Book One: Genesis
We came from Bethlehem, Georgia bearing Betty Crocker cake mixes into the jungle. My sisters and I were all counting on having one birthday apiece during our twelve-month mission. "And heaven knows," our mother predicted, "they won't have Betty Crocker in the Congo."
"Where we are headed, there will be no buyers and sellers at all," my father corrected. His tone implied that Mother failed to grasp our mission, and that her concern with Betty Crocker confederated her with the coin-jingling sinners who vexed Jesus till he pitched a fit and threw them out of church. "Where we are headed," he said, to make things perfectly clear, "not so much as a Piggly Wiggly." Evidently Father saw this as a point in the Congo's favor. I got the most spectacular chills, just from trying to imagine.
She wouldn't go against him, of course. But once she understood there was no turning back, our mother went to laying out in the spare bedroom all the worldly things she thought we'd need in the Congo just to scrape by. "The bare minimum, for my children," she'd declare under her breath, all the live-long day. In addition to the cake mixes she piled up a dozen cans of Underwood deviled ham; Rachel's ivory plastic hand mirror with powdered-wig ladies on the back; a stainless steel thimble; a good pair of scissors; a dozen Number 2 pencils; a world of Band-Aids, Anacin, Absorbine Jr.; and a fever thermometer.
And now we are here, with all these colorful treasures safely transported and stowed against necessity. Our stores are still intact, save for the Anacin tablets taken by our mother and the thimble lost down the latrine hole by Ruth May. But already our supplies from home seem to represent a bygone world: they stand out like bright party favors here in our Congolese house, set against a backdrop of mostly all mud-colored things. When I stare at them with the rainy season light in my eyes and Congo grit in my teeth, I can hardly recollect the place where such items were commonplace, merely a yellow pencil, merely a green bottle of aspirin among so many other green bottles upon a high shelf.
Mother tried to think of every contingency, including hunger and illness. (And Father does, in general, approve of contingencies. For it was God who gave man alone the capacity of foresight.) She procured a good supply of antibiotic drugs from our Grand-Dad Dr. Bud Wharton, who has senile dementia and loves to walk outdoors naked but still can do two things perfectly: win at checkers and write out prescriptions. We also brought over a cast-iron frying pan, five packets of baker's yeast, pinking shears, the head of a hatchet, a fold-up Army latrine spade, and all told a good deal more. This was the full measure of civilization's evils we felt obliged to carry with us.
Getting here with even the bare minimum was a trial. Just when we considered ourselves fully prepared and were fixing to depart, lo and behold, we learned that the Pan American airline would only allow forty-four pounds to be carried across the ocean. Forty-four pounds of luggage, per person, and not one iota more. Why, we were dismayed by this bad news! Who'd have thought there would be limits on modern jet-age transport? When we added up all our forty-four pounds together including Ruth May's--luckily she counted as a whole person even though she's small--we were sixty-one pounds over. Father surveyed our despair as if he'd expected it all along, and left it up to wife and daughters to sort out, suggesting only that we consider the lilies of the field which have no need of a hand mirror nor aspirin tablets.
"I reckon the lilies need Bibles, though, and his darn old latrine spade," Rachel muttered, as her beloved toiletry items got pitched out of the suitcase one by one. Rachel never does grasp scripture all that well.
But considering the lilies as we might, our trimming back got us nowhere close to the sixty-one pounds, even with Rachel's beauty aids. We were nearly stumped. And then, hallelujah! At the last possible moment, saved. Through an oversight (or else probably, if you think about it, just plain politeness), they don't weigh the passengers. The Southern Baptist Mission League gave us this hint, without coming right out and telling us to flout the law of the Forty-four Pounds, and from there we made our plan. We struck out for Africa carrying all our excess baggage on our bodies, under our clothes. Also, we had clothes under our clothes. My sisters and I left home wearing six pairs of underdrawers, two half-slips and camisoles; several dresses one on top of the other, with pedal pushers underneath; and outside of everything an all-weather coat. (The encyclopedia advised us to count on rain). The other goods, tools, cake mix boxes and so forth were tucked out of sight in our pockets and under our waistbands, surrounding us in a clanking armor.
We wore our best dresses on the outside to make a good impression. Rachel wore her green linen Easter suit she was so vain of, and her long whitish hair pulled off her forehead with a wide pink elastic hairband. Rachel is fifteen--or as she would put it, going on sixteen--and cares for naught but appearances. Her full Christian name is Rachel Rebeccah, so she feels free to take after Rebekah the virgin at the well, who is said in Genesis to be "a damsel most fair" and was offered marriage presents of golden earbobs right off the bat, when Abraham's servant spied her fetching up the water. (Since she's my elder by one year, she claims no relation to the Bible's poor Rachel, Leah's younger sister, who had to wait all those years to get married.) Sitting next to me on the plane, she kept batting her white rabbit eyelashes and adjusting her bright pink hairband, trying to get me to notice she had secretly painted her fingernails bubble-gum pink to match. I glanced over at Father, who had the other window seat at the opposite end of our entire row of Prices. The sun was a blood-red ball hovering outside his window, inflaming his eyes as he kept up a lookout for Africa on the horizon. It was just lucky for Rachel he had so much else weighing on his mind. She'd been thrashed with the strap for nail polish, even at her age. But that is Rachel to a T, trying to work in just one last sin before leaving civilization. Rachel is worldly and tiresome in my opinion, so I stared out the window where the view was better. Father feels makeup and nail polish are warning signals of prostitution, the same as pierced ears.
