Have You Seen Wanawo?
Article first published online: 5 MAY 2009
© 2009 by the American Anthropological Association
Anthropology and Humanism
Volume 34, Issue 1, pages 83–94, June 2009
How to Cite
MITCHELL, D. (2009), Have You Seen Wanawo?. Anthropology and Humanism, 34: 83–94. doi: 10.1111/j.1548-1409.2009.01026.x
- Issue published online: 5 MAY 2009
- Article first published online: 5 MAY 2009
Siuwako was sitting in her garden house at Kogan-go, waiting for Elliot, thinking she might have made a mistake. She thought her son-in-law Mega, whose name she could think but not speak, would bring Elliot along the new trail. But what if Elliot headed down the old trail they took to Wanawo thirty years ago when he was her white younger-sister man? If Mega was too shy to stop him they'd end up at Wanawo, and that wasn't what she wanted.
Maybe it was a mistake not to walk over to the Protestant part of the village, go to Mega's house, find Elliot, and say it was time to go to the garden, just like in the old days. She could have made a little joke, she thought, saying “You won't need to carry Nuai on your shoulders, because she's married and has a child of her own.” But probably it was better that she hadn't, because going off to the gardens alone with him would cause talk, even though they were both old now, and unmarried. All these years without talk! She didn't want it starting up now.
Elliot was back in Nagovisi for the first time in thirty years. He turned up yesterday, in the middle of the night. Mail was reaching them again, so they knew he was coming, but not exactly when. That meant they couldn't arrange a welcome, so when Siuwako was awakened by children shouting that the white man was here, all she could do was wash her face and hurry over to Mega and Elizabeth's place. And there he was, lantern-lit under the house, beside Mega. He must have remembered that she couldn't approach Mega, because as soon as he saw her enter the space he started toward her. She liked seeing that he hadn't forgotten the old ways, and she felt shame when Mega quickly said that in their church they didn't do the avoidance things anymore. She saw a flicker of surprise in Elliot's eyes, and worried that he might think she too had abandoned the old ways. Mega used the all-inclusive plural, which would make Elliot think they were all in the new church. But she was still Catholic, and still avoided her son-in-law.
Elliot pushed through the mass of children and came to her, saying her name softly as he always had, smiling the smile she remembered, putting his hand out to take hers, looking her in the eye—he's glad to see me, she thought, and was surprised to feel relief. He told about his trip down the coast and through the rebel zone at the mine. He said he hadn't been afraid because he was sure talking Nagovisi would prove he wasn't a threatening white man, but the fighters were drunk or asleep and he didn't have to prove anything. Siuwako had been around those fighters and was glad they hadn't stopped the truck.
Nagovisi was heavy on his mouth at first but she could hear him getting his tongue around it, even while they were talking and deciding when to go to their old garden. After Mega took him inside to sleep, she walked back to her cook house in the dark and built up the fire. No one came to talk about Elliot, so she boiled water in the kettle he'd given her when he left, and made some tea. Maybe she'd sleep, maybe not; either way they'd go to Wanawo in the morning.
While she drank her tea she thought about Elliot. True, he was older and fatter, but otherwise looked the same. He still had that shy, uncertain way about him, so often seeming to ask, “Do I really belong here?” He still met her eyes, hiding nothing, but looked away quickly. That hadn't changed! It sometimes made her cross with him in the old days, though she never let on. Of course he belonged with them. To think of the work they'd done together! White people never learned their language or cared about their food gardens. And even Padre over at Sovele Mission didn't carry children on his shoulders. But Elliot always carried Nuai and once she saw him clean her little nose with his finger and wipe it on his shorts. She laughed to herself, remembering how that small thing made her think, “He's one of us!” as if language, the gardening, all the things he did that whites never did; all were less telling than a wiped nose. She thought she might ask him if he remembered about Nuai's nose.
