I would not like to impugn an entire nation, so I won't name it here. I'll say this: it is a nation with a desert, and I was there to photograph a bird and a flower. The bird was only known to science through a stuffed specimen brought out of the country by a British explorer at the start of the twentieth century. The size of a parakeet, the little corpse had been recognized in a British Museum glass case by a refugee of this desert place. The same explorer had sketched, in watercolors, a flower. The bird was beautiful to my eye, black with tufts of green and red, and I wondered how brilliant the colors must have been when the bird was alive and able to care for itself with a good dust bath. The flower seemed plain.
Flower and bird supposedly grew together, living symbiotically, so reported the explorer. In the century since his discovery, however, they had apparently grown apart. I found the bird on the first day in the desert, my guide knowing exactly where to go and taking me there directly. I snapped photos of two specimens as they hopped on the sand, alighted on the branch of a tree that had died waiting for rain, and nested on the ground in the shade of a rock.
The flower was nowhere to be found; my guide had never seen it though he pointed out several other flowers that I had to admit were more beautiful than the one I wanted. Emil—my guide, who insisted I call him this though his ID card and the vouchers I filled out for him each day said something different and unpronounceable—suggested that the country was large and if the bird liked the flower I was looking for, it also liked many others.
"Maybe we never find the flower," he said. "Shouldn't we take pictures of the flowers we find?"
Emil said something like this every day for a week. The money he was getting was excellent compared to the regular tourist trade, of which, at that season, there was none. I think his intentions were to save me trouble even at the cost of his wages though he may have wanted to save himself the heat and the dust of the desert. By the end of the second week, Emil suggested we simply move a hundred miles north.
"There, the land is less desert," he said. "Oasis, river, a lake. More water," Emil pointed out. "Means more flowers."
In my turn, I pointed out that more water also meant more people, more pollution, and more danger. The nation was then, and still is, in a state of not-quite civil war. There were factions with loyalties and bandits without, and the Civil Guard, the regular militia, and the National Police, all wearing green with black berets and carrying Soviet issue rifles and driving Ford and Toyota pickups with .50 caliber machine guns mounted, were as likely to shoot you as anyone else.
"The photographers who go north," I told Emil, "are a different kind of photographer."
Emil sighed. Even with a steady paycheck, hunting a flower in a desert as limitless as an ocean can be demoralizing.
In the third week, I phoned the magazine. They had the photos of the birds, and they were ecstatic. The elusive flower, I was told, was only the more desired because it played hard to get. The science editor chimed in.
"The rainy season is coming soon. Give it another week or two. The rain will make everything bloom, and maybe the flower will appear."
Since no one within fifty miles had ever seen the pastel colored flower, his suggestion didn't seem reasonable, but then one wants to do good work and fulfill one's obligations.
"How's this guide of yours?" the managing editor asked. "Are we getting our money's worth?" The magazine paid Emil twenty-five dollars a week.
I explained that we had logged hundreds of desert miles, entering dozens of small villages and campsites. Emil had translated my bad French into the local dialect, and we had shown my photo of the explorer's watercolor to a hundred people or more. No one had seen the flower I wanted, though a few led me and Emil on treks to see plants that bore no relation to the one I wanted. Neither my guide, nor the birds, nor the local people knew of this flower's existence, and I wondered if the explorer hadn't simply made it up. Maybe, I told the editors, the drawing was a sketch of a flower he thought would have been pretty if it were real. They laughed.
The hotel I stayed in, really an overlarge house with a bar that served also as front desk and with tables in what might have once been a living room, this hotel cost my magazine ten dollars a day, three meals included. At these rates the managing editor had no trouble extending my stay in the country for another two weeks. I resigned myself to a life of futile trips to see desert people with Emil by day. By night, I drank. The hotel manager also tended the bar and the selection of hard drinks was really quite good, though he had never heard of merlot.
Fernand—the bartender had, like Emil, a wholly unpronounceable name, so I called him Fernand and he answered to it. Fernand spoke English about as poorly as I spoke his language. This did not inhibit him; he asked all sorts of questions about America and my purpose in being in the desert. He found it hard to believe anyone would read a magazine about the nature that could be found in the desert. He wanted to know why I wasn't in Vermont where I could ski—he had a brochure someone had left behind some years before.
"Why not here?" he said, pointing to a picture of the white cap of a mountain that had three skiers leaving clouds of snow dust pluming behind them.
