Her father came out to the patio, a tinkling pitcher of lemonade in hand. His eyes, old vaults for secrets, sparkled with humor. The colonel remained big even after the loss of his wife, grown more powerful from working the farm. Dressed in jeans and plaid and boots, he looked as much a beam of the rustic old home as a retired warrior with an archive of Special Forces secrets to haunt his dreams.
“Not much left of summer,” he said. He spoke without judgement, sitting back in the wooden Adirondack. But living with a man who said little had taught Kerri to interpret, and she heard toughness in his words. His comment was meant to push her, to keep her from the same paralysis that first consumed him when his wife passed. “Anything you want to talk about?”
“No, daddy.” She felt good, calling him that. She flapped the overleaf of the envelope.
“You can go back to work at the hospital.”
“Those cynics?” The crowd cheered a hit on the radio.
“Back to school, then. You know you have to do something.”
“Help you in the wood shop?”
“What time you want to leave for the airport?” He deferred the answer. She knew she was welcome for as long as she needed it. But he wasn’t going to say so. It wasn’t what he wanted for her.
“Their flight lands at 10:30,” she said.
When he came out of his thoughts he said, “You don’t have to leave. Ever. This place is yours. Theirs, too. And you can do this for them. I’m happy for you to do it. Proud, even. It’s what your mother and I did when we adopted you and your sister. But I could only do that after following my heart and answering my own call. You will also have to do something for yourself. Follow your calling. Make things right between yourself and the world.”
The sea-wash of radio baseball filled a period before she said, “That’s right, daddy. I know what it is.” She handed him the envelope. “It’s just sooner than I wanted.”
He took the envelope with a knotted hand. He paused at the Langeley address, let out a breath. His head bobbed as he read. “Want me to take you down?”
“I’ll go by train.”
“What about the kids?” she asked.
He looked at her, eyebrow cocked, forehead wrinkled. “Like I said. Summer’s almost gone. I’ll need lots of help and young energy around the farm.”
During the long drive to meet the orphans at Newark Liberty, he shared his secrets. More than before, anyway. It was startling, then comforting, to learn of his role in her recruitment. They addressed the windscreen of the rattling pickup, a mirror filtering their conversation as they watched the road.
“When your country calls, it’s still your right to decide whether or not you want to give. Whatever you decide, make the decision that is right for you. I’m proud of you, regardless.”
“Have you been called to serve again?”
His reflection ducked and she knew the answer: he continued to serve. Part of his service was letting them have his daughter. She also learned the secret between old spooks. Some parts of their work remained forever private.
Palm leaves tickled the verandah where Kerri Gold lingered over fresh fruit and coffee. Far below, on the rocks cluttering the base of the bluff, the Atlantic met Ghana’s shore in wave after wave of silent foam and spray. Kerri re-read dear Alma’s story in the week-old tabloids.
All alone on the narrow edge of Africa, Kerri needed to share her feelings about the story with someone, but her village neighbors would not understand. She longed to talk it through with Charlie. What kept her from rushing for a bus on the G-1 highway were the questions: had Charlie returned? And if so, would he be alone in his close, dingy lodging at the center of Cormantin? So much worse for her loneliness to discover that other young people were coupling up and having fun, going about life as if being in Africa were not an excuse for merely getting by. Much as Kerri wanted to share the story of Alma and Salifu with her nearest American neighbor, she hesitated to arrive uninvited into Charlie Winston’s secrecy.
It bothered Kerri that the tabloids captured Alma’s story accurately, lending credibility to all the Ghanaian news she once scoffed: wizards vomiting snakes; hunchbacks slain for the magic in their humps; albino madmen who devoured pygmies after a hard day’s work advising President Dogood Awuku, fisherman president of the Republic of Ghana. Must she now accept all that she considered madness in the collective Ghanaian psyche? But her dismissiveness of that psyche had been self defense, a coping mechanism against her neighbors’ deception.
Deception was standard practice in Ghana for dealing with foreigners. But while they deceived her, Kerri’s neighbors also deceived themselves: to the villagers of Kroboro, Kerri’s dark, teardrop eyes, black hair, and caramel skin marked her as Chinese. Yet she’d lived since infancy in the United States, the country that gave her citizenship after she arrived on its shores as a refugee from Cambodia.
