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Winter Loves Her
Listening to my tales of youthful winters in New York did not prepare Chizo for her first encounter with intense cold. We are in the Sierra Nevada, walking on the edge of Lake Tahoe, the south end, on the border of California and Nevada, with all those tacky hotels and casinos. It is January and the snow is heavy. Chizo wears a pair of brown sheepskin boots and thick socks. Her feet are still cold. Her eyes peek out of a furry hood, her petite body encased in a wool sweater, a down jacket and an ankle-length coat. We are holding hands, as well as two people wearing thick gloves can.
I lead her out onto the frozen lake, explaining that there is water underneath this ice, telling her that in spring the lake thaws and becomes flowing water again. I tell her how, as a boy, I skated on a frozen lake. I tell her how people fish on frozen lakes, cutting holes into the ice, sending down their hooks. I tell her how the surface of a frozen lake can sometimes crack without warning, swallowing up anyone standing on the surface. I tell her we need not be worried now because it is too cold for the ice to crack.
We move farther onto the hard ice, farther from the safety of the shore.
My wife does not believe there is water underneath the ice, and I cannot convince her. I am accustomed to her skepticism after more than a year in America together. In West Africa, where we met and fell in love, our life together seemed solid. When I faced something I didn't understand, she was there to help guide me. I owe her.
For a long time in West Africa, she was my talking dictionary, a walking omnibus of cultural knowledge, my own personal Africa encyclopedia. She was not bashful either, often intervening to stop me from making a grievous mistake in my dealings with Africans. Chizo's cultural knowledge was part of her appeal to me because, without a trusted guide in a foreign land, a visitor can be lost. In exchange for her help, I felt an obligation to comprehend the ways of her people, as best I could, treating what I didn't understand with respect and sympathy, at least at first.
Chizo does not always display a similar tolerant attitude toward others, not in America anyway. Here I am not her talking dictionary. I am not her encyclopedia of America. When my country bewilders her, her first reaction is to question the sanity of Americans, just as she now questions whether we actually are walking on a sheet of ice or I am playing a trick on her.
"There is no lake here," she insists. "Don't lie to me. We walk on land, you trickish devil."
I do not lightly listen to Chizo invoke the devil. I answer by retreating from the ice, moving us back onto the lakeside, where there is solid ground beneath the hard snow. The sound of snow crunching under our feet makes Chizo smile. Her eyes light up. Her full lips are red and wet. Her dark skin is luminous even in the cold.
I reach down for a handful of snow, retreating from Chizo until I reach a suitable firing distance of about fifteen feet. Then I throw a snowball at her. I strike her leg and throw again, barely missing her head. The next one hits her in the chest. She bends down and tosses a ball of snow at me, the first snowball of her life. She misses me. I bend, grab snow and throw back, hitting her. Keeping my distance, I toss again, only now Chizo charges at me, on the attack, hitting me with snow, high and low, coming closer, until she is right on top of me and the snow is flying.
I am frozen in place, my feet sunk deep into the snow. I am defenseless. I cry for mercy and she ignores me, laughing. "This is your snow," she says. "I have mastered it more than you."
From a few feet away, she throws snowballs into my face. I am close enough to see the thrill in her eyes. The snowballs batter me and I sink to the cold ground, surrendering. Now I regret ever starting this snowball fight. To protect my face, I curl up in the fetal position. The snow rains on my back. Chizo is triumphant. "I am master of your American snow," she cries.
I laugh out even though I am angry over the pummeling I've received. Chizo is too fast, too powerful for me. I have learned not to roughhouse with her, but on this snow-covered ground, in the middle of winter, I felt emboldened to challenge her. She proved me to be foolish. I rise to my feet and snap a picture of her, standing tall, an African in winter, her first time seeing snow and already the queen of it.
She brushes the snow from my face and beard. I start to complain and she kisses me. "You made good on your promise," she says, reminding me how in Africa I promised to show her snow someday.
