“I Slept Well If You Slept Well” by Alison Condie Jaenicke

II. Black Mamba

I left first, drove out of town the day after high school graduation in 1980 to live at the beach for the summer with four girlfriends, then headed off to college that fall, hardly looking back, leaving Andrea to finish three years of high school without me (and assuming that neither of us really cared about the split). Ever since then, it’s been her leaving me behind.

When Andrea called to say she’d received her Peace Corps assignment, she already lived more than a thousand miles away from me, so I didn’t imagine that her move to Africa would change much between us. Her school schedule—three months teaching, one month off—would give her lots of time to travel, and it would give me a chance to visit her in a new place. By traveling to Zimbabwe, I would be a hanger-on, a spectator. I knew I didn’t have it in me to do what she was doing. She seemed tough, fearless, reckless, while I was sensitive, careful, and methodical. What made me look for post-college jobs only in our hometown, while she didn’t hesitate to take work in New Orleans, Zimbabwe, and later San Francisco? For her, it seemed, the farther away from home the better. Meanwhile, I hated the idea of missing out on doings in my family and friend circles, my stable base. Visiting her in romantic and exotic places to catch some of her juju?—of course. Live there myself?—nah.

So when Ted and I arrive at the airport in Harare and see her up on the sun-baked rooftop deck, jumping up and down, waving her arms, hot pink bougainvillea as a backdrop, I am surprised at the intensity of love that zaps me, surprised by her tears and her trembling hands. I am happy to be the family ambassador, the one who bridges the gap between home and here.

On our first full day in Zimbabwe, it takes four hitchhiked rides to get us to Lake Kariba, four hours and 365 kilometers from the capital. Andrea has been able to arrange every other leg of our three-week journey, all but this one missing puzzle piece, so we trust her when she tells us that other Peace Corps volunteers have done it safely.

A restless night’s sleep hardly salves our queasy jet-lagged exhaustion, but we’re up early, dressing in sweaters, shorts and hiking boots (too big to squeeze into our packs). We follow Andrea into the chilly morning air and catch a taxi from Harare’s center to its edge, past just-emerging jacaranda buds, promise of purple confetti.

At the bus stop, black locals cluster near the sign, so we remove ourselves 20 yards to a curb in front of a spindly red poinsettia bush. Andrea knows that no white driver will stop for us if we don’t separate; she knows that whites will only pick up whites, and to a lesser extent blacks will only pick up blacks. She knows the signals. If you want a ride, you hold your arm out slightly from your body while quivering your hand. Drivers have different signals for “turning off soon,” “no room,” “so sorry,” and “just staying around town.”

No hand sign seems to exist for “I cannot pick you up because I am white and you are black,” so our first driver does not gesture as he passes up the many blacks with quivering hands and stops for us. “I’m only going a short distance,” he says. “Your direction?”

“Kariba,” Andrea replies.

He reaches back and opens the door. We pile in with our rucksacks and ride only long enough to learn his profession: charter airline pilot. Then we are roadside again, hands aflutter. Andrea smokes while we wait, I bite my fingernails, and Ted examines a map, trying to memorize the route between here and there, to predict how far the next ride might take us. My hair is still wet from the shower, so I rake it with my fingers, then tie my rolled bandana around my head to hold it back. I marvel at how little fear I feel over hitchhiking here, while at home it would seem too dangerous to ever consider.

The second ride comes from a young guy in a pickup. “I can’t take you all up front,” he says, “but I’ve got the covered bed.” Ted and Andrea hop into the back. I’m alone on the bench seat with the guy, who shoves aside newspapers and contraptions to make room. When I ask what he does, he tells me he’s an architect from Harare. When I tell him I’m from DC, he says he’s traded for American snakes with a guy from DC, has been to the Moscow Zoo to trade snakes, has traveled the world with snakes. I turn to look through the small glass window to the back. Andrea and Ted wave, and the architect laughs. “I don’t have any snakes with me, if that’s what you’re wondering. Over 150 snakes in my house, though.”

I ask about snakebites, and he tells me his worst was from a black mamba, one of the deadliest snakes around. “Watch out for it,” he says, “It sleeps in hollow trees, rock crevices, empty termite mounds. And don’t be fooled by the name. It’s not actually black. It’s brownish-gray with a light belly. The name comes from the purple-black lining of its mouth.” I learn that it can grow to 14 feet and can travel up to 12 mph. Before antivenins, a black mamba bite was 100% fatal.

I have picked up a long, scuffed black rod with a pistol grip handle. I squeeze, and the jawed tongs at the other end clack open and closed. He glances over. “That would be useless in handling a mamba, by the way,” he says.

We pass clumps of cotton along the road, fields of winter wheat, and a small mountain ridge, which he tells me is called “The Dike.” Union Carbide mines chrome in the hills, he says. He continues with details, but my mind is on the mamba, with a body that can rear up to strike the neck of a man and a head shaped like a coffin.

Later in our trip, we join others on a land safari at Hwange Game Preserve, leave the lodge early to ride around in an open-backed Jeep to search for zebra and elephant, eland and steinbock, giraffe and cheetah. Midday, we rest in the shade while the animals do the same.

Baboons circle the enclosure, leering. We wait for the sun to relent. Skulls and horns hang from trees and posts—white bones of buffalo, kudu, antelope. I ask our guide to take a picture of the three of us under the biggest skull. Andrea, Ted, and I lean together and smile, and as we walk back to retrieve the camera, the guide gasps, points—a black mamba has emerged from a hollow in the trunk, slithered the other way and outside the enclosure. Before we can register fear, feel the danger in our stiffened backbones and quickened pulses, he has passed into legend and we are climbing back into the Jeep, counting our lucky stars.

The above photograph is courtesy of the author. Please visit the accompanying photo gallery for more images from the trip.

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Recognized as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2016! The full essay may be read in Isthmus issue no 4, go here to order a copy.

Alison Condie Jaenicke teaches writing and literature at Penn State University, where she also serves as the Assistant Director of the Creative Writing Program and faculty advisor for the student literary magazine, Kalliope. Alison’s stories and essays have earned prizes from the Knoxville Writers’ Guild and the National League of American Pen Women, and her writing has appeared in such publications as Superstition Review; Gargoyle Magazine; Brain, Child; Literary Lunch; and Literary Mama. Please visit her website: alisoncjaenicke.weebly.com.

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