In that place, for a moment, I heard them. I believe I did. A childs laugh, teasing and triumphant, crowning some moment of glory over a friend. The sound of feet, of bare soles, flat African feet pat-patting the earth. A hummingof women singing as they worked. But then again, perhaps it was just the call of a crane flying overhead, the flapping of wings and the drone of the insects in the forest. I stood still, straining for the sound of their voices, but the layers of years in between us were too many.
I passed through the ruined groves of the coffee plantation that by then was mine. Not in law, not by rights. Customary law would probably deem it to belong to Alpha, Asanas son. But it was mine if I wished, simply because I was the last person with the power to do anything with it.
Down by the water, under the gaze of a solitary kingfisher, a group of boys were bathing. At the sight of me they stopped their play in order better to observe my progress, which they did with solemn expressions, kwashiorkor bellies puffed out in front of them like pompous old men, sniffing airily through snot-encrusted nostrils. I smiled. And when they smiled back, which they did suddenly, they displayed rows of perfect teeth. One boy leaned with his arm across his brothers shoulder, his eyes reclining crescents above his grin, and on the helix of his ear the cartilage formed a small point in exactly the same place as it does on my sons ear. I had bent and kissed that very place as he lay sleeping next to his sister, before I left to catch my early morning flight.
And later, inside my grandfathers house, I pushed open the shutters of a window, finely latticed with woodworm. The plaster of the window sill was flaking, like dried skin. The clay beneath was reddish, tender looking. In the empty room stood the tangled metal wreck of what was once a four-poster bed. I remembered how it was when my grandfather lived and I came here as a child on visits from the city on the coast where my father worked. Then I sat bewildered and terrified before him, until somebodya grandmother, an auntpicked me up and carried me away. It was only the fact that my father was the most successful of his sons, though still only the younger son of a junior wife, that made hum deign to have me in his presence at all.
In the corner a stack of chests once stood, of ascending size from top to bottom. Gone now. Fleetingly I imagined the treasures I might have found inside. Pieces of faded indigo fabric. Embroidered gowns crackling with ancient starch. Letters on onion-skin parchment. Leather-bound journals. Memories rendered into words. But, no. For here the past survives in the scent of a coffee bean, a persons history is captured in the shape of an ear, and those most precious memories are hidden in the safest place of all. Safe from the fire or floods or war. In stories. Stories remembered, until they are ready to be told. Or perhaps simply ready to be heard.
And it is womens work, this guarding of stories, like the tending of gardens. And as I go out to them, my aunts, silhouetted where they sit in the silver light of early dusk, I remember the women returning home at nightfall from the plots among the trees.
And I wonder what they would think if they came here now, those hapless port drinkers. Of all the glorious gifts the forest had to offerfresh coffee.
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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