Fiction: Karen Petersen
A runaway hippo, typhoid fever, and a charge of theft had not figured in my plans for a tranquil seed collecting expedition in East Africa. I had flown to Nairobi to do some work for a botanical garden and write up a story about it for a national publication. While there, I was going to visit an old friend, the bureau chief of a well-known American news magazine. But I’d made the mistake of not drinking enough water while on the long flight, and now it literally felt like my guts had turned to concrete. After walking through his front door, I’d headed straight to the bathroom, and after ten minutes or so I knew I needed help. The problem was I couldn’t even walk. And so I weakly called for my friend Tom.
He came quickly, and stood outside the bathroom door, furious.
“What the hell is going on?” he snapped. “We are all waiting for you!” He and his new English girlfriend had been stiffly entertaining dinner guests they’d invited especially for me.
“Tom, I just can’t finish going to the bathroom. It’s like I have a rock inside, and I can’t possibly sit down properly,” I said. “I need some kind of laxative—don’t you have anything? Or is there a pharmacy open now?”
It was late and Tom snorted in derision, “Not a chance! You are going to have to wait until morning.”
“Oh my god, then I’m in real trouble … I’m so sorry!” I was mortified. I’d traveled a lot over the years and this kind of thing had never happened before. It was bizarre. Maybe one of the stewardesses had put something in my drink as a perverse joke. I really didn’t know what to think.
“Well, are you coming out or not?” Tom said.
“No. I’m afraid I just can’t make it,” came my reply.
“Jesus!” he grumbled and walked off.
Early the next morning, clearly still annoyed, Tom drove me to the pharmacy in an old ’57 red Chevrolet where I got a strong laxative and a lecture from the pharmacist about the importance of being able to go to the bathroom properly. Nairobi, a city of grimy, run-down office buildings and bad drivers, was already bustling with African men sweating in Western business attire stepping with purpose down its pot-holed streets, and various African women, coming from pungent-smelling markets that bordered on the fetid, calmly balancing all sorts of things on their heads while dressed in brightly colored Kenyan cloths. In the midst of all this commerce, the white expats in their crisp linen shorts, and sleepy Indian shopkeepers, served as additional cultural punctuation in the better parts of town.
As we were heading back to Tom’s house we passed a horrific accident where a bus had run over someone. The bus was stopped, and the dead man, whose dark body was already swelling up from the heat, was just left lying there as people went about their business, past the blood and gore, as if only a few oranges had rolled out of someone’s shopping bag. I could see that the middle-aged man, in his pressed pants and ironed white shirt, now soaked red with his blood, looked like any of the businessmen I’d just observed, and I thought about when he’d gotten up that day, how he and his wife, handing him his freshly ironed clothes, could not have known that he would be dead in less than a few hours. This man had had a life, and now it was gone, probably because the bus driver had run a light. It was fairly certain that the driver hadn’t even taken a driving test and instead had bribed the clerk for a license probably just a few months ago.
It was disconcerting to me, but Tom shrugged it off, saying: “I see this sort of thing here all the time. Life is cheap.” I just looked at him, wondering how he would have felt if it had been his peaches and cream British girlfriend lying there instead.
When we got back to his house, Tom said that the cook/housekeeper had arrived and had made breakfast for us. His live-in girlfriend, Charlotte, worked for the BBC, and had already left. I was relieved I didn’t have to make small talk with her, especially after last night.“Nekesa,” Tom said, addressing the cook, “This is my friend Sally from America. Help her with whatever she needs, OK?”Nekesa stood there sizing me up suspiciously. She didn’t seem particularly friendly.
“I’ve got to go to work so I’ll see you in the evening,” Tom said, turning to me. “You can get around by taxi. Here’s a phone number for Kennedy, a local driver. He’s pretty good but whatever you do, don’t take a combi! Those minibuses are death traps!”
While waiting for the laxative to kick in, I spent the day puttering about looking at plants around the yard and down the road. I collected seeds from a few of them and noted the collection locations and then laid them out in my room to dry. Tom had a gardener and a nice garden, in addition to a friendly German Shepherd named Max, whose hole digging kept the gardener busy. So in addition to collecting seeds, I spent the day playing with Max.
His girlfriend came home for lunch, and from the sour look she gave me that I willingly returned it was clear we had taken an instant dislike to one another. We were truly oil and water, and the more overtly American I became, the more she retreated into her British shell of reserve. I couldn’t imagine what he saw in her. But he was burning with ambition, and I’m sure she thought that by hooking her wagon to his she’d get a ride on his star.
