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What We Lost: Kilanga, January 17, 1961 (Continued)
(Cluster 4: Ruth May dies, Orleanna conducts her own funeral ritual, and Nathan finally discovers a way to baptize the Congolese children)
Leah hears a gulp, a sob and a short scream. At first they canít tell where it comes, and they all look into the trees. Nelson is the first to realize that the snake has struck Ruth May. He screams for them to get milk and Mama Nguza who saved her own son from a green mamba one time. Leah is unable to move even as she watches the color drain from her little sisterís face.
Adah quotes Emily Dickinsonís poem, "because I could not stop for death, he kindly stopped for me." In her strange, backward, poetic way, Adah is able to see Ruth May retreat into some narrow place where none of them can go. She sees death as "that long shadow in the grass."
Rachel remembers the silence; the moment when they all realized that someone had to tell their mother that Ruth May was dead. She realized that at the moment they told their mother the news, their whole world would change, that she would no longer be able to return home to Georgia and pretend that the Congo had been a moment of misery in someone elseís life. She wants to freeze time, holding back the curse that is "going to be [our] history.
Leah describes her motherís reaction to Ruth Mayís death. Orleanna moves in silence, as if she had already known. She pulls down the mosquito netting around the beds and uses it to make a shroud, then elaborately and slowly baths Ruth Mayís body. The girls stand by and watch, shut out by their motherís silence and deliberate industry. At last she moves their kitchen table outside where Nelson builds an arch of palm fronds. The women of the village come, dropping to their knees at the edge of the yard and walking on their knees around the table. They sing a strange mourning song the girls have heard many times before but never thought to hear for their own sister.
When the wailing is over, Mother moves all the furniture into the yard, followed by clothes, books and all the household items. She gives the family belongings to the women. When the women have taken what they wanted and gone, she gives the rest of their belongings to the children. By late afternoon, many of the village children are still hanging around as if to see if there will be anything else. Then a storm breaks, bring a torrent of rain. Nathan comes out into the yard, noting the children who are standing in the rain, welcoming the soaking they are getting. Suddenly Nathan begins placing his hands on each dripping head. Taking advantage of the rain as his source of water, he recites the baptismal ritual over each child.
Dickinsonís "long shadow in the grass" symbolizes death in the form of the snake, but is also wisdom and muntu-the spirit that lives forever. Adahís unique backward-looking ability enables her to see her sister retreat into the safe place she has created for herself.
Ruth Mayís death creates a connection between Orleanna and the other women. The loss of a child creates an understanding that needs no words, for they have all lost children. The one thing they know how to do is grieve for each other. When Orleanna fights the overwhelming need to grieve for herself, they do it for her.
There is irony in the forced baptism. The one thing Nathan never did for Ruth May, thinking to save it for some sort of show, Nathan does for the children of Kilanga. The rain in a way more important than religion baptizes them; the season has been exceptionally dry, so the natural baptism is both literal and symbolic life, but it is life according to African custom. They have no comprehension of the strange words or behavior of Nathan Price. It is an act of insanity on his part. In trying to "save" the children, he has finally lost his own family and his own soul.
The title of this section, "The Things We Lost," suggests the family lost more than Ruth May, devastating as that was. The baby sister had been adored by all of them in spite of their disagreements with each other. They lost the only connection that held them together as a family. They also lost their faith, tenuous though it may have been for some of them. All but Rachel lost their old value systems although both Leah and Adah would be able to replace theirs with better values. Orleanna, in losing her youngest, lost her sense of motherhood. She also lost her commitment to Nathan-which was actually a good thing to lose.
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