Don Stoll‘s fiction is forthcoming in THE BROADKILL REVIEW, XAVIER REVIEW, THE MAIN STREET RAG, WILD VIOLET, THE AIRGONAUT, PULP MODERN, YELLOW MAMA (three times), FRONTIER TALES, and CHILDREN, CHURCHES AND DADDIES, and recently appeared in GREEN HILLS LITERARY LANTERN (tinyurl.com/y2lfxysm), CLOSE TO THE BONE (tinyurl.com/y38ac6jv), DARK DOSSIER (twice), THE HELIX, SARASVATI, ECLECTICA (tinyurl.com/y73wnmgq), EROTIC REVIEW (twice: tinyurl.com/y8nkc73z and tinyurl.com/y36zcvut), CLITERATURE (tinyurl.com/y5m8arzn), and DOWN IN THE DIRT. In 2008, Don and his wife founded their nonprofit (karimufoundation.org) to bring new schools, clean water, and clinics emphasizing women’s and children’s health to three contiguous Tanzanian villages.
By Don Stoll
The young woman’s blond hair struck her back just below her shoulders. Nicola was impressed by how perfectly the solid color of her fitted blouse matched the background of the patterned skirt that ended at her knees. Then Nicola realized that the young woman was wearing a backless dress. The skin of her back was the color of the soil she had observed that morning in Ngorongoro Crater and the day before in Tarangire National Park.
Nicola wondered what the Africans would think. They dressed modestly. She wanted to say something about it to her husband. But when she turned toward him, he was gone.
She paused to study the young woman’s back. Then she went into the shop, so large that she didn’t know where to start. But an African woman with braided hair took Nicola’s hand and called her “Sister.” She led Nicola toward a carved crocodile.
“You will go to the Serengeti, Sister? You will see there living crocodiles this big.”
Nicola laughed and asked “How much?” and the woman, who’d said her name was Victoria, answered “Twenty-eight thousand dollars.” Nicola laughed again.
Nicola selected khaki shorts for her husband for forty dollars and a leopard-print scarf for herself for the same price. Victoria pulled her toward the sets of wooden serving spoons.
“Just married,” Nicola said. “Got too many of those.”
“But can be gift-i,” Victoria said. “Maybe for your mother or sister.”
Nicola’s mother was dead. Her sister, Clare, didn’t like Derek and had cautioned her not to marry him.
“And even if it was some other American and not him,” Clare had said, “you sure you’re ready to live in the States?”
“Then it is because he’s American,” Nicola replied triumphantly. “Wouldn’t kill you to be honest.”
Nicola had said this, despite knowing it was false, in an attempt to avoid the real issue.
“How’d you two meet?” Clare said.
“What? You bloody know how we met.”
“While he was assigned to his company’s office here. But assignment’s over, absolutely has to go back to California, doesn’t he? Possibility of a longer transfer here ever come up?”
Nicola ignored that.
“You don’t even know him,” she said.
“You don’t know him,” Clare shot back. “Which is a bloody mystery why not, with his whole biography posted on Facebook. You just going to ignore that?”
“Forty-six years old, be odd if he didn’t have a biography.”
Clare went on to make the case that Nicola was still too impulsive. But Nicola hated that “still.” She was the younger sister. She believed she’d been caricatured as impulsive her whole life, so that was the worst possible argument. She tried to tune Clare out. But she couldn’t help hearing her say that Derek had suggested marriage impulsively and she was a fool to go along.
“Impulsively?” Nicola said. “Twenty years older than me and look where he is in his company. You think he’s impulsive, like your little sister?”
“I don’t know if impulsive is the right word for a man his age who marries a twenty-five-year-old. What do you think the right word is?”
“What do I think? ‘Fit’ works for me.”
Clare stared at her.
“Shall I be graphic, big sister?”
“Fucking hell,” Clare said.
Nicola wished all of that were water under the bridge as she looked at the serving spoons. She was tired of being angry with Clare. She was tired of feeling distant from her. She was tired of feeling that distance multiplied by the geographic distance between Dublin and her own new home in San Jose. A small gift would make a peace offering.
“You’ll give me a deal?” Nicola said. “And you do international shipping?”
Victoria pointed to a set, also priced at forty dollars, with handles carved in the shapes of animals of the savannah.
“You take this too,” she said, “everything for one hundred-ten dollars.”
“Sister!” Victoria said. “A hundred-five, but must be cash.”
