High Traffic Area (Snapshots)

On his way to Africa, drifting through a layover in Paris, John Seaver stood in the Sunday afternoon sunshine and stared at a young man on a ladder. Balanced near the top of a small bicycle shop’s roll-down gate, a corner of which was already fresh black, the man reached his brush into a metalwork crevice and stroked. Seaver leaned against a lamppost and watched him work. He watched the rhythm of practiced, fluid strokes. He watched the painter come down off the ladder, shift it a few feet along the sidewalk and climb back up, and heard him whistle as he did so. He watched as shadows crept down the street and the glistening black turned slowly dull. Twenty years earlier he would have reached for his camera, attempting to turn what he saw as banality into what he saw as art. Now his camera was in his hotel room and the banality looked like peace.

 

And then he was in Africa—red arid country, a small boy running at him through dry brown grass. The child seemed to glide across the land. He wore nothing but a filthy yellow T-shirt above his tiny, flopping penis, but he looked as if he could go all day, could run a marathon. When he came to a stop a few feet away from Seaver, the boy’s legs kept going, skittering still, like a windup toy not quite wound down. He stared up at the stranger—hairy, colorless, squinting behind the dark glasses that hid his eyes. Then with a sudden jerk the child swept his hand high over his head in a half-moon wave and was off again, a staccato squeal of laughter pealing into the air behind him, red dust puffing between his toes and up his too-skinny legs.

Seaver watched him go. He had forgotten about the legs. About the emaciated stick legs and the round bellies hard to the touch. About the children’s light laughter that ended almost always with a slide into deep, congested coughing. Seaver hadn’t been to Africa in almost a decade, hadn’t been much of anywhere for that matter, and he was here now only as a favor to a friend. The famine and war-zone years of his twenties and thirties—when cheating bullets had been a badge of honor, an adrenaline-pumping joke, a way to get the other journalists to buy his first, fifth, or tenth drink back at the hotel that night—were far behind him. After a slab of earth-shaken Armenian cement had left him with a long, limping recovery, he had slipped into shooting for books with titles like Colors of the Southwest, Faces of Provence, Doors and Windows of Sicily. The work made him a comfortable living, with hours and flights that he could choose himself. Somehow he had never gone back to chasing the world’s catastrophes.

And being here was not being back, he reminded himself. There would be no bullets, no famine of the kind that swallowed up hundreds of people a day—this one was about hope, after all, not disaster; about how you, too, can help stave off catastrophe, can help inch lives back from the brink—but this desiccated corner of the earth was still a place of unrelenting struggle, a place where triumph was as simple and often as impossible as keeping your child alive until tomorrow. Compared to Reflections on the Land of Ten Thousand Lakes, it felt like war.

“I don’t want, you know, news,” his friend had said on the phone. “I need, I don’t know, you know, art. Coffee-table stuff. Tug-at-the-heartstrings, open-the-purse-strings stuff. But good shit. Classy. Harsh, of course, but classy.” Starvation at sunrise, Seaver thought wryly. Stick legs bathed in the ravishing African dawn. “Brutal, but picturesque. That’s what makes them write the checks.” Seaver had laughed. His friend was crass, but he was good at his work, and his work did at least a measure of good in a very bleak world. Also, although it would never be mentioned, Seaver owed him. A favor had been done, one long-ago drunken night in a sweltering city in Southeast Asia. So here he was, back beneath the African sun, watching the excavation of a cistern.

 

They took turns, the men and teenage boys, their sinewy backs knotting and glistening as they hacked into hard red dirt. Scattered clumps of scraggly bushes crouched low to the parched earth and puny acacia trees dotted the horizon. Although several years of above-average rainfall had nudged their country off the world’s shortlist of imminent disasters, the previous autumn had once again been dry, and now this year’s rainy season was late. Mornings were overcast and there was the semblance of a chill on the breeze, but by noon the sun was inexorably burning in a sharp, empty sky. It would be too little, too late, if it came at all. Still, everyone looked at the barren morning clouds and nodded, as if they believed that somehow, sometime, there would be enough.