Nekesa watched us from behind the partly open kitchen door. She was totally on edge, which I asked Tom about later over dinner. “Oh she’s probably afraid you are going to take Charlotte’s place and then fire her,” he said dismissively. “She likes Charlotte a lot because Charlotte just leaves her alone and lets her do whatever she wants. Nekesa comes from Western Kenya, and they are a suspicious and superstitious bunch there—so be careful, she might put a spell on you!”
“I don’t think she understands the idea of a woman friend.” I poked at my food. “Maybe she’s already trying to poison me!” I said, laughing uneasily.
“Don’t be silly,” Charlotte replied.
Tom shrugged, wanting to stay out of it.
“Well, let’s make sure she knows I’m only here for a few days,” I said. “I really don’t want to end up a shrunken head.”
“That’s only in South America,” Charlotte looked at me with disdain.
“Actually,” I said, turning to face her directly so she could fully absorb my disdain, “The practice of shrinking heads is found specifically in the northwestern corner of the Amazon, by the four subgroups of the Jivaros tribe in Ecuador and Peru. They believe that shrinking the head of an enemy harnesses its spirit and compels it to serve the shrinker. I wouldn’t mind that arrangement with a few people I can think of.”
Out of the corner of my eye I could see Nekesa hovering again in the kitchen, preparing to leave for the night, but all ears. She was probably taking this literally and would go home and tell her family that an American head shrinker was staying with Tom. She’d already observed my dislike of Charlotte, and now probably thought I was going to shrink her head and take over the household. It was a classic case of lost in translation. I made a mental note to straighten it out in the morning.
By the time I woke up the next day both Tom and Charlotte were gone. Even though he employed an askari, a watchman, outside for the evening, his house had a strange security system inside because of the armed robberies prevalent in Nairobi. Both the bedrooms were locked in a kind of cage for our protection during the night and he’d given me a key to get out in the morning. This was a typical precaution that most whites in town now used.
Nekesa was there when I came into the kitchen from the other part of the house. “Miss, do you want some breakfast?” she asked with a strange smile on her face. She wouldn’t look me in the eye for some reason.
“Yes, thanks,” I said. “You know I’m just here for a few days, right? I’m collecting seeds for an American botanical garden and then going to write about it.”
“I know you are going to make special magic also,” she said.
“What?” I was surprised. “No, no, where did you get that idea? I’m a journalist, like Tom and Charlotte …”
Nekesa said nothing for a while and then stepped outside to the chicken hutch to get some eggs.
She came back in and cooked my breakfast and then, setting it in front of me, said solemnly, “Where I come from wachawi can take many forms.”
“Oh,” I replied, laughing, not really wanting to get into this sort of discussion any further. “Then you can be glad that I’m only a journalist and not a sorcerer!”
Nekesa smiled her strange smile again and stepped into the laundry room. “Do you need any clothes washed?” she asked.
I thanked her but said no. I had a lot of seed collecting to do and had been invited to the home of a prominent Kenyan botanist for a late lunch and needed to get started.
As I wandered around the area I began to realize that many plants still had not set seed, and that I’d arrived probably a month too early. But the magazine editor back in New York that I’d pitched the story to had been all over me to get the assignment done so I’d booked the trip quickly and left.
As the morning progressed I found I was beginning to feel a bit nauseous and I began to sweat. I figured I hadn’t fully adjusted to the heat or from the jet lag, so I drank more water. As it was getting close to lunchtime, I went back to Tom’s house for a shower and much to my surprise, threw up.
I wasn’t sure if I should go for lunch at the botanist’s, but it was a special event with all sorts of people invited, so I pulled myself together and called the local taxi. Kennedy was a good driver and a very nice young man whose parents had revered the late American president so much that they called their first-born son by his name. We pulled up in front of the botanist’s house and I asked Kennedy to pick me up in an hour.
I found I couldn’t eat much because I had no appetite and was feeling a bit feverish. But in spite of the fever, the conversation I had with the botanist was lively and an eye-opener. He was basically furious with me for collecting any seeds at all from his country and felt that the American botanical garden should pay a fee, and then royalties, should anything important come from these plants. As an ornamental gardener I hadn’t really thought of it that way and was embarrassed because I knew he was right. He pointed out that what I was doing fell into an international legal loophole and could be done with impunity almost anywhere in the world.
