Image: Kim Wolhuter/National Geographic Stock
Interview: "I Dreamed of Africa"
Téa Obreht describes how National Geographic shaped her writing career.
They were talking about the funeral when the lights went out. They had been sitting on the porch for almost two hours, and Neal, still on his first gin-and-tonic, was telling Roland about the priest he had found in Longido to do the services. He was telling Roland about how the priest, Father Abasi, had once been watering the garden in shorts and clogs when a man came by from the village and asked to see his boss, and how Father Abasi said “I’ll go get him,” and turned off the hose and went inside and changed into his cassock and came back out and then went to bury the man’s daughter.
Neal was talking, and Roland had his hat on his knees and was pouring himself another gin. They had brought Femi’s coffin back from Longido around noon, and Roland had been drinking steadily since then, except for the 20 minutes before dinner when he had gone upstairs to bottle-feed Nyah and put her to bed.
“I think Femi would have liked this priest,” Neal was saying. “I think she would have tolerated him.” Then the porch went dark.
Neal needed a moment to realize what had happened. He was already turning in his seat to call for Mrs. Halima, the housekeeper, to tell her she’d turned the porch lights off by mistake, when he realized that he couldn’t see the house behind him, couldn’t see the tourist bungalows or the gate lamps. The generator, he realized. The generator had blown in the heat. A bright half-moon clung to the side of the main house like something unfinished, and Neal could see the fever trees that lined the drive, thick with roosting vultures, bald-headed and silent, and the rolling tilt of the hills that clustered on the horizon and then dropped off into Ngorongoro.
The darkness, the sudden crippling of his senses, brought back his awareness of the wildebeest. They had been on the move since last week, and now the smell of them on the dry wind made the air rancid and dense. He could hear them on the plain beyond the lodge gate, hundreds of stragglers from the main herd spread out on the veld, swarming the dirt trail that led down to the water hole. The light, he realized, had given him the illusion of distance, and now that it was gone the night felt crowded with soft grunts, the insistent, rubber-soled scraping of their voices. Last night, lions had brought down a bull by the water, and the screaming before the windpipes gave way had been extraordinary. In the morning, Neal had found the red domes of the rib cage swarming with vultures. In large part this was why he had relocated his tourists. He was glad, more than ever, that he had.
Roland hadn’t moved at all, but now Neal heard him say, “Where’s the dog?”
“Upstairs,” Neal said. “With the baby.”
“I sent him home,” Neal said. “We don’t have any tourists to guard.” He heard Roland lower his feet from the porch railing and push the chair back. “Let’s wait for the generator,” Neal said. “Let’s wait and see what it does.”
Roland was leaning forward in his chair. Neal could hear him drinking the gin, the ice in the glass clinking. Neal’s eyes were adjusting now, and the moon seemed brighter. He was beginning to make out the slope of the trail leading down from the lodge, the grass shuddering over the hills, the distant glassy surface of the water hole. Roland groped for the end table and put the glass down. Neal heard shuffling footsteps, and then Mrs. Halima came out onto the porch, carrying a large square candle. She put it on the table, picked up Roland’s empty glass, then reached for the gin bottle beside the chair. She was a thin Swahili woman with a serious face, a widow. She had been working for the previous owners of Harper’s Lodge when Neal bought the place three years ago, and the first day he met her, she’d said to him: “Breakfast is at seven, and I told the staff they’ll be turning the sheets down same as they always have.” He’d realized then she wasn’t going anywhere.
He was more grateful for her than ever now. Mrs. Halima had carried out all the preparations for Femi’s wake herself. All morning he had allowed himself to be mesmerized by the methodical necessity of what she was doing, the way she boxed up the tinsel and ribbons that had been up around the fireplace, the velvet mistletoe above the door. She found some comfort in taking last week’s celebration out of the house, some quiet reverie he could not find for himself. He had sat in the living room, watching her prepare the table for the casket, watching her line up candles on the mantelpiece, trying to absorb some of that stoicism until it was time for him to go and pick up the coffin. She had shown emotion only once, briefly, when he had been halfway out the door. She had grabbed his sleeve and said: “You tell Mr. Roland everything’s ready, you tell him we’ll take good care of him and his little girl.” He had promised to, and then she’d looked at him with something he couldn’t name in her eyes and said, “Do you think it will be terrible—what’s in that coffin?” He hadn’t been able to answer.
But now, on the porch, in the darkness, she was back to her old self. “Nyah’s still asleep,” Mrs. Halima said. “Egg sandwiches are in the kitchen.” She stood there, behind them, for a few minutes, while the sounds beyond the gate rolled up the slope and across the porch: a zebra’s yelp, the wings of some large bird passing by, the sandpaper hum of the cicadas in the long grass. Mrs. Halima said, “I think the electricity is out down in Longido, too.”
“We may be the only ones,” Neal said. “Our generator may be out. This heat is too much, even for January.”
“I think I’ll go down and check on it anyway,” Roland said.