Seaver was in the charge of a local NGO employee named Tesfai, who worked as liaison between the office in town and the villages where projects were underway. The NGO had learned long ago not to lumber in with a backhoe and a cement mixer and build a cistern in a day and think their gift had solved the villagers’ problems. Instead, they initiated projects—they approached the village elders, they explained, through words and pictures and metaphors, how a cistern worked and how it could be beneficial—but it was the villagers who had to raise the bulk of its cost, and who, under the intermittent guidance of an NGO engineer, had to do the physical labor, organizing themselves, making the cistern their own.

The men were barefoot. They wore shorts more patches than original material and T-shirts more hole than cloth. Several had taken off their shirts altogether. Looking at the worn cotton clothing tossed over the nearby bushes, Seaver found himself once again idly amused by the mutations of American style that materialized on T-shirts and sweatshirts around the world: logos of nonexistent universities, jumbles of letters that didn’t add up to words, perfectly nonsensical phrases. Every third T-shirt fading under the midday sun was emblazoned with the slogan high traffic area.

The tools the men wielded were simple. The irregular metal implements had been purchased in town, several hours’ walk away; their wooden shafts had been worked by hand out of tree branches. With these rough hoes and shovels the men had burrowed twenty feet down into the thirsty ground, hollowing out an empty cylinder of hope against hope. Ten feet across at the top, the hole described an almost perfect circle of darkness in the raw sienna surface of the desert. In time, lined with cement, the cistern would catch and store whatever moisture the skies might send, but for now the gaping cavity looked like a fantasy, like someone’s idea of a cruel, ironic joke. There was nothing in the scorched earth or the too-blue sky to suggest that the hole would ever fill with liquid life.

Tesfai and Seaver watched the men work. John Seaver was not a small man, but next to Tesfai he felt oddly insubstantial. The African was at least twenty years his junior, married, with an infant son. His face was square, his hair cropped close at the sides. He was devout, deliberate in his choice of words, and conservative in his movement. He looked to John Seaver like a college football player. Like an intelligent, quietly ambitious boy raised in a small town by a stoic, self-reliant single mother, a boy who would have preferred to spend his afternoons in the library than on the football field, but it was the football field, or rather the mildly spectacular catches he occasionally made on the football field, that had prompted the admissions office . . . It was an old habit of Seaver’s: imagining how differently the narrative of a person’s life might have turned out, had the accident of birth landed him or her in a different place or time.

The men sang as they worked. Tossed back and forth between those scraping and shoveling at the bottom of the hole and those up top waiting for their turn, the song was deep and rhythmic, almost a chant, an echo of the songs of the slaves in America’s cotton fields. Watching them labor, these barefoot men in years probably younger than himself, these lean, resilient men who had fathered children—a commitment he himself had diligently avoided—these hungry, determined men who were trying, with this hole in the ungenerous red earth, to make their wives’ lives just a tiny bit easier, their children’s lives just a tiny bit longer, Seaver wondered briefly, not for the first time, had he been born in Africa or Asia or the Middle East, who would he have become?

He felt the beat of the men’s song wash through him, and with a start he reminded himself that it was not the echo, it was the original.

 

When Tesfai spent time in the village—the olla, in the local language—where the cistern was being built, he stayed in the home of a man named Alacky. The olla was an encampment of a dozen homes built inside a protective ring of thornbushes. The homes were loosely woven grass huts that flooded when it rained but allowed the smoke of the cooking fire to escape and the rare refreshing breeze to blow through. Ears of corn hung drying from the roofs. Calves and goats wandered in and out at will.

Alacky was an elder of his tribe, one of the leaders of his olla; he and his wife Chulanni had three sons—a toddler in a blue T-shirt, a boy in a green T-shirt, and the boy in the yellow T-shirt. They also had a daughter, whom Seaver would only ever see once. He figured the boy in the green T-shirt to be five or six and the one in the yellow to be nine or ten, but he really had no idea how to guess a child’s age. They were small. All children seemed unfathomably small to Seaver, but the smallness of these children was distinct. Their luminous eyes and perfect white teeth notwithstanding, Seaver was sure they should have been bigger.

Alacky was a man of few words. He wore a grey fedora, loose white shorts, leather sandals and a thick cream-colored cotton wrap around his torso. He held his youngest son close while the toddler sobbed at the sight of the pallid stranger in his home.

