|MAE JEMISON CHEEKS by Jeff H|
She sits, head bent toward the carpet, as Pierre takes his seat. She can only think of him as Pierre—not as “president” or “general” or even “tyrant.” He is just Pierre; he does not deserve a title.
“Hello, little girl.” Pierre does not lift a hand, but he flashes Margaret a smile which shows off his straight, white teeth. Pierre is tall, and he carries his weight well. He has short-cropped hair with a little white around the temples. He wears a doubled breasted Zhongshan tunic, or Mao suit--perhaps a bit hot for this latitude, but it is his trademarked look. On three fingers Pierre sports gold rings. On the top of his head, gold sunglasses flash.
Margaret makes no reply. She is not a girl, but she is small. Her frame is both the result of small genetics and poor nutrition. Her skin is the same dark tone as Pierre’s, and her hair is also cropped short. When addressed Margaret places her hands into the pockets of her dress, which is a shapeless thing made of earth-toned, crosshatched cloth. This the traditional clothing of her people, except for the pockets. The pockets are a recent touch.
Pierre chuckles. “Not going to look at me, little girl?” he asks.
Margaret looks up at Pierre for several seconds, then returns her eyes to the carpet. The carpet is purple with a repeated yellow shield. Behind each shield are two spears, and below the spears a scroll, completing the seal of their country. Inside her pockets Margaret’s hands fidget.
“Oh good, good! Here I thought you were scared!”
Pierre’s chair is an arm’s length away. He does not quite face Margaret, but rather a television camera, just as Margaret does. To the left of the camera a technician stands adjusting a soundboard, and behind him another technician adjusts cables. To the right two soldiers stand with rifles in hand. Pierre, to the soldiers: “A Coca-Cola for me!”
A soldier leaves the room. Pierre slides his golden sunglasses down over his eyes. Margaret wears no jewellery, though she does draw the eye under the halogen lights; her Mae Jemison cheeks sparkle. Though she is not smiling, the shine give her a mischievous air.
The soldier returns and places a glass-bottled Coca-Cola in Pierre’s waiting hand. “I know you boycott foreign companies,” Pierre explains as he drinks through a bent straw, “otherwise I would have offered. I’m not a complete monster.”
An assistant puts lapel mics on both Pierre and Margaret.
The producer calls “Ready in two!”
The moderator glances at his notes and the camera operator adjusts the camera.
And slowly, Margaret sits up. Her face now shows its other notable feature: a thick scar, running from one corner of her mouth, past her chin and down half her neck. In the halogens it too shines.
Pierre takes another gulp from his Coca-Cola and then sets it on the floor. He points to Margaret’s chin. “Attacked by a dog,” he states. “I do my homework.”
Margaret’s head dips slightly. In her pockets her hands go faster.
“When you were eight. And scared to death of them ever since!”
This time Margaret’s head does not move. She thinks Pierre will talk about dogs now. He’s often photographed around cars with his famous trio, all a cross between the African Boerboel and the Perro de Presa Canario, or Canary Island Mastiff. The results are three immense animals which Pierre likes to say are the first original dogs the continent has ever seen. “Our new national symbols!” As authentic to our country as sweet potato and honeyed goat!”
Never mind, thinks Margaret, that the ancestors of those dogs still came from Europe, as the Boerboel’s name attests. Though lounging with dogs by Jeeps or in pools is authentic in a way; the only cars in the country are owned by foreigners, and clean water is a luxury even harder to come by. Pierre has profited handsomely at the hands of his people, but with reference to the game he loves so much, isn’t he historically just par for the course?
Pierre drops the subject of dogs for now. “I always do my homework, and you know why?”
Margaret speaks. “Why?”
“One minute!” The producer shouts.
“Little girl, I have been ruling since before you were born, and that does not come from carelessness. And, with God’s blessing, I will continue to rule long after you are gone. ‘Ignore her!’ my men told me. ‘Do not talk to her! She is as stupid as her dog scar is ugly!’ They said you were beneath me, and you are beneath me, but I know I can’t ignore you and your protests much longer. Pests like you… little flies like you, they have a habit of getting bigger and bigger; I know this. It is the media and internet age, after all, no? So I do my homework, and so I invite you, little fly, here.”
Margaret is silent. “Places!” comes the call.
“My men, they said, ‘She only eats traditional food, and she only wears traditional clothes. She comes from the villages where they have no electricity. So just kill her, do not invite her onto television!’ They do not understand what I understand though. Some people like those foods and clothes. And sometimes it is best to let a fool speak and demonstrate that they are a fool, rather than swat a fly and run a risk. I do not want a martyr, and one named after that horrible Ekpo woman at that. So instead we shall chat, and I will let you show the world the true jungle person that you are.”
The overhead lights dim and the halogens brighten. Pierre’s sunglasses throw the light in every direction. He is wearing jewels over his eyes.
Margaret’s cheeks and scar gleam. There is sweat on her brow, and in her pockets her fingers twirl.
The camera operator and the man behind the soundboard give thumbs-up. The producer yells “Action!” A moderator introduces the two debaters. Pierre begins.
He starts by saying that he is a man “who needs no introduction,” though still he rattles off his various titles. As he talks he looks directly at the camera and grins. He says that the country is better off now than before he took office--that is why he has won so many re-elections with near unanimous results! He talks about investments that are coming in from other countries, and how all of the wealth will spread. He talks about how reports that he made journalists “disappear” are not true. “I’m not a magician,” he laughs, “and I have no rabbit or black hat!” Additionally, the rumours that the villagers in the jungle have died after eating government-provided food are not true either. “The land may have valuable hardwood, but I’m not a poisoner,” Pierre explains. “Jungle people eat dirt, so we should not be surprised when they get sick from it!”
