I considered going in, certain that I would find fairies or gnomes or somesuch, but then I couldn’t be certain of their welcoming me at this late hour, empty-handed as I was, so I went on my way, my thoughts tinged with regret but comforted all the same by the soft glow of the moon and the knowledge that I had done the right thing.
The dress I’d worn that morning—the white and red one that Father brought from Venice—weighed as much as I did and more than doubled the size of my body; when I stepped out of it it looked like a second me, a headless me with curiously flat arms. It could stand on its own if I balanced it carefully. Rolled up and placed under the bed sheet, it fooled Miss Annie into thinking I was asleep in bed.
Now I hung it up in the wardrobe as I had done earlier, checking to be sure it hadn’t wrinkled. I quickly changed into bedclothes and hid my smock and shoes under the bed, then got under the sheet, mussed my hair a bit, and rang the bell. Jane and Miss Annie came in. Jane hauled in my trunks, and Miss Annie helped me dress and retouch my hair.
Father had arrived and was standing at the foot of the stairs, waiting for me. We had parted ways in the morning, when he packed me off for Lord Falmouth’s while he went into Westminster. I could tell he was tired but buzzing with energy anyway. He didn’t like going into the Royal Quarter if he could help it, but times were exciting, and, as he said, “we stood at the very fulcrum of history.” By “we” I assume he meant himself.
I went to Lake Mburo about a month ago. I’ve shared most of the best pictures somewhere by now—either here or Instagram (or on my own screensaver, which I realize that nobody but me can see but which is somehow satisfying anyway). Here are the last of the ones I wanted to put out, though.
I’m actually heading out on another road trip this weekend, on a loop of southwest Uganda (no gorilla trekking, though—I’ll save that for another trip). But in the meantime, a last look back on my lazy weekend at Lake Mburo National Park.
When I was nine years old and convinced that I would someday be an astronaut, I lived on the twenty-first floor of a condominium placed snug against Luquillo Beach in Puerto Rico. It was a one-bedroom apartment and there were three of us, but all of the couches pulled out and became beds and so I slept in the living room in front of the TV and developed what was in retrospect a probably unhealthy relationship with MTV. (Madonna’s “Like a Prayer,” which was a hit at the time, and New Order’s “True Faith,” which wasn’t but still seemed to get played quite a bit—these two invariably bring me back into that room, with all the thoughts and sensations of being small and helpless but eager and defiant. A bunch of salsa and merengue hits will do the trick as well—Sergio Vargas’s “Si Algun Dia La Vez,” Willie Colon’s “El Gran Varon,” pretty much any of Wilfrido Vargas’s soundalike absurdities, whether they were hits that year or not—but since I don’t live in a Puerto Rican community anymore, I only hear those songs when I deliberately play them on my iPod, so I’m clearly already in the mood for nostalgia. Madonna and New Order are more likely to blindside me at the supermarket.)
We actually lived in Puerto Rico for just over a year, most of which we spent about a mile away from the beach, in a small house in a neighborhood on a hilltop on the other side of the highway. From the top of my street I could see the Atlantic as a blue horizon and smell the salt air, though I suspect you can do that anywhere in Puerto Rico. It’s a small island, after all.
But for the last two months that we lived there were stayed in the apartment on the beach, and those memories are more vivid. Perhaps because I was nine, and my experiences were cementing into memories that I would carry with me for the rest of my life, instead of the gelatinous impressions that are pretty much all that is left of my earlier years. In many ways I suppose my life as Me began in that apartment.
Good memories: the balcony faced the sea. We’d leave the sliding doors open to allow in the breeze, and whether I sat in the living room or out on the balcony it still felt like I was sitting outside. There was nothing between the building and the beach except a small strip of patio; I remember the back door in the lobby leading straight out onto the sand. At night—and during the rare parts of the day when my family was quiet—you could hear the ocean washing against the shore as if you were in a giant seashell.
I once had a bouncy ball bounce over the railing and disappear. I ran down to the beach and looked for it, but it could have gone anywhere, up to and including alternate dimensions of time and space. My family asked me what I was doing, but for some reason I was unwilling to explain. It wasn’t a particularly treasured bouncy ball. I just wanted to find it again.
My teacher at school wanted me to belong to one of her after school clubs, but it meant me missing the bus. She asked my mom if she could drive me home instead, and somehow this was okay. I rode in the front seat without a seat belt. We talked the entire way home, though I can’t remember a single conversation. She drove a Toyota Camry and it smelled like coffee. She wouldn’t turn off the car, just pull up somewhere near my building and let me get out. Somehow this was okay, too. I must have made some kind of impression on her that she was willing to chauffeur me around; I can’t even remember which club it was she wanted me to join.
A teenage cousin made me a fishing pole out of a Pepsi can and a stick. He made himself one, too, and we went fishing in a creek near my building. I didn’t catch anything, but he caught two fish that we fried up and ate back at the apartment, even though when he gutted them some weird parasite came running out of the fish’s stomach and scurried down the drain.
Not-so-good memories: Not far from our building there was a line of crude shacks where fisherman sold the day’s catch, alive, dead, or cooked, depending on your preference. (I’m told that in subsequent years the Board of Health demanded that the shacks be replaced with proper sanitary structures, but back then these things were barely-standing, with hand-painted signs and live animals dangling in sacks above the counter.) We bought a bag of crabs and had a neighbor cook them for us. I didn’t let on that it bothered me, but I did quietly excuse myself when the crabs started screaming.