Chulanni had the cheekbones of a fashion model and skin the color of burnt butter. Her short hair, dark chestnut streaked with steel grey, was pulled taut against her head in rows of thick braids. When she crouched to add a twig to the fire or to stir a pot of simmering milk and corn, her body folded up like a triptych—a bend at the hips, a bend at the knees, feet close together and heels on the ground, calves flat against thighs, thighs flat against stomach. It was the classic squat of the developing world, the squat of lives lived close to the ground, the squat of no extra meat on your bones. She glanced sideways at her guest, never looking straight at Seaver’s face, never directly catching his eye. She wanted to know how he would survive in the heat of her land.

With Tesfai translating, Seaver told her that he was used to the heat. He told her that he too had grown up in the desert, under a dry sun at the foot of parched purple mountains. He left out the air-conditioning and the backyard pool and the dichondra lawn that he had mowed every week for two dollars. He didn’t even try to describe the winters of the Midwestern plains where he had gone to college, where he had later returned and bought an old house in an okay neighborhood. It had a first floor that was easy to rent out to students; a second floor that had its own entrance, its own kitchen, and a spare bedroom that he had converted into a darkroom; and, up on the third floor beneath the eaves, it had a small, oddly angled room where one day several years earlier he had hung a series of framed black and white enlargements of moments that had changed other people’s lives, then closed the door and left them to gather dust.

As Chulanni ladled sweetened milky corn into tin cups, Seaver watched the boy in the green T-shirt retrieve two kernels that spilled onto the dirt floor and pop them into his mouth. When Seaver finished his meal and handed the boy his empty cup, he saw how the child ran his finger around the inside of the mug before returning it to his mother. He saw how the boy then stepped back into the dim shadow at the edge of the firelight and slid his finger into his mouth to suck off every last possible hint of nourishment. And John Seaver, his stomach growling, was reminded that he had never been hungry.

Chulanni handed him a clean cup half full of water. She swirled her hands quickly, one around the other, and then passed them over her face, telling Seaver with perfect wordless clarity to wash up. He washed as he had seen her wash. Banishing thoughts of bacteria, he took water into his mouth, squirted it back out into his cupped hands, and brought them to his face. He ran his wet palms up his forearms and then, slipping his feet out of his sandals, down his ankles to his toes, until the tin cup was empty and there was a damp spot on the ground between his knees, the water soaking into the dirt floor of Chulanni’s home.

 

Seaver had pitched his old pea-yellow tent under the acacia tree behind Chulanni and Alacky’s home. With one arm crooked into a pillow, breathing in the cloying smell of his own sweat, John Seaver lay on top of his sleeping bag, eyes open, staring into darkness, waiting for sleep. He had a small radio that captured a crackly BBC broadcast. The first morning he woke up in his tent in Ethiopia, Princess Diana was dead in a tunnel in Paris.

 

On his way out to the olla, Seaver had spent a night at the NGO’s regional office in the town of Yavello. They gave him the room behind the office—a white-walled, brick-floored space with a comfortable bed and cold running water in a bathroom where a pair of cockroaches the length of his thumb clung side by side to the wall above the shower.

The minute Seaver stepped out of the compound in the morning, the neighborhood kids began yelling, “Faranji, faranji, faranji” (“Foreigner, foreigner, foreigner”). They followed him down the broad dirt street to a café where he ordered a cup of strong coffee and a plate of fresh eggs scrambled in vegetable oil. As he settled into the shade of the café porch, the first woman walked slowly past, a heavy wicker basket on her back. Several minutes later came three men, walking sticks in hand. By the time Seaver had mopped up his plate with a hunk of bread, the street was a river of people who had walked for hours to reach town before the heat of the day sank in.

He followed their path towards the marketplace, a bustling plaza of barren dirt and vendor tables. In a landscape that was a thousand shades of beige, the women’s clothes were a riot of color. Pink shawls draped over blouses of violet and tangerine; orange head scarves wound above dresses of emerald and canary; a yellow sash wrapped around a skirt of wildly careening crimson and indigo. People every shade of brown were clothed in every color of the rainbow.