Why had he seemed so uncertain? She still didn't think she knew. She never talked about it with her husband Siro and she didn't talk about it with her sisters. Siro liked to say that he knew Elliot as well as he knew his own brother, but Siuwako dismissed that. It was just the sort of thing men said. Siuwako never liked hearing Siro claim Elliot for his own, but she kept her mouth shut, even though she felt like saying she knew Elliot as well as she knew her own sister. That would have been hard to explain. True, Siro and Elliot had been like brothers, disappearing into the bush for hours, making maps; climbing onto trucks and going to Buin, coming back drunk and singing. Now Siro was dead, killed in the fighting, and Elliot had come back, and she was alive and her daughters were too, and so was her son-in-law Mega. And even though he spoke her name she wouldn't speak his.
Siuwako knew she had a status that was never talked about openly, though she was sure people did privately, that of being the woman who spent more time with the white man than any other woman, yet never went into the bush with him. She knew no one suspected them because all these years nobody ever accused her, even in anger, and women by themselves at the river or in the gardens never teased her or tried to make her tell.
Sometimes, by herself in the garden, she wished that they had gone off into the bush, because then she would have that piece of him, along with the rest, and her knowledge of her white man would be as whole as she could make it. It seemed unbalanced, the way she knew him better than anyone else did, but some of the things a woman could know about a man, she didn't. Only married people gardened together, and she sometimes thought how lucky it was that she had been young and not long married when he came to them. An older woman would never have gotten used to gardening with a man who wasn't her husband, and with that thought she went into her sleeping house. Lying under her thin blanket she said softly to herself, I'm an old woman now, and a widow, and tomorrow Elliot and I are going to the garden. Instead of exciting her, what she said calmed her and she slept.
* * *
Siuwako looked out at her garden, the first real one she'd been able to make since before the fighting. In the bad time they scratched out gardens anywhere they could, close to the village. She couldn't move her garden properly through the forest; instead, she had to crop over and over again in the same place. She smiled, and shook her head—she hadn't needed that scale of Elliot's to know how bad the yields were.
This new garden at Kogan-go pleased her. It was well laid out, even though the trees dividing it into sections didn't lie exactly where she wanted them. With Siro dead, Mega cleared for her, and she had to tell him from a distance where she wanted them down. She and Siro would have stood together and talked about it. In the old days if Siro wasn't around Elliot felled trees for her. He wasn't as skilled as most men, but he understood where she wanted the trees down, and she could work near him while he did it.
She thought their old garden at Wanawo was the best one she ever had. She made it the most ideal one she could, because Elliot was mapping and weighing and photographing everything and that meant American women would see it in Elliot's book. She didn't want them looking down on hers, so she laid out the sections carefully, and placed larger plants—papaya, bananas, Hong Kong taro—along the borders. In some places she planted hibiscus as decoration. Elliot always said she should try to ignore him, and she understood why, but gardening as if he weren't there was impossible in so many ways it wasn't worth even trying to name them.
Some men had two wives. At Wanawo, she felt like a woman with two husbands; she let herself think that now, but back then she tried not to. Siro did what husbands do, but Elliot wasn't just a husband. On the days he cleared, then worked with her planting and harvesting, then did his own work, and then helped her carry Nuai and the sweet potatoes home—on those days she didn't know what he was, or what she had.
Elliot liked to be called by his nickname, Whitebody, or by his name, which was hard for her to pronounce. Almost no one called him Masta after he asked them not to, which left only kin terms. She didn't always choose one before starting a sentence, and sometimes had to pause while she did. If she wasn't paying attention, the wrong one could pop out, like the time they were hoeing and she called him younger sister. He didn't seem to hear, which was good. Once she carelessly used a married-couple pronoun, but that was before he knew that pronouns reflected kinship, and he didn't understand what she said.
