Each day begins the only way it can–
light seeping from each body, all things,
until we illuminate each other.
My heart is heavy. At first I think stone, the weight of a smooth river rock in my fist, but no, not stone. I remember the weight of Fataba’s hand in mine, intensely warm and moist in the tropical heat as she led me through crowds of curious villagers. Osman took my hand, helping me down from the land rover at each stop. It surprised me how small and slender his hands were, relative to Fataba’s, his palms suede-soft.
The hand is heavier than the heart, twice the weight. Holding hands snugly, you can feel another’s heart, beating.
Always people took my hands as I entered their village. Sometimes my arms would be swinging free as I headed to see a school or visit a hut serving as a clinic. I would feel small fingers then a delicate sweaty palm slip into my hand. While I looked down to see what child had mustered the courage to touch and hold on to the strange visitor, I’d feel another steamy little mitt grasp my other hand.
With the men, it was the elaborate handshake, essentially three different handshakes in quick succession. Many of the chiefs shook my hand as if I were the chief of my own distant village. It was hard for them to imagine a woman venturing so far on her own, so they assumed I must be what they called locally a Mammy Chief. I quickly learned the complicated greeting, and by the third day up-country, as I met new elders and chiefs, they would nod in approval as we progressed through the handshaking ritual. Their hands were the most wet and dense, arriving from physical work in hot sun, tending their farms and walking everywhere. If Islamic, they often greeted me draped in a boubou, a long thickly-woven robe layered over pants, which having been given one as a gift, I can say is sweltering—if you cup your hands while wearing one, you can almost drink your own perspiration.
Women were constantly taking my hands, stroking the length of my arm or marveling as they caressed thin strands of my hair gone wild and wavy in the humidity. I was both a bizarre object examined closely and an unexpected gift receiving gratitude. “Tenki, tenki,” one woman and then another would say, meaning ‘thank you’ in Krio. “Tenki for coming to us. Will you remember me?” The fingers of others laced into mine, coaxing me to dance with groups of women and girls, their bodies glistening with sweat, shuffling and swirling, happy. Personal boundaries are different in Sierra Leone, and relationships more tactile. Women hold hands as they walk together or talk standing face-to-face at the edge of a puddle.
I realize only now how held I was by the local people, my hands always in the company of others. Our palms together were as the inside of an oyster, damp and slightly gritty. We could make a pearl like this, I thought more than once.
To be completely honest, I also thought, hand sanitizer, recalling how sick I’ve returned from other developing countries. There was the six-week malaise after a street woman, clearly unwell, hugged me in Salvador, Brazil, tying a Bahia ribbon (a wish bracelet) around my wrist for good luck. And there’s the intestinal damage after eating local in the rural highlands of Ecuador, food handled by uneducated hands, which has cascaded into a string of other health challenges affecting me even as a write. I felt ashamed, surreptitiously reaching for the alcohol gel, but it’s true: I wanted to hold on to the spirits of the people I met without the physical residue.
Now the presidents of Sierra Leone and Liberia are urging their citizens to trade handshakes and hugs for other gestures, for instance, tapping your left shoulder just above the heart with your own right hand while keeping a safe distance from your friend or loved one. On the news, a child on the outskirts of Freetown squats, crying and calling out in Krio, looking through an orange, plastic-mesh fence at his mother face-down on the ground, well out of reach, as she dies in no one’s embrace. By now, he’s another new orphan that his neighbors fear.
The fourth thing I know about Ebola is how it divides as it conquers, taking away the touching, isolating the suffering. Tears can transmit Ebola if you let someone else brush them away.
At every mid-day meal, the dogs come around, waiting at the periphery, licking themselves then sprawling in red dust, brown eyes with the same hungry shine.
All of us tear chicken from bones with our teeth, the succulence of chicken flesh coating our hands and lips. The people here clean each bone in a way I’ve never seen in the States, sucking the knots of tendon and gristle from the joints, all concentration and little speaking, food consuming attention. One by one children, women, and elders throw the small, immaculate bones over their shoulders.
The dogs crouch in, civil, not a fight or growl, their own society of young, old, and alpha accepting the flightless wing bones, the flung ribs and tibias, licking the full length of each one, tongues into the hollows, then the grind and crunch.
I look at my bones, still slivered with meat, knobby ends, oily, messy. “It’s okay to throw away when you are done,” one woman tells me. There is no garbage collection in Sierra Leone. Soon all the dogs are sitting in a row behind me, even they have discovered the wasteful American.
For a moment, it will look beautiful, a piece of abstract art, a loose blue thread on red velvet, a child’s scrawl of a blue man floating in a crimson tide, an oxbow gone wild, cut off from its source, a knot unraveling, letting loose, what? in all that rosy mist bright as fresh blood on a handkerchief.
The image of an Ebola virion, a single strand of the virus chemically stained on a scientist’s slide, is the closest reporters can come to a color portrait of this lethal pathogen, typically captioned, benignly, as being the shape of a shepherd’s crook, the living cells of its host presumably its sheep.
Invisibly tiny to a human eye, an Ebola viron is a pouch of seven genes, millions of lipids and proteins, some of which form into a sharp, crystalline surface that can penetrate a cell’s membrane. It’s not so different from us, except, it can’t exist without a host, us or some other mammal, say a bat or monkey. Virologist Ed Rybicki describes viruses as not yet life but “the edge of life.” To be a virus is live vicariously.
The third thing I know about Ebola is that it desires and intends nothing, neither to thrive nor to kill, more an organic copy machine than a dark-hearted villain. The only way this virus can want to live is if it embodies a woman, a man, or a child deeply enough, and by then, it’s usually too late.
