Elema sat on his stool just outside the door, wrapped in white muslin cloth, and the ferenji sat on the ground to Elemas right upon the stiff skin the boy brought. He wondered where Ali was. Probably drinking tea at a relatives tent. Elemas wife came out with a cup of tea, which she handed him without a word. He took it, and she went to unload the camels. As she worked she spoke to a woman in the next tent over. He listened hard. She told the woman that they had guests. She asked where the womans daughter was and whether all the goats and sheep had been milked. Elemas wife ducked into her own tent, and soon the other woman passed without greeting and entered.
Elema was talking about rain. He did not speak of other things. The rains were overdue. The time was nearly past. Hed seen white egrets atop an acacia. Lightning flashed over the northern highlands. The animals were weak. Some were unable to make the widening journey between wells and pasture. They were dying, and the prices traders paid for goats and sheep were as low as Elema remembered. If only it would rain, Elema said, everything would be all right. Not everything, he thought.
But Elema probably didnt mean everything.
He missed details and nuances. For instance, he could not hear irony. Didnt know if they used it. He responded to what Elema and others said, echoed their verbs as they spoke, like a good listener, but without full understanding. His language wasnt good enough. Never had been. He moved through their world like a partially deaf man, reading lips, catching facts, guessing at meanings. It was only after much repetition, hearing different people in different contexts, that he put things together, piecemeal, an archaeologist assembling a broken vase from shards.
Elema did not speak of Abudo.
Elema asked the man about his home. How was his wife? Why hadnt she come with him? Had God given them children? Had he finished the book he was going to write? Did others know their suffering? Would they send help?
He answered carefully. He did not explain about her. He did not know how. What could he say? It wasnt done.
He said hed finished the book. Only a few people would read it. Those who did might speak to others. You never know. He was doubtful. People over there hardly ever think of people here.
Elema said that was true. When our enemies are far away, we do not think of them. It is only when they attack and steal our animals that we think of them.
Elema whispered something into the tent.
They sat then for a while, chewing tobacco, listening to the sounds of the camp settling. Hushed voices within tents. The unending bleats and grunts of goats and sheep.
Another man joined them and sat on a stool beside Elema. He did not recognize the new man, did not remember the voice. They greeted. The man asked if he was the ferenji who, years ago, drew water for animals at the wells.
He smiled at the memory. Hed often drawn water, lifting bucket after bucket from the bottom of the well to the trough. It was work he could do, work he enjoyed.
He is the one, Elema said.
Elema and the man then spoke of camp matters.
He did not follow it all, something about a familys troubles, the result of drought.
They spoke in shorthand, with too much shared knowledge and too many idioms that he, after all this time, had lost or never learned. A woman emerged from the tent with a milking bowl. She stood before him. He could not see her, only her shape against the night sky. It was not Elemas wife, who was smaller.
The woman bent down and held out the bowl.
Ho. Take this.
He accepted the bowl with both hands.
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.
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