I picked up the palm frond from the makeshift parking lot beside the hospital. There is no paving there, but the hospital and county health department vehicles often park there when not in use or when they are being worked on. The patch of parched earth and scraggly grass was almost empty and the hospital behind it lulled quietly – no wails of lament or pain.

More than a tree’s discard, the frond was a symbol of death. The long green stems are twined into the grill of trucks carrying dead bodies away from the hospital. It looks more festive than it is – like a misdirected participant in a Saint Patrick’s Day parade or something. But really it is a reminder that hospitals – especially remote, underfunded, and overcrowded hospitals – cannot save everyone.

Two months ago I wouldn’t have seen the frond. The green lines would have blurred into the scenery with every other green thing. I’m just beginning to translate the details, and not merely the broad strokes, of my surrounding. Decode the mystery that doesn’t appear to be a mystery.

Every place has them. The things people know because they know them. Because they have always known them and can’t understand how someone could not know. Like when I first moved to South Africa and I asked my host mother – after several messy and waterlogged attempts – how to take a bucket bath. She laughed at me outright, and when I continued to look at her expectantly she kind of cocked her head quizzically to the side and patted me on the arm as if we were sharing a joke.

How could I not know?

In Liberia I am learning that the well sometimes goes dry, the mangos appear around May, that the Friday market happens on Thursdays when Friday is a holiday. That the white birds will migrate before the rains reappear, toppogee will make your stomach run (if you aren’t used to it), the exchange will drop from 70 to around 60 during the December holiday season, and palm fronds on the front of a car means a dead body is being transported.

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