Most days I fail to save anyone. Perpetual loss, pain, fearing. Nothing I can do to stop it for anyone, ultimately not even myself. It’s October and a spider has taken up residence in my bathtub. I see her sip at the drain, the delicate way she tries to climb the tub walls, sliding down, then managing a sideways crawl. I collect her in a cup. Spider tea, I think, smiling, moving her outside to the last dahlia blossom, which I can’t stop from turning to mildew, to brown fragments. She hangs on with her dazzling eight legs anyway.
Some things don’t translate. Bat soup, for instance. More than once, sharing a meal with villagers in Sierra Leone’s rural up-country, I ate a kind of stew, with a meat I didn’t recognize. “Not local chicken,” I would say. “No,” Fataba would agree, looking away. But a lot of little bones. “What is this meat?” Always an exchange in Mende or Temne or Kuranko, not even Krio, which I was quickly learning to understand. The name would come in the local language. In a remote Koinadugu village, thinking an image would communicate more than words, I asked,
“So what does this animal look like?”
“Hard to describe,” one of the women explained.
“Is it a bird or an animal?”
“Hard to describe.”
“Bush meat?” I asked a bit hesitant.
“Yes, from the jungle.”
“Not a kind of monkey?”
I stop asking, not knowing if the ‘yes’ means it is monkey or is not. I’d already discovered that questions asked in the negative tend to confuse.
Probably it wasn’t bat soup.
Back in Kabala, dusk arrived with low clouds the color of both charcoal and embers as the sun sank away and a heavy thunderstorm prepared for its nightly show. Standing under a thatched overhang at my guesthouse, waiting for the gush and clamor to arrive, it was the first time all day that I wasn’t sweating.
Fanta, the maid and general helper at the guesthouse, joined me, pulling on a sweater. “You are not cold?” she asked. Still warm and sticky, I realized how truly adapted the local people are to their tropical climate that they could find a Kabala evening “cold.” Fanta stepped next to me, shoulder to shoulder.
“May I touch your hair?” she whispered.
“Okay,” I whispered back, peering into her young, unlined face, her eyes so deeply brown, I couldn’t see her pupils in the waning light.
“I like your hair, Madame.”
“You can call me, Kimberley, and I like your hair, too. Do you know that your name is the name of an orange soda? When I was a girl, it was a treat to drink that orange soda.”
“Ah, yes, we have that soda here. My father likes it so much, that is why he named me Fanta.” She was braiding sections of my hair along my cheek.
“You have the soda here? I didn’t know they still made Fanta.”
“Well,” she explained, focused on her thumbs working the fine strands, “not here, in Kabala, but in Freetown, maybe Bo. It is expensive but so sweet with the bubbles. Do you have to leave tomorrow? I would like to braid all of your hair, but it would take time.” She finished her plaiting, as she called it, and leaned into my side, sliding her arm around my waist. I reciprocated, feeling motherly.
“I’d like that, but yes, I must go. Tomorrow night I will sleep in Freetown.”
For a long while, we stood together looking out at the night, her sweatered arm against my bare skin, the heat of her body permeating the knit sleeve and pressing into me. This moment is fossilizing, I’d thought, leaving its imprint in me. So many in Sierra Leone had asked, “Will you remember me?” and I would look closely, intentionally, trying to memorize face, hands, garment, context.
Suddenly the silhouette of a fruit bat, several times bigger than the little brown bats back home, swooped between trees. Then up it bobbed against the last light of the day, a few feet away, its wings outstretched and opaque, its face that of a worried fox, before it folded back into the night.
The moment evolved, turning sultry and scented, a mix of green bananas growing nearby and the smoke of cooking fires coming from homes down the hill. One fragment of lightning flashed, then a boom of thunder, and torrents of water fell as if the clouds ripped, letting loose all their rain at once.
Fanta turned to go back to work. “I think you should stay and let me braid your pretty hair,” she said, smiling and petting the fine braid with a finger, patting the new curls forming in the rain-drenched air. As she walked away, I asked, “Fanta, young lady named for a sweet, bubbly soda, will you remember me?” She laughed and kept walking without looking back, “Yes, Madame.”
The second thing I know about Ebola is that bats can carry it without becoming ill, going about their lives, sleeping and swooping and sucking in sweetness. But if you kill a bat, handling its curiously winged mammalian body or letting its bare flesh and bones thicken your soup, the bat will take you with it.
It’s true, I pray. I believe in intentions, how they echo out into the universe, how despite the vastness, the vacuous light-years of nothing, or the hidden mass of dark energy, they reach, intersect, touch something. I also believe in entanglement.
Fataba, my Sierra Leone friend, finding my two-week-old email, responds, “Sorry” for the delay. I’m stunned by her need to apologize. She tells me of food shortages, price escalations, and being confined to her home, the entire city of Freetown locked down. Reading her words, I hear her Krio-tinged voice. I think, At least up country, people still have their farms, but you, you might starve in that city before Ebola and the rest of the world reach you.
“Please continue to pray for us this is so scary,” she writes. And so I do.
Physics is clear about entanglement: When two particles have interacted, they are forever entangled, no matter the distance that spreads out between them. What affects one, affects the other. People are particles and space, too. I laughed with Fataba. I hugged her. Look, here she is in a photo, smiling. Moments later we were soaked in rain, feet caked in red mud. I tried to teach her how to look through binoculars, to find the Crimson seedcracker, a startling red and black bird, finch-like, that flashed in foliage along a swollen, brown creek.
In Kundalini yoga, in sessions I join on certain evenings, the leader, Joan, finishes with the pounding of a gong. Lying on the floor, in what is called in English “corpse pose,” you feel the sound, the waves pressing into the soles of your feet, flooding around your body, swelling over you like water. You float in it, and it floats in you. You spread out like spilt fire, uncontained. No thought, the body is a wordless prayer.
This morning it translates as, Let them be safe.