As I looked out the window, arid brush swirling, the whir of the motor running, I did not know where we were going. I knew, but it was just a name, the Alfajiri Nature Conservancy. It was this joint project—preserve nature, develop communities, foster harmony and world peace. That was my kind of thing. I had some skeletons, something to expiate, a debt to pay, and a lot of guilt. Thus, I did my best to make the world a better place. I volunteered, I donated, I checked in on him, and I literally worked in one of those selfless careers, a bleeding heart working to save the world. That is the way I saw it.
I hit him when I was still a teenager, nineteen, in college, drunk. I could not see anything. My hand slipped and hit the window blades, the wiper fluid sprayed everywhere, and I panicked. I did not see the stop sign. I did not see his dad’s car. I did not see anything until after the accident.
The airbag deflated, the blades were still running, and the windshield was clear again. Suddenly, all that I could see was him, a five-year-old, his bloody face staring at me, the passenger seat window shattered, pieces of it having perforated his delicate face like buck shot. He was screaming bloody murder and it was streaming down his face. I did not just feel nauseated. I threw up immediately, compounding the disgust that I already felt, and I began to sob.
It was 1973 and I was still just a kid too. I had a life ahead of me. Thus, I got a hold of myself, I slammed the car into reverse, and I drove away. Then I parked my car in the garage where it stayed for two months until I disposed of it, and I ran upstairs where I locked myself in the bathroom, the shower running, with all the lights off. I cried in there for hours. It felt like all night, but eventually the water got cold and I had to go hide in my room, still bawling.
The next day I put a tarp on the car, and I decided that I did not like motor vehicles anymore. My roommates never noticed, never suspected a thing. I kept telling everyone that we should be more like the people in Amsterdam and all around Asia. I rode my bike every day from then on and I followed the story about the boy on the news. I donated everything that I had to his recovery. Then, once there were not any more stories on the news, I started biking past his house in a random pattern for weeks. He was out there playing, and I felt relieved. I kept doing it until the puffy reddishness where the scabs had been finally hardened into a tiny permanent scar, just above his eyebrow. Then I sort of disappeared, receded, and moved on. I stopped circling the house, that is, I never actually moved on.
His face used to be the only thing that I could see at night and it has been coming back to me frequently throughout the years. At first, I had to keep reliving the accident and I always woke up screaming. It got better though. I gave it time, and after about three years it stopped happening on a weekly basis. He is alive and kicking after all, unharmed to the best of my knowledge, as if nothing ever happened. Last I checked, he is a photographer. I would have offered him a gig, maybe tried to hire him, we hire those where I work, it would probably be a dream come true, but it would have been too risky to just reach out. I would have to see his face again too, the one that I had scarred for life.
I probably could have done more. I knew that. He seemed to be doing alright though, portraits and local landscapes back in that college town, a steady job. Sometimes he gets a little boost out of the blue. I buy prints of his photographs, large orders like it is from a dentist’s office seeking to redecorate, always under a different name. I cannot hang them in my house, but I have boxes of photographic shame in my basement. There are like fifty photos of the one photogenic bridge in the town and another thirty of the rolling hills from the countryside that surround it.
That aside, my life is actually like a fantasy now. I have been working in conservation and development ever since college, fighting the good fight. Most people that I know had to give up and just get jobs as business analysts, in human resource departments; hell, some of them are still waiting tables. I am living the dream though. I made the right choices.
Until recently, I had always worked on projects in Asia. I had local knowledge there, a network. I spoke the languages, several of them actually. At one point I earned a government fellowship to study in Indonesia. I almost got recruited into an intelligence career after that, but there was no way in hell that I was going to take a polygraph. I did not need anyone looking that deep into my background. It was immaculate, except for that one incident.
Anyhow, I have a joint bachelor’s degree in Southeast Asian Studies and Environmental Science and a master’s in Global Development Studies from an ivy league college. I worked hard and earned my way up from internships into project management, mere back stopping to actual fieldwork, and I have been blessed to travel extensively throughout Southeast Asia and even to prestigious conferences in Europe.
