“See how it glitters and glimmers in the sun?” asked Amos.
The old fisherman moved his knotty, weathered hand in an undulating motion, imitating the river’s meandering course. “It is as if the water is smiling at us, no?”
I nodded my agreement.
“But caution, always,” he added. “For some days I doubt the river’s friendship.”
I knew the uncertainty of which Amos spoke, there in the whispering reeds beside me. I had felt it many times myself, since our arrival.
See, a river will conceal many important truths, and won’t be impartial about that fact, neither; yet it brazenly confesses all its weighty knowing in every gleeful glimmer.
You could beg upon the banks and beseech of those bends but a single sympathy; a river simply shimmers on by without a word, and without us. Won’t answer any of your questions. Offers no cessation to your hurts. Doesn’t speak up about the evil it’s seen; in fact, often carries all evidence of that evil away.
Can’t teach a river one damn thing about morality; a river has no conscience about things, won’t flinch at your drowning. And by my reckoning, that kind of conduct goes full against the prescribed order of all natural things.
“But, yet, we can never tell the river which way to run, no?”
The old fisherman stood watching me from the corner of his eye, visibly amused.
A river does not care where we have been, what we have seen, or what has brought us here. It is we who seek the river’s friendship, not the other way round. We doubt it only because we doubt ourselves, because the river does only as the river is meant to do, and we do not.
“Because the river does not speak to us,” he continued. “This does not mean there is nothing to say. Come, listen carefully.”
Listen, said the fisherman, and the river will say only enough. Listen, and it will remind you of how far you have already come.
“And only enough,” he added. “To remind you that you still have a long way to go.”
“A river knows no discouragement, only persistence. Such a worthy lesson could only be learnt in heartbreak,” said Amos, “and the pursuit of it alone will surely break one’s heart.”
And in that sense, continued the fisherman, the Great River had been the greatest friend he’d ever known.
“My father once told me that he couldn’t respect a river if it allowed him to wade across to the other side,” I said, turning to look at him.
Amos nodded to himself incuriously, saying nothing.
I thought about that, what my father had said about wading and respecting, and wondered what manner of terrible river, if any, had come to earn his reverence. As we stood there, watching the smiling river move, I wondered if the rush of these particular waters had ever put his fastness to the test.
Beneath that sparkling surface the depths were dark, containing many long-vanished things. Names, eons ago forgotten, no longer spoken by any living being. And faces, disremembered, the shape of them undone. The heart of an entire people, plucked apart mid-beat, pulled perpetually downstream until unwhole and imperfect in every way. Everything once known here, and loved, and belonging, had been lost to the river’s winding passage.
Whatever heart remained down there, hidden beneath the surface, no longer beat to any rhythm we alive would ever truly understand.
And I wondered, how one would even go about the wading of such a thing.
For a long while we stood silently listening to the deep rumble of its course. The rustle of the phragmites in the low, sweeping wind. The call of unseen water-birds from the faraway banks, sudden dartings in the dried-out greens, the flapping of wings in harried flight. Unclear stirrings from the bustling village in the distance behind us; and the voices of its people, a people forever at work.
These moving roads my father used to travel; this is where they’d finally carried him. Here, to this tiny village, raised up from the sloping ground upon the russet banks of the Great River.
This is where his obsession had finally brought us. For somewhere, out there, in this river, were monsters eating with an appetite unimaginable, unfathomable.
And this is why we had come.
To move as a river does, to be carried forward by my own unfolding.
“Have you ever been to this village before?” I asked, and waited.
But the old man stared only straight ahead, and said nothing.
The first week had gone by, without incident.
Bonfires blazed all throughout the night, to keep the lions away. I watched my father dream fitfully, habitually rolling him over to his left side whenever it sounded like he was choking.
The maniacal, haunting laughter of the wild dogs, lurking up in the hills, kept me sufficiently harrowed, mostly awake, and I’d while away my own private darks watching the bonfires outside slowly fade, a flame at a time, into the breaking dawn; declared by excessively-eager roosters, ad nauseum.