Sugar and corn, tea and soap, bananas and custard apples, hot pepper and grey salt, chickens and goats: sometimes the trade passed through money, often the barter was direct—goods from the country exchanged for goods from town. Women sat on the ground, their wares displayed on a wicker mat or a sliced-open USAID bag. They would sell their corn, or their gourd’s worth of milk or butter. They would buy sugar or tea or a metal hoe. And then, under the late afternoon sun, they would reverse the miles-long walk they had taken in the morning, returning home to their ollas.

Seaver was standing at a table piled with rough-hammered spades and hoes and spearheads, which the blacksmith was laughingly trying to talk him into buying, when Zewde, a lanky NGO employee, appeared at his side. John Seaver wasn’t surprised to see him. He knew how word traveled. How a child had told an adult had told another adult until someone who somehow knew that Seaver was attached to the NGO had sent another child running to tell Zewde that his faranji was wandering alone in the market. “Do you need something?” Zewde asked. “Are you hungry? Are you looking for something? Tomorrow you will go out to the olla. What is your program for today?”

“No program,” Seaver laughed, understanding that Zewde meant “plans,” meant to ask if Seaver had plans for the day. So Zewde invited him to his home, a solid two-room house in a dusty yard behind a tall wooden fence. Seaver joined Zewde and his girlfriend Wosen at their breakfast of injera and goat, scooping up the spicy meat in the spongy, sour, tangy bread that wasn’t bread at all, and which Seaver had always liked. He remembered easily to use only his right hand, and never to lick his fingers, even when the warm oily juice dribbled down his wrist.

Wosen was a slender girl with delicate features, dressed in a clean white T-shirt and faded blue jeans. She worried that Seaver would be lonely, by himself for the whole day. She and Zewde encouraged him to spend it with them. Coffee was served, Wosen slid a cassette of Ella Fitzgerald into an old boom box, and Zewde got out his Scrabble board.

Tesfai had shown Seaver an album of his wedding photos: three-piece suits, white dresses, and the whole church choir. Zewde and Wosen were living together, undecided about marriage. They lay languidly intertwined on a futon; Tesfai would never touch his wife, in any way, in Seaver’s presence.

The Scrabble game wound down—Zewde’s English vocabulary was excellent and Seaver didn’t win by much—friends dropped by, more coffee was served, and the hours dissolved. Just like any Saturday with a ballgame on TV, a few beers, and no idea where the daylight had gone.

There had been a time when a day like this would have driven John Seaver mad. He would have felt trapped, sure he was missing the action, sure that somewhere out there something exotic, dangerous, dramatic—something African—was happening. This, he would have felt, this comfortable domestic afternoon, wasn’t the real Africa.

But the real Africa was not always gritty and exotic, and if there had been anyone to whom to make the argument—a scrappy blonde Northern European backpacking her way alone across the continent, for instance—he would now have argued that the search for a triple-word score against a twenty-something Ethiopian who dreamed of a Harvard degree was also profoundly real. It wasn’t front-page news, but it was as real, as truly and legitimately late twentieth-century Africa as starving children with flies in the corners of their eyes. He would have bought the traveler a beer and made his points, knowing that he could never convince her. He would have argued on, though, for the sake of watching her lengthy, impassioned, not wholly errant responses. He would have listened to her stories (and the universal conclusions she drew from her singular experiences) and tried to avoid telling any of his own. He would have bought her another beer, and another, until either she came back to his hotel room with him, or his energy in wanting to get her there waned.

 

