under the tables. From outside, the Saigon didn't look like much. But it was always packed. Packed with civil servants who sipped their pastis while bemoaning their bank accounts. It was only the tenth of the month and they were already in debt! Not a franc left to pay for the daily ration of rice. They were polite and, in this AIDS-ridden age, strict users of condoms. Thank God there was not a single government minister, private secretary, or personal advisor among them, those who think they can get away with anything. At the most, some former division heads ejected on orders from the IMF. The height of luxury, the Saigon had its own generator, and oblivious to the power outages that were the plague of N'Dossou, the air inside was as fresh as an Algerian oasis. While waiting to be picked up Rosélie would read copies of Elle and Femme d'Aujourd'hui that Ana had kept for her. She liked to muse over the cooking recipes, strange for someone who never cooked. A well-written recipe makes your mouth water.

Stuffed Eggplant

Preparation: 30 min. + 30 min

Cooking time: 45 minutes

215 calories per person

For six helpings...

The bar also served a mysterious cocktail without alcohol called the Tsunami, invented by Tran Anh, sour as the bitterness of exile and green as tomorrow's promise despite the cold light of reality. One evening a white guy sat down at the bar with a Pilsner Urquell, that's a Czech beer. He looked around, got up, walked straight over to her table, and offered her a drink. His introduction was not very original, even conventional. It has worked ever since there have been bars, men, and women. He was no uglier than the rest. Somewhat better, even. She hesitated because she had never considered other partners in bed besides blacks. In her family nobody went in for mixed couples. The whites were terra incognita! The only exceptions were Great-uncle Elie, who left to work on the Panama Canal and ended his days with a Madrilenian, and cousin Altagras, whose name was erased from the family tree. Something attracted her to this white guy. They had walked out into the dusk as the red disk of the sun slipped untiringly into the ocean's watery deep. And passersby, numerous at this time of day, fired the first of those looks loaded with hostility and contempt that from then on would never leave them.

They had climbed into his red, somewhat flashy four-wheel drive, and navigating around the ruts and potholes that got deeper every rainy season, he had introduced himself. University professor. Taught Irish literature. Wilde, Joyce, Yeats, and Synge. His book on Joyce had been a mistake. Went completely unnoticed. Another on Seamus Heaney had been a critical success. He used to work in London. Listening to him, Rosélie was as fascinated as if an astronaut had described his days on the MIR space station. So people spend their time wallowing in fiction, getting worked up about lives they have never led, paper lives, lives in print, analyzing them and commenting on these fantasy worlds. By comparison she was ashamed of her own problems, so commonplace, so crude, so genuine.

What are you doing in N'Dossou?

Me? Nothing! A man has just left me high and dry. I've no work, I've no money. I've no roof over my head. I'm trying to survive and cure myself of my lenbe. Lovesick. Back home they call it lenbe.

He certainly could talk. Never a bore, though, full of unpretentious literary allusions and anecdotes about the countries he had visited.

Who was her favorite writer?

Mishima.

Found the name just in time. She wasn't going to say Victor Hugo or Alexandre Dumas, so obvious!

The Temple of the Golden Pavilion is magnificent, isn't it?

No, I prefer Confessions of a Mask.

Said confidently. Yet it was the only one she had read, in paperback in economy class from Paris to Pointe-à-Pitre, one July when she was going back to spend her vacation with Rose and Elie. She had always been scolded for not reading. Ever since elementary school. Last in French composition. For her, the stories in books come nowhere near reality. Novelists are scared to invent the incredible, in other words life itself.

Did she like to travel?

There she felt obliged to tell the truth. She only knew a tiny portion, the tip of the iceberg, of the vast world around us: Guadeloupe, where she was born, Paris, where she had vaguely studied, and N'Dossou, where she had ended up three years earlier.

Three years of Africa! Do you like Africa?

Like! Does a prisoner awaiting his execution like being on death row? Now, now! Stop being facetious and witty! Africa hadn't always been a prison. She had been eager to make the journey, thinking she was about to launch on the great adventure. Despite her misfortunes she remained loyal to N'Dossou, an unattractive, unpretentious (how could it be anything else?) yet engaging city.

