Against the backdrop of an East African city, an impossible romance between an Indian widower and a married Belgian woman unfolds under the most unlikely circumstances.
|Publisher:||Little, Brown and Company|
|Product dimensions:||5.87(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.25(d)|
About the Author
N.S. Köenings holds a B.A. in African Studies from Bryn Mawr College and a Ph.D. in socio-cultural anthropology from Indiana University, where she also completed her M.F.A. in fiction. She currently teaches at Hampshire College.
Read an Excerpt
The Blue Taxi
By N.S. Köenings
LITTLE, BROWNCopyright © 2006 N. S. Köenings
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe plus in Sarie Turner: a minus for the widower's youngest boy. An accident, it was, in the bright Kikanga neighborhood of seaside Vunjamguu. For the unseen, sudden child? A gongo-drinking driver, big blue Tata run amok. Great low rumble and a thrash, metal bending with a wail. A fall-a slip and tender snap-and cries and shrieks and shudders from those close enough to see. Next, the tremors of a riven street, belated shatterings of glass. A squeal, an interrupted skip. What else? Among others and perhaps the very least, but, still, one thing: at some distance from the fray, unexpected and intent, a simmer and a bubbling in a tall, ungainly woman who had not bubbled before.
Sarie Turner did, like others in that nest of high-housed, sooty streets, hear the rich commotion as it happened. But because she didn't see the Tata shedding its old brakes, taking its hard teeter, didn't see the stumbling boy's quick pitch, was still coming round the corner, she couldn't fathom what it was. In fact, she thought, C'est quoi? The bright perfume of burnt and bleeding things came flooding up her nose. Aware of Agatha's small hand tightening at her own, Sarie felt that she should hurry. But she'd gone very still, her eyes and mind a blank.
Her daughter's fingers fellaway and Sarie next experienced in her knees a looseness that, traveling up her hips and thighs, nearly caused her to collapse against the stationer's window-where, behind the oily glass (shocked, too), a steno pad threw off its dust and several ink pens rolled slightly to the side. Sarie felt the window hot and smooth against her shoulder and wondered why she couldn't see. She brought herself upright again and noted then that her own eyes were closed. She opened them.
Sarie squinted in the light but could not see her child (Agatha, while her mother's eyes were shut, had run on to find things out). As the street came into view, Sarie's stomach tilted in its house. She swallowed, turned the corner, too. She identified a crowd but, slow to see the obvious as she was, still didn't understand. She wasn't used to being dizzy, that squeezing in her chest, a blurring at her temples that took some time to clear. What is it that's happened? Was that Agatha, just there? When Sarie had caught on that the scarlet-stippled log her only child sat holding on the banks of India Street was no log but a leg that had been unhooked from its owner, it was too late for her to scream. Somewhere between her collarbone and chin, a scream-shape came careening to a stop-she gasped.
She was not alone. The others had screamed punctually, just after the bus hit, and now they only stood, unnerved, making tender sounds like mm and oh and haaa. A newsboy, head-cocked, knee-bent like an egret in a pool of fallen print, stood frozen in the sun. A small round woman the color of a cashew, gray hair middle-parted like a book, eyes as deep as bowls, clutched her racing chest with two immobile hands. Hovering like a specter from white smoke and toppled coals, a coffee salesman, tongue an arrow, held fast to his curls. In the plump and muted hush-breath-breath, gasp-gasp, and everything so slow-everyone was still. Everyone, that is, except the boy to whom that log-no, leg-belonged.
But the newly fractured boy, whose accident this was, wasn't screaming either. Rather, there slipped from other parts of him, as from mysterious insects, a range of thrums and squeaks. There was: from a shaggy head with opaque hair, a wincing; a creaking from the thin-boy trunk-and-thigh; and a steady, anxious droning from the one leg he still wore, which he clutched as if to keep it safe with two surprisingly big hands. The sounds his body made, delicate and soft, would have-somehow Sarie and the gaspers sensed that this was so-put further screams to shame.
Sarie, one brown knuckle tucked into the hollow at the base of her tight throat, wobbled on the curb, aware without quite knowing why that she was being called upon to think. To Sarie's left, squatting, showing flowered panties, Agatha was quiet, too. Brave child, she had not considered screaming. With care, with eerily professional aplomb, with love, perhaps, she had neatly folded down the cuff of the blue sock at the end of that lost limb as if preparing the loosed thing for a party or for school. Fingers lightly resting on that wounded, dappled skin as at the keys of a piano, Sarie Turner's daughter calmly oversaw the stranger's separated flesh in a square of city shade. Behind her, the split doorway of an alley lolled open like a blouse.
Despite everything else, perhaps because at times like this the mind moves rather strangely, Sarie thought, She looks nearly like a picture, and she was briefly proud. In all of her nine years, Agatha had never been a worry, pas une fois, and why should she be now? Seeing Agatha so serious and unruffled-sensing something of herself there and by this sense reassured-Sarie ceased her gasping and took stock. She pressed her lips together and turned towards her right. There, not on the sidewalk as she was, but in the middle of the road: the now one-legged boy, squeak and drone gone soft.
