By: Barbara Kingsolver
"Once upon a time," Anatole says in the dark, and I close my eyes and fly away on his stories. ... Usually we start with five hundred years ago, when the Portuguese came poking the nose of their little wooden ship into the mouth of the Congo River. Anatole peers from side to side, pantomiming Portuguese astonishment.
"What did they see?" I always ask, though I already know. They saw Africans. Men and women black as night, strolling in bright sunlight along the riverbanks. But not naked--just the opposite! They wore hats, soft boots, and more layers of exotic skirts and tunics than would seem bearable in the climate. This is the truth. I've seen the drawings published by those first adventurers after they hurried back home to Europe. They reported that the Africans lived like kings, even wearing the fabrics of royalty: velvet, damask, and brocade. Their report was only off by a hair: the Kongo people made remarkable textiles by beating the fibrous bark of certain trees, or weaving thread from the raffia palm. ... There was no written language, but an oral tradition so ardent that when the Catholic fathers fixed letters to the words of Kikongo, its poetry and stories poured into print with the force of a flood. The priests were dismayed to learn the Kongo already had their own Bible. They'd known it by heart for hundreds of years.
Impressed as they were with the Kingdom of the Kongo, the Europeans were dismayed to find no commodity of agriculture here. All food was consumed very near to where it was grown. And so no cities, no giant plantations, and no roads necessary for transporting produce from one to the other. The kingdom was held together by thousands of miles of footpaths crossing the forest, with suspension bridges of woven vines swinging quietly over the rivers. ... Sometimes, when I have relapses of my old demon, I lie in the crook of his arm and he comforts me this way, talking to me all night long to stave off the bad dreams. ...
Now they are walking home, Beene. With baskets of palm nuts and orchids from the forest. They're singing.
Songs about what?
Oh, everything. the colors of a fish. And how well behaved their children would be if they were all made of wax.
I laugh. Who are they? How many?
Just a woman and a man on the path. They are married.
And their troublesome children aren't with them?
Not yet. They have only been married one week.
Oh, I see. So they're holding hands. Of course.
What does it look like there?
They are close to the river, in a forest that has never been cut down. These trees are a thousand years old. ...
But down on the path where we are, it's dark?
A nice darkness. The kind your eyes grow to like. It's raining, but the branches are so thick that only a little mist comes down. ...
What happens when we come to the river?
We'll cross it of course.
I laugh. As easy as that! And what if the ferry is stuck without a battery on the other side?
In the Kingdom of Kongo, Beene, no batteries. No trucks, no roads. They declined to invent the wheel because it looked nothing like trouble in this mud. For crossing the river they have bridges that stretch from one great greenheart tree to another on the opposite bank.
I can see this couple. I know they're real, that they really lived. ...
"But what if it's a huge river," I asked him once -- "like the Congo, which is much broader than the reach of any vine?"
"This is simple," he said. "Such a river should not be crossed."
If only a river could go uncrossed, and whatever lay on the other side could live as pleased, unwitnessed and unchanged. But it didn't happen that way. The Portuguese peered through the trees and saw that the well-dressed, articulate Kongo did not buy or sell or transport their crops, but merely lived in place and ate what they had, like the beasts of the forest. In spite of poetry and beautiful clothes, such people were surely not fully human -- were primitive; that's a word the Portuguese must have used, to salve their conscience for what was to come. ...