It had neared a hundred degrees that afternoon, so I was forced to admit to Fernand that he had a point.
Flower hunting, drinking; flower hunting, drinking. So went several days. Then once, as I was about to sit at the bar, Emil keeping me company, Fernand said, "Tomorrow, wind." His smile was large as he poured my gin. Seeing I had only confusion on my face, Fernand conversed with Emil—I understood the words "wind" and "east." Emil explained.
"Before the rain, the wind comes from east. The wind is coming. Tomorrow it will be here. Two days, then the rain."
"Should we stay in tomorrow?" I asked.
"The wind," I said. "Is it strong?"
Emil blew softly in my direction, then smiled.
"It is soft," he said. "Like a mother cools her child."
I drank down my glass.
"Wind tomorrow?" I confirmed with Fernand.
"Tomorrow, wind," he said. Again his smile was large, as though he were truly happy to finally be able to provide a long sought service for a guest.
"And the next day rain?"
"Maybe two day, rain."
"And how long is the rainy season?"
"How long?" Fernand didn't quite get my meaning even when I repeated myself louder, so he conversed with Emil a bit. I understood Emil as he put my question into the local dialect.
Fernand held his index finger up.
"One day," Fernand said.
I turned to Emil—were there three hundred and sixty four days of heat and sun interrupted by a lonely day of rain? Emil smiled and waved a hand at me.
"No, no. Not one day of rain. Two days. One now, one in a few months. It is the desert," he said. "You know?"
The next day, as I interviewed a goat herder about the flower, I noticed his shirtsleeve flap. The wind had arrived on schedule.
The breeze was gentle, but it picked up enough sand to cause me to put a handkerchief to my nose and mouth during the drive back to the hotel. As we parked, a piece of newspaper blew down the street. Still, the breeze was not harsh.
"You smell," Fernand said as I walked in, and I couldn't tell if it was a statement or a question until he repeated himself with some elaboration.
"You smell water in air?"
"Humidity? Yes, water in the air," I said.
"And when do the flowers bloom?" I asked.
"Tomorrow, tomorrow," Fernand said. The day after next.
I bathed and changed clothes, then came down to the bar for my drink.
During my second drink—Fernand poured long drinks that took most of an hour to get down—a small girl walked in from the breeze and stood just inside the hotel door. After monotonous days, this was a surprise. She was dressed in the loose clothes common to the local population, but local little girls didn't come into the hotel; of the locals, only men with business of some kind did. A second young girl followed behind the first and took her hand, scanning the room. The two were, perhaps, seven and eight years old. I'm not good at guessing the ages of children. They were followed by a woman. She held both children close to her and scanned the room as the second child had. She spotted me, apparently as surprised by my presence as I was by her appearance in the hotel. I raised my glass to her and smiled. Her nostrils flared, and she continued scanning the room. Emil and Fernand looked away from her.
The woman was beautiful. The watercolor flower came to mind as a comparison, but the flower paled. Her skin was cinnamon and unwrinkled, her eyes almond-shaped, and I could tell from across the room they were not the deep brown most common in the area, but something lighter; green or amber.
A man in local dress came next and pushed the woman with her children to the dining area. A differently dressed man entered behind them. He nodded to Fernand. This man was in northern dress. Fernand did not nod back, and he had no large smile. He took two glasses and a bottle of rum from behind the counter and made his way to the tables.
"What's going on?" I asked Emil.
"We should go," Emil said. He nodded to the hotel door.
"Go? Go where? It's night," I told him.
"Then maybe I go home," he said drinking down the last from his cup. "Tomorrow, rain."
He stood up, and I took hold of his hand, not hard, but enough to let him know I wanted him to stay.
"What is happening?" I asked.
"I cannot say, my friend. I am not listening to the conversation."
"Then let's listen."
Emil shrank back, but I moved to the end of the bar, the spot closest to the dining area not more than ten feet from the two men. The woman and her children stood behind the man in local dress. The men ignored the females and drank a toast to each other. Having poured a second glass for each, Fernand stepped back to the bar. His face was long, and he said something to Emil softly. I made out the name of a port city in the north. Emil nodded.
After the second drink, the men started talking. They were loud enough for anyone to hear. I heard the city named again. I heard the word for woman; I heard the name of the local currency. I knew what was happening, but I looked at Emil. He whispered to me.