“I learnt a new word today,” I told him.
I waited a while. No response. I continued; I told him that I’d kept hearing it, this word, every time I was out and about, in the village, up and down along the riverbanks, doing my thing, speaking to people. Figured it had to be something important, you know, this word, if we’re all going around saying it all the time. I told him, Umlilo, was the word.
“Do you want to know what it means?”
I stood with my back to the warm, sunstruck window of the room, waiting, watching my father just lay there, crumpled up in bed with his eyes pressed tightly shut, body entirely motionless, saying nothing at all. I thought about repeating the question, this time louder, this time clearer, but didn’t.
Instead, I stood watching him, very closely. I stood watching him, very closely, for what seemed like an unnecessarily long time; given what little I finally had to say.
“I know your goddamn breathing patterns, old man,” I said calmly.
“I know you’re awake.”
The second week had gone by, without news.
I watched the villagers tend their many vegetable gardens, and herd their cattle out to graze along the rolling golden hillsides, and plenish the woodpile to keep the nightly imililo burning high and bright. I watched them scatter their seeds into tilled banks of reddened earth, and spend long hours praying for kinder seasons. They mended broken fences. They mended broken fishing nets. They rewove broken baskets anew. They walked me out to fields afar and showed me wind-sprung ears of bright yellow corn amid many broken stalks, and they smiled bright white smiles. They were exhausting to watch. Tireless in all they did, even the smiling. And it was infectious.
When I’d asked to assist with any of the work, they took my hands in theirs and looked at them and laughed, then took my hands and I around for others to laugh at, as well, and most of them poked at my palms and asked if I knew anything about basket-weaving, and then they’d laughed some more. Finally, we’d all decided that if I absolutely insisted on working, then I’d be much better off dying somewhere down by the river.
And this is how I’d first met the old fisherman, Amos Changa.
“Every man here is like my brother,” Amos explained.
“Every woman is like my sister, and every child is like my child, no matter how ugly or stupid the child, you see? We are one. We work as one. We eat as one. We love as one. We grieve as one.”
I wondered, entirely to myself, if the old fisherman had any wife or children of his own, and truly his own. He’d made no mention of the sort, back then, and he never would. I’d quickly learnt, out there, that certain types of questions will go on hurting forever. I liked Amos, we were friends, and so, I’d made up my mind to simply never ask.
At break of every day, with a steadily-growing string of curious local children in tow, I would walk to the very end of the village and back again.
I spoke to mothers, and I spoke to fathers. I asked if there had been any recent incidents. I asked if there had been any recent news. And I asked those, who were willing, if they would share their tales of horror and woe with me.
And I sat with Amos upon the heaving rapids of the river, watching the shattered sunlight crawl steadily across the waterway, from one bank to the other, and waiting, waiting to hear that a crocodile had, at last, eaten one of the neighbouring River Baptists.
At least, that would make some sense.
By day I stalked the muddy banks of the Great River with Amos, or sat in his pirogue, helping him pull catfish and carp from the murky waters as we floated gently along the current. We were hoping for something much different, a catch far bigger and far more monstrous than what we got, but, day after day, it never came. More catfish, more carp, day after day. Amos never threw a single one back.
By evening I sat quietly at the foot of my father’s bed, listening to the drone of the mosquitoes, the drone of his laboured breathing, filling our little hut from wall to wall. I’d rise from time to time to stand by the window, looking out over the riverbank where, at dusk, the village children would splash and laugh and call one another’s names aloud from the gathering darkness.
I could recognize some of their voices, now, and put faces to the names.
I listened to their laughter.
The nights were black and thick and hot. Long after the bonfires had calmed, and my father had settled, I stood by the window looking out, hoping, but found no gleaming eyes peering back at me from the river banks.
As those nights drew on, growing darker still, I’d sit beside the old man with my hand resting gently upon him, feeling the shallow rise and fall of his chest. In the morning I’d wake and he’d still be there, just as I’d left him, with his jaw all slack and his tongue hanging out. Some mornings he wouldn’t move at all, had no colour to him, and I’d have to check his pulse to see if he was still alive.
