Better to stay quiet and hidden, I think. Only a stupid monkey pulls the leopard by the tail, as the Olo say. Or as my old sensei used to say, sometimes fight, sometimes run away, sometimes do nothing. How wise these memes! In some cultures, discourse consists almost entirely of ritualized exchanges of proverbial wisdom, and an original phrasing will provoke puzzled looks and grumbling. It would be comforting to live in such a place, and not to always have to think up things to say.
We prepare for bed. I draw a lukewarm bath and we get in. I wash Luz's hair. There were nits and lice in it the first time I washed it, and I had to use a special poisonous compound, but now we are on Breck baby shampoo. I use her plastic beach bucket to pour water over her head, rinsing the suds away. She likes this; she smiles, not the hundred-watt she gives to Jake, but a softer one. "Again," she says. Her first word. "Oh, you can talk," I say, and my heart vibrates, although I don't make a big thing of it. I pour another bucket on her and she giggles. We get out of the bath and I dry her, and myself, and we don our sleeping T-shirts and go into the bedroom. She runs to the fan and switches it on.
"You turned on the fan," I say, continuing my project of filling the air with language, as if it will do some good. She might have spent most of her short life locked down in a closet, with no one speaking to her at all, while her language faculty withered. It happens. I tuck her in under the cotton sheet and lie next to her. We look through her bird book. I say the names of all the birds and promise that we will go looking for some of them another day. Then we read the Bert and Ernie book. Bert tries to build a bookcase by himself and can't find his screwdriver and has to prop the bookcase up temporarily with a humorous collection of objects but still won't ask for Ernie's help. The bookcase falls down on Bert's head. Then Bert and Ernie build the bookcase together. Moral: cooperation is good. But the Olo would want to know the precise kin and status relationships of Bert and Ernie, and what right Ernie had to offer help and what right Bert had to refuse it when offered, and how the results of the building project were to be divided, and, of course, they would know that a screwdriver is never really missing but has been witched away because Bert did not make appropriate sacrifices when he visited the babandolé to consult the auguries before starting his project. So my thoughts go. It never ceases, you never get back your cultural virginity. I stay by her side as she falls asleep. My soul child, sefuné in the Olo tongue. Hardly a gene in common, yet I would gladly give my life for hers, and may have to so:
Mortal, guilty, but to me
The entirely beautiful.
I go back to the kitchen and sit at the table and draw little patterns in the Malian dust that speckles it. My journal draws my eye. Why have I got it out tonight? It's years since I touched it. It's got things in there I probably don't want to know, but maybe I need to know them now, because of the girl, because it's not just me anymore. Some helpful fact. An insight. There is a big water stain on the first pages, but the writing, in my own neat scientist's hand, is perfectly legible.
The foregoing is excerpted from Tropic of Night by Michael Gruber. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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