"It is a sale. The husband," Emil said. "Sells his wife and his daughters. They are not the sons he wanted, and the woman does not give him a son. He says he needs the money for a better woman who will give him sons. The other man has made an offer. He will take care of them until he can find other buyers…"
"Buyers?" I said out loud. "Buyers? More than one buyer?"
"Yes, well, there are three," Emil said.
"But they're a family," I pointed out. Emil nodded and shrugged. He started to say something, but stopped.
I stood up. It was Emil's turn to take hold of my hand. The two men at the table turned to look at me and I held their gaze. Fernand coughed to get my attention. When I turned to him, he started pouring me another large drink. He was nervous and with his eyes he pled with me to sit.
I pulled away from Emil, and stood watching as the slave trader paid out what amounted to about five hundred American dollars. The husband, the father, put the money into a purse hanging from his neck under his robes. Then he stood and stooped to kiss the tops of his daughters' heads. He took his wife by the shoulders and kissed each cheek. She showed no emotion.
I strode up to the two men, breaking Emil's grip on me. Emil followed.
"Ask him how much he will take for the three of them," I told Emil. I pointed to the slave trader; pointing is considered rude in that culture, and I knew it.
"My friend," Emil said. "Why? This is no good for you. Cannot we go out to see the stars?"
The slave trader had stood up by now and pushed my hand out of his face. He wasn't happy.
"Ask him how much."
The two men had started talking to each other. Their conversation was heated. Emil broke in politely. He put his hands together as though in prayer, he bowed to each man. He was fawning.
The slave trader considered his response.
"He says it will be five thousand American."
"Five thousand," I said. "I just saw him pay five hundred."
"It is too much, my friend. They are not worth so much. He is robbing you. He thinks Americans are all rich."
"Tell him I'll pay three thousand."
"My friend, no. Why for? You do not need…"
"Tell him three thousand."
Emil did as I asked. He could see he was not going to stall me or win the argument. While Emil bargained, I looked at the mother and gave her a smile. I wanted her to know she was safe, her and her children. She did not return my smile. She held her daughters closer. She could not know my good intentions from the fact that I was bargaining for her. With two tall gins in me, my smile might seem like a leer.
"He says he will take four thousand, five hundred, American dollars, or he will go today and drive to the city and get the full five thousand by tomorrow," Emil reported.
Now I was in a bind. I had lowered the price, and I would pay it, but I had nothing like that amount on me, not even in travelers' checks. I doubted he would take a personal check, and I knew he would not wait until morning when the bank in the next nearest town opened.
I turned to Fernand and took out my credit card.
"Give me an advance," I told Fernand. He tilted his head to one side. I had never seen a more anguished look on anyone. "Give me ten thousand, American."
"Why, my friend? Why?" he said. He went to the back anyway when he couldn't shake my stare or the credit card I was offering him.
When he returned, he had about seven thousand dollars worth of local currency and another five hundred in Euros and dollars. He counted out the money silently and made an imprint of my card scribbling out the amount. The item for sale was left blank. He would have to think of something.
I paid the slave trader. He wasn't happy to have local currency, but I wasn't about to budge. When he pocketed the money, I put out my hand for him to shake, and I smiled. He ignored both gestures and started to walk away. The husband, the father, stopped him. He was angry. He yelled something at the slave trader and he yelled something at me. When the slave trader left, the husband, the father followed him. I looked to Emil.
"He is angry with you," Emil said.
"You could have shown interest in the girls earlier and given him the large sum of money. By waiting, you cost him thousands."
"I…I did no such thing. He…He would have sold his wife and daughters anyway."
Emil put his palms up and shrugged. He was not responsible for the inconsistencies of others.
The husband came back into the hotel and stood close to me, speaking loudly into my face. I looked to Emil.
"He says he wants more money."
"He wants to sell them to me now?"
I wanted to argue. In fact, I felt at that moment that what the husband needed more than anything was a good thrashing at the back of the hotel. I was taller than him by half a foot and outweighed him by an incalculable amount. It would have been an easy thing. Unless he had a knife.
At the moment when I was most tempted to grab this man's neck—his tirade had landed spit on me—his wife made a decisive move. She sat. She pulled out a chair noisily and threw herself into it, arranging one daughter on one knee and the other daughter on the other. Then she looked away from myself and her husband, Emil and Fernand. I saw this through the corner of my eye, and the move made me feel silly. If she was bored with the argument, so was I.