I came back to Tom’s feeling terrible, both physically and mentally. I had thought of my seed collecting as an adventure rather than an exploitation, which it clearly was, and seriously began to think of abandoning the assignment.
My upset stomach was getting worse and I went into the bathroom to throw up. I also now had the runs. In the next 24 hours I became progressively weaker and couldn’t keep anything down. Tom came home that night and said he would have Kennedy drive me to the ex-pat doctor the next morning. Charlotte just ignored me completely.
I feverishly awoke at one point during the night and saw Nekesa standing in the doorway just staring at me. I knew she had already gone home and wondered what she was doing there. I fell back asleep again.
By next morning my fever was 102 degrees and the doctor took one look at me and heard the symptoms and said, “You’ve got the beginnings of a nice case of typhoid fever. If you’d come in much later you might have died. People usually get it here from eggs contaminated with feces, or not boiling the drinking water, that sort of thing.”
I was stunned. How was this possible? I’d only eaten at home where there was a cook and no one else was ill. And then I remembered the breakfast Nekesa had made for me alone yesterday. That nutter had given it to me somehow!
He handed me a two weeks’ supply of ciprofloxacin and told me to go home and rest, drink a lot of bottled water and eat fruit that was washed with boiled water. Kennedy was in the waiting room and helped me back to his taxi.
“Miss, does the doctor say you will be OK?” he asked anxiously. I appreciated his concern.
“Yes, I think so, Kennedy. But it will take a while.” He patted me on the arm consolingly.
When I got back to Tom’s I glared at Nekesa and went to my room and slept for the rest of the day.
That evening Tom knocked on my door.
“Hey,” I said groggily as he came into the room. “I’m so sorry this happened.”
“Well actually,” he said, his face reddening, “I’m going to take you to a hotel tonight. I’ve made a reservation for a week at the Hilton. Charlotte is uncomfortable having you here when you are ill.”
“What? Tonight?! You’re kidding! I can barely move, and you know I can’t afford a 4-star hotel.” I was feverish and in shock by what he’d just said. I’d known him for more than a decade and thought of him almost as a brother. It was obvious he was completely under her spell. He tossed a wad of money on the bed. “This will cover it, and there’s a bit more. You can pay me back when you get home to the States.”
It was over $600. I was astonished. I had been a guest in his home and now he was kicking me out when I had a potentially life-threatening illness? And he expected me to pay him back? He must be kidding! Never.
He had been a beloved friend. Now, he was just a shallow, ambitious asshole. As he dropped me off at the hotel I could tell he was embarrassed. He knew what he was doing was wrong. I was relieved to get out of the car and didn’t look back. I looked forward to the privacy of a hotel room. Clean, cool sheets, room service, bottled water, and a comfortable bed. Charlotte had actually done me a favor, as Nekesa would have happily left me to rot.
I turned on the television and a Hindu soap opera was on. In my delirium I thought I could actually understand what they were saying and was delighted. I watched for about an hour and was drifting off to sleep when I suddenly heard shouting in the hallway.
It was a male voice, an American voice.
“What the fuck did you do? He was shouting. “I told you to put my shirts on wire hangers, you dumb fuck!”
I peered out the door.
Down the hall was a small, terrified African boy holding several neatly ironed and folded white shirts. Standing over him in a threatening pose was a fat, white American male. Furious, I stepped out into the hall and was in front of them in seconds. I turned to the little boy and touching his arm gently said, “You did nothing wrong, mdogo. This man is sick. Go now, and I will take care of it.”
His small eyes widened, and he handed the man his things and ran off as fast as his thin little legs could carry him. I suppose I looked quite odd myself, red-faced from fever, standing there in my pajamas with my hair all tousled, and not in a sexy way.
The man, recognizing my American voice, got even angrier. “Who the hell are you to butt in?” he demanded.
I looked at him with contempt. If I were a man I would have slugged his fat face on the spot.
“Listen, you moron,” I said, as his mouth dropped in astonishment over my language. “This is his country, not yours, and you, you spoiled piece of shit, are a guest here. You are a disgrace to America. So fucking what if your shirts aren’t on wire hangers! They are washed and ironed and folded nicely and instead of thanking this poor child, you stand there and abuse him!”
His face went pink as a watermelon and I didn’t know if it was from embarrassment or if he was going to strike me. I’d run across his type before, all over the planet.