John Seaver sat cross-legged in the dusty shade of the acacia tree in front of his tent, playing catch with the boy in the green T-shirt. They sat a few feet apart, and, as the dry, crenellated piece of animal dung flew back and forth between them, John Seaver was wondering in the back of his mind whether or not to add a couple of days to his return trip and take the Chunnel train from Paris to London. The makeshift ball made a hollow thump against the child’s chest as his small uncoordinated hands missed a catch. Seaver pictured a long evening in his favorite pub, a dingy old place several steps below street level in an immigrant neighborhood far from the center of the city, a Guinness and a steaming chicken potpie. An exuberant shriek exploded from the boy as he snagged the dung from the ground and sent it back. Seaver hadn’t traveled the Chunnel yet, and however opposed he had been to the idea of turning Great Britain into not-an-island, now that it was done he was captivated by the possibility of a three-hour trip from the Gare du Nord to Waterloo Station. The boy’s toss was wild and the dung ball flew past Seaver’s shoulder, landing behind him near a low stone where Alacky’s mother sat with her littlest grandson, the toddler in the blue T-shirt. Having already worked her fingers over every inch of the boy’s head, she was now methodically examining the seams of his shirt, occasionally holding out her hand to show Seaver a tiny white louse before crushing it between her ragged nails. Maybe the bangers and mash instead of the chicken potpie, thought Seaver, as he leaned back to retrieve what was left of the crumbling ball of shit.

 

Two men wandered into Alacky’s home one night wearing broken plastic sandals and carrying Kalashnikovs. They settled themselves on the dirt floor and accepted cups of tea from Chulanni.

The men had questions: Did Seaver come from America by land or by sea? Was it true that when it was day in the olla, it was night in America? What were the main crops in America? How much did a fat cow sell for in America? Did people from the cold part of America migrate in the winter? Then how did they withstand the snow? Alacky showed the men the battered postcard of Minneapolis that Seaver had found in his bag and given to Chulanni. They looked at the skyscrapers glistening above Lake Calhoun. “The Red Sea?” they asked.

One of the men then spoke at some length before Tesfai turned to Seaver and explained that the man was recounting how he had heard on the radio about homosexuals in Europe and America. The man wanted to know if it was true.

“Sure,” Seaver said. “Is what true?”

“Men with men?”

“Men with men, women with women.” Seaver shrugged.

“Women with women? No, how? I mean, how? With men I am understanding, but two women?” Tesfai’s forehead was crinkled in consternation. The men poked at his shoulder, asking for a translation. “Men at least have an instrument,” Tesfai went on, ignoring them, looking at Seaver. “But women, it is all smooth, how can they?”

“Well,” Seaver stumbled, “there are things a man and woman can do without actually . . .  Right? So . . . same, same.”

“But a man and a woman, they have organs. Two women . . .”

Seaver didn’t know how graphic to be, or why he suddenly felt uncomfortable having this conversation. “If you don’t want to get your wife pregnant, there are still things you can do that are pleasurable, right?”

The man with the Kalashnikov in his lap didn’t seem to get it. Neither did Tesfai.

“Fingers,” Seaver finally said. He felt old. Old and weary. “Fingers and tongue.”

 

Tesfai and Seaver took a long hike through the scrub, going to visit another olla. They walked past the circular grave mounds that dotted the landscape, past bird nests hanging like Christmas ornaments on the acacia trees, past a madman seated squealing and muttering on the ground, past bare bleached bushes with the longest thorns Seaver had ever seen, past a wash of trees covered in soft white flowers that looked impossibly delicate in the harshness of the Rift Valley desert.

They had set out early, but the sun was quickly filling in the leftover coolness of the night, baking into the pores of the air. Chulanni had warned him to be careful. “Tell him,” she had said, laughing, to Tesfai, “tell him that the vultures might come and take him away. He is so white and red he looks like a piece of raw meat.” Seaver had promised her that he would be fine, but when he took off his glasses to wipe the sweat from his face, the sun blinded his pale northern eyes, its light as sharp as if reflected off snow.

A pair of birds with wings the metallic blue of an old Chevy exploded off a tree branch and wheeled into the air. An antelope dashed across the horizon. The line of a snake crossed the sand.

They came to an intersection, a crossing of two faint trails, neither of which Seaver could discern with any certainty. Tesfai scanned the ground, looking for tracks that would tell him which way to go. “The women,” he said, “I don’t know how they do it. Everybody is wearing the same shoes, but they know exactly who has gone where, and when. They knew I had come with a faranji. Of course,” he added after a pause, “that is easy to see.”

