There was a time when I couldn’t even talk. Perhaps
I learned to talk and write like a man who can’t stop
tinkering with the things he has found on the street.
The construction grows larger, and more and more
fantastical, until one day he just gathers up his clothes
and toothbrush and moves in.
Now that this story has been completed, I realize I
didn’t write it seeking forgiveness – life itself forgave me
long ago – but because the emotions belong to everyone:
the sorrow, the longing, even the happiness. And what
is happiness anyway? Perhaps, after finishing the story,
the reader, like me, will witness the way the evening sun
can sink through a woman. The glow on the face of a
woman that allows us to see the sun long after it has
set – I come from a family who value things like that.
Stay sitting where you are a little longer to wait for the
stars, which will appear like embers years after the fire
has gone out. That too is a miracle.
I don’t know exactly when – I still couldn’t think in
terms of days and years, that’s how long ago it was –
but the heat made us so drowsy that we nodded off and
slept whole afternoons away in a heap, spread-eagled on
top of each other. We caught termites by pushing long
twigs, as flexible as blades of grass, into their mounds
and then licking the twigs clean. We risked being trampled
underfoot to steal ostrich eggs out of the nest by
running a few steps and then dropping to the ground
so the surprised bird could no longer see us and would
wander off to find out where we had got to. The sunsets
were grandiose, so colourful and intoxicating that, sated
with shoots and pith, we gathered in a tree to watch,
arms wrapped around each other’s shoulders, drinking
in the reds, purples and oranges with our eyes.
As was the custom in our family, we youngsters had
gone out into the world together. We hung from branches
one-handed to show off our muscles. We felt like princes
and princesses. We were young and beautiful and our
bliss was never going to end.
While we were picking berries, one of us disappeared.
We thought he was playing a joke on us. When the joke
went on too long, we forgot him. When the second disappeared,
we remembered and grew restless. By the third
disappearance we were panicking. Our certainties had
been snatched away. We couldn’t trust our own shadows.
Without stopping to make a plan, we fled, directionless.
Our enemy was unknown. We didn’t even know if there
was an enemy. All we knew was that somebody who
was right in front of us could disappear a minute later
without trace, without a sound. Every time someone
disappeared, we caught that same scent of musk and
The realization sank in: this wasn’t going to stop.
Only later did it occur to me that those who were left
were the skinny ones, the least interesting. My younger
brother had a wound on his stomach; I was not yet fully
grown. But eventually I too disappeared. One moment
I was under a tree and quietly creeping up a hill to get
a view of the plain, the next I felt something heavy falling
onto my back, a sharp prick in my neck. Everything
around me went black. I couldn’t move.
In that blackness I found the others. We could only
smell and feel and hear each other. We couldn’t reach
out or embrace. We were squeezed in, blindfolded, our
wrists and ankles bound, but now and then, for a few
stolen seconds, we could lay a head on a shoulder.
And those seconds were enough to bear the lashes that
Soon after my disappearance the journey began. They
removed our blindfolds and – before we’d had a chance
to adjust to the glaring light and with remnants of the
poison they’d used to drug us still in our veins – the
horse set off. A rope tied to its tail led to the wrists of
the first, who was roped in turn to the wrists of the
next in line, who was roped in turn to the wrists of the
next in line, and so on… As long as everyone kept in
step it was fine, but the moment someone stumbled or
hesitated, the horse felt a stabbing pain in its tail and
let fly with its sharp hooves.
We walked in the heat of the day from sunrise to sunset.
When we came to a waterhole they let the horses drink
first and then gave us a few minutes. The food – something
dry that tasted of maize – was thrown down in
a heap and we had to kneel forward, wrists tied, and
fish it up out of the sand with our lips. If we made the
slightest sound, the whips hissed.
We are a tough family. We keep going. If we don’t get
up, it can only mean we’re dead. When someone from
another family fell and stayed lying there, a rider jumped
off his horse, cut the rope without a word and tied it
to the wrists of whoever was marching behind them.
Don’t stop to think! And definitely don’t look back! So
far, no one from our family had been left behind. We
learned to breathe in a certain rhythm to keep step with
each other and at the same time our breathing became
our way of secretly talking to each other, whispering
Hungry, thirsty, hot and hurting – our wrists and the
soles of our feet swelled. I felt so much like lying down
on the ground and never getting up again.
How do you survive something like that? By grabbing
what you can. Every drop of water, every grain of maize
counts. If someone falls? Step over them, eyes closed.
Don’t grieve, grieving takes energy. At most you think:
when somebody doesn’t get up, there’s more food for
me. Don’t look further than the feet in front of you.
Otherwise you will see something glimmering in the
distance and, with every new step, that glimmer moves
forward and you start thinking you’ll never touch that
glimmer no matter how long you live. Put your left foot
in front of your right foot and your right foot in front
of your left. And again.