The hardy, sticky pool of red that seeped around his little hips and what had earlier that morning been a round and boyish knee made Sarie, of all things, think wistfully of sauces she did not know how to make. This culinary wish, its ordinariness, its very saucy plainness, coincided with a jarring and extremely strong desire to ensure that that boy's hair and chest and thigh kept making hopeful tunes. That the urge was visceral was curious, for Sarie-as she well knew herself, as her husband Gilbert often thought, and others had asserted in frustration-was not given to communion. But, oddly, there it was. Already. Accidents transforming.
Dutifully, she turned once more towards Agatha, to make sure she was all right. She was. Perfectly at ease, having understood, perhaps, that there would be no parties and no lessons any longer for the leg, Agatha had begun unlacing the brown shoe so the thigh-less foot might stretch its toes a final, dear time. The shoe? Not new, but still; Sarie noted, Bata, by the way. She briefly had the thought that she herself would like a pair of dark brown Bata pumps, someday, but she knew she oughtn't linger: To think about the shoes! A wounded boy, just there. A boy missing his leg! So be it. She would help him, yes. C'est moi, she thought. C'est moi qui vais l'aider. Agatha would soothe the shin, and she herself would take firm charge of that other, altered body. With an able, manly finger, Sarie tucked a strip of yellow hair behind one of her ears, and, deliberate now, like a hefty praying mantis, she lifted up one foot and prepared. She set the raised foot down, lifted up the other, and took into the street seven crucial steps that would, before she understood it, change the things she knew.
She was not alone in moving at that moment towards the injured child. As she set off, a neat, close huddle formed, hiding him from view. Oh, concealment of the target, so fresh and speedy on the heels of Sarie's taking aim! That urge inside her trebled. She felt needed by the world, as she never had before, and she went forward quickly. The swollen hush, its muted mms and ohs, died down as she moved, and a babble rose instead. Ears and heart arush, Sarie made out this and that: some in the assembly, whispering at first, wished to ascertain the cause of what they saw. Buses were no longer what they had been, sure, but was that up-country driver drunk? And did this sorry boy not have a mum or dad or uncles? What had he been doing, foolish, in the road? Here, the coffee salesman ventured that the boy (so it seemed to him) had been hunting house crows with a slingshot. The middle-parted woman, with an authoritative look, declared that boys these days-coffee-man included-had no common sense. She smoothed down her brown sari and commandeered a slightly wandering green eye towards the wounded child.
Sarie hurried forth. Enormous in her orange flip-flops, not unsteadied by her speed, she cleared a heap of rotted mango peels, eight pointed lady-fingers fallen from the gray-haired woman's basket, and also the rough slingshot, which Agatha would later learn indeed belonged to that felled boy who whimpered in the road. As Sarie came upon them, those around him parted like a sea. The driver's tout (a thick boy from whose lips protruded a thin twig), an able litter-woman (palm-frond basket heavy on her head), the coffee salesman, a watchman in a military cap, the woman in the sari, and the newsboy (papers now aswirl in a ragged play of wind) all stepped back to make way for the madam. Some among them, skeptical, prepared to be amused. They wondered what, exactly, the racing woman thought she might achieve. And-this Sarie did not hear-some of them imagined that she would have sound knowledge to apply that they themselves did not.
In this last, granting foreigners all kinds of super-expertise, people are frequently mistaken. For example, Sarie did most definitely not possess a bright Mercedes-Benz with which she could convey the patient to a luxurious private clinic; nor was she a doctor; and she was not related as far as she'd been told to any European football stars, actresses, or presidents. She was not even, as most who had not heard her speak assumed, English. But she had, as humans do, lived through a great deal, and she could be effective: as it happens, orphaned by a War, shuttled to the Colonies at a very early age, Sarie Turner (née Genoux) had been after all brought up by dexterous Nursing Sisters, and she'd taken some things in. It was thus neither fame nor power, but a vague and rusted habit coupled with a feeling, that pushed her towards the boy.
The members of the huddle watched. Sarie was: long, big-boned and ample, topped with desert-colored hair as unkempt as her housedress (dingy, yellowed, with faded flowery marks)-a personage, indeed. She landed from a leap over a pot-hole near the little crowd, and, hands on hips, hiked up that yellow shift-revealing as she did so two bright pomelo-sized knees-and squatted, wild-haired, in the center of the road beside the wincing boy.
She lost a flip-flop on the way. The litter-woman, moving with a grace that kept the basket on her head absolutely still, slid the bright thong over with a push of her big toe (her own flip-flops were blue). The night-watchman offered up the cardboard sheet on which, at lazy times, he napped. Sarie took it, sat, stretched her own legs out, and, oddly dainty, crossed them. She leaned over slowly.
