The town where the boy died is indistinct. Once or twice a week a bakkie comes and people who want to go to the bigger towns and the train climb on and go south. And once or twice a week a boat comes from the islands in the lake. The town has a church and two doctors, both American. The government sends nothing. There are no road signs. We stayed there just one night; on the day we left, he died.
We arrived from one of the islands with no map and so I do not know the name of the town. People told me the name, I am sure, but in the heat and in my desire just to be there and in the blur of all the towns and all the people, I have forgotten it. We came across the lake from Malawi where the towns were dense and loud. This town in Mozambique was not like that.
Our motorbike is clogged with dust and on the ferry from Malawi to the island men inspect it and cluck in disapproval. This is a land of motorbikes, light ones that are never left to rust. I try to explain to one man that we have been moving fast, see, not staying long in places, we haven’t had time to clean it. He reaches across and grips my shoulder, smiling. His other hand he places on the seat of the bike.
– Yes, man, he says. Maybe so, but a machine like this? Forget about it too long, my friend, and au, au, au.
I nod. My girlfriend nods. We needn’t say anything; that we are in mild disgrace is clear enough. We pass around a bottle of water as the sun sets on the other side, over the place we left behind. From the top deck of the ferry we see the lights of the fishing boats begin to appear all along the surface of the water. As the sky darkens and the stars come out, the lines between the lake and the hills and the heavens disappear and we are left, moving slowly through a field of suspended white gold.
The man with the motorbike advice has gone down to the lower decks to sleep among the crowds. On camping mattresses beneath kikoys we lie down. We have more space around us than we have had during months of sleeping in tents and on narrow beds made of wood and sinew. My girlfriend takes a picture of me and I take one of her: the flash is so bright, all you can really see of us is dirty hair and our two pairs of eyes.
By noon the next day we reach Likoma Island. Already from the water we can see the baobabs. The motorbike is lowered into a boat and rowed ashore with us balanced next to it. Crates and sacks are packed in around it and beneath us. People balance on the sides of the boat. It is a pretty day. There is no real town in the cove where the ferry stops, only a small shop selling milky tea and bread, and women selling tomatoes and onions and the tiny silver fish that are all the lake seems able to offer. There is a big Land Rover branded with the name of a luxury camp that we know is on the south-eastern edge of the island. A German family sits in the back, all tall and brown and dressed in linen. Except the teenage daughters: they wear denim shorts and pearl earrings. One of them went to the same Cape Town school as my girlfriend and they all exclaim and talk for a minute. She walks back, kisses me and laughs.
– Too weird, she says. All of it is too weird.
Looking at the truck and the clean-smiling Germans I say, Ja, too weird, hey.
We stay there three days, sleeping in our tent on a beach. There are some other people, and a small restaurant, but we spend most afternoons walking to the village to buy food which we cook on a fire behind our tent. But mostly, we swim. The water there is not like water everywhere else in the world. It is some other substance. The dirt that is poured into it daily by the towns on its sides just disappears somehow, is turned into white sand and sunlight so that, looking at the bottom twenty meters below you, you can see the tiny fish build their pyramid homes and you can see the shadows made by the shells and pebbles that they cast out.
– Do you think it will rain?
She looks at the horizon. We are in the water, waist deep.
– Our tent will get wet.
– And we’ll have to eat peanuts for supper.
– And whiskey. Peanuts and whiskey, oh, woe!
She laughs and sinks down until just her eyes are above the water. I put my hands on her head and dive over her. Out far away from the shore, I stop. The water and the air are silent and I try not to move, the better to feel myself dissolve.
That night we sit on the beach and watch the lightning. In the darkness the wind moves and the water makes its noises. Everything waits. Then between water and cloud there is a bolt – impossible to know the source – and all that lay around us jumps for one mercurial instant into view, and the great clouds are a cavern of purple and white and beneath them the lake takes in what they throw at it. The rain approaches. And really it is all only ever a memory; it was a thing too fast to see, a thing pressed onto your eyelids and into your chest but impossible to look at.
– No wonder there were no boats out today.
– The fishermen must know when a storm is coming.
– There was that one man, by himself.
– I saw him. He was paddling toward the other end of the island. Wonder where he went.
I stand and rinse my hands of sand and go back to the tent but she stays there a while, feet in the water and arms spread in the living air. When she crawls in next to me she pulls off her dress and my jeans without speaking.
The day after the storm we catch a boat to Mozambique, to the town whose name I cannot remember.
