“We gone light de room.”
“But the sunlight—”
“My brudda.” Conrad said firmly. “We gone light de room. Come.”
I watched Conrad pull the small desk toward the middle of the room. He produced a light bulb and a roll of electrical tape from his backpack and looked up. God, I thought, he’s going to kill himself.
Jennifer’s daughter looked up at him, climbing onto the table now. She hooked her thumb around the collar of her t-shirt and absent-mindedly tugged against the fabric, stretching her neck toward the open window. I admitted to myself that I only wanted her because she was everything I was not. Black, uneducated, and poor. She wore a short skirt, the threadbare remnant of what was once probably the lower half of a high school uniform, and her long, untrained legs crossed awkwardly, showing too much and not enough. I tried not to stare, but only because that is not the sort of thing that a preacher is supposed to do. I turned my back to her, and looked up at the would-be electrician, who was trying to light the small room.
Conrad stood on the desk with both arms raised above his head, reaching up toward the rafters. Above him, two thin, black wires spiraled down at a strange angle. The exposed copper dared him to come any closer, but the room was dark, and people were waiting, so he reached anyway. As his arms went up, Conrad’s white t-shirt rose, exposing a flat stomach. He balanced there with his long thin frame shooting skyward like the mast of a sailboat. His toes curled around the edges of the desk and his shoes, left on the floor, were being trampled by three younger boys, who were yelling at him in Tsonga. Conrad let out a long sigh before yelling back at them in English, “You ah no help!”
I stood on the floor near the desk and held his right hand up toward Conrad. It wasn’t a practical gesture - Conrad was probably twice my size. This, the arm raised with a palm toward Conrad, was both Tsonga and English at once. So was the glance over my shoulder. Jennifer’s daughter caught my eyes drifting toward her thighs. I felt my ears turn red. They don’t blush, I thought. I wonder if they’ve seen this before.
Conrad yelled at the boys to shut up again. He did it in English, so that I would know that he was in control. The boys, Mozambican refugees like Conrad and Jennifer’s daughter, owned little more than a set of clothes, and, if they were lucky, a hot plate. They didn’t know any more more English than I did Tsonga. Still they seemed to get it. The curious interest in Conrad’s careful electrical work returned to a familiar jockeying for position to run their fingers along my arms. Conrad told me later it was because of the hair on my arms. “We got arms that is smooth,” He told me. His accent was musical. “Look at you, my brudda! You got hairy arms, and they want to touch them,” Conrad would laugh while gently placing his open palm on my forearm. “Dey have not seen this. De Whites do not come here.”
I was happy to hear that, but for the wrong reasons. The light bulb above us flickered twice before resorting to a dim but constant glow. I was praying in my head, asking God to make something happen in this sermon. To use me somehow to give these people hope. I had been in the village, living out of a small backpack for almost two weeks without a single “conversion” to write home about. I looked up toward Conrad, who was hanging the lightbulb from a nail. “Why is there no switch?” I asked.
“The switch is for all de lights in all de rooms. We only need one,” Conrad said, slowly letting himself down from the table. “OK, my brudda. We sing once. Then you bring de Word?”
They sang six times, and I swayed when they swayed, clapped when they clapped. I stood up and preached, mostly about how God is there, always waiting for us to come to him. I was yelling for emphasis as I told them, “The Psalmist tells us that our Father owns the cattle on a thousand hills!” Conrad yelled in Tsonga, and everyone on the left side of the room nodded his or her head in agreement. While they nodded, I didn’t dare look at the other side of the room, at Jennifer’s daughter, but I did think about fucking her. I didn’t want to, but my mind wandered while Conrad translated. I had never had sex, which is all the reason I needed to be thinking about it all the time. I started to offer short prayers in my head while Conrad translated, instead. “Our Heavenly Father created and owns all of this,” I said. Please, God. Where is my head? “All of this!” God. Where? “And he looked down on it all and chose us by name.” Please. Please. Please.
By the time I was done with the sermon and Conrad and I were able to make the long walk back toward my tent, the African sun hung low enough on the horizon to be orange and red. Conrad’s voice was raspy from translating my sermon. “My brudda! Yes! You are good bringing de Word,” He told me, his voice cracking on “word.” I nodded in gratitude as he continued. “I like how you say, ‘When you don’t know who you are, know that you belong to God.’“
I forced a smile. I was not good at taking compliments - it always felt like I was either being too proud or ungrateful. I would have preferred that he hadn’t heard the sermon at all.
