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God's Love Most Gentle

By Mary Marie Allen

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February 14, 1995

Kim Macomb jostled and bounced around the back seat of the jeep. The African sun, like a ton weight, threatened to press her as flat as the grassland. Wind whipped dark silky strands from her thick braid. She tucked them behind her ear, but it only took a moment for them to whip free again.
In the front seat, her husband gestured as he discussed the future of Zaire with the driver. Kim was grateful that most of their discussion was drowned out by the engine’s drone. She was too miserable to care about anyone else’s future. It was all they’d talked about since leaving the airport moments before the militia shut it down. Like a surreal scene from a 3-D hero movie there’d been people screaming, scrambling, gunfire, yet the three of them escaped unscathed. How did she get here, anyway?
Kurt turned to her and grinned. Her heart leaped in her chest and she smiled back. Beneath the brim of a khaki hat his blue eyes twinkled with excitement. His pale skin, the blight of red-haired people, already showed signs of sunburn. “Hang on. Things are about to get interesting,” he shouted. They slowed and veered off the highway, bumping along deep ruts that sliced through dense jungle.
Every jolt felt like the start of a new bruise. Occasionally Kurt glanced back to check on her, his excitement at realizing his dream never dimming. She closed her eyes and lapsed into a weary stupor until the jeep lurched to a stop. The engine’s drone was replaced by the buzzing of a fat fly circling her head. She swatted at it and sat up. “What’s wrong?”
“There’s a tree blocking the path.” Kurt pointed. The dirt lane looked like a thin brown belt cinching tall grasses that spread right and left into a full garment of brush and trees. One large tree with leaves dried and brown lie directly across the road.
“I’ve got a chain we can use to move it,” Uzachi said. His Bostonian accent surprising her again. In a loose white shirt and shorts, Uzachi looked as if he belonged to the land, yet he was decidedly American. “Reverend Macomb, would you give me a hand?” Kurt jumped out the passenger side while Uzachi unfolded his frame from behind the steering wheel and went to rummage through the luggage in the back of the jeep. He said, “Wouldn’t you know? It’s on the bottom of the heap. This’ll take a while. You may as well get out and stretch, Mrs. Macomb, but stay close.”
Kim hunched her shoulders and threw her hands out, palms up. “Where would I go?”
Uzachi flashed a brilliantly white smile and offered her a hand the color and softness of a well-used baseball glove. Once she was on the ground, he towered over her. He was maybe eight inches taller, while she and Kurt both stood five-five. He returned to the rear, handing bags and boxes to Kurt to stack on the ground.
Kim stretched stiffness away and rubbed at the sore spots on her lean body. Clutching for a hold during the rough ride hadn’t doing her manicure any good. She picked at a chip in the red lacquer on her left thumbnail. She smoothed wrinkles from her pretty pink shirt and tan trousers. Perhaps not the most practical of outfits, but just because she was going to the jungle didn’t mean she had to dress ugly. Kurt glanced her way, grinned and winked. She smiled back, knowing he appreciated how she looked.
She wandered toward the obstruction. A path of beaten grass skirted the downed tree and some branches had been stripped away. She scrambled on top of the horizontal trunk, wobbling a bit before balance beam training took over. Everything looked better from up there. She stepped the length of it and back, performing a routine she’d used years before in high school competition.
“Kim,” Kurt said. His low tone held a warning.
“Don’t worry. I won’t fall.” One foot poised in midair, she leaned back and held the position so he could marvel at her dexterity. Kim tipped her head back in triumph and looked to him for admiration. His face was tight. Beside him, Uzachi stood motionless, whitened knuckles clutching the winching chain. Each man’s gaze was not quite on her, but a few feet to the front.
A thick brown vine hung strangely. She righted herself for a better view. A snake, rising vertically from the tree trunk, was almost as tall as she was. Beady eyes fixed on her. Its smooth, ear-less head flattened. Its mouth stretched wide baring fangs, hissing. Kim flipped backward and landed on the ground. Thwack! The chain rattled and slid off the tree. The snake dropped and was a blur of dark brown escaping through the yellow sun-burnt grass.
She stumbled forward. Kurt caught her and dragged her by the armpits to the jeep. He crushed her to his chest. He was speaking, but Kim couldn’t understand between the pounding of blood in her ears and the thumping of his heart. The jelly in her legs became bone again as she pushed away from him like a chick popping out of a nest. “Let me breathe.”