I am reminded now why I risked spoiling our love affair by bringing her to America: why we decided to endure the inevitable misunderstandings and cultural collisions that occur between two people who grew up in completely different places and who remain, no matter the intensity of our shared feelings, such strangers to one another that marriage is at times one long cultural trip wire that we keep setting off.
I decided to endure all of this so she could experience snow.
We walk up the hill to where people are sledding. The hill crests at about two hundred feet and slopes down to the lakeside, making a perfect spot for sledding. The air is still, the sky is clear. We can see for miles across the lake and to the mountains in the distance. Below us people are sledding. We watch them for some time until Chizo decides to borrow a plastic sled from another visitor. The sled is circular, the size of a garbage-pail top. Chizo sits inside the top and steadies herself. She looks down the slope and out onto the frozen lake. I hold the edge of her sled, steadying her. About a dozen people are sledding now, stretched out across some fifty yards. She waits for the people on either side of her to launch and then finish their rides. Then she says she is ready and I gently push her sled and she flies off, screaming as she barrels down the slope.
Midway to the bottom, she steers past a rock, then soars into the air, coming down hard. She's still in the sled, still hurtling downhill. I'm relieved and let out a breath. I try to capture her with my camera but she is too far away even for my zoom. I can see only the bundle of her clothing. She glides another thirty feet, slowing, slowing, then stops.
When she gets to her feet she waves to me. She returns to the top of the hill and sleds down again. She avoids the rocks once more, reaching the bottom still on the sled, her journey drawing to a close. After three more trips, she returns the sled to its owner and waits to borrow another. The next sled is as long as her body and has a short rope with which to steer. She looks like she's in a bathtub and her ride this time is more impressive. Cutting sharply over the snow, she spills from the sled halfway down and climbs back to the top, wanting to try again. The next time, she gets all the way down the slope, riding like an experienced sledder. Watching her performance, I am proud of her. She is a natural, a marvel, a force of nature. When she returns to the top, she says, "I love winter."
And winter loves her.
We retreat to our motel room, gaining relief from the cold. Outside our door, long icicles hang from the roof, and I go out and crack off two of them and return to the room. I hold the icicles like daggers while Chizo stands next to the wall heater, naked, warming herself. I run one of the icicles along the hollow of her back and then down her leg. She jumps and grabs one of the daggers. As I kiss the back of her elegant neck, she pretends to plunge the icicle into my side. We have a series of brief icicle fights, the ending always the same: Chizo stabs me.
I hand her my icicle, flip on the TV and begin to watch an NFL playoff game. Chizo can't stop talking about sledding, and I mute the TV and listen to her.
"It's scary," she says. "Oh god. It's scary, horrible. Unless you are a man with a heart, like people who go to war. They don't care about death and life. That's how it looks to me. Oh god. It looks like I'm facing dead. Talk less of when you are seeing those holes. Your mind is flying. It's like seeing a big accident face-to-face. You're dying in that moment."
She pauses, turning away from the heater, warming her back while staring at me. "I screamed to help me strong my heart," she says. "I can't be quiet, because I feel I'm facing my dying. I feel a giant of ice is ready to swallow me."
When she's finished describing her experience sledding, she pronounces the name "Tahoe" with her Nigerian accent, turning one word into two, as if she is saying "Ta" and "Hoe." I am always unconsciously translating her brand of English into my brand of English; the task is second nature to me now, so that I'm usually surprised when people tell me they struggle at first to understand Chizo's English. I no longer do. Her words have a certain poetry to me and I take delight in listening to her speak.
She asks me to get more icicles and I find even longer ones this time, so long that Chizo asks how they are formed. Having not lived in wintry climates for many years, I am fuzzy on the details. "Icicles are a mystery to me," I say. "Just enjoy them."
