***The following excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***
Copyright © 2014 Alexandra Fuller
Dad says he's going to die next week," Vanessa said. The phone line from Zambia was good for once. No echoing, no hopping, no static. Still, I felt the distancing power of the whole of the Atlantic Ocean between us.
"Say that again," I said.
"Dad," repeated Vanessa loudly and slowly, as if she were an Englishwoman-on-vacation in the tropics. "He says he's not going to bat some other chap's innings. He says it's not cricket." I heard her light a cigarette: the scrape and hiss of a match; the singe of burning tobacco; the capacious inhale. I recognized we were in danger of doing things on Vanessa's indolent schedule. She would be there south of the equator cultivating nonchalance. I would be here north of it conscious of time-lapsing deadlines.
"Why?" I asked. "Of what?"
"The Bible," Vanessa said, calmly exhaling.
"Oh," I said. "Well, no one in their right mind takes the Bible literally."
"I do," Vanessa said.
"Exactly," I triumphed.
I pictured Vanessa at the picnic table on her veranda, a generous helping of South African white wine in front of her. Mosquitoes would be whining around her ankles poisonously. She'd be wiping sweat off her nose, pushing panting dogs away from her lap. I could also hear the rainy-?season chorus of Southern Hemisphere woodland-?living birds in the background. The tyranny of a Heuglin's robin, some chattering masked weavers, and a Sombre bulbul shouting over and over,"Willie! Come out and fight! Willie! Come out and fight! Scaaared."
Meanwhile the austerity of winter was still hanging on here. Outside my office window, there were tiny beams of frozen mud showing through tall snowbanks. The only birds I could see were an industrious banditry of black-?capped chickadees at the suet feeder. They seemed robustly ascetic little creatures, like tiny chattering monks. I'd read they are able to lower their body temperature by up to a dozen degrees on cold winter nights to conserve energy.Torpor was the word the bird books used. Hummingbirds supposedly did the same thing, but they also had to eat sixty times their body weight a day just to stay alive, at least according to a fragment of a poem by Charles Wright I kept above my computer. "Now that's a life on the edge," the fragment concludes.
"I have to go," I said.
But Vanessa had begun to expand on her vision for Dad's funeral arrangements and she was in full voice now. Should there be an old Land Rover or a donkey cart for a hearse? And was that Polish priest from Old Mkushi still alive, the one who had been at my wedding? Because he had lived in
the bush long enough not to blink if we asked him to have the service under a baobab tree instead of in a church, right? And perhaps we could get people from the villages to make a choir. "There are heaps of those Apostles all over the place," Vanessa pointed out. "But do they sing, or do they just sit around draped in white bedsheets, moaning?"
I said I didn't know, but I'd never forget the time Mum got in a dustup with the Apostle who had moved onto the edge of the farm with his several wives and his scores of children and whose vegetable plot had strayed onto her overflowing pet cemetery. Mum had yelled obscenities, planted her walking stick in the soil, and declared turf war. In return, the Apostle had thrown rocks at Mum's surviving dogs, brandished his staff, and recited bellicose passages from the Old Testament. "An apoplectic apostolic," Mum had reported with relish, although her neck had been out for weeks after the Apostle shook her, "just like Jack Russell with a rat."
Vanessa took another considered drag off her cigarette. "Oh right," she said. "I'd forgotten about that. Maybe Catholics might be better after all. They'll know proper hymns. Plus Catholics have wine at intermission, don't they? And Mum doesn't have a history of battling them, does she?"
"Not yet," I said.
"And what about entertainment for afterwards?" Vanessa asked. "People will have driven for days. They'll be expecting a thrash. It'll have to be a huge party from beginning to end, with a calypso band, Harry Belafonte, and buckets of rum punch. Perhaps we could organize boat races on the Zambezi in dugout canoes. That would be groovy. And what about a greasy pole over one of Mum's fishponds for the especially inebriated mourners, because you know it's going to be Alcoholics Unanimous from beginning to end? And maybe we could have a maze like the one we had at Mum and Dad's fortieth anniversary," Vanessa said. "Remember?"
I would never forget that either. There had been shots of something fairly stiff at the entrance to the maze, and some guests got so drunk right off the bat they were stranded in dead ends until dawn. But I didn't bring this up, nor did I say that I thought Vanessa's suggestions were murderously bad. How many funerals did she want in one week? In the interests of time (mine, chiefly) I said I thought they were all ideas worth considering. "That is, when Dad is actually dead," I said. And then I added, in a way that I hoped suggested a signing off, "Okay, Van. I'm quite busy here."
