In a way, we seemed to be on the right track. But only in a way. Imagine, if you will, that we were supposed to search in a coal mine for a black cat that wasn’t there. Well, we were heading for the coal mine. Progress of a sort, but nothing to get excited about.
I didn’t particularly mind, because there were other things to get excited about. Mornings, for instance, with the sun suddenly breaking above the eastern horizon, and the sure songs of birds in the thickets, early birds in swift pursuit of late worms. Animal sounds in the brush, and drums pulsing in the distance, and rainstorms that blew up suddenly just before sunset, lashing the earth for twenty or forty minutes, then ending as abruptly as they had begun.
Meals of sweet overripe melons, mahogany on the outside, salmon pink within. Plump water birds that bobbed in a muddy stream and held the pose trustingly while one shied a stone at them. Roasted over a wood fire they tasted rather like duck, which I suppose they were.
The warmth, the space, the silence. There were lions about, and hostile tribes, and things that went bump in the night, and yet from the onset I felt completely at ease in that open country. It was unpeopled and unpaved, and it let me remember that I was alive. If we never found Sheena, if the jungle had swallowed Sam Bowman, if the Retriever was lost and his treasure irretrievable, that was fine. And if I never got back to civilization, that wasn’t so bad either.
The weather had something to do with this. And the good food, and the open spaces, and the friendship of the natives we met. Each gave rise to a very real pleasure. But let’s be honest, huh? None of these pleasures quite compared to that of lying naked in the tall grass with Miss Pelham Jenkins and making, uh, love.
Look, it wasn’t my idea.
It really wasn’t, and left to my own devices I don’t think it would have happened. I am not saying it never would have occurred to me. All manner of things occur to a person, whether or not he has any intentions of doing anything about them. And Plum was a particularly lovely thing, and I had noticed this. It had come to mind that Plum would one day make someone or other very happy in some bed or other, but my own appreciation of this fact was quite impersonal. She was this kid who had helped me get out of a coffin and who was now keeping me company on a Cook’s Tour of Modonoland. But mainly she was a kid.
I thought so, but she wouldn’t buy it.
“You think I am a child,” she said, that first morning in the wild. “But I am fifteen years old. I am going to be sixteen years old.”
“Everybody who is fifteen years old is well on the way to being sixteen,” I said. “It’s the natural order of things.”
“You are mocking me, Evan.”
“Perhaps in your country a girl my age would be a child, but in Modonoland I am a woman. Girls younger than I are married.”
“But not to me.”
“Have you never made love to a girl of fifteen?”
“You have? Then it is me you despise, and you pretend it is my age, and-”
“Twenty years ago, I slept with a girl who was fifteen.”
“But not since then, Plum.”
“Perhaps you will be able to remember how it is done, Evan.”
And another time-
“Evan? I have been thinking about this matter between us. I do not think you have been honest with me at all.”
“I think you have been saying one thing and meaning another.”
“What do you mean, Plum?”
“It is certainly a common attitude here. It is universal in Modonoland. And I understand that the situation is very much the same in America. But I thought you were different, Evan, and it saddens me to find out that you are not.”
“What are you talking about?”
“That you do not want to make love to me because of my color,” she said. “That is obvious. You pretend that it is my age, but I cannot believe that. You say it to spare me pain. That is all.”
“Plum, that’s ridiculous.”
“It is a problem I will always face in this country. Black men wish to have nothing to do with a girl who is partly white. White men wish to have nothing to do with a girl who is partly black. Perhaps in another country I will find a place for myself. Or perhaps I will find a man who does not let color bother him.”
“Damn it, Plum-”
“Please do not talk of it, Evan. Not now. Do you see that tree? I wonder if the fruit can be eaten.”
And another time, late at night:
“Can’t you sleep, Plum?”
“I am all tense. My muscles are in knots.”
“Try to relax.”
“I cannot. It is sexual tension, you understand.”
“Oh, are we back on that topic again?”
“When a woman is accustomed to sex, it is a hardship to do without it. You must know this. And have I not told you that I ceased long ago to be a virgin?”
“You told me.”
“Which makes your scruples so foolish, but I will not discuss that now. But I am so tense. If you could give me a massage to relax me…”
I squatted next to her and rubbed her little back. Her skin was warm velvet. I rubbed her back and found that I was grinding my teeth. I stopped grinding my teeth.
“I took off all my clothes,” she said. “I hope you do not mind.”
“It doesn’t matter to me,” I said.
“So I thought. Since I do not exist for you as a sex object, you are untouched by my nudity. So I thought.”
