by William Powers
William Powers's books include the critically-acclaimed memoirs WHISPERING IN THE GIANT'S EAR (2006) and BLUE CLAY PEOPLE (2005), both from Bloomsbur, and the children's book, KUSAASU AND THE TREE OF LIFE. His writing has also appeared in Slate, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and dozens of other publications.
"Who chopped your fingers off?" Amparo asked during our reading lesson in Freetown.
I stretched out my left hand and looked at the blunt knobs where my pinky and ring finger used to be. "I left them in Iraq," I said, mumbling that I'd fought there in '90. "A grenade went off."
Amparo lowered the book she'd been reading aloud, The Call of the Wild, her black eyes looking into my blue ones with a mix of strength and tenderness. The way she phrased her question made me uneasy; usually people asked, "What happened to your hand?" minus the gruesome assumption that someone cut the two fingers off. But, then again, this was Sierra Leone, not Virginia; Amparo grew up next to a diamond field ruled by a fellow named Colonel Cut Hands.
"Keep reading," I said to her gently, not wanting to think about that day in Iraq. After a long moment, she began reading in a vaguely British English, laced with a sweet hint of her coastal dialect, Krio. I was so close I could smell the baby-powder on her deep brown skin. Her black braids fell onto the book.
When I looked up, I noticed that, as usual, a dozen other United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone peacekeepers were staring at Amparo. They should be focusing on their own students--we volunteer in the afternoons as literacy tutors for war-affected youth--but these guys, Pakistanis mostly, couldn't resist Amparo. She came to the air-cooled UN Center every day at two-thirty sharp and stayed until five, when she'd stretch to her full 5'11", totally oblivious that everyone was gaping at her like she was an exotic runway model. Their own students would simmer with jealousy. Some of the girls read just to try and snag a foreigner; our salaries were a hundred times the average wage here so you couldn't blame them.
But not Amparo. She loved reading more than anyone I'd ever met. We started with children's stories, but Amparo tore through those and dove quickly into The Bean Trees and To Kill a Mockingbird. She loved anything American, couldn't get enough of Twain. Once while she paused I asked her, "How did you learn to read so beautifully?"
I wished I could have taken the words back. Why was I flirting with her? She was just nineteen and I thirty-three. But more importantly, I needed to squash any feelings I had for her because it could go nowhere. My family back in Virginia was as racist as they come.
Amparo considered the question, and looked out the UN Center window into the Freetown street. Raw sewage ran like a river down the street toward the ocean. The war-amputees on crutches hobbled beneath decapitated lamp poles. A spray of wires hung loose and useless. She finally said, "When I read, I float out of this place."
There's a dark spot above Freetown, a thick cloud forest atop a mountain. I hate to look at it--it gives me the shivers--but I can't help seeing it. It all but looms over the city and is visible from the UN Center, my house, and from the areas I patrol in my blue helmet each morning. But the other day Amparo asked me to take her up there. Said there's a chimpanzee reserve. That her father told her about it long ago. I asked her about her father and she went mute and looked away. Alright by me; I'm not one to dig up the past.
You can see the dark spot from Lomley Beach, where I'd often catch the sunset after my lesson with Amparo. I'd drive there alone, sip a Star beer, bury my toes in the warm sand, and listen to the waves. The day's humidity would ease, and I'd forget about the open wound of a city at my back. I'd steady my mind on the ocean, and think about where I was heading after this--probably back to rural Virginia where my parents lived. Another convenience store job, the loser's pleasant anonymity. I stumbled into this Sierra Leone job like I've done with most things. A buddy from my old unit in Iraq told me about it--excellent money for ex-U.S. military.
I finished a beer and looked over my shoulder at the dark forest above and thought, Why not? I'd been tutoring Amparo for three months and it would be nice to take her on--no, not a date--an educational field trip. So the following week we drove my UN Hi-Lux up the windy road toward the chimpanzee reserve, where we met the caretaker, a graying Sierra Leonean biologist. As we walked toward the twenty-acre fenced reserve, he explained that the site was quite the tourist attraction before the civil war, but that it was now barely hanging on with a trickle of funding from a Japanese university.
"Beware of Bruno, the alpha male," he told us, adding that he has "the strength of nine humans" and once killed a man who wandered into his territory, "ripped his limbs off." The caretaker pointed to a kind of baseball backstop atop a ridge and told us to head toward it to avoid Bruno's rocks.
As we walked the jungle trail toward that shelter, I wished I hadn't come. Insane apes killing people? I looked at Amparo but she seemed perfectly content, listening as the biologist told us that Bruno used to live with rich folks, smoked cigarettes, got plastered on Bailey's Irish Cream, and obsessively viewed his favorite video, Disney's Beauty and the Beast. But as happens with all chimps that are kept as pets, they're cute as youngsters but go stir-crazy as cooped-up adults. When Bruno ripped his owners' master bedroom to shreds, they abandoned him at the sanctuary where the erstwhile alpha pummeled the spoiled Bruno into a bloody mess.
