Unreal

by Katherine Forbes Riley
My wife and I are both glad to leave our ride behind in Botswana. Even though Devon is rich and white and probably racist I didn’t mind him, not the way Laurelie did. But her reaction to him was so visceral it kept me on edge the entire week. It got all mixed up with her morning sickness; she barely moved or spoke, just watched him with these suffering eyes, looking like any second she was going to weep or vomit.

Then as soon as he drops us at the train station it’s like she gets this new lease on life. Like her soul’s been returned to her, freshly laundered. Even missing our train to Zimbabwe doesn’t bother her. Neither does sleeping in the train station. She just puts her head in my lap and glows up at me, and then crashes and sleeps like the dead. Meanwhile I sit awake all night with my head on my pack and my hand on her belly like I’m keeping it warm or something. Wondering who she’ll wake up to be.

The next day we cross the border and enter yet another Africa. Each place we’ve been so far bears a passing resemblance to the image I carried across the ocean with me, along with more foreignness than I’ll ever comprehend. This isn’t the tropical manicure of northern Johannesburg, or the alabaster dust of Letlhakane; here in Bulawayo I drive our tent spikes into blood red dirt while purple flowers drop around us like silent rain. They make a scented carpet at our feet, and Laurelie falls to her knees, just breathing it in, but I’m so tired it barely registers.

As soon as the tent’s up I crawl inside and sleep straight through until morning. Laurelie stays up half the night reading the guidebook and munching on things; occasionally she makes this humming sound. Even in sleep I’m aware of her. Her pregnant body literally gives off heat; it’s like this burning ember next to me. In my dreams she’s pure energy and the baby is too, by which I mean there’s already this sense of it taking up space in the outside world.

It’s still dark when we wake so we eat breakfast by the light of our head lamps. Laurelie smells everything before she eats it, and she eats a hell of a lot. She keeps laughing, saying, I can’t believe how hungry I am, and, Everything smells so strong to me. And right about the moment I’m realizing this can’t still all be about Devon, she says, Huh. I’m feeling pretty great actually. So do you think the worst is over?

*

Neither of us is exactly sure when she got her period last. Both of us remember her having it on the Fourth of July but neither of us think she’s had it since. What with getting ready to come here we didn’t even think about it, not until she started feeling so sick back in Johannesburg. Which was about six weeks ago now, and that does put her around the end of her first trimester. So maybe the worst really is over.

Still.

Back in America, I tell her, we have ultrasounds. And blood tests. But she just laughs with this kind of joy underneath that doesn’t feel like it has anything to do with me. They have babies in Africa too, she tells me. We’re not taking this trip away from you. And we’re not going home without you. We’ll be fine right here, with you.

Well, the ‘we’ part kind of throws me. But still I find myself almost believing her. It’s because she sounds so positive—the way you do when your whole body is telling you.

*

Dawn is breaking, and everything outside our tent is some shade of red. I’ve wanted to make this trip ever since I can remember. It’s the first dream I ever shared with Laurelie, long before she became my wife. Still the way life goes it would have probably stayed just that, if I hadn’t mentioned it to my advisor last spring. Turns out Dr. Waters already had a trip in the works to go to Zambia and collect genomic data on this nomadic people with an exceptional sense of smell. Just like that he suggested I go in his place. Being a CDC scientist, he’s always taking trips all over the world, and basically was like what’s one less to me. Meanwhile I could barely breathe from excitement and trying not to show how much it meant to me. So then, whip whip, he resubmits his grant—the guy’s a gunslinger when it comes to government money—and suddenly I’ve got a research fellowship lined up for right after I graduate from medical school. It even pays for my wife to come. Because she’s a linguist he wrote her in as a language consultant; she doesn’t even speak any African languages but nobody at NSF said boo.

There was enough money we could have traveled like rich people, seeing only what we wanted to. But we wanted to know the reality of the places we traveled through. Not for guilt or history, and not to find ourselves either—more like to fling them and see how far they could go.

Okay so maybe I wanted that a little more than Laurelie. But she was game to go along with me. So we flew to Johannesburg with a sketchy plan of hitching and hiking our way up to Zambia and back again in time for our flight home.

So far we’ve been doing okay on trains, plus a week in a rich white man’s Range Rover. And it is only a four month trip, so we’ll be back in the States long before her due date, even if our calculations are off a little.

Still.