Everyone learned to swallow their discomfort when he used pronouns inappropriately, because they knew he never meant to give offense. But once a married couple passing through from the mountains became very angry when he greeted them using a pronoun implying they were a married brother and sister, the most obscene insult possible. Siuwako's mother quickly called out, “Don't be angry! Whitebody doesn't understand pronouns!” When Elliot heard the excuse being made for him he knew he'd done something wrong so he apologized, but the thing, the idea, was out there in the open. Even an indirect reference to siblings and sex was distressing.
Once Siuwako thought a sentence—We two dug out sweet potatoes—using the brother-and-sister form, to see what it felt like. It made her feel filthy. She didn't regret trying it but she never wanted to again. When she used the married couple form it felt sweet, but that wasn't a good idea because it made her think about things she shouldn't. It felt very different from saying, I have two husbands.
Most of the time, if she thought a sentence about herself and Elliot, she used the two sisters form. True, he was a man, but most of the time they worked together as two sisters would. When she talked about the two of them to anyone else, she used the two people whose relationship is unknown form. She never told the other women about her struggle to find the best way to talk about Elliot, because they would think she was making too much of an ordinary thing.
Elliot seemed restless to her, always in motion. It was the same when Siro was there, so she didn't think it came from being alone with her. When they waited out the rain in the garden house, each of them sleeping on a different bench, her daughter Nuai often on his chest or in the crook of his arm, he seemed to relax—but that was because he was sleeping. When he wasn't working and wasn't sleeping, he didn't seem to understand how to be, how to sit doing nothing, or climb up on a tree stump and look at Wanawo, turning around, letting it sink in and give pleasure. Because she was sure he did know the wholeness of it; it was as much his garden as hers. No woman she knew could say that about her husband. But Elliot, her . . . her white . . . person, he understood.
* * *
Elliot was walking along the trail to Kogan-go, thinking about the day at Wanawo when Siuwako called him younger sister. When he heard it he was startled, but didn't show it. Then he was annoyed, and didn't show it, and then ashamed of himself for being annoyed, because he was working with her the way a younger sister would and it was an understandable slip. If he hadn't been off-balance he would have shrugged it off, or maybe responded to it as if it were a joke, but that day he was feeling tentative toward Siuwako because he'd had another sexual dream about her.
Being sexual with her was unthinkable. No, he said to himself, it's thinkable—that's the problem. It would be unethical and destructive to his work in Nagovisi, but suppressing his desire for her, hiding himself, wore at him. Wouldn't it be better to be explicit, as he might with a woman friend at home, to say “Look, I have desire for you but it's absolutely out of the question?” His friend would say the same thing, and then neither would have to wonder what the other was thinking. He'd be happier knowing that Siuwako acknowledged his sexuality and worked around it, but there was no way to make that happen.
On the younger sister day when they were walking back to the village—he was leading, Nuai on his shoulders—they called out a greeting to a lone man working in his garden. Farther along the trail, Siuwako said she'd been thinking about that man. If Elliot had to garden for himself, she said, he'd do well because he could do everything. And then she laughed softly, adding that he knew the woman's part better than the man's.
Elliot should have let that pass. Instead, he asked if that didn't make him a woman, not a man.
She said to her he was both.
He thought she was making a joke, so he asked “Do you mean in between?”
“No, both . . . all together.”
“I don't understand.”
“I mean . . . when I need a man, you're a man, and when I need a woman, you're a woman.”
“And when I'm not with you?”
“Then . . . I don't know. Maybe it depends on who you're with. Maybe you aren't anything until you do something. No . . . maybe you're both until you do something.” She paused. “It's hard to think about.”
They walked in silence through the forest until they came to another garden. No one was working there.
“We're used to talking about gardens,” Siuwako finally said, “This is different. I think, what I think is . . . it's like this: when you came to us, who knew what you were? You were a white man in white man clothes, and you couldn't speak our language. You came to us like something floating down the river . . . unconnected. When you told us why you wanted to live with us we could see how you were trying not to be on the white side. But if you weren't on the white side and you weren't one of us, then what were you?”
“I was myself.”
