Early August 2003
Dantokpa Market, Cotonou, Benin
The white man was trying to order roasted palm nuts, but the woman at the stall was having none of it. Eshu stood by his shrine in the market place, enjoyed his cigarette, and watched. He came here often; it was a prime spot for leaning on his staff and leering at pretty women, but today all it had going was this mildly amusing show. The white man’s French was appalling, and the market woman clearly wasn’t going to sell her wares unless the man said the actual words for them. It was kind of funny, and the white man seemed surprisingly good about it for the typical foreign investor or tourist. The man’s back was to Eshu, but he could see the woman’s face. She was smiling, and every time the man came out with a some new, and generally bizarre, attempt they would both laugh as she shook her head.
After the fifth try, the last one being rather comical and unintentionally crude, the man began digging around in his bag and muttering to himself in English. After a few moments he whipped out what Eshu supposed to be an idiot’s guide to Parisian French. The word probably wasn’t in there, but either way, the show was done. Eshu dropped and snuffed out his cigarette butt. “Écrou de paume,” he said loudly enough to catch the man’s attention.
“Whah?” the man asked, spinning around. When he saw the man’s face, Eshu almost laughed. Between the clothes, the hair and the eye patch, he looked almost like a young Indiana Jones playing at being a pirate.
“The word you’re looking for, English,” sighed Eshu, “is écrou de paume. The last thing you ordered was a roasted palm penis.”
The man flushed, laughed and shook his head ruefully. “Well, it’s good to know that incompetence translates well.”
Eshu smiled at that and came forward to stand next to the white man. “He wants a bag of your roasted palm nuts,” he told the woman in her native Yoruba. They both stared at him for a moment; the woman presumably because she knew who he was and the man because Eshu hadn’t spoken in French.
Keeping her eye on Eshu, the woman slowly began to hand the pouch of nuts to the man, but he shook his head. “Deux,” he said, holding up two fingers before handing her some money. The vendor glanced at Eshu as if expecting him to confirm, and, at his nod, she handed the man his double order of palm nuts. The show was definitely over, and Eshu turned to go and find something else interesting to do.
“Hey,” said the man, catching Eshu’s arm. “Um, thanks, for the help. Without you, I probably would have starved to death or wound up eating roasted fruity genitalia.” A look of pure mortification chased a blush across his face. “Can’t believe I just said that. Um, here,” he thrust the second bag of roasted palm nuts into Eshu’s free hand. “Bye,” he added and took off into the crowd.
Eshu looked down at the gift in his hand; sixteen roasted red palm nuts. It wasn’t exactly chicken blood, but it was an offering none the less, and one that had a certain, well, resonance. Sixteen nuts sat at the roots of prophecy and Eshu supposed he owed the man something now. He held his staff in the crook of his arm and tipped his red feathered hat to the market woman before taking off after his benefactor.
The man wasn’t all that hard to find. Lily white skin and dirt colored clothes stood out in the press of the mahogany skinned and brightly dressed. Plus, he hadn’t gone far. He sat on the edge of the well on the outskirts of the market eating his palm nuts and studying another of Eshu’s many shrines. Eshu had always been fond of that one; it was a rather good likeness.
“Hey, English,” Eshu greeted the him. The man practically fell into the well in his haste to turn to see who was addressing him.
“Hey to you too,” he responded when he saw who it was. “Although, technically, it should be ‘hey American,’ what with me being American and all. Plus, being English? I’m pretty sure you have to actually like tea before you can even apply.”
“So, English,” Eshu deliberately stressed the nickname as he joined the man at the edge of the well, “what are you doing here in Benin?”
The white man studied him for a moment before answering. “I’m looking for a girl.”
“Good place for it,” Eshu nodded sagely, beginning to eat the offering. “The Fon have such smooth skin and wonderful hips, and with the Yoruba there is frequently the joy of twins.”
White skin could not hide the blush. “Ah, I’ll keep that in mind, thanks, but I’m actually looking for one very specific girl.”
“You came all the way from America for this one girl?” Eshu asked incredulously. “She must be pretty. What is her name? Want to share?”
The man nearly choked on his palm nuts. “Share?” he finally managed to gasp.
“Seriously, said Eshu swallowing his own nuts in a more controlled fashion, “can you think of a better way to bring people together? Nothing bridges cultures quite like sex. It’s the ultimate connection.”
“Really?” responded the American dryly. “See, I knew this girl with, well, lots of experience, and she said it didn’t matter. Sex, I mean. Skin on skin meant nothing.”
“Yes, and I bet she was the loneliest person on the planet,” Eshu casually dismissed the clearly uninformed opinion. “You see English, it is not just about orgasms, although, admittedly, those are very nice. Very, very nice. Why, just the other day, I met this woman who could-” The man wasn’t even paying attention. His eye had a far away look and, although he was looking right at him, the white man clearly didn’t see him at all. Eshu frowned; that simply wouldn’t do. “Hey, English, are you even listening?”
The man shook his head as if to clear it. “Sorry,” he apologized dropping his gaze to his lap. “It’s just...Anya.” His head came up and his previously easy smile was strained. “Man, the two of you would have gotten on so well.”
“Of course,” Eshu laughed. “Women and I always get on well,” he added with a leer and an elbow nudge. The man didn’t even have the good grace to laugh or even leer back, in fact, he almost looked ready to cry. It rather annoyed Eshu. Here the man had just given him an offering, and now he couldn’t even be bothered to pay attention long enough to take what Eshu had to give in return. Eshu sighed. “You never did answer about the girl.”
“Ah, yeah,” said the American suddenly looking sheepish. “I don’t actually know her name. Or what she looks like, or even where to find her.” Eshu raised his eyebrow and the man, looking increasingly embarrassed, babbled on. “I mean, failed-high-school-French guy wandering around Benin looking for nameless girl may seem like a bad idea but, well, Giles clearly thought....um, I mean, it can’t be...God!” he suddenly exclaimed and distractedly ran his palm nut oil covered hands through his hair. “This was just, like, the third dumbest plan ever!”
Eshu was amused. “Third dumbest? What’s the first?”
“Attacking the mayor with humus.”
Eshu wasn’t even going to try to figure that one out, but at least now he knew what the man needed. It would be a lot of work, and he had always hated that, but there were sixteen palm nuts to consider, and the man and his quest seemed interesting if nothing else. “Sounds to me, English, like you need a guide.”
“Xander,” said the man suddenly, “is me. Not ‘English,’ Xander. Xander Harris. And you?” he asked with a friendly smile.
Eshu considered. He never liked to give his real name, and Xander, he supposed, sounded Greek. “Hermes,” he decided. “You can call me Hermes.”
The smile fell from Xander’s lips. “Hermes...like the god?”
“The god of travelers.” Eshu stood with a smirk and whipped the palm nut grease from his hands. “And I’m offering to show you around. Can you think of anyone better?” His smirk softened into a simple grin and he extended his hand.
Xander remained seated and wary. His single eye roved over Eshu, taking in his wide grin and his staff, his red-plumbed hat and the hint of other worldly mischief in his eyes before flickering to his image in the Orisha’s shrine behind him. A slow smile began to spread across the man’s face as he rose and took Eshu’s hand. “No,” he said. “No, I really can’t.”