Kurt’s normally ruddy face was ashen and his hands trembled. “Don’t ever do that again. Ever…”
She stammered, “What was that thing?”
Uzachi had collapsed against the hood of the jeep. Large beads of sweat glistened over the strained grimace lines of his black face as both hands cradled his shaven head. “That was a black mamba.”
“It was huge—”
“Nine feet or more.” Uzachi dropped his hands.
“—and fast.”
“Faster than a man can run and deadly. Thank God you’re safe.”
Kurt squeezed her arms and shook her, claiming her attention. “Princess, you can’t go climbing about the trees without checking for snakes. Didn’t you read the book I gave you?”
Kim squinted at the chain that lay in the grass. She’d been meaning to read that book. With college finals, bridal showers, the wedding, the honeymoon, the trip across the ocean, language training, and the excitement of finally arriving, she hadn’t found time. “God sure guided your aim, Uzachi. It was perfect.”
Uzachi’s laughter boomed. “How about you? What a gymnast. I’d give that dismount a ten.”
Kurt hugged her and his grip felt less like he wanted to shake sense into her and more like he was proud and happy she was alive. “That’s my wife.”
“Mrs. Macomb, you must always watch for snakes. The village would never forgive me if I lost you before you even get there,” Uzachi said.
Kim shivered despite the oppressive heat. “I’ll be more careful.”
After moving the tree, they reloaded the jeep and drove until nearly dark. Right beside the dirt road, Uzachi started the fire while Kurt pitched two tents. Kim unpacked the food, eyeing every movement real or imagined in the nearby bushes.
With supper and cleanup completed the men stretched out on opposite sides of the fire and stared into the snapping, crackling flames. Orange sparks danced upward before winking out. Kim stood nearby gazing heavenward. “It’s stunning. It’s like sparkling diamonds on a black velvet canvas.”
“Yes. I never saw a sky like this in Boston,” Uzachi said.
“How did you get from here to there and back again, Uzachi?”
“My family moved away from the village when I was a small boy. My father became a merchant in the capital, saved money, and with the help of his brother who already lived in Boston, we went there. He was a very successful businessman. His dream was that I become a doctor. When my father died during my second year of medical school my mother told me to do what I felt I should do, so I came back to the village to help.”
Kim sat on the ground beside Kurt. “And your mother?”
“My mother stayed with my uncle and aunt. She didn’t think she’d adjust to the harsh village life after years of ease in America. When I see so much poverty, ignorance, and political trouble, the need compels me to teach. When I see the ailments and struggles of the people, I think I should become a doctor like my father wanted. I’m torn, but even more necessary is spiritual healing. That’s why I asked for a missionary.”
“What about a family for yourself?”
Uzachi’s wide grin gleamed across the flames. “That’s a question every aunt, mother, and single woman would like me to answer. Of course I’d like a family someday. For now, I’ll keep doing what I’m doing and leave that in God’s hands.”
Kurt rose, dusted his pants and picked up a lantern. “Good plan. It’s been a long day. I’m positive God’s plan for me right this moment is to go to bed. Good night.”
“I’ll watch the fire die down,” Uzachi said. “Good night, Pastor and Mrs. Macomb.”
Kurt said, “Coming, Kim?”
She’d dozed during the day and didn’t want to go to bed, but she couldn’t very well stay alone by the fire with a strange man. Kim sighed and followed.
The lantern caused crazy shadows to dance against the tent walls as Kurt removed his boots, long sleeve shirt and pants. Despite the sunscreen he’d used, his neck and chin and hands were bright red. “Uzachi is a great guy. You know how sometimes you simply connect with someone? It’s like we always knew each other. I think we’re going to make a great team. Don’t you?”
“Mm-hm.”
His square face softened and he fumbled with one of the bags and extracted a red envelope. “For you. I know it’s been crazy, but I’d never forget my beautiful, brown-eyed girl on our special day.”
Kim sliced the envelope open with a well-shaped nail and read the valentine. She said, “Oh Kurt, it's beautiful. I’m so lucky to have you for a husband.”
“I know.”
She tapped him with the card. “I don't know if your smugness is endearing or exasperating.”
“Endearing, of course.”
“Yes, it is.” She ran her fingers through his reddish-blond hair, just one of the many things she loved about him. All day they’d been separated by the noise of travel. It’d be good to simply chat for a bit. She fluffed her pillow and lay on her side.