“But Elliot . . . Whitebody. We didn't know what you were like because we'd never seen you in your own place, with your own people. You weren't with anybody. You were alone.”
“You could see I was a man, though.” Elliot could hear stubbornness in his own voice.
Siuwako sighed. “I’ll try again. We know you're a man. You bathe with the men and the children, so we know what you are. Nobody thinks you're not a man. We're not stupid. I'm saying at first that's all you were, a white man. So we expected you to do what men do, but white men don't come to live with us, so it was confusing. Then you lived with us . . . and after a while you grew your hair long like a white woman's, but you weren't a woman. And you never said why.”
“Nobody asked. It was so I wouldn't look like the other whites.”
“All right, but you weren't a man either.”
Elliot exhaled loudly. “I wonder what you mean. You said everybody knew I was a man.”
Siuwako made a little noise of disgust. “I wonder if you're listening to me. I meant not only a man. I know what you are in your body, Elliot, I have eyes, and I hear your voice, I have ears. It's not a woman's voice, but sometimes you laugh like we do. I don't know whether you're going to act like a man or a woman unless I ask you to do something. You know all this!”
“When you're with me you work like a woman. Most men won't dig out sweet potatoes. Most women won't even try to axe down a tree because that's man's work, but you will. And you do your own work, measuring and weighing and making maps, and that's not men's work or women's work. It's just your work.” She paused. “It's true, what I'm saying. That's why I think of you as man and woman. Because of what you’ve learned. Before you did, you were just a white . . . man. That's what I think.”
Elliot was quiet the rest of the way home. He felt diminished, and he knew he shouldn't. Siuwako was telling him important and interesting things and instead of asking careful questions and paying attention so he could write it down later, he had gotten all hung up in the maleness thing. Christ, he thought, I'm no better than a kid when somebody's called him a girl.
At the village he slid Nuai down and Siuwako said, “You stopped talking. Are you angry? Don't be angry at me. Did I make you sad?”
“Nuai fell asleep,” he said, which was true. “I didn't want to wake her.”
She let it drop. In the night Elliot lay on his mattress, lantern out, fearing he'd lost his notion of self, and seeing no way to be himself in this place. He nearly wept in frustration.
* * *
Elliot still hadn't appeared. Where was he? Siuwako thought she might as well do some work. Maybe she'd hoe. If he didn't turn up by the time she finished, she'd walk to Wanawo and see if he was there. She hoped he wouldn't go there first. Maybe she should have gone over to Mega's and gotten him. No, she was being impatient. In the meantime, it was a pleasure to think about the old days. The last few years had been so bad. Maybe memories of the old days would push out memories of the fighting.
She started thinking about the time Siro and Elliot happened on an Osileni woman who hadn't made it to the Mission before giving birth. Siro told her all about it. They were surveying, and when Siro went ahead to set the next mark, there she was, sitting against a coconut palm. It wasn't proper for him to approach her, but Elliot could, so he came up and helped with the cord and comforted her and gave her a shirt to wrap the newborn in. He waited with her until the Osileni people who'd gone to the Mission for help returned. Siro said that Elliot seemed unafraid and gentle, but that as soon as he could, he came back to his tripod and asked Siro to go ahead and set the mark. Siro had to make a wide detour around the woman and her newborn.
Later, the Osileni women made Elliot's favorite feast food, even though there was no feast, and sent it over. He shared it with Siro and Siuwako and Nuai. Siuwako wished that she had been there with him to work at that kind of woman's work, to see Elliot with blood from birth instead of from wounds. She thought of his adjusting the woman's wrap for decency, so that Siro wouldn't see anything he shouldn't. But what did Elliot see? Remembering the story made her feel close to Elliot.
