Chembera Bridge

There is nothing west of Gwanda. It is empty Matabeleland. But I turn my toe to that nothing. And I go. * A man is a terrapin—so my father says. …

Illustration by Rolli
Illustration by Rolli

There is nothing west of Gwanda. It is empty Matabeleland.

But I turn my toe to that nothing. And I go.

*

A man is a terrapin—so my father says. His wife, his child, they stand on his shell. And he pulls them. He goes a mile a day, he is steadfast. Another child climbs on. Another. Perhaps his father, his mother, who have grown old. He goes a foot a day, now, the terrapin. Now inches. Now an inch. Now he is kicking sand, and getting nowhere. As he kicks, a grandchild climbs on. And the poor terrapin—he is crushed.

That is my father. I laugh. Wagging my head.

Mwana, he says. You are a bachelor—still. You do not appreciate.

I watch the fire. Down in the coals . . .  The best words are there.

Baba, I say. You can bear nothing, and still be kicking sand. The chambers of the heart . . .  There is room for burden, there. More than a back could ever bear.

He grunts, my father. Sticks his pipe in his gums.

Quiet is confirmation. He knows, my father. I am no fool’s son.

I tell him . . . about the missing boy, the ransom. But he does not listen.

He looks in the fire, my father. He says nothing.

*

I am walking, I am kicking along. I kick the dust until there is none. Then I kick sand. The sand gets redder, as the sun setting. Then it is rust red of Kalahari. A man who prizes life, stops there. I keep going.

A gully comes up. I go down the hill and up. It is high, the other side. I am so tired by climbing, I pile my bones on the top.

I will never get up again.

So I close my eyes—then open them. I pluck my bones up, I surprise myself. I am settled—yet maybe afraid. I cannot say. But I keep going.

It is flat land ahead. A man can see eternity, but he looks at his feet.

I forget I am walking until I remember my thirst.

I forget my thirst and remember my hunger.

I forget my hunger and remember the sun.

Then I forget everything. I hear something. It is—I am unsure what. It is like a bird. I catch it again—but the wind snatches it.

I turn my toe. There is something on the skyline. The heat waves it, like a flag. I am beat but my feet are curious. They keep going.

A bridge. It is no illusion. It is a bridge—and next to it, a banyan.

I rub my eye—but in the shadow of the banyan, there is a man. As big as a kitchen. With a big beard. Sitting bent-legged in the sand.

Strange, to see a man there. But I am there, too. Perhaps it is not so strange . . .

Hello, I make myself say.

The big man grins.

Hello, again.

Nothing, again. But a bigger grin.

I think he is not quick. I wonder if he is dumb.

A few steps and I see the vine. The kiwano vine winding around the tree. The tree is dead but the vine thrives. The big boy plucks a melon, pricks it with his thumb. He sucks the jelly from the shell. The white seeds in his black beard—I see these from far off. And the shells everywhere.

When I am close, he puts down his melon. Pinches a fat one off the vine. Holds it out to me.

I shake my head. I am hungry, and I am thirsty, too. But none of that matters . . .

So he sits the fat melon on his lap, the man. And finishes off the other.

The bridge. I am staring at that bridge. It is inscrutable. It is stone—chembera, very old. It spans nothing. There is nothing under it. Just sand.

So I turn my toe to this bridge. I stand in its middle. A bridge is as good a place as any, for thinking.

But my heart is beating. And I cannot think.

The wind uncovers something. A ring of—mudbrick, it looks like. In other spots, too, I see bits of brick.

A village.

The desert is brutish. It feeds and it stretches. More villages have been consumed than are left, I would bet. And there is not only drought. There is the virus . . .

Virus. When I think that word, I am finished. A word may as well be a cannon. When it is the right word.

I am finished. I am done. I sit on the bridge. Then I lie.

I will never get up again.

I close my eyes . . .

There is that sound, again. Like a bird. It is the same—but louder.

I open my eyes. I sit up. I stand.

There is nothing in the sky. But lower down . . .

It is no bird. It is the big boy. He has switched his melon—for a horn. He is blowing it, beautifully. I think … it is the sweetest thing. That I have ever heard.

I am beat, but my feet are moving. They are taking me to the tree.

That music. I close my eyes, it is so good.

When he finishes, the big man spits out his horn. The melon on his lap—the same fat one, I am certain—he picks up. Holds it out to me.

This time, I take it.

There is room for two, in the shadow. I suck the jelly. And listen to the big man play.

I sit a long time there, eating kiwano, listening. I do not even think, but listen.

And it returns to me. My courage. My desire of life. My strength. It happens, it is that simple. It is inscrutable. Like the bridge.

I hold my hand out. The big man takes it. He shakes me. He grins.

I think I grin, too.

*

I am not sure how, but I get back to Gwanda. I get there just. The sky is turning. My ears are ringing. Then the sky is flying back . . .

When I open my eyes, I am in a white room. In the new hospital.

Good news, says a smiling man. There is money for medicine. From the government.

I am a cool man. But I am crying.

*

It is a long time, before I tell my father. About the desert. The big man, the bridge. To try a new thing, he listens. Then pulls his pipe out.

Mwana, he says. That is fever. That is dreaming.

Down in the coals. I pick my words.

It is dreaming, I say. But it is true.

He grunts, the old man, sticks his pipe in his gums. He looks into the fire.

He says nothing.

Rolli
Rolli (rollistuff.com; @rolliwrites) is a writer and cartoonist from Regina. His most recent story collection, I Am Currently Working On a Novel, was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and short-listed for the High Plains Book Award. Rolli’s cartoons appear regularly in the Wall Street Journal, Reader’s Digest, Adbusters, and other popular outlets.

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