When I worked at Peace Corps headquarters in Washington, D.C., I was sometimes made the after-hours emergency-duty officer. I carried a beeper and a cellphone and a laminated list of important names and phone numbers. There were seven thousand Peace Corps volunteers out there, in the most remote places of the world, and if something bad were to happen to any one of them during the night, something tragic, I would take the call.
I never slept well on those nights, the beeper next to my pillow. When it went off, which was rare, the sound started low — a pulsing heartbeat — and got progressively louder until it became a high-pitched keening. My palms would sweat as I fumbled to turn it off and then called the Peace Corps’ phone emergency service to retrieve the message.
“Country director in Malawi requests immediate callback” was the message one time. “Volunteer dead.”
Two Peace Corps volunteers had just completed their service in Malawi and were leaving in three days to return to the United States. After celebrating with a few beers, they’d decided to take a late-night swim in a lake. One of them had drowned.
Thankfully I wasn’t the one to call her family; the Peace Corps director or a counselor from Special Services did that. A counselor once told me that the most important thing when calling the family of a dead volunteer was to say the word dead. Dead, dead, dead. They needed to hear it more than once; they needed it pounded in; they needed to register the reality of it.
When my mother called to tell me that my younger sister was dead, I was drunk. It was 5:23 in the morning. I had been to a Maceo Parker concert with my boyfriend, and I’d had one too many vodkas, then had come home around 4 A.M. and passed out, still in my boots, jeans, and leather jacket. The phone rang a ridiculous number of times — fifteen, twenty — and I was pissed that my answering machine didn’t pick up. The room was hazy with dawn light. My head pounded. Outside the window I could see the tops of the bare trees on the street below, fragile gray branches shivering in the wind.
When I saw my mother’s number on the caller ID, I sobered up instantly and answered the phone, prepared for terrible news. I could hear it in her voice, the way she said my name with sadness and a hint of fear.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, stiff and commanding. I wanted to know right away, whatever it was.
“Shelby’s been killed in a car accident,” she said in a cracked whisper.
I slapped my forehead and held my palm there against my skull, as if to keep the information in.
I had spent Christmas at my father’s house just two days before, and I’d talked to Shelby on the telephone. She was a Peace Corps volunteer in Mozambique, a place so far away it had been strange even to hear her voice.
“What’s Christmas like there?” I’d asked her.
“Hot as hell,” she’d said.
“Did you get any presents?”
“Shoes,” she’d said and giggled. “My boyfriend got me a pair of flip-flops.”
I could still hear her words in my ear. Surely my mother had misunderstood. A string of mix-ups had brought us to this moment.
“Are you positive?” I asked my mother. “Has this been verified?”
“Yes, honey,” she said.
I thought then of that Peace Corps volunteer floating on the surface of Lake Malawi. I imagined a bright moon, a starry sky. I thought of her family on the other end of the telephone, listening to that counselor say over and over again: Dead, dead, dead.
My self fractured at that moment. There was the me before my sister died, and then there was the me after she was dead. The me before was employed and deeply in love; the me after was jobless and alone. Well, I was not alone in the literal sense — I still had my boyfriend — but I was alone in my grief. It felt as if everyone I had ever known had taken ten steps back and narrowed their eyes at me, perplexed. I walked the streets and wondered what others saw: A woman in pain? A woman having a breakdown? A woman on the brink of suicide?
It was December 2001, three months after the terrorist attacks in New York City. While the country was consumed by that enormous public tragedy, I was overwhelmed by my own tiny, private one. I developed an obsession with my sister’s death, a crippling need to understand the minutiae of her suffering. This turned into an obsession with death in general, with the minutiae of anyone’s suffering, with the certainty of dying, the glaring possibility of it everywhere I turned. On the street, walking with a friend, I would think to myself, What if a car hit her right now? Her broken body would fly up and somersault through the air before crashing to the ground. In a restaurant, sitting across from my boyfriend, I’d think, What if a bullet smashed through the window and into his head? There would be blood and brains all over. Pumping gas made me think of fiery explosions; grinding blenders made me think of severed fingers.