Siuwako was sure that Elliot had desired her. Once when they were walking single-file through the forest, she turned suddenly back to him, to check on Nuai, and his expression made her think he was wishing they could slip off the trail into the bush for a time. She thought she saw it on his face, in his eyes, and why not? When it came to desire, how different could the whites be? True, it was impossible but that didn't mean he couldn't think about it. Men thought about things like that. His desire was a single man's desire: simple, and pleasing because he was so careful about it that she never needed to be on guard. True, she was sometimes aroused by it, and what was wrong with that? He never talked about American women except his mother, and if he ever took a village girl into the bush she would have known. That sort of thing usually came out, and even if other women knew but kept the secret, they would have made sure she knew, to hurt her.
Siuwako knew she didn't understand the ways of the whites, but she thought she understood Elliot—she could tell when he was sad or irritated, preoccupied; when he was elated, and when he was in the mood for foolishness. That part of understanding him was easy. But she was sure he hadn't understood everything she did back then. She thought he never realized that when she asked him to do tasks, like digging out enough extra for her mother's pig, it was a test—not like the exams the schoolchildren took, but a test anyway. She never asked him to do anything she didn't think he could do. She thought his successes would make him happy, and they seemed to.
But the “Do I belong?” business. She never did explain it but she thought she might if she could see how he lived in his own world, the white world. America. It seemed natural to her that he should wonder about belonging, because here in Nagovisi he was an outsider—he came to them from somewhere else. But it wasn't that simple because he really did settle into the village, and he really was like a brother to Siro, and was like whatever he was to her—somebody very close. A friend. The longer he lived with them the less he should have shown it, and yes, he did show it less. But it never went away. If he still wondered about belonging when he was home in America, Siuwako thought, then it was part of Elliot—the way he was. But she'd never know unless she could go with him to America, and that would never happen.
* * *
Elliot held Siuwako in his arms just once. He didn't just touch her or brush against her as he had many times; he held her. When she gasped and turned to him, holding out her hand, cut badly, already dripping blood, he said, foolishly, “How?” He walked quickly to her over sweet potato vines, kneeled, put his hand on her shoulder, and wrapped his other around the fist she had already made.
“I hit something with my knife and it slipped.”
She rocked toward Elliot, leaving her hand in his, pulling it up against her bare chest. He put his left hand on her shoulder and she stood up, leaning into him. As they walked over to the garden house Elliot kept holding her hand; he could feel her blood between his own fingers.
In the garden house she sat and opened her fist into a red bloom. They could see that the cuts were deep, but she could move all her fingers so they weren't afraid. Siuwako's wrap was new, so Elliot pulled the bottoms of his boxers down from underneath his shorts and cut strips from them with his small knife. Nuai watched with interest. Siuwako sat on the bench, her cut hand on her thigh, bleeding onto her wrap. Elliot knelt in front of her and bound each cut finger with cotton. When he pulled too tightly she sucked air through her teeth, and reached out to grasp his forearm, not releasing him immediately. Her vulnerability was as new and strange as holding her and binding her wounds and being marked with her blood, which he wiped on his shorts before going out into the garden to finish harvesting. He packed her basket, and when she came from the garden house he lifted and held it while she slipped into the straps. When he saw she was having trouble adjusting them, he turned her to face him, slid his fingers under the bark straps, and did it himself. She looked up at him and they both smiled. Elliot shook his head, picked up Nuai, and put her in place on his shoulders.
“Good,” Siuwako said, “Whitebody, good.”
“Meliima,” Elliot said, “Let's the all of us go.”
That night he could not sleep until he stored what he'd felt and seen: his hand on her shoulder, his arm against her hot back, the deep red flow of blood dripping from black onto white skin. His forearm in her grip and the way his muscles tensed as her fingers dug in. The feel of blood between their clasped hands. Carrying straps on his palms, her chest against the backs of his hands. He looped the sensations and images until he fell asleep. All he wrote in his notebook was that Siuwako cut her hand badly.