Nicola nodded, but then wondered why. The kind of money Derek earned had made the safari possible, which was wonderful. But she took less delight than she’d expected in being able to buy so many nice material things. On the other hand, why was she bargaining in order to save five dollars, or even fifteen?
“A hundred-twenty’s fine, Victoria.”
She paid for the merchandise. She gave Clare’s Dublin address and paid for the shipping. Then she went outside to look for Derek.
The sun had dropped. She shaded her eyes and looked toward the mass of parked safari vehicles. She and Derek were traveling with Duma Explorer, but he was walking toward her from the direction of a Leopard Tours car.
Nicola noticed again the woman in the backless dress. She was standing near the Leopard Tours car. Nicola watched her put on sunglasses.
“My elusive bride,” Derek said, flashing his teeth. “Been looking all over for you.”
Derek had arranged the safari because some co-workers had gone the year before.
“You have to go,” they’d said.
The safari had waited for three months after the marriage while he finished a project at work. But Nicola had found the animals worth waiting for. She’d wept over Tarangire’s elephants and again in Ngorongoro Crater, when a lion napped in the shade of their safari vehicle.
Nicola had given no thought to shopping except at the place where she’d gotten the shorts and scarf and spoons. That had happened between Tarangire and Ngorongoro Crater, on their way to the Crater for two nights on the rim. Their itinerary included a day on the Crater floor in between the two nights, which they would spend in the Serena Lodge. After the second night, they would drive to the Serengeti.
On their first night in the Serena, the night after Nicola had shopped, Derek hadn’t wanted to make love. This was extraordinary, but Nicola thought she shouldn’t push.
As they lay in bed, she read a novel and he played games on his iPhone. At one point, between games, he surprised her again by mentioning shopping.
“People will expect gifts, you know,” he said.
She stopped reading.
“I mean from you,” he added.
She looked at him.
“I’m not defending the sexism,” he said. “I know it’s unfair. Just pointing it out.”
She wanted to talk about something else.
“It’s funny to say since they’re killers,” she said. “But the cutest animals might be the lions.”
“Cute,” he said as he started another game. “I never think about ‘cute.’”
She rested the open book on her chest. She’d decided to begin using bookmarks. But she’d left the bookmark in her luggage and she didn’t feel like getting up.
“How about ‘sweet’? Do you think about sweet?”
“That chocolate-and-ginger pudding we had for dessert was sweet.”
“I don’t care if you say cute or sweet,” she sighed. “I’m trying to get you to react to what we’ve seen. We’re together constantly, but I feel like I’m experiencing everything alone.”
He paused his game and touched her between the legs.
“Nothing in Africa could be this sweet,” he said.
She reached for his hand to keep it there, but he’d pulled away. He turned onto his side to face away from her.
“I’m tired,” he said.
She rested a hand on his shoulder. He started his game again.
“It’s not a big deal, but it’s not like you. Are you getting sick?”
He didn’t answer right away.
“Maybe,” he said.
“You have a fever?”
She moved her hand to his forehead.
“No fever. What are your symptoms?”
She didn’t say what she was thinking: this would be a bad place and time to get sick.
“It’s not your fault,” he said.
At breakfast Derek seemed fine, and he was fine throughout the day of safari in the Crater. On their second night in the Serena they made love. By that time Nicola had stopped worrying about her husband’s health.
The next day their driver, Josephus, took them to the Serengeti. The memory of several hours of jolting over dusty unpaved roads was erased by the comparative luxury of the safari camp among the green, rolling hills south of Kenya.
The camp manager’s English was rough. He had trouble understanding Nicola’s request for the most remote tent. She and her husband were the camp’s only occupants. Why would she choose a tent a quarter of a mile from the tented dining area? He reminded the Wamarekani—she didn’t explain that she wasn’t American—that they must never leave their tent alone after dark. They must use their walkie-talkie to call for someone to come to their tent to escort them to dinner.
The day had been hot, but in the evening a cool breeze blew through the open tent flaps as they made love.
In the morning they stopped at Kogatende Airstrip after half an hour of driving.
“Maybe use the washroom,” Josephus said. “At the river there will be too many cars.”
Nicola came out to see Derek watching a small propeller plane getting ready to take off.
“Three more nights,” he said. “Then one of those little things takes us to Mt. Kilimanjaro Airport and we fly home.”
Nicola thought the plane might hold a dozen people. It excited her.
“Have you flown one like that?” she said.