The only way to quell this madness, I decided, was to learn every detail of my sister’s death, to answer every lingering question I had about what had happened to her that night. I knew this meant I’d have to go there — not just to Mozambique, but to the very place where she’d died. I would stand on that spot of earth, under the wide sky beneath which she took her last breath.
I arrive in Maputo in January 2004, a few days into the new year. It is the height of summer in Mozambique, and the air is sweltering. The sun feels close, a fireball in the heat-hazed sky. I am hoping to find my sister’s old boyfriend, Idasse, who was in the car with her that night and survived, but I know only his name and a few details about the accident — details he told my mother on the telephone, through tears and in heavily accented English; details I continue to dream about.
Maputo is a city of contradictions. It is poverty wrapped in beautiful landscapes. Multimillion-dollar high-rises stand among tin-roofed shacks; expensive hotels tower over shantytowns. There are barefoot children eating from trash dumpsters and legless men lying on sunny, tree-lined avenues.
I rent an apartment in a high-rise on the city’s eastern side, close to the ocean. From the east-facing window, I look off the edge of the continent: land crumbling into a sea that spreads wide, like the sweeping wing of a dove. To the west I can see where my sister lived: a yellow, dirt-smudged apartment building standing tall against the sky. At night I watch the lights of other people’s lives flicker in its windows, the human silhouettes inside. In daylight I walk past her door on my way to the market. On the wall beneath her window is some graffiti that says, “T-Baby,” in white paint. Wet laundry hangs from a line across her balcony, T-shirts and towels bleached white and clean.
When I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Bulgaria, I lived on the seventh floor of a dilapidated high-rise. From each corner of the building, close to the cracked cement roof, loudspeakers dangled like big, round eyes — remnants of communism. I sent Shelby a letter and four photographs that, placed side by side, formed a panoramic view of the town from my apartment window. You could see the schoolhouse where I taught, its pink paint chipped and peeling. You could see the cold, dirty streets that snaked through town, pools of white snow melting into black asphalt. You could see the misty, snowcapped mountains in the distance and a thick gray sky that hid the sun for weeks.
“Do you live in a dump?” Shelby wrote back. She was a student then at the University of North Carolina, a political science major. She loved Bill Clinton and wanted to be president, but would settle for the number-two position. “The country’s not ready for a female president,” she’d joke.
“It’s not a dump,” I wrote back, “but this is the Peace Corps. They don’t need us in Paris.”
Shelby had been the most popular girl in her high school, the same school I’d passed through like a ghost. She had long blond hair, flawless skin, crystal green eyes. She was the homecoming queen; I was the intellectual. She was the cheerleading captain; I was the nonconformist.
When she told me after college that she wanted to join the Peace Corps, I nearly passed out. Then she insisted on going to Africa.
“Are you crazy?” I asked her.
“Not at all,” she said.
The Peace Corps was about to launch a program in Mozambique and offered Shelby an assignment there. Because I worked at Peace Corps headquarters, I knew the trial-and-error way in which volunteers were thrust into what the agency called “new country entries.” I told her she shouldn’t subject herself to the unknown like that. I suggested she go to a country where the Peace Corps was more established.
“That’s so boring,” she said, rolling her eyes. “I want to be the first volunteer in a country. I want to be a pioneer.”
Shelby’s plan to go to Mozambique hit a snag when an allergy prohibited her from taking antimalaria medication. She wanted to go so badly, though, that she researched alternative remedies and wrote letters to every Peace Corps official whose address she could find, petitioning their approval until finally they relented.
On a chilly October morning, I watched her board a plane headed for that faraway continent and thought, She’ll never make it.
But I was wrong. My sister excelled at absolutely everything she did, whether it was being homecoming queen or teaching poverty-stricken African teenagers about the dangers of AIDS. Behind that conformist exterior, she was the true adventurer; she was the tough one.
I had been a terrible Peace Corps volunteer. Shocked by the poverty and the grim gray loneliness of Eastern Europe, I’d peeled myself out of bed every morning before dawn, walked with dread in the snow to the school where I taught, then slept for hours in the afternoons. I’d drunk excessively every night and smoked two packs of cigarettes a day.