When they reached the olla, a child pointed them to one of the homes. Beside a low fire, two women sat rocking gourds in their laps. The older woman’s newly hollowed-out gourd made a dull clatter as she tilted it back and forth. Inside, bumping and rattling, was a small piece of burning wood. The fire would clean and seal the interior of the vessel and lend a pleasing smoky flavor to the milk that it would hold. As she rocked, the woman occasionally cracked open the top of the gourd to release a puff of smoke. When the puffs dwindled to skinny wisps, she stopped rocking long enough to replace the spent chunk of wood with a flaming ember pulled from the fire.

The younger woman never once changed her rhythm. Her face was almost lost in the dark shadows of the home, her melting chocolate skin lit only intermittently by the edges of the firelight. Aluminum bracelets circled her wrists and one fit tightly above her right elbow. A necklace of square aluminum beads ringed her neck. She swayed back and forth as if in muted keening.

Seaver saw her sunken toenails and the cracked and calloused yellow skin around the edges of her feet. He saw how the curve of her back echoed the curve of the woven roof. He saw as if framed in close-up how her long fingers held the gourd nestled atop her thighs. The vessel was sleek and simple, its sole decoration a band of interlocking triangles carved into the shell just above the swell of its full belly. The milk made a dull splashing and slapping sound, like waves against a rowboat’s hull, as it churned slowly into butter. Seaver had the oddest impulse to reach out and stroke the gourd, to cradle its curve in the palm of his hand.

Meanwhile, he realized with a start, one of the older men crowded into the home had launched into a list of compliments, complaints, and needs. “He says,” Tesfai translated, “that the NGO works within the framework of their culture. It doesn’t try to change it. He says that ten years ago he was the first one in the region to accept the NGO’s help. He was the first to have a cistern built. And now, he says, his cows don’t die. Now the pregnant women in his olla don’t have to walk many hours to fetch water.”

The man was answering the questions put to him over and over through the years by many different NGO-connected faranji, even though Seaver had not asked them. “But this year,” Tesfai continued, “he says there is a drought and many people’s cattle are dying and market prices are low. So they have no money and the situation is very, very bad.”

“Many faranji come here,” the old man went on after a pause. “They take notes. You are just sitting there. I have told you many things, many important things, but you do not write them down. I do not think you can remember so much.”

“No,” said Seaver, “I can’t. But I am only here to take pictures. Hopefully the pictures I take will help the NGO raise money to keep helping you.”

“Then why do you not take pictures?” asked the man. “Where is your camera?”

 

John Seaver had forgotten, too, about the malaria dreams, dreams triggered not by the disease but by the mefloquine: intense Technicolor visions that commandeered the nights after he took the once-weekly prophylactic pill. He hadn’t thought about the dreams in years, not until he was sitting in the doctor’s office asking for the prescription—may cause symptoms ranging from anxiety, paranoia, and depression to hallucinations and psychotic behavior.

The first time he had taken the then-new medication, no one had warned him about the dreams. He had awoken in the middle of the night, jaws and fists clenched, heart thrumming, rage coursing through his veins, the violence replaying itself over and over in his mind’s eye, the memory of each dream act, each blow, each wave of emotion more vivid than any recollection of reality ever was. Lying on his cot, chest heaving, he had relived the curses yelled, the punches thrown, the limbs wrenched vengefully from their sockets, and he had been terrified by the satisfaction he felt.

A decade later, the dreams were again full of fury and violence. Again they left him exhausted and disturbed and dripping in sweat. But now, as he eventually had back then, he looked forward to them. Every seventh day he went to bed with guilty anticipation, like a little boy about to sneak through a forbidden gate. He knew that as his body adapted to the drug, and its effect on his nights lessened, he would miss the nightmares’ unrestrained wanderings.

Waiting for his shoulder muscles to unclench, for his breathing to slow down, waiting for the cathartic rage to subside, John Seaver stared up at the ochre roof of his tent, just beginning to glow with the first hint of morning light. The BBC crackled on. The Ritz Hotel in Paris had given Princess Diana a drunken chauffeur.

 

Dreams or no dreams, Seaver was an early riser. It was a photographer’s habit that he couldn’t remember not having. Even in the days of late nights in hotel bars—searching for sanity at the bottom of a bottle, knowing that the most he could ever hope to find there was the slightest blurring of the rage- and death-filled images of the day—even then Seaver had rarely missed a sunrise. How often was that the only moment of the day that seemed to retain the possibility of clarity or logic?