As an outsider, Kerri identified with Alma. Kerri had convinced the clinic in Kroboro to pay the orphan’s school fees in return for her services swabbing floors and rinsing bedpans. Alma’s big, round eyes and graceful smile hid an undernourished frame twisted by a life of crouching in the dust, and though the years of starvation were impossible to correct, Alma grew prettier every day once Kerri took her in. But tradition forbade one from rising above one’s station. Motherless, fatherless, Alma had no heritage but the clinic floor she swept every day. Who was she to go to school? So when Alma didn’t show up to work three days running, the wagging tongues of the farmers’ wives – powerful, earthy women wrapped in faded wax cloth – hinted at evil.
“She did too much to improve herself,” the wagging tongues said.
“She’s run to the city,” they said. “She went too far. The ancestors have had their revenge.”
“Prostitute,” the wagging tongues said. “Mule.”
Even Kerri’s landlord Mr. Fulani, on whom she relied to interpret Ghanaian proverbs and oracles, criticized, “It was no good, you know, this effort to improve her.”
His comment cut deepest. Employing Alma at the clinic had been Kerri’s idea. Her work dispensing failed medicines at the clinic had long since fallen short of its purpose, curing neither the sick villagers nor her empty heart. Stabbing the villagers with blunt needles full of expired meds may have made them feel better, but it cured them of nothing more than the belief that the world had passed them by. So saving Alma had been at least one concrete success.
“She hasn’t left,” Kerri told Fulani. “Not of her own will. Something’s happened.”
“Oh? What makes you so sure?”
Kerri pointed out that none of Alma’s possessions had gone missing. “Even a whore needs a good pair of shoes.”
Fulani smiled with delight at this, though the irony came at his own expense. Unlike the other Big Men – Pumbwa, the bloated farmer chief of Kroboro, Chief Bloom, the intelligent but boorish fisherman from Cormantin – Fulani wasn’t too proud. Tall like Kerri, lean and healthy-looking, with pure white eyes where so many others’ were yellow, Fulani looked as comfortable in Western dress as in six yards of Kente cloth wrapped around his frame.
“That is a silly grin, Mr. Fulani,” Kerri said. She relished taunting him because nobody else dared speak that way to a landowner. Fulani couldn’t hide his fondness for Kerri. He charged her a cut rate to rent the bungalow at the back of his property. And for this generosity, Kerri paid with a constant guardedness against the day he might reveal his secret to her, the true nature of his protectiveness and generosity.
A week after Alma disappeared the police took Salifu into custody. “He was destined to come to no good,” Fulani said of his houseboy. The twinkle in his eyes said, “I told you so.”
As with Alma, it had been Kerri’s suggestion that inspired Fulani to take the yellow-eyed wanderer into his home. Warped by glue fumes, wretched in mind and spirit, Salifu knew nothing of his age or origin. Thick, leathery callouses layered the soles of his feet and the palms of his hands, hinting that the boy had known no comfort for as long as he’d walked the earth. “You are a sorceress,” Fulani told Kerri. “I am under your spell. Salifu was a crazed street child, and I must have been mad to take him in. I must make you my wife.” His proper British English gave the proposal a cartoonish air.
“Drugs,” the gossiping farm wives said of Salifu’s arrest.
“Powder,” the well-fed fishmonger wives said.
“Actually, it was fraud,” Mr. Fulani said.
“A 419 scam?” Kerri said. “Salifu was ripping off gullible old Westerners with get-rich-quick scams? He can’t even use a computer.”
“Not that kind of fraud. Something more traditional. Salifu was arrested for selling the blood of a dog.”
“Is that fraud?”
“It is when you claim it’s human blood.”
“Who would buy human blood?”
“Ms. Gold, you are an avid reader of our tabloids. You know why human blood is needed. To appease the ancestors. Certain Oracles require it. And you cannot fake it with the blood of an animal. Cheating the ancestors and gods? That would never do.”
“I thought most Oracles used goat blood, anyway.”
“Not if they can get real human blood. Both authentic and taboo. So lovely.”
“How do the police know Salifu was selling dog’s blood?”
“My dear, would you prefer to know he was selling human blood?”