He was right about the lilies of the field, too. Somewhere along about the Atlantic Ocean, the six pairs of underwear and cake mixes all commenced to be a considerable cross to bear. Every time Rachel leaned over to dig in her purse she kept one hand on the chest of her linen jacket and it still made a small clinking noise. I forget now what kind of concealed household weapon she had in there. I was ignoring her, so she chattered mostly to Adah--who was ignoring her too, but since Adah never talks to anyone, it was less noticeable. Rachel adores to poke fun at everything in Creation, but chiefly our family. "Hey, Ade!" she whispered at Adah. "What if we went on Art Linkletter's House Party now?"
In spite of myself, I laughed. Mr. Linkletter likes to surprise ladies by taking their purses and pulling out what all's inside for the television audience. They think it's very comical if he digs out a can opener or a picture of Herbert Hoover. Imagine if he shook us, and out fell pinking shears and a hatchet. The thought of it gave me nerves. Also, I felt claustrophobic and hot.
Finally, finally we lumbered like cattle off the plane and stepped down the stair-ramp into the swelter of Leopoldville, and that is where our baby sister Ruth May pitched her blond curls forward and fainted on Mother.
She revived very promptly in the airport, which smelled of urine. I was excited and had to go to the bathroom but couldn't surmise where a girl would even begin to look, in a place like this. Big palm tree leaves waved in the bright light outside. Crowds of people rushed past one way and then the other. The airport police wore khaki shirts with extra metal buttons, and believe you me, guns. Everywhere you looked, there were very tiny old dark ladies lugging entire baskets of things along the order of wilting greens. Chickens, also. Little regiments of children lurked by the doorways, apparently for the express purpose of accosting foreign missionaries. The minute they saw our white skin they'd rush at us begging in French: cadeau, cadeau? I held up my two hands to illustrate the total and complete lack of gifts I had brought for the African children. Maybe people just hid behind a tree somewhere and squatted down, I was starting to think; maybe that's why the smell.
Just then a married couple of Baptists in tortoise-shell sunglasses came out of the crowd and shook our hands. They had the peculiar name of Underdown ---Reverend and Mrs. Underdown. They'd come down to shepherd us through customs and speak French to the men in uniforms. Father made it clear we were completely self-reliant, but appreciated their kindness all the same. He was so polite about it that the Underdowns didn't realize he was peeved. They carried on making a fuss as if we were all old friends, and presented us with a gift of mosquito netting, just armloads of it, trailing on and on like an embarrassing bouquet from some junior-high boyfriend who liked you overly much. As we stood there holding our netting and sweating through our complete wardrobes, they regaled us with information about our soon-to-be-home, Kilanga. Oh, they had plenty to tell, since they and their boys had once lived there and started up the whole of it, school, church and all. At one point in time Kilanga was a regular mission with four American families and a medical doctor who visited once a week. Now it had gone into a slump, they said. No more doctor, and the Underdowns themselves had had to move to Leopoldville to give their boys a shot at proper schooling-if, said Mrs. Underdown, you could even call it that. The other missionaries to Kilanga had long since expired their terms. So it was to be just the Price family and whatever help we could muster up. They warned us not to expect much. My heart pounded, for I expected everything. Jungle flowers, wild roaring beasts. God's Kingdom in its pure, unenlightened glory.
Then, while Father was smack in the middle of explaining something to the Underdowns, they suddenly hustled us onto a tiny airplane and abandoned us. It was only our family and the pilot, who was busy adjusting his earphones under his hat. He ignored us entirely, as if we were no more than ordinary cargo. There we sat, draped like tired bridesmaids with our yards of white veil, numbed by the airplane's horrible noise, skimming above the treetops. We were tuckered out, as my mother would say. Plumb tuckered out, she would say. Sugar, now don't you trip over that, you're tuckered out it's plain to see. Mrs. Underdown had fussed and laughed over what she called our charming southern accent. She even tried to imitate the way we said "Right now" and "bye-bye." ("Rot nail," she said. "Whah yay-es, the ayer-plane is leavin rot nail!" and "Bah-bah"--like a sheep!) She caused me to feel embarrassed over our simple expressions and drawn-out vowels, when I've never before considered myself to have any accent, though naturally I'm aware we do sound worlds different from the Yanks on the radio and TV. I had quite a lot to ponder as I sat on that airplane, and incidentally I still had to pee. But we were all dizzy and silent by that time, having grown accustomed to taking up no more space in a seat than was our honest due.
At long last we bumped to a landing in a field of tall yellow grass. We all jumped out of our seats, but Father, because of his imposing stature, had to kind of crouch over inside the plane instead of standing up straight. He pronounced a hasty benediction: "Heavenly Father please make me a powerful instrument of Thy perfect will here in the Belgian Congo, Amen."
"Amen!" we answered, and then he led us out through the oval doorway into the light.
We stood blinking for a moment, staring out through the dust at a hundred dark villagers, slender and silent, swaying faintly like trees. We'd left Georgia at the height of a peach-blossom summer and now stood in a bewildering dry, red fog that seemed like no particular season you could put your finger on. In all our layers of clothing we must have resembled a family of Eskimos plopped down in a jungle.
But that was our burden, because there was so much we needed to bring here. Each one of us arrived with some extra responsibility biting into us under our garments: a claw hammer, a Baptist hymnal, each object of value replacing the weight freed up by some frivolous thing we'd found the strength to leave behind. Our journey was to be a great enterprise of balance. My father, of course, was bringing the Word of God--which fortunately weighs nothing at all.
Excerpted from THE POISONWOOD BIBLE © Copyright 1998 by Barbara Kingsolver. Reprinted with permission by HarperCollins. All rights reserved.
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