But Vanessa wouldn't be deterred; she poured herself another glass of wine and rattled on. "No, no, no," she said. "We have to plan now, we'll be too distraught at the time." She reminded me she wouldn't be able to do any of the readings because she was illiterate, as well we all knew. Mum certainly couldn't do a reading, or much of anything, because she would be an inconsolable wreck. And Richard shouldn't be allowed anywhere near a pulpit. "He'll just grunt and growl and terrify the congregation," Vanessa said. "No, Al, when Dad dies, you're going to have to do the urology."
A week later, March 8, 2010, Dad turned seventy. The day came and went, and in spite of Psalm 90:10 my father didn't die. To prove the miracle of his continued corporal existence among us, Vanessa e-mailed me a photograph of his funeral party turned birthday bash. There he was on her veranda in the Kafue hills, his arm around Mum's shoulders. My parents were wearing matching straw hats and expressions of matching lopsided hilarity. Between them, they were holding a bouquet of beaten-up-looking yellow flowers. Daffodils, I thought, but I wasn't sure. For one thing— due to the camera shaking, or the subjects swaying— the photograph was a little blurry. And for another thing, Vanessa steals most of her flowers from Lusaka hotel gardens, and daffodils seemed unlikely for all sorts of reasons.
I felt a pang of jealous nostalgia, although pang is the wrong word because that suggests something satiable, like hunger. And nostalgia isn't quite right either, because that suggests a sentimental view of the past, like Artie Shaw or Doris Day was the soundtrack for my youth, but it wasn't. That was my parents' soundtrack. Vanessa and I listened to the Swedish pop group ABBA. We had Clem Tholet, the Rhodesian folksinger, ever a popular star at the annualBless 'Em All Troop Shows. We learned to dance to Ipi Ntombi's "The Warrior." My family's history— with its very real, inevitable consequences— defied romantic longing.
Although Dad believes the only side you can reliably count on is your own, and Vanessa sometimes dispenses irrevocable threats to never talk to any of us again, and my mother carries an impressive grudge—" I sometimes forget, but I will never ever forgive"—my family mostly gets over it, whatever it is, and they move on. They have to be in the ever-?replenishing present, partly because it is filled with ever-?replenishing uncertainty; there are always fresh crises coming hot on the heels of the old ones.
"No rest for the beautiful," Dad says.
"Wicked," I correct him.
"Them too probably."
Over the years, there have been other phone calls. It is usually Vanessa: "Oh Al, nightmare! There was a black mamba in the kids' room," that was once. Another time, she reported that Mum had returned from her morning walk around the farm to find a rabid dog sitting weirdly placid under the Tree of Forgetfulness. "You know what Mum's like. Luckily she realized it wasn't acting normally and she didn't try to stroke it or invite it to sleep on the sofa or anything." Then there were the few surreal months when crocodiles flooded out of the Zambezi in unusual numbers and plagued my parents' farm. They were not only in Mum's fishponds as usual, but also in Dad's banana plantation; sunbathing outside Mr. Zulu's house in the morning; casually scraping their way past the watchman's hut toward the sheep pen at night.
I seldom told Charlie about the phone calls and I rarely shared with him the freshest dramas from Zambia in part because I had learned over time that the events we Fullers found hilarious or entertaining did not always amuse my American husband. Charlie was a gallant one-?man intervention wanting to save us from our recklessness, quietly stepping in whenever he thought we were drinking excessively, ruining our health with cigarettes, or courting intestinal disaster with undercooked chicken. This made the Fullers howl with laughter and did nothing to make them behave differently. One year, in a fit of common sense, I sent a case of Off! insect repellent to the farm in the hope it would reduce the incidence of familial malaria. "Bobo sent us gallons of Bugger Off for Christmas," Dad told anyone who showed up under the Tree of Forgetfulness that year. "Go ahead, squirt yourself with as much as you like. Shower in it. Have a bath."
I still felt a little torn. For a long time, I had tried to be profoundly grateful to Charlie for his impulse of wanting to rescue us from our chaos, and I had even tried to believe in his systems of control and protection the way I had once tried to believe in God. But deep down I always knew there is no way to order chaos. It's the fundamental theory at the beginning and end of everything; it's the ultimate law of nature. There's no way to win against unpredictability, to suit up completely against accidents. Which isn't to say I didn't embrace the Western idea that it was possible—"Good God, you look as if you're about to shoot yourselves out of a cannon," Dad said when he saw Charlie and me dressed for a bicycle ride in Lycra, elbow pads, and crash helmets— but I understood that as much as it is craziness to court danger, disaster, and mishap, it is also craziness to believe that everything can be charted, ordered, and prevented. It's also more boring.
