II: Big Sea
Sometimes life is a ripe fruit too delicious for the taste of man: the full moon hung low over Burutu and it was night on the Nigerian delta.
We walked through the quiet streets of the native town, Tom Pey, one of the Kru men from our boat, and I. There were no pavements, no arclights. Only the wide grassy streets, the thatched huts and the near low-hung moon. Dark figures with naked shoulders, a single cloth about their bodies, and bare feet, passed us often, their footsteps making no sounds on the grassy road, their voices soft like the light of the moon. Through the open doors of some of the house fires gleamed. Women moved about preparing food. In the clearing, great mango trees cast purple shadows across the path. There was no wind. Only the moon.
“How still it is,” I said to Pey.
“Yes,” Pey replied, “but by and by they make Ju-ju.”
“Tonight? Where?” I cried excited. “I want to go.”
Pey shook his head, but pointed toward the edge of the town, where the walls of the forest began. “Christian man no bother with Ju-ju,” Pey said politely. “Omali dance no good for Christian man.”
“But I want to see it,” I insisted.
“No,” Pey cried. “White man never go see Ju-ju. Him hurt you! Him too awful! White man never go!”
“But I’m not a white man,” I objected. “I’ll—”
“You no black man, neither,” said Pey impatiently. So I gave up going to the Ju-ju.
We were invited into the house of Nagary, the trader. It was a little larger than the other houses of the village. There were two or three small rooms. We sat down on the floor in the first room, the moonlight streaming through the doorway. A large green parrot slept on a wooden ring hung from the ceiling.
Nagary was an old Mohammedan in voluminous long robes. He must have been a large, strong man in his youth. There was a lingering nobleness in his dark old face and proud carriage.
Nagary called his wife. She came, a pretty brown woman, much younger than Nagary. Her body was wrapped in a dull red cloth of rich fiber. She spoke no English, but she smiled. Nagary sent her for two candles and the only chair, which she offered to me. Nagary sent her for three heavy boxes, which she placed before him. He opened two of the boxes and showed us beaten brass from up the Niger, statuettes that skilled hands had made, fiber-cloth woven by women in far-off villages, the skin of jungle animals, and the soft, white feathers of birds found in the dangerous forests of “the bush.”
Nagary opened the third box with a rusty key. It contained a fortune in ivory. Great heavy bracelets for women when they marry; solid ivory tusks, smooth and milk-white; little figures and tiny panels intricately carved; and one great white tusk, circled with monkeys and coiled snakes. Nagary did not ask me to buy any of these things. He seemed satisfied with my surprise and wonder. He told me of his trips up the river to Wari and down to Lagos. He gave me a great spray of feathers. When I left, he said, with outstretched hands: “God be with you.”
When we came out of Nagary’s house, the moon had risen in the sky. It was not so large now, but it was much brighter. I had never seen a moon so bright.
We turned into a narrow street, where there was a bit of animation. Men were walking up and down.
“This is where the girls stay,” said Pey.
Women of the night stood before low doors, with oiled hair and henna-dyed nails. In the golden light, they were like dark flowers offering their beauty to the moon. With slender bodies wrapped in bright cloths, they waited for lovers and said no word to those who passed. They simply stood still, waiting.
In front of one hut three white sailors from a British ship were bargaining with an old woman. Behind her, frightened and ashamed, stood a small girl, said to be a virgin. The price was four pounds. The sailors argued for a cheaper rate. They hadn’t that much money.
We crossed the dry bed of a creek. In the distance, we heard the drums of Omali, the Ju-ju. Their measured beating came across the swamp lands at the edge of the forest. Tonight the natives danced to their gods.
We turned back toward the docks and followed the river road. Hundreds of tiny house boats, each with its lantern on a slender pole, lay rocking at their moorings. The long, flat paddle-wheel steamers of the Niger were anchored in mid-stream. The river flowed quietly under the moon.
We came to the docks where the great ships from the white man’s land rested—an American boat, a Belgian tramp, an English steamer. Tall, black, sinister ships, high above the water.
“Their men,” say the natives, “their white strong men come to take our palm oil and ivory, our ebony and mahogany, to buy our women and bribe our chiefs. . . .”
I climbed the rope ladder to the deck of the Malone. Far off, at the edge of the clearing, over against the forest, I heard the drums of Omali, the Ju-ju. Above, the moon was like a gold ripe fruit in heaven, too sweet for the taste of man.
For a long time I could not sleep.