He had taken her home to his place, where they had slept in each other's arms until the following morning. This was unusual for Rosélie. Her civil servants usually climbed up to her studio apartment and didn't give her more than two hours of their time, watch in hand. As soon as they had finished with their well-oiled orgasm, they slipped on their clothes, awkwardly handed her a small commission, then limped back in their four-wheel-drives to their legitimate spouses. When she woke up, the houseboy, somewhat forward with a girl the boss had picked up on the cheap, served her coffee and a papaya that had seen better times. Stephen had already left for the university, leaving her an envelope stuffed with banknotes. He lived in the European quarter, with its crumbling buildings, its park and tree-lined avenues. Driving by a kindergarten, she had heard "Frère Jacques." A little farther on the off-key sounds of "Für Elise," which she too had murdered in her time to please Rose, floated out of a window.

Would she see him again? Did she want to see him again? She could find nothing wrong with him: perfectly groomed, smelling of Acqua de Giò, and good in bed. A lot of kissing, embracing, playing, and fondling, as if penetration was not the main issue.

That same evening he once more came through the door of the Saigon, where the civil servants recognized him and cast disapproving looks. A month later she moved in with him.

It was love with a capital L.

Rosélie put on the clothes carefully chosen by Dido. A dark brown boubou with a fitted yolk embroidered in golden yellow, and a matching head tie. She walked down the stairs in a regal manner befitting her role and entered her consulting room. Népoçumène was waiting for her, his face a little less haggard than usual. Was he sleeping now? Were his nightmares beginning to leave him in peace? Did he hear his wife's voice? She had told him over and over again he would hear her once he had forgiven her for having abandoned him. That was the most difficult part. She herself still couldn't hear Stephen's voice. All too often she was overwhelmed by bitterness and a kind of anger toward him.

Rosélie's gift became evident very early on. At the age of six all she had to do was place her little hands over Rose's eyelids for poor Rose to sleep like a baby until nine in the morning. Until then Rose had been tormented by Elie's absences; her body had begun to swell considerably, and as a result she could never get to sleep. At the age of ten Rosélie had made a pack of Creole dogs turn tail as they were about to attack her and her cousins on the road in Montebello just before Bois-Sergent, where her aunt had a house. On weekends, unbeknownst to the skeptics in the family, Papa Doudou, her grandfather on her father's side, took her to his property at Redoute, where the cows turned their backs on the bull and the mares refused to be mounted by the stud. She would look deep into their big gelatin eyes and the recalcitrant females would be completely transformed, as pliable as putty in your hands. Bad-mouthers, and there are some in every family, were skeptical and made no bones about it. Rosélie had been incapable of predicting that the same Papa Doudou would die of a hemorrhage from his testicles being ripped off by the horns of a small bull he was breaking in. And during Hurricane Deirdre she had been unable to foresee that a breadfruit tree would smash through Uncle Eliacin's house and flatten it like a cowpat, killing him outright as well as his wife and five children with the American TV names of Warner, Steve, Jessica, Kevin, and Randy. Okay, she had seen Deirdre coming. But you didn't need to be a rocket scientist to see a hurricane. Hurricanes are regular visitors. Year after year they arrive from the coast of Africa. What matters is their strength, and that is never the same.

As an adult she would have liked to turn her powers to good account. But astrology? Palmistry? Chiropractic? Osteopathy? Shiatsu? All that is not very serious. So she had got bogged down in her law studies. Elie had so admired the black robes around him that he dreamed of putting his daughter in one. Oh, let her tear the French language to pieces like lawyer Démosthène, the famous bard of independence! As for Rose, she regretted her daughter had not gone into politics. Her father had been a local hero whose full-length portrait occupied a place of honor in the living room.

If Dido hadn't been there, she would still be looking for herself.

She liked listening to the way Stephen relived their first meeting. It became fictional and poetical, as if it were a chapter in a novel, perhaps Irish, perhaps not.

