Issue No. 9 • April 2013
The dark mud road had traps and bumps. Almost every day a tour bus got stuck, spinning its wheels, the driver swearing in some mix of Swahili and local dialect. Clouds like lint, thick banana leaves waving, a waterfall turned stream turned lake, and the post office so far it felt like a hike to another planet.
At night, as the only woman in a bar full of men, I stood out in the throng playing darts. The owner lived in a small room just off the bar with a narrow cot-like bed and a bare-bulb light. One night, he crowned me Muslim with a white and yellow cap.
By day, I circled the mountain with a research team of men and one woman with a helmet of hair and hunched shoulders. After years of study and a dissertation on Kilimanjaro’s receding ice cap, I had little to show for my work. The most useful thing I’d learned was that the only way to look at the moon was to be slightly drunk and under tree cover so that its appearance when it came was a surprise. Growing up I had a room with a telescope for trapping the moon and stars, but I learned early on that detail is overrated in experience. Close examination doesn’t always help.
I managed to get sunburned even with the clouds, my face and arms pink and tender to the touch. The skin was a marvel to the children. Each one wanted a turn touching the red, forming a pale thumbprint that then disappeared. At church one Sunday, a baby who’d never seen a white person had a meltdown at the sight of a German woman with white hair and paler skin than mine. The wailing could be heard from down the road. Louder than the choir and the tape-recorded organ, louder than the prayers said in unison.
On my first day here, a man at the market proposed marriage in passing.
“The bottoms of our feet are the same color,” he said.
I tucked this criterion in my pocket for future use, in with the data I gathered day to day on a mountain that refused to show its face.
Peter could no longer be relied on to read a map. This after he got us lost mid-jungle and we landed at the mouth of a waterfall taller than my apartment building at home. The sound of water rushing drowned out the protests from other team members. How many scientists does it take to get lost on a mountain? Sometimes I forgot that we were on it—sort of like being on a planet: plant your feet and you forget about the orbiting mass below.
Before I left for Kilimanjaro, I found a bright blue coil key chain in the bottom drawer of my desk. Caleb’s. In Marangu, he followed me down the winding paths and through clearings. Under the mosquito net at night.
The only reason I couldn’t see the moon now was the daylight, noontime, bright all over. And the clouds that covered the sky from edge to edge.
Peter mistook a pen squiggle for a way out through trees. His colorblindness saw textures first, color second. He passed the map to Antonio whose chronic sniffling sometimes woke me up at night. Antonio zeroed in on where we were in an instant. Some things can’t be learned. Now we call him the human compass. Back through the low-hanging banana leaves into a tangle of trees that seemed to lead nowhere but on the other side: an opening. Another set of trees and we were back on track. A monitor on Fred’s hip bleeped as if in recognition. Julio wore a head lamp and Mark brought up the rear. Penny checked her watch every few paces as if we had anywhere else to be. Something chirped—part cricket, part bird. I’d learned not to investigate strange noises. Early on, I met a family of lizards when I followed a clicking sound. One jumped onto my leg and cured my curiosity in a flash.
A flock of frantic wild chickens crossed through—a sign we weren’t far from the camp we’d set up and other village homes. The chickens took wide loping strides through the trees. Back at the camp, I lay on my sleeping bag with the throbbing headache that came once a day. A combination of altitude and dehydration. Also thinking of Caleb’s lost keys.
“Ah, I know I left them here,” Caleb said, gesturing to the empty spot by the ceramic garlic keeper. He paced the kitchen, scanning every surface. Caleb lost his keys at least six times a week and his supposed knowledge of where he did or didn’t leave them had no bearing on whether, when, or where they might turn up.
One of his roommates had written an elegant mathematical equation to explain this regular occurrence and the conclusion was on any given day at any hour, he was more likely to lose his keys than to have them in his possession. John’s announcement of this theorem did little to improve the situation. Key bowls, bulletin boards, fluorescent pink key chains—nothing changed it. John also calculated that if he continued at the current rate of loss, Caleb would spend approximately 190 days—not hours, but days—of his life on a quest for keys. The knowledge of these equations must have registered in my gaze because Caleb refused to make eye contact.
“Don’t look at me,” he said and I made a mock curtain with my hair, sweeping it in front of my face. Caleb Olev spoke six languages and could name every bone in the body from head to toe, but everyday responsibility eluded him. He could barely boil an egg or keep a plant alive. His brain rejected things that seemed mundane.