I go back to watching the football game. I lie in bed, facing the TV. She lies down next to me, curling up against my body. We are both under the covers now. She has yet to figure out the rules of football; though the game makes no sense to her, she doesn't object to me watching. The TV is turned down low, and she whispers in my ear, "You are my everything and I am your everything." She draws me closer. "What you want is what I want," she says. "What I want is what you want."
These last two sentences, simple yet seductive, are Chizo's romantic mantra, as much of a philosophy of marriage as she ever expresses. Since we fell in love in Africa, she's repeated these lines as if they represent an ontological position. An incantation, these words are a love potion. I am smitten all over again.
I tell Chizo I am surprised how natural she is on a sled and how much she enjoys the cold weather. "I am master of your winter," she says, "even more than you." I watch a long pass play and shout as the ball is nearly intercepted. Then I jump up. Chizo has placed one of the icicles between my legs. I push away the icicle and sigh.
"You are my king," she whispers.
Her words warm me. Flush from her triumph on the sledding track, holding her curious icicles, Chizo is spreading her joy.
I switch the TV to another channel. It is two days before Martin Luther King's holiday and I toggle between the football game and a documentary on King's life. I am always trying to expose Chizo to the history of the civil rights movement, which she barely knows about because she was born in Africa, not America, and in 1971 (three years after King's death). I want her to learn more about the struggle by African-Americans for justice and what we white Americans call race relations. She does not always draw the expected conclusions from these lessons. We are watching King deliver his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. He speaks of a future America where people will be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. Tears are coming to my eyes. I think King's dream is wonderful and I say so.
Chizo then tells me her dream. "My dream," she declares, "is someday blacks will take over. Then whites will be begging blacks for everything."
I am stunned, breathless. Our eyes meet. I pull her body closer, then release her, breathing again. I find a certain logic in Chizo's dream. This is not the first time I have heard her speak of her desire for blacks to take revenge on whites. I can understand why some blacks resent whites and want to keep to themselves. I can even understand why they might want to punish whites. Yet I am an advocate of integration, and I remind Chizo that Martin Luther King, Jr., helped make it possible for her and me to live together safely in America -- to live together, walk the streets and travel the nation -- without fear of arrest, violence or even blatant discrimination.
I ask her if she favors King's vision of integration, of unrestricted mingling between blacks and whites.
"I do, but white people don't want it," she says. "We blacks want it. But whites don't."
"I want it," I say.
I am an exception. She says that whites cannot imagine the experience of blacks under slavery (in America) and colonialism (in Africa) and that integration will be possible only after whites themselves suffer in a similar way. "Someday blacks will rule the way whites rule today," she says. "After that blacks and whites will rule together."
I am silent now, thinking of what to say, wondering whether, at least on a personal level, Chizo and I are ruling together, or whether I am ruling her or she is ruling me. Which phase are we in? I hear King talking again, in his marvelous voice. His words bring more tears to my eyes.
"Stop crying," Chizo insists. "Since the creation of the world, white people have ruled. God gave whites the power."
Her words deliver me from my reverie. I stop crying. I ask her why God would favor one race over another.
"Because God is white."
"God is not white," I say. "If there is a God," and I emphasize the word "if," "he can't have a race. He must be beyond racial category, neither black nor white nor any other skin color."
My words fill the room because I am now shouting. King is gone from the screen, the football game is back and I strain to hear Chizo say, "From the time I was born, I thought God was white."
"Did the priests tell you that?"
"No one told me God is white. I got the idea on my own. What else could God be?"
Chizo was raised Catholic in Nigeria and her own African priests were trained by white priests, mainly from Ireland.
I tell Chizo that God might not be white after all. He might be black. Then I say I hope God is black because whites can learn something from worshiping a black God.
Chizo looks unhappy. She isn't ready to accept the idea of a black God.
I watch the football game. My team is winning. I am happy for the diversion.
Chizo gets out of bed, lingers in front of the heater, then steps away and stands in front of the TV. Imitating me talking, she says, "I am an atheist, I don't believe in God."
Then she switches into her Nigerian voice and says, "By force, I will make my husband believe in God."