* * *
After two years he left. They all knew he might never come back, so most of the village made the three-hour walk to the airstrip with him. When the pilot called him to the small plane he shook Siuwako's hand last and said, “I'm going to America now,” which was the proper way to take leave. And she said, “Go,” which was also proper. He held Nuai in his arms and had tears in his eyes, but his voice was steady. So was hers; she would not have been shamed had she wept, but she forced herself not to. Siuwako knew from moving pictures she'd seen at the Mission that whites put their arms around each other when they went away, but he made no move toward her. For a moment she thought she might put her arms around him, the way he put his around her when she nearly cut her fingers off in the garden, but she didn't want to shame either of them.
Now she was remembering how his absence left a void that no one else could fill, because there was no one like him. Other men were only men to her; her younger sister always a woman, as everyone's sister was. Siuwako remembered the time she tried to explain to Elliot that he wasn't only like a man, and wasn't only like a woman, but was like both together. She didn't think that she'd made herself understood.
When Siro said how much he missed Elliot, she responded, “So do I.” Siro liked to imagine what Elliot might be doing in America, but she didn't, saying that they couldn't know what he was doing because they had never seen his town. When he wrote letters he always addressed some words to her, and yes, then she talked with Siro about what he wrote, because it was Elliot himself telling. After Siro read the letters aloud, he put them in their metal storage box and she sometimes took them out and read them herself.
One year he wrote and said a picture he had taken of her with Nuai was in an American magazine, and for the first time she took a pencil and wrote, I want to know how many people have seen my picture. Many thousands, he wrote back, more people than live on the whole island. And when the magazine finally arrived, there they were: Siuwako and Nuai, looking at the camera. Happy. She remembered the day he took the picture, because he asked her to pose. All the other times he used his camera he expected her to ignore him, and she did.
One year he wrote that he'd married, and she felt jealousy, even though he'd been gone so long that Nuai had breasts. She felt pleasure too, because she wanted him to be happy. And then another year he wrote that the marriage had broken and this surprised her, because she thought he would marry and stay married. The marriage broke because he went into the bush with somebody else's wife—she knew they didn't have bush in America, but she didn't know how adulterers found ways to meet there, so she settled on thinking of Elliot going off into the bush somewhere outside of the town he lived in. She tried not to think about it too much, because it saddened and surprised her, that in the end he did what other men did. And she thought maybe this showed that he would never settle in anywhere. She told Siro to write that his wife shouldn't divorce him, because few trips into the bush weren't enough to break a marriage. He could settle it with compensation and stay married. That was the Nagovisi way and she wanted Elliot and his wife to follow it.
As soon as they could get letters out again after the fighting, Siuwako wrote Elliot to tell him that Siro had been killed. He wrote back that he'd gone into an empty field at night, made a fire, and circled it singing the dirge for his brother Siro until the fire burned down. She wept aloud at the thought of Elliot mourning and honoring Siro in the Nagovisi way, all alone on the other side of the world. She had not told him things were so bad that they could not cremate Siro and had been forced to bury him with only a little ceremony.
The next time he wrote he said he had found a way to return.
Why hadn't Elliot come by now? She wanted him here at Kogan-go first so they could go on together to Wanawo. She thought it would be better here, in the open sun, among the sweet potatoes and fallen timbers and greens, the heaps, the garden house. Kogan-go looked like the old Wanawo. Seeing it, he would remember how it had been, and she realized she wanted that most of all, that it should return to him, the two of them in their garden, and that she should be with him when it did.
* * *
Elliot stopped beside the muddy trail and took the Steadicam out of its case. When he and Mega headed out, he thought about using his GPS unit, but decided he wouldn't need it. Not far from the village the trail was no longer familiar, which was a disappointment. When Mega said that they were getting close he decided to set up because he wanted to be ready for Siuwako as soon as he came up to her.
For years he dreamed about walking the trail to their garden, walking to where Siuwako would be waiting for him, and they'd begin doing what they used to do: working side by side, Elliot and Siuwako, his . . . his what? Friend seemed too ordinary. Lover, of course not. He had never thought himself in love with Siuwako, even in the old days when he had struggled with his desire for her. Since then he had loved other women but it had taken him a long time to understand that love needn't be frantic and intense, always sexual, always with the fear of loss somewhere behind it. Maybe he had loved Siuwako all along.