“I think charging him with fraud is unjust if they can’t prove its fraud.”
Quite pleased at the thought of outsmarting the cops, Fulani visited the plain cinderblock structure that doubled as the municipal police headquarters and temporary lockup. “You have to let him go,” he told the bloated commissioner. “It is unfair to charge him with fraud if you cannot prove it is fraud.”
“But it is fraud.” The commissioner rubbed his thumb and forefinger together, suggesting a payment might change his mind. “Unless, was he selling human blood?”
Seeing his chance for release Salifu called through the bars, “It is as I said. It is human blood.”
“Where did you get it?” asked the commissioner.
“From the girl. From Alma.”
“You’re lying,” Fulani said. “Alma has been missing for more than a week. You cannot get blood from a missing person any more than you can get blood from a stone.”
Salifu squinted his mad, yellow eyes. “Please. She was so rich in blood. Set me free and I’ll show you.”
“Show us what?”
“I’ll show you Alma.”
Kerri mourned without knowing all the details of Alma’s murder. She wanted to remember Alma in the happiness of her ascent from street child to helping hand at the clinic. A short happiness in a short life. A brief semblance of family. Kerri had enabled that much by providing her quarters in Mr. Fulani’s bungalow on the bluff overlooking the Atlantic. The generosity Kerri showed the girl was in part selfish: having her there re-created the feeling of family, of having a sister; Alma’s role as caretaker and companion reminded Kerri of life with her mother. Even Fulani, in his self-assigned role of father figure, rounded out the feeling of home. When she came up out of the stinging blindness of mourning she asked Fulani how they’d caught Salifu in the first place.
“He had no buyer for the blood. He grew desperate, and tried selling it to a spy.” Fulani winked.
Sick with sorrow as she read the story in the junk news now, Kerri needed to share. Even if Charlie wasn’t back, she thought, the short trip up the highway would be better than sitting around moping. And if he wasn’t there she could pass by the municipal building and find one of the youth club kids. The club president came to mind. The intelligent boy, taller than the others. Otoo. If Charlie wasn’t around, Otoo might know where he was. She packed an overnight bag, grabbed the laptop Charlie had left with her, and set out to catch a bus for Cormantin.
She walked uphill through the deep green blades of elephant grass, feeling strong and lean, no longer counting back the days as when she first arrived, coping with insurmountable time by measuring her progress through it. The same tactic worked in the pool when her father gave them – her twin, Kim, and herself – too many laps to swim, counting each lap backwards from the number remaining. Never before had Kerri faced so many unanswered laps. Two years in the bush. Limited electricity. Unreliable water. No television. No Internet. No reassuring calls from her father. No companionship. Day to day she thrived on privation. She had come to Africa for a taste of it. But at the outset 750 days seemed too long. How did one keep from going mad? Not by counting the days, she realized, and stopped.
Instead she drew strength from enjoying the basics: palm trees, long sunsets, children trouping after her, hectoring her as much as they cared for her. She visited the post office for letters from Charlie, who sent mail as a rebuke to the age of instant communication. He marveled that his envelopes traveled a hundred miles just to cover the 20 kilometers between them, arriving weeks later, brown and wrinkled by Harmattan dust and clinging humidity.
Midway up the bluff she looked back. Sunlight sparkled off the ocean. A pair of pangas moved slowly under oar. Farther out, a canoe raced west powered by an outboard. Times like this Kerri felt the paradox: Ghana truly was her beloved country. And yet she rarely heard the phrase uttered on the radio, from the lips of school children, in the national anthem, without rolling her eyes. Now she felt only gratitude towards Fulani, who’d given her the best part of his property. Of course, Fulani had his own motives for doing so. He wanted nothing to do with the sea. The sea belonged to another tribe, to the fishermen whom he despised with utmost prejudice, just as the fishermen despised him and other farmers in return.
“Had my people been given custody of the sea,” Fulani said, “we would not be living at the mercy of the powder fish. We farmers are morally superior to the fishermen. Just see how they’ve allowed the white-white to ruin them.”
As if brought to life by her thoughts, Fulani appeared at the head of land where the wild elephant grass met his Bermuda grass and flower gardens. He wore a straw hat and smart, precise-looking Chairman Mao shirt, uniform grey to match his grey pressed slacks. “Halloo good morning!” he called heartily. “Madame Kerri so good to see you!”
