Better to wander without a guide in uncharted lands than use a map made by tourists.
— African proverb
I think a lot about when my father died. Even after a year of Just Add Father, I’m still not ready to write about it. I’m going to write about the day after that day. But first, I need to tell you the beginning of an African folk tale:
A man takes his young son hunting in the bush. Soon after they set out, the man kills a rat and gives it to his son to carry. The son, thinking they will surely run across bigger game later, throws the rat away, an act unobserved by his father.
They find no other animals that day. At sunset they turn home and the father asks his son to cook the rat.
“I can’t. I threw it away.” says the son.
The father flies into a rage and strikes the boy with his ax.
“Fool! You’ve thrown away our supper!”
Stunned, the son wanders off by himself. He’s too ashamed to return home. Soon he’s in unfamiliar country. A strange bird circles over him. Perhaps the bird has purple eyes, I don’t know.
The boy comes to a village he’s never seen before. In the center of the village is a hut. He goes inside. In the center of the hut sits a man, the chief of the village.
“How is it with you?” says the chief.
The boy pours out his troubles to the man, who listens in silence.
When he’s done telling his story, the boy says, “What can I do?”
“Don’t worry,” says the man. “You will be my son now.”
Stillness and silence.
“Can you keep a secret?” says the man.
“Yes,” says the boy.
“I am your real father.”
The story goes on. I’d have to look up the ending, but the part I’ve told you is carved on three stone tablets inside me: the disruption between the boy and his father; the boy’s wandering alone; his finding a new father, greater than the first.
If you believe that traditional stories contain a road map, and I am one who does, then you may find resonance in the boy’s situation. Not all men will re-enact the story in their lives. But I’ve known many who do.
OUT OF SCHOOL
I stayed out of school for a day after my father died. I was in third grade. When you were absent in those days, you had to visit the school nurse when you got back, and give the reason.
I stood in a line of about ten kids in the nurse’s office, waiting for my turn. Several children handed her notes that their parents had written. She would glance at a note and send a child off. The line moved quickly.
I had no note. When it was my turn the nurse gave me a look which told me she knew I hadn’t been sick.
“Why were you absent?” she said.
She was a middle-aged woman, formal in manner, but not unkind. There were others behind me and I didn’t want to say what had happened out loud. I bent forward and whispered in her ear.
“Um, my father passed away,” I said.
For a moment she said nothing, then she started shaking her head and rocking, just a little, to and fro.
In a low voice she said, “Oh!” It came as a sort of moan.
She said Oh again, and again, as if each new Oh were trying to fix the previous one.
Then she said, “I’m so sorry. I’m so very, very sorry.”
I was conscious of the line in back of me, whose rhythm forward had been checked. I hoped that none of the other students were paying attention. I wanted to get out of there but couldn’t move. The nurse was looking directly in my eyes and my whole body seemed frozen.
One more time she said, “I’m so, so, sorry.”
“Uh huh,” I said.
Then the spell, if it was a spell, ended and I managed to break away. I walked out of that stifling room as fast as I could and crossed the school yard toward my class. The day was clear and cold. A flock of blackbirds swirled above the yard. Perhaps they had purple eyes.
She got so upset, I kept thinking. Why had she gotten so upset?
I was in the part of the story where the boy had begun wandering.
I wandered twenty-five years before I found that village.
YOU MIGHT ALSO ENJOY:
The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart – It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.
B&W Image credit: Flock of Birds, Thompson Square Park by Luke Redmond (Creative Commons, non-commercial use permit).
Do you have a story? Inquiring minds want to know.
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