My sister thrived in the Peace Corps. She was so successful that she extended her service in Mozambique for a third year so she could travel to other schools around the city of Maputo and establish AIDS-activist groups. She trained students to educate their peers about HIV. Together they organized concerts, created dance troupes, designed advertising campaigns, performed plays.
In a journal entry from January 2000 she writes: “Of the 1,500 students at the school where I teach, 19 percent of them are HIV-positive. I need to design a peer-education program to increase awareness. These young people must learn to modify their behavior. Maybe this is why God put me here: to teach them this?”
The summer before Shelby died, I went to Mozambique to visit her. We rented a cabin at a nature reserve across the border in Swaziland, and one dark, rainy night we sat together in makeshift bleachers overlooking a sand pit, where, a few hours earlier, the camp had put on a performance of tribal dances. Now the floodlights had been turned off and the bleachers cleared of tourists. It was just Shelby and I, a bottle of South African red wine, and whatever creatures — lions, leopards, Cape buffalo — inhabited the dark forest around us. It rained hard pellets of water against our faces, but we sat there anyway, passing the wine bottle between us, reaching out in the darkness and feeling around for each other’s rain-drenched hands.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I have this very strange feeling that I’ll never leave here. That I’m never coming home.”
I balked. “What?”
“I don’t know,” she said.
“But what about law school?” I asked.
“What about it?”
“Do you love it here that much?”
“Yes, but . . .”
“It’s more than that,” she said.
“What?” I said. “What is it?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “It feels like . . .” She paused for a sip of wine.
“What?” I asked. “What does it feel like?”
“Destiny,” she said.
I move about the city, searching for Idasse in nightclubs, bars, cafes, museums. I mark the places where Shelby and I went: The restaurant where we ate matappa. The market stall where we bought a marimba. The cafe where we watched the street artists paint. Soon every street becomes the street we walked down, every cafe the one where we sat together. Yet nothing is quite the same. The buildings feel hollow, the streets no longer sparked by her beauty. When she was alive, she escaped no one’s gaze. Even the shoeless, starving boys stopped and smiled at her. Now I am lost in the city’s motion and shuffle, the object of vacant stares.
One night I stumble upon a poetry reading in a dimly lit theater. A young girl steps up to the microphone, her hair in beaded braids that hang past her shoulders and over her chest. Her skin is black and smooth, brushed with a shimmering powder that makes her cheeks sparkle. Gold chains circle her slender neck. She holds a flimsy piece of yellow paper between ringed fingers and reads:
AIDS, I will not acknowledge you, Look your death in the face, A ghost, The devil. You take my parents, my village, My friends. AIDS, I close my eyes. I will not look at you.
In 1998, the year my sister arrived, ninety-eight thousand Mozambicans died of AIDS. Had they the means to bury their dead properly, there would have been 268 funerals a day. And still AIDS is the country’s best-kept secret. The word carries a private, silent curse. To speak of having AIDS is to accept a lonely, loveless death, curled on a cot in an overcrowded hospital ward or on a mat in the corner of an empty hut. To die of AIDS is to invite ridicule upon your family, to impart a social stigma to your friends. Many who are sick and days away from dying, their bodies covered in weeping sores, will say they have malaria, tuberculosis, the flu — anything but AIDS.
On a steamy, sticky afternoon, I visit one of the secondary schools where my sister taught. It is a deteriorating structure spread out across a field of red dirt. The classroom walls are made of cold, bare cement. The students sit in rickety chairs at rickety desks. The teachers write on pocked and scarred blackboards.
I am with Carlton, a man who knew my sister. “The best way to describe her,” he tells me, “is with the Tsonga word moya. It means ‘air, wind, spirit, soul.’ ” He has a thin beard and wears a pale blue shirt ironed to perfection. Later he stands before a classroom of students and talks about “confidence.” A young girl with short, spiky braids stands up and says that confidence is refusing your partner unless he wears a condom. She looks about thirteen. She sits back down, folds her hands in her lap, and smiles, proud of herself.
After class I join the students around a small wooden table and ask them about AIDS. There is some humor in their eyes as they speak. Discussions of AIDS mean discussions of sex, and this makes them shy, even though an estimated 70 percent of these students are having sex.
I ask a girl with enormous dark eyes and a coy smile if most of her friends use condoms.
“Of course not,” she says.