I always thought that it would be awesome to finally get an assignment in Africa though. Thus, I jumped at the opportunity as soon as a colleague from our sister organization in Tanzania invited me to consult on their project. We met at one of those conferences, connected over drinks, talking shop, maybe flirting just a little bit; I like to use my feminine wiles. I have authority too though. Harmonizing critically endangered elephant and human communities, enlisting the locals as vital resources in conservation projects, had become one of my specialties. I had years of demonstrated results and that happened to be just what he and the sister organization were looking for; they were branching out from their bonobo projects into new territory, needed to secure the confidence of a major prospective donor.
So, there I was, twenty years after the accident, in the back of a four-wheeler with a random hired driver careening out of Dar es Salaam toward Alfajiri. The bush was a blur around me and the local wildlife—zebras, giraffes, baboons, gazelle, wildebeest, and a dead hyena along the road—popped up from time to time. The driver said there was no time to stop though. I really wanted to watch the baboons, but I figured that he was right. We were heading to a wildlife sanctuary and there would be plenty of time to admire it all tomorrow after we arrived. I also did not know exactly where we were going, how far it still was; I just knew that Alfajiri was this place on a map in the bush in the middle of a country, a continent that I had never been to before. In Kiswahili, one of the local languages, Alfajiri meant dawn. A new project in a new place, one more dream realized and to live, happening all around me; it felt like a new dawn. However, as I looked around, the sun was starting to set, pink clouds on the horizon as the harsher light of the day became softer, dim, and gentle.
My plane got in late that afternoon, a storm above the Indian Ocean had held us back, and customs was a hassle too. My original driver had cancelled, waited there for two hours before driving away. I discovered that as soon as I finally emerged from the airport thirty minutes after he had abandoned me. I should have just stayed the night in the city before heading out to the site, hindsight is 20/20, but my colleague insisted that I be there for the morning meeting with the funding agency. They needed the elephant expert to make sure the foundation would finalize the contract. So, begrudgingly, I got a new driver and only thirty minutes later I was on my way, speeding westward and into the sunset.
An hour later, I figured that we were close to the site as the driver veered right off the highway onto a dirt road and deeper into the bush amidst the encroaching twilight. As the road disappeared behind us, the smoothness of the highway was swiftly replaced by violent thrashing, and, when I asked about it, the driver said that we were almost there. Thus, I braced myself, but each bump still threw my body around like a rag doll; I am kind of dainty, but I always felt like a badass being out in the field as a woman, especially when I first got into this business. My mother was horrified, kept saying I was going to die out in the field like the do-gooder in that Kundera novel that she had just read. I never listened though; I was blazing trails, bumpy ones that would become smoother for every woman that followed in my footsteps. I had to overcome a lot of fear to get to this point and I also knew that I had been incredibly fortunate.
Anyhow, the sun quickly disappeared as the headlights and the dirt road gradually became all that I could see. There was a red cloud of dust behind us too, until suddenly he stopped the car. The dust surrounded us in a nebulous shroud at first, but it settled soon afterwards, and the driver was just fidgeting around in the front seat. I figured that we had arrived. A lot of these places were barebones, and I figured that there had to be a reception center somewhere around there. I couldn’t see anything though, not yet at least, lights on in the car and the darkness out there. Given what I could see though, it looked like we were just sitting there in the middle of the bush, a few trees, but nothing else that I could discern in the shadows. I still felt secure though, not a tinge of anxiety rising yet. That is what a lot of the sites that I had been to throughout the years had looked like. I am usually just in the jungle and the people that I am meeting are just around the corner. That is how it would be here too, I thought.
Then he whipped it out, a handgun, and pointed it right at my face. He started barking orders, sputtering saliva as he did so, and my hands were shaking as I obeyed. I was unable to speak at first, moving slowly as I pushed my camera, my computer, almost everything up toward him. I tried to negotiate, begging for the clothing and toiletries, but he started shaking the gun at my face and screaming at me to get out of the car. All I got was a jug of water he threw at my feet once I was out of the vehicle. I guess that was a kindness.
I couldn’t stand there for more than ten seconds. My knees were suddenly boneless, and I fell to the ground as he hit the gas and drove away. The red light disappeared in the distance as night enveloped me. I did not know where I was, and I laid there on the ground, alone, sobbing uncontrollably. At some point my shrieking became sniffles. My eyes dried and I examined the darkness around me. I realized then that I had to find a way. I could sit there and die, or I could take my chances, roll the dice. I decided that I had to save myself, to make contact with people that might be out here. There had to be people somewhere. This was the cradle of life, after all, was it not? Thus, I stood up, breathed in deeply, and I marched forward into the unknown.
