The letter that brought me back to Africa came from my cousin Alpha. I didnt recognise his hand on the envelope: he had never written to me before. Alpha had once been a teacher, but in those changed days he made his living composing letters for other people. People who took their place opposite him one by one, clutching a scrap of paper bearing the address of an overseas relative or else the business card of some European traveller, unwittingly exchanged in a moment of good humour for a lifetime of another persons hopes. Alpha conveyed greetings, prayed for the recipients health, invoked the memory of the dead, and wrote hereby merely to inform them of the senders situation, the dislocations and hardships of the war. Sought their help in solving their many difficulties. By Gods grace. Thanking them in advance.
And then he swivelled the letter around to face his customer, for their perusal and signature. They nodded, feigning comprehension. And signed with a knitted brow and a wobbling hand the letters of their name learned by heart. Or else they pushed a thumb on to the opened ink pad, and left a purple thumbprint like a flower on the bottom of the page.
My own letter was written on a single side of paper taken from a school exercise book. No crossing out, no misspellingssuggesting it had been drafted beforehand and carefully copied out. Alphas signature was at the bottom of the page. Alpha Kholifa, plainly executed without flourishes, a simply statement. He used our grandfathers name, the same as mine, so there could be no mistake. The other thing I noticed, only after I had read the letter through, was the absence of a post-office box address. Knowingly, he had denied me the opportunity to write back with ready excuses, to enclose a cheque bloated with guilty zeros.
The letter contained not a single request or plea. The sum of it was held within two short sentences.
The coffee plantation at Rofathane is yours. It is there.
O yi di. In our language: it is there. Alpha had written to me in English, but the words, the sensibility, was African. In our country a person might enquire of another after the health of a third. And the respondent, wishing to convey that the individual was less than well, requiring the help of God or man, might reply: O yi di. He is there. She is there. The coffee plantation at Rofathane is yours. It is there.
He did not ask me to come back. He willed it.
The letter finished in the conventional manner. Alpha enquired after my husband, whom he had met once, the last time I went back. We had taken the children, to be seen and admired by family and friends, though theythe children, that iswere too small then to have any memory of the visit. I remember my aunts called my husband the Portuguese One, the potho, which had become my peoples word for any European. After those sailors who landed and kept coming back. Named the country. Set up trading posts. Bred bronze-coloured Pedros and Marias. And disappeared leaving scattered words as remnants of their stay. Oporto. Porto. Potho. The tip of the tongue pushed against the back of the teeth, a soft sound. Over the years the word had moulded itself to the shape of an African mouth. It did not matter to themmy auntsthat my husband was, in fact, a Scot.
The morning after the letter arrived I woke to a feeling, which I mistook at first for the chill that follows the end of a warm dream. A sense of apprehension, of an undertaking ahead. Every year for years I had told my Aunt Serah I was coming home. But every year Aunt Serah told me to wait. Come at Christmas. When things have settled down. I knew I had left it long enough. A spectator, I had watched on my television screen images of my country bloodied and bruised. The burned out façade of the department store where we bought mango ice cream on Saturdays. Corpses rolling in the surf of the beach where we picnicked on Sundays, where I rolled for hours in those very waves. A father with his two sons dodging sniper bullets on a street I travelled every Monday morning on my way to school. Peace had been declared and yet the war was far from over. It was like witnessing, from a distance, somebody you know being set upon by thieves in the street. And afterwards, seeing them stagger, still punch drunk, hands outstretched as they fumble for their scattered possessions. Or else, shocked into stillness, gazing around themselves as if in wonder, searching for comfort in the faces of strangers.
Excerpted from Ancestor Stones, (c) 2006 by Aminatta Forna. Reproduced with permission of the publisher, Grove Atlantic. All rights reserved.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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