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SENTINEL/Nick Hershenow ACROSS THE RIVER the chef de poste turns up his boom box, and frantic and repetitive music crosses the water. A noise to shatter the serenity of the tropical evening, except we're already plenty agitated , all of us: the insects buzzing and shrieking and clicking in the strip of forest by the river, the bats scuffling and snarling in our attic, the mourners chanting to drumbeats in a clearing in the camp. And the Consultant standing on his porch looking out on the night, rocking and swaying to that radio music. The first time I heard it I thought this music might eventually make me insane, but I have since learned how to channel it, along with a lot of other noxious stimuli, into passive background regions of my subconscious . This is not easy, since music here is always played at the highest possible volume, emphasizing distortion and accelerating speaker damage. But I watch the chef de poste and try to listen to music like he does: to take it in with my entire body, and not filter it through any analytical brain tissue. When I do this right the music no longer bothers me, and sometimes I even start dancing myself. People laugh and stare, but this inhibits me less than I'd expect—they laugh and stare anyway, no matter what I do. I may as well make a spectacle of myself by dancing, since I achieve the same effect by reading a book or tying my shoes. Placide didn't laugh the first time he saw me dance. He came close to me and watched, a look of wonder on his face. I smiled, but he didn't smile back. "I've seen this before," he said, when the music ended. "What?" "I saw it often in the capital, when the whites danced. Le Jerk. It must be a very difficult dance, monsieur." He spoke gravely, and did not respond to my laughter. But I think he must have been kidding me. It's hard to tell with Placide. He comes up with outrageous statements, devotes his life to an absurd duty, and yet comports himselfalways with serious and measured dignity. Night watchmen are an uncanny breed, they say, and tiny Placide, who spends most of his waking hours padding around our compound with his bow and arrow at his side, peering into the nighttime shadows, is perhaps even more mysterious than most. The Missouri Review . 9 He's out there somewhere in the darkness now, patrolling the compound . Two or three times I've seen his flashlight come on for a second, but otherwise I never know where he is; he walks silently, on bare feet that are cushioned with callouses like the paws of a cat. He's small and dark and quick, with an affinity for shadows, and is capable of remaining very still for a long time. On a moonless night like this I won't see him, until he appears to warm himself by his fire. A wind comes up, fanning the coals in his brazier down by the cook shed, sending a few sparks skittering across the garden and carrying the smell of the fire up to the porch. It is a strange, sweet smell, the burning charcoal of a tropical wood, a smell unknown in higher latitudes . The glow of the fire illuminates the corrugated tin siding at the corner of the cook shed, and in the faint reflected light I can make out a couple of scraggly goat-eaten tomato plants in my vegetable garden. But away from that glow the night is completely dark, and its sounds—drums and thunder, insects, boom box music—come to me across invisible spaces. Like me, Placide stands in the shadows and looks out on those spaces. The difference is he can see something. I'm sure he can see me jittering up here on the porch, dancing my inscrutable Jerk. I stop myself . Placide doesn't care, or at least his sense of professionalism prevents him from passing judgment; but I guess I'm not yet entirely free of self-consciousness. And Placide's dignity inspires me...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9930
Print ISSN
0191-1961
Pages
pp. 9-19
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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