Neal said, “Give it a few more minutes, it’ll come back on. This has happened before, it’ll come back on.” He didn’t want to mention that the last time they’d had a power failure, it had been the fault of some idiot teenagers from San Diego who had wandered out in the middle of the night and found their way into the generator shed with the brilliant plan of ruining the night for their parents back at the lodge. Neal remembered how they’d looked, those teenagers, after spending the night in the generator shed, afraid to cross back in the dark, their faces red with tears, when he’d driven out in the Jeep to find them. And Femi—Femi had a place in that memory. She had come in from Vibanda to look them over, to check for injuries, to give them sedatives. He remembered her bedside manner, the way she had smiled at them to make them believe she sympathized, when, in fact, she was furious. Then Neal remembered the hot-air balloon, felt the blood rush to his face, and he rubbed his forehead with his knuckles. “I can’t see anything with this on,” he said, and blew out the candle. Some melted ice water was in his glass, and he drank it down.
“I’m going,” Roland said, and stood up.
“Mr. Roland, I don’t think you should,” Mrs. Halima said. “These last few days have been too much. Just stay here.”
“Don’t worry,” Neal said to her. “We’ll take the Jeep.”
“I’m walking,” Roland said.
Neal looked at the bald outline of Roland’s head. “We should drive,” Neal said, after a minute.
“I’m going to walk.”
“Mr. Roland,” Mrs. Halima said, “stay here.”
But Neal could already hear Roland’s footsteps moving to the back of the porch, the sound of Roland picking up his rifle, the sliding sound of the strap going over his shoulder. Neal felt his way over to the porch bench and opened the seat. He rummaged around inside until he found two flashlights. He heard Roland go down the porch steps. “Don’t worry,” Neal said to Mrs. Halima. “Just stay inside. We’ll only be a minute.” At the bottom of the stairs, Roland was holding a rifle out to Neal.
The generator stood at the water’s edge, in a shed where the previous lodge owners had kept their boat during the rainy season, when the water hole, usually a turbid, red-brown dent in the plain, filled up and spilled leisurely into a small stream that fed the savanna. The shed lay almost a half-mile down the slope of the lawn, past the gate, in a long thicket of umbrella thorns, where the trail tapered out around the water hole.
Roland walked ahead, the rifle on his shoulder, and Neal followed him with a flashlight. They went down the trail along the twisting avenue of acacias, past the fire pit where the evening buffet was normally held, past the now-deserted croquet lawn. Neal was sweating. A film of moist salt gathered above his mouth, and he licked it off every few seconds. But it appeared and reappeared, and eventually he just gave up and let it run down his face. Femi would not approve of this, he thought, she would never have let the two of them come out in the dark without a vehicle, not with the herd roaming about just outside. Roland was drunk. He was being careless. But Roland, Neal thought, had the right to do what he wanted—just as he had the right to have the wake at Neal’s lodge, even though that meant losing a week’s worth of profits. Because the thought of Roland sitting over the casket alone the night before the funeral—rocking Nyah to sleep, and then, with the lights dimmed and the mounted heads in the parlor for company, sitting up with his wife’s coffin until he finally gave in and opened the lid to look inside—made Neal sick. It made him sick, and made him think of Femi in the hot-air balloon before she died, and he walked behind Roland wiping the sweat off his forehead.
“Slow down,” he said to Roland, but Roland said nothing. Halfway down the trail, still hoping that the lights would come back on, Neal stopped and looked back at the lodge, the moon crawling up the dim gables of the main house, the squat bungalows behind it. He could see a dim flicker of something—a candle—and he thought, Good, she’s gone upstairs to be with the baby. But the more he looked, the more he realized that the light was coming from the wrong place.
“Wait,” he said to Roland. “Where’s that candle lit?”
He heard Roland’s footsteps stop in the darkness ahead of him, and then Roland came back. He was breathing hard, and he smelled faintly of gin and sweat. Neal heard him take off his hat and rub his head.
“I think she’s still on the porch,” Neal said.
Roland was rummaging in his pockets. “She’s gone inside, she’s probably in the kitchen.” In a momentary flash of fire, he saw Roland’s face, and then the bright red tip of a cigarette.
“I’m telling you, she’s still outside,” Neal said. Bats were in the glade behind him, and he could hear the strange, persistent sound of their flight. He thought of the first time he had met Femi, the first time Roland had introduced Neal to her in the neon heat of her family convenience store at Vibanda. She had closed up shop, and the three of them had sat on plastic chairs in the dirt yard outside, sipping sweet tea, chickens scratching around at their feet, blue rain clouds filling the horizon in the east, until the sun dipped and bats swarmed out of the scrubland trees, rising like fog.
His shirt was soaked with sweat, and he shifted around in it. He suddenly realized that Roland was looking at him. The light from the cigarette tip was spilling out over the creases under Roland’s eyes, the big bridge of Roland’s nose. Roland looked haggard, more haggard than he had looked after he came back from volunteering at that malaria hospital in Zimbabwe, where he had first met Femi.
“I don’t like this,” Neal said.
“I don’t either,” Roland said. Then he turned around and kept walking, out from under the acacias and toward the gate.
Neal stood there for a few moments, while Roland’s footsteps receded away and away, the trill of the cicadas following him in waves of silence and sound. The widening darkness tugged at Neal’s gut. He put his flashlight between his teeth and brought up the rifle from where it rested against his thigh. He lifted the bolt pin, opened the chamber, and looked inside. The chamber was empty.
“Roland!” he said. “This gun’s not loaded, we have to go back.”
But Roland said nothing, so Neal shouldered the gun and pressed on after him.