The dirt road narrowed a bit as we walked down the hill toward my small camp. The two room houses with cement brick walls and tile roofs became one-room huts with stick and mud walls with sheets of corrugated steel resting lightly on top. Women squatted in the doorways of the huts, squeezing peanut shells to dump the seeds into a metal pot on the ground. One of them, Jennifer, whose daughter I had seen at church, was sitting sideways on her front step. She was the first person I met when I came to Gazankulu, and it had been her idea for me to bribe the local witch doctor with a loaf of bread to avoid being cursed. I didn’t want to do it, but Jennifer pointed out that it was just a loaf of bread and it might get us into a meeting with the witch doctor. We had stood outside the rickety fence, waiting for almost an hour. Jennifer and I had talked about God, and she wanted to know about the distance I had traveled to get here. “Our God is so big,” she had said over and over. I remembered craning my neck to see if I could see anything and imagining the letters home that I would be writing later that night. I preached the Gospel to a witch doctor today. The witch doctor’s house servant had come out to eventually tell us that there was a meeting with someone very important, and that she would take our bread but wouldn’t see us. Jennifer looked at me and rolled her eyes, “She don’t like the white preachers, but she not gonna curse us.” Jennifer looked different now, though. Weaker and Smaller. Unable to meet our gaze. Conrad called out to her in Tsonga then turned to me, “I ask her why she doesn’t come to de church.” Jennifer nodded at us. I couldn’t see her daughter anywhere.
We walked further down the road, past the path that leads to the river. I had made a scene earlier in the day by being a man fetching his own water. The women at the river laughed as I rolled my water barrel back up toward my tent awkwardly, weak and stumbling against the weight. We kept walking. Conrad’s stride matched mine, and he reached out with his hand to hold mine. His pinky finger hooked around several fingers on my right hand, and our arms swung together. I had seen him and his other friends walking this way. “My Brudda. What do you do now?” Conrad asked.
I was a bit overwhelmed by his hand on mine. “Dinner,” I said.
Conrad placed his free hand out in front of himself, like an empty plate. “Sandwich?” he asked.
“I got no sandwiches because of the Sand Witch Doctor!” Conrad had had been cracking up all week about how Jennifer had convinced me to hand over my bread, and about how I couldn’t eat sandwiches now.
“Sand witch doctor! My brudda! Ha!” Conrad’s laugh was a single-syllable burst. The wind kicked up a small cloud of dust, and both of us brought our hands up over our mouths. The smallest finger on Conrad’s left hand stayed linked to mine. We were walking west, straight into the sunset, and the lowering sun sent our shadows back toward the church, Jennifer’s house, and the asphalt highway that linked this place, somehow, to the rest of the world. The black two-lane and its dusty shoulders would, in a few weeks, carry me out with a certain lightness and ease—the same way it had carried me in. I remembered the back of a Ford Transit, my tent between my knees and my backpack on my lap, and the smell of diesel fuel and sweat mixing in the heat. I mindlessly stared with my head pressed against the window for almost six hours, and one day soon, I would do it all again. For all of the gravity it should have had, Gazankulu was nothing more than the dirt gathering on my feet. One day I would wash myself of the memory. In that moment, I wanted Conrad to leave—to make it out. “What do you think you will do? Not now. I mean after school.”
“I will sit with Keely there. He has a radio now. We listen and dance. Keely is such a good dancer.” He smiled and shuffled his feet lightly without breaking stride, swiveling his hips to show us. When Conrad smiled, his teeth appeared bright white against the background of his dark, dark skin. I wondered what our hands looked like, linked at the fingers. There were thousands of miles between Conrad and me, and now God had brought us together, weaving our long fingers together. I thought that maybe this moment was the closest I had ever been to being connected to someone or something else.
“Do you think you will ever move back to Mozambique?” I asked.
He was quiet for a second. “The war. There is nothing there.”
