Excerpt of The Names of Things by John Colman Wood
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He and the boy had been walking, save a couple of hours in the
hottest part of afternoon, since the quarter moon rose at two
oclock that morning. From the settlement of Maikona on the edge
of the Chalbi Desert, they skirted the Dida Galgalo plains, where you
could look in every direction and not see one tree or even a bush, only
lava rubble the color of rotted apples and grass between rocks, yellow
as packing straw. The emptiness comforted him. The flat horizon,
swept daily by unceasing wind, calmed his mind. He missed the place.
He missed the people. But he also wanted the desiccation, the osmotic
suck, to wipe his memories clean and blow them away.
Theyd left at two oclock in the morning because the trip at a
camels pace would take them eighteen hours, and they wanted to arrive
when the camp was still awake. Two oclock was also when the
moon came up, slim as it was, and they needed its light to load the
camels with jerry cans of water and their gear and to find the path amid
The owner of the camels, the boys father, had known Abudo,
knew where Abudos camp was, and sent his son to show the way.
The foreigner did not remember the boy, who would have been a child
before. Now a teenager, Ali was tall, narrow, small shouldered, long
legged. His almond face was handsome except for the pebbles of acne
around his mouth. Ali refused his mothers help. In the end, shed
stepped in to reposition the loads and tighten the ropes. Ali made up
for his lack of skill with teenage indifference. When he smiled, which
in the beginning was not at all, the smile was shy and surprising.
They stopped to rest soon after daylight. So far theyd barely
spoken. They sat in the shade of a low-slung tree on the edge of a
lagga, a dry seasonal riverbed, and chewed tobacco. The camels, still
loaded, browsed lazily at the branches of a nearby tree. The ferenji
wore plain khaki shorts and a T-shirt and a canvas hat for the sun. The
boy wore a black T-shirt and a kikoi made of Indonesian cloth with a
jungle of green and blue potato-print shapes. Both wore sandals made
of old tiresyoung people called them Firestonesthe commonest
footwear in the desert. The metal band of Alis watch was too big for
his wrist. He kept pulling it up his arm, and it kept falling down to his
hand. The watch did not keep time, but it looked smart and Ali was
proud of it. He sat with knees crossed and studied the plains beyond
He asked the boy how old he was.
Kudanijaa, he said. Sixteen.
Are you circumcised?
He might have asked if the boy was in school or played basketball.
It was the sort of question he asked. What did Ali think of himself?
Was he a boy or a man?
Ali opened the cloth, just like that, and showed him.
His penis lay like a cat against his thigh. The wound, a jagged
The man remembered the way he and boyhood friends had shown
off playground scars. It wasnt the penis that Ali revealed, or even his
new status as a grown-up. It was the sign of where hed been, what
hed been through, what awaited him. He said he was cut last Soom
Dera, a good month for circumcisions.
Ali did not ask the man if he was circumcised. He asked if he
was married, and then if it was the custom in his country to pay bride
wealth before a marriage and how much.
The man said there was no bride wealth in his country. Then he
added, in his own language, for he could not think how to say it in
Alis, that over there one paid for the marriage afterward. Ali did not
follow, and the man did not repeat it. But Alis eyes grew wide with
a vision of free women. He was going to have to wait another twenty
years before his father and older brother, who must marry before him,
would produce the necessary camels, goats, sheep, cloth, and untold
amounts of tobacco and coffee berries for the brides family. In the
end, however, Ali likened a free wife to a lover and said it was better
if the grooms family paid for the bride. Then the children knew to
whom they belonged. The man said he and his wife had had no children,
and Ali looked at him sadly, despite his adolescence, because he
knew to be sad about such things.
Excerpted from The Names of Things
by John C Wood. Copyright © 2012 by John C Wood.
Excerpted by permission of Ashland Creek Press. All rights
reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted
without permission in writing from the publisher.