She could not but stop and return the greeting, admire his bougainvillea and breathe the perfumed breeze trilling his flowers, even if it meant subjecting herself to his constant scrutiny. He asked her where she was off to and chided her like a father for not letting him know she needed transport.
“That is because I do not need transport, Mr. Fulani.” She smiled but could only go so far with the lie. Fulani knew she wasn’t off to church, and nothing else within walking distance was open so early on Sunday.
“Let me drive you,” he insisted. He stepped closer, eager at the prospect of her prolonged company. “It will take you forever to reach the District Center on a Sunday.”
“And why do you think I am headed to the DC?”
“To see your boyfriend! Ha ha!”
“Mr. Fulani, how could I ever love anyone but you?”
“You cannot. But there is a great difference in our age, and you must first sew your wild oats.”
“Haven’t I?” Kerri had in fact ended a relationship before leaving, a serious one with a boy younger than herself, a sensitive young man who couldn’t understand why she needed to go. And she had her relationship with Charlie, also younger. Not a romance, exactly, but companionship. She started off.
Fulani walked beside her, hands behind his back like an English gentleman. “What time will you return?”
“Yes. It is not my right to know. But it is my privilege to see that you are safe.”
They reached the narrow road leading to the center of town. Families of six and eight and ten, dressed in their Sunday best, passed by. Church hymns reached them from a distance. “I will let you know when I am back.”
“I will ask you to marry me.”
“You are too old for me.”
“And you are too old to marry. That is why you must accept my offer.”
She met his eyes and said with finality, “Goodbye, Mr. Fulani.”
He stopped. “Look me up when you return,” he said, waving as she carried on. He called, “We shall have tea.”
She neared the highway more eager than before to see Charlie. He was the perfect antidote to her companionship crisis, present but aloof – aloof even when it was just the two of them in his small concrete room, shutters pulled tight against the rain; aloof and unlike the other Peace Corps Volunteers she’d met, all so intimate in their shared optimism about improving the lives of Africa’s poor. Aloof, perhaps, because for Charlie the Peace Corps had little to do with lifting people out of poverty. He joined to escape both his legacy as the son of a prominent congressman and the steady beat of modern life. Kerri admired his capacity for solitude, felt frustration at his ability to remain untouched. She had five years on him; experience outside of school; months of caring for her dying mother; many more months consoling her lonely father; coping with Kim’s betrayal. She’d escaped these trials by joining Sister Cities International, a shoestring effort to provide medical training in Ghana. She was left more or less to herself, with very little institutional support. In that she was like Charlie: alone. But Charlie, fresh out of undergrad, seemed to possess so much self-confidence, while everything she’d been through had taught her so little.
A few goats and dogs roamed the quiet highway. She looked east, towards Accra. A white sedan appeared at a distant crest, a ghostly specter pulling itself together out of the heat shimmer. As the car neared she turned her back to the road, meaning to discourage the driver. The car slowed, then stopped. The driver called above booming gangsta rap. She turned to see a young man with clean looks and a confident smile leaning across the passenger seat. He called again. “Miss. Where you go?”
“No, thank you. I’ll get a bus.”
“Please. It is Sunday. I am good Samaritan. Like you. You are Peace Corpse, no?” He pronounced it as all Ghanaians did: corpse. “I like Peace Corps. You are good Samaritan. I am good Samaritan.”
The young man’s smile made Kerri uneasy. He flashed big teeth and opened the door, as if a ride with him was inevitable. “I take you to the DC.”
“No. Thank you.” She shut the door.
He scowled and shook a finger. “Careful,” he said. “This road not all full of good Samaritans.”
“I have friends up and down this road.”
He winked and gave a lurid cluck with his tongue, put the Nissan in gear, and pulled away. Kerri’s face flushed. She felt rage that he’d turned the suggestion on her. She felt the old need return, the need to know exactly where she stood in the long count of days. She longed for her verandah, her mother’s shawl, her tabloids, her view of the Atlantic and the soft scraping of the palms against concrete. But she couldn’t face another marriage proposal in Mr. Fulani’s garden, not without fearing that he, too, was mocking her and masking thoughts of his own.