I thought all the things I did not know about must have been benign. They were not. A thirty-year civil war and a ten-year drought. There was no Mozambique to go back to. I thought maybe he had family. Maybe there was someone or something he had left. A home. A spot of land where he belonged. We kept walking through the refugee settlement under the careful watch of women and children squatting in the doorways of their makeshift houses. No one belonged here. This couldn’t be home to anyone.
“But your people?”
“No. They are gone.”
I didn’t know what that meant, but I knew I didn’t want to know. I looked down at our hands. His skin was so dark. “Well what do you want to do with your life? Do you have goals? What did your father do?”
“Oh my father. Oh no. Keely’s father - he owns land. My father is nothing.”
I should have stopped there. I was young and stupid, still able to go weeks without shaving with nothing to show for it. I didn’t know that you cannot be the type to ask and also never expect an answer. “It doesn’t matter what your father did, I guess. Where will you be in, oh, I don’t know. Where will you be in five years?”
I must have thought that we were the same. I must have thought that he could have followed me out on that two-lane road if he wanted to. That there were schools and jobs and someone looking out for him, for us, if we just knew where to look or tried hard enough.
“Oh, my brudda,” Conrad said.
Above us the sky was empty. There were no clouds. No jet trails. It was too early for the moon, and the sun was still sinking.
Conrad told me he did not have five years. He explained why there were no men in this village older than him or Keely. He said the difference between black and white, between being African and American, was in how much our ignorance would cost us. He told me all of it in three words, and said it in the same way he might have told me that he was 19 years old, or that “you belong to God,” or that last night he danced wildly in Keely’s front yard, kicking up clots of mud in perfect rhythm with the radio. His voice was unnaturally light, floating like a cottonwood seed.
I thought about all that bullshit they had told me in school about wearing condoms and abstaining from sex. Someone told me once that AIDS was God punishing homosexuals, and I believed it. I didn’t know what that had to do with Africa—with Conrad. I thought about Conrad putting his dick in some girl. God. Where is my head? There was nothing to say, so I told him I was sorry. Please. Please. Please. It was everything I had and it was not enough. Conrad had nothing left to say. Neither did I. I remembered the sermon I had preached so fervently. He chose us by name. Our hands were still linked, and I wanted to let go. I didn’t. We turned together down a small path, and my small red tent appeared. Conrad let go of my hand and stood in the path for a brief second while I walked on.
I turned to look at him over my shoulder. “Kunjhani.” It was the only Tsonga I knew.
“It means ‘Hello’!” Conrad laughed. “Good bye, my brudda. I see you tomorrow! Yes!”
For the rest of the evening, there was no noise. I could not hear the river. I could not hear the diesel trucks on the highway. I could not hear the mothers yelling for the children to come inside in Tsonga or English or any other language. I boiled a pot of water over my small camping stove and made papp and a few vegetables. I found the small jar of boiled peanuts that Jennifer had given me the day before, and I picked them up one by one. The sun finally fell below the horizon while I scraped my plate clean, and the emptiness of night flooded the tent. The sweat of the day—of walking for hours and hours under an unforgiving sun—was cool on my back. With the pots clean and the stove put away, my mind drifted toward the three sermons I was supposed to preach the next day. I turned to pull the shower gel, the towel, the toothbrush and the rest of the stuff out of the tent, and made my way to the make-shift shower.
I tipped the water barrel slowly in front of the tent, leaning the opening at the top toward a small bucket on the ground. My arms flexed and my knuckles turned white, fighting against the weight of the water. A small stream appeared on the lip on the opening at the top of the barrel, falling neatly into the bucket. I glanced up from my work to look down the empty road Conrad had taken back toward the school. I thought I could pray. God. You have chosen us by name… I couldn’t finish. I could see the wind twisting through the dust on the road, pushing it up around the huts. It was easy to imagine Conrad’s footprints disappearing. One day, I would forget him the way the road would forget him. Kunjhani? What a stupid thing to say. Next time give me better words. Conrad had joked about my Tsonga. He had laughed. It was selfish, but I wanted to have seen his stride slow and his sandals dragging through the light dirt on the road. Guilt had turned and twisted itself inside me. I stood outside the tent for a second and tried to convince myself to throw up, because that’s what would have been the right thing to do. The only thing that came out of my mouth was a slow whisper and the worst word I could think of.
