After Jim Luster died he went to Tanganyika.
He woke up at the wheel of a new car, and the long, black roll of road
unravelled into the valley below like a big snake. The landscape was
brown, its hills undulating and peppered with stick trees.
He woke up hot and thirsty, his hands on the wheel,
his eyes fixed on the nearby trees that were the colour of a deer's
hide. The trapped air within the car was suffocating, so he unrolled
the window. The heat swept by.
He was tired already.
He noticed the trees on the surrounding hills were
twisted -- too much wind.
It was an Africa without lions; at least it
resembled the Africa he had always dreamed, and Luster was disappointed
because there were no lions. If he was going to be dead in Africa, he
should have been given lions. But there weren't any animals moving in
the valley or the mountains. There wasn't even a bird.
His clothes felt dirty, his mouth dusty, his head
full of insect sounds. Yet, he drove on. He wanted to talk, tell
himself he was alive, but a squall of crystal-like insect wings drowned
out everything, ticking against the windshield and obscuring the route.
He drove for hours down that empty road in the empty
Finally, Luster saw a man gathering hay, and he
steered the car onto the dirt shoulder, breaking open a cloud of dust
The man leaned on a long, wooden rake-thing, waving
away the dust from the car with his straw hat as Luster climbed out and
slammed the door. The sound of the slamming door echoed in a world that
was silent now that the motor was no longer running. It reminded him of
when his head hit the rock.
The stranger had dark skin, tanned by years under
the sun. A strand of rope held up his baggy trousers. Smiling
toothlessly, he resembled a Mexican peasant standing among piles of
"Have you died?" the peasant asked, polite, unsure
of either the words or perhaps the crazy death they shared in nowhere.
He was as solid as stone; big and full of the flesh a man carries in
"Yes." Luster's ears roared with the sound of the
locusts rising from a devoured field. At least something else was alive
out there in the empty land. "Where am I?"
"In the valley of Tanganyika."
It sounded logical, and Luster didn't wonder until
later if the peasant meant this was a valley in Tanganyika or a
valley named Tanganyika. By the time he realized he still didn't know
where he was, the man had been left far behind.
Standing lamely in front of him, Luster couldn't
think of anything else to say. He wanted to ask the man if he was also
Luster realized the bright hay piled beside the rake
wasn't grass. It was the product of huge trees spotted throughout the
valley -- dead-limbed giants without leaves, burdened by the yellow
straw which drifted to the ground at every gust of wind.
"Are you infested?" the peasant asked.
Luster's heart began to pound. His body felt
awkward, his thoughts seated above it, as if he were an outsider
examining himself. Infested? No, it wasn't disease, unless the disease
was too much life. The conclusion was violent and abrupt, but
strangely, he didn't regret it. To lie in her arms, his blood leaking
onto her, staining the wet stones by the pool, her damp belly
cushioning him as the cold seeped from his fingers, up his arms, to the
back of his neck. Infested? Is death a disease? Luster looked into the
sun. "No." His eyes filled with black spots, so he focused on the
peasant, and the spots turned green. The sound of the locusts returned.
The peasant bent to his knees in the straw,
searching for something invisible on the ground, ignoring Luster who
was still considering infested. There are two kinds of infested. Those
who break down, give up, and wait for disease to tag them, and those
who fall by chance, get caught by luck and circumstance ... like him.
No, that wasn't a disease. How could he deny the touch of her fingers
or that smooth skin on her belly?
The stranger's hand darted forward; he caught
something, cupped it in his palm. He stood up and showed it to Luster.
It was a silver toad.
"If you're not infested -- then you can watch." The
man admired and stroked the amphibian his open palm, held it up to the
sun and whispered at its head. The toad didn't move. It knew it was in
He took a small knife from the pocket of his
well-used trousers, and with the knife poked out one of the toad's
eyes, rolling the tiny ball in his palm as if it were a sacred object.
He beckoned for Luster to follow as he walked across the road to a dirt
lane while Luster trailed behind like a sick man.
After studying it for a moment, the peasant set the
silver toad on the lane and dropped the eye six inches in front of it.
The toad sat stupidly in the dirt; then lunged forward and devoured its
"Let that be a lesson. Never allow anyone to put out
your eyes." The peasant shuffled back across the road to his
Luster couldn't move. The locusts were hungry in the
field. It beat at the back of his eyes, that sound like the wind of
broken wings, telling him he was going to lose something, and he wanted
her arms again, wanted to knead her flesh with his fingers. Alive.
The toad bounced sloppily across the dirt and fell
into a pond of clear black water; giant, mossy branches interwove with
each other beneath the surface. Green turtles rested on the mud bottom.
One lurched, almost too quick for such a lethargic
animal, and its beak engulfed the toad's leg.
Luster turned away, ran to the car, and jumped in,
driving off without waving goodbye. He knew he had a long way to go,
even if he didn't know where he was going.
And the rock kept rising out of the deep water.
Alive. Childhood lovers, they'd come to the same pool and swum naked
through the summers for fifteen years, falling more in love each year.
The pool. That clear aquamarine water. Cold. The surface rippled around
the waterfall. Her naked skin gliding beneath the reflection. It was
too beautiful. Why did he jump? Because she had surfaced and cried:
"Come in! Come in!" And he had always jumped. Only this time God had
moved the rock.
