More than once, as I feigned sleep, did I sense that Bowman was considering feeding me to the crocodiles. More than once did I detect in Plum ’s expression a desire to pack the Queen of the Jungle off to the Happy Hunting Grounds. And, in a less murderous vein, each of us was upset about something or other. I was irritated with Plum because she was behaving childishly. She was annoyed with me because I wasn’t behaving loverishly, and because she blamed me for the unwelcome presence of the other two. I trusted Bowman about as far as I could throw him, and he didn’t trust me nearly as far as he could throw me. He hated Plum because she wouldn’t let him and she hated him because he wouldn’t stop trying.
Sheena, my wife, hated all of us but had to keep it to herself. We kept her trussed up in the rear of the dugout and kept a rag stuffed in her mouth except at feeding time. It seems excessive in retrospect, two presumably grown men keeping a girl tied and gagged, but she was wholly uncontrollable otherwise, much given to ear bursting wails and oaths and quite determined to turn the boat over and drown us all. Her strength was as the strength of ten, not because her heart was pure, God knows, but because she fought with the single-minded determination of the truly flipped-out. Inside there, I kept telling myself, was an innocent little girl. But there were times when I, too, would have loved to let her go for a terminal swim.
That, then, was the sort of special peace of the voyage. A lazy peaceful time during which I would pretend to go to sleep in the middle of our little boat, with my hand always clenched on the hilt of my machete. A lazy peaceful time given to thoughts of Kitty, my wife to be, and Sheena, whom I had recently agreed to take for better or for worse. (Hardly a legal ceremony in anyone’s eyes, and yet if a ship’s captain could perform marriages on the high seas, couldn’t a cannibal queen in her camp?) I thought about Plum, and I thought about Samuel Lonestar Bowman, and I thought about the undying specter of Knanda Ndoro, the Glorious Retriever of Modonoland. What, I wondered, did a Modonoland Retriever do? A Labrador Retriever was obviously something that retrieved Labradors, but-
One night, just as the sun was dropping out of sight, Bowman turned poet again. He got carried away with the placid flow of the river and the lush beauty of the countryside and the sound of his own voice. How beautiful it was, he said, and how peaceful.
“It is utterly perfect,” Plum said, her lip curling. “It is truly a shame that our voyage must come to an end.”
More of a shame than she thought. Any sort of calm period is to be treasured for its own sake, I think, without regard to the conflict that must inevitably end it. On either a personal or a global scale, peace is that stretch of time during which preparations are made for the next war. This doesn’t make it any less satisfying.
Admittedly, though, the maintenance of this particular peace required a special sort of brinkmanship. In a sense our dugout was a Cold War world in microcosm, with an added similarity in that it was impossible to be sure just who was on who’s side, or just what the fighting was about. The true test of skill came when we ran the boat up on the bank and one or more of us got busy gathering brush for a cookfire, or pulling up edible weeds in the opium fields, or performing such bodily functions as are best performed in private. The object was to avoid leaving a fatal combination of persons together. If Plum and Bowman remained unattended, for example, he might ravish her. If Plum had unsupervised custody of Sheena, she might do something antisocial.
It wasn’t really quite that spooky, but it seemed that way now and again. It was, as I once remarked to Plum, like the old brain twister about the cannibals and the missionaries. Plum chose to miss the point. “There is only one cannibal,” she said icily.
“Technically you might say we’re all cannibals.”
“I had none of that stew, Evan.”
“Let’s talk about something else.”
We talked of other things, and of nothing at all, and one day followed another as days are wont to do, and the river, for all its shilly-shallying, flowed indefatigably to the sea, as rivers are wont to do.
Early in the morning of what ultimately proved to be a Thursday, we hit the outlying districts of the capital. By daybreak we were securely lodged in a neat little suburban house not unlike the one from which I had liberated the Volkswagen back when all of this was just getting started. We had walked through those dark and empty streets, and I quickly selected an empty house. Nothing could have been simpler. I merely looked for a house with a couple of lights on. People who go out of town always leave a light on, so that a burglar won’t drive by in the early evening and see their house just sitting there, dark and vacant. But should the same burglar drive by at, say, four in the morning, he would see their house more conspicuous than ever, light and vacant. Had we gotten to town in the early evening, this house certainly would have fooled us. We didn’t, and it didn’t, and a further check showed that the car was not in the garage, and a still further check revealed a note in the milk box – “Milkman/Please No Milk Until a Week from Monday Because We Are Going Away/ Mrs. Penner.” I experimented with various blades of the Swiss Army pocketknife, trying to find one that would slip between door and frame and snick the bolt back. The screwdriver seemed the most likely choice, but it wasn’t working.
Bowman said, “Let me try, Tanner cat.” I turned to hand him the knife but he ignored it and eased me out of the way. He hit the glass panel at the side of the door. It shattered, and he reached inside and turned the knob, and the door opened.
I said, “Oh.”
The Penners had a beautiful stainless-steel and for-mica kitchen stocked with every conceivable labor-saving device, so many of them that one could spend several hours a day flicking switches and pressing buttons. All of the major appliances were powder blue, and the walls and ceiling of the cute little kitchen were a complementary shade of blue, and the whole thing was really lovely. The best part of all was the inside of the refrigerator. It was full.
Bowman carried Sheena into one of the bedrooms and tucked her in, piling her animal skins on top of her. Plum collected items of clothing from us and went into the utility room, where she put them through the washing machine. I stayed in that gorgeous spotless kitchen and made a pot of coffee and began cooking things.