His girlfriend Paige had a similar scatterbrain, so I kept watch of Caleb that summer in Austin, Texas, just to make sure he didn’t walk in front of a bus. He was the son of my mother’s best friend, which made us family of a kind stronger than blood, the one you choose instead of the one given. Caleb was the first person to know I wanted to be a scientist. And I was the first to know when he lost his virginity to a buck-toothed bassoon player at orchestra camp. Through my curtain of wavy hair, I could see him pacing wildly.
“Are you sure they’re in here?” I said. Somehow, I often had a sixth sense about where his keys were.
“Don’t Lexa,” he said. Lexa. My parents wanted a boy and had settled on Alexander long before I was born, but then flipped the “r” back to Alexandra, which sounded more like a precious porcelain-skinned ballerina than a scientist, so I went by Alex. Only Caleb called me Lexa. ‘Hopped the A over the Lex,’ he said. Outside, the slow late-summer air hung over the yard. The humidity made everything sticky.
“Retrace your steps,” I said like a mantra, quietly enough that he could pretend not to hear me. That morning, I’d looked at a slide of mitochondria; saw how accidental smudges had a pattern up close. I believed then that the origin of anything could be traced to the cellular level.
“I—can’t remember,” he said and I parted the curtain of my hair to look at him, his big broken-looking nose, and his messy hair. The lost keys theorem came back to me.
“You will,” I said with lab-coat-authority. The trees outside, drooping in the humidity, looked ready to quit the humdrum roots-in-the-ground, leaves turning brown in the heat. Even though he’s lost his keys at least eight hundred times before and would lose them eight hundred times again, I hadn’t lost patience.
Sometimes waiting for a result could be like watching grass grow. The tent for our makeshift lab let in any creature with a will greater than a snail. Mosquitoes humped the bright lit walls in the back of the tent where lamps kept specimens warm. A pair of blackbirds made a nest above the entrance. I kept waiting to be blessed Roman-pigeon-style. Poop on the head elsewhere would be an annoyance, here—a catastrophe. The shower was a bare-bones faucet set high up that trickled slimy amoeba-filled water, lukewarm at best.
“Hair self-cleans,” Fred said. Easy for him to say since he was almost bald. After two weeks, my bun started to stay without a rubber band, a worrisome development. I borrowed Penny’s no-water shampoo, though it only made me look like I had an advanced case of dandruff. Asking a pack of scientists for an appearance appraisal was useless. Born fashion-blind, most of us roamed the world with pocket-protectors and pants up to our armpits. Still, I asked Antonio,
“How do I look?”
“Tired,” he said. True. I told him the mountain kept me awake. Half-true.
Sometimes when I couldn’t sleep, I thought of the landscape near the peak. Near the top, Kilimanjaro had a lunar quality. It shed trees and all animals but the most hearty and driven to solitude: vultures, crusty-shelled insects that would join the cockroaches in surviving a nuclear holocaust. Picturing the scene sometimes lulled me back to sleep, but other noises woke me. Fred’s snoring, Antonio’s sniffling, the clucks of chickens in the side yard, avocados falling on tin roofs nearby, the pop of a cart on the road, and the sound of the first kitchen fire that started at five. We shared a kitchen with three houses and the local museum, which was more a storehouse of art—no labels, no names, no order—just masks and paintings strewn around a room with murals painted on the walls. The kitchen had walls blackened with smoke and a stove that looked stolen from a museum on pioneers in the early American West. I still hadn’t ventured there alone. A whole chair had been built for shredding coconut with a blade sticking out of the side. I had more sense in a kitchen than Caleb who ruined even a boiled egg, but the prehistoric instruments kept me at bay. Caleb. I said the name out loud to the chickens and bush babies, the endless green around the tent.
Fred positioned a sample under glass.
“Come look,” he said.
Whether Gabriel and I were dating was a matter that could be argued either way. His house sat at the base of a hill, nested in between rows of palms and avocado trees. Sometimes avocados fell and made dents in his roof. When they did, he commented that the dents made the roof stronger. He taught English at the local Teacher’s College but sometimes he slipped up and made mistakes. When he first invited me to lunch, he also told me to bring a friend. I couldn’t explain that I had none here, so I brought Penny though most of our conversations had to do with her powdered shampoo. Still, she was a likely stand-in. Penny sat quietly at one corner of the table while Gabriel served a lentil stew to me, Penny, and his five sisters from neighboring villages.