"I landed up here a few months ago. Why, you ask? Because I realized I was becoming the spitting image of my father. I could no longer put up with London, its gray skies, my bedsitter, my teaching job, the boredom of the pubs and the Sunday papers. At least in N'Dossou everything seemed new under the sun. Ex Africa semper aliquid novi. One evening, after a scorching-hot day, I was searching for a cool breeze along the seafront, where the wind blows in from the ocean with occasional gusts and cools the sweat on your skin, when, out of breath and tired of tramping in the sand, I pushed open the door of a bar with a facade smeared in blue and a sign painted with palm trees: the Saigon. A stroke of luck. The shadowy interior smelled of peppermint, reminding me of my childhood. On summer visits my aunt Chloé, my mother's sister, always used to give me a peppermint drink in a blue-stemmed glass. A view of the Mekong ran above the circular bar in bamboo. Another depicted the bay of Along with its extraordinary rocks like pieces in a game of chess. Ana was washing the glasses. Tran Anh, as usual, was idly blowing smoke rings into the air. You were sitting alone at your table, a little to the left. You were wearing a green dress with an orange pattern. [What was this about a green dress? He must have been dreaming. I loathe the color green.] I never accost women. Their cold eyes, their cruel teeth, and the way they have of sizing up and assessing men scares me. Will he be able to satisfy me? Black women were foreign, mysterious, a nebulous, unfathomable world. The other side of the moon. You looked so lost, so vulnerable that by comparison I felt serene and powerful. God Almighty. You were sitting behind a pile of magazines. You were leafing through one. Yet it was obvious you couldn't care less what was flicking past your eyes. Your mind was elsewhere."

Oh yes, my mind was elsewhere!

She was asking herself the same questions over and over again. What's going to become of me? How long can I last without a cent to my name? What is there left to sell? I've already sold for next to nothing my gold choker and chain, given me by Aunt Léna. The other jewels are from Rose. I could never part with them.

Dominique, a chance acquaintance who worked in real estate, had offered her a studio apartment. Never look a gift horse in the mouth. The apartment was badly situated in the Ferbène district, a shantytown, sitting in the middle of a swamp that was supposed to have been drained during the public works projects at the time of independence. After forty years, the work had never been completed and the swamp had turned into a quagmire. Life there was not worth a dime. On the sidewalks garbage piled up higher than a man. But could they really be called sidewalks? The tangle of streets were flooded all year round with a brackish soup. La Liberté, the name of this rat- and vermin-infested building, housed the studio apartment generously loaned by Dominique. Ten stories high, elevator chronically in need of repair, cassava and plantain peelings as well as banana skins, green and yellow, littering the hallways, and raggedy clothes hung out to dry on the balconies. It overlooked a panorama of shacks. Beyond, a pallid and disheveled ocean regularly vomited up corpses. One never knew whether they were foolhardy fishermen, suicides tired of vegetating without love or money, or victims of revenge wreaked by parents or neighbors.

One morning Rosélie, plus two metal canteens of the type you never see now called cabin trunks, plus a plywood box, climbed out of one of Navitour's trucks.

navitour truck rental

when you want it, how you want it!

The building's residents were stupefied. Okay, okay, Allah doesn't have to be merciful. But the least we can expect is that he hasn't gone off his rocker. In the glossy pages of GuidArt they had often drooled over the new tenant — that's her, I'm telling you, beside Salama Salama, the famous reggae singer, beloved by young and old alike. Salama Salama's real name was Sylvestre Urbain-Amélie. He had had to change his name for the stage, showbiz rules. Salama Salama sounds strange and exotic. What country was he from?

Devoured by curiosity, the tenants had dispatched Angéline, who got by in French after four years at school. Unfortunately, the door of apartment 4B was firmly closed to her. Rosélie had barricaded herself in together with the rest of her story. However hard the neighbors spied, the door of number 4B never opened an inch and they had had to wait another week for GuidArt to clarify matters. Salama Salama, the famous singer, beloved by young and old alike, had been appointed Minister for Culture, a position that had been cruelly lacking in the entourage of the president. In his magnanimity, the president had given his seventh daughter to go with the job. Seven, a magic number. He had seventeen biological and seven adopted daughters. This daughter was one of his own. Plus as many sons, making forty-eight children in all. A photo on page three showed Salama Salama on the arm of a teenage girl swathed in yards of Alençon lace, swollen by an early pregnancy, for they had put the cart before the horse, something quite common nowadays. He himself was wearing tails. The couple were to spend their honeymoon in Morocco with the crown prince, son of our late friend the king.

