Bok bok….

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.

Run.  If you can.  This is the fastest snake in the world.  And it will kill you.

Run. If you can. This is the fastest snake in the world. And it will kill you.

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.

Gaboon Viper - A BIG one!

Gaboon Viper - A BIG one!

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.


8 Responses to “Bok bok….”

  1. Reconversion Says:

    I could sit and read you blogs day in and day out. I love your stories. I thank you so so much for your friendship and your stories. They are amazing. I will go rest for a little while, but then I have work to do. No school on Friday, I just do not know how to not be working on something or another. My prayers for you and your dear father.

  2. desertseeker Says:

    Whew! Ok, you picked up some ancient story telling skills over there! That had me riveted. And I like John, and your father for giving him that radio. I need to start listening better to hear the “bok bok” when it comes. Thank you, Columbina.

  3. sergiusbob Says:

    This is beautiful Columbina. I could read your words all day!

    I’m praying for you again today and also thanking God for you…
    We are all so blessed to have you in our lives. Accept that and believe that you are that special. We are richer because we have our Columbina!

    May God bless you and hear all our prayers for you!

  4. Thank you!

    I have to say that this comes from very deep in my heart, and I am so thankful you understood me. It is so hard for me to write my thoughts.

    I wrote this story because out of the blue, Sergius-Bob mentioned that his priest was the son of a former Luthern missionary who lived in Liberia. It turns out, we KNEW EACH OTHER. We played together as kids….Bob, when I heard back from you, the memories just started coming one after another and I had to write this down. So this story is for you, and for your priest, Fr. Andrew.

    These memories are very difficult for me — they are painful and they are tied to many things that I can never write or talk about….but they are precious gifts God gave me as consolation for other things.

    Bok, bok, to Juvenaly, Todd, Sergius and Fr. Andrew….thank you for letting me in to your hearts.


  5. PS: Also, that green snake: this is a mamba….one of the most venomous snakes in the world. We used to keep antivenom in the freezer, shipped from the States. Only problem: nobody knew if it worked for mamba. It had never been tried. It was antivenom for American snakes…

    Also, the mamba is truly the fastest snake ever. Some scientists say that it is not really true, but those scientists have never lived in Africa and they have not watched one of these snakes actually chase a human being. I watched one chase my friend Michael all the way down the street, and to his house. It even tried to get in under the door. It was a 13 year old “houseboy” that killed it and saved everyone’s life…that boy was John’s grandson, Bibi.

  6. desertseeker Says:

    Bibi, the hero! What do those armchair scientists know? Does telling the stories help you through the pain?

  7. Yay for Bibi!!!! I remember that Michael’s father gave him 300 dollars…that was ALOT OF MONEY back then! Plus he got bragging rights. 😀

    Well, I don’t mean to insult scientists — God bless them! But I just know what I have seen…here’s what is funny about that: the sceintists say that green mambas don’t chase and aren’t that fast. But we had black mambas too, which scientists say are the ones who WILL chase, etc….In my years in Liberia, I saw every kind of poisionous snake (the only one we had that wasn’t poisonous was python and they are HUGE —John got several of these near our house and all of them were over 10 feet. ) anyway…the point is: we all saw green mambas chase and do all the things scientists say they don’t do. We saw black mamba and we NEVER saw them do that…wierd. This is why we have to have scientific method I guess. But we all knew that black mamba is even more dangerous than green, so us kids would walk WAYYYY around, and maybe this is why they didn’t chase us. I bet Fr. Andrew has his own stories about mamba, snakes and all, and we could go on for hours about them. They are fascinating! (I am not afraid of them and I guess my early exposure to the most deadly ones was good for me.)

    Telling stories helps me to remember good things and keeps me from focusing on bad. But I would say that the only thing that helps with the pain is prayer to our Lord.

    God bless you Todd ….

  8. desertseeker Says:

    Well, no scientist can argue with your experience. I suppose it’s similar in our walks with God.

    May the God who has loved you with an everlasting love, heal your pain.

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