Once a kid on the bus grabbed my lollipop and threw it out the window. An older kid in the back caught it in midair and gave it back, and on the way home I ate my lollipop and cried at the same time while half the kids mocked me and the other half stood ready to defend me. I don’t think I was the smallest kid on the bus but I was probably the easiest to pick on.
The fingers on one of my hands were swollen for most of that year in Puerto Rico, because a cousin of mine dropped a cinder block on my hand. It wasn’t his fault, we were trying to redecorate my grandmother’s garden and, well, that wasn’t such a good activity for small children, as it turns out. Cinder blocks are heavy, and he was either six or seven years old. The block tore the skin and fingernail clean off my middle finger. I don’t remember any of the adults being especially upset. They wrapped it up and told me stories about relatives who had lost limbs doing weird things. Amazingly, they had quite a few examples to share.
Memories, neither good nor bad: The day before we left a cousin trapped me in the kitchen and asked me if I felt sad about leaving. I said no, because I honestly wasn’t. Her face, mean-looking at the best of times, turned vicious and she insisted that I would be devastated without her. Then she stormed off. We didn’t see each other again for twelve years.
A big storm passed over our city. We ate in the living room and watched through the sliding glass doors as the sheets of rain streaked across the sea. It wasn’t hurricane season but my cousins—there were always relatives in our house, at least in my memory—said it was anyway, and the adults told us and each other hurricane stories. The previous summer my cousin—the mean-looking one—and I had played in the street during a tropical storm. We were both small enough that we could almost swim in the rain-swollen gutters. I’m pretty sure we tried, anyway. I very quickly conflated their hurricane stories with my own tropical storm playdate.
I spoke to my mother this weekend, and as it always does the conversation turned to Puerto Rico. I haven’t been back since I left nearly thirty years ago. My parents keep in touch with their siblings, though, and my mom always tries to tell me about them. I listen, and can mostly keep track of the names and goings-on of these increasingly distant relatives. This time I listen, though. It appears that they’re all giving up. Buying the next available seats on flights heading to the States, no caring about the day or even really the destination. Some are staying behind to sell their houses or pursue their insurance claims, but right now, at least, none intend to stay.
In my lifetime immigration has become a hot-button issue. As Americans our point of view assumes that people from around the world are eager to come to us. Some see it as nefarious and others as a blessing, but the underlying belief in America-as-magnet is unquestioned.
Puerto Ricans aren’t, of course, immigrants. We are Americans, and are simply relocating from one part of America to another, just as people from New Orleans moved to Houston after Katrina.
But I understand that for my family, moving from Puerto Rico to the mainland isn’t that simple. It is immigrating. It’s a permanent change, and not one that they had wanted to make. It was something that people did a hundred years ago, or that they did today from remote war-ravaged countries.
And now it also happens at home.
And I have to wonder, will it stop there? The Europeans who came to America in centuries past didn’t stop in New York or Boston; they kept going, into parts of the world that appeared as little more than blank spaces on a map.
When we can’t take care of this group of Americans—or the next group, if there is a next group—what happens when Americans start looking for a fresh start? Am I looking for a fresh start?
I don’t think much about Puerto Rico—my mean-looking cousin was almost absolutely wrong. We used to go every summer, but after that year we stopped. My world has grown a lot since then, and memories of the apartment on the beach are mostly, though not entirely, consigned to that fuzzy bin of early childhood memories. For all I know the apartment itself has been consigned to a rubbish heap after the storm. And the seafood shacks, building codes and all, are probably gone. My grandma’s finger-destroying garden, all the other places a nine-year-old would scamper, chasing and being chased by other floppy puppychildren. What is left, and where do we go now?
You don’t go to Lake Mburo National Park because it’s the most exciting park in Uganda—you go there because it’s the closest to downtown Kampala, and because the park is surrounded by cattle-grazing land instead of cultivated farms, meaning that the animals on the park pay zero respect to the official boundaries, which means that you don’t even necessarily need to leave your hotel in order to look at zebras, kudus, or other wild animals.
Because I made it that far, though, I did go into the park, albeit on a very lazy loop that barely scratched the surface of what this park has to offer. Most of the best of my pictures already went up on Instagram, but there were a few others that I liked that I didn’t upload. For example, these pictures of babies (and some mommas, too):
Five crows is an omen of illness to come; six is death.
From my window I watched them flitting about the building across the street, black dragons in miniature. Were they crows or ravens? I don’t know very much about birds. Crows are smaller, duskier. And if the ravens leave the Tower then the kingdom will fall.
Lord Shively and his family had abandoned the house across the street during the winter, retreating through the cold away from the City. They had by then accepted that their Emily was gone. She abandoned them, and they abandoned hope, and then they abandoned their home. That’s what my father said as we watched them go. The crows seemed keen on moving in. I tried to count them but it was hard to keep track, given the way they slipped in and out through the broken window that led into what had once been Emily Shively’s bedroom.
Four? No, five. Illness. For me, who was counting them, or for the Shivelys, whose house the crows were haunting? I’d ask my father later. It was he who told me about counting crows, which I was doing now instead of my geography lessons. France is down and Scotland is up, and across the sea there is a new land filled with fierce and primitive warriors. That was enough learning for now, I felt.