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The International Writers Magazine: Africa

The Africa Inside
E Marin Smith

I dreamed I was back in Africa last night—an accidental and instantaneous African transport that shocked my sleeping mind.  Africa’s low trees and dust-filled air appeared in the quick way that things happen in dreams, like a breath in here across the ocean and a breath out on the Savanna, tender from wildfires, gleaming with morning. 

I could see every detail of the wood on the bark of the trees, like ancient, wrinkled, observing faces that seemed to freeze into focus in front of my frantically scanning eyes.  The trees seemed to loom gently closer to me, and my mind was screaming “Reason!  Soundess!  Validity!  How can this be that I’m here among these trees so instantly?”  My undergraduate mind then broke the surface of my unconscious meanderings and blurted into being the thought that I was going to fail all of my classes for the semester.  My unexplainable appearance in Africa was not convenient.  As it often is with my dreams lately, before I could act, I woke. 

Africa has been incubating for three years inside me, and it seems to have hatched as of late.  It is on my mind at the oddest of moments, with visions of wildebeest in my backyard, that became mundane as cattle, and sunrises that still seemed to illuminate the womb of the world.  I hardly knew why I was there at the time, except that I wanted to be, mixed with some kind of belief in fate, perhaps.  Africa had been rumbling in my bones for some time, and there I was.  I didn’t have any idea what kind of rawness I would find there, nor how the rumblings would manifest into one trumpeting moment that would live inside me.  I thought I understood that the truth comes in blows.  I didn’t, yet.
Let's put it this way: we were stupid stupid Americans in a rental car in the middle of a game reserve in Southern Africa.  The driver was driving stick, an almost lost art for suburban dwellers like us, and not only that but the whole car was what we kept referring to as “backwards,” with the driver’s seat on the right and shifter on the left (why it wasn’t us that were backwards, I don’t know.  We were in their country and in the opposite hemisphere, after all.) 

“Please not to remain in the park after dark,” the looming park employee had told us at the park’s entrance, his eyes glowing like two white eggs embedded in his deep black skin.  He was standing under a makeshift grass hut supported by a strong looking tree trunk where he had a glass terrarium with a seething, barely pulsing black mass in it.  He handed us a map and said, “Please not to get out of the car.  Many of the Chinese have been ate by lions because they cannot understand our speech.  Many dangerous animals live here.  Most commonly found snake is the spitting cobra.  Be careful and have a good day.” 

I stared at the black mass in the terrarium.  But I couldn’t get a good look at the most common snake in the area, because we drove through the flimsy looking gates of the reserve before we could change our minds.

The park was bursting with life.  We stared at the stalk-heads of giraffes just visible over the tall grass, shouted mating calls to a lone rhino (he was not amused), and someone dropped their sunglasses outside the car while we were staring transfixed at a lioness lounging in the shade.  We thought of the Chinese tourists and abandoned the sunglasses with little debate.  We saw hippos like big wet boulders in the water, had baboons throw their shit at us, and got bitten by various insects through the entire spectacle. 

We ignored the words of the cobra-taming park employee, or perhaps we just hoped that the sun would never set, so we could keep driving through the miles and miles of African grass.  But the dark caught up to us.  And soon the only light was from our headlights as we drove toward the park exit.

So this is the stupid part.  We were in a game reserve by ourselves, driving a backwards stick-shift car, at night, with hundreds of giraffes, rhino, crocodile, hippo, and angry baboons around us somewhere in the bush.  Apparently this wasn’t a stupid enough situation, so when we ran into some Australians who told us there were elephants just around the bend, we drove toward them.

I was paralyzed in my cocoon in the backseat, a little larvae of passivity, although I was smart enough to be afraid of elephants, especially at night.  And you don’t have to be in Africa for long to hear about the vindictiveness of elephants, and that they occasionally roll cars.  But my tongue was swollen in my mouth, it seemed.  I wanted to see one just as badly as anyone else.  At the time I had been trying to overcome my at times overly-cautious side, and I was not going to be the ninny that called out feebly, “Elephants are capable of physically trampling all land animals.”  So I sank deeper into the seat and made myself victim to the reckless minds that Americans so often operate with.  