She looks like she lost fifteen pounds at least, and she wasn’t that big to begin with. You know malaria’s gonna be an issue now too, I remind her. Because we’re supposed to be hiking the Chimanimani Mountains next, and Zimbabwe stopped targeting rural mosquito-breeding sites under Mugabe. I’ll be fine because I started a course of Lariam pills a couple of days ago before we crossed the border. But Laurelie can’t take hers because the drug’s associated with birth defects, not to mention insomnia, anxiety, paranoia, hallucinations—there’s a whole list of neuropsychiatric side effects that could have turned that kid into a serial killer. It makes me sick to think I almost didn’t put that prescription package insert in my backpack along with the pills. Because if I hadn’t I know I would’ve told her to just take them, thinking the drug had to be better than the disease.

We’ll be careful, she tells me. Will you stop worrying? I think all that medical training is making you overthink a very natural thing.

Maybe so. But looking at her, I wonder if she’s really thinking the opposite—that because I’m a doctor I can’t make a mistake.

So now I have to be careful. I lay back on my sleeping bag real casual-like, put my arms behind my head and say, Well how about we do some things here in the city awhile, just until you put some weight back on you?

This time there’s no mistaking the look on her face. She’s thinking she’s tougher than me. She doesn’t say a word though, just opens her guidebook and starts making a list.

*

First on her list are Bulawayo’s jacaranda-lined streets. She wants to see if they’re as wide as the guidebook claims. A legacy of Cecil Rhodes—a.k.a. the father of African colonialism—they’re supposed to be able to fit a wagon turning with a full span of oxen. Today they’re packed not with animals but people, many of whom are wearing green baseball hats. As we approach I hear voices chanting, Mama! Mama! Weird, I know. But people smile, make room for us. Some guy even gives us green baseball hats. Then the sea closes around us and we’re part of it, drifting deeper into the city with no idea of where we’re going, and not caring either; it’s all about the flow, until I start seeing posters of a green-turbaned head. Just a few at first, and then suddenly they’re everywhere, plastered to all the walls and shop windows:

BULAWAYO WELCOMES YOU AMAI DR GRACE MUGABE

This is a relief but also not. Because not only is Amai the word for mother in Shona, it’s also what Bulawayans called Mugabe’s first wife—dead now from a cancer many called mariticide—while Grace, his second wife, is better known here as DisGrace, on account of all her profligate European shopping sprees. Besides which the woman isn’t a real doctor at all. She attended university for only two months before her husband handed her that degree. Still I have to admit her name looks impressive with the DR attached to it. It’s like seeing it somehow makes it feel real. So I’m standing there wondering if the chants are just plants, or if seeing the Amai makes the Bulawayans feel it too, when I notice the helmets. The combat boots. Their bearers are stalking the sides of the crowd ahead, funneling it into into a large grassy stadium. I see a man try to slip away and get frog-marched back. Like counterpoint, I hear distant sounds of fighting.

We should go, I tell Laurelie.

*

In the dark of our tent we could be anywhere. I trace our path on her skin by the light of my headlamp. Vivid maps have surfaced all along the length of her, but are densest at her breasts and abdomen. It’s as if all roads lead there, to our Milliarium Aureum.

*

Next on her list is a R1250 tour through Matobo Hills, with stops at Rhodes’ grave and a traditional Ndebele village. We catch the bus outside a luxury hotel, an old Greyhound with the image of the dog painted over imperfectly. We drive for thirty minutes on a paved road with half a dozen other tourists, all of them white. We sit in the back while they sit in the front and compare lodgings along dimensions of food, golf, snooker, and pubs. Laurelie’s eating peanuts and plucking nationalities from accents, while I look out the window and pretend I’m deaf. But the South African woman’s voice must be heard. Horrible delays getting here! she shrieks. Between the state of the roads and that awful rally nobody warned us about! She’s glamorously dressed but has aged badly in the face, a fact her rhytidectomy only makes more obvious.

Her comparison tries to temper her. No street signs does make it difficult, but after all Africa’s no place for sissies. His spider angiomas scream heavy drinker.

Cars all over the road, swerving pot holes, no respect to the zebra crossing, the Australian chimes in. Squamous cell carcinomas dot the back of his hands and neck.

Not the people’s fault. Speaks to the broader macro-economic situation. A pair of Swedes, both blond, muscular, genders unclear.

Still a shame they aren’t friendlier, the South African woman says, and I swear she looks directly at me. Even though I’m from Connecticut, on this bus I guess I’m African.