The local bus, a creaking tro-tro full of color and life, pulled over. The door swung open and the conductor pulled Kerri on board. He cleared a spot on the bench and Kerri rocked back and forth with the other passengers, hot and stinking, crowded together in their Sunday best. Four stops later Kerri made out the Nissan at a cutout in the elephant grass. The tro-tro stopped and two passengers struggled to exit. Kerri looked closely. The sedan was empty. At the clearning’s edge the driver stood with his back to the road, urinating into the grass. Kerri kept an eye out the window for a glimpse of the Nissan. Surely it was faster than this old box, she thought. But it didn’t pass, and a tingle found its way up her spine.
The highway ran close beside the open stretch of white sand shaded by narrow groves of palm. Cape Beach. Through the windshield Kerri had a clear view of Elmina Castle, where thousands departed Africa each year through the Door of No Return at the peak of the Atlantic slave trade. Untold numbers more died within its limestone walls after suffering rape, torture, starvation, months crouched on stone floors covered in a thick carpet of their own feces. Now the fishing village of Cormantin sprawled at its base.
She remembered the last few times she’d visited Charlie here. He paced his small room, agitated, one distracted eye on the door. He’d grown thin, his even stubble now an unkempt jungle, his blue oxford dress shirt untucked, his khakis dirty.
“What’s wrong? You’re a wreck.”
He couldn’t meet her eyes. “Working a lot.”
“You need rest. The last thing you need is to travel.”
“I have to meet some people in the capital.”
He paused. “Donors. International aid people. Rogers is introducing me.” He meant the Peace Corps Country Director. “To expand the co-operative to other communities.” He shrugged. “Just please keep my computer while I travel.”
“If your stuff isn’t safe while you’re away, what makes you think it’s safe when you’re here? What makes you think you are safe?”
“Nothing’s going to happen. The community protects me.”
“You’ve been thinking about this?”
“No. It’s ok. I’m ok. The work is too important. I’m having an impact. The whole thing will slide back without me. The powder just keeps coming. I couldn’t forgive myself if-”
“If what? You have to protect yourself first.” Kerri modified the local proverb and applied Charlie’s own logic against him. “The good you’ve done would fill ten nets. The good you have yet to do fills nothing.”
“I know. I know. The future is zero against the weight of the past. But if I leave the Castle District there will only be more powder boys. More Sakawa.” Charlie meant the boys beyond his reach, Internet fraudsters, addicts, traffickers selling their sisters to gangs in Accra and the slum called Sodom and Gomorrah. He told her, “They found Paa Kwesi.”
Kerri knew the boy by name, as she knew a handful of Charlie’s favorite boys: Otoo Ofori; Nana and Ndindi; the twins from the farming community, Dagger and Mutt. Charlie had told her a week earlier that Paa Kwesi was missing, rumors circulating that he’d run off to join the e-waste scavengers in Sodom and Gomorrah. Other rumors had him carrying parcels of white-white into the capital for the cartels.
“Found him how?” Kerri finally asked.
“He was using?”
“No. No way. Not the type.” Silence hung between them. Charlie tapped the rough-hewn table. “Things are getting bad here. If I don’t get some major donors to help, the place will be lost. That’s why I’m going to the capital.”
That wasn’t the last Kerri had heard from him, but very nearly. The last time she saw him he’d been much cooler, back to his old self, as if he’d figured things out. Now, she wondered, would he be glad to see her? Why should she care? He had imposed on her with the computer. Now she was returning it. Simple as that. She would tell him she was setting off. That would make him jealous.
So, she asked herself, you want to make him jealous? That was news to her.
This excerpt from Sea Never Dry and from other shortlisted novels for the 2014 prize will soon be made available for free Kindle download and in print form at the Dundee International Book Prize website.
Sea Never Dry began as a short story about dirty cops and drug trafficking in West Africa, originally published as One Dead Cop in 2012 by Umbrella Factory Magazine. Two years later, the story centers on development efforts in the region and the corrupt officials, tribal politics, and black magic that undermine progress there. Sea Never Dry is thick with spies, cops, and fetish priests, crooks, Internet fraudsters, and the unlucky Ghanaian orphans turning a buck on Accra’s e-waste ash heaps.