Join Date: Aug 2009
Location: South Africa
Device: Hopefully a PRS 505
The City of Glass - A Short Story
The City of Glass
Waves lapped up against the old wooden boardwalk. It creaked and moaned at the gentle ebb and flow of the Pacific Ocean, a dilapidated monument to a time long since forgotten. Hassan gazed out to sea, his tired eyes squint in the mid-afternoon sun, an ever-present smile lining his wizened face. He had gotten used to being the only man on the boardwalk every week; and become accustomed to the incessant chatter of women dressed in traditional African garb; their dresses a maze of color for the tiny children that weaved in between them. But still he longed to join the men in their boats. How he yearned to know what wonders lay beyond the shallow waters; what great adventure awaited him far out to sea, past the great reef, past the jagged rocks that guarded the inlet to the bay. It seemed a cruel joke that now, in his old age, he had finally seen the ocean, unable to learn how to fish or even swim. Hassan had been almost 70 when he arrived in Djibuto. Not many men could claim to have conquered the taxing journey from Rwanda to Zaire, least of all someone who had lived well past the Rwandan life expectancy. And yet, here he was, approaching his 80th year, the village headman and a respected elder.
“Mama, when is Pappa coming back?” a small child asked, all the while tugging at his mother’s beautifully decorated orange buba.
“Soon, dear. Soon. Now be quiet.” She replied impatiently, before setting her gaze out to sea once more.
“There!” another woman shouted, waving her bulging arms frantically. “I see them!”
Sure enough, there in the distance, where sky melted into ocean, a few black spots dotted the horizon. The faint specks, obscured as they were by the sweltering heat of the African sun, gradually became larger and larger until the crowd could make out the shape of the fishermen’s’ long, hollow boats careening their way shoreward, propelled by the unified strokes of several dark figures. Upon entering the bay, the vessels caressed the glassy surface of the shallower waters as they glided towards the boardwalk. The children screamed and clapped, as they did every week, while welcoming their fathers, brothers and uncles back from their weekly excursion. Despite staunch warnings, they broke free of their maternal grasp, wading knee-deep into the water to help bring the day’s quarry to land. And oh, what a quarry it was. Only when all ten of the boats had been safely secured by makeshift sailors’ knots of twine and elastic, could the true extent of their victory be understood. The fishermen stepped onto land as heroes, bearing overflowing nets and toothless grins, in silent awe of the good fortune the ocean had bestowed upon them this day. They were greeted with much adulation by their families and Hassan made an effort to congratulate each and every one of them on their best catch yet.
“Sengo! “ He called out. “You do our family proud with such a great harvest. I think a bigger net is in order! “
A large, well-built man turned to face him. “You flatter me, uncle.” Sengo replied with a big grin. “But I must insist you give credit to my men as well. They have worked hard in the boiling heat to bring our village such fortune.”
“Such modesty!” replied Hassan. “Now go see to your wife. I’m sure she is anxious to hear from you.”
They locked eyes for a brief moment, as they often did. Sengo had his mother’s eyes. Of that Hassan was sure. And yet when he gazed into them, he was reminded not only of his sister, but of all those he had lost ten years before: his wife, his brothers, and even his unborn child. There was an unspoken language between them; a dialect that transcended the spoken word; a connection forged in the pain of African tragedy. And every time he gazed into those dark brown eyes, every time he met the stare of his nephew, this nephew who had become like a son, he saw the gaping emptiness of an innocence lost too young. And he could not help but remember that day in early June, when he had walked Sengo home from the local school in Kagiro. He remembered how they had looked at the sky together and remarked how the clouds looked like animals they both knew. He remembered how quiet it had been when they arrived back at the house and how Sengo had run through the front door to hug his mother, minutes later emerging expressionless, his hands and knees covered in blood. He remembered grabbing his red lockbox in one hand and clasping the tiny fingers of his nephew in the other, crossing the border into Zaire. He remembered fleeing to the town of Banana stowed away on a freight train and the long walk to Djibuto. They had arrived then, with nothing but the clothes on their back, an old man and a 13 year old boy. Much had happened in the time since their arrival. The boy had become a man: courageous, sincere and humble. The old man had become even older but had gained a kindness; a sincerity and honesty that can only belong to someone who has lived twice. For that is what happens when you strip a man of everything and give him hope: a rebirth of sorts, bringing with it another life ripe with possibility and adventure. For Hassan, that hope was Djibuto; that small coastal town of new beginnings, that sanctuary where he had laid down his burdens and buried the memory of his family.
It was early evening by the time the men arrived back in the village. The sun had begun its slow descent behind the mountains. Despite their successful catch, the fishermen’s work was far from over. Each of them sat down, meticulously hollowing out the inside of each fish, leaving the unpalatable entrails for a stray dog that was lucky enough to be limping by. The sound of ululating emanated from inside a crude wooden hut; women were hard at work preparing mielie-miel, a staple diet prevalent in many East African countries, made from maize and flour. They would feast well that evening; there was enough to feed the village many times over. The excess mielie-miel would be distributed among neighboring villages the following morning and if properly salted, the fish would last them for weeks to come. They would celebrate the harvest into the morning hours, dancing barefoot to cheerful songs accompanied by the beat of the Djembe. But first, while it was still light, Hassan would tell the children a story.
“Gather round children, gather round.” He called. The children were quick to respond, forming a neat semi-circle of starry-eyed faces around the old man. Evidently, this was a daily occurrence. Each child had their own spot around the wizened elder; the bigger ones would boisterously nudge one another out the way in order to get closer.