I’d ask him if this was what he still wanted.
He used to have green eyes. After a while, I wasn’t sure what they were anymore. They seemed to grow dimmer and dimmer with every passing day.
Progression, sometimes it travels only downwards, in a persistent spiral.
Sometimes, the only progress we ever seem to make is toward our own end.
“Lake Natron, of Northern Tanzania, has red water”, my father told me. “Water red as blood. From the sky looking down it’s as if one were gazing upon the blistering scales of a lizard”, he said, “as if a terrible rash had crept across the bottom of the lake.”
“There are creatures that live there,” he said quietly and carefully, on a day which seemed so long ago. Back when he could still speak without choking on his own tongue.
“There are flamingos, so many flamingos,” he said, and I pictured them wading about in giant flocks on stilt-like legs, filtering the crimson water with their large beaks for the red algae they fed on.
“And the surface of the lake is bright and flat, my boy,” he said, animatedly.
“Picture a giant, undisturbed mirror, reflecting nothing but the sun.”
It seemed a dry and unforgiving place, and on those salty shores of Lake Natron is where this all began.
Half-buried, in the sand and scorching water, what my father had discovered there, in his youth, would forever ruin him.
“These currents are in our veins,” said Amos, trailing long, dark fingers into the flowing waters. “And they disturb, in all of us, an ancient urge.”
He turned to look at me where I sat at the back of the pirogue, knees pulled up to my chest. He smiled, much-too-knowingly.
“Have you ever felt this urge, my white friend?”
Amos told me that the founding sons of this village had been born upon the very rapids that’d carried them here. These were people of the water, descended from the mad anglers of the harsh blue waters, stalkers between the break of the waves, and arrived not in leisure but hurled ashore of these muddy riverbanks. They were buoyant and persistent, wild and rash, thoughtful and calm, and they were their own people, unlike any other. They were formless and ever-changing. Always moving, always unfolding. Just like the river.
“The people here now, some are very stupid, but they are still good people,” said the fisherman. “They have only forgotten where they come from, but the river has not forgotten them. It calls for us to come home, always, this ancient urge.”
My father was a man whose spirit abounded in only the darkest of waters.
Now, most people, they never knew quite what to make of that. Those who hadn’t the stomach for such a thing, they’d simply chosen to go about the rest of their lives pretending like it didn’t exist at all. Called it a sickness, some people did, and total madness, did others, but I’d always known it to be something else entirely, something I’d felt but could never quite explain, something I’d always recognized but could never quite describe.
Amos had finally gone and put a name to it; that sleepless prowling that lives within us all. The ancient urge waits only to be howled awoken. It demands to be felt. The calling home is an incessant one; it simply cannot go unanswered. The soul will respond to the call even if our body does not, and so leave us hollow if we do not follow.
We all hear the calling, our summoning home, and wherever that home may be, only the one who hears it will ever know. Some will trail their primal longings all the way up into the mountains. Some will disappear deep into the verdant woodlands of their childhood imaginings. And, my father, my father was one who begged for the company of all the things we’d never see. The writhing things that moved at secret depths beneath us, beyond all knowledge, who skirted the rims of swirling black eyes in the water; eyes, gazing into which, the beholder may measure the veracity of his own humanity.
And, my father was one who, in the final flickering of his own soul’s flame, desired only to be turned overboard into the dark iris of that void.
To swim with monsters, and determine, one final time, the size of his own monstrosity.
“The river has fed my people well for many years,” said Amos.
“We lie to ourselves, but we can never truly make friends with these waters. How do we do this, make friends with these waters? We meet them only once, and then they are on their way again, to where the rivers go.”
I nodded my understanding from the back of the pirogue.
“A river may never truly be friendly to man,” he continued. “For each new day brings with it newer, stranger waters. A river remembers, always, but the river we knew this morning is never quite the same river, ever again.”
The old fisherman turned to look at me.
“At best,” he said. “The river is only ever partner to our own restlessness.”