Young Bruno cried and cowered--and kept getting beat up. None of the females would go near him. "But after weeks licking his wounds, something extraordinary happened," the biologist said, stopping on the path. "Bruno discovered the law." One by one, he beat up each of the twenty-six males from the lowest in the hierarchy on up, and impregnated the choicest females. "Bruno battled his way to alpha and has been there for six years now. They don't bother fighting him anymore."
Whack! A softball-sized rock nailed an ironwood tree three feet from my head. "Take cover!" the biologist shouted. The largest ape I'd ever seen crashed out of the bush below us hurling more rocks. We cowered under the shelter as the stones deflected off it. I caught my breath and turned to Amparo, but she wasn't there.
Unbelievably, she'd stepped back out into the line of fire.
Bruno cocked an arm to hurl a punishing rock at the girl but then stopped. Was he as stunned as I was by such courage? Amparo walked toward Bruno, and she reached up to pluck a pomegranate off a tree and toss it down to the vicious beast. Amparo efficiently plucked two dozen more pomegranates, lobbing them down to Bruno's feet, and he looked at her with what could be nothing other than approval. A dozen others from his pack gathered around Bruno, begging and groveling, and the alpha passed the fruits generously around until each of his subjects had at least one. Having shared the bounty, he kept only the tiniest pomegranate for himself, crunching into it as he ambled away. The others stopped eating to bow to Bruno as he confidently strutted into a dark spot in the jungle. Amparo's head pivoted slowly, following Bruno's movement across the clearing, and she had a look I'd never seen on her face, a kind of lusty reverence. I'm embarrassed to admit I felt jealous of an ape.
Hey Darling. Things here are the same, except we miss you. Mama and Dad are good, except we're all a little pissed off that some nig--excuse me, neeegros--moved in to the Jamison's place. Why can't they just stick to their ghettos? Have to come chasing us out in the country. But enough about us. Amparo? What kind of name is that? Don't even joke around about mixing with them Africans. Stick to your own kind, Darling. We love you, Josh
Amparo and I began to linger together after our lessons. All the Pakistanis gone home, I told her about myself--Darling. My given name is Daryl, but my mama used to dress me in ruffly little outfits, and everyone started calling me "darlin' Daryl" which soon turned into just plain Darling. Mama pampered me so much that my father had to constantly beat the cuteness out of me, and hard. A belt, a fist, whatever was handy. While drunk one afternoon he clobbered me senseless with a book I'd been reading, screaming I should go play football like the other boys.
I guess I was trying to prove something by enlisting in the army after high school. In Iraq, the grenade exploded on my left and caused the flesh to mushroom out of my butt cheek. I nearly got my butt amputated along with the remains of my fingers, but the medics sewed it up. When I got back home to rural Virginia I was an outcast. No, I'm not claiming Gulf War Syndrome. I was just slightly demented. I wore red-white-and-blue wristbands and Megadeath T-shirts and manned one convenience store after the next, always somebody's gofer in a little uniform. Over the years I did patch together a degree in Liberal Arts (cum: 2.1), and was kept sane by reading hundreds, no thousands, of books: history, philosophy, poetry, sociology. I checked out backpack-fulls at a time from the library. Girls had little interest in me, even thought I'm a 6'2" blond and used to be what was considered to be popular in high school. Iraq turned me into a loser.
Amazed as I was that I actually told Amparo all of this, more amazing still was how closely she listened. But this made me feel more guilty about wasting her time. Even if my family were more tolerant, I certainly didn't want to get married and bring kids into this twisted world.
But I couldn't resist being with her. And Amparo slowly opened up about herself, her war. "My best friend Tutu got her arm chop-chopped against a cotton tree," she told me once. "The SBU--the Small Boys Unit soldiers--they asked Tutu, 'Short sleeve or long sleeve?' and of course Tutu said long sleeve. But they gave her short sleeve anyway," Amparo said, touching her bicep, where they amputated. "But first they de-virginized her."
How in the world do you respond to something like this? I reached out and touched Amparo. I told her how sorry I was about her friend. The silence grew. I felt immense anger, but it lapsed into one of my reflex emotions, inherited from Dad: self-pity. "Amparo," I finally said, "people like you and me are the victims in this world. The little people."
"No!" she said, standing up defiantly, the sun setting over the ocean out the window. "You want to be a slave?"
"You need to bend. Power can take pieces of you, but if you resist it you're dead."
