by Rachel Jones
My first published article arrived in my PO box in Djibouti three months after being printed. Rats had gnawed the corners of the box to get at Easter chocolates inside but the magazine, Get Born, was untouched.
The cover photo pictured a Djiboutian mother and baby standing in the downtown market in the pouring rain. I was in awe. My first story and it earned the cover photo. And, a photo of rain in Djibouti. Djibouti is a small, desert country in the Horn of Africa and at the time, it was in the middle of a drought. I wasn’t sure if my article or the rain was the greater miracle.
I stood in the post office’s open doorway to catch small wafts of steamy breezes and tucked the box and the rest of the goodies my mom had mailed between my elbow and my side. I held the magazine between my fingertips so I wouldn’t leave sweaty palm stains on the pages. I stared at it for a few seconds, then climbed into the car and drove home.
That afternoon, I showed the article to my daughter Maggie, who was featured in the piece, My Little Garbage Collector. It was an essay about raising her in Djibouti, where she loved to collect garbage, picked up used syringes, salvaged old language lesson worksheets of mine, and got her fingers stuck inside tampon applicators. It was about my realization that my daughter wanted to be like me and how this gathered detritus revealed how much attention she paid to me.
She rubbed the words and the black ink spelling her name.
“Don’t touch it,” I said. Too late. Djibouti is one of the hottest countries in the world and sweat from her hands left wet spots. The page wrinkled like a raisin.
Maggie sniffled and swiped at her face.
“What’s wrong?” I asked. “You don’t like it?”
“I love it,” she said. “It’s funny.” She sniffed again.
“Why are you crying?”
“I’m not crying.”
And then a big, moist, red blob plopped onto the magazine.
“What is that?” I said.
Maggie didn’t answer. Another blooping splotch dropped onto the glossy page. Right on top of my name. My name for the first time in print.
“Get away from the magazine!” I said and (gently) pushed Maggie back.
She had a bloody nose and it seeped down, over her lips. I snatched a napkin from the table. I wish I could say I wiped my daughter’s bloody nose.
But oh no, my first move was toward the magazine. I wiped the blood, urging it to not leave a rust-brown stain, pleading with it not to make the pages stick together.
Maggie watched my frenzied hands. She pinched her nose. This was far from her first nosebleed and she knew what to do instinctively.
“Go to the bathroom,” I said, without looking up.
She shuffled across our mismatched brown tile and I heard the rip of toilet paper. She returned with a rolled-up plug in her nostril. I was blowing on the pages and reached out to hug her.
I hadn’t read to the last word yet and already my story was smeared with sweat and stained with blood. This wasn’t the way I had pictured my entrance into the world of publishing, which would grow to include The New York Times, Runner’s World, several parenting magazines, a literary agent, and book dreams.
But I wondered, for a mother of three, tucked away in the hottest inhabited country on earth, was there really any other way?
Blood bound us together, we five Joneses living in Djibouti, forging our own family culture in this place so foreign compared to where I grew up. Sweat was our daily reality, even when we could afford to use the air conditioner. Sweat was the sheen through which we saw our dusty and welcoming host nation. And words were how I processed it all. All the cultural faux pas, the loneliness on Christmas, the Islamic call to prayer, the camels on our street. Words helped me shape and remember this life. They helped me celebrate and grieve and clarify.
I haven’t kept all of my published stories. I haven’t even seen all of them because our mail system is unreliable here. But I still have the Get Born magazine. It reminds me that blood, sweat, and words are what I do but this family, this country, and keeping track of it, are also making me who I am.
Image: Writing by OuadiO via Flickr.