So he drove down that singing, hellish road for what
seemed like eternity. His ears were pounding with locusts. His head was
looking for all the memories -- those that he loved and those he hated,
but mostly those that he loved -- the cottonwood trees rising above the
river where the steelhead ran, the perfect cup of coffee in the
morning, the satisfied leap of joy when the right thing falls into the
right place. Her long hair spreading around her underwater. And for the
first time Luster realized the insufficiency of life. He was grateful
for what he had taken, yet he wanted more. He wanted everything.
She killed him. No, he killed himself. He always had
to jump. Take that extra step. More love. More height. There wasn't
enough life. His fist split the water and the icy world of the pool
engulfed him in silence. Down. Down. The boulder rushed towards him. A
black iceberg five feet from where it should have been. And he
shuddered at the memory of the contact. His hand knocked aside in slow
motion, his forehead striking and bending back. It was a dream, the
dark bulk filled his vision, the crack that echoed underwater and his
He was lying on the stony bottom of the pool, his
eyes open, watching her naked body dive towards him, the bubbles
streaming behind her, and he wanted to touch her thighs even though he
When she dragged him onto the shore, crying, holding
him, her skin clammy against his, he couldn't tell her that God had
transplanted the rock the night before. He couldn't embrace her, say
goodbye. But he could see. The blood on the stones, on her. She picked
up his bathing suit. She didn't want to leave him naked on the beach.
She looked so awkward staring at it, wondering what to do in that
pained way he'd learned to love over the years. It didn't matter. He
wouldn't be alive by the time she found somebody to take him back to
town. He'd just be a body beside a pool in a forest. His eyes filled
The road veered, and at the curve was a large white
house. It was square; lined with small, odd windows, something a cubist
painter would design. The walls were made of whitewashed stone.
A young girl, perhaps seventeen years old, stood on
the roof, leaning against a stone ledge, waiting for someone. When she
saw Luster driving towards the house, she waved.
He stopped the car and got out. Not knowing what
else to do, he waved back. It was then he realized he still didn't know
where he was. For a frightening second he wanted to go back and ask the
The dark girl clapped her hands over her head and
sprang high into the air.
She started to dance, moving slow, banging her open
hands against her body and the stone ledge in a manner that told him
she knew of locusts and toads and what they meant on this road.
He could only see the upper half of her body behind
the ledge. Soon she was joined by another girl who was smaller but also
lovely. They danced and hurrahed and threw themselves into the air.
A young man moved alongside them with a mandolin,
playing a song that reminded Luster of the insect wings and hay the
colour of gold.
The three sang and laughed and danced while the
tears burned rivers down Luster's dusty face as he leaned on the car,
one hand resting against the hot metal, one hand held to his mouth.
They shouted for him to join them. He was thirsty
and tired, and they were so beautiful he found himself sucked towards
the door at the side of the house.
The first girl skipped down the stairs and embraced
him at the door. He let his hand rest on her waist, and smiled when she
kissed his cheek.
Inside the house there were animal noises; the sound
of lions at their kill, and he thought: "At last I'm getting somewhere."
The other girl appeared beside him. She ran her hand
down his shoulder as if greeting a lover returned from a long journey.
Behind her, the young man strummed his mandolin, halfway down the
stairs, pretending he was in a trance. Luster could tell he was a fake,
and began wondering about the girls. Luster had done his share of
dancing -- the boy didn't have it. And for a sweet moment, he wanted to
show him how to dance.
Then the first girl swung open the oak door, and he
peered into the belly of the house. There was a party taking place. The
darkened interior was filled with people laughing and dancing and
talking. Luster could make out no faces.
She smiled and pulled his ear gently. His hand was
still around her waist. "Are you infested?" she asked.
And Luster knew that being infested wasn't a
disease, no blistering and corruption of the meat. It didn't have
anything to do with the body. It was time and chance. It was life. The
rock. "Yes." The locusts drummed under his clothes, all around his
body. He knew what was going to happen next.
"Do you want to come in?"
He was tired and thirsty. "Yes."
"You must give us your eyes."
He moved backward, dropping his hand from her waist.
He'd been warned; the old peasant had told him what was going to happen
when he'd been lucky enough to make the wrong answer. "No, I won't give
you my eyes."
"But," she pouted, her hands held tight against her
chest, "everyone is here; if you take the road you will never find them
"Everyone?" That awful lump was in his throat -- the
knowledge that he was caught on the hook of his dying. The road, he
knew it went on forever, lifeless and lonely. The worst kind of death.
Inside the house there was no sun. It was shadowy, yet the party was
"Of course." She pointed to the dim interior. The
crowd moved aside and he saw his father seated at a long table,
drinking and laughing, pounding his glass on the wood. One by one, he
saw them: family, friends -- drinking and enjoying themselves, but it
was dark and he couldn't see if they had eyes.
"You must go in," the mandolin player insisted.
Luster didn't know what to do. He looked at the sun, that huge black
wave of locusts moving towards the edge of the valley. Then he
contemplated the murky room. She was there.
"Come in. Come in!" she shouted from inside the
house. She was naked, as beautiful as ever, covered with blood, holding
the silly bathing trunks in her hand. And the rock was behind her.