I ask her why.
“It’s about trust,” she tells me. “Asking your partner to wear a condom is an insult. It means you don’t trust him.”
I ask the three boys sitting near us if their friends use condoms. One is handsome and a little smug, with a broad, round face, long eyelashes, and straight white teeth.
“No,” he tells me with a smirk. “Nao se come a banana com casca.” You’d never eat a banana with the peel.
I ask him if his friends have one girlfriend? Two? Three? He giggles and looks around. “Muito,” he says. Many.
Afterward Carlton rattles off a string of statistics to me: There are two thousand students at the school. The average age is fifteen. By the year 2010 the average life expectancy in Mozambique will be just thirty. By the year 2030, he predicts, 37 percent of these students will be dead.
I wonder how my sister stayed focused in what must have felt like a sea of despair: so many deadly behaviors, so many minds to change.
On a breezy, clear Saturday night, I find my way downtown to Mambos, Maputo’s most popular dance club. The open-air disco is crowded with dancers gyrating under the stars. When I go to the bar for a drink, I find Idasse is the bartender. I recognize his face from pictures: those long, twisted dreadlocks and dark black eyes. When he sees me, he drops the glass he is holding, and it shatters on the floor.
“You look like her,” he says.
We hug awkwardly. The air around us seems suddenly sucked up by the pressing crowd of bodies. The heavy drumbeats vibrate in my chest, and the lights flash against Idasse’s cheeks.
“Meet me tomorrow night at Mundos Cafe,” he says. “Please. There are things I must tell you.” His face is too full of lines for a twenty-four-year-old. His eyes are tired, his mouth drawn tight.
I meet Idasse the next night at the same cafe where I once sat with Shelby. We sit in the same booth, the same neon Coca Cola sign hanging like a red halo above our heads. The heat is stifling, and I can feel myself sweating on the backs of my knees and neck.
We are silent at first. He sips his beer; I gulp my wine. His hand shakes as he takes a drag from his cigarette.
“We decided to drive through the night,” he tells me. “It was mostly the others’ idea; Shelby and I just went along. We were tired. We sat in the back. She put her head against my shoulder and fell asleep. I couldn’t sleep, so I watched the road. Jacob, the boy who was driving, seemed fine behind the wheel, but then things got quiet, and we picked up speed. I put my hand out the window to feel how fast we were going. ‘Don’t you think it’s a little fast?’ I said. But there was no response. I leaned forward and saw the speedometer at 160 kilometers per hour and getting faster. Jacob’s head dropped forward, and I figured he had fallen asleep. I hit him on the shoulder and said, ‘Hey, you awake?’ And that’s when he jerked the wheel, and we went off the road.”
Idasse cries as he speaks. Large, perfectly round tears seem to hover in the air before crashing onto his cheeks. He tells me how the car rolled eight times. He tells me how she screamed. He tells me how he tried to hold on to her. How she stayed inside the car with him almost to the end. How he can still remember the rush of air when she broke free. How when the car finally stopped, he knew that she was no longer in it.
He tells me how she said his name. How he found her beside the car and how she seemed as if she might be OK. He tells me how he tried to pick her up. How she cried because of the pain. How blood spilled from the back of her head and covered his feet. How he left her and ran for help. How when he returned, he found her dead.
“I have to go there,” I tell him.
“I can take you,” he says. “I know the place. I’ve seen it in my sleep ever since the accident.”
I leave Idasse and walk home, drunk on wine and reality. The city pulses with heat. I stand on a vacant corner and stare up at the moon. This is the same moon Shelby and I slept beneath as kids, I tell myself. The sun is the same sun we woke to. I imagine my sister’s spirit hovering above me, an imprint in the air’s fabric, a snow angel on the sky.
As children Shelby and I had an elaborate, two-story dollhouse. It had two living rooms, a large kitchen, and a wide foyer with spiral stairs. We spent endless afternoons furnishing it with doll-sized versions of household items: tiny plates, knives, and forks; tiny pillows, cushions, and chairs; tiny televisions and telephones. We had plastic people we moved through the rooms: a mother, a father, a daughter, a son, a little plastic dog. With each small detail we added to the house, their lives became more real. The children aged. Things happened that changed them. We saw them through their days and weeks. At night they wandered into my dreams. They were so much a part of my consciousness that even now, as I write this, they seem real.