I’d been waiting for my father to say something, anything at all, to convince me that he wasn’t entirely lost. To give me some kind of sign that he was still here, still with me, and that we hadn’t come here in vain.
But, the old man hardly ever met my gaze, not even when I’d attempted to feed him, and was moved to pity at how every painful spoonful dribbled from the skewed corner of his mouth.
It was as if his eyes, darkening by the day, were locked upon some horizontal plain, a rail which ran only in insignificant increments from left to right, and slowly back again, and could not deviate, not for all the love in the world.
I wiped his face clean with a handkerchief and stared at him for a long time, waiting.
“Picture a giant, undisturbed mirror, reflecting nothing but the sun.”
Even then, in his old and broken age, there existed, still, a roaring kind of gleam about the man. I’d spied those fires burning bright and deep within him – a depth most people wouldn’t care to plumb – in the most fleeting of bursts.
Yet, he, himself, remained entirely unmoved in those moments.
I yearned with all my heart to know what was going on beneath his surface.
My father had Lake Natron, and I had my father.
Perhaps, the both of us had only ever known the surface of the things we loved.
Tortured by my own inadequacies and my shirt which clung to me, wet with sweat in the sweltering midday heat, I left the old man propped upright in bed to crack the window of our hut.
It was then that we’d only just heard it; the anguished howling of women and children, tearing through the hot, humid air.
I flung my gaze down to the riverside, to the frenzy in the water, to meet with eyes wild with panic and mouths agape, arms and legs reeling and glittering in the afternoon sun as they scrambled for the banks in terror.
There was blood in the water.
There was blood all about those flailing limbs.
I turned at once towards my father, sat up helpless in bed, and, for the very first time in many long days, the old man looked directly at me, and smiled.
“Come! Come quickly, my white friend!” bellowed Amos, bounding up the grassy embankment. I hurled myself through the doorway of our hut, grabbing a three-pronged fishing spear lain against the wall.
“Leave it!” shouted the fisherman, waving a large machete at me. “That will not help you!”
Behind him, down by the river, were several men of the village wading quickly into the frenzied waters with their own gleaming machetes held aloft. Women were hauling each other up the slippery, bloodied bank of the river, grabbing screaming children by any extremity, dragging them away from the water’s wild edges.
“Come!” yelled Amos, and seized me by the arm. Down to the edge of the river we ran, together, tearing down the embankment at a reckless speed.
“Find your courage quickly!” shouted the fisherman beside me, a blur of limbs and grinning teeth and eyes aflame.
“We go to meet your father’s monster!”
The most grim and phantasmagorical of all things wash ashore of Lake Natron. The calcified corpses of many dead creatures litter the sands and salt in that alien land, from starlings or flamingos to even bats and eagles.
Like toppled statues, both whole and shattered, those once-living things lay strewn about the landscape, mummified in their death-poses by the soda and salts of the lake.
It is, indeed, a sight to behold.
“I stood there for a long while,” my father told me. “And I watched those flamingos in the distance, as they tread about carefully in the caustic waters.”
When I was a young boy, those shores of Lake Natron were the setting for every fairy tale and every horror story I had ever known. To my young mind, it was a place where creatures, turning slowly to stone, crawled from the lake to harden and die face down in the sand, and for the longest time I dreaded any motionless thing.
“And if one of those flamingos was to die – and I watched so many collapse and sink below the surface – the others will pile up on top of it, if only to be a few more inches out of the water.”
I pictured those surrounding forests and mountains diminished to hazy fringes upon the edge of the bright, glassy waters. I pictured things with wings, crashing into the surface of the lake, confused by their own reflections.
“In time, the bodies float away and turn to stone,” my father said. “And one day, they just reappear upon the shore, perfectly preserved.”
I imagined how their eyes and noses must have stung in the slightest breeze, standing there beside those waters. I imagined blind flamingos on pink stilts, trampling one another to death.
“Natron is a serene place, my boy, surrounded by ghosts of stone, where you may find your mind too easily wandered far beyond the edges of the world. Where you may see and feel far too much; compelled to follow your obsessions without mercy.”