She opened her mouth as if to argue further, but then closed it. She looked at me through the squinted eyes of a tactician assessing a problem. She asked, slowly, "When will we go back up?"
I didn't understand. She gazed out the window, toward the jungle fortress, and added, ". . . back up to Bruno."
"We're not going," I said. Amparo scowled, gathered her books, and left.
But several times I found myself sneaking back up, alone. From the safety of the shelter, I'd observe Bruno. What did Amparo see in him? Bruno was not beautiful, with that wart and mole-studded face. But his long, regal fingers were covered with chestnut freckles, and the females gathered in a harem around him, combing his fur, fishing pomegranate seeds out of his teeth. I thought of my own mother, how little respect she had for Dad--she'd chastise him for cowering before life's challenges. He'd collect welfare, drink himself into daily stupors.
And here was his son, cowering behind a shelter. Bruno didn't even bother to throw rocks at me anymore, knowing that little-ol Darling was harmless. But I certainly wasn't stepping out there, the way Amparo did. No longer the lazy, Bailey's-slurping chimp of the past, Bruno had transformed himself into the alpha male.
I finally brought Amparo back to my house. But on the way there I vaguely noticed someone following us, a Mercedes in the rearview mirror. I eased the Hi-Lux into my driveway, and Amparo's eyes widened when she saw my miniature fortress: two bedrooms, a good-sized living room, a/c.
But when I cut the engine I heard my security guard yelling outside the gate. I jogged over to the gate, Amparo behind me. A furious Middle Easterner was yelling in Krio. I recognized his Mercedes as the one that had been tailing me. Seeing me, he exploded in English: "You bastard! What do you do with Amparo?"
Amparo was now trembling behind my back, clutching at me. "She's my student," I said.
"She's a whore! She fuck men! Get money, fuck!"
Normally, I shy away from any conflict. So I surprised myself when I lunged at the guy. I grabbed his shirt and told him that if he did anything to Amparo I'd punish him, break his arms, kill him. He squirmed out of my grip and bolted over to his car. "Whore!" he shouted one last time before ducking into his Mercedes and gunning it up the road. I reached down for a softball-sized rock at my feet and hurled it into his back windshield just before he turned the corner.
After that, I began officially dating Amparo. To be more precise, she moved in with me and began treating me like royalty. She fired the maid--she herself would do the work. She cooked African dishes like potato greens and cassava leaf. And we'd always eat off a single plate, Amparo pushing the best chunks of meat onto my spoon..
It was a while before things got even slightly physical. It started with When Harry Met Sally, which we saw together one night on satellite TV. The scene where Sally fakes an orgasm to prove women fake it sometimes, and Amparo loved it.
After that we both faked orgasms constantly. The faking did lead us to some deep kissing and petting, but we never made love. Our relationship was basically platonic, and my house became a kind of play-space for us to become children again. Or maybe to become children for the first time. After dinner we'd sometimes fake a few orgasms between giggling sprints around the house. Once we faked our deaths, or, more specifically, she stabbed me to death and then I kind of rose zombie like, chased her all through the house and onto the bed. When we calmed down she started kissing the finger stumps on my bad hand, and I didn't even pull away, just asked what the heck she thought she was doing.
"Kissing your fingers," she said.
I mumbled that they were gone.
"Your fingers are still here," she said, bringing the stumps into her cheek, and, you know, that about sums up Amparo. She went through a hell of a war but just rises above it. Her name, Amparo, means "sheltered" in Portuguese. Yes, this country got colonized not just by the Brits but before that by the Portuguese, and her name comes out of that particular moment in history.
One Saturday night I caught Amparo in a lie. She said she would be at a girlfriend's house while I went out with some peacekeeper buddies. Some of the Pakistanis were shipping out, and we took them to a restaurant and then to a disco. Would you believe I spotted Amparo there, in a red miniskirt? We saw each other through the smoke at the same moment, and she ran across the dance floor, disappearing into the crowd. I told one of her friends to tell Amparo I was waiting for her outside.
Soon she moped out and, before I had a chance to explode, she dropped to her knees and kissed my shins, muttering "Darling," begging me to forgive her, that she was just young and liked to dance and . . .
Whore. That's what that Middle Eastern guy had said, something I'd pushed out of my mind. How was Amparo supporting herself before I came along?
I drove her back to my house, turned on the TV, and told her my security guard wouldn't let her leave. I went back with my UN friends and got really, really drunk, and when I got back Amparo was sound asleep, with what looked like a smile on her face.
After that, I didn't let Amparo out of my sight. And, far from complaining, she thrived on my possessiveness. She never wanted to be anywhere else than by my side. Who was she before? It didn't make a damn bit of difference. It's like the way Sierra Leone had been colonized twice, Amparo'd been dealt a sad hand in life, but everything else started now. And anyway, it was impossible for me not to forgive her. I loved her; she replaced something I'd lost.
