Their faces faded in a cloud of dust behind me as the rust-bucket bus stole me away. The dust raised by the rickety vehicle closed like a ghostly fog curtain. Everything disappeared but Jeremiah. He disobeyed his small legs and chased the bus waving and shouting. But he could only follow for a while before the curtain fell over him too. We had said goodbye with firm handshakes and pats on our sun-darkened backs as parting gifts.
Remember me. he had said, giving me these words as though he were passing me a fragile gift wrapped by his own skin.
Today, I see the unspoken gratefulness on his time-ravaged expression. I did not forget him. I have grappled with a weakening memory and have rescued his image from the swirl of eventuality; I come to resuscitate it in my mind to make him real. As we sit in a timeless space without sound, I am trying to fight the change. I watch Jeremiah look at me, a grin slides over his rough face and the twilight shines in his iris. It is as though he is the resting place of the sun.
What news from the city? he asks, clearly not interested in the answer at all. He knows that I come not to bring news. I come because I have nowhere to go.
They are all well in the city: Smiles one day then tears the next. You know how it is. Some things are bound to remain the same. I am here to receive the news from you.
Everyone knows that it is in the country that all the excitement lives. There could be no lie more obvious.
It is amazing how eyes remain the same. He is still the same boy I left standing in the dust road behind me as the bus coughed and spat its way to the city. The contours of his face hide nothing of the turmoil of rural life. Yet he has borne it so well. He is reinforcing his cattle whip, a flexible sapling of the mutondo tree, about three feet long. It has been peeled to reveal the core that is now brown with age. His Herculean forearms are tying a braided length of leather to the end of the limb with a thick rubber band. His strong arms are calloused. His nails are dark brown. Veins are enclaved in a labyrinthine design from his elbows down to his knuckles. I wince at the thought of being the livestock that will be lashed by this weapon. I rise from the brick and dust off my pants. The sun continues to glide towards its end.
Where to, shasha? Jeremiah looks up raising an eyebrow, the women are cooking.
Lets stretch our legs, I am sure he knows where we are going.
We speak very little. It has always been that way, but there is a place where speaking can not be avoided. We trudge down the road walking toward where the sun sets. The sand on the road is getting cool, I can tell when it is caught between my feet and the sandals. Young girls are walking with buckets and pots of water balanced on their heads. Young boys are herding the cattle back to their homes. Men are walking back home from the fields with hoes and mattocks over their shoulders. Women are walking in groups from their gardens. Jeremiah greets each one, I follow suite. We call out a greeting occasionally as we pass homesteads where the elders are outside. It is getting darker. As we pass by one home, Jeremiah sees the mother of the house outside. She is washing a squirming, displeased child in a big metal tub.
It is evening. he calls out in greeting, Has the day been good to you?
Is that Jari? the old lady confesses her weak eyesight.
Yes it is, mother, Jeremiah makes himself known.
Where are you headed at this time when the livestock is going home? she asks, truly concerned. Such are the concerns of the old ladies. Only illness or death would make them budge from their dwelling place when darkness is upon the land.
kwaMarak. Jeremiah shouts out. There is no turning back now.
The stereo blasts away and we sing and watch the drunker ones dance. Maraki sends off two of his kids to spread the news of my arrival. I wonder whether this is in good faith or a ploy to boost his business. It is probably both. The dusty little boys return with throngs of people, all men of the village. They bring with them empty pockets and big, thirsty grins. They call me city boy much to my annoyance. The music pummels our ears and the night finds its way to the village. The news travels that I am back and the bar is obliged to stay open longer. The deep laughter that I have been yearning for saturates the air. The people laugh and, in accordance with what I believe about people of the land: they are joyous. It is a while before I realize that the laughter is also coming from myself.
You are foolish to leave the city to come join us in our suffering, slurs one of the men leaning on me heavily, You city boys can never be weaned from your mothers breasts, huh? everyone laughs the deep, fertile rural laughter.
You are foolish to come to the bar to see me, I retort, as we speak, your wives are moaning to the thrusts of some boy without pubic hairs. and even greater laughter. The man slaps my back and returns to the dance floor laughing.
The laughter runs deep and true like a raging river. It refreshes the lime memories engraved in our bones by the stories we were told as children. We laugh at each other alternately, then at the past, then at the night itself. Tired and pensive, Jeremiah and I take to the gravel road and head back home. The time does not matter. I am now in a place where the only day that matters is Sunday. Every other day folds under the weight of indifference. Jeremiah has had his drink so his tongue becomes lighter. He tells me many things about who has gone, where and when and why; about who had died, or lived; about many things. We walk down the road herding memories back home. I laugh at the emptiness of my pockets. When I arrived, they were swollen. But I bought candy for Jeremiahs children, and gave money to his wives for the childrens schooling and groceries. And of course there was the bottomless well that I tried to fill at the bar.
We exchange secrets with each other and stories of our personal failures. I walk next to this man as though time has passed us by without notice. As the darkness of the early hours of the morning envelopes us, we speak in sullen, drunken voices. We become vague figures dissolved into the night. I feel as though I am walking with Night itself as it tells me the stories of many men. I listen and my mind frees itself to the vast darkness and creates shapes that rise and fall all around us as we walk. The figures disintegrate as they dive, or they linger like the ghosts of the unborn. We both fall silent.
Do you remember the stories Ambuya used to tells us, Jari? I venture into that forgotten place. Do you remember how scared you were of the creatures she created?
You were the one who was afraid. We gift more deep laughter to the night.
They were foolish stories I utter to myself.
She was a good woman, he says so that not even a stranger can dispute.
A slight breeze comes as though someone has walked past me. It gives me a strange comfort. Ambuya always walked with a bent back and without a cane. It would have been difficult, and almost sacrilegious, to imagine her as a younger person. The only suggestion of her having been younger was the shock of hearing my mother call her amai (mother). To think she had been someones mother. Her eyes were stained by age and graying out about the edges of the iris. These eyes, that could have fooled any medical practitioner, could see better than any I knew. They could see beyond the horizon and beyond today. Her facial expressions were but fractals and permutations of her many wrinkles and contours. At her sternest moments, her voice would retreat into a whisper. She was the one who taught me how to keep a secret. Each dawn, her presence was made manifest only by the graceful stealth of her aged footsteps and the therapeutic rhythm of sweeping.
She found her peace, Jeremiah sighed.
TrueI think she had waited a long time to leave.
Her silence and her secrets now blow in the reminisces of the winds. It is a pillar of dust; that memory of mothers.Post published in: Uncategorized