Thomas Lynch, who has written many essays about his job as a funeral director, says that human beings need to see their dead. Without a body before our eyes, our mind has a hard time believing a person is gone. After Shelby’s death, I saw only a sealed box the size of my two hands, containing her ashes. I was left to imagine my sister’s lifeless body there on the side of a lonely South African road, her blood soaking into the vampire earth.
Shelby’s body lay in the hospital morgue for several days before our parents gave word that she was to be cremated — a decision Mother dropped into a conversation she and I were having about logistics.
“Wait,” I said to her. “We should all think hard about this.”
“It’s the best way,” she told me. “We don’t want to see her like that.”
“I might,” I said, though I was not at all sure. “I might want to see her one last time.”
“It’s too late,” Mother said.
After the funeral in Florida, my older sister Stacy and I took a plane together back to Washington, D.C. In our carry-on bags we each had a small alabaster box with a teaspoon of our sister’s remains inside. Mother had given them to us — a strange but thoughtful gift. At first I could barely stand to hold mine. Then I couldn’t set it down. I carried it throughout my mother’s house. I slept with it. I was tempted to pry it open to find out how she smelled, what color she might be.
At the airport I passed through the metal detector, then stood by the conveyor belt and watched my bag get pushed along under the X-ray machine. At the other end I picked the bag up and hung it from my shoulder, acutely aware that my baby sister was inside.
Meanwhile Stacy was detained by a female security officer with a beeping wand. I could see Stacy peeking restlessly over the officer’s shoulder as her bag moved ahead without her. The conveyor belt jerked, then stopped with a jolt. Stacy’s bag fell over, and her sunglasses, hairbrush, and alabaster box tumbled out across the belt.
Stacy pushed past the officer in a panic. Everyone stopped. I fumbled with her bag, her things, her box. I imagined it breaking open and my sister’s remains rising into the air in a ball of dust, covering bags, people, everything, like the fallout from an explosion, grains of bone raining down.
A bleary-eyed officer sauntered over and asked me what was wrong. I explained to him honestly, one human being to another, that our sister was dead and we were returning from the funeral and weren’t quite ourselves; Stacy was worried about her tipped bag because of this tiny alabaster box filled with our sister’s ashes.
I expected the man to step aside kindly, in honor of the tragedy before him, but instead he paused, tilted his head, and asked me if I had the proper authority to transport human remains.
He had the look of a man bored with his existence.
I stared at him, wordless, and my eyes flooded with tears. This isn’t really happening, I said to myself.
The officer soon lost interest in us, and I took our bags and went into the bathroom to vomit. Then I boarded the plane.
On a warm February afternoon, Idasse and I cross the South African border and drive down the N1, a flat black road that runs through the town of Bloemfontein and continues south toward Richmond. The sun has begun its slow descent toward the horizon. Wispy copper-colored clouds curl across the sky, and tall grasses sway in the silent, hot wind. Colorful shrines mark the places where others have died: a wooden cross painted pink and blue, a wreath of gold, glittering tinsel. Idasse goes back over the story once more.
They took an early-morning bus: Shelby and Idasse; their friend Jacob; Jacob’s sister Beth; and his father, Richard. Richard and Beth were visiting from Chicago and wanted to ring in the new year on the beach at South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, the southernmost tip of the continent and a popular New Year’s Eve destination — Africa’s Times Square. Shelby had never been to Cape Town, a paradise on the ocean, and was ecstatic at the opportunity. Her voice held happy disbelief when she told me about it on the phone Christmas Day.
“Can you believe I’m going to Cape Town?” she said. “That I’ll begin the new year on a Cape Town beach?”
They had a plan: they would take a bus from Maputo to Johannesburg, then stay the night in a hotel, rent a car, and drive south the next day. But plans failed to go as scheduled: Just over the border from Mozambique their bus broke down. They waited two hours on the side of the road for another one. When they reached Johannesburg it was 7 P.M. and already dark. They rented a car and drove to a cafe for dinner. Jacob suggested they cancel the hotel and drive through the night. He offered to drive the entire way. He swore he wasn’t tired.