“Which story are you going to tell us tonight, elder?” asked a small child facing him. "Are you going to tell us about the Lion and the Rabbit again?”
“No, child. I have a new story for you today.”
Hassan took a sip out of his Pule, a small wooden bowl his wife had made for him many years ago, and began.
“One day, long, long ago, before even your great-grandfathers walked the earth, there was a magnificent city of glass in the desert to the south of Djibuto. The buildings were taller than anything we have today in Zaire. They were like crystal spires that stretched up and touched the sky. The city of glass had been created for the people of Zaire by the Sun himself. He had melted the sand of the great Nairobi desert, moulding it into wonderful shapes that twisted and turned heavenward. In those times, it was always day. The sun was always high in the sky, watching over his beautiful city.”
“The people of this city were happy. They had no worries. But all was not well. For a long time, the sun had yearned for a family of his own. When he looked down at the multitudes of smiling people, he could not help feel a tinge of jealousy. He wanted to experience what it was like to be close to something or someone. Truth be told, he was hopelessly lonely up there in the sky, all by himself. And so, one day, he asked the princess of the city to meet him at the tip of the highest building in the city. She was as beautiful as day herself; long, flowing hair, luscious red lips and smooth, dark skin.”
Hassan could hear a group of the older boys giggling. Gently smiling to himself, he continued the story.
“At the top of this building, one could see the whole city; it was indeed a glorious sight. The princess climbed the glass staircase for 2 days until finally; she reached the top of the tower.”
The old man curled his arms out on either side of him, as if to appear far larger than his feeble frame allowed, contorting his face into something that closely resembled the rear end of a dog, just with more wrinkles. If this was an attempt at intimidation, it had most certainly been lost on the children, who were now beside themselves with laughter.
“’Look Princess. Feast your eyes on what I have built for your people. Until now, I have asked nothing in return. The time has come to repay the favour.’ Said the sun.”
Hassan, an expert role-player, snapped into a more stately position. He was now pretending to play the beautiful princess and adjusted his voice accordingly.
“’What is that you want, oh bringer of the day?”’
And so he continued this seamless juxtaposition throughout the story, much to the children’s delight.
“’I want you, princess. I want you to be my wife and I your husband. I want us to rule over this crystal kingdom together. I want us to have many children and watch, with smiles on our faces, as they play gleefully in the sand.’”
“’But, radiant one, you know I cannot fulfill such a request. You are a blazing ball of light up there in a sea of darkness and I… I am just a woman, a human woman.’
‘But princess, I could carry you up to my side on a cloud. We could live up in the sky together for all time.’
‘My place is here with my people and my family. I cannot leave them here all alone.’
‘Well then I shall come down on a rainbow and live with you there, on the ground.’
‘But who would watch over the city? Who would fill the land with warmth and light?’
Alas, children. Such things are not meant to be.
The sun begged and pleaded with her until finally, he became angry. He would forever regret the tragedy that followed. In his fury caused by the princess’ rejection, the sun became white hot. It was a heat so unbearable that the glass city melted away, trapping the people of the city, including the princess, forever. To this day, the sun never stays in one place for long. But each evening, he waits just above the ground; he hopes that one day, the princess will change her mind and join him the sky.”
“What happened to the princess, elder? Where is she now?” asked one child.
“Any one of us could be the princess. It is said we Ndebele are made from the earth of generations past. Perhaps you are the princess.”
“Are you the princess, elder?” another child asked.
Before Hassan could answer, a deep voice from behind the group interjected “Don’t be silly. Elder Hassan is far too ugly to be a princess.” It was Sengo. The children laughed. Hassan did not.
He silenced the group, placing a weathered finger to his dried-out lips. The children looked on in awe at the village headman as he took a few steps back, revealing the fading evening sun, the last of its rays casting a blanket of magenta over the darkening landscape. The outline of Hassan’s hands encircled the star, as if to gently guide it down to its destination. “Look children.” He whispered. “The sun has arrived. He has come to look for his true love.”
And all of a sudden, the memories of that June day came flooding back. He remembered how he had gone into the house after Sengo had come out, horrified. How he had found the lifeless body of his sister in the kitchen, lying face-down in a pool of her own blood. How had he called out his wife’s name over and over unanswered: Linda? Linda!? He remembered how he had climbed the carpeted staircase and flung open the guest room door. How she lay there, motionless, on the bed, her eyes wide open, in that beautiful dress he had bought her just the week before. Hassan could hold back his tears no longer. He began to weep as the pain of that day cascaded over him. But still he held his position, his hands preserving the dying star.
“Go, children. Leave us.” Said Sengo.
The children obeyed, each of them giving Hassan a hug before wandering off to the huts. Moments later, the old man felt his nephew’s reassuring hand on his shoulder and the tears began to subside. He was reminded how he and Sengo had been spared from the brutality of that day; how they had found this village of hope and new beginnings. For what was Djibuto if not Hassan’s own princess?
“Come uncle. You must eat.”
“I will join you soon; I want to be alone for a while.”
“As you wish.” Sengo said, as he turned to walk back into the village.
Somewhere in Africa, a child gave its last breath, gently cradled by a mother who hummed sweet melodies of faraway places; who wished with all her heart she had something, anything to put in her baby’s tiny mouth. And somewhere else, in a place that was Africa but not Africa, the silhouette of a man stood against the African sunset, against the horizon of lost dreams and uncertainty and carried the sun in the palm of his hand.