"Will Papi be coming with us?" one woman asked him with imploring eyes.
"No," he said. He walked on. He was ashamed.
Two thirds of the village had stayed behind in spite of his pleas. He had stood in the middle of the village square, with charts and diagrams explaining river blindness and treatment to gathering crowds. Then he went from house to house, talking to the women when the men were in the fields, and treating the children's symptoms with antibiotics. But he had a limited supply.
He pleaded with them to vacate the village. He pointed out that villages all along the Sub-Saharan river basin were vacating for the monsoon season. There were clusters of ghost villages all along the river. The people of Quattroyol listened, and some chose to leave, while others stayed with Papi in the land of the blind.
"Think of your children!" he shouted, at first. Before he learnt the dignity of their ways.
"You are a stranger to us. We do not know you. Our God is our God, and he will take care of our children."
As he walked away with the line of men, women, carts, mules and goats behind him, he tried not to think of how Papi had called him a newcomer. They set off in the morning, as the sun was still climbing, their footsteps slow but hopeful. He was born in the village, as they were. He was weaned there, as they were. A stranger. How could a stranger return from foreign lands where the food was abundant and the rivers were bacteria-free to a place where men were blind and women wept for the lack of a future for prematurely dead or deformed children? How could a stranger bear the two rows of tattoo scars that meant he was a man?
He thought of how he had spoken to Sumi as he had never spoken to a woman before. One evening when Papi was not at home yet, he had gone to the house with a package of antibiotics for his wives, for he had measured his chances and realized that the village chief was unlikely to leave the village and its totem god. He talked to the wives, and expressed his hope again that they would leave with him. But no one spoke, only stared at him with large, inscrutable eyes. Sumi spoke up, to his surprise.
"We do not learn your ways of coming and going so easily."
He looked at her for the first time, a thin hard woman in a faded gingham dress, probably from a missionary. She leaned against the doorway, her thin arms folded against her chest. She said again, even though the wives were all looking at her with disapproval,
"You will leave us eventually. We have to live here. If we leave with you, we will return to dead crops and a year of starving."
"It is perhaps better being blind." She added, defiantly.
He knew that she was the fourth wife of Papi, and had two children by him. She could not be considered beautiful, or voluptuous, in the land of the blind, nor yet in foreign lands. But her thin, lovely hands beat the wet clothes against the rock by the river, and she sang softly under her breath as he spoke to her as he had never spoken to a woman, or a man indeed, before.
As he walked, not at the head of the procession, but in its middle, so that he could govern the condition of the ones who were most ill, in the animal-drawn carts, and measure out water for the thirsty. They would not eat until they reached the next town, which was already empty. Its inhabitants had vacated the week before. He envisioned the exodus in his mind briefly, and tried not to worry about the number of beds that might be available in the provincial hospital.
They stopped, and drew out their bread, beaten to such a fineness that it was quite devoid of nutritional value. The diarrhoea that they emitted was similarly thin and watery. He could do nothing about this. The monsoon rains also spoilt food storage on top of crops and made the animals sick.
He wondered how they could live in a place like this for centuries. He thought of how in the universities of the foreign land, the paper skins had talked about how the place where he was born was also the birthplace of all people. The first people had walked here. He did not think how a land that was so inhospitable and harsh could also yield bounty so rich and unpredictable. His mind struggled with why, how, wherefore. But most of all he worried about deaths, not births.
In the rite of passage where they tattooed and circumcised young boys who were becoming men, he sat among the men watching across the leaping flames. Women were excluded from the ceremony.
In another ceremony, which Sumi would tell him but with few details, the women celebrated a girl's marriage by bringing her into a hut and telling her stories of life, birth, reproduction and death. She did not tell him, but he already knew, that women who gave birth to stillbirths, severely deformed or twinned children often took them to the riverside, to bury them in the earth, often as they wept.
He was interrupted from his thoughts by shouts. He stood up. A crowd was gathering to welcome a new group of travellors who had joined them. They were people from Quattroyol who had eventually changed their minds about leaving the village. He saw that Sumi was among them, and was overjoyed.