He lowered the flame and the kerosene lantern hissed softly as its light faded. Kurt kissed her and lay on his back. “Good night. Isn’t Zaire wonderful?”
Kim pressed his valentine to her chest and envisioned the mamba rising like an armless alien. Ominous sounds like the breathing of evil Darth Vader oozed from the black jungle. It didn’t help to think the noises were tree frogs, huge insects, and shrieking nocturnal monkeys. “Wonderful,” she said. There was no reply to her sarcasm. Kurt was already asleep. Kim’s tears flowed until exhaustion claimed her.
In the morning, they broke camp and after two more grueling days similar to the first, the village came into view. It was much larger than the villages they’d passed. Children swarmed in noisy welcome. Women in printed cotton dresses with scarves about their heads and men in pants or shorts left their activities to stand behind the chief, a spindly man in a grass skirt, feathers, beads, and suit coat. He brandished a large intricately carved stick as he issued a formal greeting.
Uzachi said, “The chief welcomes you. There will be a feast tonight in your honor. For now, he wants me to show you to your home where you can wash up and rest.” He led them down a hard-packed dirt path. The villagers followed.
In a quarter of a mile they came to a clearing. A huge banana tree shaded a faded gray wood structure, a small generator, and further back a privy. Several men jabbered and pointed out the house’s features.
Kim tried to pay attention, but she longed to wash away the filth of the road and collapse on a normal bed. Kurt talked on and on. Finally the people headed back toward the village. Only Uzachi and a young girl remained.
He smiled with obvious affection at the child. “This is Nsia, a cousin to my mother’s sister-in-law. It would be a great favor to me if you would let her cook and clean for you. She speaks French and wants to improve her English. She’s very smart and may one day go to university. She, can help you learn the local language and the culture.”
Kim replied, “She’s what, nine? Isn’t that a little young?”
“Nsia is fifteen.”
“I work very hard.” The stick-thin girl cast shy yet hopeful glances at her.
“I don’t know.” Kim touched her lips doubtfully.
“I help much. Learn much. You will see, Mrs. Kim. Yes?” One hand clutched the fabric of her orange flowered dress in an anxious gesture.
Kim took in the intelligent eyes, confident exuberance and was charmed. “Yes.”
Nsia clapped her hands with pleasure. “That is good.”
Uzachi said, “Come, Nsia. We’ll let Pastor and Mrs. Macomb rest. After dinner, we’ll bring your belongings here.”
“Bye. Bye. See you later.” Nsia waved until she was out of sight.
Kurt jabbered about the men he’d met and plans for his new congregation as he worked the kitchen pump. He handed her the basin of water. “This should be enough to take a sponge bath.”
Kim clutched the pan to her chest. “Thank you.”
“This is home for the next three years.”
“Hmm.”
A frown quashed excitement from his face. “What’s the matter?”
Kim bit back her annoyance and crammed down the shrewish scream that she wanted to go home. She set down the pan of water. “Everything is so different. It’s scary and so blasted hot.”
“Come here.” He tucked her close against him. The solid strength of him comforted her and worries slipped away as he put a positive, even funny, spin on their adventures. He said, “I’ll wash the dirt off you, if you’ll wash the dirt off me.” Kim giggled.

***

She ached all over. Weariness caused even her eyelids to hurt. In a sleep fog, her mouth felt cotton-thick. She licked her lips without moistening them. “Kurt? You left the TV on again.” When there was no reply, she listened harder for the steady breath, breath, wuffle that had marked his sleeping presence during the few weeks of married life.
The TV voices of a French program laughed, making comments about her as if she'd said something funny. Unwilling to part from sleep, she let her hand wander over the mattress. “Honey, turn the light out and come back to bed.” Voices again laughed softly, talking about her.
“Good morning, Mrs. Kim,” came a chipper voice. A chorus of odd sounding “good mornings” echoed.
Kim cracked one eye open. An assortment of village women and children stood around while others sat cross-legged on the floor or peered through the open window. Kim blinked, rubbed her temple, and propped herself on one elbow, careful to hold the sheet against her nakedness. Africa. She was in Zaire, Africa somewhere in the jungle.
There had been a welcoming feast in the thatched pavilion the night before. Some of these same ladies had served her bananas and rice and palm wine and encouraged her to eat from bowls of mixtures that included peanuts, yams, cassava. She remembered sitting stiffly on the ground, smiling, thanking them even as she sniffed everything before tasting it. The festivities went late into the night with children singing and each of the important men giving a speech. She wondered if the palm wine from the feast contributed to her fuzzy state.