Did they know that Cape Town is 1,400 kilometers from Johannesburg — almost 900 miles? Did they know how dark that road would be once they were outside of Johannesburg, how the lights of the city would fade and the open, empty landscape would surround them with blackness? Did they know they would be driving down a highway known for its traffic fatalities, one of the deadliest roads in the world?
Idasse scans the fields, searching for landmarks he remembers from that night: a fence, a ditch, a certain bend in the road. We are mostly quiet, tense with nervousness, and I feel frightened, irrationally so, as if we might find my little sister there, still dying in the dirt.
“Here,” Idasse says. “Pull over. This is the spot.”
He knows it by the tall windmill before us, rotating silver against the setting sun. Beyond the windmill are hundreds and hundreds of sunflowers waving in the wind, their black centers like eyes.
We park, get out, and stare at the ground. Idasse finds a piece of rubber buried in the grass and picks it up as if it belonged to him. He is straining to fight back tears. Neither of us knows what to do. I scan the earth for signs of life, of death, of tragedy, but there are only musty, colorless grasses that crackle like fire beneath our feet when we walk.
“Where’s the fence?” he keeps asking himself. He is sure the car hurdled a fence at some point — on the final roll, he thinks, the one that threw my sister through the rear windshield. But there is nothing except the monotony of grass and the wide, darkening sky.
“A curve,” he says. “I could have sworn there was a huge curve up ahead.” But the road stretches flat and straight before us, like a taut string.
“I’m sorry,” Idasse says when he realizes the scene is not as he described to me. “I thought . . .” He looks deep into the landscape for those details his memory promised.
“Perhaps this isn’t the spot,” I suggest.
“No, this is it,” he says, pointing to the windmill and then to the ground. “This is where she was.”
I stop asking Idasse questions, because each time I do he tells me something different. First he says she was alive for nearly five minutes, and I imagine the slow swell of her brain pressing against her skull. Then he says she died almost instantly, and I imagine a brief grimace of pain followed by quiet calm. Each time the story changes, my mind pushes one image aside to make room for another, but try as I might, no image is ever erased. My mind has become a kaleidoscope of my dying sister.
And so we stand here together, passing Idasse’s memory between us like a piece of moist clay that we mold and shape. “She said my name,” he tells me. “She recognized me.” And I remember how Shelby and I called each other “sissy.” “My sissy,” we always said, in letters, on the telephone, in my mind as I stand here staring at the empty ground.
“No,” he says, “not my name; it was all gibberish, what she said. But she was right here, right beside the car.” And I remember a summer day my sister and I hiked the rocky cliffs of Virginia’s Old Rag Mountain, and somewhere near the top Shelby said, “What’s your advice on being a good Peace Corps volunteer?” and I said, “Immerse yourself in the culture. Pretend you were born there. Become one of them.”
“I had to run to her,” he says. “I had to run to her, and it was difficult because my knee was broken. When I got to her, I thought she looked OK; there was only a small scratch on her cheek.” And I remember the night we drank wine in the rain at the Swaziland nature reserve. The next morning I woke at dawn and bent down to her ear. “The lions are waiting for us,” I whispered. The pale skin around her mouth was peeling from the Retin-A cream she used to ward off wrinkles, though the rest of her face was a flawless landscape of white mist. “Let the lions wait,” she said. “I’m sleepy.”
“She was so injured,” Idasse says. “She had so many broken bones. I remember that both of her wrists were broken. The bones,” he says, “poked out, white in the night. Her little hands were crooked and bent.”
And I remember us sitting in church as children, Shelby and I together in the back pew. We played hangman on a slip of paper placed strategically in a psalmbook. We played rock-paper-scissors on the velvet seat cushion. On the drive home we held hands in the back of the car. I pressed my fingers into her palm, quick pulses, like Morse code. She pressed back. Our own secret language.
And I realize that I will never know the truth, that Idasse will never know with any certainty how things happened that night. We have only memory — fragmented, orphaned images of past experience — and words, and fragile, vague hopes.
But we stand here anyway. We stand here for what feels like days. We are still standing here when the last red spark of the sun drops below the horizon, and the sky goes black.