“You’d better get your shit together buddy right now, or I will go and get your visa revoked and have YOU booted out of this country, you got me?” I said, bluffing. “I don’t care who you are. Your behavior is totally unacceptable.”
“And you know what?” I continued, quite delirious from my imagined authority, “I am going to go back to my room now, where I’m supposed to be recuperating from typhoid fever, yeah that’s right, typhoid fever, and I’m gonna call the front desk and have that little fellow sent back up here to your door. And you are going to stand there and apologize to him, and then you’re going to give him—at the very least—an American twenty-dollar bill as a tip. Got that?”
I could see him weighing the pros and cons. In the comfort of his own town in America he would have told me to fuck off, but here was different. He had no points of reference, and I had been quite formidable. So he held himself together, if merely for self-preservation, and nodded.
I marched back to my room, burning up with either fever or self-righteousness, I couldn’t tell, and called the front desk. I heard the boy come up, and the man stiffly apologize, and then the boy said very softly, “Oh! Thank you, sir,” and ran down the hall. Pleased, I went back to bed and fell asleep just as Vishnu was chasing Laxshmi around in the clouds on the tiny television.
By the end of the week I was well enough to go home. Unfortunately, most of the seeds I’d collected hadn’t dried properly and were either moldy or rotten. I’d left Tom’s house in such a rush that I’d forgotten to spread them out in my hotel room. It was a pity, but somehow it didn’t bother me too much other than the fact I wouldn’t be getting any money for the assignment once I was back in New York. Be that as it may, after the lecture I’d been given by the Kenyan botanist, I was actually relieved.
On the way to the airport I nearly missed the plane because a hippo from the local zoo had gone awol and was nowhere to be found. Traffic had backed up a good half hour as they searched for him and he was finally found basking in a rundown hotel’s swimming pool on the outskirts of town.
Back in New York, the cipro antibiotic had done its modern magic and the typhoid fever had vanished within a few weeks. My appetite had not returned, though, and bit by bit in the next few months I began to waste away. By the time I was down to 105 pounds my internist told me he would put me in the hospital on an IV if my appetite didn’t return soon.
As I lay there breathing for the stethoscope, I asked him if he’d heard how Tom was doing since they’d been friends when Tom was living in New York. Indeed, it had been Tom that had referred me to him.“Oh, they’re posting him to Buenos Aires now. He’s leaving this week,” he said cheerfully.
“Is that awful English girlfriend going with him?” I asked.
“I don’t think so,” he said. “Tom told her that he’s going to quit soon and try to freelance instead. That scared her off.”
“You got that right,” I laughed. “Tom has such terrible taste in women.”
The doctor smiled. “Except you, my dear.”
“That’s right!” I said. “But I think that friendship is over.”
I left his office and headed uptown to a New Age chiropractor I’d been going to for a while. I’d tripped and fallen at the airport as I was leaving Kenya and found I needed some adjustments. She used a gentle technique that seemed to work, and I never felt like I was on a torture rack and always left in better shape than when I came in. This time, as I lay there, she happened to ask me how I was, and I told her what the doctor had said about putting me in the hospital soon. It was just a coincidence that I’d booked the two visits back to back, otherwise my good fortune that day might never have happened.
“Honestly, I think all you need is a good dose of probiotics,” she said. “Cipro is a really strong drug and it’s obvious all the good flora in your gut have been killed along with all the bad.”
“But why didn’t my doctor mention this?” I asked. “He’s a good doctor.”
“Oh, you’d be amazed how many doctors still don’t know about this or take it seriously.” She went over to her desk and came back with a small bottle. “Here, take these and see what happens.”
I went home and within a week my appetite had come roaring back. I was fine.
So in the end, Nekesa had succeeded in getting me out of the house even though she’d almost killed me. But she hadn’t been able to keep Tom and Charlotte together. I heard from my internist at my next visit that the new Nairobi bureau chief had fired her, and the week after she’d left his house he’d become so ill he’d been hospitalized.
“Black Magic” will appear in the 2021 print issue of Heavy Feather Review, Vol. 11.
Karen Petersen has traveled the world extensively, publishing poetry and short stories both nationally and internationally in a variety of publications. In 2019, she was the first person in the history of the Pushcart Prize to receive five nominations in three categories: poetry, short story, and flash. Her poems have been translated into Persian and Spanish. Her website is karenpetersenwriter.com.