Then we’re turning onto a rutted dirt track, and everyone quiets down, except for the Canadian, who suddenly wakes up. Rock magic, he breathes in a voice so hoarse I’m betting he smokes some serious weed.

Magic isn’t far off though. The landscape is a panoply of low hills covered in rock formations that look like they’ve been constructed by giant hands. Boulders larger than our bus are balanced atop tiny ones, while others resemble creatures, or shelters, or gigantic marbles paused in mid-roll down the hills.

The bus stops abruptly and we all get off and hike a short trail through some bushes to the grave, where two guards dressed completely in green make us pay another R250 to actually see it. And then all it is is a single polished rock fit into the floor of the hill with tiny blue lizards running all over it. Based on its size the man must have been extremely short. Back on the bus the South African woman complains loudly of being ripped off. More dirt roads, more rock-strewn hills; the magic is wearing off. Now the bus stops beneath a stand of mountain acacias. Two others are already parked, and out the windows we see a crowd of tourists milling about a circle of mud huts. Mud gives the wrong impression however, because the walls of these huts have been painted white and then covered with brightly colored geometrical murals. The effect is both exotic and a little intimidating; I hear more than a few murmurs of trepidation as we climb down from the bus. There a large woman greets us and hands out pamphlets. Her skin is so dark it makes me dizzy if I look at it too long. But nowhere’s safe. The bronze coil encircling her neck seems to stretch it beyond its natural length. The wide rings hanging from her waist, arms and legs, dazzle my vision with a galaxy of tiny colored beads. Her long apron is woven with many more millions of beads, and the robe over her shoulders repeats the same colors and shapes as in the murals.

Christ! breathes the South African woman, and gives her a wide berth.

It’s a relief to wander on our own. We move with anticipation towards a circle of men holding spears. They are dancing, one man executing a complex series of rhapsodic moves while the others revolve around him, clapping, ululating and whistling. They’re naked but for loincloths made of skin and elaborate furred and beaded headpieces. From a distance they look vital, virile. Up close however they look rather bored; some talk in low voices as they dance, and one even seems to have fallen asleep.

Laurelie reads from the pamphlet as we walk; I learn that aprons indicate age and marital status while beadwork communicates other social complexities, like whether you’re a mother or more of a priest. The rings simulate rolls of fat—a form of wealth—although they also kept brides from running since they could weigh up to twenty-five kilograms and remained in place, further accumulating, throughout the bearer’s life. We stop in front of the largest hut; a store of sorts, it contains a wide array of small art for sale and a dozen more woman dressed like the one who greeted us. Most of them are weighty of their own accord, but also impressive in a way overweight American women typically are not. Standing so impassively they remind me of high fashion models, and frankly make the rest of us look cheap—even the South African woman in her Dolce and Gabbana pantsuit.

Laurelie tells me she’s going in to buy a beaded arm ring.

I tell her I’ll wait here.

Witch doctor, she murmurs, and I stiffen, then realize she’s referring to a man in a long skin cape crouched in from of a small hut next to the store. The hut is mural-less and the man is old; both are bare of color or design. I look away and watch Laurelie approach a girl who seems our age but must be a decade younger based on her apron. Laurelie says something and the girl answers her. Then they both touch their bellies and smile. I look at my wife and think, How does a pregnant woman hike? And for a moment I hate her.

Then someone pokes me in the back.

It’s the witch doctor. He just stands there. I can’t tell what he’s doing. But after a while he opens his hand, and there are a bunch of dried berries in it. He mimes eating them.

They’re very sweet, and take a long time to dissolve. Like some kind of African chewing gum.

*

Inside her there’s this baby, but all I see is lips and cheeks red as this African dirt. She begs me to make love to her. I ride as lightly as I can, but her arms and legs are wrenches, vises. Harder, she begs. Deeper. It’s like an itch, she says, that nothing reaches.

*

Her guidebook says there’s a bike rental place but I think she thinks I don’t believe it because when we finally find it she says, See?

I just don’t feel like talking is all.

Anyway it’s only a hut in the brush with a bunch of bikes leaning on it and a kid inside who’s probably not a kid at all. She munches nuts until I find two with working brakes, and then her list says we have to ride up a hill. But with rocks on all sides and the sun beating down it’s a convection oven to me. Five minutes and she’s already looking peaked, and still I think she’s trying to outpace me. Ten minutes and I’m checking her for signs of dry mouth, lethargy, reduced skin elasticity, sunken eyes, fever, shock. Fifteen and I can’t stop thinking about what dehydration does to fetuses. Twenty and I’m wondering who’s this monster inside of me.