You know, I read once about "white men colonizing third world women's bodies." Stuck with me ever since. Was I colonizing Amparo's natural resources--her youth, beauty, and inner strength? But later an even crazier idea would go through my head. Can it happen in reverse? Sometimes I felt that Amparo was slowly colonizing me.
One night, alone in Bruno's cloud forest, I realized that these trips up to the mountain had been her idea. She'd plant the slightest seeds in my head, and they'd grow into actions. I knew she wanted me, and felt she loved me, but it was all doomed. In his last note, my brother mentioned "disinheritance" if I was involved with "a black African"; Mama and Dad had broken off all communication.
I was totally alone. A full moon hung above that black hole out in the jungle, that place where the forest canopy thickens from jade green to coal, where no light passes. There was something in that darkness that I couldn't even whisper about to myself: the truth about that day in Iraq.
It was then that Bruno stepped out of that dark place, and into the moonlight, and I knew what I had to do. I left the protection of the shelter and stood before Bruno. My heart was slamming against my chest, but Bruno appeared calm, as if he had been expecting this. Slowly, I reached down and picked up a rock, keeping my eyes pegged to Bruno. He reached down for one too. A raincloud passed over the moon, blackening everything, and then the light came back.
I hurled my rock. It slammed into Bruno's chest with a thump. He hurled back, missing me. We both scrambled for rocks, sidearming them at each other. He caught me in the shoulder, and my bone popped half way out of the socket. I snapped it back myself and, with the other arm aimed a rock, not at Bruno, but at the black spot in the forest behind him. I yelled wildly as I threw it with all my strength.
When I got home Amparo threw down the book she was reading, The Great Gatsby, stripped off my blood-stained shirt, and covered it with a cold towel.
"Amparo," I said, sitting her on the bed beside me, "something terrible happened in Iraq." She looked into my eyes. How is it, I thought, that her past had strengthened her while mine had weakened me? Thunder rumbled in the mountains above us, up in Bruno's forest. I felt the words falling from my mouth. I told her not just about the grenade, and the fingers blown off, but also what followed.
"I leaned into my trigger and killed three Iraqis, the ones who threw the grenade at me. They were just teenagers," I told her, my voice trembling now. "The rounds ripped them up. I murdered them."
Amparo's gaze held mine. "They were soldiers ordered to kill you, Daryl." It was the first time she'd used my given name, instead of Darling. Amparo wiped blood from my shoulder and then gripped the sides of my ribcage like the gunwales of a canoe. She said, "You are a warrior."
She looked at me with adoration, as if I were both a God and, at the same time, something she herself had created. She stroked my hair, kissed my face, and I felt a gathering strength.
Amparo got up from the bed and walked over to the window. An electric storm illuminated Bruno's jungle fortress above, the quick lightning silhouetting Amparo's long body, covered in one of my T-shirts. I felt my past peeling away, like skin off an anaconda. Amparo said: "The small boys stopped our car."
There was this huge hole of a pause. The hum of my a/c did nothing to fill it. "I was twelve. They made my father and me get out of the car," Amparo finally said, "and they sliced open his gut, just a bit, right here." She walked over and touched me below the ribcage. I don't even remember Amparo's exact words after this, because I was living this moment myself in full, horrible Technicolor.
One of the rebels covered Amparo's eyes with a sweaty hand while the others worked on her father, sliding his intestines out, unraveling them like mooring rope, and then they put something slimy in Amparo's hand and told her that if she cried they would shoot her immediately. When she started to whimper, she heard her father say sternly, "Do not cry, Amparo."
The light of the tropical afternoon blinded her for a split second when the sweaty hand was removed, and then Amparo saw the bloody intestine in her hand and her gaze followed it half way across the road to where it was coming out of her still very much alive father, forming a human intestine roadblock strung across the street. Cars were already starting to back up behind it.
"My father begged me not to cry," Amparo said, "That I should be strong. That God protects the strong."
Amparo was silent and then said, "I did not cry."
When she finished I got up off the bed and went to her. Lightning illuminated her face. I touched her cheek, and felt her hot tears rush over my finger. Some men would run from this. Not Daryl. I too felt my tears flow. I hadn't cried in ages, and she hadn't since that roadblock. We held each other for a long time. As the storm raged outside it became clear to me that the past only has the power we give it. We must seize what's ours and defend it. And when at last I pulled off Amparo's shirt and lifted her onto the bed, my body contained the strength of nine men, the strength of Bruno. It didn't matter what my family thought. I would take Amparo into my territory, fold her story into mine, for good. When I came pouring into her, I was telling her she'd be safe, she'd be safe, and she was telling me that she loved me.
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