Photograph by Christian Lambert
get off at the third left after the sharp bend, by the grove of dying mangoes that hang low on the tree. perhaps they are already putrefying from the inside, because not even the famished dogs will reach for them, and only the hordes of black, sticky flies will pause to content themselves with the sparkling, gelatinous wake seeping from the heart revealed within the mangoes’ splitting flesh.
there may be a river that you need to cross. if it has rained enough, you will need to step from rock to rock, until you find yourself farther from the sharp edges of the shore and can wade more safely. you can walk the whole route.
it has only happened once that the river was so deep that the travelers needed to swim, and only three people have ever been lost to the current, as they were attempting their long, tired journey through this place.
if it has not rained for weeks or even months, you will need to look for the obliquely etched trail and its long denticle of darkly burnished rocks for direction. perhaps some of the stones will still bear the wet proof of where the river was, though if the spring was parched and weak, or if the summer was long and hot, they will not. instead, the rocks and pebbles will be painfully bright from the metallic sun beating down on their sharps and curves, and invisible eddies, or they will be so dusky and utterly dry, that you can hardly distinguish even the riverbed itself from the incensed, blazing orange of the clay-hung sky. the sight will hurt you either way.
iv. it is therefore extremely important for you to remember that the river may simply not be there at all—if it has not rained, there will be no river, no current’s pull, no sluicing waters, and no risk. your eyes can find nothing, and still endure. or they won’t.
once these first hurdles have been crossed, you will travel two days, on a westward facing course. there will be crags and stones. there will be a long, then steeper climb. when you come to the marketplace, it might first seem an oasis, buoyant with voices and glittering with wares. keep your eyes on the ground, keep fast on your path, and do not accept false promises. conviviality is the desert’s siren song.
stuff wax in your ears, to block out the sound. place stones under your tongue to prevent yourself from crying. stuff cotton or the red acacia’s feathery leaves down your throat, to keep from singing too. you must not hesitate or falter. you must continue on your way. do not think of odysseus’s failure. do not think of the small trojan children who tumbled down like flattening trees into the infernal chasm. do not think any ravenous cyclops will ignore the familiar smoothness of your now-thirsting throat.
you will arrive at your father’s village at daybreak the following day.
the decorated mourners in all of their hired grief will accompany you from the now unused cistern to the fan-like marula trees, whose branches are still spotted with the last of the season’s brightly colored mopane worms. the marulas line the boundaries of the village; they also shade the left side of your father’s small, tight home.
lush, their leaves fan out like the soft, fringed eyelashes of some special girl. your eyelashes, in contrast, are sparse. decorous. properly restrained. as the mourners match their footfalls with yours, and pinch the folds of their flesh, and rend their hair, they may pause to fan you lightly, or perhaps they will tenderly brush away the cloak of thick red dust that you wore all of the long way here. it might be love to be seen in grief like this.
but you must be wary of the mourners’ affections. their tears are fat and round like the marketplace’s coveted coins. these crying people may know your face, but they do not know your name, your thumping, preening heart. still, you must be accepting of their litanies of sorrow. you must cradle their despair like a tired, solemn baby, or they will turn against you once their tedious grief has been paid in full. perhaps you can respond with a long, jagged sigh, but if your heart won’t have it, you should at least respond by dutifully tearing the corner of your robe.
the small home is empty, save for the green brocade ottoman, worn and rounded at the corners, and save for a ceremonial gown carefully draped on the folding table. it will be worn once more, on your father’s final day, then burned, and then buried by the new mpundu trees. but slowly, as your eyes adjust to the small razor of light that enters through the window and cracks around the heavy blanket serving as a door, you see the three sketched silhouettes of your father and his sons, emerging slowly from the darkness like slick gray fish against the felted black.
xii. you will shake your head and feel awash with remorse. your eyes may shutter, or open wide. you might wish that you had not waited, that you had not spoiled so much time. and you will surely, surely, with your long guilt and growing hunger, wish bitterly, desperately, futilely, that you had turned back.
xiii. but if you have followed my suggestions thus far, consider too these final words of advice:
remember what a long road it was to get here.
remember that you must only eat and drink at dusk.
remember to soothe yourself by focusing on the simple tasks, like blinking, inhaling, turning the banana leaves, setting tea to boil, exhaling.
keep quiet, or the others will sniff out your particular brand of grief.
keep to yourself, to yourself.
i would advise you not to look around. i would advise you not to look away.