There are bullet holes in the walls of the houses. There are bullet holes in the unpainted church. The town stands naked, with bare roads and bare houses, and a bare market spread thinly with tomatoes, onions and small purple bananas. An American doctor and his girlfriend, who we met on Likoma, offer us the banda of the other doctor, an older woman, who is away. But first, we must be recorded by the immigration officer. So we walk through a broken gate into a scratched garden and stand in front of the building there – the office. No one appears. The doctor walks off to find the man. His girlfriend shifts on her feet.
– He’s amazing, I mean, really close with the locals. My Portuguese isn’t so good but he’s fluent. They love him. She shifts again and doesn’t look up.
– How long have you been here? asks my girlfriend. She sounds placatory, gentle, like a girl to a younger sister with a broken toy horse.
– About six months now. We have to go to Likoma every three months when my visa runs out to get a Malawian stamp and then a new visa back on the Mozambican side.
She looks off toward the town. My girlfriend watches her. Later she says to me, Jesus, that girl is lonely. He has something to do here, and all she has is him.
The doctor returns.
– He was just taking his midday bath. He’ll be here soon.
The immigration officer is short and does not speak much. He only smiles. He smiles as though we are all old friends. As he comes toward us, he buttons a khaki shirt over his vest and then unlocks his office. It is a small room with a fold-out wooden counter and a pile of ledgers in leather binding. Behind the immigration officer, a calendar hangs.
He puts his hands on the counter, and beams.
We hand them over. My girlfriend turns to the ledgers and opens the first page of the last one.
– Hey, this is from 1960. These have been here fifty years.
– Through the war and everything?
– Must be. It’s all written here, everyone who’s ever come through here.
Us too, now, I think as I watch her.
As he stamps our passports, the immigration officer eyes the ledger sideways, the way a dog eyes a person who is too close to the gate. She notices.
– Sorry, sorry. Pardon.
He beams again. Then he picks up a pen and enters our names into the newest of the books: slowly, and in cursive writing. Our passports are handed back to us after we give him the right number of dollars.
– Obrigado, obrigado, he says, squinting at us and folding his hands.
– You swim?
The boy looks at me. He shifts his weight so that, squatting, he sinks deeper into the sand. We are on the edge of the water at dusk. I don’t know the Portuguese for swim.
– Swim? This time I point to the water and paddle my arms around.
His eyes grow wider and he smiles.
– Sim. The voice is small. Tu?
– Sim. Eo gosto.
He nods and is silent. We turn back to the water. After a minute he taps my knee and points up the shore to where reeds stand thick in the water.
– Crocodilos. No swim.
He opens his eyes as wide as they can go and pulls his lips back with his fingers. He gnashes his small white teeth at me and gurgles in his throat and I start to laugh and so does he. Then he is up and sprinting, shouting at me to follow. At the doorway to the doctor’s banda, he stops short.
– Ola, amigo. Como vai?
– Bom, doutor. Doutor?
– Sim, amigo.
The boy speaks to the doctor, pointing at me and at the lake, talking fast and with a furrowed brow. Finished, he clasps his hands and looks at me, pleased.
– He says to tell you that he is the fastest swimmer and can see underwater. He is not as big as his brothers, he says, but they are still not as fast as him. But even so, he wants me to warn you not to swim at night because at night even he cannot see where the crocodiles are, and he worries that you or your senhora will be eaten.
– I see. Will you tell him that I won’t swim tonight but will wait until the sun comes up, and then perhaps we can swim together so that I am protected?
The doctor nods, smiling, looking like the Jesus in the Children’s Illustrated Bible, or like the cover of a 60s folk album at least. He speaks to the boy. When he is done, the boy nods too. I squat next to him.
– Como se chama?
– Muito obrigado, Sylvestro.
He looks at me. Then he grabs his face and gnashes his teeth in silence, and is gone.
– He’ll put the fear of God in you next, says the doctor, and we go inside.
The banda was full of books. Histories, philosophies, collections of feminist theory, medical textbooks in English and Portuguese. We collapsed into that place, sank into its bed and its chairs, and breathed. Four months of movement caught us by the ankles and we lay still, bothered by nothing but mosquitoes. We ate peanut butter and bread with tomatoes, shared on the stoep with the Americans. The water was not far. The doctor talked softly of the problems there, malaria and aids and no schools. A group of children stood some way off and watched us. The doctor called to them and they started laughing and ran off. The lake is so wide and so long that from that shore you can see no other piece of land than Likoma, except on the clearest of days. The knowledge of hills and trees remains, but only just. Mozambique and Malawi mean nothing.
In the morning, I swim, and watch the small boy and his brothers and friends as they leap from each other’s shoulders. They open their eyes underwater and pull themselves along the sand, legs trailing. One grabs my knees and knocks me over and his friends shout and laugh, then climb onto my shoulders, the better to leap.