Kim focused on the child who spoke. Nsia. She shook her head to clear the cobwebs from her brain and pushed into a seated position. Her voice cracked. “Nsia, why is everyone in my bedroom?”
Nsia spoke in both French and her native language, evidently relaying Kim’s words to the others before answering the questions. “We never had a princess in our village before. We wish to welcome you on your first morning.”
“What princess?”
Nsia giggled. “You.”
Kim shook her head again and blinked, rubbing the nighttime crust off her eyelashes. “You’re mistaken. I’m not a princess.”
Nsia conveyed her words and the others all nodded, smiled, and nudged each other. Several spoke in soothing tones. “We will keep your secret.”
“What secret?”
“That you are a princess.”
“I’m not a princess.” Kim struggled to stay civil despite a definite grumpiness at this nonsensical conversation so early in the morning before coffee.
Nsia spoke in halting English without conferring with the others. “Your husband told me. I fixed breakfast for Pastor Kurt. He said, ‘Let the princess sleep. Be sure the coffee is ready when she wakes.”
Kim fell back on the bed and laughed. Finally, she sat up and said, “I am not a real princess. It’s my husband's special name for me, like ma cherie.”
Nsia relayed this and the ladies covered their mouths in amusement, while the small children laughed out loud. A lady came through the doorway carrying a tray. Nsia said, “This is Mrs. Thema. She is important lady here. She is honored to bring you first coffee.”
Kim smiled at the woman and thanked her. The woman gestured that Kim should drink up. Everyone seemed unnervingly interested as she swallowed so she said, “Ahh! That’s good.” Chattering broke out among the visitors and Mrs. Thema grinned broadly, exposing several gaps among her teeth. Kim set the cup down and moved the tray beside her. She gestured to Nsia, “Could you please ask everybody to leave? I need to get dressed.”
It took a bit of doing, before Nsia could herd them out the door. Kim kept gesturing to those peering in at the window, asking them to leave as she struggled to stay covered while drawing on a thin cotton housecoat. Finally, she swung her feet to the floor and made a dash for the door, dodging between stragglers on the porch.
Mrs. Thema announced in French, “Even a princess must make water.” Everyone hooted with laughter as she ran.
When she returned, the women and children crowded back through the door after her. Nsia was busy cutting a melon and the toothless old woman had set the coffee on the old table and gestured for Kim to sit.
“Thank you, but I'll dress first.” Kim darted into the bedroom and closed the door with a sigh. Choosing a pink sun dress from her duffle, she went to a corner where someone would have to poke their head far through the window to see her. Perspiration beaded her upper lip. Her long dark mane was like a fur stole on her shoulders. She twisted it up and secured it with a band before returning to the kitchen. “Where's Pastor Kurt?”
“He went with Mr. Uzachi to the village.”
“When will he return?”
“He will be back for lunch soon. You sleep a long time.”
“I feel like a truck hit me. I'm bruised and sore all over from that ride.”
Every time she spoke Nsia repeated everything in the local language like a confused echo.
One woman plucked at the ruffled eyelet on her sundress. Another fingered its material while a third murmured as she stroked her pony tail. Children stretched fingers to touch her fingernail polish. Kim gulped coffee and prayed for God to help her be polite when what she wanted was to tell them all to go away and leave her alone.
Who were her people? Where did she come from? How did she meet Pastor Kurt? She didn’t stop answering questions until Kurt burst in the door. “Well look at you. Aren't you popular? Hello, ladies.”
The women rose, greeted him, and left giggling. Kim dropped her face in her hands and massaged sore smile muscles.
“It's great that you're getting on with the village women,” Kurt said.
“They’re nice, but thanks to you, they think I'm royalty. I tried to explain, but going to college and feeding enough wedding guests to populate three large villages only proved it to them.”
“Well, it can't hurt our status any.” Kurt laughed and put his arm lightly over her shoulders. Monkeys chattered in the banana tree and the smell of hot dust wafted in with a breeze as he said, “Come on, Princess. I've got loads to tell you.”
Kim listened with interest as they walked along the path toward the village. He was so happy, so excited. She didn’t like roughing it, but overall, she’d been silly to worry. Kurt was here. What could go wrong?

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