When I phoned home on Sunday mornings, Mum and Dad were usually at the pub below the banana plantation, overlooking the Zambezi River. It's evening for them, and they're taking a couple hours to put their feet up at the bar. Generally, a few drinks have imbued them with extra rations of optimism. Most often, Dad answers first, shouting even if the line is clear. "Fit as a flea," he usually says, or "Not bad for an old goat." He rarely elaborates, because in spite of an influx of competitively cheap talk time into Zambia (available for purchase at every intersection in Lusaka and in numerous kiosks all over Chirundu), Dad maintains the telegram-?abrupt phone manners of someone for whom long-?distance calls are a prohibitively expensive luxury. "I'll hand you over to Mum," he says as soon as the absolute preliminaries have been completed.
Then it's her turn to shout contagious enthusiasm at me from their noisy world to my habitually hushed one. She holds the receiver up so I can listen to the birds, the cicadas, and the frogs, and I can hear Dad objecting to this folly: "Bloody expensive conversation Bobo is having with a bunch of fresh air." But Mum shushes him and says, "Did you hear that?" And if the dogs begin barking she says, "Oh, the adorable little terrorists, can you hear them. Say hello to Bobo, Sprocket. Harry, say woof!" Sometimes she says, "And oh listen! The hippos are scolding us." And then she holds the phone up to the river, but all I can hear is Dad complaining: "Good Lord, Tub, we're not the bloody Rockefellers." But Mum ignores him and rattles on anyway.
"Big excitement this week," she was telling me now. "We got invited to a party in Lusaka. You know, those people with all the consonants in their names. Tiny blobs of caviar, well, trout eggs really, not sturgeon obviously, and scary amounts of vodka."
"Yes, so by the time we were ready to leave the party, your father had already had far too much excitement. He climbed onto the roof of the pickup and refused to come down," Mum says.
"What?" I hold the receiver out from my ear and stare at it in delight. These are my late-?middle-?aged parents! They are grandparents nine times over. I put the phone back to my ear. "Then what?" I ask.
"I had to drive off with him like that," Mum says. "And you know what a terrible driver I am. Heaven only knows how we made it home. I was halfway to Makeni before it dawned on me that I might be driving on the wrong side of the road."
"Dawned on you?"
"Well, Bobo, you know what drivers are these days. I thought they were hooting at me because they wanted me to go faster."
"I drove faster, of course," Mum says. "Dad was thumping on the roof but I assumed he was just singing the 'Hallelujah' chorus or Tchaikovsky's bells and cannons. How was I to know he wanted to come down? Oh, it was such a performance."
I shut my eyes and pictured the soft, hot world at the bottom of the farm, with the river lazily curling its way east to Mozambique, and my parents contributing to a general sense of easygoing mayhem in their inimitable way. By contrast, my days were amorphously mapped out with the repeating tasks of laundry and meals and deadlines. And I was more and more drained by an increasingly fraught effort to shore myself up against the belief system I had borrowed. "Well, situation normal here," I say. "Nothing new to report."
My parents pitied me the fact that— at least as far as they could tell— all my dramas had to be self-?inflicted. They considered the acceptance of the certainty of pandemonium an essential ingredient to the enjoyment of life. "Don't yell so loudly or everyone will want them," Dad said when, on a visit home, a plague of insects and a couple of geckos rained out of the thatch roof of the spare bedroom onto my mosquito net. Nothing surprised him, not the rabid dogs, or the snakes, not the hippos and elephants. "Although the novelty's beginning to wear off a bit," he admitted.
It takes a kind of outrageous courage— recklessness even, I might have said once— to revel in the pattern of that much definite chaos. I had been raised in this way, and I had loved much of my early life, and of course I loved my family, but at some point I had lost the mettle and the imagination to surrender to the promise of perpetual insecurity. Instead I chose to believe in the possibility of a predictable, chartable future, and I had picked a life that I imagined would have certainties, safety nets, and assurances.
What I did not know then is that the assurances I needed couldn't be had. I did not know that for the things that unhorse you, for the things that wreck you, for the things that toy with your internal tide— against those things, there is no conventional guard. "The problem with most people," Dad said once, not necessarily implying that I counted as most people, but not discounting the possibility either, "is that they want to be alive for as long as possible without having any idea whatsoever how to live."