That afternoon, we ride into town to get on the bakkie and go south. Negotiations ensue to make sure there is space for the bike – the roads are impassable except by heavy cars. We wait and drink tea and eat the small bananas. People gather slowly around the bakkie, talk to the driver, put bags in the back, take them off. The buildings are wet from rain in the night and, while we wait, it rains again. It is not the kind of rain you can stand under; the streets empty. Afterwards, we sit watching people come out from wherever they found shelter. I look at her where she sits next to me – I think she was reading, though I can’t remember what – and things feel as they should. My limbs are loose and the air is not so hot – I can think, and breathe. Her hand is on my knee. I think about where we are going. The Unknown, we call it. I imagine it smiling, not like the Jesus in the Children’s Illustrated Bible, but like a monkey, or a child that has got hold of her mother’s lipstick. Mute and thinking of something delicious.
She looks up, but not at me.
– Hey, check, the bakkie is driving off.
We watch it go down the road toward the doctors’ bandas. The grass is taller than the sides of the truck bed.
– It must be going to fetch someone.
– Ja. I wonder when we’ll leave. The train leaves Cuamba in two days.
– But if we miss that one we can get the one on Thursday.
– I don’t even know what day it is today. Is it Sunday?
– Maybe. I think so? I hope so.
– Either way we’ll get the train eventually and end up somewhere eventually too.
– Senhor! Senhora!
The boy, Sylvestro, is running at us, waving. He has a book in his hands. We wave at him and he stops in front us, panting.
– Book, he says, offering it to me. It is something I was reading, about Ethiopia. A Far Country.
– Sylvestro, obrigado! I forgot it. Obrigado, amigo.
Like the immigration officer, he clasps his hands on his small belly and, like him, he beams.
– De nada.
Then, though I want to say more, he is off again, mud flicking up from his heels. Her hand tightens on my knee as we watch the boy running off, to the lake, because where else does a boy go on a day like today?
Here there should be an interlude: a pause in which we can gather our breaths, make quiet notes about what we see and what we think, how the mud feels inside our sandals, and how the bananas taste. Is the bakkie black, or is it blue? Is the church painted or only burned? Do the women wear wraps or do they wear skirts? How heavy is your backpack? If you were to miss the train would you be happy to wander in a new town until the next one, and if the bakkie breaks down will you be able to help the men fix it? Did the rain clean the dust from the bike? And is there mist, or only the hills? But there is no pause, and none of these things are reliably recorded. I feel for them now in the dark, knowing they are lost to me: they are insects that hit the windscreen and left nothing but a streak of grey shit. Shit, I think.
And so the bakkie came back into view. It lurched around a corner, up the hill towards the concrete church. But the mud was thick and gritty and the wheels didn’t stick and the driver couldn’t hold the turn. A woman jumped out of the way, someone shouted, but Sylvestro was running and didn’t look up, and the small body collapsed under the truck as though it was on a lever, as though it was a domino. The truck skidded across the place where the roads met and the engine died, but the small body didn’t get up and the yellow T-shirt was brown.
– Oh, God, oh God, she was saying. We were running.
Nothing came to me. No thoughts. I could see a man on a motorbike going fast towards the makeshift hospital. I could see my hands and the mud on them, and I saw the small face and the crocodile teeth, and then the crowd had me out of the way and all was noise and mud and the colours of people’s clothes.
And then we are at a bedside in the hospital. He is lying there, and his mother stands by him, silent now. His chest heaves. Her headdress and her wrap are made from fabric printed with Obama’s face in yellow and blue and green, Obama smiling black and white. I stare at him. I remember sweet bread rolls sold in Tanzania called Obamas. Obamas, why were they called that, was it a joke or an honour, Obama the Bun? I look up. The doctor stands at the end of the bed gripping the railing there and looking with unfocused eyes at the boy, at Sylvestro. I look, too.
Again, his chest heaves. And then he is still. His mother speaks and even now I cannot say what language she spoke in, or for how long, or what the words sounded like. As she speaks she releases her boy’s hand and unwinds her headdress. Fractions of Obama’s face become whole Obama faces as she untwists it and unfolds it. Perhaps it takes a minute, perhaps seventeen, perhaps she is still there unwinding her headdress printed with the face of Obama, but it is not Mandela or Nyerere, it is Obama. When it is finished she pulls the cloth over her son and I watch her bare head bow. The boy becomes invisible under the green and blue and black and the thin line of text along its edge: URAFIKI TANZANIA PRINTED KHANGA FTC DES NO. 638.
Olivia Walton is a freelance writer and editor. She graduated from the University of Cape Town in 2012 and went on to do an internship at The Paris Review in New York. Since then she has been travelling and writing in Turkey and Europe.