After a while it is Margaret’s turn to speak, but the president has not finished. The moderator does not tell him to stop.
“You know me,” Pierre continues, “and I know how to bring us prosperity. But do you know her? She is just a small girl. Her house does not have electricity and she’s never been to school. Can she bring in business and money? She is foolish, and so are the people who follow her. Listen to her talk now, and see if she can say anything clearly at all!”
As Pierre finishes a soldier steps out of the room. The air is silent for a moment, and then the moderator turns towards Margaret. Now she can confront Pierre with the accusations that, for the last year, she has been making against him at rallies and through backroom newspapers. She clears her throat.
And the soldier who left returns.
He is leading three dogs. They are even more immense in person than in the pictures. When Pierre sees the trio he slaps his thigh and they come and sit at his feet. Margaret’s lips tighten.
“Sorry for the interruption,” Pierre says to the camera. “It is shameless, I know, to bring my pets out here, but they are as much a symbol of our nation as sweet potato and delicious honeyed goat! Everyone loves them, I am sure, including Margaret here, so I don’t think anyone will mind!”
Pierre lowers his sunglasses and winks.
Margaret shoots one hand to the scar on her chin. Her eyes are glued to Pierre’s dogs. They have huge heads--bigger than Margaret has ever seen. Their shoulder muscles ripple. Their tails are long and they do not wag. Two dogs look up at Pierre, while one looks over at Margaret and yawns. The yawn reveals massive teeth and a throat that goes back forever.
Margaret is still silent. The camera rolls as she lowers her arm and sticks both of her hands further into her dress pockets.
And then she stands up.
“Hey!” Pierre says as he leans forward, “Are you leaving now? Did you forget what you came here to say?” And then, in a voice as sweet and as sticky as the glaze he likes to mention oh-so-much: “Perhaps, little girl, you should have stayed out of the city.”
Margaret clears her throat. “I will pet your dogs.”
“Oh?” Pierre adjusts his sunglasses.
She steps forward, then kneels. Margaret comes nose-to-nose with the first dog. It gives a low growl and looks up at Pierre, but he gives no signal so it returns to the small form in front of it. Its hair bristles. Margaret pulls her hands out of her dress to reveal dog treats shaped like wishbones. Margaret wastes no time in dropping the first wishbone towards the dog’s face. The treat is snapped out of the air and a series of quick bites is pulverized.
The dog’s hair falls flat.
Margaret drops it two more treats, and then tosses three treats each to the other two symbols of Pierre’s regime. As the pets lick their lips Margaret reaches out and touches the shaggy head closest to her. A pat for the next head, a pat for the third, and Margaret pulls her hand back. She has pet Pierre’s dogs.
Margaret returns to her seat. “I, too, do my homework.”
A beat passes, and then Pierre sweeps a long arm out. “Begin,” his hand seems to say, “and with my blessing.”
The tilted head and shining teeth, however, say something quite the opposite.
Margaret begins. “I do not have a lot to say. Many of you know what I stand for, and those of you who don’t will know soon enough. For now though I want to talk about flies. There are flies in the cities, and flies in the jungle. They are little creatures, like me. And to big people, little flies like me are hardly anything but a bother. But flies, like mosquitoes, can carry diseases which can be quite deadly.
Pierre laughs. Margaret takes a deep breath and continues.
“Someone once told me that swatting flies runs a risk. But flies are just little things, so when is this true? Well, a fly that gives speeches is hard to swat. And a fly that teaches is even harder to swat. If a fly shows that a big man is still just a man--a human who cries like any other--then that fly can become a symbol. A symbol is an immortal idea, and so even if a fly is swatted other people can take up that idea, and-—”
A dog coughs, and loudly. Margaret changes the topic, speaking quickly.
“We all know the jequirity plant. In the village I come from we sew its bright red bean into bracelets and necklaces, and we used it to decorate our drums. Those same beans also yield a dangerous poison. Historically it has been used on the ends of spears to make weapons for hunting and war. ‘Abrin’ is the name of the poison, and anyone from the jungle would recognize signs of abrin poisoning as much as they would recognize a tree or the face of their own mother.”
All the dogs are coughing now. One starts to whimper.
“This poison was used against us in the villages. It was put into food, given as relief from starvation. People who had nothing were killed because why? Because of the land-—”
Pierre shouts above his dogs’ whining.
“Ha! What garbage! No one did any such thing, and how could they? To put jequirity toxin on sticks is one thing. But can it even be put into food? That I highly doubt!”
“It can be put into food,” Margaret says quietly. She opens her mouth to say more, but as one of Pierre’s dogs tries to stand its legs give out. An ear-splitting howl fills the room.
Pierre finally notices. He bolts out of his chair. “What have you done to my dogs?”
“Nothing you have not done to our people.”
A second dog howls, and a third tries to, but something is caught in its throat. Red froth begins to pour out of its mouth.
The producer yells directions as soldiers scramble. Pierre’s face begins to tremble. “I’ll kill you for this,” he hisses at Margret. “Our national symbols!”
A shrug. “Symbols go and symbols come.”
The camera continues to roll. Pierre rushes from dog to dog, all of which are seizing. A soldier knocks over Pierre’s chair and nearby stand and the Coca-Cola bottle falls to floor, shattering. As the dogs cough up more and more blood the purple-and-gold carpet turns red. The room is loud with shouting. A soldier slips on the spilled soda and falls. While trying to still his dogs Pierre’s right hand is bit. The dog’s jaw locks, crushing Pierre’s fingers, and he lets out a shrill yell.
And amid the chaos Margaret sits motionless, head bent upward. Her Mae Jemison cheeks sparkle. She looks extra mischievous, because for the first time in over a year she is smiling.
Her scar hardly shows at all.