But when we turn a corner there’s a hand-printed sign thrust in the brush: COCA COLA. We make out the shack a little further back, just some wide grey boards stuck together with gaps. Two people come out. Thin-limbed, smooth-skinned, close-cropped hair, I think they’re boys until I realize they’re both pregnant. There’s dirt on their hands, which they wipe onto bright white towels, leaving long red streaks. I hand them one American dollar and they hand back four ancient green glass Cokes from a blue cooler resting on the fat-bladed grass.

The rest of the climb is easy after that. At the top is a rock rounded out like a clam shell and filled with 10,000 year old San Bushman paintings. Mostly they’re stickmen and spears and four-legged creatures, but there are a couple of other things too that make me wonder.

On the way down we fly. Laurelie’s mouth goes so wide it looks like she’s swallowing the world. Not real, I think, but when I try to say it the wind takes it and throws it against the rocks.

*

Buses for Africans are nothing like Greyhounds. Packed in tight the smells are intense, my face streams sweat, and my head spins. But I can’t stop smiling. Two guys stare at me and still I can’t stop. Brother, they call me when we get off, and then they find us a ride on the back of a flatbed truck all the way to the foot of the Chimanimani mountains.

Isn’t this better, she says as we hike. And I think, If I could speak I’d tell you nothing is quite what it seems. Like even though we’re climbing it doesn’t feel like we’re going up. There aren’t any animals. There aren’t even any bugs. There are just caves and deep pools and purple waterfalls fed by golden rivers. All the plants look like they’re made of velvet and all the valleys like they’re made of rock. There’s carved rock and moon rock, metallic rock and chalk rock and camouflage rock too. And beneath it all is red dirt.

*

We sleep in caves now. She sleeps. I curl myself around them both and whisper, You’re awake too, aren’t you? I whisper, Isn’t this amazing. This total darkness. Your constant need. The crumbling point of our desires. The fact that her body has become the softest thing in all this land and mine has gone as hard as its highest peaks.

I don’t know if I sleep but in the morning when I open my eyes it still feels like I’m dreaming. I’m an old man in an overcoat singing opera on a street corner. I’m a young man in an subway staring into my mouth in the bathroom mirror and finding the dryer soothing.

And then I crawl out of the cave and sort of focus my eyes and see:

A circle of stacked stones
Water on embers we burned the night before
Laurelie sitting in a spill of sunlight on the red mountain floor


And it’s like I get to pick what’s real.

Then we pack our gear and it’s up up up like apes and down again like Mario Bros. It’s pure mathematics.
(Input output.)
Euphoria.

After a while we find a new cave and then it’s all pools and waterfalls. Sometimes she comes with me and sometimes they stay behind. I always know when they come because she hums. It’s low and points in and once it starts they don’t know where we are or how to get back, so I have to remember not to lose her.

*

Birds, I’m thinking as I approach, but there are people in my waterfall. Large and white. One male. Three females, with strong sucking strength.

When she sees me running back, she starts running too. At first it’s like she already knows because she’s waving a white flag. But then she puts it in my hands and I see it’s the package insert.

This is you, she says. Oh god Lucien this is you.

*

The FDA states that the use of mefloquine (also known as Lariam) can cause anxiety, paranoia, dizziness, insomnia, vivid dreams, hallucinations, depression, restlessness, confusion, aggression, and suicidal ideations, among other side effects. <1 > These effects can occur at any time during drug use, and worsen the longer the drug is taken. They can last for months to years after the drug is stopped or can be permanent. <8 > Severe central nervous system disruptions have been reported in about one in 10,000 people, <10 > but it is suspected the number is closer to 1 in 140. <9 >
Katherine Forbes Riley is a computational linguist and writer in Vermont. A Dartmouth College graduate with a PhD from University of Pennsylvania, her professional writing appears in many places. Her creative writing appears in Spartan, Crack the Spine, Storyscape, Whiskey Island, Lunch Ticket, Eunoia Review, Literary Orphans, Eclectica, BlazeVOX, McNeese Review, Akashic Books, and Buffalo Almanack, from whom she received the Inkslinger’s Award.

© 2016, Katherine Forbes Riley