Why had I come to Africa in the first place?  I thought maybe it was to find a piece of myself, or find some direction after an exhausting, academically and otherwise, first year of college.  Why, why, why was I there, trapped just like my spitting cobra cousin in the terrarium.  At times I even felt as dangerous as he was, rearing my head at the feelings of others, at relationships with men, at myself even.  I had thought Africa would help me to find some meaning, and like Saul Bellows Henderson the Rain King, it might satisfy some of the I want, I want, I want, that my pigmy-self was chanting.  I felt vague.  Young.  Unidentified.  And now I was afraid I was about to die by elephants. 

Stupid, stupid, stupidly we drove around the corner, the tall bush extending into blackness on both sides of the dirt road.  The air in the car seemed to carry every sound, every sniff or breath in or shift in position.  We stared ahead and saw nothing but the dirt road in front of us, and heard the crackle of the timidly moving tires.

I almost couldn’t watch, like I was in a movie theater seeing a horror film, as slowly the massive and powerful haunches of a black giant stepped swiftly backwards onto the path, out from the bush and onto the trail in front of us.  The bull elephant pivoted like a ballerina, gracefully and quickly, and he was suddenly and terribly facing us, a livid beast on four oak-strong barrels of legs, a body like a mountain before us, ears erect and fanned out to each side, and eyes, eyes gleaming, irate, and glistening red in the African night air.  You didn’t have to know anything about elephant behavior to receive his furious message—whatever animal remnant is left inside us tool-wielding bi-peds was awakened to a communication untranslatable with the tongue.  It was an emotion, thrown from his undulating, awful trunk to our humiliated insides, an emotion that resounded as a deep, commanding, DON’T YOU DARE. 

My memory of the moment is loud, filled with heat and very tense, and also racing by like the events in a dream and also somehow in slow motion.  I turned my head to look behind us as the driver seemed to take years to shift gears into reverse, and I saw a wall made of elephant hide.  It was a cow and her baby right outside the back window, and I screamed, and down came our foolishness like six feet of snow falling in one second, and it was all I knew for seconds, minutes, maybe hours.  My next memories are of nothing but the soul-vibrating sound of a bull elephant trumpeting, and blackness.
I did not die of elephants.  When I opened my eyes we were out, or almost out, driving through the gate under the disdainful eyes of the park ranger with the cobra, who looked as though he’d been waiting for us.  It was as if the intensity, the redness and the loudness of the moment had sucked up the time from all the other moments, had sucked out all their color and left them only black and delirious.  And I felt hit, smacked with the rawness of life and of Africa, like the wind of apathy had been knocked out of me.  It’s the blow that keeps coming back to me, that punch of truth that I can’t stop thinking of.  The fear made me feel awake, the nearness of death and pain more alive.  That’s always how it is, we need to be close to death before we fully realize the precariousness of life.  But for me it was the first real thing that happened to me.  We were from suburbia, we came from a place of new money and gated communities.  This was something that had to do with the rawness of the earth, something about the original way of living we all sercretly feel might have been a better deal—living off the land, facing its beasts, learning its language, loving it not because its cement and gated and safe, but because its dangerous, its alive, and it goes on without us.  And now Africa and its dark-wooded, lowstanding trees and its immense beasts goes on without me, and the power I observed there goes unclosed, and it rises with the same loud trumpeting in my dreams.

© Marin Smith December 2008

Marin gained her degree from Texas A&M University in English and Spanish, and has lived various places but mostly Wyoming since then.  Her tendency to not stay in one place for very long has given her many rich experiences.

Slowly Being Born
E. Marin Smith
I’m pretty sure the day I arrived in Buenos Aires was the hottest day of the year on the Rio de le Plata, which made the whole day seem like a fever dream

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