The terms “sister” and “brother” were both wiggly. When Gabriel first explained it to me, I thought of Caleb and didn’t say anything for a few minutes until I realized I was holding my breath. The lunch seemed more like an informal soup kitchen than a shared meal or even a date. Gradually, the population of our meetings dwindled but only last week did we start meeting just the two of us. When I slipped on his leather sandals to go use the outhouse, he looked alarmed as if I’d just flashed him. I still hadn’t checked to see if the bottoms of our feet are the same color.
“Your camera speaks many languages,” he said, imitating the sound of the shutter opening and closing.
“Otto o shiri ni shiku,” Caleb said as we took a shortcut back from Paige’s house, down by the bridge where bats lived underneath surviving on night vibrations and echolocution. I liked to think about forms of communication superior to words. Anything seemed more effective than clunky old English.
“Is that supposed to be funny?” I said.
“It’s this Japanese phrase about sitting on your husband,” he said. The swampy night air filled with sounds of crickets, buzzing streetlamps, and the swish of passing cars.
“Nice,” I said.
“Not like that,” he said. “Like defying his wishes.”
“Yeah, except I think it gives the woman a big butt.”
“Metaphorically,” I said
“What do you mean?”
“A metaphoric big butt, not a real big butt.” We passed the bat hideaway and I relaxed a little. For a scientist I could be pretty squeamish about the things of the natural world. Anything outside the lab. City-dwelling wildlife set me on edge. Pigeons, squirrels, the bats under the bridge.
“Yes, a metaphoric big butt,” Caleb conceded. He was quiet for a while. We passed an old man whose beard looked like moss.
“Okay then,” I said.
“Okay,” Caleb said. “Okay.”
Sometimes we got lost in conversations and forgot their point or where we’d begun. With Caleb, everything went the way of the keys. Together we found his keys over and over with me behind the curtain of my hair and him pacing and circling, waving his arms. Some things he lost for good: pens, watches, sunglasses, gloves. Also photographs, letters, recipes. Once he tried to make his Aunt’s chocolate-chip cheesecake from memory and it ended up a soupy mess.
On the surface of Kilimanjaro there are still unknown plants and geological forms, cracks in the ground that give way to whole ecosystems, self-sufficient worlds feeding and exchanging nutrients and oxygen. Fred thought he found something new in the course of one expedition. I could tell because he wouldn’t talk about it—he just circled the tent like an idiot savant spouting the Latin names of plants from memory.
“Fred, can you take a break?” Antonio called out from the amoeba shower wash zone. “I’m having a moment here.”
One thing I knew before going into the field was we would be edge-to-edge nose-to-nose with no break for six months. In that environment it was hard to have my own private thoughts. But that was what I wanted: to adopt the thoughts of others. People, plants, lizards. Just not my own.
Gabriel invited me to meet his parents but then sat me ten tables away from them, across a giant meeting hall where a communal supper was shared. He circled the room all night with his little sister on his arm.
When he walked me back to the tent, I asked why he lived alone. He was quiet for a long time, then said,
“Malaria,” as if it was a name. “Malaria.” That was what took his wife and children, a simple, treatable disease.
When he started studying English, he thought he would become a doctor, but he stopped after an anatomy class. The naming would not bring them back.
“I was better at language than making people better,” he said. Ahead of us, a dense fog floated and receded as we approached. Sometimes the thick clouds looked lit from the inside. After three weeks here, I hadn’t seen the peak of Kilimanjaro, but sometimes the outline appeared in the clouds, faint, like a sketch.
“Are you sitting on me with your big butt?” Caleb used to say when I broke plans or changed them at the last minute.
“I’m not your wife,” I said. In time, he and Paige had married and owned a house full of things to lose.
I steadied my feet as Gabriel and I walked through the mist. The ground of uneven rock-marked clay wouldn’t stay level. An unexpected dip sent me sideways into Gabriel who took my arm more like a firefighter—as if it was his job—as opposed to a suitor. There hadn’t been a hint of a kiss, not even a tingle between us. At the tent, he let go of my arm and bowed.
Smoke and steam billowed from the kitchen where someone cooked what looked like an entire goat.
“Smells good,” Antonio said, his head propped on the roll of his sleeping bag.
“Are you joking?” said Fred, still bent over the specimen table. He lost all grasp of humor in the wake of his potential discovery.
“No,” Antonio said, “I’m going to invite us for dinner.”