I carried the bucket of water carefully toward the mud hut behind the tent. I pulled what had been the roof—a small sheet of corrugated steel—across the open doorway, and lit two candles in the middle of the room. I set the water down and began the evening bathing ritual. There was a specific order to the whole thing. It was a system designed from necessity and the inability to rinse. There was no running water. Just the two gallons or so in the bucket in front of me.
I removed my t-shirt, and set it gently on a piece of scrap wood. I dipped a toothbrush into the water, and set it carefully on a cement block near the wall. When I turned, I could see my own shadow on the wall behind me, long-limbed and awkward. The candles weren’t bright, but they were still just bright enough. I turned back toward the small bucket of water and washed my face first. I knelt carefully, holding my head over the bucket to wash my hair, squeezing just a few drops of shampoo into my hand. I was able to rinse my hair dry one palm full of water at a time. I thought about Jennifer’s daughter, seductively running her hands through my strange, straight brown hair. I prayed again. God. Where?
I moved on to my arms, chest, and back. I stopped on my left shoulder for a second. It had been giving me trouble. I massaged it a bit, but as I started to feel how sore it was making me, I immediately felt guilty. It’s not going to kill you, I thought. God. Let it kill me. You are calling the wrong names. I brought a handful of water up to the back of my neck, and waited for a minute. I twisted my arms and held onto my own pinky finger the way Conrad had. I don’t know what it was supposed to mean, or what I was doing.
I peeled off my pants so I was standing in only my boxers, and put my right leg into the water. It didn’t matter that I was alone in the dark. I still felt the need to be modest, to be covered, to be ashamed. I did my best to wash my leg, but the water was getting dirty. When I pulled my foot out of the bucket, I set it carefully on top of my shoe to keep it out of the dust and dirt that was the floor. I did the same with my left leg before standing up, full and straight. It was quiet, but my head hurt from the noise of my own praying.
I bent over the candles and blew them out. When the last one was gone, the darkness was immediate and overwhelming. I couldn’t see the concrete walls around me, or even the dirt floor below my feet. In the bucket of water, I could see the soap and dirt and the yellow reflection of the moon, which hung over my head with all of its awful weight. There was no sense of safety in the darkness—just the overwhelming thought of how completely alone I was. I pulled off the last of my clothes and stood for a second, stripped completely naked. I reached to where I thought the board was and set my boxers on it. I squatted over the bucket again, cupped the cool water in my palm, and poured it on myself. I squeezed a bit of shower gel out of the tube and ran my hands around my privates. I couldn’t help but think about Conrad again, putting his dick into some girl and getting a disease for it. I was tired of feeling guilty, and I did not pray.
I squatted over a bucket of water and soaped up my balls in the African night, and I thought again about what I might preach the next day. Maybe I could say something again about how all of us mattered to God. Every one of us. And then I looked up. I looked up and I could see the moon, dead and silent and surrounded by so many stars that were burning and burning and burning for no reason at all. More than that, though, was the space between the stars and the moon—the black that grew darker and bigger the more I stared at it. I was having all of these big thoughts about the universe and God and everything while my balls rolled around in my hands. Maybe it was because I couldn’t pray like that. I couldn’t talk to God with the whole sky on fire and my junk hanging out and all soapy. There was no praying, and with the lack of prayer came a silence, and finally, into that silence, another thought.
God, I thought, must be there among the stars burning and burning and burning. He was watching the Tsonga boys touch their own hairless forearms. Watching Jennifer fall in and out of sleep without even a little bit of guilt for missing church. Watching an evil witch doctor eat my sandwiches. Watching Keely sit with legs tired from dancing, then reaching to turn off the radio. Watching Jennifer’s daughter either think about fucking me or not think that at all. Watching Conrad, still walking. Or maybe whatever it was that God was doing was less in the way of watching, and more in the way of having seen us once, and maybe glancing in our direction now and then. My hands went to the towel, where I turned them against the dry cloth. I set the towel down and reached up with my right hand and ran my palm the length of my left arm. I felt the black hair on it bristling against the cool night air, turned my head to face north—to the road where I had seen Conrad disappear into the dust—and whispered quietly to myself, “Look at you, my brudda.”