My mother, an artist by trade, wielded her obsessions like an axe. One could be obsessed or be average, she’d always said, and with that obsession she’d long fuelled the fires of her creativity.
My father, however, had always been a damaged man, and the outlandish fixations of a damaged man, we’d soon come to learn, could only ever inflict further damage. Yet, I cannot find it in my heart to fault him. For, in truth, what my father and his team had found out there, amidst their agonized flamingo company, would very likely drive even the strongest and sanest of men screaming into the arms of madness. What had jarred my young mind so violently, at the time, was not that they had found something half-fish, but that it was also half-human.
And what disturbed me all the more so, in the later years, was not the actual existence of such a creature, but how it had ruined my father so completely, there, upon the lapping shores of Lake Natron.
“It is a strange place,” he said, simply.
“Filled with very strange things.”
At dusk, the Great River lay coiled around those silky twilight bends like a serpent, sleeping and scarlet, and upon its back we oared quietly into the gathering night.
The sun hovered red and menacing, but a slit upon the horizon, when we came upon the River Baptists of the neighbouring village.
I sat watching those men, clothed in their robes like umber ghosts, standing waist deep in the murky river water. Amos steered the pirogue gently by them, and paid them no attention at all. His dark eyes were scanning the surface of the trembling water.
These river ghosts were clapping their hands and singing, while a long, twisting line of people, in various stages of undress, wound their way steadily up from the riverbank reeds and deep into the surrounding shadows.
“Are they not afraid of being eaten?” I asked quietly.
Amos gave no answer, and we rowed smoothly by them in silence.
I sat watching them from across my shoulder for a while, as we made our way further upriver, and saw, briefly, a bare naked young woman making her way down into the water.
Her skin was dark as night. I followed her progress by the fleeting ripples of dying sun, as she waded into the outstretched arms of a robed man, who groped her naked breasts as he threw her over backwards into the river.
Missing children; such was the ship we’d sailed into the heart of this village, and it felt a goddamn graceless thing, but I’d begun to grow despaired.
We’d heard some tales of a creature who had shunned the ocean to swim the waters of the Great River. They said it came up for air beneath the cascading waterfalls here, just north of the village, and that, every so often, it had snatched a child away from the poolside rocks.
They called it the river queen and the water witch and the watermaid, and they said that her tail glimmered like green and blue jewels in the half-light.
It was here, in this world that seemed so far removed from the home I’d always known, that I’d come to learn of a grief beyond compare.
Of mothers who had lost their children to the river.
We’d listened to all the songs of old, and songs of braided weed, and fear of shadows and witches in the water. There were songs sung of widows and widowers and orphans, but no litany existed for any mother who had lost her child to the murky deep. In that place, where brutality and serenity so often entwined, there exists no word for a parent who has had a child taken from them.
We learnt that some losses were just too terrible to name.
I’d walked the length of the village and back again so many countless times, all along the run of the river, and upon those banks I’d stopped and spoken to the many women there, who washed their clothing, and bathed their children, in those same uncertain waters.
I’d met a woman there who’d lost her daughter a decade ago.
“She would be fourteen this year,” she said flatly, in a tone turned hard by sorrow.
She ushered me into her home, and from a box beneath her bed produced the tiniest pair of faded pink shoes, laid out in the palms of her hands. She extended them up to me. I took one from her and slowly turned it over between my fingers.
“That’s all we found.”
We’d spent all night searching for the young boy, who’d been taken so suddenly from the riverbank that afternoon, but no sign of his fate could be found. Only the blood, cast in wide arcs across the phragmites, could prove that he’d ever been there at all.
There were two kinds of mothers out there, of entirely conflicting beliefs, but who shared a single common trait between them; those who had an opinion believed in it quite firmly, and would not be swayed.
There were those who believed that their children had been stolen by the watermaid, and there were those who believed that their children had been eaten by a crocodile. For there were stories told, of a crocodile feasting upon unvigilant children, out where two smaller rivers met to form the Great River.