“Count me in,” I said. Fred looked up through his extra-magnifying glasses that attached to his regular glasses. He looked like a robotic insect.
“Very funny,” he said.
Penny sat at the card table in the corner of the tent reading her Bible, the only book she brought. She looked up and somehow her hand on the text gave her a greater authority. We returned to somber expressions. Hard working scientists in the field. I could feel Antonio on the verge of another joke, so I stood up and climbed out of the mosquito net.
“I’m taking a walk.”
Julio and Mark both rose to offer accompaniment but I waved them away. Tonight it was just me and the mountain, the rare sight of a woman ambling alone in these parts, circling the foot of Kilimanjaro.
Had I not left my window open. At home, my sleeps were epic. I’d slept through two hurricanes, a tornado, and an earthquake. Had my curtains been heavier. I only had white crocheted curtains with wheel-shaped snowflake patterns, yellow with age, thin and strong as a fisherman’s net. Designed to discourage any bugs that found their way through the screen. But it let in wind, a breeze, and Caleb’s voice.
“Lexa lost my keys,” he called up, the “I” muffled in his slurred syllables. LexaIlostmykeys. “Lexa lost my keys.”
“Caleb?” My head lifted the curtain. His eyes opened wide as if he didn’t expect my waking, as if he planned to stand outside my window saying this like a chant until morning. I climbed out of bed and met him outside.
In my banana peel-patterned pajama bottoms and a baggy white T-shirt, I walked with him to the place where he swore he dropped them. He didn’t want to wake Paige and the boys. He didn’t want to tell me why he was out so late losing his keys in the field where he used to play soccer. The grass squished under my feet and soaked the bottom of my slippers. We played the game: the hair curtain, the pacing. Yes. Keys, keys, keys, just one glint of silver.
Can a scientist lose her ability to detect a fine change in the pattern, a filament out of place, needle in a haystack? The wind, a cooler wet fall wind, crossed the field and lifted my hair.
“The keys, Lexa,” he said, this time close, into my face.
“I hear you,” I said, backing away and he closed the distance, his hands heavy and clumsy, the sort of hands that lose keys.
Reaching, pressing, lifting. Echolocution was just patterns of air. His thick fingers traced the back of my shoulder blade.
“What are we doing?” I said.
“I don’t know,” he said, leaning down to part my hair and find my lips. As we moved, I heard a jangle and clink. On impulse, maybe from years of knowing where they were before he did, I reached down as if to open his belt buckle and instead went for his pocket and found them. In there the whole time, hard against his leg, impossible not to feel. The weight of them. Gym locker, office door, front door, back door, car, bike lock, carpool van, parents’ house, summer house, shed in the back yard. So many keys they’d become a monument of accumulation. Impossible to lose but still he did. I grabbed the keys, now transformed into an erotic object.
“You found them,” he said. “I knew you would.”
The keys jangled in my hand, left little marks on my skin and my hands smelled of metal and all the places where they’d been lost.
The entrance to Kilimanjaro couldn’t be passed without a guide and a steep fee. People paid to go in and some didn’t return. Each month an overzealous mountaineer took it too fast and had the reverse experience of a scuba novice, the pressure and altitude too much when taken all at once. We skirted the edges, the base. At night the road played tricks, dove deeper, turned sharp. I pictured my heroic death as a researcher on Kilimanjaro—landing head-first in a ditch with my hand clutching some never before seen plant. She died with her greatest discovery in hand, they would say. Maybe a cover article in Scientific American, not a piece of marginalia in the “Journeys” section. “Six Scientists, Six Weeks on Kilimanjaro.” Curiosity never made the front page.
The museum near our tent employed a low budget guard who roamed half-naked carrying a bow and arrow. One night he was picked up by the police for nothing other than being drunk and confused. Sometimes he forgot about the museum and claimed to be guarding “the Queen’s Palace.”
Word spread about his detainment and a throng of women connected to the museum traveled on foot to the jail. He spent the night standing up in a roomful of men with a can in the corner instead of a toilet. When he returned, he was quiet and averted his eyes when he passed our tent. One of the women cooked banana chapati for him. He reached his hand into the fire to adjust the coals and didn’t flinch at the heat.
Back at the tent, the museum guard stood sentry as if he knew the weight of what Fred fumbled towards in his hours under the lamp with the magnifying glasses. Moving so slowly with his tweezers, worried he might fumble, causing the dreaded “human error.” The mood in the tent was tense. I fumbled through the mosquito nets in search of sleep.