My eyes adjusted and the stars illuminated the savannah around me. There were sparse trees, an expanse of tall grasses, and not a single light in sight, other than the stars above, that is. Down here on Earth, all that I could see were silhouettes and shadows dancing in the breeze. However, after about an hour of wandering, I thought that I could see some high ground in the distance, dark against the night sky, and I veered left toward it.
I started climbing up the slope. It was rocky and there were thorny bushes lashing at my legs, tearing into my pants, and scratching at my skin until I reached the top. Then, as I looked around, I could see the landscape rolling endlessly around me. The sky was wider too and, forgetting the gravity of the situation, if only for a moment, it was actually breathtaking. I could have made a camp there, stayed the night. I could have done a lot of things differently in life.
I thought that I saw a light though, somewhere in the distance. It flashed like a shooting star, but it was on land. As it disappeared on the horizon, I knew that it had to be a car. There had to be a road out there, right in front of me. Then I saw another one, a similar pattern. Someone was going to find me. I knew it. I just had to be in the right place, at the right time, and there wasn’t a single moment to waste. My adrenaline surged, and I felt this burst of joy. I started running, galloping like a giddy antelope with a jug of water sloshing in my hand. I kept doing it too, a mile, maybe three, until I got tired. Then I just walked, constantly and in the same direction. I could feel the blisters on my feet, but I was going the right way. This would all be over in the morning and each sting just reminded me that I was still alive, blissful beneath the night sky and in the embrace of mother nature.
Then I stopped dead in my tracks. The sound came before I saw it, like a whisper in the wind at first until, seconds later, it grew louder and I recognized it. I froze immediately when I did, as if already touched by death, rigor mortis having in an instant overcome me, but I could still hear it. I thought that it was going to bite, and I didn’t know where to run. Thus, slowly, gently, I reached for the keys in my pocket. There was a light on them, a tiny one, and, still holding it tight against my hip, I scanned my surroundings until I located the source three feet away—an orange cobra with beady little eyes staring into me and hissing, its body cocked, neck flared, ready to strike. I stared into it too, prepared to run to the right, but I was too late. A spray emitted suddenly, and I could feel it on my face like the rain, but it was like acid in my eyes. I couldn’t even run two strides, more like steps as my mind shouted, “run, run, run!”, and my legs just sort of buckled and I dropped to the ground, literally screaming as the venom burned. It was blinding me, like burning coals, leaving me writhing in pain, shrieking, dust entering my mouth as I rolled around, seizing in chaotic agony.
I don’t know how long I was there, thrashing about mindlessly, screaming unintelligibly into the void. I just know that eventually I started shouting “my eyes” a couple of times in between fits of whimpering helplessly until I grew quiet. I could not see anything, and I was still in pain, but it was not mind numbing anymore at that point. Thus, I sat upright, feeling the ground around me, and I got pricked by a thorn on a bush as I reached around to assess my surroundings. At least the snake was not there.
Then, hoping that I had devised a solution, I pressed my fingers into my eyes, but they still stung, even worse after the pressure actually. A moment later, I opened them and there was still nothing. It was endless darkness and it just caused a stabbing pain throughout my head. I immediately closed my eyes again and slammed my fist into the dirt, howling in rage. I felt that there had to be something that I could do though, and I started screaming for help, wailing into the darkness. I was not sure whether I was calling death or an angel of mercy. I just wanted anything to make it stop. Then I just kept yelling, no, it was more like screeching, until I felt exasperated and I started hyperventilating. My nails collected dirt as I clawed at the ground, but everything that I did just felt like it made it worse.
Eventually, I just sat there, catatonic, probably blinded forever and alone in a desert from which I did not believe I would ever return. It hurt to cry, but I laid down and sobbed into my elbow, using it as a pillow. The ground was hard, cold, itchy, and unforgiving, but I had nowhere to go, nothing else that I could do. Gradually I drifted into a deep sleep. It was mostly dreamless, but I saw him. I had this dream often, me attempting to apologize, the words on the tip of my tongue as he walked around me, smiling, asking me to smile, always like a phantom. He was taking my portrait, hidden behind a camera, and then there was a flash. I had to shield my eyes, but I was going to introduce myself right afterwards, tell him everything. It all ended right there though, with a flash.