Elliot locked the camcorder onto the Steadicam's plate, and started balancing it. Against the grass and vines and mud the unit seemed incongruous to him, steely gray plastic, an odd-shaped thing he lugged eight thousand miles to try for the shot he'd been thinking about for so long. When he learned that the fighting had died down and he could probably sneak onto the island and into Nagovisi, he inventoried his cameras, his old lenses, his light meters and tripods, and then, out on the Net looking for bulk film, he realized that while he hadn't been paying attention everything had gone digital. His old field notes were full of longings for a movie camera. Digital video would be even better. The lure of returning and doing what he'd wanted so badly to do was irresistible. Why return with old technology?
The old technology was his link to Nagovisi. Siuwako existed as the technically perfect fine-grained Kodachrome slides he projected onto huge screens in auditoriums. “My teacher,” he told his students, “the woman who taught me everything.” And there she was, at the spring, filling a kettle. Carrying Nuai on her hip. Hoeing. Whenever Elliot projected Siuwako's image she seemed beautiful to him, but he doubted his audience would agree. To them she must have looked odd in her plain cotton wrap, rolled over, tucked in at the waist, and held up by a thin green plastic belt; they would not have admired her jet-black mismatched breasts or her scars, and by North American standards she was not as beautiful as her younger sister Nebura.
As time passed Elliot understood that the Siuwako he'd brought home in his memory had become static, like the slides. He no longer saw her in motion. He knew she was aging, as he was, but her body never thickened and her hair stayed black. When he tried to imagine what she looked like, he could not. Semester after semester he projected her onto the screen, unchanged in an unchanging setting. He had less trouble with Wanawo, which he knew had cycled—moving from garden to forest and back to the garden he saw in the slides. Wanawo wheeled back into its old self, while Elliot and Siuwako did not. Was that the difference: loops versus straight lines? Maybe, but intellectual speculation did not satisfy him.
Every physical thing he brought back from Nagovisi was like a negative he could use to make prints whenever he wanted to. The raw potato weights could be used to recalculate garden yields; new maps could be drawn from the same coordinates. The stakes he and Siro planted rotted quickly, but the grid he draped over Nagovisi and linked to Greenwich would always exist because it had no physical reality.
In Buffalo he imagined a flowing garden sequence that would free Siuwako from the slides: the camera would fly around her as she hoed; bright sun, all greens and browns and black skin. Siwuako would turn slowly. And there would be sound: wind, breathing, the rhythmic soft sound of the hoe. He recognized he was obsessed but could not stop. Though he was returning to a place ripped by a decade of fighting, a place where friends had died, all he could picture was the camera loving Siuwako.
* * *
In Buffalo, Elliot kept his orange surveyor's notebook in his bedside drawer, next to a plastic bag of his mother's ashes. Gridded waterproof paper, betel-stained, his name fading where Siro had written it on the spine—sometimes just smelling and handling it took him out of a dark mood. He brought it back to Nagovisi, but hadn't shown it to anybody yet. He thought Siuwako would recognize Siro's handwriting, and that knowing he kept something of Siro near him would please her. On the long flight over the Pacific he leafed through it and saw that on a page facing angles and distances and times and the sun's disk drawn over crosshairs, he'd written “Osileni woman gave birth near mark BSB28, where we shot the sun. Stopped to help. Siro's tambu so he couldn't.”
