Delirium is what creeps up on me when I am at my healthiest, and that same fever always seems to burn hottest in the dark, when the night is at its most quiet moments, when even sleeping dogs would not wake if I stepped over them. The Bossa people of Liberia say that there is a time in the night, when no living creature stirs, because Jah is walking the Earth and when he steps over his creatures, they sleep deeper for the safety. I am very familiar with that time of night, and yet, Jah has never stepped over me. Instead, of hoping for that, I hope for the day when I will be able to rise up and walk with Him.
When I was a little girl, our night guard, who named himself John for the white man’s benefit, would sit in our yard, and wait for the serpent who sought the opportunity to slip underneath the door, or through the grill of the air conditioner, or perhaps through a window, left open by careless children such as myself.
The St. Paul river races through our back yard. You can never escape the sound of it, and its scent is something you can never forget. The scent is of a thousand years, as if they were of one piece, folded and put away in a drawer with all the hopes of the people it has washed away in the rainy seasons. Year after year. It is the largest river in the sub-Sahara, and the jungle clings to the banks. Only your backyard is cleared away. The river is so wide, that you have to really strain to see the huts of the leper colony on the other side. But at night, when we are waiting for Jah to step over us, we can hear the drums of a voo-doo doctor, and we shiver from things that are far beyond the cold of this world. Deep down, even though you are very young and very small, you somehow know that the white world you will someday live in, will have a hard time understanding that sound, that smell, that jungle.
John and I were companions by night, friends by nature, and separated by a thousand years of Irish inbreeding. Because John and I would never have moved in the same social circles. He was Bossa, a native Liberian and descended from free men who were sold into slavery by their brothers. A Joseph with a coat of many colors. I was the daughter of “the boss man”. But we were friends all the same, and if night damned us to melancholy, at least we were honest with one another. I asked him why he was black. He asked me why I was “n (click) ga”, a sound that is hard to make in English, but which means “day”. I was five years old and that gave me a lot of food for thought.
I can smell the scent of the scorpion, black and timid, as it rushes away through the carport, to get away from us. John catches it up, and holds it out to me. He shows me how to hold it. I can smell the poison in its tail as John shows me how dangerous it is. That scent is pungent, and it is metallic, but it is soothed away by the banana tree which has just come into bloom. Just there, to the right, in the yard. And against the house, a wild blackberry bush clutches the wall and the small white flowers on it, drip with perfumed dew.
We ate oatmeal together, because we both liked it, and it was all I knew how to make. He liked his with raisins. I liked mine with brown sugar and butter. His teeth were perfect. Mine were ruined before I was ten.
Now that I live in the very modern west, I have difficulty with a few scents. One of them is “dead snake” versus “American skunk”. They are so similar, I have to take it in for several minutes before I can really decide which one it is. I also have a hard time with the smell of tonic water. The scent of quinine is enough to make me gag on non-existent applesauce. My mother had to crush up our quinine tablets in the applesauce. It was that or die from malaria. I hate applesauce and the scent of it makes me want to escape deep into the jungle. And I’m never coming out. Ever. I will run away if you make me.
John could feel the presence of the serpent before it appeared. He could feel the movement of the snake as it writhed upward, seeking an entrance. His machete would fly through the air, and strike it’s target, slicing through the fluid air, as if on heavenly wings. He was my friend. We played games and he loved me like a daughter. He taught me the names of the animals, and now that I am so sophisticated, I have forgotten them all. But I remember his nearness, his voice, as he whispered songs to me, that told of the Creation of the world, in his own terms.
In his story, there is one god who subdues all the others, and casts them into the river. They are all washed away. When they are gone, then this god decides to create new living beings to live in his jungle. He mixes all things into a bowl and out of this bowl, he forms the first man and the first woman. And John says simply, that his god has a son, who is called NgJesi.
John was not a young man. He was in fact, very old, when I met him. But he ran faster than any child I ever knew. We were inseparable, and my mother gave up trying to put me to bed. As soon as quiet took over the house, I would be out in the night, with John, waiting for Jah, stealing fresh blackberries from the vine, and trying to discern the serpent from the ropes that held the boat fast to the banks, on the far side of the house.
When he rid the neighborhood of a crocodile, my father asked him what he could do for him. His dearest wish was a transistor radio. Back in the sixties, a transistor radio was about the size of a Japanese car, with a price tag to match, and yet my father gave him one. It made John happy to hear voices, even though they spoke in languages he would never understand. It has always made my father happy to remember that.
My mother comes home from Abu-Jaddi’s, the market. John greets her in the drive, whips off the lid of the metal garbage can, thrusts it in her face and says, “Look Missy! LOOK!”
A gaboon viper writhes at the bottom of the bin, and my mother, with perfect grace says, “Oh John! How WONDERFUL for you!” He is so proud and he walks away with his treasure, knowing he can get a good price for the skin. I can smell the venom from 50 feet away . It’s deeper than any musk, heavier than any cloying floral, more resinous than any tree.
It is the scent of spiritual shame. It crystalizes within the fangs of even dead snakes. Venom is eternal and I can hear John speaking softly to me, “Never touch a dead snake. Even one dead for 100 years. The poison is forever.”
Sometimes, in the quiet, when my cat lies boneless on the bed, I think I can hear John, walking with Jah.
And then I hear, deep down, “Bok bok”….Our Lord is knocking at the door of my heart. And sometimes He speaks Bossa.