“A little smaller. I’ll take you some time. You asked about sweet? That will be sweet.”
At the Mara River they waited among dozens of safari vehicles. Derek played games on his iPhone while Nicola studied the vast landscape. Periodically, Josephus noted that the number of wildebeests gathered near the river was growing.
“But they need a leader,” he said. “One go, they will all follow.”
During a pause between games, Derek stood and looked at the river out of the Land Cruiser’s open top.
“Where do Africans swim, Josephus?” he said. “Do they swim at all?”
“Most rivers and lakes have crocodiles and hippos,” Josephus said.
Nicola handed her binoculars to Derek and pointed. Not far downstream from the crossing-point, a crocodile was sunning itself on the shore.
“How do these people live?” he whispered to Nicola.
At home in San Jose, he worked out four days a week and on the other days swam.
After a long wait, the crossing began. Nicola wept. She tried to measure the strength of her reaction against the strength of her reaction to the elephants in Tarangire. She was happy until she saw a calf struggling.
“Crocodile have him,” Josephus said.
They watched the little horns vanish beneath the water.
“That’s so sad,” Nicola said.
“Yes,” Josephus said.
“Crocodiles have to eat,” he said.
“I know,” Nicola said. “That means I can’t feel bad for the wildebeest?”
Returning to camp in the afternoon, they saw a gathering of vultures. Josephus stopped close enough for Derek and Nicola to see the carcass.
“They have torn open the hide,” he said. “Now they can eat the inside.”
One vulture broke free from the group. It began to consume the large piece of wildebeest that it had brought into the open. Nicola softly dug an elbow into her husband’s stomach.
“Vultures have to eat,” she whispered.
“Nature,” he said. “No more disgusting than a bear scooping honey out of a bee hive.”
He winked at Nicola.
“Or no more disgusting than. . .”
He thrust his tongue out between his lips and wiggled the tip.
“You and your farthest-away tent,” he grinned. “My brilliant wife.”
In the morning, on their way to try to catch another river crossing, they stopped again at the airstrip. When Nicola emerged from the washroom, Derek was chatting with a woman.
“Nicola, meet Danielle,” he said.
Before Nicola could react, the young woman had air-kissed her next to each cheek.
“You’re French?” Nicola said.
“Texan,” Danielle said without a Texas accent. “But I spent a semester in Paris.”
Derek explained the kind of work Danielle did. But the work was temporary, he said. Two years out of college, she hadn’t settled into a career.
“Same boat as me,” Nicola said. “Still floundering four years after university in my case.”
“I don’t flounder,” Danielle said coolly.
Derek said Danielle’s father was paying for her safari, so to save him money she was self-driving. Her father hadn’t wanted that, but she’d assured him that Tanzania wasn’t Somalia or South Sudan. She had told him she was a big girl. She could take care of herself. And self-driving was an amazing experience.
Nicola smiled at her husband.
“So much detail,” she said to Danielle. “Did he get it all right?”
Nicola excused herself, saying she wanted to peek into the gift shop. She walked around the Leopard Tours car parked in front of the door to get in.
She looked out through the window. Danielle’s blond hair had been pulled into a bun. Sensible for a hot day, Nicola thought. She started tying up her own hair. Danielle wore safari clothes: khaki pants, olive T-shirt. But the T-shirt was tight. Nicola looked carefully at the V-shape of her back and the earthen color of her arms. She stopped tying up her hair.
She walked toward her husband and Danielle. She whispered in his ear as she passed.
“Going to be tired tonight?”
He turned to her.
“Using the toilet again to be safe,” she said.
But as he turned back to Danielle, Nicola headed away from the toilets, onto the air field. She opened the purse strapped around her waist. She kept her passport and credit cards there. She pulled out her American dollars and saw she was carrying more than she’d thought.
The propellers of a small plane were spinning. But its door was open, so Nicola climbed the ladder and went in. Of the six people inside, two wore uniforms.
“Going to Mt. Kilimanjaro?” she said.
A uniformed man nodded.
“Is this enough?” she said, showing her money.
“I can show you where is the office to pay when we land,” the other uniformed man said. “You make it just in time.”
The pilot and co-pilot took their seats. The other passengers switched from English to what Nicola thought might be Russian. They had the first four seats, so she sat in the back.
Her husband glanced away from his conversation with Danielle as the plane began to move. Nicola waved and wished she were closer so that he would recognize her.
As the plane left the ground she experienced a sweet feeling of release.