I turned my back on the husband who continued his complaint, and when I faced him again a minute later I had another five hundred dollars worth of local money in my hand. I held it out to him, and when he had counted it, I offered my hand to seal the deal. He saw I wasn't going to take it away, and, unlike the slave trader, didn't feel up to insulting me. He shook.
I told Emil to announce that the purchase was now complete. The husband shook hands with Emil and Fernand, and he stooped again to kiss his daughters and his wife. He looked at all of us with a smile on his face, and I supposed he felt he had more than enough now to attract a wife who would give him all the male progeny he could want. He drank another glass of rum, and, without further words or argument, he left.
I walked back to the bar and sat. I asked Fernand for another gin. When I turned to Emil, it was the woman who sat in his place. Her daughters stood by her side. She faced Fernand.
"Emil," I said. "Tell this lady that she is free."
Emil translated for me, and she answered him.
"She says ‘Who will feed me?'"
I hadn't thought of that, but it was easy to arrange. Room and board was only ten dollars a day at Fernand's. That solved the problem for the night. Fernand served the three of them the same food he normally served me, and they ate together quietly but quickly and with hunger. He then gave them a room next to mine. There was no other person staying in the hotel.
In the morning, it rained. The rain fell heavily from the moments before dawn through to the night. Emil did not come by because roads were impassible. I took my meals with my new family at the bar so that Fernand could translate for me. Neither at breakfast, nor at lunch nor at dinner did the woman want to say a word. Her name was difficult to pronounce, so I called her Nez which was part of her last name. When I tried to talk to her daughters, she bristled. It was a long day.
The next morning, early, Emil was at my door. In the weeks we had worked together, he had never come by to wake me.
"Flowers will bloom, my friend," he said. "We must begin."
It had stopped raining sometime during the night, and as I dressed, Emil told me that the water had pooled in some places and new plants would begin to show themselves before the day ended. In another day or two there would be a quick burst of color. The flowers would disappear almost as quickly as they sprang up. I hurried down to breakfast. Fernand had placed my bread, eggs and coffee on my usual table; Nez and her daughters had taken their positions at the other three sides of the table, plates of food untouched before them. When I ate, they ate, saying nothing to each other or myself.
When I rose, they rose, and as I headed to the hotel door, they followed me.
"You cannot follow me," I told Nez. "Emil, tell them they cannot come."
Emil seemed truly shocked that I would ask him to say such a thing.
"They are yours," he said. "You cannot just leave them here."
"I'm coming back," I told him.
"Still, my friend, the woman and the girls cannot stay in a public place unattended."
"What's the worst that can happen?" I asked. One imagines terrible things about foreign lands, but it is always best to ask a native.
"She can be arrested."
"But Fernand is here; he can explain."
"Fernand may be arrested too. The woman and the girls must come with us. Do not worry, there is much room in the vehicle."
Emil's sense of "much room" is not what an American would hope for. There was, however, enough space, and they came with me.
Some parts of the road were awash with mud and required clever navigation; Emil was up to the task. He drove us all to where I had first spotted the two birds. It happened that the birds had left their nest, and they did not return though we waited. We then stopped at a solitary hut, and Emil asked where we were likely to find water pooled and vegetation, and we drove according to the directions we were given. The man who gave them had stared hard at Nez and the girls, but no words were passed.
A few hours later, after lunch in the home of a very friendly local family whose children played with the girls, we found a pool. Little more than a mud hole, but green was coming to life. We were informed of two other mud holes and visited them before returning to the hotel. They also showed new growth, and the last one had four birds of the type I had come out to the desert to see. At the hotel, Emil and I were both in good humor knowing we had come much closer to the end of the assignment. We ate well and drank quickly. The females in the troupe were not in such a good mood, but they ate also. The next morning, I would not need to be awakened.
I had eaten, as had Nez and the girls, when Emil arrived the next day. By mid-morning, I had my pictures, and what pictures they were. The flowers, small, low to the ground, more beautiful in life than in the watercolor sketch, but delicate so that the noon sun was sure to scorch them, these flowers were in bloom. The birds fed on them, ducking their heads between the petals to fetch whatever treats were inside. I shot several rolls of film, even standing in the middle of the mudhole, knee deep, to get pictures from one angle that turned out not to be too useful; still, it felt good to work with a purpose.
