Excerpt from Snakewoman of Little Egypt by Robert Hellenga, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Snakewoman of Little Egypt

A Novel

By Robert Hellenga

Snakewoman of Little Egypt

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His daughter. He knew it was a daughter because of the last letter he had received from Étienne Rameau, but he didn't know her name. The letter he sent to Étienne to read to Sibaku came back five months later stamped DÉCÉDÉ. Étienne, not Sibaku.

He couldn't make contact because none of the Mbuti could read or write, and they didn't have addresses. He couldn't call up a friend, because there were no telephones in the Forest.

He told himself that it was too complicated. But his daughter had come to him in his sleep. In his dreams she looked like her mother. Four feet tall. Bronze. Anthropologists often sleep with the natives, but they never talk about it. It was unprofessional. Regrettable. Always a mistake. That was the official line. But Sibaku had been a museka - ready for sex but not yet married - and could sleep with anyone she liked without being reproached, as long as her lover made appropriate gifts to her father, which Jackson was happy to do, presenting the old man with his second-best knife, a C harmonica, and a pocket compass. The Mbuti practiced exogamy, and Jackson was the only one in the whole band who could have married her.

He wasn't worried about his daughter. She'd be taken care of - mothered, fathered, uncled, aunted, cousined, loved. Soon it would be time for her elima, time for her to become a woman. In his dreams she was not unhappy. He didn't have to worry about her. But she worried about him. Was he happy? Did he have enough to eat? Did the forest where he lived give him what he needed? Did the molimo come to wake up the forest where he lived? In his dreams he could hear the molimo (grunting, growling, singing, whistling, farting), waking him up just as his alarm went off . But was getting married in the United States any less complicated than going back to Africa? And would marriage off er what he was looking for? And whom would he marry?

Actually there was no shortage of single women on campus, attractive women his age who'd pursued careers instead of marriage and family, who'd written books and secured grants and received awards and done all sorts of remarkable things, and who were ready to settle into companionable marriages. He'd enjoyed nondangerous liaisons with a number of them, before the Lyme disease, and his old pal Claire Reynolds was bringing another one over tonight. Claire, whom he'd expected to marry back in his early days at TF, had married a priest instead, an Episcopal priest, and had lived the sort of life Jackson had expected to lead himself, at least at the time, in an old balloon- framed Victorian monster with a porte cochere, two children, a dog. Well, he had a dog: Maya. Claire was always fixing him up. She saw her role as looking after Jackson. As an adult might look after a grown- up- but- not- quite- responsible child. She wanted him to live the life she was living and was always inviting him to this or that special service at Grace Episcopal Church.

Jackson didn't mind, didn't mind that she'd invited herself and her priest husband over for supper so that he wouldn't be alone on his birthday. He didn't mind her priest husband, though he was a bit of a dry stick. High church. The sort of priest who might have gone over to Rome if an attractive young woman like Claire hadn't turned to him for spiritual guidance.

Claire was bringing along a friend, someone new in the English department who had the cry of the loons on her answering machine. Jackson should call her, Claire said, just to hear it. But he didn't call. Claire had offered to bring the meal, too, but she thought her friend Pam would be more impressed if Jackson did the cooking, which he would have done anyway, as Claire knew perfectly well.

So, there was Claire's friend in the offing. And there was Warren's niece, Willa Fern. Jackson had promised Warren to look after Willa Fern when she got out of prison. At least to keep an eye on her. And Warren had hinted openly that she'd make a good wife, and that he'd already spoken to her about the possibility of marrying Jackson, though the reason she was in prison was for shooting her husband, and as far as Jackson knew, her husband was still among the living, still her husband, in fact. Warren had hired a lawyer to help her file for a divorce, but then Warren had gotten sick, and the divorce- and- remarriage plan had been put on hold.

Excerpted from Snakewoman of Little Egypt by Robert Hellenga. Copyright © 2010 by Robert Hellenga. Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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