They said there lived a man-eating crocodile in those crazed waters, where the rivers go to kiss, and they said that his scaly skin glimmered like green and blue jewels in the half-light.
Amos threw a small cast-net from the boat into shallow waters. He was fishing for bait, he said, and was speaking enthusiastically of all the things he would catch, and how he would catch them, but I’d found my mind elsewhere.
I sat watching the subtle undulations, and in the distance, a large black Cape Cormorant sat sunbathing upon a branch twisting up out of the water. With its wings outstretched and beak held high it struck a primitive pose, and for a long while we sat staring at one another across the waterway.
A part of me felt suddenly compelled, then, by an unnamed force, to tear all my clothing off and leap without thought from the bow of the pirogue, as if some stark and uneven siren song had been calling my name. I felt the weight of an inhuman eye upon me, glaring at me from the waters, and feared, abruptly, that whatever terrible thing had possessed my ailing father so had come to possess a part of me, too.
I felt the ancient urge writhe, demanding that I follow tirelessly to the end, that I surrender myself wholly and immediately to the deep of the river.
And, just then, the large black Cormorant let out a shrill, piercing cry with a single flap of its wings, and the spell was broken.
“Do you swim in this river?” I asked suddenly, turning to Amos, who had been mid-sentence about something else.
The old fisherman gave me a wry smile, and replied;
“When I must.”
He told me that very few people here possessed the courage to surrender to their natural cowardice. Not with the entire village looking on.
And I understood. I watched him drape the net across one arm and, holding the lead line in the other hand, cast it back out across the water. For a while he stood whistling quietly to himself, and I listened.
“If you were to swim here,” I ventured, after a while, as I sat peering over the edge of the boat into the river moving around us.
“How would you do it?”
Amos turned to me and frowned.
“That is an odd question, my friend,” he said.
I had no reply to give.
The old fisherman resumed his soft whistling, and somewhere out there, in the distant ripples and flows, I fancied a seductive, melodic response, carrying all the way downstream toward us.
When I’d told Amos of my father’s unhealthy passions, some days prior, and my many concerns surrounding the entire thing, the old fisherman had merely shrugged.
“We find ourselves easily in the things we love,” he said. “But, sometimes, we forget ourselves there, too.”
We’d found no watermaid here, no kidnapper in the reeds, no prowler of the roaring plunge pools. There were no open arms awaiting his arrival at the bottom of this river, and my father spent many a melancholy day shaking his head slowly from side to side, as best he could. When, at last, he’d mastered his lips enough to speak, he whispered only a single word into my ear:
Where the rivers go to kiss.
My father, in his own quiet way, had taught me many valuable things, but nothing of how to deal in matters of grief or loss.
I was a child when my mother, who’d understood her obsessions like no other, had passed away too suddenly from an illness she could not conquer. She was the only woman my father had ever loved.
Until Lake Natron, that is. But there, too, he’d been doomed to watch his lady of the lake shatter into hundreds of unrecognizable pieces the moment they’d attempted to move her.
My father taught me absolutely nothing of how to deal in grief and loss, but how could he possibly have? These were things he’d never truly learnt himself.
The old man lay asleep with his head upon my lap, and I ran my fingers gently through his thinning hair. I sat watching Amos steer us carefully upriver, whistling a low hymn. Through those orange sundown waters we softly rowed, as the day grew darker and darker.
From time to time, my father’s arms would jerk and spasm where he lay, and his old hands would grasp at emptiness, as if, in his faltering mind, he’d somehow found himself back upon those haunted shores, and was trying in vain to gather up all the pieces of his obliterated watermaid.
We arrived in darkness. Amos leapt out into the shallows to pull the pirogue ashore, and together we carried my father across the stretch of sand and grass, down to the very furthest point of land, where the waters of the confluence dashed around the earth to meet.
I stood for a while with my father in my arms – once a big and muscular man – with our chests pressed together and his head resting limply upon my shoulder.
For a moment, standing there, all the noise about us seemed vanished, and there was no sound of rushing water, and no call of the monsters from the deep.