She was lying on a cart, with her child. The child's skin was patchworked with blood rashes, and so weak that he could not even ask for water. A dry crust flecked his lips. He saw that Sumi had been infected too. Her thin housedress, which he had thought clung to her limbs attentively, now lay flat against her thinner, fighting frame. The child was dying, and his mother, who had obsessively taken care of him, was very ill.
He went to her, and forgot momentarily. What he was doing. Then he remembered that she had warned him before, not to let his behavior suggest any untowardness on their part. Adultery was punished, on the woman not the man. She would be tied up by the river, as they performed the operation, without anaesthetic, without sterilized tools, to cut out from her the pleasure of sex, the thing that made women go bad.
He held back, and called immediately for water to be brought for the woman and her child, as well as the others. He did not want to show his agitation, which they might mistake for favoritism. He asked, in a voice that he made as calm as possible, where Papi was.
"He is still in Quattroyol. He refused to come, but he let her come," a man said. He gestured at Sumi, lying on the cart. "She is so sick. Maybe he thought she might make the rest of them sick."
He said nothing, and looked into the distance. As a baby, he had told Sumi, he could remember this sliver from his distant memory. His parents had laid out objects in front of him, a few bright things, and waited for him to pick one. She had laughed and explained that it was a custom for newborn children, in a game that they hoped would predict the baby's future. They laid out things that represented different futures. There were a flower, a jewel, a spoon, a bell, a pair of spectacles. Everyone wanted the baby to pick up the spoon, meaning food on the table for the rest of his life.
"What did you pick up?" she asked, with a smile.
"I picked out the bad thing. They made me put it back again and again. I think I kept picking it up, even though they made me try again and again."
"Oh yes," she laughed this time, her teeth white and even against her lips. "They do it in the hopes that the naughty baby could avoid his future."
"How Pavlovian," he said, and had to explain what he meant to Sumi, greedy Sumi, who always wanted to know what he meant. Satisfied, she then asked him what the naughty object was.
"It was a book," he said. "I don't know why they thought it was a bad thing. To read a book you would have to see. It would mean I would live, and still have my vision. No river blindness for this baby."
She was quiet, and looked at him in a soft way that he had not seen before. "They thought it was bad. Because it stood for something foreign to their lives. Hope."
He gave the orders for the villagers to move on. They began to argue, for the first time since they set off that morning. It was night, and they had been walking the whole day. They must rest, or they would not complete the journey.
He had to struggle to stifle his irrational thoughts. He was afraid that she would die before the next morning. He did not want to wait for another day to reach the antibiotics at the hospital. He had never touched her, and yet she was wasting away before his eyes, silently without calling out. Sumi would not call out for help.
The sunset was spectacular. The sky rapidly darkened to a blackness. The blackness was so complete it was without stars. The walls of jungle vegetation stood all around them, and the buzz of insects poured into the air they breathed. He could not see the figures properly, as he moved among them, dispensing water, comfort, although he had little comfort in him.
He thought of other sunsets, in a place where the towers were high and pierced the sky. He thought of how he had sat, robed in black, on a bench in a pruned garden, reading a book by his favorite writer, as it changed his mind and ideas. It had transformed him, to sit in that place reading that book. It had been very real.
He had the book still, in his bag, even though he had told the villagers not to bring unnecessary objects. He took the old, torn, loved book out in the night, and could not even see the cover for the darkness. But he knew what it read. Plato's Cave.
But the book was from the foreign land, the white book, what did it know of his land, this reality, and the clouds of flies that descended upon whole villages to annihilate them? It was not a biblical plague, sent to punish the wicked. This was where the cradle of life began, in the hot, infested womb of the land. His land that was going blind.
He heard a child scream. Someone tried to hush it, murmuring. A woman - Sumi? - coughed. There was love and death in the smell of the monsoon rain. But was there hope, could one pick hope out like it belonged to him? Like he deserved it, and had the right to it as he had the same right to life. As though he could see it in the land of the blind, but only with his heart.
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QLRS Vol. 2 No. 4 Jul 2003