The next morning we are back sledding near the lake. Now we have our own sled, a round black hard-plastic bowl that we bought the night before. Chizo flies down the hill, many times. I am tempted to do the same. I am older than Chizo, and my body is not as elastic as hers. I am afraid of hurting my back on the way down.
Chizo insists I must sled down the hill.
I do what she says.
She holds the sled while I prepare myself. The snow is packed hard on the hill, so that the surface is like a sheet of ice, which is why the sleds are moving so fast. The speed of the sled makes collision with the rocks, partly submerged downhill, dangerous. I want to avoid the rocks. I want to avoid flipping. I want to avoid embarrassing myself.
"Don't be afraid," Chizo says. "Don't rush. Go slow."
She is always telling me to slow down. When we first met, she called me "the rushing man." For weeks I thought she was calling me "Russian man." I kept reminding her that I'm an American, not Russian. She knew this and yet the nickname persisted. Then one day she got so frustrated with my impatience that she clearly pronounced the words "rushing man" and I understood my nickname for the first time. Now I always think of the importance of slowing down, though at this moment I don't understand how I can go slow while sledding downhill. Before I puzzle out an approach, she pushes my sled from the landing and down I go.
I am hurtling toward the lake now. I keep my head up, looking out, watching for rocks, the glare penetrating my cheap sunglasses, making it hard to see. I take a breath, steer past a big rock, then glide past another. I let out a breath, starting to relax. My sled slows, then stops, and I believe for the first time that I am out of danger. Lying on my back in the hard snow, I look up the hill and see Chizo cheering for me. I wave. I've completed the first sledding voyage of my life and I want to try again.
I make two more trips -- without hurting myself -- then give the sled back to Chizo. I watch her sled again. As she prepares for her final run, a man cries out halfway down the hill. I watched him hit a rock and tumble onto the ground and scream. I thought he was joking. Now he is still screaming. He speaks with an Indian accent and I think he's a tourist, maybe someone who has never played on ice before.
He can't move. I fear he is paralyzed or has a broken back.
Chizo's path is clear and she takes her last run down the hill. Another good run for her. By the time she climbs back up the hill, an ambulance has arrived. Two men with a stretcher and another guy are tending to the injured man. He still isn't moving. Chizo grabs my hand. She takes us closer to the injured man, so close that before I realize what she's done we are peering over the shoulders of the emergency workers. Surely we are violating the etiquette covering emergencies.
I grab Chizo's arm and tell her we must keep our distance and let the professionals handle the situation. She gets angry with me, accuses me of callousness. "You Americans and your rules," she says. "You are cruel."
I explain that her involvement could worsen the situation, even pose risks for the injured man, but she's left me by then, moving past the emergency workers and out of my sight, probably getting close to the injured man, maybe touching him or telling him something.
I cannot see her now and feel afraid. Suddenly, I see her running. One of the emergency workers is chasing her up the hill, toward me, shouting, "Keep out of our way! Stay back!"
I approach Chizo and she looks stricken. "I told him to pray, that's all," she says. Then she starts complaining about American rules, her voice loud, attracting the notice of the gathering crowd. I am embarrassed and I wonder, Do I claim her now, in front of all of these people?
I go over to her, draping my arm around her shoulders. We move carefully up the icy hill, the lake at our backs now, and the onlookers too. At times like this, I wonder how I ended up marrying an African, even one as compelling as Chizo.
We return to our car and I am ready to drive away, back to the motel and then on to Berkeley, where we live. "Go back," Chizo says. "Follow the ambulance. I want to find out what happens to him."
I refuse. I tell her we will only get in the way. I tell her that the injured man's family will surely be waiting for him, rooting for the best. I tell her that in America we let the professionals do their jobs. "We're not needed," I say, "and it's time for us to go."
On the long ride home, Chizo does not speak for hours and I think next time I will follow the ambulance.
Copyright © 2009 by G. Pascal Zachary