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 valley.
Finally, Luster saw a man gathering hay, and he steered the car onto the dirt shoulder, breaking open a cloud of dust like birds.
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 golden hay.
“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 his prime.
“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 dead.
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 trouble.
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 own eye.
“Let that be a lesson. Never allow anyone to put out your eyes.” The peasant shuffled back across the road to his interrupted haying.
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 back corkscrewing.
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 couldn’t move.
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 with blood.
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 peasant again.
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 again.”
“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 endless.
“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.