Natife, pedaling hard on the borrowed mountain bike, turned onto Old Cross Road and found himself surrounded by a fluttering mass. Wind slid between trunks and branches, coaxing and catching unaware the leaves that leapt from trees like red and gold birds. If he were in charge of the seasons Natife could not have achieved a more admirable effect. It reminded him of the end of summer at home—the burning grasslands, the knobby domes of anthills remaining for memory’s sake on the scarred land.
He was resplendent, this tall young man in a silky fuschia tracksuit, a gift from the aunts in Chicago upon his arrival from Nigeria. Fiery autumn light slanted across Natife, flickering on and off as he rode between the thinning trees. Occasionally he passed through a darker grove where, in the shadows between trees, he could hear an amused cackle as the breeze swept leaves up to meet the shimmering air. During those intervals Natife sat upright on the bike, avoiding the underbrush of sound. He gripped the raised handlebars and pedaled determinedly toward Ally.
Already it was the third week of his mission as Ally Reisch’s peer counselor, and once again Natife had no idea what he would say to her. It was clear that someone was doing juju on her. Although she was just sixteen Ally Reisch had the pink rheumy eyes and frail blondness of an old woman on her way to bone and ash. What was required was a blood sacrifice. A simple chicken might be enough. If this were a land of tribes, or even of family, someone would do this for Ally. As it was, she had only Natife, assigned by the Chalwright School for extra credit. At least she was no longer terrified by him. The first week she had not said more than a few words, and, failing conversation, they’d eventually drifted to the barn.
In the stable, sweating as she groomed her horse, Ally achieved a rare state of animation. She worked neatly with currycomb and pick, and only then, with her eyes occupied by the task, did she begin to talk to Natife. It was the horse, Denali, who Natife had to thank for Ally’s gradual warming. When she was with her horse Ally forgot to be self-conscious, and Natife had perceived shadows slipping down from around her to the plank floor of the barn. Now, after five previous visits, he felt that she held for him a measure of affection. Witness the delicate hug she gave him each time he appeared, a spindly pressure that seemed as unnatural to Natife as the embrace of an insect and yet brought a pale rosy light to the girl’s face.
As he neared Old Cross Farm, approaching the crossroad that led out to Moon Lake, Natife came upon two men and a truck almost wholly blocking the narrow lane. One man was tying shut the red truck’s rusty tailgate with hard jerking motions. The other was standing by the hood pensively smoking a cigarette as if fulfilling a medicinal rite. Natife had seen any number of such trucks, jacked up and fitted out with enormous tires. He got off his bicycle and started walking around the hunters, noting as he did a dead doe in the truck’s bed. Neither of the men seemed to notice Natife. He was almost past when the man at the back dropped the rope he’d been knotting and jerked his head up, sniffing.
“Goddamn!” he shouted. “Goddamn, you stop right there.” Natife readied himself to explain his presence. His back stiffened and an expression of utter neutrality slid like a mask over his normally thoughtful features. After three months in Connecticut he anticipated such encounters. No one expected a black man here in this area of grand estates and considerable lukudi, or wealthmagic. At home in the villages people were careful about displaying riches lest they be accused of this black magic and awaken reprisals. But here they were as easy and thoughtless as children piling up a hoard of groundnuts. Estate outdid estate with winding drives and carriage houses, vast groomed lawns and swimming pools, stables, exotic cars, even hot air balloons. It was a veritable themepark of lukudi where a black man seldom held the price of admittance.
The rope-tying hunter wore a red cap with a charging black bull on it and an orange vest that hugged the rounded stomach under his heavy plaid shirt. He barreled past Natife and, reaching the smoker at the front of the truck, snatched the cigarette out of his hand and stamped it into the leaves.
“Just what the hell do you think you’re doing?” he yelled. “You’re going to kill yourself that way, Pat, and you know it. Is that what you want? Huh? Is that what you want?” Natife studied the second hunter. He was younger than the first man, maybe late thirties, also redcapped, but the face unnder the cap was thinner and paler with pinches between the eyebrows. He passed his now empty hand back and forth across his mouth as if to keep himself from cryyyyying out.
“You call this a choice, Pat? Dead now or dead later? You’re an idiot if you think that—an idiot! Give me your pack. Give it to me, man. And the lighter too. Give me that goddamn lighter that goddamn Denise gave you.” “Ah, come on, Mickey,” Pat protested. But the other man thrust his hand out, and Pat dug into the pocket of his quilted orange jacket, pulling out first a crumpled pack of cigarettes and, a moment later, a long silver lighter which he slapped heavily into the other man’s hand.
“Half gone!” The older hunter held the pack up toward Natife as if to share his exasperation. “Pat, you’re a chump. They tell you at the hospital what will happen, and still you’d do this to your kids.” Pat turned away and leaned down on the truck, his cheek resting on the hood. The other hunter turned to Natife, not seeming surprised to see the boy still beside him, as though he’d summoned Natife to his side for this particular moment.
“Hey, buddy, do me a favor, will you? Take this goddamn thing. Take it and chuck it as far as you can. Or give it to your girl. Just do my brother a favor and get it the hell away from him.” Natife nodded and took the offered lighter. This felt right to him. It had been a long time since he had witnessed brotherhood. The hunter returned to securing the tailgate, and Natife zipped the lighter into the pocket of his candy-colored windbreaker. He gave a prayer of thanks that the man could ask for his aid and, sweeping his long leg over the bike, continued on his way. Minutes later he felt a warm spot pressing against his hip and looked down to see smoke wafting from his pocket. He stopped the bike and reached in for the lighter. As he did so he felt it change shape. Hastily he withdrew his hand. In it came a lump of black coal edged with sparks that disengaged and zinged into the woods. Each time a spark flew, the wind picked up and the brilliant autumn leaves seemed to burst into flame. Natife thought of the hunter, Pat, slumped over the truck, and he moved to throw the coal far away from him. Even as he formed the thought, the coal took on weight and he could not. He set the bike on the edge of the road, then squatted and pondered the flailing coal. A leaf fell on the back of his neck. Between the brushing of another leaf across his cheek and still another on the sleeve of his jacket, the coal transformed again. Natife held the lighter until the silver metal cooled. By then he was thoroughly dazed, and he laid the lighter against his tongue where it burned like a sliver of ice before he returned it respectfully to his pocket.
Ciggy, the horse trainer, was leaning against the outside door of the barn blowing smoke rings when Natife rode up.