I heard only the sound of our two hearts beating, together, where two rivers collided to form one.
Amos returned with my father’s wheelchair and unfolded it beneath him. I lowered the old man gently into the seat and positioned the chair carefully to face out towards the moon and the very birthplace of the Great River.
“I will wait by the boat,” said the old fisherman quietly, who gave me a single nod, and then vanished into the trees.
I knelt by my father’s side, and took his hand in mine.
I asked him if this was what he still wanted.
And when he answered with a slim smile, I knew there was nothing much more to say about it. I’ve never had the heart for spoken goodbyes, and neither did he.
This is why we’d come, after all.
With one final kiss upon his forehead, I turned away and made for the trees, back to the boat, leaving my father there to wait for his monster.
We returned at first morning light, and found my father vanished. The wheelchair stood empty, just as I had left it, and we found no footprints, nor markings of any kind, in the ground surrounding.
I collapsed into the chair and wept for a long time, looking out across the confluence, into that exact point in the water where one river rushed headlong into another. The old fisherman put his arm around me, but said nothing, for there was nothing to say.
I knew in my heart, though shattered, that my father had finally found some sort of peace, whether in darkness or in light, and that he was no doubt at home out there, somewhere, in the water.
I spent the remainder of the day far away from the river. I watched the village children run a desolate field into disarray, passing a tattered soccer ball with a slow puncture to one another, while their mothers watched carefully from the shady sidelines.
When night finally began to fall, I made my way back towards the empty hut in silence. The darkness grew deeper and deeper with every step, and the rumble of the river louder and louder.
And as I neared the unlit hut, I felt, once more, that I was being watched. Observed too closely by something unseen, something hiding in the water. And I felt, suddenly, that whatever sat watching me was itself immensely satisfied with my loss, and my fear, and my uncertainty.
There were children in this village who’d been born upon the banks of this river, and their blood flowed in the water. Some of them had returned to it in violence, and now they were a part of it forever. And so, too, I believed, was my father.
An awful, mysterious thing had come to stalk the waters here, and it was little wonder why so many mothers were so eager to forget the depths of this river, and move on, and rebuild. I cannot fault their fervour for the fugue.
Few people, myself very much included, will ever possess the kind of fortitude required to rest their heads directly above any space occupied by a box of such ferocious recollection; tiny, faded pink shoes, or otherwise.
And I thought about the old fisherman, Amos, who’d said, in parting;
“One day, my friend, when the waters of the Great River finally run out of ground and recede from their bends, we might then reclaim all missing things gone lost and held captive, no?
Maybe, even, what returns to us has gone and turned strange in those waters, or become changed at heart, or grown unrecognizable in the passing of time, but we will take those pieces as we get them.
We will make them fit those empty spaces.
We will make them fit like they used to.”
I made my decision swiftly, as if the decision had made itself for me, and I found myself making my way down to those muddy banks in anger, steadily undressing as I approached, and waded rapidly and without hesitation into those dark, flowing waters, naked. Deeper and deeper, until the current swept my feet out from under me, and floated me up freely beneath the unblinking gaze of the moon, and a sky full of stars.
And I floated waitful.
Expecting, at any moment, for the cruel jaws of a crocodile, or something far worse, something I’ll never truly understand, to grab a hold of my leg.
I felt as though I couldn’t breathe. I said: “These times are hard.” But I was a junior member of the clan, and female on top of that. When the summer dawned I would leave the homestead to be married. My sorrow was unimportant.
With pursed lips, Olanna returns into view. She kills the music and snatches the lace curtains closed. She loves to peel back the curtains. She does the tango with the breeze.
“With your porcupine teeth, you could even be a cashile.… enhe. What Chief would you be with that enormous nose that is good for smelling dung, utShaka?” they would scorn.
She sees Ofodile taking pictures of the baby as his mother threw their baby up in the air, saying gwam as she caught the baby. Her baby laughed, showing his pink gums, blabbing.
“But caution, always,” he added. “For some days I doubt the river’s friendship.”