He had to reach under the umbilical cord to help her wrap the newborn in a shirt he had in his pack. The cord, slick and warm, draped over his forearm. As he moved his arm to keep the cord from the ground, he saw it disappearing between her legs. He knew that the birth, the cord, the newborn, and his own simple midwifery would never leave him, but later he wrote only the flat description: stopped to help. That was the day he shot the sun for the first time, to calculate latitude and longitude—to compute where he was while knowing where he was. Those knowings gave weight to that day. They yielded Elliot's concept of place: not only where something was, but where something happened. Near the BSB28 mark a mother would someday say, Child, here is where you were born and our white man held you. Precisely at BSB28 he shot the sun. In 6 degrees 29 minutes south, 155 degrees 22 minutes east, he and Siuwako gardened and she cut her hand and he bound her wound.
Elliot could calculate Wanawo's direction and distance from his office in Buffalo but that was only numbers on paper. He visualized a great-circle chord connecting him to it but that did not satisfy him. After he could use the Global Positioning System, he could ask for guidance and his GPS unit would display an arrow pointing toward it. One day, in the grip of longing, he called for the way to Wanawo and walked out from his house, following the arrow into a county park, until after an hour he ran against a highway too dangerous to cross. Beyond the rushing trucks when he closed his eyes he saw Wanawo.
When the Steadicam came and he tried it in his backyard he laughed in delight: stepping over apples, rounding the old tree, tracking along a flowerbed, improvising a lyrical movement on tomatoes in their wire frames. The first afternoon he learned the basic circling shot, flying the camera. He went to the shed for his old surveying tripod, the one stenciled with his nickname Whitebody. He went in his closet for the theodolite, mounted it on the tripod, and leveled it for no reason except the pleasure of working with it. He found his machete and stuck it into the ground the way Siuwako always warned him was dangerous. Then he picked up the Steadicam and practiced his moves on the little shrine of tools.
* * *
Now as they emerged from the forest into the cleared area at Kogan-go he saw Siuwako in the distance. Her blouse was swaying, her hips were swinging, and she was hoeing in the easy rhythm he knew so well. Mega stayed back. Intense sunlight was washing out the Steadicam's screen but it didn't bother him because the Steadicam felt like an extension of his arm and of his sight too. He did not question this modal shift and began to move, bent-kneed, his eyes focused on Siuwako, moving smoothly without stumbling through the mounds of vines by peripheral vision. He knew his backyard work would not fail him. He flew the camera toward Siuwako, slowly rotating it, tracking along the dark fringing forest, opening out into the garden and sun. He tilted it down toward the dirt, over the green vines, then eased it up, and slowing, closed on her, no longer even aware of the screen, aiming by feel, wholly focused on Siuwako, who continued to hoe as if they were young again at Wanawo and she, welcoming, expecting him to join her, did not need to look away from her work. He flew toward her swinging hoe, its arc so familiar he did not hesitate to close and begin his circling move against her rotation, flying the Steadicam up and around then slowing so that she would float into view as if she had moved and the camera had not. He pulled back, and she stopped hoeing. Elliot thought he saw a smile forming on her face as he rotated the Steadicam in his final arc from Siuwako, again over the garden, the dark trees, back to her and it was done.
Elliot lowered the Steadicam and tucked it under his arm. He had not taken his eyes off her except for his final move, and when he looked again tears were on her cheeks. A great calm moved into him and grew into joy. He broke into a smile as her eyes met his.
Siuwako said softly, “Have you seen Wanawo?”
He heard but did not speak, not knowing whether he would sob or laugh.
A little louder. “Elliot . . . white man little-sister Elliot, have you seen Wanawo?”
Had he seen it? Had he seen Wanawo? Laughing, freed, he answered.
“I've seen it always, Nuai's mother.”
She nodded. “So have I.”
When Elliot looked away as he always did, Siuwako shook her head. My friend is back, she thought. She wiped her cheeks.
Elliot turned and looked toward Mega, then back to Siuwako. He cleared his throat.
“Melema,” he said, “Let's the two of us go.”
“Kasino nekanala ko?” she asked, smiling, “To our garden?” She too did not use the plural form.
“Melema,” said Elliot.
“Another day,” Siuwako said, “this is our garden now. My son-in-law will let you use his knife. Let's the two of us work here.”