Caleb and Paige moved out of their house a month after I followed him to the soccer field and I went to see them off though they didn’t know I was there. I stood down the road watching as they loaded the van, and when it sped past, I held my arm up in a gesture more like a shrug than a wave. I followed the van to the corner. But already it was gone, swept down the road past houses, a school, an Episcopal church with a year-round Nativity scene out front.
I watched the back of the van until the brake lights were two red squiggles at the end of the road. It wobbled on its wheels. I’d told Caleb to junk it years before. I wanted to jump in my car and race after them. Somehow showing up empty-handed and hiding felt worse than if I’d stormed the house, yelling up and down the stairs so the boys hid or covered their ears.
I don’t know what I would have yelled. Probably some jumble of words about carelessness or crashing around with something as delicate as friendship. Maybe I could have worked up the muster but I doubt it. The words were lost inside me as I stood on the corner, not moving, keeping the world whole and of a piece, all together, nothing out of place.
Gabriel invited me to the wedding of his second cousin (nearly everyone in town seemed to be his second cousin). We rode over with six brightly dressed children tucked between us in the back seat of a rickety van. I wore a gauzy wrap bought at the Sunday market that passed as a dress and a string of beads borrowed from a woman who lived in a hut that shared our kitchen. I met the woman over a steaming pot of Ugali. She said the beads would bring me luck. I would settle for a kiss.
The wedding involved much dancing and playing of instruments made of animal parts. At one point, I felt the urge to stand up and dance but Gabriel tugged me back.
“Not now, not your turn,” he said as if admonishing a child.
When it came time to dance, he guided me as though worried I would burst out and start an embarrassing conga line. He moved with me more to tame me than to be close. The slow shuffle that passed as a dance seemed like a mime or somber parade. Were we at a funeral or a wedding? Still, I followed his lead and didn’t flamboyantly wave my arms like another foreign woman mzungu who looked like a peacock in heat. Other guests blinked at her and gave her a wide berth as if her head was about to explode.
Fred jumped out of the tent and back in, circling to find us all, corral us in one place.
“No one touch anything on the specimen table,” he said. This was a good sign. For him, expressions of unbridled excitement came disguised as caution.
“We should prepare ourselves for favorable results,” Fred said grimacing—the closest he came to a smile.
“Can we celebrate?” Antonio said.
“Cook a goat?” I said. Julio and Mark started to talk at once, but Fred lifted his hand.
Results meant we would pack up camp, return home. I didn’t want to leave my non-relationship with Gabriel or the children who wanted to touch me day and night. The museum guard passed the tent and peeked inside, continued on his watch. How could we leave when the mountain hadn’t even shown its face?
One of the times Caleb lost his keys for real, we ended up in the basement surrounded by a sea of boxes. This was before he and Paige got married, before I got excited enough about the crest of Kilimanjaro to write about it for over three hundred pages. He dug into one of the boxes and came up with an old lamb stuffed animal. He waved it in front of me, made it speak in a high-pitched voice.
We’d lost sight of our purpose for coming down here. Once again we were off-track. I tried to steer us back. He came across an old baseball bat ruined by mildew and suggested we dissect it.
“Isn’t that what you do?” he said. He only saw the brutal parts of science, the gutting and taking apart. What I tried for was just the opposite. On the way back up the stairs, I saw the keys on the ledge. I kicked them onto the stairs so he would find them himself.
“How did I miss that?” he said. “Right in front of me.”
In the market the day before we left, a blind girl with half of her right arm missing wouldn’t leave my side. She shadowed me from edge to edge as if advising me on my purchases. I bartered a pair of shoes for a box of coconuts, traded sunglasses for chocolate. Julio bought a stalk of fruit meant to have tooth cleaning effects.
“How do I look?” he asked Fred, grinning after finishing the fruit.
“Same,” Fred said.
That morning I mistook a curve of clouds for the streak of snow on the mountain’s peak. Still, it stayed hidden. The girl followed me to the edge of the market. When I continued to walk away she started to scream and howl, made noises no human would make. People watched me with expressions of accusation as she wailed, as if I’d done something to harm her. I held up my arms to show innocence, but they still stared. I felt trapped. If I went back to her, it would be admitting guilt. If I walked away, it was almost worse. I kept walking, steadying my gait on the rough ground, trying to separate from the sound but it followed me, was inside me, came from within me even as it drifted away.