The story was becoming clear. Betrayal. Cruel disappointment. For the second time Angéline was dispatched to the fourth floor. She finally managed to get in and scolded Rosélie, who had collapsed on the bed, her two trunks and box lying unopened beside her. She forced open not only the door of Rosélie's apartment, but also her heart. She introduced her to Justine, Awu, Mandy, and Mariétou, and welcomed her into the band of women. Rosélie joined in the laughter, the repartee, pranks, and practical jokes that had been sorely missing in her solemn, solitary years as a young girl. Sometimes she thought of her family. Her father, who always thought himself the cat's whiskers. What would Elie say if he saw her abandoned by her second-rate Bob Marley (already the choice of this unknown African musician had been the subject of volumes of abuse), in this city at the end of the world, in the company of these illiterate women? And Rose? For whom nothing was good enough for her daughter. And her uncles? With their pencil-sharp mustaches. And her aunts? Especially Aunt Léna, wrapped in her Creole jewelry. During the course of imaginary dialogues she tried to plead her case in front of this tribunal, and getting no encouragement, she ended up eliminating it entirely from her memory.

All this merriment, joking, and secret talk ended at six in the evening. Angéline and the band of women scurried home, where, armed with brooms and sponge mops, they would scrub, wash, iron, and cook, in other words carry out all those jobs assigned the female species since the world began. For dusk brought home the creatures who had been absent all day long: the men. The men, embittered by their makeshift jobs at the other end of the city. As soon as they returned home they vented their frustration and disappointment, and the residence La Liberté echoed with shouts and recriminations, the screams of battered women and the cries of terrified children. It was then that Rosélie cowardly took refuge in the serenity of the Saigon, savoring with Tran Anh the smell of green papaya.

The day arrived when, finishing a game of cards, she made the announcement to her companions. She was going to live with an Englishman, a university professor. In order to avoid getting sentimental she tried her hand at being cynical, something she ventured from time to time. A stroke of luck, no? She not only got love, but a roof over her head and food on the table. Nobody laughed. Her words were met with a silence of disbelief. Mariétou demanded an explanation. English is not a nationality, it's a language. What was this all about? Rosélie explained, surprised deep down at her apologetic tone. Finally realizing what it actually meant, her girlfriends hurriedly withdrew, fleeing her like a leper. From that day on Rosélie found herself abandoned, her once inseparable companions now invisible, claiming they were too busy with their kids, their housework, or, even more unlikely, job hunting, for hoping and searching for a job in N'Dossou was like looking for a needle in a haystack. The day she left she was escorted by a cortege of children. They surrounded Stephen's four-by-four, as solemn as if they were coffining a body. The older teenagers, admirers of Pelé — at that time Zinedine Zidane, like the lamb in the fable, was still at his mother's breast or else swimming in the waters of her womb — stopped kicking their soccer ball to look daggers at her.

"What a place!" Stephen shivered.

As for Rosélie, she had tears in her eyes. A feeling of guilt was torturing her that was never to leave her in peace again. It was as if, irreversibly, she was cutting the ties of which she herself knew neither the nature nor the tenacity.

10:00 A.M.

Patient No. 7

Dawid Fagwela

Age: 73

Particularity: one of the few South African clients

Profession: retired miner

He was a former trade unionist who too had languished for years on Robben Island. The Ministry for Tourism had had the brilliant idea of retailoring his prison uniform and using him as a guide for the thousands of tourists who tramped through the concentration camp, heaving pitiful sighs at the sight of the tiny cell where Nelson Mandela, the exemplary hero, had been interned.

"How many years did he spend here?"

"Eighteen. He was then transferred to Pollsmoor to the south of Cape Town because he was a bad influence on the other prisoners."

"Can we visit that prison as well?"

That's all they thought about! Get as many pictures as possible for their photo albums. As for Dawid, the fact of reliving his abuse and torture day after day, and describing it down to the last detail to the inquisitive hordes in an endeavor to satisfy their curiosity, the poor guy was losing his head. It woke him up at night.

Was apartheid really over? Was he really free?

The hospital had kept him for several months and then diagnosed his case as incurable. His wife had refused this categorical diagnostic. Since Dido, her cousin, had spoken highly of Rosélie's talent, she came to consult her. At first Rosélie hadn't known what to do. This case was different. It's not every day that a political prisoner turns into a tourist guide and travels from hell to paradise in a single lifetime. Then she got the idea of asking Dawid to record his memories on a tape recorder and write them down. Straightaway he plunged into the job from morning till night. No more time for the blues. Put his obsessions into words. Transform them into images. He planned on writing a book and had already found the title, the most difficult thing to find, according to Rosélie: "The True Confession of Lazarus, A Death Survivor." He had regained his smile and his sleep, and was eating and drinking again.

Proof that sometimes writing does serve some purpose.

Copyright © 2005 by Mary Condé