It was at this hour, in that grey moment when night is not yet day and there is light but no color in the world, that Seaver, crawling out from his tent, would finally see Chulanni and Alacky’s daughter.

The family’s small herd of goats was making noise, waiting at the thornbush perimeter of the olla for her to take them, as she did every day, in search of grazing. But she wasn’t letting them out. She was standing still, as if listening to a sound no one else could hear. The girl was eleven, engaged to a man she had never met—the son of a distant cousin of Alacky’s—and in two or three years she would be married.

Suddenly, she stretched her arms into the air above her head. Then, pulling herself up on tiptoes, she balanced there for several seconds, perfectly still, her fingertips caressing the sky, where a first streak of pale pink had just creased the clear grey. Slowly, her spine began to arch. Her arms reached backwards, as if she were about to dive off a springboard into a pool she couldn’t see. Well beyond the point at which the arc of her body over her heels looked physically impossible to maintain, she stopped and held her ecstatic, worshipful stretch for several beats. A light breeze pushed a puff of dust along the ground. Something rustled in the bushes.

Then, in one deft motion, the girl pulled herself straight and looked around for the goats. That was when she saw Seaver, crouched motionless in front of his tent. She had clearly not known he was there, yet she didn’t start. Across the hundred yards of dung-scattered dirt, the prepubescent Borana girl held the gaze of the greying foreigner. There was a regality about the child, an elegant reserve that took his breath away. He didn’t move. He knew that if he reached into his tent for his camera, she’d be gone by the time he looked back. He wanted the moment to last.

But without even a nod, with no further sign of recognition, she turned, gathered her goats, and led them out through the ring of thorns, stranding Seaver without the first photograph that he had wanted to make in longer than he could remember. He watched her go with a searing, ripping sense of loss that came out of nowhere and made no sense.

 

Morning and night, John Seaver took a single mouthful of filtered water from his water bottle, slipped his naked toothbrush between his lips, and scrubbed. He stood beside his tent, beneath what he had come to think of as his acacia tree, telling himself that in this world where money was meaningless and water was precious life, he and the tree were sharing what they had—faint shade and the meager drops of dirty water dribbling down his chin. He took a second mouthful, spit it back into his hands, and washed his face.

Looking up, he saw a girl standing a short distance away, watching him. She wore a tattered brown dress and no shoes and stood bent slightly forward under the weight of the sibling sleeping on her back. The swath of dark blue cloth that held the baby came around her side and over her shoulder to knot between her ribs. Hair framed and obscured her face, but the swell of her skull was bare to the sky, shaved in the perfect circle that marked unmarried girls. She tilted her head. Her hair slid back along her cheek, revealing her eyes. Almost imperceptibly, she smiled. The thin gold of morning was filling the sky. John Seaver reached for his camera.

 

Dawn and dusk were the only times to catch the brilliance of the light. Then the hills that hovered on the horizon were deep, luxuriant blues and purples and the desert seemed to glow with red-golden promise. A girl threw back her head and laughed, joy silhouetted against the cerulean sky. A woman leaned her cheek against a cow’s flank and pulled warm milk into a smoky gourd, nourishment nestled against her belly. A group of men dropped a rough-hewn ladder into a hole in the earth and their labor was resonant with possibility.

But dawn and dusk were only the briefest edges of the day. Dawn especially was a fleeting moment between darkness and the inevitable hour when the sun drained every shadow out of the land, chasing nuance and relief and leaving only flat, brutal country.

John Seaver would take pictures then, too, during those daily eternities of flat brutality. He would take pictures of the straw-yellow homes huddled together in the unforgiving landscape; of the crying child, tiny and forsaken in the shadowless midday heat; of the black crow perched atop a massive red termite mound. But those pictures would be taken for himself, taken because if he took the picture he might remember the image, might remember the lowlands of the Rift Valley and the olla of Harwayuu as he had seen them, contourless and eternally thirsty beneath a merciless sun. These were not the pictures that would raise the money. There was no hope in them.