“Well, you were right.”
“Yes. I enjoy the feeling of your hands on me.”
“It is very pleasant,” she said. She rolled over suddenly and my hands were on her breasts. “Oh, Evan,” she said. “Oh, Evan, I love you.”
Her mouth was warm and urgent and greedy. Her fingers hurried with buttons and zipper. I slipped out of my clothes and lay down beside her. My hands returned to her breasts. She thrust her hips forward, urged the warmth of her loins against me. A lot of little voices inside my head started talking at once, arguing with one another. The loudest of them all said, “Look, dummy, this is certainly a dumb time to start being a saint.”
I kissed her mouth. I kissed her throat. I kissed her little brown breasts. She made purring sounds and I kissed her and stroked her. Her legs opened and her thighs beat at me like moths at a lighted window. Another little voice, a last little voice, asked me petulantly what I thought I was getting into, and what I was getting into was Plum, and it was very nice, very nice indeed.
Afterward I put some more sticks on the fire and we shared the melon we had put aside for breakfast. Her flesh glowed pornographically in the firelight. She bit into the melon and the juice trickled down her face and onto her body.
She looked marvelous.
“Well,” she said, between mouthfuls. “That wasn’t so bad at all, was it?”
“A woman of the world. A woman who ceased long ago to be a virgin.”
“It seems long ago,” she said, thoughtfully.
“It seems like twenty minutes or so.”
“A woman strangled by sexual frustration. ‘When a woman is accustomed to sex, it is a hardship to do without it.’ Teller of untruths.”
“It was a pre-truth.” She giggled suddenly and melon juice cascaded onto her breasts. “You would not have done it otherwise, would you?”
“I don’t know.”
I reached for her. She squirmed loose, giggling. I caught her and she threw her arms around my neck. Melon juice got all over us, but we didn’t notice this until quite a while later.
When she said, “You wouldn’t have done it if you knew. Or not right away, it would have taken more provocation, and it was hard enough to provoke you as it was. And I wanted us to do this. It is silly not to, don’t you think? We are all alone in the middle of the country and we should be close together, and are we not close now?”
“We are,” I agreed.
“And you love me, don’t you, Evan?”
“And it does not disturb you that I am of color?”
“Of course not.”
“Or that I am fourteen?”
She put her hand on my arm. “You are angry with me.”
“It too was a pre-truth. Fourteen going on fifteen. Everyone who is fourteen years old is well on the way to being fifteen. It is the natural order of things.”
I didn’t say anything. She curled up against me and her head nestled in the crook of my arm. She smelled wonderfully of damp earth and matted grass and leftover love. She said sleepily, “Fourteen, fifteen, just numbers. The number of times the sun goes around the earth.”
“I think it’s the other way around.”
“Oh. All right. I think I will go to sleep now. I love you. Good night.”
She went at once to sleep, as she was apt to do. I lay awake breathing her smell and tending the fire and listening to predators howling in the distance. I felt an unwelcome kinship to them. I told myself I was a dirty old man and that what had happened this night would not be repeated.
And I told myself the very same thing the next morning, and the next night, and so on each morning and each evening, as we screwed our way into the heart of the country.
The weather was really fantastic. I had expected it to be too hot, it being summer in Africa, but from the vantage point of a New York winter I had figured that too hot was just right. It wasn’t, though, not where we were. It was hot but not too hot, and it rained for about an hour a day, and the general climatic conditions were rather like Southern California.
People move to California at an extraordinary rate, while hardly anybody ever goes to Modonoland. You might think there are reasons.
There are reasons.
More reasons, in fact, than one can shake a stick at. A cloud of biting flies, for example, to cite a reason at which we actually tried shaking a stick. I don’t know where the cloud of biting flies came from, or why, but in the middle of an otherwise unblemished afternoon they were suddenly upon us, doing as biting flies are wont to do. Flailing at them with our hands did no good. Beating at them with sticks did no good. Waiting for them to go away seemed overly passive.
Plum said, “Run!”
“It’s no use. They can move faster than we can. They-”
She ran off to her left at full speed, wagging her hands at the flies as she did so. I ran after her. The flies, like the poor, were always with us.
She darted. I followed. There were some trees, and there was a gap in the trees, and there was a still pool through the gap in the trees. Plum plunged in. I followed. The pool was about four feet deep with a soft stoneless bottom. We crouched with just our faces showing, and the flies decided to make do with our faces. When I tried slapping them away from my face, they settled on my hand.