As her big head cast a shadow on the boy, she began to whisper. Sarie did not say, "Your absent leg will cast a spell on my green daughter." Nor did she utter anything exceptionally prophetic, like, "Your father, nom de Dieu, will knock my apple cart." In fact, Sarie, who was Belgian in some way, though she had left that place too long ago to recall with any freshness its damp and gloomy clime, found English rather tricky and would not have spoken daringly like that, for fun. Sarie made mistakes. She twisted sentences around. She didn't always know the meaning or the import of the words she put together. She sometimes did not think as clearly as she could. But she had seen sick and wounded people in her life, and she had seen them tended. So she offered him distractions, small and tender things that in her long-gone youth she had been apprenticed to dispense. "My Agatha likes very much the candy, will you like some in a while?" And, "You want to stay alive to grow so tall and be resembling your papa." And, "Nevermind, now. Nevermind." And, "Please."
She wished the others were not watching her so closely. She did not like so many eyes on her-did not like even her own husband to look too long at her legs or her elbows or her face-and the heat from all the bodies and the sun felt a bit like melted wax. Vous me dérangez, she thought but did not say, aware that someone else's comfort, at this moment, mattered more than hers. She closed her eyes and shook herself and made herself forget them. I am needed, après tout. Indeed, she felt that she was acting well, that she was at that moment exactly where she should be.
The boy's eyes shut and opened, too. As Sarie touched his poor, slick brow, it did occur to her that he was not much older than her child. She gave the boy a smile. Glad that wounds had never fazed her, she felt strong. To one or two mean hoots and overall approval, which Sarie did not hear, she tore a length of cotton from her dress and fashioned him a tourniquet.
While there is little charm in losing a good leg, there was that day in the thronging bubble of Kikanga-well apart from the appearance on the scene of a sometime European nurse-a sort of luck at work. A timely-spacely wrinkle. First, in the jam-packed busy streets between this corner (India meets Mahaba), the Theosophical Society's hunkered yellow palace, the clock tower with the four round faces that look every way at once (each with its own mind), and the eggplant-radish-onion stands of old Kikanga market, there were several charitable clinics founded, as it happened, by the Aga Khan himself. On that day, two were sorely understaffed-one by a long-awaited wedding, the other by a funeral. A third was sadly understocked-thanks to the ill will of an official who would not let in the medicines from Delhi for the fee to which he had long ago agreed, and who was causing in a smoky room beside the harbor a bitter little scene. A fourth, however, was full of stuff and staff. This one-square, clean, pink Kikanga Clinic-was just two blocks away. The boy was, from the moment of the crash, therefore, not too far from help.
Another lucky object by that sticky place? On the second floor of egg-blue Mansour House, which overlooked the sharp joint of India and Mahaba, and was occupied by Bibi Kulthum, her fine son Issa and his clever wife Nisreen, there l lived a brand-new telephone that was eager to be used. Black, still smooth, not yet gummy from the air's thick oil and grime, the thing sat brashly on a table near the balcony; it was cushioned in high style by a yellow doily Bibi's son had asked his wife to purchase, to make certain Bibi understood the phone was there to stay. A forward-looking man, Issa had gone to great lengths to acquire it, and had in doing so, he said, brought the future home. Nisreen, admiring of her very busy husband, and a worrier, felt it might be useful. But while Issa had struggled to convince his mother that amenities like this one were milestones to success, Bibi was suspicious: entreated and cajoled, she had not used it yet, and had said she never would.
As she often was, Bibi had been seated on the woven mat that softened the hard floor of her Kikanga-facing balcony, thread and needle ticking in her lap. Because her ears were not what they had been, she neither heard the boom nor caught the rush of birds escaping like applause from the drama in the road. She didn't hear the shouts. No, wrapped up in her work-a square embroidered hanging she intended for Nisreen-she hadn't heard a thing. But, because Bibi had another, special sense, a skill she'd had since childhood, she did look up from her embroidery at the very moment that the brakeless Tata bus veered around the corner and next knocked the slingshot-aiming boy right on his little back and tore one leg clean off.
The skill? As a child, like many other children, Bibi had been open to the world, sensitive and curious. She wondered about words she overheard, dampness on a face, paper bits that didn't burn, twigs in patterns on the ground. Such wondering's not special. So? What was Bibi's talent? One: when it suited her, she knew how to be still. Two: she had, since a crucial period in her youth, almost without fail focused her bright eyes and set her mind to work at exactly the right time, looking up from chores and meals and stitching just as a new development that would busy tongues for weeks, a truth that had only been suspected, or an event that none could have imagined spilled onto a scene. So she'd learned that Mrs. Dillip's husband had abandoned her at last, that the creditors were coming, and that a certain cousin whom she loved had exposed her secret parts while climbing up a clove tree. Bibi, people later came to say, was more perceptive than a house crow, knew things before they happened-even if the happening was soundless, sneakier than snakes.
Excerpted from The Blue Taxi by N.S. Köenings Copyright © 2006 by N. S. Köenings. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.