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Thursday, August 20, 2009

Flight of the Ephemerals

There is a restaurant in the village that we take the kids to when they are in need of the kind of comfort that only a good pizza can provide. This establishment makes a respectable one: fresh tomatoes, black olives, ham, oregano and Emmenthal cheese, baked crispy and thin in a half-moon brick oven. To the delight of Jamie and Sunny, who are allowed to watch the preparation, this cooking method yields a finished product in less than ten minutes. Although they have a full menu offering a variety of options, whenever I inquire about anything other than pizza, I am told “we are out of that tonight, Madame.” So pizza it is.

The proprietor of this establishment is a 50-ish Frenchman named Jacques who has a thick shock of white hair and a penchant for Hawaiian shirts and Pastis. On this particular night, he has clearly overindulged and is asleep at a table outside when we arrive. We approach gingerly, not knowing whether to clear our throats loudly, or turn around and leave. Thankfully (for us, not him), the young Senegalese waitress, Fatu, emerges and slaps him on the side of the head, shooting us a look of familiar disgust. He sits up abruptly, his bloodshot eyes rolling about, attempting focus. “Oh”, he says. “I was wondering where you were.” I can only imagine by “you”, he meant any clients in general--the restaurant was empty.

“Right ziss way, my Merican frenz” Jacques says with an exaggerated wink in my direction. Scrutinizing the room as though he is hard-pressed to find a table, he ushers us to one near the open door, hands two large menus to Sunny and Jamie and pulls out my chair to seat me. As he leans in, my nose is affronted by an afternoon’s worth of Pastis and stale cigarettes. He returns a few mintues later and places eight wine glasses on the table.

“I don’t think we’ll be needing all those glasses,” Richard says. Jacques looks at the four of us, then the table and finally says, “Oui, oui, oui, pardon,” removing one of the glasses. This man is clearly drunk. Careening to the bar, he puts both hands around the cup of coffee Fatu has poured for him as though it were a bouy in the middle of the ocean and letting go would mean certain death.

Several tables fill up over the course of our meal and the place takes on a convivial ambiance with layered notes of several languages. I can discern the two most obvious: French and Wolof, but also catch bits of Italian, a cockneyed British and Serer, the language of Cassamance, to the South. I love this about Senegal: the small cosmos that gathers at any given moment. Tonight it is unexpected in this rainy season, in this little-known eatery with it’s checkered table cloths and plastic palm tree salt and pepper shakers, it’s poorly rendered murals of Africans running to catch the bus with baskets of fish on their heads, their noses, breasts and feet large and characatured. But it feels comfortable at this moment, this one seemingly ordinary evening.

As night comes, several winged bugs begin drifting in through the open door. They are silent and delicate, resembling dragonflies, with a thorax and two sets of wings, but a short rounded body. Soon, there are twenty or thirty hovering around us, landing on the table, on our shoulders, taking off again towards the ceiling. No one seems concerned but us. Jamie, who is particularly bug-phobic, is standing on his chair, screeching and waving his hands about, ducking the onslaught. Jacques comes over and says, “don’t worry, it’s just the 'ephemerals'. This will all be over in a few minutes. Just watch.” Perching on his barstool, he gestures at the swarm, as though he has arranged this spectacle for our entertainment. Sunny wonders aloud if they are fairies.

Apparently, these insects are born during the rainy season and live for a single day. Not many people get the chance to witness their struggled, short life span. It takes them the better part of a day to hatch and they are fully formed only at dusk. Tonight, they have come to our restaurant, attracted by the single bright overhanging lamp near our table. They ascend slowly and purposefully, their wings beating furiously towards their beacon. Just as they reach the summit, they lose their top set of wings and fall fast to the ground, where they struggle for a minute or two, then exhausted, they surrender and die. The life cycle that we are witnessing is narrated to us by a man sitting at the table next to us. I ask if these insects exists elsewhere and he tells me he doesn’t know. He has never left Senegal.

We find ourselves riveted, cheering them up and on towards the light. “Go, go, up, fly!” As they fall, Jamie, who is no longer afraid for himself, but deeply sad on these creatures’ behalf, tries to catch them before they fall in hopes of saving them. But nature would have it otherwise. Jacques is right. Within minutes, these beautiful ephemerals have lived their short lives and their bodies lie motionless on the floor. Only their delicate, transparent wings remain, floating through the air, taking flight again, independant of their host, on the current the ceiling fan provides. They descend slowly only to be lifted again into the air.

As we leave the restaurant, we turn to see Fatu sweeping the remains of the ephemerals out the door along with the sand and crumbs of the day. We walk home through the village, greeting people on their stoops who hope to catch that last cool breeze before retiring for the night. Predictably, the electricity has gone out and the street is dark. But there are candles everywhere illuminating the dark path and the stars are bright and numerous. It strikes me that we all seek the light, all of us, to different degrees. It is essential to our being.

Jamie takes my hand in the silence and says, “Don’t be sad, Mama. At least they got to fly.”

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