I often imagine killing. Or if not killing, beating my victim bloody. I am not a particularly creative sadist; I prefer hair pulling, eyeball gouging, scratching. I like weapons like rocks and sticks that, placed efficiently against a nose or eyebrow, encourage a spurt of blood. Bone crunching is what I want. Yes, give me a good old-fashioned stoning over tar-and-feathering or even a quick lynching any day. Unlike men who beat their wives, I get no thrill from pummeling soft tissue unless of course it’s to grab and squeeze the testicles. Though, I admit, I wouldn’t be averse to kicking a guy in the stomach a couple of times if he were down.
I imagine this is what my father is afraid of when he tearfully embraces my husband on the day we leave the United States for Rwanda. Take care of her he whispers. I imagine this is what my husband is thinking when he offers to go with me that day to visit a friend.
Propped on one elbow in bed, his index finger marking a place in a book, the ubiquitous cigarette pressed between his lips, he inhales and exhales loudly sending a stream of smoke into the air. He looks at me through the mosquito net.
“Not necessary,” I say and twist into my backpack.
In the compound behind the house, I wheel my bike to the steps, lift it, set the bar on my shoulder and trip up the steps to the road. I step on the pedal until its twin spins to the top of the arc and swing my leg over.
Pass the line of bamboo fence to the end of my road, left to the low road, pass the Catholic church, around the curve marked by the kiosk with the new Coke sign, pick up speed down the straight away into the valley cross hatched with bean fields and a couple of huts, dinner fires already spreading a haze. Like scars, ridges and gullies cut the road marking the paths of the water during the rainy season. I brake and maneuver to keep my front tire from tracking into the slots.
At the bottom of the hill, on the side of the road lined with sunflower bushes as tall as an elephant, two men walk. As I rumble toward them, they fade toward the center of the road. Now they are blocking my path and one of them holds his hand out as if to shake mine. Strangely enough, this gesture seems within the realm of normalcy. The herd of children who hover around whenever I walk play a game of counting coupâ€“who can touch the ghost girl? Even the bent over old men and women, resting on walking sticks, shake the tips of my fingers and ask, in their politeness, where I am going.
So I lean left to clear these two characters, but they follow. For one second, I consider rushing them. But in that second, one of them unsheathes a machete from the front of his torn and dirty khaki shorts. He stretches as he draws the blade up with both hands, and I see his taut stomach and the dark path of hair leading back into his shorts.
The other man jumps toward me waving his hands in the air. They have me surrounded. At the last moment before he would have been lifted on to the front wheel of my bike, I give up and brake. The abrupt stop throws me off the seat, one pedal scrapes my shin as I bobble around trying to find my balance, and the waver catches me by the handlebars.
I imagine these will be the men who drag me into the bushes lining the road. The bushes will hide them, and me, and the lush sunflowers will turn their faces away in shame as these men tear at my t-shirt and jeans and pry my legs apart.
The bike falls to the ground between my legs, and I step away. I consider running for it, but one of them smells my hesitation and in a move as graceful as any ballerina, steps behind me and curls his arm around my neck until he has me in a half-nelson. I smell the smoky flavor of banana beer and feel the heat of his breath on the nape of my neck.
Twisting around, I am staring over the head of this little man at a thousand hills undulating into the distance. Looking down, down, down I stare into the eyes of a pygmy. I am being raped and pillaged by a pygmy. At about five feet tall, he seems to be living out a small man’s fantasy. He postures like Claude Van Damme in a B movie, pulling back on my neck to keep me off balance. On tip toes, he is still a good foot shorter than me. A film of perspiration dampens his forehead. His lips tremble. Below his leaf strewn afro, his eyes shine, and in that light, I see fear.
When I realize my advantagesâ€“size and psychologyâ€“my own Ninja fantasies kick in. With choreographed violence, karate chopping my way through their evil intentions, I will pummel their faces, my arms working like the blades of a wind mill in Kansas, until they cower in the dirt, begging for mercy. I lift my berkenstocked foot andâ€¦but wait. I am a lady, so I let them scramble up and scamper away, proverbial tails tucked between their legs.
By now, I have twisted out of Claude Van Damme’s embrace. When I turn to face him, he holds up his hands and speaks soothingly in a low voice, a man obviously used to working with bovines: “Ça va, Madam, ça va.” The other man stands motionless, machete dangling limply in his hand. I can see it was all for show; they don’t really want to hurt me. The Van Damme pygmy approaches, cautiously, as if attempting to trap a goat. I think about running for it again and look down at his bare feet. No arch and the toes fat as grubs. He can obviously outrun me. Better to stay and deal. He makes a motion to frisk me, feeling for a wallet but I step back and pull my pockets inside out. I shake my head. See? No money. He reaches a crooked finger toward the neck line of my t-shirt and peers into the hollow there. “No!” I slap hand to sternum, clamping my shirt shut, not realizing he is looking for the common purse-on-a-string carried by many Americans.
“No money,” I say. “Take the bike,” I gesture behind them. They discuss their options. Van Damme picks up the government issued Trek Antelope 18 speed bike and test drives it. But in the end, they decide against it. It would be impossible to sell and they know they can not ride it around without someone confronting them.
At about this junction in the road, a third man walks by. He pauses for a moment to watch as the two robbers strip me of my backpack and set to searching through it. He continues on his way though his head oscillates until he can see no more of the action and he must look ahead to where he is going.
As they rifle through the pack, setting aside the smashed bananas and the literary criticism text I am taking to my friend, I slide my left hand into my pocket and conspicuously try to remove my wedding ring. My hands are warm and swollen. Machete Man catches on and grabs my wrist, wrenching my hand out of my pocket. White gold sparkles like heavenly angels singing on high.
“No way. That’s my wedding ring!”
He nods and smiles. “A gift from your husband? Very pretty.” He lifts my hand to show his friend. They nod and chatter perhaps discussing craftsmanship or cost. At any rate, they are convinced that I have no money.
Van Damme picks up my bike, points it in the direction of home and steadies it while I swing a leg over. They take turns shaking my hand, and like a father teaching his daughter to ride, Van Dam gives me a gentle shove off. “Merci, Madam. Au Revoir!” Even in crime, Rwandans maintain that sheer veneer of social custom that dictates civilization.
They had expected me to have a roll of money, as any self-respecting white woman living a life of leisure would have. They must have wondered at their luck that day as they hurried away from the scene of the crime, when the only umzungu woman to wander by carried empty pockets, and nothing more.
I teeter up the hill, holding the literary criticism text in one hand and the backpack in the other. The mashed bananas are just heavy enough to cause the pack to sway. In front of me, the man who had watched the episode as if we were a soap opera, ambles along the side of the road and as I pass, I cuss at him in English.
Moving at about the same speed, we approach a drainage ditch that had been plowed across the road to direct the water. I pull up on the handlebars, thinking I will pop a wheelie and jump the narrow canal. But the book and the backpack weigh me down; I don’t have the strength. The front wheel rolls into the ditch and for a second, I hang, suspended there. Then the bike and I fallâ€“ever so slowly–thud, like the old geezer on Laugh In who could never master his tricycle. Dust explodes around me, and the man walks past without looking back.
After that, whenever I see a man carrying a machete, my heart hammers and my face flushes. I am in a constant state because most men and all the women in Rwanda carry machetes. Still they are the gentlest thieves I could have imagined, and I like to think that I became a legend, that day, in their own little circle, the way they have become a legend in mine.