Emil drove us all to another mudhole, then another, but while there were beautiful flowers and beautiful birds, there were no other specimens of the ones I wanted. At the end of the day, Emil turned the vehicle toward the hotel, and Nez spoke to him, the first words she had spoken to either of us all day.
"She says can we visit with her mother? One hour," Emil told me.
"Where does her mother live?"
"In a village, twenty kilometers."
"Sure," I said, and Emil veered off the road to bump us all to Grandma's house. It took nearly an hour to make the twenty kilometers. I spent the time making clear in my mind how easy it would be to leave Nez and her daughters with her family. If ever there was a plan from God, this was it.
Nez's village consisted of seven mud brick homes, three of which had burlap for doors. Her father sat cross-legged just outside one of these burlap doorways, and he didn't stand or care when Nez approached him. Nez and the girls took turns stooping to kiss him, but he looked away and muttered something loudly. I turned to Emil.
"There is trouble, my friend. We should leave." Emil tugged at my sleeve.
"What's the trouble?" I asked, and on cue Nez's husband came out of the house, stooping to get through the doorway. He started yelling as soon as he stepped into the sunlight, dividing his attention between Nez and her father. Nez's mother came out and took up a position near her husband. She glanced at me and Emil, smiled briefly at her granddaughters, and had no smile for Nez.
Nez's husband walked up to me and waved his hand in my face, shouting. My desire to give him a thrashing returned.
"What's he yelling about?"
"He says his wife went with you readily," Emil explained.
"He sold her!"
"Yes, he does not deny this. He says she refused to give him a son, but she will give you one. Showing up here was the worst thing we could have done."
"She's not going to give me any children," I said.
"Of course, but he wants his dowry back. He paid five goats for her ten years ago and he wants them again. More now because he has lost two daughters. One more goat, six goats."
"Listen here," I shouted back at Nez's husband. "I've about had enough of you…" He wasn't paying me any attention; he was shouting at the father who was trying not to pay him any attention in turn.
Through all of this, Nez was silent, looking mostly to her two girls and to the ground. Her husband did not appreciate this demur behavior. He pushed her once and then again. I lost my temper, came up behind him and, taking hold of his shoulder, spun him around.
His punch landed squarely on the bridge of my nose. I tried punching back, but my eyes were closed and my swing didn't find him. He gave me a two-handed push. I stumbled back and hit the ground hard. Emil tried to help me up; Nez, I could see, had no reaction to my nose being bloodied.
Her husband's next move was a mistake. He tried to grab Nez's youngest daughter. When he stooped to do this, Nez grabbed his hair with one hand and started wailing away with the other, slapping him, punching him, and scratching at his face when he tried to stand up straight. When he backed off, it became clear that Nez had no intention of letting his hair loose. She grabbed it with her other hand as well and her husband decided that it was better not to fight. He doubled over, and she wagged him back and forth. When she was tired, she let him go with a series of slaps.
He walked away, silently, bleeding from the lower lip and with scratches on his face. Nez remembered something. She yelled at her husband, he started to yell back from a distance, but she took a step in his direction and he stopped. He reached under his clothing and pulled out his purse. He quickly counted out a bunch of money and threw it at me. It was the five hundred I had paid him. He left, his horse only a few yards away.
Nez yelled something to her father, gathered her daughters and went into the house; her mother followed; her father stayed in his seat by the door from which he had never moved.
Emil and I went to the car. We passed Nez's husband on the road toward the hotel. I waved to him, and he ignored me.
"Will you give this to Nez?" I asked Emil as he parked in front of the hotel. I was holding out the five hundred her husband had thrown at me.
"She will not take it," Emil said. "She had him return it to be free of you. She will take nothing from you."
"But," I said; I had to say something. "I was not bad to her. I housed and fed her. I kept her family together. I bought her so she could be free."
"Yes," Emil said. "But you bought her nevertheless. Her husband bought her from her father, the slave trader bought her from her husband, you bought her from the slave trader. She is tired, my friend, of being bought and of being sold. She has bought herself now. And she will take no money for herself."
"But, it's a gift," I said.
"No, my friend, freedom is no gift. It is paid for, always. You know?"
Of course I understood, and I wanted to explain to Emil how Nez was still wrong, but it was hot and Fernand had tall glasses filled with gin waiting for us, and I had gotten all I needed from the country.
Copyright © Steven Torres 2006. Title graphic: "Birds of a Feather" Copyright © The Summerset Review, Inc. 2006.