 

Back beyond Harwayuu’s last home, at the outermost edge of the thornbush ring, the boy in the yellow T-shirt was teaching his little brother to hunt. Their bow was a skinny thing, a long, well-whittled twig strung taut with what Seaver presumed to be the gut of some animal. Their arrow, too, was fragile. But it was not a toy. Today the brothers could kill no more than mice, but Seaver was sure that another day, in years to come, with a brawnier bow and a sharper arrow, with a spear or perhaps a rifle, they would hunt bigger game.

He came upon them late in the day, when the shadows were stretching long across the ground and transforming the desiccated yellow of the grasses into liquid amber. The deepening gold sucked the boy’s T-shirt into itself, the shadows swallowed his dirt-streaked legs, and like a double exposure the tiny hunter disappeared into the background.

The boys were serious, intent, their thoughts focused, until they heard the click-whirr of the shutter. Then they grinned and giggled and laughed. Their bodies changed. They pranced and posed. Not for the camera, the camera meant nothing to them. But John Seaver did. His strangeness was still absolute.

Only the day before, in a move completely uncharacteristic of himself, he had impulsively grabbed the boy in the green T-shirt under the arms and swung him up in a circle, up and down and around and around, higher and lower, spinning, the boy’s legs whirling above the ground. It was a game, the affectionate game of a man and his nephew, a man and his son, but the child had screamed. He had screamed a scream that had no laughter in it, a prolonged yelp of fear and confusion, as the stranger, the bulky creature with the ghostly skin and the translucent eyes, whirled him through the air. Airplane was a game in American parks and backyards, but perhaps an unknown and unknowable gesture in Harwayuu.

Chulanni had laughed, but the boy had gone on screaming, wide-eyed, after Seaver had stopped spinning and set him back on the ground.

And now his presence on the hunting grounds changed everything. What had been intently real became a performance, an imitation of itself. The boys became cute. They were cute. Starvation at sunset. Stick legs bathed in the ravishing African twilight. Seaver’s shutter whirred again.

John Seaver lay on his sleeping bag and stared out through mosquito netting at the end of the day. The quintessential African sunset—a stark acacia silhouetted against the horizon of red and orange—was giving way to night. High up, in the deepest blue of the sky, hung a sliver of moon and a single star.

He had the pictures he needed. Tomorrow Zewde would arrive in his pickup truck. The vehicle would rumble in with a cooler full of small glass bottles of Pepsi and an orange soda called Mirinda. Wosen would slide across the front seat closer to Zewde to make room for Seaver while Tesfai climbed into the back. Zewde and Alacky would shake hands, Chulanni and the boys would wave at Seaver, and as the truck lurched into gear, Wosen would open a cold, fizzy Mirinda and hand it to the faranji.

And John Seaver would begin working his way back into the world. Another slow afternoon of coffee and jazz with Zewde and Wosen. Another visit to the market, where with Zewde’s help he would buy a gourd full of milk. It was the milk, not the gourd, that the woman was selling, but it was the gourd, not the milk, that Seaver, never one to collect souvenirs, wanted to hold in his hands and take home with him. Then an overnight in Addis Ababa, the flight back to Paris, a phone call to an old friend, and, depending on what she said, maybe that trip through the Chunnel.

He rolled over and clicked on the radio. Princes William and Harry were following their mother’s coffin towards Westminster Abbey. A procession of black carriages pulled by black horses. “Almost unbearably poignant,” said the BBC commentator.

He clicked it off and closed his eyes. He listened to the sounds of the night. The wind. The murmur of a calf. The scream of a monkey. Were there monkeys here? He hadn’t seen any. Something had screamed. Through the nylon wall of his tent and the woven grass walls of the olla homes, every sound of the small community was shared. He heard laughter, a prolonged cough, and, as he drifted off, a man’s low-voiced lullaby for a sleepless child.

About Erika Warmbrunn:

Erika Warmbrunn is the author of Where the Pavement Ends, the award-winning story of her eight-month, five-thousand-mile solo bicycle journey across Mongolia, China, and Vietnam. She has worked with MSF/Doctors Without Borders in Ivory Coast, Niger, Haiti, and Malawi. She makes her living as a Broadway stagehand.